The Tour du Mont Blanc is the world’s quintessential hiking trip, 8-13 days through Italy, France & Switzerland.

CRA Travel Ideas Explored

By Larry Olmsted

This is part of an ongoing series. In the original feature I explain why you sit down and map out a multi-year travel plan to make sure you get to see and do all the things that are most important to you. Read this guide, “Why Right Now is the Best Time to Plan Your Travel Bucket List” here.

In this follow up series, I present 30 different curated Once in a Lifetime experiences and destinations for you to consider. Obviously everyone’s dream list will be different, and whatever it is that you feel you really want or need to do should be at the top of your list, but with the help of experts and my 25-years experience as an award-winning travel journalist I’ve put together some great highlights to consider. Each day I’ll present a different option:

The Tour du Mont Blanc

Hiking the Alps
Emerging above the clouds – there’s a charming ski town hidden in the valley beneath them. LARRY OLMSTED

Why? Hiking is a great way to see some of the most beautiful parts of the world, at a pace that lets you fully appreciate it, stopping to smell the roses, and makes the celebratory meals that much more enjoyable and well-earned. Hiking is also one of the few forms of sport-specific active travel that requires no special skill set – you don’t need to know how to mountain bike, scuba dive or ride a horse, you just need to be able to walk.

Most hikes in the world are day hikes, from a couple of hours to a long full-day. At the opposite end of the spectrum are classic long-distance hikes, like the Appalachian (AT) or Pacific Crest Trails, which take months – and usually a sabbatical – to complete.

A stone building that has a sign on a rock

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Passport control? The borders between France, Italy & Switzerland are marked by rock towers high in Alps.

But for vacationers, the perfect destination hike is a week or two in length, enough to warrant getting on a plane and seeing some amazing scenery but short enough to fit in a normal American vacation time frame.

Of hikes this length, there are a handful of really famous ones around the world, but many experts have rated the Tour du Mont Blanc, or TMB, the very best. Having recently done it and having also done some of the other acclaimed ones, including summiting Kilimanjaro (overrated) and getting up to Machu Picchu (overcrowded), I can concur. Usually when anything is rated best in class, I go half expecting to be disappointed, as highly touted trips face the stiffest challenge in terms of living up to lofty expectations. With the TMB, it was even better than I expected, and I expected a lot. In a word, awesome.  

Hiking the Alps
Well worn footpaths wind past one stunning view after another on the TMB. LARRY OLMSTED

Where? In the heart of the Alps, Mont Blanc is the highest summit in Western Europe, or what most of us think of Europe period (not Russia). It sits near the three-country border of Italy, Switzerland and France, and unlike a Kilimanjaro, the goal is not to get to the top (which is dangerous and requires technical climbing sills). Instead, the Tour du Mont Blanc, which used to simply be called the circumnavigation of Mont Blanc before it became a big thing, is a loop that completely encircles the snowcapped peak, on foot, walking through all three countries and over a number of stunning alpine passes.

While the TMB is a marked trail, like the AT, it offers several options and extra sections along the way. Depending on route and outfitter selected, the loop takes between 8-13 days, though that typically includes shortened arrival and departure days.

It is hard to describe how awesome the scenery is, with lots of glaciers, long distance vistas, tumbling streams, sudden emergence above the clouds over deep valleys, classic ski towns and chalets, ridges, meadows, wildflowers. There’s a little bit of everything, but a lot of what I imagine as quintessential hiking when I close my eyes and say the world: a clear narrow worn cinder or dirt trail snaking up and over the next ridge and the one after that.

It’s much easier to describe the cuisine of these three countries – utterly delectable and even more satisfying after a long day of hiking (be prepared, this is a challenging trip and these are fairly long days!). The tri-border region has a melding of cultures, and you’ll find alpine staples like fondue pretty much everywhere, but then there are clear distinctions – drop into Italy’s posh ski town of Courmayeur and the local specialty is polenta (and killer gelato!) while over in France’s Chamonix, you’ll find the melted cheese signatures like raclette and “salads” adorned with as much cheese and sausage as greens. Along the way there are great local wines, cold draft beers, charming villages and gourmet picnic lunches eaten in idyllic spots, plus the occasional break for coffee, soup or adult beverage in one of the local refugios, gourmet takes on mountain huts unlike anything we have in North America.

Hiking the Alps
Off the grid snacks are surprisingly abundant throughout the Alps. LARRY OLMSTED

There are people who do the TMB self-supported and camp each night, but in this manner you not only do a lot more hard dirty work, you miss out on much of the charm of the towns. The more typical way is to do it with a guided, supported group. With expert guides you never have to read maps or worry about getting lost (easy to do), you learn a lot more about everything from geology to history to cuisine, and at the end of every day, instead of pitching a tent, you get shuttled in a van from the trailhead to a hotel in town and a real bed and real shower. The better the tour operator, the better the hotels and meals and guides. The other big advantage is that they move your luggage, and all you need to carry each day is water, layers, lunch and if you want, a camera.

Who to Use? National Geographic Expeditions has carved out the top spot as the best operator for this trip, and secures the best lodging in each town, including great luxury hotels where available, cherry picks top restaurants, provides excellent picnic spreads, and most of all, has wonderful guides. The absolutely charming mountain town of Chamonix, where just about all versions of the TMB begin and end, is the birthplace of mountaineering, and as such, is home to the oldest and most distinguished mountain guide organization in the world, with very high standards and lots of testing. Several top tour outfitters employ guides from here to lead trips, but going further, Nat Geo contracts with a couple of lead guides to do only their trips, all of them, all season (spring to fall) so they always have the same great guides, and having gone with them (after much research), they were fantastic.

Chamonix is one of the world’s greatest mountain towns, and the start and finish of the Tour du Mont Blanc. AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

Also, while most guided tours include lodging and guides, other things are up for grabs, and Nat Geo doesn’t skimp, including everything from meals in standout gourmet restaurants to round trip transfers from Geneva, where just about everyone doing the TMB arrives.

The next best players offering very similar itineraries with a little less luxury polish are REI Adventures and Mountain Travel Sobek, both extremely respected outdoor adventure travel companies.

Travel Agents: When planning these kind of Bucket List trips I always recommend using a good travel agent or travel advisor. In addition to making sure you get it right, they can often save you money or get you upgrades and more bang for the buck. For more on why you want to use a travel agent and how to go about it, read my earlier article on this topic here.

Article Credit to Forbes.