Hiking over the pass along the Grand Balcon Sud and into the Mer de Glace. Chamonix, France

Hiking over the pass along the Grand Balcon Sud and into the Mer de Glace. Chamonix, France (Kat Nickola)

“The sun!” my teens yell. We all stop hiking and face the warmth. Its rays dapple the scree slope we are standing on, but don’t quite make it down into the Chamonix valley far below. Warmed, we take off our hats, gloves and puffy coats before continuing along the trail. Even in late June, there was snow in places and a significant chill when the clouds, and rain, and then flurries returned. Incredibly, we didn’t care.   

A warm bed and four-course dinner would be waiting. At the end of each of our four days hiking in the mountains above Chamonix we stayed at one of the mountain refuges, which are like classy bunks along the trail. These historic buildings offer a place to sleep for the night, plus breakfast and dinner are included in summer hiking rates. Experiences at them vary. Many have a bunk system that is similar to staying in a hostel. My family was usually assigned four beds in a room shared with other hikers. Some of the refuges had privacy options like curtains and wall dividers. Earplugs for snoring bunkmates would have been nice, but we slept well thanks to the high altitude and long days on the trail. The website is the definitive source for refuge information. Some are bookable online, while others require an email request.  

Beyond the refuge system, is the beautiful alpine scenery. Experiencing the rugged mountains, glacial waterfalls and dramatic vistas trounced any issues we had with the weather. The Chamonix valley runs east to west, with steep green slopes leading up to ‘benches’ of flatter, hikeable terrain. These are called the “Grand Balcones.” Beyond the benches and tree line are steep, rocky snow-capped peaks that are barely visible from the valley below, including Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the European Union. 

I highly recommend using the Mont Blanc MultiPass to purchase unlimited use of gondolas, trains and public transit. We chose a pass for non-consecutive days, and got a family discount, to access the mountain trails on our first and last days of hiking. There is a free and convenient parking lot near the Flegere gondola.  

My family agreed that our most favorite days were spent on the Gran Balcon Sud, the benches on the south side of the valley. We began by taking the gondola up to the peak of the Aiguille du Midi. At 12,602 feet, this peak is perpetually surrounded by glaciers. There is a visitor center and restaurant at the top. With the changeable weather we couldn’t see the valley. Instead, our view was of an otherworldly cloud cover that made the peak feel suspended in space.  

From there, we took the gondola halfway back down the mountain and hiked in a perpetual mist to the Refuge du Plan de L’aiguille. Seemingly perched at the edge of the world, this refuge was the highlight of our time in Chamonix. Even with weather that went from bad to worse, we had such a great time exploring, and even sledding, in the rocky terrain around the refuge. Inside, a delicious lamb-stew dinner was promptly served at 7 p.m., as it was at all the refuges we stayed at. We learned to expect a set four-course meal that started with soup, followed by a main dish and sides served family-style, a cheese course and then dessert. It was gourmet even as we ate in our base layers, that doubled for pajamas, like all the other hikers. In the morning there was a big hot breakfast buffet. The Refuge du Plan de L’aiguille is small and special, only hosting an upstairs dormitory and five private rooms. 

Refuge du Plan de L’aiguille overlooking Chamonix, France

Refuge du Plan de L’aiguille overlooking Chamonix, France (Kat Nickola)

The next day we discovered the most amazing hike in Chamonix. Starting from the Refuge du Plan de L’aiguille, we traversed east past high meadows and into the stony scree. As we gained elevation, all signs of civilization down in the valley disappeared from view. I have rarely felt more immersed in stone and immensity. With a sense of finally reaching the top of the secret stairs on the border of Mordor, we reached the top of a pass and looked down upon a massive glacier. It is called the Mer de Glace, and its glacial tributaries make it the second longest glacier in the Alps. 

The hike down into the glacial valley was like returning to the real world. The upscale Refuge du Montenvers sits on a cliff overlooking the glacier, and there are numerous day-tourists that come to gawp at the ice tunnel carved in it each summer. Our stay at Montenvers was a luxurious end to our hike. There is nothing like a four-course French meal on a mountaintop after a long day of hiking in every weather imaginable. The next day, as the sun finally came out to stay, we took the local cog train down into the Chamonix valley and headed home. It is one of our most memorable trips, foul weather included. 


  • Trails around Chamonix are well-signed. It’s easiest to stick to one side of the valley. 

  •  Finding refuge availability can be competitive. Book refuge stays first and plan a route that links them together.  

  • Gondolas, trains and buses are easy to use, so one-way hikes are the norm.  

  • Pack light. Bring a sleeping bag liner (required at refuges), towel, emergency kit, clothes for weather changes and snacks.  

  • Water is readily available at refuges and springs. 

  • Use the communal flip-flops at the refuge. Boots must stay out in the mud room.  

Filling up water along the Grand Balcon Sud while hiking in Chamonix

Filling up water along the Grand Balcon Sud while hiking in Chamonix (Kat Nickola)

author picture
Kat is a travel and lifestyle writer based in Kaiserslautern, Germany with a special interest in anything outdoorsy or ancient. She has a bachelor’s degree in geography from Penn State University and has been a travel writer for about 10 years. Currently, she is in the depths of dissertation research for an archaeology degree at the University of the Highlands and Islands. 

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