Skip the Train and Hike to France’s Largest Glacier, The Mer de Glace
Distance: 7.8 miles (12.5 km) round-trip from the parking lot at the Chamonix Amusement Park to the Mer de Glace overlook
Elevation gain: 2,600 feet (850 meters) from the valley floor to the overlook
Hiking Time: 5 hours round trip
Difficulty: Strenuous. The hike is difficult due to the steep elevation gain and the length of the trail
Chamonix, a picturesque village located in a valley high in the French Alps is the setting for lostinbeautifulplaces.com’s “Hike of the Month” for August 2019. As soon as we arrived in town and witnessed the large glaciers creeping into the valley, we knew that we needed to take some hikes to see them up close. After spending five weeks in the flat lands of Paris and Dijon, we were ready for some challenging mountain hikes. Since our hike to Mer De Glacier ended up being our favorite climb during our stay in the valley, we decided to share our experience with our readers.
The area also referred to as Chamonix-Mont Blanc, is a small mountain village and is one of the oldest ski resorts in Europe. It was the site of the first Winter Olympic Games in 1924 and is home to the highest mountain in western Europe, Mont Blanc. Alarge number of cable cars, trams and trains are available throughout the valley to take skiers, hikers, and mountain climbers closer to the alpine peaks that surround the town.
While most visitors pay to take the lifts to the various viewpoints, we at lostinbeautifulplaces.com were looking for more of a challenge. Hiking from the valley floor gave us a great workout and helped us to stay on budget at the same time. On average, we saved over $50 US per day by skipping the lifts and hiking up the mountains.
The Mer de Glace
The Mer de Glace (“Sea of Ice”) is a valley glacier located on the northern slopes of Mont Blanc. When all of its tributary glaciers are taken into account, it is the longest and largest glacier in France, and the second-longest in the Alps after the Aletsch Glacier in Switzerland. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the glacier descended all the way down to the hamlet of Les Bois, where it was known as Glacier des Bois. At this time, the glacier started to attract early explorers. writers, photographers, and painters. In the Mary Shelley novel Frankenstein, the fictional monster makes his home on Mer de Glace.
Since 1909, a rack and pinion railway train called Montenvers has departed from Chamonix, taking riders to a viewing platform, a museum, and a hotel. From the viewing platform, a gondola then descends to the ice field where there is an “Ice Cave” that allows visitors to see the heart of the glacier. For 33.5 Euros per person, tickets can be purchased that include the train and gondola rides, entrance to the Ice Cave and museum, and access to hiking trails. One way tickets up or down the mountain are also available, making it possible for visitors to ride the train one way and hike the other.
On the day that we decided to hike to Mer de Glace, the train, hotel, museum and ice cave were closed for maintenance, so we had no choice but walk up the mountainside to reach the glacier. The fact that the train and other facilities were closed made the crowds much smaller and we had a view over the glacier almost to ourselves. As luck would have it, when we reached the glacier overlook, there was a train employee pouring free coffee for hikers!
An interesting fact about the Mer de Glace glacier is that its subglacial waters are used seasonally for the generation of hydroelectricity. Tunnels bored under the glacier collect water from the base of the glacier and channel it down to a hydropower plant in the valley.
The trailhead to Mer De Glacier is located near the Mountenvers train station, adjacent to the parking lot for the Chamonix Amusement Park. The sign marking the beginning of the trail is easy to find. To the right of the entrance to the amusement park and to the left of the parking lot stands the trail sign in the photo below. From here the hike should take 2 hours and 30 minutes to reach the glacier overlook.
The trail starts with a short climb up the gravel road that parallels the amusement park. The road follows the summer luge ride and past a small herd of cattle as it begins to gain elevation. Just past the top of the luge ride, you will want to stay to the right and follow the small trail with the sign pointing towards “par Caillet”, which is a small chalet at the halfway point of the hike that offers food, drinks, and amazing views and “Montenvers Mer de Glace”.
The Hike to Mer de Glace
The small trail then ascends into a dense conifer forest, where the path becomes quite steep and technical. Uneven stone stairs cover this portion of the trail following steep switchbacks that take hikers up towards the glacier. Footwear with good traction and support is helpful, as the forest mist drips onto the stones, making them slippery. There are plenty of places to stop and rest, but very little views are offered in this section due to the density of the forest.
At around the one-mile mark of the trail, it passes over the train tracks and views of the valley and surrounding mountain peaks come into view. This is a great place to admire the setting and take a breather. After it crosses the tracks, the trail enters another dense forest with more stone steps and steep terrain.
Nearing the two-mile mark, the trail levels out a bit and the forest becomes less dense. As the forest opens up, a small wooden chalet appears in the distance. This is the historic Caillet Chalet that serves delicious savory pies cooked in a wood-fired oven, salads, coffee, hot chocolate and specials of the day. Sitting on the patio of the Chalet enjoying a hot drink and admiring the amazing views of the Alps is an experience in itself. The 100-year-old Chalet is open year-round and is the halfway point on the trail to Mer de Glace.
After leaving the comforts of the Chalet, the trail continues its climb toward the glacier. Although not as steep as the first two miles, the path remains its uphill ascent for the remainder of the hike. The trail itself is less technical and the forest is less dense on this section. Summer wildflowers and small mushrooms cover the hillsides. The Alpine landscape becomes more apparent as the trail rounds the mountain and approaches the glacial valley.
The upper section of the trail guides hikers through the wide valley, directly towards Mer de Glace. Before the massive glacier comes into view, the trail passes by a small hotel/restaurant and museum. As mentioned earlier in this article, these facilities were closed on the day that we hiked to the glacier, so we were not able to go inside.
The Mer de Glace is not able to be seen until the very end of the trail, near the viewing platform. After climbing the stairs to the platform, the glacier comes into view and it is breathtaking. The glacier winds its way down the valley with its glacial blue overtones highlighting the depth of the ice. The high mountain peaks of the Alps covered in snow dot the sky. Clouds and fog ebb and flow and reveal crags that were unseen when we arrived. The hike was so worth the view!!!
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