Mer de Glace & the little red Montenvers Train
Round trip takes about 3 hrs
The Mer de Glace is something I had overlooked for the best part of 10 years. Who’d take a slow train up a mountain when you can high-speed ski down one? Plus I’d had enough of speed-adverse trains and dirty underground tunnels in London. So nothing about a train ride glacier tour seemed remotely appealing or holiday-esque. But at the end of this winter, when faced with creating an itinerary for visiting family, I had one Chamonix morning left to fill. The Mer de Glace was my only option and thank goodness it was, because it is now one of my favourite day trips this year.
- 2.5 - 3.5 hours
- Good walking shoes
- A small snack
- Your camera
- An extra layer in case you get cold
The sea of ice - the story
The Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice) is France’s largest glacier. It is 7km long, with a surface area of 40 km2 and it descends from an altitude of 3900m (at the point where the Leschaux, Le Tacul and the Talèfre glaciers converge) down to 1400m. It was first discovered by two English explorers (William Windham and Richard Pocock) back in 1741 and was only accessible by mule until 1908. That is when the little red train was built and the site finally opened up to the general public. It has since become one of the world’s most visited natural sites.
The tour takes around 3 hours, longer if you fancy a lazy lunch up there, so it’s perfect as a morning or afternoon activity. We visited in the morning which meant we were finished well before the heat of the midday sun, which can be important, for reasons you’ll discover later on. Quick parking tip, if you are driving there, leave your car in the free parking next to the train station, or at the Amusement Park. Both are free and not as busy (or costly) as Chamonix central.
The little red Montenvers train
The little red train is a rack and pinion railway, which quite literally claws its way up the mountain. It takes you from Chamonix town all the way up to the Montenvers site at 1913 meters above sea level. You’ll pass through alpine forests and mountain tunnels with epic mountain views of both the Chamonix valley and the surrounding mountains. The train normally departments about every 20 minutes or so, a bit like the Gatwick Express, but much more fun, reliable, and clean. At the top you will arrive at the Montenvers site which is a tiny little train station, quite literally, the end of the line, where you will find a gift shop, an incredible restaurant and the starting point for your Sea of Ice journey. From this starting point you can take in the glacier views, head straight to the restaurant, or take a gondola cable car down to the ice caves. You can also enjoy the free Crystal Museum.
The Free Crystal Museum
Chamonix has (and I did not know this) a long history of crystal collecting from the surrounding mountains. The Crystal Gallery offers a quick taster of some of these incredible gems that have been discovered in the region (some of them the size of a small avalanche). The gallery itself is dug out of the mountain rock and a quick walkthrough gives you the chance to look at an amazing collection of rare and beautiful specimens such as quartz, amethyst, and pink fluorite. It takes just a few minutes and is on the way to the viewing point.
The Glacier - stage 1
Next take a short walk from the train station (or Crystal Gallery) to the viewing point where you can take in panoramic views of the Mer de Glace. You can see what feels like 10 kilometers of glacier running through the valley of mountain ranges. You can also watch the skiers arriving at the end of the Vallee Blanche having descended down from the Aiguille du Midi (one of the most famous off-piste skiing experiences in the world, but as the glacier has now retreated they have to walk the latter stages). We found we just sat here for quite some time taking it all in. It’s not often you essentially sit next to a bloody great glacier so, what’s the rush.