- A lot of very tough terrain, especially off-piste
- Amazing cable car to the Aiguille du Midi, for the famous Vallée Blanche
- Stunning views wherever you are
- Other resorts covered on extended lift pass, notably sunny Courmayeur
- Town steeped in Alpine tradition
- Lots of affordable hotels – and many will take short bookings
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JohnSharman 28 Mar 2010
PaulJenner 28 Mar 2010
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News – 2016/17
The slow Parsa quad chair, which serves easy blue and green runs at mid-mountain on Le Brévent, is being replaced by a fast six-pack. This will have a capacity of nearly 3,000 people per hour compared with the 1,800 an hour of the old lift. The two drag lifts serving the same area will be replaced by one modern draglift.
Chamonix could not be more different from the archetypal high-altitude, purpose-built French resort. It hasn’t been designed to deliver the smoothest possible experience to the widest possible market. It hasn’t been designed. You don’t have to be an expert to enjoy the place – Editor Gill once took his blue-run-skiing wife and novice kids for a week here, and lived to tell the tale. But it is the expert and the adventurous would-be expert who really must give Chamonix a permanent place on their shortlist, despite its serious drawbacks.
The centre of town is charming with lots of atmospheric old buildings ©Chamonix TO
Chamonix is a long-established, year-round tourist town that spreads for miles along the valley in the shadow of Mont Blanc.
On either side of the centre, just within walking distance, are base stations of the cable car to the Aiguille du Midi (for the famous Vallée Blanche glacier run) and a gondola to Le Brévent. A third high-altitude area, La Flégère, is linked to Le Brévent by cable car and reached by its own cable car from the village of Les Praz.
At the top of the valley are the villages of Argentière, beneath the Grands Montets and Le Tour, at the foot of the Balme slopes (with an alternative base at Vallorcine).
Down the valley is Les Houches, with the most sheltered slopes in the valley; its lifts are not covered by the normal Chamonix pass.
Free ski-buses link all these points but can get very crowded. There are also hourly trains along the valley, free with a guest card.
The Mont Blanc Unlimited lift pass covers not only Les Houches but also nearby Megève and St-Gervais, Verbier in Switzerland and Courmayeur in Italy. Verbier is a major expedition; Courmayeur is of more practical use, not least because the weather can be good in Italy when it is lousy in Chamonix. And there are buses through the Mont Blanc tunnel several times daily. Having a car is useful in lots of ways, and makes that outing to Verbier a more practical proposition.
Lots of atmosphere
Chamonix is a bustling place, with scores of hotels and restaurants and shops selling everything from tacky souvenirs to high-tech climbing gear. The car-free centre is full of atmosphere, with cobbled streets and squares, beautiful old buildings, a fast-running river and pavement cafes. Away from the centre, there are lots of apartment blocks. There are some disused buildings, and traffic clogs the streets at times.
You don’t come here for that
The obvious place to stay for the full experience is close to the centre, where you can be a short walk from the gondola to Brévent. Or you adapt to life on the buses or trains.
The views of glaciers and the Alps’ highest mountains from Brévent are simply stunning ©Monica Dalmasso/Chamonix TO
As dramatic as it gets
The mountains above Chamonix are not just high – the mighty Mont Blanc is the highest in Western Europe – they are also truly spectacular. The ride up the Aiguille du Midi cable car is breathtaking and at the top there’s a ‘Step into the Void’ glass viewing area, complete with a glass floor above a drop of 1000m.
Practically all the slopes – with the notable exception of Les Houches – are above the treeline. There are some runs down through woods to the valley floor but the black ones from Brévent and Flégère, in particular, are often closed due to lack of snow or poor conditions and can be unpleasantly tricky if open.
The piste map has maps for each individual area as well as the valley as a whole. Signposting and piste marking are OK. But in sectors other than Balme, the classification of runs often understates difficulty – in particular, some of the blues would be classified as reds in other resorts.
Extent of the slopes
The gondola for Brévent departs a short, steep walk or bus ride from the centre. There are runs on open slopes below the arrival point, and a cable car goes on to the summit. There is a lift link to Flégère, also accessible via an inadequate old cable car from the village of Les Praz. These sunny areas give stunning views of Mont Blanc.
Up the valley at Argentière a cable car or a newish gondola takes you up to the high slopes of Les Grands Montets. Chairs and a gondola serve open terrain above mid-mountain, but much of the best terrain is accessed by a further cable car of relatively low capacity, not covered by the standard lift pass. This shady area can be very cold in early season.
A little way further up the valley, the secluded village of Le Tour sits at the foot of the broad Balme area. A gondola goes up to mid-mountain, with a mix of drags and chairs above. There is also a lift up from Vallorcine.
Plus there are several low beginner areas dotted along the valley.
The view may be spectacular but many of the lifts are antiquated, like this old cable car ©Patrik Lindqvist/Chamonix TO
Cable cars and gondolas serve each sector, but many need upgrading. The few fast chairs are widely scattered.
Ancient lifts, serious queues
At the Grands Montets, the new gondola seems to have reduced the serious waiting times at the bottom. But at mid-mountain, the top cable car remains a famous bottleneck. You can book slots in advance (on the spot or online), preferably the day before, or join the ‘standby’ queue, which we’ve found to be an effective alternative.
At Flégère, the ancient 60-person cable car can have queues of an hour or more – to go down as well as up. At La Tour, there can be queues for the ancient gondola up Balme; it can be quicker to take the train to Vallorcine.
Crowded pistes and skiers travelling too fast for the conditions can also be a problem in places – most notably on parts of the Grands Montets.
The Summit Park on Grands Montets incorporates features for all levels and includes kickers, rails, jumps and lots of features. There are also two snowcross courses. At Balme there’s now one of the largest terrain parks in Europe, with features for all standards. At Brévent there’s an airbag jump; you can be filmed doing it to view on the internet later. See chamonix.net/english/winter-activities/ski-slopes/snowpark.
Good high up; poor low down
The top runs on the north-facing Grands Montets slopes above Argentière generally have good snow, and the season normally lasts well into May. The risk of finding the top lift shut because of bad weather is more of a worry. There’s snowmaking on the busy Bochard piste and the run to the valley. Balme has a snowy location, a good late-season record and snowmaking on the run down to the valley at Le Tour. The largely south-facing slopes of Brévent and Flégère suffer in warm weather despite quite a bit of snowmaking, and the steep black runs to the resort are often closed. Don’t be tempted to try these unless you know they are in good condition – they can be very tricky. Some of the low beginners’ areas have snowmaking. Piste grooming is generally OK.
The highest off-piste slopes are riddled with crevasses and you need a guide to ski them safely; this is the Grands Montets ©Chamonix TO
One of the great resorts
Chamonix is renowned for its extensive steep terrain and deep snow. To get the best out of the area you really need to have a local guide. There is also lots of excellent terrain for ski touring on skins.
The Grands Montets cable car offers stunning views from the observation platform above the top station – if you’ve got the legs and lungs to climb the 121 steep metal steps. (But beware: it’s 200 more slippery steel steps down from the cable car before you hit the snow.) The ungroomed black pistes from here – Point de Vue and Pylones – are long and exhilarating. The former sails right by some dramatic sections of glacier, with marvellous views of the crevasses.
The Bochard gondola serves a challenging red back to Lognan and a black to either the Retour Pendant chairlift or Plan Joran. Shortly after you have made a start down the black, you can head off-piste down the Combe de la Pendant bowl.
At Brévent there’s more to test experts than the piste map suggests – there are a number of variations on the runs down from the summit. Some are very steep and prone to ice. The red and black runs in Combe de la Charlanon are quiet, and there is excellent off-piste if the snow is good.
At Flégère there are further challenging slopes – in the Combe Lachenal, crossed by the linking cable car, say – and a tough run back to the village when the snow permits. The short draglift above L’Index opens up a couple of good steep runs (a red and a black) plus a good area of off-piste.
Balme boasts little tough terrain on-piste, but there are off-piste routes from the high points to Le Tour, towards Vallorcine or into Switzerland.
Plenty of better resorts
Chamonix is far from ideal for intermediates unless they relish challenging slopes and trying off-piste. If what you want is mile after mile of lift-linked cruisy pistes, you should go elsewhere. For less confident intermediates, the Balme area above Le Tour is good for cruising and usually free from crowds. There are excellent shady, steeper runs, wooded lower down, on the north side of Tête de Balme, served by a fast quad. A lovely red run goes on down to Vallorcine, but it is prone to closure.
The other areas have some blue and red runs. Even the Grands Montets has an area of blues at mid-mountain. The step up to the red terrain higher up is quite pronounced, however.
If the snow and weather are good, confident intermediates can join a guided group and do the famous and hugely long Vallée Blanche off-piste run.
Head for Balme
Chamonix is far from ideal for beginners, too – there are countless better resorts in which to learn. There are limited but adequate nursery slopes either side of the town – Savoy, at the bottom of Brévent, and Les Planards, on the opposite side (dark and cold in midwinter). Moving on to longer runs means taking a lift up to Brévent or Flégère. La Vormaine, at Le Tour, is a much better bet: extensive, relatively high, sunny and connected to the slopes of the Balme area, where there are easy long runs to progress to. But it’s 12km from Chamonix itself.
Leave it to the experts
The undisputed king of freeride resorts, Chamonix is a haven for advanced snowboarders who relish the steep and wild terrain, especially on the Grands Montets. This means, however, that in peak season it’s crowded, and fresh snow gets tracked out very quickly. Keen riders should check out former British champion Neil McNab’s excellent extreme backcountry snowboard courses at: www.mcnabsnowboarding.com.
The rough and rugged nature of the slopes means they are not best suited for beginners but rather for more adventurous riders willing to try true all-mountain riding. The easiest terrain is at the Balme area, though there are quite a few difficult drags here (you can avoid these if you can hack the cat tracks to take you to other lifts). Most lifts elsewhere are cable cars, gondolas and chairs.
If you do the Vallée Blanche, be warned: the usual route is very flat in places, so be prepared to scoot.
A decent network of trails
Most of the 53km of prepared trails lie at valley level. But the trails are shady and often icy in midwinter, and they fade fast in the spring sun.
There are plenty of off-piste bowls like this accessible to adventurous intermediates with a guide ©Chamonix TO
Schools and guides
The place to try something new
The schools here are particularly strong in specialist fields – off-piste, glacier and couloir skiing, ski touring, snowboarding and cross-country. English-speaking instructors and mountain guides are plentiful.
At the Maison de la Montagne are the main ESF office and the HQ of the Compagnie des Guides, which is highly rated and has taken visitors to the mountains for 150 years. We have had very good guides from here.
Chamonix is an ideal choice for families. But there are several childcare options. See chamonix.com/childrens-holidays,39,en.html.
Blogs, features and news
- Can you family ski the Chamonix valley?
- Where to ski late in the season
- 10 Top Resorts for Off-piste
- Short skiing breaks
- Corporate ski trips