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The Tour du Mont Blanc, Hiking around Mont Blanc

France

The classic 10-day trek around Mont Blanc offers nature lovers the hike of a lifetime, complete with mountain lodges, rustic cuisine, and alpine culture.

Complete Video Script

Europe has many iconic long-distance hikes, and one of the most popular is the Tour du Mont Blanc. While the Mont Blanc massif offers some of Europe's most demanding mountaineering, this accommodating trail is flexible — enjoyed by hikers with a wide range of abilities. It's like a huge park — part in France, part in Italy, part in Switzerland — and it's busy June through September.

Cassandra: Tour du Mont Blanc circumnavigates Europe's highest peak. So, you go around it in about 10 days, each day about 10 miles for a total of about 100. Each day you see a different valley, a different glacier, a different view of the great mountain.

The Tour du Mont Blanc is partly in wooded farmland and partly above the tree line in the company of glaciers. The appealing thing about it for American hikers is the delightful mix of nature, history, and culture. The people you meet on the trails come from many lands, and your days are filled with cheery greetings. We're in France for this section, so it's "bonjour!"

Hikers here have plenty of options. You can hike as little or as much of the route as you like. But you must reserve your beds well in advance. One thing I really appreciate: You can hire a transfer service to take your luggage to the next hut. That frees me to hike with just the essentials in a small day bag.

And with Cassandra's help, I've chosen a route I'm comfortable with.

A typical day on the trail is about 10 miles and around six hours of walking — and the route is never dull. This bridge actually dates back to Roman times, and for much longer than that, its river has been carving this gorge.

Cassandra: So, one of the really interesting parts about this route is that it used to be an old Roman road. And there was a Celtic settlement just down the way, so in addition to Romans and Celts, these paths were also used by shepherds taking their stock to different fields.

Mountain huts — called refuges — are placed, conveniently, a day's hike apart. Our first night is at Nant Borrant, a mountain lodge dating back to the 1800s.

Huts are basic — like hostels for adults. Hikers share co-ed dorms and follow the mountain hut etiquette: Bring your own sleep sack, no boots inside, and so on. Personal chores are done upon arrival; then it's time to relax. While very simple, up here the little things feel luxurious. A refreshing beer after a day on the trail hits the spot.

Dinner is rustic. There's no menu — hikers enjoy whatever's served. And here, way up in the French Alps, I'm happy to consider this "high cuisine." Soup with mountain cheese, tasty sausage with potato au gratin, and, to compliment it all, a hearty red wine from Savoy — that's the region we're in. The culture of the Tour du Mont Blanc is one of respect for nature, a joie de vivre, and an international camaraderie.

In the huts, it's early to bed and early to rise. After a quick breakfast, we're on to the next leg of our route.

Since each day you try to cover about 10 miles, it's important to eat and stay hydrated as you go. Fortunately, the Tour de Mont Blanc's enjoyable combination of wilderness and commerce means the trail is well-developed for the needs of hikers along the way. And small shops are ideal for assembling a rustic picnic.

A day's hike is punctuated by encounters with the mountain culture, like a dairy farm making cheese pretty much the way they have for generations. The farmer's focused on his work and proud of his product. He treats us to a sample, and we buy a nice slice for the trail. Clearly, cheese is the energy bar of the Tour de Mont Blanc.

Tonight we're sleeping in a bigger refuge. This one's a bit more remote, high above the tree line, but with the same hearty food, simple dormitories, and great company.

The next morning, the convenience of the baggage-transfer service is obvious, as bags are taken to a variety of destinations depending on each hiker's plan. As we head out on what'll be my last day on the trail, I realize that after so many decades, I'm enjoying a brand-new European experience — an experience I wouldn't have found without a great guide like Cassandra.

Rick: Cass, what are the most important things people should know when they're hiking like this?
Cassandra: You know, there are only really three big things that you need to think about. The first one is: Be prepared for time in the outdoors. So, at a minimum, you need good shoes, some great layers, a solid backpack, and a good map. Number two is: Be really proactive about your comfort when you're on trail. So, eat before you're hungry, drink before you're thirsty, and the moment that anything feels uncomfortable — if it's your backpack, or your shoes — just stop and take care of it before you go on.
Rick: And finally…
Cassandra: Don't be intimidated by all of the gear, or the athletic nature of walking. You don't need to be a hiker. You don't need to be a super athlete to enjoy this kind of travel.
Rick: Just look at my gear and look at what shape I'm in — and I'm having a blast.
Cassandra: Right. It's not about exercise, this kind of thing is best when you slow down. So, there's a hut around every corner — stop and take a coffee. Or in the afternoon, have a victory beer if you had a big climb. When you find a stream, soak your feet. That's really how you enjoy this.
Rick: It's like you're on vacation.
Cassandra: It should be fun.

Cassandra's hiking the rest of the route. But my luggage is back in Chamonix — and I will be too, in time for dinner.