» Located: Haute Savoie, France
» Number of inhabitants: 10,000
» Altitude: 1034m (city center)
» Special features: In good weather in high season, Chamonix attracts 100,000 visitors a day
The Chamonix Valley is located in the northeastern part of the French Alps. On the east side of the valley is the Mont Blanc area, on the west side the Brevent and Flegere (where many ski slopes can be found) and to the north is the Col de la Forclaz and the Swiss border. Chamonix is best known for the Mont Blanc: the tallest mountain of the European Union. The valley has been inhabited for centuries, but it was only after the first successful ascent of Mont Blanc in the 19th century and the subsequent tourism that it became known and prosperous.
But also in earlier times people came to Chamonix, first monks and later Napoleon himself. Today, the city is visited by hundreds of thousands of people every year. On busy days there are more than 20,000 tourists in the city. There are also many campsites and hotels in Chamonix.
The funicular to the Aiguille du Midi is the biggest draw, as this is where the Mont Blanc is the closest you can get without actually climbing it. But the Brevent and Flegere, opposite Mont Blanc, also attract many tourists, as does the train to Montenvers and the Mer de Glace.
Argentiere is located a little further north in the valley and offers more space for winter sports and is also quieter. Argentiere itself is about 200 meters higher than Chamonix and has its own large funicular, leading to the Grand Montets, with views over the other dominant mountain in the Mont Blanc area: the Aiguille Verte.
This cable car costs only ~30 euros return and is much quieter than that of the Midi. Parking is also free and you can decide for yourself how long you stay upstairs. From the cable car (or of course from the village itself) you can make the trip to the Argentiere Glacier. This one is spectacular!
Chamonix: the city
The facilities in Chamonix follow the crowds: many people provide many facilities. At times it can get really busy in Chamonix, making parking spaces difficult to find. There is however a good entry into Chamonix by train from Martigny (Switzerland) and Saint Gervais in the main valley below.
The city center of Chamonix is cozy and interspersed with restaurants and nice shops. Its a typical tourist city center, with souvenir shops and special purpose shops such as outdoor-shops. Notably The North Face has a presence in Chamonix-Mont Blanc: good for the collectors item of the local North Face T-shirt.
Other notable outdoorshops are Patagonia, Decathlon, Snowleader, Salomon and Snell Sports.
Chamonix: getting there
There are basically 2 ways of getting here: by car or by train. Chamonix has no airport.
By car, you can enter from 3 directions: either from France with the Autoroute du Mont Blanc which transitions into the N205. This route is open year-round and is a main artery for traffic as it enters the Mont Blanc Tunnel which leads into Italy.
That’s direction 2: coming from Italy through the Mont Blanc tunnel. An expensive tunnel, but it defeats the alternatives. All the alternatives mean going through option 1 (N205) or option 3 (Switzerland) and all require hundreds of kilometers of detour.
Direction 3 is most suitable if you come from Germany or Switzerland: over the Col de la Forclaz and the Col des Montets from Martigny. You can also take the train from Martigny. This is very recommendable: it’s a beautiful trip.
The other train-alternative comes from the west side: the train station of Saint Gervais-le Fayet. The small city of Saint Gervais is actually located further uphill, however the trainstation is named after it anyway.
Chamonix: Staying here
This is one of the biggest tourist destinations in France, year-round. The options for staying in Chamonix reflect every budget and every wanted luxury (or the lack thereof). Hundreds of apartments, hotels and lodges. For hiking and climbing, I limit myself to campsites.
Quite close to the Chamonix-center you can find Camping Arolles. A small camping, beautifully located and within walking distance of the city center.
Just south of the city, there are multiple campings: Camping les Marmottes, Camping des 2 Glaciers, Camping des Ecureuils, Camping Les Verneys and Camping les Cimes Chamonix. Further down the road towards Les Houches you can find camping Le Grand Champ. In Les Houches you can find the (quite basic) camping Bellevue.
All campsites near Chamonix are located in the valley and thus are at the same or equal elevation. Argentiere is at 1200 meters, where Les Houches is slightly below 1000 meter. In night time temperatures, this hardly makes a difference.
Climate of Chamonix Valley
The climate in the Chamonix valley is shaped by 2 important factors. Namely the elevation and location of the valley. The higher you go, the colder and wetter it gets. At the top of Mont Blanc, almost all precipitation falls as snow. This includes the summer precipitation. The average temperature at the Mont Blanc summit is no less than 23 degrees lower than in Chamonix itself.
Argentiere is also slightly colder than Chamonix, but this difference is only 1 degree. From an altitude of 2500 meters, the area is considered to be snow-sure in winter, above 3200 meters, almost all precipitation falls as snow in summer.
In Chamonix there is about 900 mm of precipitation per year, in the mountains this can be more than 2000 mm. However, the local differences are substantial, and not much data is known about precipitation and temperature at higher elevations.
The location, or better yet, the orientation, also has its role. The valley of Chamonix is oriented north-south. On the east side is the Mont Blanc massif, and on the west side the Brevent & Flegere. In winter, the sun is relatively short on the horizon. Thanks to this location, the valley is slightly cooler (in winter) than can be expected purely on the basis of the altitude and clearly cooler than, for example, Bourg Saint Maurice which is exposed to the south (in an east-west oriented valley).
In the valley, the maximum temperatures in summer (june-september) 20C. July is the warmest month, with an average maximum temperature of almost 25 degrees C. Not too bad, at 1000 meter elevation. With almost 9 hours of sunshine per day, it feels much warmer still. It doesn’t get cold in the nights in summer: an average low of about 10 C should be assumed.
Winter is different: the average maximum in the coldest months (December and January) is close to 0 C. Nigh temperatures drop to -8C on average.
Bear in mind that these are average values, and only for the valley floor. Further up the mountain, or further north in the valley (towards the Col des Montets), the climate gets colder. Montroc, at almost 1400 meters, is below zero on average in December and January.