Nestled at the base of Western Europe’s highest mountain, Chamonix-Mont-Blanc is truly the quintessential French alpine town. Dubbed the adventure capital of France, Chamonix-Mont-Blanc is a playground for year-round mountain adventures. But you don’t have to be a skier, hiker or extreme sports enthusiast to enjoy a trip to Chamonix. This chic French mountain town truly offers something for everyone from the cliff jumping paraglider to the gourmand.
In fact, we’ve been traveling to Chamonix for nearly a decade now and we have yet to actually ski the slopes of Chamonix-Mont-Blanc ski resorts. So what exactly is it that keeps us coming back to Chamonix time and time again? There’s simply no place else like it. With the 4,807 meter (15,777 feet) high Mont Blanc majestically towering over the town, the scenery of Western Europe’s highest mountain is unparalleled. And beyond the breathtaking scenery, there’s a lot to do. So much so, that we continue to discover something new – to us, that is – on every all too short trip.
Obviously, the star of Chamonix-Mont-Blanc is the soaring Mont Blanc itself. But you don’t have to be a mountaineer to experience one of the world’s most famous mountains. The famous red cogwheel train, the Montenvers Railway, was the very first tourist attraction built in the Chamonix valley and it’s been making Mont Blanc accessible to tourists since 1908.
The red cogwheel train chugs up a steep incline on the sides of the Aiguilles de Chamonix to an altitude of 1913 meters. Passengers are delivered to the Mer de Glace (meaning Sea of Ice), which is France’s largest glacier spanning some 7 kilometers in length and 200 meters deep. The Montenvers Mer de Glace is undoubtedly one of the best things to do in Chamonix year round.
Things to Do at the Montenvers Mer de Glace
Chamonix’s Mer de Glace is much more than a viewpoint over France’s largest glacier. In fact, you should plan for a minimum of 5-6 hours to complete the Montenvers Mer de Glace trip from Chamonix. You have a choice of activities at 1913 meters, which aren’t all obvious especially given that the site is currently undergoing a large scale renovation until 2026. So what is there to do at the Mer de Glace?
Petit Train du Montenvers
It was two English explorers, William Windham and Richard Pocock, who first discovered the Mer de Glace in 1741. As early as 1802, the Mer de Glace was drawing visitors who would make the journey to see this natural site via mule. But the easiest and most accessible way to reach the Mer de Glace came in 1908 when the opening of the now iconic red rack railway made the glacier accessible to the masses.
The Train du Montenvers runs on a rack and pinion (or cog) railway. Starting at 1035 meters in Chamonix, it takes just 20 minutes to chug along the steep incline for 5.1 kilometers until it reaches the top station of Montenvers at 1913 meters.
It runs on a single track, and pauses about halfway up to allow the descending train to pass. The cars of the electric train have windows that open, letting the fresh mountain air in as the train chugs uphill through forest and tunnels. The journey itself is an enjoyable one with beautiful views – sit on the left-hand side when ascending and the right-hand side descending back to Chamonix.
The Montenvers train departs every 30 minutes. To save time and avoid the queue at the station, it’s best to purchase a flexible return ticket online in advance. You can use the mobile ticket or print it out and go directly to boarding.
The Viewing Platform
Arriving at the top station Montenvers at 1913 meters, you’re immediately impressed by the dramatic views from the large viewing platform. You can look out over the Mer de Glace, and are also immediately struck by how much you can see that the glacier has receded. Up until 1820, the glacier could even easily been seen from Chamonix itself. But it has steadily retreated since, with the vast rocky moraines a visual testament to this.
You can also take in the unmistakable double peaks of Les Drus, the 3754 meter Grand Dru and the 3730 meter Petit Dru.
The Ice Cave
The Mer de Glace Ice Cave is a must-visit. Every year for more than 50 years now, an ice grotto has been meticulously carved in to the Mer de Glace. It’s a unique opportunity to step around 100 meters inside the largest glacier in France and the second largest glacier in the Alps.
Each year the Ice Cave closes annually for the month of October while the cave undergoes maintenance and new ice sculptures are caved out.
Once upon a time, Mer de Glace extended right up to the Montenvers top station. From departing the train, you could reach the snout of the glacier in just a few steps. In 1988, a cable car was installed to take visitors down to the snout of the rapidly shrinking glacier.
But like the train ride up to Montenvers itself, these days reaching the Mer de Glace Ice Cave is a journey. There’s still the short cable car ride from the viewing platform down toward the glacier. But in 1988 when the cable car was installed, it took a mere 3 steps from the cable car to reach the ice cave. These days, visitors must descend down more than 580 steps via a series of staircases and walkways. Because of this, it’s not possible for visitors with limited mobility or in a wheelchair to reach the Ice Cave.
Note that the stairways and walkways are metal grating, so if you’re visiting with your dog like we did with Coco, then its best if you’re prepared with dog shoes. Dog shoes will help prevent your pup catching and tearing a nail on the metal grating.
It only takes around 10-15 minutes to reach the Ice Cave from the cable car. But take your time and note the various placards along the way down indicating the Mer de Glace retreating more than 2 kilometers since 1850. It’s perhaps the most visible example of the irreversible effects of climate change in France, especially with the Mer de Glace receding at a record rate in the past 30 years.
As part of the major renovation project I mentioned, at the end of 2023 a new cable car will replace the existing one along with the stairs and walkways. But as the question remains as to what can be done to reverse or even slow the trend, the renovation very well may follow a similar pattern of 3 steps, then 50 and more than 500 just as the current cable car has since its installation in 1988.
The Glaciorium is a small but informative space dedicated to all things glaciers. Visitors will find interactive displays about the formation of Mer de Glace, signs of climate change in the past century and the evolution of the glacier’s future.
A glaciologist is also regularly on hand giving talks throughout the day about the Mer de Glace. Questions are more than welcome and the talks are presented in both French and English.
There are some trails at Montenvers. Visitors can hike from Montenvers to Plan de l’Aiguille via the Grand Balcon Nord trail, or hike back down to Chamonix via Les Planards or the village of Les Bois.
Lunch at the Mer de Glace
You can visit the Mer de Glace in around as short a visit as 2.5 hours outside of the busy summer months. But most visitors make the most of the spectacular views of Les Drus and the Mer de Glace by lingering over a lunch at Montenvers. There are several options at Montenvers.
Bar des Glaciers
For a quick bite, head to the Bar des Glaciers on the panoramic viewing platform. There’s a small selections of pastries, sandwiches and drinks including locally brewed beer.
Restaurant du Montenvers
The Restaurant du Montenvers offers a lunch menu of Savoyard dishes like cheese and charcuterie platters, fondue and tartiflette alongside stunning views of Les Drus.
If you’d like to take a hike along one of the trails of the Montenvers, you can also order picnic baskets to go from the Restaurant du Montenvers.
Staying at Mer de Glace
It is possible to stay in Montenvers. The legendary Refuge du Montenvers opened in 1880 and has been witness to mountain climbers, famous artists and even authors and poets like Lord Byron. Nestled at 1913 meters, the Refuge du Montenvers is only accessible by train.
Though the historic refuge still offers dormitory style beds for hikers or those on a budget, it has largely been transformed to offer an cozy stay in the rooms and suites. The rooms and suites all has sweeping mountain views, have ensuite private bathrooms and an understated luxurious feel of yesteryear with its wood paneling and old-fashioned yet comfortable furnishings.
All stays are on a half-board basis with dinner at the Restaurant du Montenvers for guests. Dogs are welcome and there is a €15 fee per night per dog. The train ticket is not included in the rate.
Visiting Mer de Glace with a Dog
The Mer de Glace is just one of the things you can do with a dog in Chamonix! Well behaved dogs on a leash are welcome on the Petit Train du Montenvers, on the cable car and in the Ice Cave, the Glaciorium and the Refuge du Montenvers.
Mer de Glace is a fun visit with your dog, and they will appreciate the cool temperatures inside the Ice Cave on a hot summer day. As previously mentioned, be sure to take care that your dog can either be carried down to the Ice Cave or wears dog booties to protect their nails and pads from the metal grating of the stairways and walkways.
The Bar des Glaciers offers dogs water bowls and there are some water bowls located around the panoramic viewing terrace. But we always recommend having your own water on hand whenever traveling or doing any activities with your dog. Either carry a collapsible travel bowl or a dog travel water bottle with built-in bowl.
And as always, be sure to be equipped with poop bags to clean up after your pet.
Know Before You Go
The Petit Train du Montenvers is open year round, with the exception of an annual closure for maintenance each October. Verify the time table online in advance of your visit for the opening hours and last descent from the summit.
Our trip to Montenvers Mer de Glace was in partnership with Chamonix-Mont-Blanc in order to bring you this story. However, Luxe Adventure Traveler maintains full editorial control of the content published on this site. As always, all thoughts, opinions, and enthusiasm for travel are entirely our own. This article contains affiliate links. When you shop on Amazon or book on Booking.com through our affiliate partner sites, we earn a small commission at no additional cost to you.