Chamonix Outdoors

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Chamonix Outdoors
From clinging to the crystal-clear surface of a vertical frozen waterfall to hiking mountain paths alive with wild flora and fauna, Chamonix offers a range of adventurous activities—even when the snow has melted.
By Simon Willis, AFAR Local Expert
Photo courtesy of Jean-Charles Poirot/Office de Tourisme de Chamonix
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    Aiguilles Rouges National Nature Reserve
    As spring draws nearer, snow from the vast mountains begins to melt, uncovering lush vegetation and opening up great walking opportunities. The highlight is the Aiguilles Rouges National Nature Reserve opposite Mont Blanc. Here, hikers scramble up rocky faces and down paths laden with multicolored flora, watching chamois trotting along in the distance or marmots scurrying behind boulders. The reserve has several peaks offering spectacular views, not to mention the occasional golden eagle circling above. Lac Blanc is one of a variety of lakes within and is a popular destination for a picnic.
    Photo courtesy of Jean-Charles Poirot/Office de Tourisme de Chamonix
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    Fly above the French Alps
    Few activities provide the same blend of exhilaration, relaxation, and stunning bird's-eye views as paragliding. And what a perfect place for it: The French Alps has often been touted as the most beautiful mountain range in the world, and to fly above and alongside its snow-lined peaks is a dream worth pursuing. Chamonix has many takeoff points and landing spots. Tandem rides are available through the highly regarded outfitter Fly Chamonix, while Absolute Chamonix offers classes on the art of paragliding or speed riding—a relatively new sport whereby you ski with the aid of a parachute.
    Photo by Kim Rust
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    Practice Your Swing in Serenity
    Golf is one of those sports that requires calm, the utmost patience, and a steady hand. Where better to play, then, than amid the serenity of the French Alps? The stunning 18-hole course in Les Praz is surrounded by the jagged peaks of Mont Blanc, and is open from the end of April until mid-November. Private lessons and weeklong courses are also available. Be sure to stop off at the restaurant La Cabane des Praz for the delicious set menu in wooden lodge surroundings. There is also a mini-golf course on the terrace of Residence Vallorcine Mont Blanc; the course is open from June on and is perfect for children.
    Photo courtesy of Office de Tourisme de Chamonix
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    Riverboarding on the Arve
    Strap on a life jacket, grab your buoyant plastic board (shaped like a bodyboard cut in half), and launch yourself into the gushing river. Welcome to the world of hydrospeed—known in the United States as riverboarding. Professional guides outfit you with all the equipment and brief you on safety and technique before plunging you in at certain points on the Arve River in Chamonix town. You are then pushed along by the rapids to the end, where you are met by guides who'll bring you back to the starting point. An afternoon session costs around €50 ($56) and is available for people aged 12 and up. If you feel the fatigue of water frolics and need a thorough refueling, head to Poco Loco. Well known in the area for its towering, tasty burgers, it's an economical spot where a family can enjoy lunch or grab some takeout.
    Photo courtesy of Monica Dalmasso/Office de Tourisme de Chamonix
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    Chamonix on Horseback
    The Chamonix Valley offers spectacular summer walks, but for a local experience with an extra dimension, many visitors opt to explore the area on horseback. A number of trails are open for horse riding, especially in Les Houches, where the equestrian center is located. Here, specialist instructors provide classes in riding, dressage, and show jumping. Those just wanting a tour through the valley can try various companies that sponsor half- and full-day trips. For families, there's Le Paradis des Praz, a quaint woodland spot where children can get on horses or ponies. In the winter, skijoring—whereby you are pulled along on your skis by a horse (imagine a modern-day Roman chariot)—is a popular activity.
    Photo courtesy of Office de Tourisme de Chamonix
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    Scale Frozen Waterfalls
    The sight of a sheer frozen waterfall may be daunting to some, but for others it’s an opportunity to strap into the harness, pull on the crampons, and scale to the top. Chamonix has a huge variety of ice-climbing opportunities—and not just for experts. In Argentière, the Crémerie Ice Falls are angled so beginners can hone their skills on relatively easy terrain. Higher up, you have the Nuit Blanche and Rive Gauche falls, which offer more-challenging climbs, including some at Level 6 (i.e., extremely difficult). Farther out, on the road between Chamonix and the Swiss town of Martigny, is the mountain pass Col des Montets; here, parts of the road are skirted by nice vertical ice falls (guides are required to tackle these).
    Photo courtesy of David Ravanel/Office de Tourisme de Chamonix
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    Summer Climbing
    While the winter months in Chamonix welcome the hardiest of skiers, in summer the town is awash with extreme climbers, as well as those just starting out. For the latter, Les Gaillands is the perfect starting point. The multitude of bolted crags and pitch points, and the fantastic views of Mont Blanc, attract hordes of visitors throughout the summer. The best midmountain routes are at the south ridge of Aiguille de l'Index (which, as its name suggests, resembles an index finger), while Midi-Plan offers some challenging traverses and excellent granite pitches. The Envers des Aiguilles refuge is a great place to stay overnight—and the ideal place to prepare for a climb from 330 feet early the next morning.
    Photo by Simon Willis
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    Mountain Biking for All Levels
    Summer is mountain-biking season in Chamonix, when riders of all levels of experience swarm the town. Les Houches offers intermediate and advanced runs, the highlight of which is at the top of the Prarion gondola—an area offering long, pleasant descents. La Flégère is much more intense, with steeper and tighter tracks and switchbacks. Head up in the cable car and aim down the steep track that returns to the village of Les Praz. For easier slopes, point yourself toward Le Tour. At the top of the ski lift Les Autannes lies a recently built and rocky run of narrow corners that can either be bombed down or taken nice and slow.
    Photo courtesy of Jean-Luc Armand/Office de Tourisme de Chamonix
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    White-Water Rafting
    From flowing but relatively easy rapids to powerful and heart-pumping surges, Chamonix’s white-water rafting locales are a definite summer highlight. The Arve River flows through the town and is ideal for beginners and families who want to tackle the roiling waters as a team. The Giffre River, located about 12 miles from Chamonix in Samoëns, is slightly more difficult, but the views are spectacular, especially through the Gorges des Tines. For the most rip-roaring waves, head to Italy and the Dora Baltea, in the Aosta Valley. Here, rafters over 15 years of age can hurtle down intimidating drops at high speeds. Previous rafting experience is recommended here, especially in May and June, when the water is more powerful due to the still-melting snow.
    Photo by Santiago Fdez Fuentes/age fotostock