Where to Go Trail Running in the Alps From a Local Guide
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Enter the Rarified Air of the AlpsThe Alps are Europe’s most extensive mountain range, stretching across 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) and eight countries. Sprawling through just France, Italy, and Switzerland are over 100,000 kilometers (62,137 miles) of paths, many of which have been used for over a millennium. In the Middle Ages, the trails acted as trade routes connecting secluded hamlets scattered across the range. A more contemporary example is in Italy, where WWI soldiers would spend weeks, or even months, hiking in the Dolomites on ancient footpaths. In modern times, many of those traditional villages have transformed into tourist hotspots known the world over. Unassuming old trails and mule tracks leading to them are now premier sporting attractions, celebrated by hikers, bikers, and a new kind of wayfarer—trail runners.
Trail running in the Alps—a sport for everyoneFor many mountain-loving people, the Alps are the quintessential high-altitude landscape thanks to a history of adventuring that dates back to the 1700s. The range has traditionally been the domain of mountaineers and skiers at higher elevations, and of hikers and mountain bikers on the lower-lying paths. However, trail running has sprinted onto the scene. Let me offer some explanation. Combine dirt trails that are perfectly suited for running, an abundance of routes, along with an extensive system of huts and chalets, and you’ve got yourselves a pastoral paradise where there’s always new areas to explore and exciting challenges to conjure up. Further, trail running has grown immensely in the last two decades, attracting millions of runners worldwide with its appealing focus on endurance over speed, along with low physical and financial requirements.
Why Alpine runners go nuts for the hutsI arrive at the hut with sinking energy that’s matching the movement of the sun—and look forward to the warmth and shelter. I greet those who arrived before me soaking in the last bit of light and head inside to find the keeper. The rustic ambiance, wooden bunk beds, and friendly locals are just what one needs after a long run. I eat my hot meal, often starting with soup and cheese, and think about the day ahead. I go over the route, the weather, and finally our lodging for the following night. The huts are reasonably well equipped, with basic amenities such as running water, blankets, and cooked meals, which is great for trail runners who want to travel light. The hut system in the Alps is sprawling and impressively connected, allowing you to travel to the most remote parts of the range and still have a place to stay for the night.
My Recommendations for Where to Go Trail Running in the AlpsFor me, trail running and the Alps go hand in hand. While growing up in England, I was always an avid hiker and road runner, but my identity on the trails really grew when I moved to Chamonix. I first fell in love with the town when I visited as a part of a youth climbing expedition. The beauty of the place simply blew me away, and deep down I knew my return was inevitable. I started leading trail running tours during the summer months—from the Tour du Mont Blanc to casual day trips, and became hooked on the numerous competitions held in the area. There’s hardly a big trail I haven’t left my footprints on. If you’d like to know which ones are my favorites, you’ve come to the right place.
1. Chamonix, France
Chamonix trail running on Grand Balcon Sud and Aiguilles RougesFirst, we have Grand Balcon Sud. This beginner-friendly trail runs along the eastern side of the Mont Blanc massif, offering views of the area’s peaks and glaciers. You can take a lift up and do the relatively flat traverse, or if you want more of a challenge, you can skip the lift and opt for the 900-meter climb. The trail starts at Planpraz, the departure point for excursions to Lake Cornu and Grand Balcon Sud, and winds its way along the mountainside, passing through Alpine meadows and rocky outcrops. It’s a classic hiking trail in Chamonix that should not be missed. Then there’s the Trail des Aiguilles Rouges—a brilliant option for more experienced runners. The trail winds its way through the Aiguilles Rouges nature reserve, with panoramic views of the Mont Blanc massif and the Chamonix Valley. The terrain is varied, with steep ascents and descents, technical singletrack, and is quite remote, making for a challenging but rewarding experience. Chamonix has more to offer than just world-class trails right outside your door. The community in the area is welcoming and supportive, often cheering runners on during races. For me, the all-women trail running camps in Chamonix and Courmayeur are a perfect testament to how strong the community bond is.
Chamonix might not be the birthplace of trail running, but it’s one of its brightest stars. The valley’s unique balcony trails and running events are drawing people in from far and wide.
– Emily Geldard
1. Chamonix, France - Good to Know
Chamonix’s trails have terrain typical of the Alps. Below treeline you’ll find grippy and consistent soil, while above there are more gravel paths with larger rock fields every now and then.
Because of the system of gondolas and the variety of trails, you can do everything from a one-hour run to a multi-day, staying in mountain huts along the way.
Chamonix is at 1,037 meters (3,396 feet) and my favorite options go up to about 2,500 meters (8,284 feet).
To get to Chamonix, most people fly to Geneva, which is about an hour drive away. Alternatively, you can take one of the local trains to make a connection to Geneva, Paris, or other major European cities.
Chamonix has something for everyone, and all of the best trails are easily accessible. Trams and lifts mean you can quickly gain elevation, or descend at the end of a long run.
Chamonix’s long history of trail running makes it a popular destination, so the trails can become busy—especially during the last weekend of June and last week of August, when the biggest races occur.
The Refuge du Plan de l’Aiguille, just underneath the Aiguille du Midi mid-station on the south side of the valley. It’s a difficult hike up, but the fruit tart makes it well worth the trip.
2. Tour du Mont Blanc
Running in the Alps is meditation in movementDuring my first summer guiding, I ran the Tour countless times and I’ve kept coming back to it over the years. I have to say, its position as a classic in the trail running world is completely deserved. Probably my favorite part is coming back into the Chamonix Valley from Switzerland, with beautiful framed views of Mont Blanc welcoming you after an exhausting journey. The runner-up (pun intended) would be the section of the Tour between Rifugio Bertone and Rifugio Bonatti in Italy. That section consists of a flowing dirt trail that goes along the side of Val de Ferret, with the awe-inspiring east face of Mont Blanc staring at you from the opposite side. As a cool alternative to this classic route, I’d highly recommend The Grand Bernese Oberland Traverse, a multi-day cross-country running trip in the Alps.
I love experiencing the distinct cultures, food, and scenery of France, Italy and Switzerland all in one long run.
– Emily Geldard
2. Tour du Mont Blanc - Good to Know
The terrain on the TMB varies from riverside forested trails to alpine meadows. Each day offers something new.
Each day on the TMB is generally between 25 and 30 kilometers (15 to 19 miles) with a start around 8 or 9 AM and arrival around 3 or 4 PM. Breakfast at the hotel, snacks while running, and a coffee break at a hut along the way are enough to keep me going for the day.
Elevation on the trail varies from 810 meters (2660 feet) at Saint Gervais, France to 2537 meters (8323) at Grand Col Ferret, Italy.
Most hikers start and end their hike in Chamonix, which you can get to by train, car, taxi, or shuttle. If flying in, Geneva is the closest airport at just an hour away.
Running the TMB is a serious undertaking best suited for advanced trail runners, but in my opinion it’s well worth the effort.
Given the Tour’s popularity, handling the logistics on your own can prove a great challenge. Going with a guide eliminates the hassle. I also recommend training with poles because you’ll be doing steep ascents and descents throughout.
I’d recommend stopping by Rifugio Bertone and Rifugio Bonatti. They both have great local food to offer and beautiful terraces to enjoy your meal on.
3. Zermatt, Switzerland
Other Zermatt trails for chasing that Alpine highAnother memorable trail is at Gornergrat. You can take the Gornergrat Railway to 3,089 meters (10,135 feet), and as soon as you step off the train you will see panoramic views of the Matterhorn and surrounding peaks. I would recommend going from Gornergrat to Riffelsee and Riffelberg. It’s a short but scenic run—a mostly downhill 5-kilometer (3.1 miles) trail. If you get lucky, you might catch a glimpse of Matterhorn’s imposing fin reflected in Lake Riffelsee. Finally, there’s the Gorner Gorge. This narrow and steep-sided gorge is a beautiful setting for a trail run. The route includes wooden walkways under snowy peaks and bridges over rushing waters. Such a pristine vision of Alpine life is enough to make you stop dead in your tracks and soak in the views. Overall, Zermatt is an ideal destination for people who want to combine the resplendent beauty of the Swiss Alps with the kick of trail running. Note that the area is also quite popular among MTB enthusiasts, many of which consider it the peak of mountain biking in Switzerland.
Zermatt is an excellent option for picture-perfect runs under the watchful eye of the Matterhorn.
– Emily Geldard
3. Zermatt, Switzerland - Good to Know
Due to its higher elevation compared to Chamonix, Zermatt has more open rocky fields and sheer faces.
Some of my favorite runs are quick two to three hour bouts from the Blauherd or Blatten lift, but with more free time there are plenty of six-to-eight-hour runs to enjoy.
Zermatt is quite high up at 1,610 meters (5,300 feet) and has a very mountainous feel.
Zermatt is famously car-free, and can only be reached by train, taxi, or helicopter. If driving, you can leave your car parked in Täsch, but getting there by train is best.
Zermatt’s system of trams and lifts make the area accessible, and the high elevation means it’s great for more challenging endurance runs. Most hikers and runners are visiting for the awesome views.
Unlike Chamonix, Zermatt’s trails have few hikers and trail runners. The town is expensive and can get busy, so plan ahead, budget well, and always know there are remote trails nearby.
My favorite spot is the fairly remote and uncrowded Berggasthaus Trift hotel, where they make their own traditional tea.
4. Grindelwald, Switzerland
Go for convenience and culture in GrindelwaldI’ve had some of my favorite runs on the Panorama Trail from Männlichen to Kleine Scheidegg, and the trail from Grosse Scheidegg to First (pronounced in German, not like the English cardinal number)—both beautiful and easy routes that provide sweeping views of the glacial features the Grindelwald Valley is known for. Another popular option is the wide and smooth gravel path to Lake Bachalp, which cuts across a landscape punctuated by U-shaped valleys and glistening waterfalls. For more advanced runners, the Hardergrat Trail offers a thrilling ridge line run with endlessly Instagrammable views of Lake Brienz, one of Switzerland’s finest. Last but not least, we have the Eiger Trail—a classic every runner should try. The path works its way through an open meadow, undergoes a series of steep uphills, then finally drops down to the Eiger Glacier.
The unique train system in Grindelwald opens so many possibilities for trail runners. That’s what keeps me coming back trek after trek.
– Emily Geldard
4. Grindelwald, Switzerland - Good to Know
Grindelwald is set in a long and fairly shallow valley, but it’s walled in by steep and dramatic peaks like the Eiger, Wetterhorn, Mettenberg, and Reeti.
I love to gain some elevation on the traditional train lines in the area and go for shorter, smooth runs. I also love to run between Grindelwald and neighboring towns like Interlaken or Lütschental.
Grindelwald itself is at 1,030 m (3,380 ft). Kleine Scheidegg sits at 2,061 m (6,762 ft) and the Eiger at 3,967 m (13,015 ft).
The closest airport to Grindelwald is Zurich, about 2.5 hours away by car or 3 hours by train.
Grindelwald is another town with great lift and tram infrastructure. I think it’s the perfect place for beginner trail runners, but there are tons of options for more advanced runners as well.
If you want to run between towns, you can purchase a ticket for your baggage to be dropped off at the town of your choice and pick it up at that train station.
Grindelwald and its neighboring towns are very traditional farming areas, so you can find loads of local cheeses for sale outside of people’s homes.