Readers of One Foot Out the Door have undoubtedly noticed that many of my posts describe hiking adventures, which makes perfect sense given my preference for travel on my own two feet. But there’s a certain kind of walk that I love even more than others: the circuit trek.
Although a number of my favorite hikes have been out-and-backs or one-ways, there’s something about a circular hike that feels more complete and satisfying. Of course, the main benefit of a circumnavigation is that you don’t have to retrace your steps and see the same scenery twice. For me, the biggest draws of these loop hikes are that they are usually quite long, cover a variety of terrain, reach areas that vehicles and beasts of burden cannot, and sometimes even cross borders.
Two of my favorite circuit treks have been the Tour du Mont Blanc in France, Switzerland, and Italy, and the Paine Circuit in Chilean Patagonia. Today let me tell you a little about the former, or the TMB as it is sometimes known. Stay tuned for the “O” tomorrow!
The Tour du Mont Blanc
Mont Blanc is the highest mountain in western Europe and the Alps, and circling it takes hikers through three countries, a variety of landscapes and climates, and a delicious array of cuisines. Unlike more remote treks like the Paine Circuit, the TMB passes through more developed and populated areas, at least overnight, so it is possible to clump around all day out in nature and still sit down to a nice glass of wine and a hearty dinner most nights. There are also camping options, as well as mountain huts along the way.
Most treks start in Chamonix, a classic (and charming) Savoyard town at the base of Mont Blanc, and take anywhere from seven to about ten days to complete. To start, trekkers can drive or walk to Les Houches, passing under the Aiguilles Rouges, where there are magnificent views of the glaciers clinging to the north face of Mont Blanc, followed by a nice slow traverse and descent to the town. Leaving this small ski resort village at the end of the Chamonix valley, the next day’s hike goes fairly relentlessly uphill all morning (a pattern repeated almost daily), passes the Col de Voza, ambles through some buggy groves and woods, and ends with a climb late in the day to the town of Les Contamines.
A brief but interesting diversion outside of town the next day is Notre Dame de la Gorge, a small church in a valley outside of Les Contamines-Montjoie. The plain, white facade belies a surprising Baroque interior, and the tiny church’s setting near the beginning of the trail draws locals and trekkers alike. From here, the trail leads steeply uphill on an old Roman road; the ascent continues virtually unstopped to a first pass today, the Col de Bonhomme. Even in summer, it can be quite snowy and chilly here, but if you trudge on for another 15 minutes, there is a gorgeous meadow of wildflowers surrounded by snow-covered, pointy peaks in every direction, a rushing waterfall, and a glacial, greenish-blue lake in the distance. If you are lucky, you may spy some ibex clinging to the mountainsides here or a marmot or two darting amongst the rocks.
After this perfect picnic spot, hikers press on to a second pass at Croix de Bonhomme at 8100’; here there is a cozy mountain hut here for drinks and cake before descending to Les Chapieux for the night. Today’s hike of 4200’ up and 3000’ down is the longest day of walking overall on the circuit. But at least you’re in France, where dinner might be stewed meats, creamy polenta, bread, a local red vin de Savoie, and a tarte for dessert.
A pleasant stop the next day is a small farm and factory that makes Beaufort cheese, a local specialty made from the milk of Tarine cattle, the rich brown cows with deep black eyes that roam the high pastures in the Alps. (Be sure to buy a hunk for a snack later today.)
From the farm, the trail advances solidly uphill for hours to a pass at Col de la Seigne at 8245’ where the wind whips gustily enough at the marker between France and Italy to blow hikers into the next country and on down the path past the Rifugio Elisabetta to the outskirts of Courmayeur for an evening of pasta and limoncello (and grappa and green-apple vodka … ).
Depending on the time and energy available, hikers can make a one- or two-day trek to La Fouly and Champex from here. Either option ultimately leads to the Grand Col de Ferret at 8300’ and may include some exhilarating crossings of some hard, slick snowfields and a view of the impressive Glacier de Pre-de-Bar with Mont Dolent above (where France, Switzerland, and Italy all meet). At the Col de Ferret, trekkers pass from Italy to Switzerland and can choose a less-traveled route toward the Petit Col de Ferret and “ski” down through multiple long snowfields.
Walking directly out of Champex the next day, it is easy to catch the Bovine Route, essentially an old cow path that travels through the woods and crosses several wide streams on big boulders. If you love rock hopping and scrambling uphill, you will enjoy this morning’s hike even though the pitch is sometimes severe and the rocks can be slippery with mud or manure. Later, a relaxing traverse through a field with panoramic views and the happy sound of cowbells opens up to a hut with picnic tables and a spectacular lookout over the Rhone Valley and the town of Martigny. A final downhill stretch deposits walkers at Col de la Forclaz.
From here, hikers can again make a one- or two-day choice to get back to Chamonix. Both eventually pass by Les Cheserys, where an idyllic side trail leads to Lac Blanc. (There is also a long traverse to the cable car down to Chamonix if laundry and a hot shower call more convincingly than another mountain hut and lake.)
The little chalet high on the mountain is worth the detour, and there is a bit of adventure in climbing some thin metal ladders bolted into a vertical rock face and navigating a series of wooden slats nailed into the rocks. There are rewards at the top as well: Lac Blanc itself, an eerie, pearly gray-blue pool and the adorable Refuge du Lac Blanc which serves hot chocolate, cake, and coffee.
Leaving this little paradise, the circuit comes to an end with the final trek or cable car ride down to Chamonix. The tour du Mont Blanc generally covers about 10-12 miles a day, with ascents and descents of several thousand feet each day, over the course of some 105 miles overall.