Trail Running Guide
A Collection of the Best Trail Runs in the Chamonix Valley
Chamonix may well be the center of the trail running universe. Where else will you cross paths with dozens, maybe even hundreds, of other runners while on your daily mission, and not just on trails, but in town?
Long considered the ultimate alpine climbing playground, Chamonix fills each summer with climbers looking to do everything from hard mixed climbs, long rock routes, classic mountaineering and of course the prize tick for many, Mont Blanc. The highest point in the Alps conveniently soars right from town. But with the massive popularity, and success, of the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB), now trail running’s biggest party, came a spotlight on the valley and surrounding mountains as a playground not just for climbers, but for trail runners. Times have changed.
Chamonix is loaded with trails. And while they aren’t all great, if you hit the ones that are you’ll understand Chamonix’s title of the Alps’ trail running mecca.
Our Chamonix Trail Running Guide's collection of runs will keep you on some of the best trails, with the most stunning views, and going in the right direction to best compliment the route. If your time is limited, you’ll want to experience what Chamonix is famous for. These are the routes that'll keep you happy and planning to come back for more.
For visiting runners, there is one immediate issue to deal with; vertical, in massive quantities. It’s pretty common for visiting American runners to go through a break in period. Many of the classic runs we present have 1200 meter approaches just to get to the running. Be ready to grind and then still have enough in you for the run, and of course, the descent of it all.
There is some helpful news. The lift system can carry you up or down many of the best trails, eliminating what your legs are in protest of.
This guide assumes you do not have a car and will be using public transportation.
The running season is relatively short, mid June until around the end of October. And of course all this is subject to the previous winter’s snowpack, weather, and increasing effects of climate change.
June can be rainy. July through the end of September is peak summer season which includes some hot days, some rainy days and lots of sunny mornings turning to afternoon thunderstorms.
October is stellar if you hit it right and November is probably a good time to be anywhere but Chamonix.
Late August is also UTMB season, which means the town is literally packed full of runners and gawkers. If you’re into it, great. If you aren’t, steer clear.
ORIENTATION: CHAMONIX GEOGRAPHY
The town of Chamonix sits at 1050 meters in a narrow valley. Immediately south, and rising directly above town is the highest point in the Alps, Mont Blanc (4810 meters). The relief is extraordinary and part of what makes first time visitor's knees buckle. For Americans, unfamiliar with the far superior metric system, that equates to 12,336 feet of steep granite and ice relief.
But, that’s not all. To the east, and truly rising above town is the sharply pointed skyline of the Aiguille de Chamonix including the cable car accessible Aiguille de Midi at 3842 meters. That’s 9160 feet of vertical relief, still plenty to keep the knees wobbly.
Finally, to the north and west stretches a wholly different view, Brevent and Aiguille Rouges which barely quake the knees topping out at just 2965 meters.
These big mountain views include glaciers, serac falls, crevasse zones, needley spires, lush green hillsides, ice domes, razor edged ridgelines, and all the activities going on, above and through them: paragliding, alpinism, rock climbing, ice climbing, speed flying, base jumping, mountain biking, hiking, and yes, what you landed here for, trail running.
On both sides of the Chamonix Valley are two trail traverses known as the Grand Balcons, the Nord and the Sud. Understanding which is which is not exactly intuitive, kind of like French websites. The more southerly of the two is the Nord while the northerly situated one is the Sud. Apparently they are named after which direction they face, which is actually more east and west. Don't worry, you'll figure it out when you're there. All you really need to know is that the one on the Aiguille de Chamonix / Mont Blanc side is the Nord and the Aiguille Rouge side is the Sud.
These two Balcon Trails, and the network of trails getting to them, is your primary playground from town.
GRAND BALCON SUD
While there are many trails at different elevations on the Balcon Sud hillside, the official Grand Balcon Sud Trail stretches from Col des Montets, passes by the scenic Lacs des Chéserys and Lac Blanc, and wanders through a whole lot of ski infrastructure until it hits the Planpraz lift station directly above Chamonix.
There is also a Petit Balcon Sud, which is much closer to the valley floor and only runs for a few kilometers directly above town. It is nearly 100% perfect running and serves as a commuter trail to access many connecting trails that go up.
On the Balcon Sud side of town, hitting the right trails is critical. It can be obnoxiously rocky, loose, overrun with herds of tourists poking along to the lakes, or among ski infrastructure.
That said, if it’s your first time to Chamonix, the Grand Balcon Sud is one of the most scenic runs with a whole lot of rock hopping and dodging.
Set across the valley from the Mont-Blanc massif, the Balcon Sud is home to many of the iconic Chamonix views and photos. It’s all spread out in front of you.
GRAND BALCON NORD
The Balcon Nord is much more manageable to navigate. Stretching between Montenvers and Refuge du Plan de L’Aiguille, the trail traverses beneath the Aiguille de Chamonix on a relatively flat terrace. Only four independent trails go from town up to the Balcon Nord, all of which require 1000+ meters of forest gain to reach the Balcon Nord. Overall, the Nord side trails are still mostly singletrack and there is zero ski infrastructure.
Once you’ve put the abundant vertical work in, you’re rewarded with a traverse of the Balcon Nord which passes directly beneath the towering granite spires of the Aiguille de Chamonix. If you’re seeking more vert, pay close attention along the route for climber trails wandering off and above the Balcon trail. While mostly out and backs, these are well worth exploring as they get you very close to the true alpine terrain. If you do venture up, be cautious of getting too close to the walls as rockfall is a major concern.
Our Chamonix Trail Running Guide includes a couple of loop options on the Balcon Nord side with important directions to keep you on the rockier ups and the smoother downs.
Leave town early and time your arrival for the opening at either Montenvers, the Midi mid-station, or the Refuge du Plan de L’Aiguille. Order a coffee and a croissant and take it all in, you’ll likely be alone.
Visiting Chamonix and spending long days on trails is fantastic, but Chamonix has so much more to experience. If you’re also a climber, FOMO is going to hit hard, plan accordingly. At the minimum, ride the Midi to the top and do the Arete des Cosmique. Get yourself up Mont Blanc, take a walk on the Mer de Glace, spend the night in a high mountain hut, and for sure try to determine which bakery is your favorite, by trying them all. Chamonix is incredibly fun, dive in.