The Alpine Attractions of Chamonix

From the highest mountain peak in the Alps to gnarly freestyle spots and late-night skating hangouts, Chamonix is home to some of France’s most dramatic vistas, longest glacier, and best skiing and snowboarding runs.

Aiguille du Midi, 74400 Chamonix, France
France’s Chamonix Valley is one of the most scenic places on the European continent. It’s a narrow river valley which houses everything from rock-climbing centers to pulsing bars and pubs, and on both sides of the river the peaks of the French Alps explode thousands of feet into the sky. While there are numerous ways to experience the grandeur of the mountains from Chamonix—boarding the ski lift at Les Grands Montets, biking along the steep ridges, or paragliding off the many peaks—the most accessible might be a ride on the Aiguille du Midi cable car, a hair-raising ascent that gains 9,200 vertical feet over the course of 20 minutes. From the summit perch you can take in a 360-degree view beneath Mont Blanc, and from this frigid vantage point set nearly at the top of Europe, it’s almost possible to reach straight out and touch the sky.
Maison de Village, 74400 Argentières, France
While Aiguilles Rouges offers sublime skiing in winter, its true glory is revealed once the snow melts. Named after the granite spires that glow red at sunrise, the nature reserve, which was established in 1974, boasts walking trails at all levels of difficulty. The slopes above the Chamonix Valley entice hikers with a penchant for Alpine pastures, while the elevated Lac Blanc bewitches as it reflects the Mont Blanc massif on its emerald surface. Many hikers devote days to exploring Aiguilles Rouges, taking in fields of orchids as well as wildlife like ibex, marmots, chamois, and deer. To delve deeper into the area’s abundance of flora and fauna, visit the information cabin at the Col des Montets, open May to September.
Argentière, 74400 Chamonix, France
From rollers to jumps and boxes to rails, Grands Montets Summit Snowpark certainly covers all the bases for freestylers and snowboarders. Located on Les Grands Montets, accessed by the Bochard gondola or the Marmottons chairlift, the snowpark teems with riders of all levels. A recreational track not only allows novices to cut their teeth on freestyle runs, it encourages close critique afterward: The 400-meter-long track with three jumps, eight whoops, and two banked turns is fitted with high-quality video that makes the smallest hop look death-defying. Seasoned riders and clubs tackle the more technical run that meets International Ski Federation (FIS) competition standards.
Snaking, cracking, shimmering a brilliant blue in places and covered by mystical frost in others, the Mer de Glace displays nature in all its powerful glory. France’s longest glacier stretches for 4.3 miles and is over 650 feet deep. Quite literally a sea of ice, it continues to move under its own weight; its surfaces break up, crevasses appear, and pointed columns of ice known as seracs burst from the surface. Though this glacier continues to amaze, it’s slowly being decimated by climate change—in 1988, you only had to climb down three steps to reach the ice grotto, which is carved out every spring; now, the ice has receded so much that you have to tackle 430 steps.
Fed by Chamonix’s glaciers, the Arve River cuts through Alpine mountains and under the town’s charming bridges, offering not just a screen-saver image but great adventures too. Easy-to-handle airboats provide visitors with wicked entertainment in the river’s whirlpools and rapids and group river rafting means every call, paddle, and shift in position determines how you will navigate the Class II rapids. The silt-laden river flows into Geneva, Switzerland, where it meets the blue Rhône River to produce quite a remarkable contrasting image.
Les Houches bills itself as Chamonix’s go-to resort for families. And nothing encapsulates its relaxed, enjoyable atmosphere more than its outdoor ice rink. Located in the heart of the village, this popular spot not only provides a beautiful backdrop of Mont Blanc (check out the late-afternoon illuminations), it’s also free to use. Once the last shards of crimson glow have left Europe’s famous mountain range, skaters carve along under the stars—as late as 11 p.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays, with music playing throughout. Note: The rink is open from late December through the end of March, and ice-skate rentals cost € ($3.50).
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