A bucket-list backpacking trip for the brave. With jaw-dropping views, remote cabin restaurants, and tough trails, the famed trek through the Alps of Switzerland, Italy, and France is a rewarding mental and physical challenge. Here’s a day-by-day recap of one family’s journey.
By Willow Taylor Chiang Yang
Known as one of the most famous and most visited trails in Europe, the TMB, as the Tour du Mont Blanc is known, makes a 110-mile circle around the mountain range and winds its way through the towns and hostels of the French, Italian, and Swiss Alps. The snaking lines of dirt, cement, and cobblestone paths see thousands of visitors every year, from locals seeking a few hours respite in nature to trekkers hiking the entire 10-day hike.
Flanked by jaw-dropping views of the Mont Blanc mastiff and featuring remote cabin restaurants and cow pastures thousands of meters above sea level, it is a stunning trip. But prospective hikers beware, this trail is not for the unseasoned; sudden storms, loose rocks, grueling uphill climbs, and, of course, very heavy packs make the TMB both physically and mentally challenging.
There are three main options for planning an itinerary, in order of least to most experienced: Having a tour guide hike with and lead you through; having a tour guide make the itinerary, and you and your group hike independently; and you creating the itinerary and hiking independently. Our group (comprising my immediate family of four, as well as my aunt, uncle, and cousins) went with the second option and backpacked 70 of the 100 full miles of the TMB over seven days. Our youngest member was 14-years-old. (Families with younger children are rare but not completely absent on the trail; choosing the tour-guided option is almost a must for these folks.)
Here’s what our family did—both right and not-so-right—and how you can cross the TMB off your bucket list too.
*Note: We will use metric from here on out for clarity, as the TMB itself uses kilometers and meters as its markers.
Day Zero: Chamonix
While every blog and guide will have their entry point of preference, my family’s TMB trip began like many others in France’s valley commune Chamonix, which doubles as a ski resort in the winter. In July, however, the town was in its full, late-summer bloom; flowers poured impossibly bright out of window boxes and the many hotels and ungridded streets bustled with tourists and soon-to-be-hikers such as our eight-person group. We spent one day in Chamonix, preparing for the eight days ahead with gelato, pastries, and copious amounts of, I’m told, phenomenal French wine. (France’s legal drinking age is 18.)
Spending a day in Chamonix relaxing, eating, practicing French, and getting last-minute carabiners is a must if you have the time and means; it’s a chance to soak in the more typical European vacation before a tiring, decidedly less glamorous, but ultimately more rewarding, experience.
Tip: If you do decide to hang out in Chamonix, make sure to spend a few hours in the late evening exploring the gems hidden in the twisting streets, such as the love-lock bridge. At night, there may be concerts and musical performances happening. And remember to stock up on snacks and candy before leaving; an energy burst from a gummy bear is a blessing once you start hiking.
Day One: The Beginning
I confess—the first day was rough. Very rough.
It began wonderfully enough at a roadside cafe called SPOT near the beginning of the hike—with hot chocolate, coffee, and the best croissants we’d ever had, including the ones we’d sampled in France up to then. Feeling warm, full, and (we thought) ready for the 12 km ahead of us, we shouldered our 30-pound packs and crossed the railroad tracks, following the first of many TMB signs. A dappled, pale 8 a.m. sun shone as we walked under a canopy of trees out into a sprawling, impossibly green valley meadow.
Of course, what is down must come up, as we found out the hard way trekking a switchback of stones and dust—our first climb of many. In all, we would climb a total of 10,000 meters in altitude; but in that moment, nothing seemed more daunting, more tiring, or more endless than that first trek upward.
Thankfully, in convenient poetic symmetry, what goes up must come down as well. Once at the top, we made our way toward a small complex of scattered cottages and had our first lunch. The restaurant and inn was called Chalet du Miage, and offered charcuterie plates, pies, and omelettes. It was the first of many meals overlooking sweeping scenes of green plains and looming mountains—and there is nothing more satisfying than looking back on the hill one just climbed while eating the most delicious raspberry pie to ever grace the Earth. (Incredible food and accompanying scenery, as you might have noticed, is a standout of the trip.) Unfortunately, Chalet du Miage was barely the day’s halfway point; we still had close to 8 km to go before taking the bus to our first hostel.
That night, we slept in Les Contamines at La Pontet, which was more “glamping” than hostel-staying and the nicest of our future accommodations. Our group of eight shared a small hut, about 15 feet by 15 feet in its ground area and 20 feet high, as it had a small, second-floor loft. That evening, we ate in a large room cramped with 50 or more other hikers and travelers, sharing family-style beef bourguignon and fruit in milk for dessert. We struck up conversation with the group next to us—a troupe of college students who had moved in the opposite direction as us (clockwise around the loop) and were nearing the end of their travels. This communal atmosphere would persist and only grow for most of the rest of the trip.
Tip: Do begin your trip with SPOT, and make sure to stop at the Chalets du Truc at the saddle point Col du Tricot about three-quarters of the way through for local cheese. Also, especially in the beginning, it’s tempting to buy the Tour du Mont Blanc shirts and paraphernalia at the hostels and rest stops. I’d caution against this rookie move, as an extra water bottle and T-shirt take up more space in your pack than you might imagine.
Day Two: Freak Storms and Near-Death Experiences
If the first day was rough, the second was very nearly calamitous.
We packed up and were on the path by about 6:30 a.m. to cover the 14.5-km and 2,000-m climb of our longest day. We trampled over melting frost and under canopies of trees on a slow but steady incline toward the mountain peak of the day, Col de Croix du Bonhomme. The weather had said stormy, with a chance of lightning and thunder, but the morning was blue skies, so we hiked on unbothered.
The trees soon opened up onto a wide valley with a relatively flat path. Cows dotted the near distance and the streams gave way to snowy mountain slopes. Along the path, we spotted the brightly colored parkas and packs of other hikers moving slowly toward a glacier carving up to a saddle point between two pointed peaks.
We were making good time, so we stopped at the top of the incline to eat lunch. No sooner had we sat down and opened our canned tabouli and Wonder Bread sandwiches that it began raining, at first lightly, then pouring all at once. We hadn’t noticed the trail to the next chalet was overlooking a deep gorge with a sheer drop. Then my mother nearly slipped and fell off the narrow path when a particularly violent gust caught her pack. Fog blanketed the area, reducing visibility to about 10 meters and effectively isolating our party, as we made our way up the side of the mountain along muddy path, loose rocks, and a long stretch of slippery slate. Near the top of the mountain, one cousin saw a bolt of lightning strike the ground just a few meters above. We nearly took the wrong way twice before other hikers, emerging out of the wind and rain like soaked, primary-colored angels, pointed us onto the right path.
That, thankfully, was the most dangerous of it. We eventually found our way to the chalet, Refuge Col de la Croix du Bonhomme, where we and a teeming mass of hikers crammed onto wooden benches, hung socks near the small heater, and tore into instant ramen and trail mix.
After making our way down the other side of the mountain, we took a bus to our hostel. (There’s also an option to walk the remaining few uphill miles to the hostel, but it adds two hours to the hike.) Our hostel, the Refuge de Mottets, was a converted horse barn that sat in a small dip between the elevated road and the hill we would climb the next morning. That afternoon, we washed our clothes in the bathroom sinks and hung them dry on the many clotheslines strung up above the beds and along the outside walls of the dorm. We also had time left over to take showers and play cards in the communal eating area before dinner, a family-style assortment of whole-grain bread and beef stew, eaten as the couple dozen of us hikers listened to one of the hosts play a hand-cranked music box.
Night brought frost and winds as we set up our sleeping bags side-by-side, each person allowed a space of about two feet wide and six feet long, lined up along the walls of the stable. With the clean showers, sturdy shelter, tables for card games, and all of our group in one piece, what more could we ask for?
OK, maybe internet, single rooms, and hot water? At this point in the trek, wi-fi became spotty, sleep became communal, and warm water became severely limited or unavailable.
Tip: Do not wear shorts when the forecast warns of thunderstorms. Also, always try to get an early start—it means you get to the next hostel before everyone else and thus can find space to dry your laundered clothing and get the best sleeping spots.
Day Three: Almost Halfway
Breakfast was tea, jam, butter, cheese, and crackers—normal morning fare before another long day of 14 km. This morning, we also understood the benefits of dry socks as we dressed and set off from the back of the hostel, straight up the mountain and into the dense fog.
The storm from the day before remained, but we had learned our lesson; wind and rain were much more manageable with cheap plastic ponchos, long pants, and mental preparation. That day, we crossed the border between France and Italy via the second-highest mountain pass of the TMB: the Col de la Seigne, a peak with beautiful 360-degree views—but not that morning, as the storm turned dirt to mud and wind whipped the mountaintop. Nevertheless, every milestone, including this one, was met with celebration and many, many photos. We posed for as long as possible with the stone pillar marking the area.
About halfway down the other side of the mountain sat La Casermetta, a small, warm, wi-fi–accessible outpost—a welcome sight amid the endless isolation of the Italian Alps. The family that ran this visitor center lived on the second story and, during the summer, hiked and drove weekly to get firewood, food, and other necessities; during the winter snow season, they made the trip once or twice a month. After half an hour soaking up the conversation and windless tranquility, we were off again, down the muddy mountain to Rifugio Elisabetta for lunch.
Rifugio Elisabetta was perched on a hill high above the trail and was a bit hard to find at first, as we didn’t think to look behind us and upward. It was a large place, perhaps 10 times bigger than La Casermetta, and had huge windows that looked out over the gorges and mountains surrounding the next leg of trail. It was warm here and the food was plentiful: thick hot chocolate, gnocchi, and polenta.
From Elisabetta, we enjoyed a straight, flat dirt path for miles and miles. And as the fog slowly lifted, we saw the bright teal lakes and mountains that the TMB is known for.
With another bus ride we arrived at Courmayeur, Italy, a small, touristy town where we stayed one night in a real hotel with a hot shower—and wifi!
Tips: We chose to punctuate the halfway mark of our hike by staying in a hotel; this is a preferable option for families with older folks or younger children, but not the only way—there are a number of hiker hostels outside of town. If you choose to stay in Courmayeur, wander the streets. We found a place with delicious prosciutto down one alley.
Day Four: Switzerland and the Highest Peak
Around 8 a.m., we loaded our packs and took a bus to the foot of the TMB’s highest peak: the Grand Col Ferret, which also marks the descent into Switzerland.
The trail to the top snaked along a ridge overlooking a long valley. Although the path was steep, the switchbacks made it a more relaxed hike. At one point, the trail also cut across a cow pasture. Bovinophobics beware, while the cows seemed mostly unbothered by our presence, we did need to push past them a bit.
About a quarter of the way to the top, the trail mostly faded into a web of dirt “paths” made from rain and snow runoff. At that point, however, the top was visible with its distinct rock pillars and clusters of other hikers.
The top of the Grand Col Ferret was really a saddle point between two peaks, one of which was accessible to hikers and a popular spot for photos, as it overlooked the Italian and Swiss cloud-blanketed and cow-dotted valleys.
From there, it was an easy descent down flat meadow. Until a sudden dropoff a mile down, where the trail hugged the side of a sheer rock face as the meadow’s bowl gave way to a deep gorge of sharp rocks, trees, and distant farms. The path remained gradual, but it significantly narrowed and gave way to loose rock unforgiving of missteps.
This stretch soon turned to sure ground again as it wove its way through a small farm to a restaurant and lodge, Auberge de La Peule, which overlooked clouds wreathing the adjacent mountain and the path’s descent down to lush valley. La Peule boasted “milkshakes” (which were delicious, but fell more into the category of flavored milk) and a number of savory dishes and pastries, as well as patio tables. We spent hours playing cards here and ate a feast of Swiss bread, Nutella, and salami.
After lunch, the trail led us down to Ferret, where we caught a bus to Champex and our hostel, Bon Abri. The hostel was located next to a secluded, resort-like complex at the base of the next day’s climb. The four-story building was strung all around with now-familiar clotheslines, and housed more than three dozen hikers in the cramped third floor and attic in a space similar to the second day’s stable.
Dinner was pasta sauce with rice and chicken soup—in line with the carb- and protein-filled meals everywhere on the TMB. We spent our time conversing with the group next to us, a family of four from Germany, each of whom spoke four languages, including English.
The showers were hot and while the floor below us apparently had some issues with bedbugs, our attic room was thankfully critter-free—the perfect for a good night’s sleep before another day of hiking.
Tips: Descents are hard on the knees; while a first-aid kit is an obvious necessity, hikers should also carry Advil or Tylenol. And bring at least one pack of cards!
Day Five: (More) Switzerland
After a late start, we exited the hostel directly onto a twisting trail up to a local peak and a family-run restaurant and inn, appropriately called Bovine. The restaurant featured handmade pastries and dishes—including peach pie, potato hash, and berry crumble cake to die for—as well as a huge wall-mounted map, stuck with thumb-tacks and push pins marking the home cities of the thousands of hikers that had passed through before us. We spent half an hour eating, playing more cards, and enjoying one of the first days we experienced of gorgeous, uneventful weather. Unfortunately, a long queue of hungry hikers waited outside the fenced patio, so we left sooner than we would’ve liked. (Perhaps it was for the best.)
After we hit the peak, we hiked a flat path along the ridge before walking across a road and going down into a large, idyllic valley to our hostel, Refuge Le Peuty. It was a small place compared to the hostels we’d stayed in previously, an amalgam of two small houses and two yurts run by a young couple who were hikers and travelers themselves. The outside led right into a sleeping loft resembling a treehouse—crisscrossing beams held up platforms at varying heights, reminiscent of a romanticized Robinson Crusoe house.
Unlike Crusoe, we enjoyed a delicious dinner with a dozen other hikers. There was local yogurt, avocado, bread, vegetable sauteé, and wine set out inside one of the yurts; a small radio played American classics from the late 1900s; jars of succulents and climbing plants hung from the ceiling. The atmosphere, kind hosts, treehouse lodging, and delicious apple cider tea made it the most memorable hostel we stayed at on the TMB.
Tips: Always try to talk to your hosts if they aren’t busy; they’re generally kind and excited to talk with travelers, and have stories from traveling all over Europe and beyond. (And if they like you, they might even throw in a little extra hot chocolate at breakfast, a welcome treat on cold mornings.)
Day Six: Back to France
After a light European breakfast of jam, cheese, and bread, we began our long, 14 km day on the gravel path out of the valley. It was a tough climb; some areas were a straight shot up and the rest was steep, even with switchbacks. We were climbing the Col de Balme, a peak along the border between Switzerland and France, and one of the last peaks along our TMB journey.
On the way to the top, the trail was dusty, and local mountain bikers rode down at breakneck speeds. Visibility from clouds and fog worsened as well—especially as we caught a second wave of storms—but the refuge at the top was large and sold hot chocolate, coffee, and tea, essentials for warming up after a cold climb.
After a mile or so down, we arrived at a small lodge overlooking the town of Le Tour. Lunch! We then took a short gondola ride down to Le Tour and walked miles of winding, flower box–lined streets on local dirt paths and down a small highway to Gite-refuge Le Moulin, our hostel for the night. Located on the road and next to a small river of melted glacier water, Le Moulin was a two-story house repurposed into a bunk-bedded, many-roomed inn with a sweeping vegetable garden, a strict no-boots policy, and an ill-fated pig whose future was on our dinner plate that evening: pork belly over lentils, the most delicious dinner we had on the trip (and perhaps ever). It may very well be worth it to stay at Le Moulin just for its food.
Tips: It’s easy to get lost on the dirt trails around Le Tour, and while GPS may work in the town proper, it becomes wholly inaccurate in the surrounding forest. Make sure you bring a paper map.
Day Seven: Back to the Beginning
After a breakfast of fresh croissants, we took the “shortcut” back to Chamonix—the final 10 km of our TMB trip.
The terrain on this final stretch was similar to that of Yosemite and Desolation Wilderness, with tree roots, loose rocks, and dust. Accurate navigation became essential here as we transitioned from trail to road. We hiked for miles on highways and along train tracks and, finally, arrived back in Chamonix.
Tips: One has to walk a surprisingly long stretch of busy road here. Hug the shoulder and watch out for speeding cars, of which there are many. At the end of it all, treat yourself to some ice cream and a long, hot bath—you did it!
Willow Taylor Chiang Yang – May 2021
Though a passion for politics and economics normally drives Willow Taylor Chiang Yang (she/her/hers) to more politically oriented endeavors, we somehow convinced the SF Bay Area native to try something new through interning at ROAM.
© ROAM Family Travel 2021 – All rights reserved
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