Hiking France’s Grand Balcon Sud

Sally O’Neal and husband Mike Coleman on the Grand Balcon Sud.
Sally O’Neal and husband Mike Coleman on the Grand Balcon Sud.

Chamonix, France, has long been associated with alpine skiing. It was the site of the first-ever Winter Olympics in 1924, and remains a “bucket list” ski destination today. Epic runs such as the 11-mile Vallee Blanche draw experts from throughout the world. But Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, as the village is also known, due to its proximity to the tallest mountain in Western Europe, is also a world-class destination for hikers. In the summer of 2015, I checked out of few of the nearby trails, including the Grand Balcon Sud, or Grand South Balcony.

Grand South(-facing) Balcony
The Grand Balcon Sud is so named not because it lies on the south side of the Chamonix valley, but because it faces south. And the view to the south is decidedly sublime. Here, the Mont Blanc massif, the largest glaciated domain in the European Alps, stretches before you, soaring above the town of Chamonix. The Aiguille du Midi (literally, Needle of the South) pokes its slender finger 12,605 feet into the air. The Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice), the longest glacier in France, stretches over four miles down the mountainside. And of course, there is Mont Blanc, rising majestically to 15,778 feet in elevation. By taking a leisurely and affordable lift from the valley to either end of the hike, you can bask in the grandeur of the jagged, snow-covered peaks and feel like a mountain goat for a modest effort.

The hike described here is a little over three miles long and relatively flat. It gains (or loses, depending on the direction you choose to go) only about 350 feet net. It is rocky in places, and there are some ups and downs along the way. Hikers should wear appropriate shoes and plan to spend a couple of hours.

Some stretches of the hike are rocky.
Some stretches of the hike are rocky.

Logistics And Getting Started
You can do this hike in either direction, but starting at La Flégère gives you the best view of Mont Blanc—without ever turning around, it is basically in your line of sight for the entire hike. This direction gains net altitude, but the impact on the difficulty level is negligible. There is a lift at either end; buy a round-trip ticket and explain that you will be doing this particular hike.

Starting from La Flégère means you need to get from Chamonix to the hamlet of Les Praz (not to be confused with Planpraz, which is the other end of the hike) and catch the lift. Free buses run from Chamonix to Les Praz, or it’s a pleasant 45-minute walk along the Arve River.

Atop the lift at La Flégère, head downhill from the lift station, turn right under the gondola cables, and look for the sign toward Planpraz (not Les Praz – you just came from there!)

The Hiking Experience
The star attraction of this hike is the jaw-dropping, non-stop views of Mont Blanc and its massif. But the appeal also includes wildflower meadows, huckleberry bushes, forested groves, and sweeping vistas over the Chamonix valley. You will pass winter-only chairlifts along the way, and it’s easy to imagine this area covered in snow with all of the lifts buzzing and skiers swooping down the hillsides.

The trail’s footing is basically good, mostly dirt paths, but some rocky stretches and some areas where you walk along service roads. Occasional signs will help you stay the course (look for Planpraz or, if hiking the other direction, La Flégère) and, as throughout Europe, white-and-red blazes help you know that you are on the trail. Or at least some trail. A bit of route-finding is all part of the European hiking experience. Have some sort of map with you, and rest assured that this is a popular trail and you will probably have company as you suss out your route to Planpraz. Note that Planpraz is the midway point on the Le Brévant lift line; other trails go to Le Brévant, but you want the Planpraz lift.

Whether you end at Planpraz or La Flégère, you can enjoy (as I did) a celebratory beverage and another look across the valley at the splendid alpine scenery!


Top Photo: Stunning vistas abound throughout the entire hike.


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