Mer de Glace
The Mer de Glace – the sea of ice – is a huge, snaking glacier right above Chamonix. It’s the 2nd largest glacier in the Alps (next to the Aletsch), and one of the biggest tourist attractions in the Chamonix region. It’s worth it. A cogwheel train leaves from behind the main train station to Montenvers station up near the snout of the mighty Mer de Glace glacier. The train ride itself is very nice, and at the top you have gorgeous views (of course) as well as a hotel and restaurant, a small crystal exhibit (crystal hunting being one of the first commercial activities that really got people up into the mountains), an exhibit on glaciology, and access to a cave cut into the ice.
The hotel and restaurant were renovated in 2017, and are quite nice. If you’d like to spend a night high above Chamonix, this would be a good choice. It’s easy to get to, very comfortable, and at night you get to enjoy the views away from the daytime crowds. Prices are comparable to a 4 or 5-star hotel, so this is not a simple hut, even if they do refer to themselves as the Terminal Neige Refuge. See their website for info. The terrace at the Panoramique restaurant there is gorgeous, with an earthy elegance. Make time for lunch.
The ice grotto in the cave is probably the best attraction here though. It needs to be carved fresh each year due to the moving ice – glaciers move like rivers afterall, just in very slow motion. In addition, the Mer de Glace has been retreating rapidly, as are glaciers throughout the Alps. Years ago, this wasn’t the case. From the 1300’s to the mid-1800’s, Europe was gripped by “the little ice age”, repeated cycles of heavy winter snows and cold summers that had glaciers growing throughout the Alps, and the Mer de Glace reached all the way to Chamonix! In 1825, the village of les Bois was evacuated due to the 40m tall wall of ice bulldozing toward the village, and the cave on the valley floor was a popular tourist attraction until 1873.
Years of warming and retreat brought the glacier up to it’s present location, and it continues to retreat 4-5m each year. Even 30 years ago, when you got to Montenvers station, the glacier was very nearby… a few steps away. Now it is so far below the station, a cable car has been built to take you there, and a separate walkway (with 430 steps) has also be constructed down to the ice. Of course, the longer you wait, the farther away it gets, and projections put the glacier’s snow another 1.2 km away 20 years from now. The ice grotto has a small entrance fee (you can buy a combined ticket when you take the train), and inside they have ice sculptures to add to the interest.
See the Montenvers train website for details. Round-trip adult price is currently 31.50 €. There can be a wait in summer, so go early or book in advance online, although booking in advance is not required at all.
The Mer de Glace is a great hike as well. Perhaps one-way. You can easily take the train to the top, and then a short cable car down to the glacier, see the glacier, and then start walking down. The trail is actually quite delightful, winding around through the old lateral moraine wall below the glacier, an area forested with larch and pine.
This is a great activity for a hot, sunny day. You may want to linger in the ice cave just to keep cool. But since views of the glacier are impressive in any weather, a visit to the Mer de Glace is also a good idea on a cloudy or even rainy day.