The Alps stretch 1200 kilometres from France, Germany and Liechtenstein in the West, through Switzerland and Italy to Slovenia and Austria in the east, with its thousands of fairy-tale, snow-capped peaks, huge glaciers, hidden valleys, high passes and the cultural diversity of its inhabitants – arguably Europe’s most outstanding trekking destination.
As well as providing a spectacular back-drop to many a trek, the peaks of the Alps also attract climbers and mountaineers. Mont Blanc (4810m) is the highest mountain in the Alps and is also the highest peak in Europe west of Russia. Other famous summits include the Eiger and Matterhorn.
Tourism in the Alps first started in the mid-19th Century and today literally millions of people a year come to the mountains to enjoy all sorts of activities such as walking, climbing, snow sports, specialist pursuits like paragliding and whitewater rafting and some come just to look at the awesome views.
There’s a wide range of accommodation to choose from for your alpine holiday. To make it easier for us to explore this superb mountain range, there is a vast network of mountain huts, so you don’t have to go back down to the valley to sleep each night. Known as Doma, Hütten, Refuges or Rifugi, depending on the country, huts can vary in standard from a four-person unmanned tin shed, to a 200-man near-luxury hotel with gourmet food. The norm is dormitory accommodation with a hearty three-course evening meal and breakfast before you leave.
If you do fancy a few more luxuries and a wider choice of post-trek eating and drinking options it’s best to base yourself in a mountain resort such as Chamonix where there are hotels of all comfort levels and numerous lively café, bars and restaurants.
If you don’t like the idea of sharing dorms with strangers, you could try a one-night stay before committing yourself to several weeks! Start with a night in the Lac Blanc refuge above Chamonix – a beautiful setting, and not too far for your first foray.
If you like that, then try one of the many classic hut-to-hut routes – such as the Tour of Mont Blanc (passing through France, Italy and Switzerland over 10-11 days), the Haute Route (Chamonix to Zermatt, 13 days), or one of the scores of lesser known routes (such as a 4-day circuit in the Vanoise National Park, France).
Advance planning is the key to any trip. Firstly, you have to decide whether you want an organised trek or whether you’d prefer to be independent. Many companies run hut-to-hut trekking trips where all of the organising is done for you: no transport to worry about; hotels and hut bookings sorted; no map reading – as there is a qualified guide to keep you safe; a sensible and feasible route planned for you; and baggage transfers so you carry as little as possible.
If you do decide to do it yourself, then it’s important to make your hut bookings months in advance: especially if you’re travelling in July or August. Read up on your trip in advance – Cicerone do some great guidebooks to most of the hut-to-hut trekking routes in the Alps. The majority of the huts also have websites.
With an excellent network of well-marked trails and great cable car and chair lift access to the high ridges, the Alps make a great holiday destination for walkers of all abilities. You can choose a centre-based holiday where you strike out from your base each day or go for a point-to-point walking route where your luggage is moved on between night stops by vehicle.
Probably the Alps most famous point-to-point trek is the Tour du Mont Blanc, a circuit around the iconic mountain which most walkers take around ten days to complete, allowing for a couple of rest days.
Walking routes in Europe are often well signposted – but not always! You should come equipped, able to use a map and compass and be prepared for sudden changes in weather. As the mountains are much higher than in the UK, some of the paths cover steep, exposed terrain. It’s also quite common to come across fixed equipment, such as chains and ladders, to enable you to cross rocky steps and small cliff bands. If you are going in June, then some of the routes may still have a lot of snow cover, particularly on passes over 2,500m. It’s not unusual for snowy patches to remain well into July, so an ice axe could be a good idea.
When to go
Go in June to September to beat the crowds. If you do choose more expensive accommodation, this is a good time, as quite luxurious ski chalets can be just a third of the price in the summer!
Whatever you choose, the Alps won’t disappoint: a warm welcome, excellent food and wine, pure mountain air, and hiking through some of Europe’s most majestic landscapes – it’s an intoxicating mix that will no doubt see you return again and again.
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