- Western europe
- The Ultimate Day Hiking Guide in the French Alps
"You've been to the Swiss Alps, why do you want to go to the French Alps?", you may be wondering. Here is why, even though the Swiss Alps is a bit more well known, with its iconic Matterhorn mountain, the French Alps is a totally different beast with its own beauty, incomparable to any other mountain range. To tell you the truth, I actually preferred Chamonix and the French Alps more because of its jagged peaks and diverse landscape. That said, I still think both parts of the Alps are worth checking out.
When talking about the French Alps, Mont Blanc may come to mind. Unfortunately, I did not summit Mont Blanc due to the lack of ice climbing experience and gears, but I did the next best thing, I hiked the Grand Balcon and the Lac Blanc trails, which gave me the view of the beautiful mountain range from the other side while Mont Blanc looming over from afar throughout the trail. I got to say, it was quite a surreal experience to be able to witness such magnificent nature with my own eyes.Table of Contents
Quick Hike Info
Who is this for: A regular Backpacker who loves nature and is in good shape.
Duration: From 8 - 10 hrs
When: Summer - Autumn (I was there late September)
Closest City: Chamonix
Things to Prepare for the French Alps
Since we are not ascending Mont Blanc, gears required are not too complicated. The weather does get cold in the morning and at night though especially during autumn. The weather can change really fast here. One minute you could be seeing a clear sky and another your range of sight could be reduced to zero due to fog.
- Hiking Shoes with good grip: During autumn, there is a chance that you might have to walk on a snow covered trail so a hiking shoe is essential. Also, the way down from Lac Blanc will require you to climb down a very slippery metal ladder along the cliff side of a mountain. Very dangerous!
- Weather-proof Clothing: It is always better to be over-prepared than the other way around. The wind is strong and it might carry heavy rain with them.
- A Hiking Map: You can get a hiking map and the train/bus schedule from the Tourist Info. You will need the bus/train schedule because you will have to make your way back from Argentiere to Chamonix at the end somehow. If you don't want to walk back 2 hrs along the road in complete darkness as I did, calculate the hours carefully. You can also download our maps from the links under The Trail below.
- Food and water supply: It's going to be a full day hike from 8 AM to around 6 PM so prepare your food for 3 meals at least. Also, make sure you bring enough water. There were not many stops that you could fill your water up along the trail, even if they do, it's probably close during Autumn.
Where to Stay in Chamonix
Le Vagabond hostel is the only hostel I found in Chamonix. It's not the greatest but the cheapest out there and gets the job done. Since we will be hiking all day, a comfortable bed is all that is needed and it delivered on that front quite well. Other than that, nothing really makes sense in this hostel. For example, you need to pay extra to have access to a kitchen.. for only 15 minutes! Also, the toilets don't have sinks in them, the sink is in your room instead. Too many rules, not enough good service!
Mid-Range - Chamonix Lodge - 34.70 USD/Night (Dorm) | 115.68/Night (Double Bed Private)
How to get to Chamonix
The best way to get here is to fly directly into Lyon and take a train or a bus from there. I would recommend you browse through Skyscanner or Momondo to find all the cheap flights from where you live to France and compare them so that you can find the one best fit for your itinerary.
Chamonix is the closest town to the trail and there are many ways to get from anywhere in France/Switzerland to here. I came with an SNCF train from Lyon which is most convenient but not the most economical.
If you are coming from the Geneva Airport, you can rent a transfer service from Alpybus which will take you directly to Chamonix. You also can never go wrong with FlixBus as they are cheap, reliable and run widely throughout Europe
For the cheapest option with a little bit of luck, you can try the carpool service called Blablacar.com which allows you to carpool with people who are going the same way for a small fee. I have never done it myself but I have heard great stories from the locals.
If you are planning to tackle this hike, I would recommend you get travel insurance that covers anything that could go wrong on the trip. Also, if you may require travel insurance to get into Europe in the first place, so it is a must that you have valid travel insurance for your trip. WorldNomads.com is one of the ways I find a travel insurance that fits my kind of adventure, so if you are looking for one, do check them out.
The French Alps' Trails
In order to create one full day epic trail, we are going to combine 2 trails, the Grand Balcon and Lac Blanc trails, both of which allow you to see the Alps in a very unique perspective. The Grand Balcon trail is a half-day trail that offers an unobstructed view of the Mont Blanc mountain range all the way. The Lac Blanc trail which is adjacent to the Grand Balcon is another great walk you can do on the same day. This trail will reward you with a panoramic reflection of the mountain range on a lake. Really, the photos don't do this place justice.
Note: In order to have the best experience, it is essential that you do this during late September when the cable cars are closed for the year. Why? You will have the whole lake and mountain range to yourself which I heard could be very crowded during high season.
One downside is that you will have to walk up and down yourself which may add at least 5 hrs to the trail, but if you know me, I very much prefer walking up then taking the cable cars anyway because you get the chance to see wild animals more.
Start your hike as early as 8 AM, no later than that otherwise, you might miss the last train as I did. I had to walk back on the side of a mountainous road in pitch darkness for 2 hours. That is something you don't want to do after a 10 hrs hike.
Walk toward the tourist information, go pass it up and head west up the hill to where the cable car station to PlanPraz is. From there, you should see a sign directing you to the walking trail to PlanPraz. Follow the trail up the mountain.
It's a 3 hours continuous ascend along the side of a mountain. If you are lucky enough, you will be able to spot many wild animals such as the Chamois or a big group of mountain goats.
Our first stop is the PlanPraz where we can rest for a bit, and enjoy our breakfast/lunch. From here, the trail will be a piece of cake compared to the ascend we just did.
Some of the paths we have to take along the Grand Balcon may also be covered in snow during this time of the year so be caution.
As you walk towards La Flegere refuge, our second stop, don't forget to look back at the towering Mont Blanc and its siblings. Beautiful isn't it?
As you make your way forward, you will have the whole mountain range on your right all the way to the second stop. Look at the photo above. This is why I love the French Alps more. The peaks around this part of the Alps are magnificent!
You should reach La Flegere refuge in about 2 hours. From here, the trail to Lac Blanc might get a little tricky so look for the yellow directional sign and follow the direction to Lac Blanc.
Basically, what I did was I walked up to the big house on top of a hill and from there I was able to spot a restaurant nearby with a trail behind it. I walked down the hill and up again to the restaurant and as expected, through the restaurant, was the hiking trail to Lac Blanc.
I thought the trail could not get any better than this but I was so wrong. Lac Blanc is located in the mountain with an elevation of 2352m above sea-level. The trail consisted of many stairs zig-zagging up up the side of a mountain. It looks almost as if I was walking up to heaven.
After about an hour and a half, you should be at an intersection where on your left, it will take you to Lac Blanc and on your right, to Argentiere. Go left and follow the trail up the mountain until you reach the lake.
My jaw dropped to the ground as I approach the lake. Oh it was so beautiful. When you are up there, spare sometime to just sit and watch the panoramic reflection of the mountain range show itself when the wind is calm.
If all my calculations are correct (don't take my word for it), you should have an hour up there before you have to descend down. I spent a little bit too much time here which maybe the reason why I missed the last train.
From the lake, you will have to walk back down the same way until you reach the intersection again. This time, follow your way down to Argentiere.
If you think that all of this is adventurous, wait until you see the path down. As mentioned earlier, in order to get down from Lac Blanc you will have to go through several sections of metal ladders where you have to hang off the cliff to go down the ladder. I still remember my legs shaking uncontrollably when I got down!
If you come down the right way, you should see Aiguillette d'Argentiere, a very iconic twin spires that protruded out of mother Earth. You can not miss it.
From there, it should take you no more than an hour to arrive at our final destination, Argentiere. From here, you can either take a bus or a train back to Chamonix which ends this one full day epic hike.
Bonus: Aiguille du Midi
If you have some time to spare, I would highly recommend you to go up the cable car to the top of Aiguille du Midi the next day. The view from up there is truly worth the price (60+ Euros, both ways). From the top-most outlook point you will be able to see the whole trail we did the day before and you will be amazed at what your body could do!
Good luck with your hike and let us know in the comments below how it goes.
Further Reading for France
I hope you found this guide helpful in your trip planning. If you want to read more about France, I have written a few more travel guides, all listed here:
- Looking for a complete travel guide to France? Check out my 2 Weeks in France.
- Are you traveling to France as part of a bigger Europe trip? Be sure to check out my 3 months itinerary for Europe from Portugal all the way to Sweden.
- Paris is one of the most popular designations in Europe and most touristy too but there are ways to avoid them. Here’s a hipster guide on things to do in Paris for 4 days.
- Bordeaux is a city known for its wine, laid-back vibe and beautiful architecture. Here’s a travel guide on things to do and see in Bordeaux.
- Avignon, the city of antiquity is hard to miss when you are planning a trip to France. Here’s a complete guide on things to do in Avignon and the surrounding cities.
- Not convinced by my words? Here are 125 photos that will inspire you to visit Europe.
- You can also watch my France travel video here: "Dear France" travel video.
- To see all articles about France, visit France Travel Guide page.
- Looking for a place to go after France? How about Spain, Germany or Switzerland? Visit our Spain travel guide page, Germany travel guide page, and Switzerland travel guide page for more.
- Looking for more travel guides for Europe? You can find more on my Europe Travel Guide page.
- Or if you want something more specific to the region, visit our Western Europe Travel Guide page.
- For more of my travel guides like this, visit my Destinations page.
The Solo Traveler’s Journal is a series of posts by BucketListly where we will follow our founder, Pete Rojwongsuriya around the world as he singlehandedly travel alone and experience different cultures, people, and historical locations one country at a time.
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