This past week, 4-9 December, I traveled to Chamonix, France, where I met with American Trail Running Association (ATRA) corporate member, Run the Alps and its owner Doug Mayer. I’ve been to France many times (see my articles about wine-making and visiting the Pyrenees), but never Chamonix. This mountain town in the French Alps, near the border of Switzerland and Italy, is regarded as one of the most important trail running destinations in the world. It offers stunning views of Mont Blanc and the surrounding peaks and hosts some of the world’s most prestigious trail races. Chamonix’s most famous race, the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) attracts over 40,000 runners to the Chamonix valley at the end of August/the beginning of September. Other classic races in or near Chamonix include the Dents du Midi, Trail des Aiguilles Rouges and the Marathon du Mont Blanc.
I arrived in Chamonix during its “off-season,” early winter, when snow and ice cover many of the trails, yet there is not enough snow to ski. During my trip, I discovered several reasons that the “off-season” is actually one of the best times to experience the trail running capital of the world. Listed below are four reasons you should consider planning a trip to Chamonix in its “off-season.”
Snowshoe on Uncrowded Trails
During summer months, Chamonix’s trails can be packed with trail runners, while during the winter months slopes are crowded with skiers from around the world. Snowshoeing in the “off-season” is one of the best ways to experience Chamonix’s mountains without the crowds.
You can rent a pair of snowshoes from Intersport in downtown Chamonix and venture into the mountains where you might not see a single person. You can hike up to places considered inaccessible to normal hikers (be sure to ask the office of tourism about avalanche risk and other dangers in the mountains). You can also snowshoe in ski resorts that haven’t opened for the winter season, which is a great way to avoid backcountry dangers and arrive to high mountain views. Several options for snowshoeing around Chamonix are listed below:
Contact Run the Alps
Run the Alps offers a variety of guided and self-guided trail running tours in Chamonix and across Europe. They partner with one of Europe’s most reputable travel companies, Alpinehikers, and brands such as Salomon, Ultimate Direction, Patagonia, and Trail Runner Magazine. Many of the tours are offered in summer months, but custom tours can also be arranged at any time of the year. Contact Run the Alps for more information here.
Dine, Shop and Go to Festivals
Although many of Chamonix’s shops and restaurants are closed from the summer until the start of the ski season, there are still many shopping and dining options in the “off-season.” During my trip, I enjoyed a “chocolat chaud” (hot chocolate) at the Galerie Café des Aiguilles and a tasting of cheese, charcuterie, and genepi, at a regional products specialty store. Depending on when you arrive in Chamonix, you may have the opportunity to attend local celebrations or festivals in the area. From late November to Christmas Day, towns across France host “Marchés de Noel” (Christmas Markets) with music, dancing, traditional French Christmas foods, and regional products. Just after leaving Chamonix, I attended a Marché de Noël in the nearby city of Annecy, France.
Enjoy Trail Running at Lower Elevations
Chamonix’s most picturesque and famous trail running takes place on higher trails, above 2,000 meters (6,500 feet), which encircle the Mont Blanc Massif. These trails may be inaccessible in the “off-season,” but there are still many fantastic trails at lower elevations in the Chamonix valley. These trails are likely to be uncrowded, which makes running them even better. Several possibilities to consider are: