Grand Balcon Nord Hike: Best Direction, Hiking Stats, Photos & Tips
The Grand Balcon Nord is a scenic trail that overlooks Chamonix and its surrounding mountains. From one end of the trail, you can see the white peak of Mont Blanc emerging from the clouds. At the other end lies Mer de Glace, the largest glacier in France. The Grand Balcon Nord hike is one of the best things to do on a visit to Chamonix.
This hike is typically done point to point, with Plan de l’Aiguille and Montenvers being the end points. It’s a great hike in both directions. There are advantages and disadvantages to each direction, which we will discuss later in this guide.
On this hike, you can also add on a visit to Aiguille du Midi and/or a visit to the Mer de Glace ice cave. Doing this turns this experience into one very long but memorable day in Chamonix.
In this guide, we cover what you need to know to hike the Grand Balcon Nord Trail, how to add on the Mer de Glace ice cave, and how to plan your experience.
Table of Contents
Grand Balcon Nord Hiking Stats
The hiking stats below are for the Grand Balcon Nord Trail, from Plan de l’Aiguille to Montenvers, plus the quick detour to Lac Bleu. In this direction, it is an overall downhill walk. If you do it in the opposite direction, there is a lot more elevation gain, so it becomes a moderate to difficult hike.
Distance: 6.8 km (4.2 miles) point-to-point
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Total Ascent: 235 meters (770 feet)
Total Descent: 622 meters (2,040 feet)
Lowest Elevation: 1,920 meters (6,300 feet)
Highest Elevation: 2,315 meters (7,590 feet)
Time: 2 to 4 hours
Grand Balcon Nord Hike Elevation Profile
Adding on the Mer de Glace Ice Cave
In Montenvers, you have the option to ride a gondola closer to the level of the Mer de Glace glacier, then walk down (and later back up) a long series of staircases to enter the ice cave. It’s a big addition to this hike and we didn’t think it was worth it, but here are the hiking stats so you know what to expect. I’ll go into this in more detail later in this guide.
Distance: 1.4 km (0.9 miles) out-and-back
Total Ascent: 100 meters (330 feet)
Total: 45 to 60 minutes walking time (this does not include time for the gondola ride)
Additional Information & Helpful Tips
Toilet: There are toilets at Plan de l’Aiguille, the Montenvers train station, and Refuge du Montenvers.
Tickets: Purchase your cable car ticket to/from Plan de l’Aiguille in advance because these can sell out. We were able to board the next available train from Montenvers to Chamonix.
Please practice the seven principles of Leave No Trace: plan ahead, stay on the trail, pack out what you bring to the hiking trail, properly dispose of waste, leave areas as you found them, minimize campfire impacts, be considerate of other hikers, and do not approach or feed wildlife.
Map of the Grand Balcon Nord Hike
Below is a map of the Grand Balcon Nord trail, plus the detour to the Mer de Glace ice cave, the cable car ride to Aiguille du Midi, and the train from Montenvers to Chamonix.
Grand Balcon Nord map, plus the cable car to Aiguille du Midi, the Mer de Glace ice cave, and the Montenvers train route
Grand Balcon Nord Hike: Best Direction
This hike is typically done point-to-point and can be done in either direction. There are advantages and disadvantages to both directions.
Plan de I’Aiguille to Montenvers
This is the direction that we hiked the Grand Balcon Nord trail.
If you start at Plan de l’Aiguille, this hike can be combined with a visit to Aiguille du Midi. In the morning, ride the cable car to Aiguille du Midi, spend a few hours here, and then ride the cable car to Plan de l’Aiguille. Hike to Montenvers and ride the train to Chamonix.
In this direction, you are walking away from Mont Blanc, so to see it, you will have to turn around occasionally.
But a BIG advantage to hiking the Grand Balcon Nord Trail from Plan de l’Aiguille to Montenvers is that it is an overall downhill walk, so it is easier in this direction.
Montenvers to Plan de l’Aiguille
In the opposite direction, ride the train to Montenvers. As you hike to Plan de l’Aiguille, you will be hiking towards Mont Blanc, which gives you a better view of this mighty mountain if you choose to do this hike in this direction. Once at Plan de l’Aiguille, ride the cable car to Chamonix.
In this direction, it is an overall uphill walk, with roughly 600 meters (2,000 feet) of elevation gain, so it is a lot tougher in this direction.
BEST DIRECTION: If you want the views of Mont Blanc and don’t mind doing a tough hike, then start at Montenvers and end at Plan de l’Aiguille. But if you prefer an easier hike and/or adding on a visit to Aiguille du Midi earlier in the day, start at Plan de l’Aiguille. We did it in this direction and didn’t mind periodically turning around for a view of Mont Blanc.
Grand Balcon Nord Hike
Step-By-Step Trail Guide
This trail guide is written with Plan de l’Aiguille as the starting point and Montenvers as the end point.
Getting to Plan de l’Aiguille
Plan de l’Aiguille is the middle station between Chamonix and Aiguille du Midi. From Chamonix, ride the cable car to Plan de l’Aiguille. You have the option to also visit to Aiguille du Midi, or just do this hike.
Aiguille du Midi bottom station
AIGUILLE DU MIDI + GRAND BALCON NORD HIKE: Take an early morning cable car from Chamonix to Aiguille du Midi (preferably before 8 am). A visit to Aiguille du Midi lasts 2 to 3 hours. If you add on the Panoramic Mont-Blanc cable car, add on an additional 2 to 3 hours. Ride the cable car to Plan de l’Aiguille, hike to Montenvers, and ride the train to Chamonix.
For information on what to do and how to plan your visit on Aiguille du Midi, take a look at our guide to Aiguille du Midi and the Panoramic Mont-Blanc Cable Car.
GRAND BALCON NORD HIKE ONLY: Adding on Aiguille du Midi turns this into a very long day, so it’s not for everyone. To only hike the Grand Balcon Nord trail, ride the cable car from Chamonix to Plan de l’Aiguille, hike to Montenvers, and ride the train to Chamonix. This gives you more time to hike to the Mer de Glace ice cave if you like the idea of adding that on.
Plan de l’Aiguille
At Plan de l’Aiguille, there is one mountain hut that serves food. Called Bar Plan de l’Aiguille, you can sit outside, in view of Mont Blanc, have lunch and something to drink. We ate sandwiches for lunch before starting the hike. This hut is just a short walk from the cable car station.
Bar Plan de l’Aiguille
Detour to Lac Bleu
At Plan de l’Aiguille, you have a choice to make: detour to Lac Bleu or skip it and head directly towards Montenvers. Our hiking stats include the detour to Lac Bleu, so if you choose to skip it, you will have a slightly shorter hike than what is listed.
It is an easy, mostly flat walk to get to Lac Bleu. We enjoyed it, but the lake is small and not nearly as picturesque as the views you will later get from the hiking trail, but it’s worth it for those with lots of time and energy who want to detour off the main path.
Here is the trail sign at the start of the hike. Go right to hike to Lac Bleu. Go left to skip Lac Bleu and hike directly to Montenvers.
Trail to Lac Bleu | Grand Balcon Nord Hike
On the trail to Lac Bleu
Lac Bleu | Grand Balcon Nord Hike
To give you an idea how close Lac Bleu is to the start of the hike, this is the view of Plan de l’Aiguille from Lac Bleu
From Lac Bleu, look for an unmarked trail heading down the mountain that will connect you to the Grand Balcon Nord trail, so you don’t have to backtrack all of the way to the cable car station.
On the Grand Balcon Nord Trail
As you walk to Montenvers, the Grand Balcon Nord is a gentle downhill walk, with a few short uphills here and there.
As you walk along the trail, you can look out over Chamonix and the enormous mountains on the opposite side of the valley. This part of the walk is awesome, since it is mostly flat and the views are breathtaking.
Grand Balcon Nord trail
The view back to Mont Blanc
Eventually you will reach a trail split. Both ways get you to Montenvers, but the higher trail rewards you with some of the best views of the day.
At the trail split, take the trail to the right, towards Le Signal, to take the higher, more scenic trail. You know you are on the correct trail if you end up on a series of tough switchbacks that climb the mountain. They don’t last long and this is the hardest part of the hike (and it’s worth it!).
On the switchbacks
At the end of the switchbacks, the trail continues upwards through rocky terrain. The climb is a lot more gradual now and you will be hiking on a trail made of large stone slabs. The views open up here to reveal more of the mountains all around you.
It is at this point that the trail really lives up to its name, as you are hiking high above the valley with one of the best views over Chamonix.
Another view looking back at Mont Blanc
Approaching Le Signal
Once you reach the top of the climb, you are standing at Le Signal. From here, you can see Mer de Glace snaking its way into the mountains. Below is the Montenvers Refuge, the train station, and the gondola to the ice cave.
From this point, it is a downhill walk to Montenvers. The views of Mer de Glace from this part of the trail are spectacular.
The view down to Montenvers
The view of Mer de Glace from the trail
The Grand Balcon Nord trail ends in Montenvers. Once here, you can rest your feet and get a bite to eat at Refuge du Montenvers, ride the train to Chamonix, or visit the Mer de Glace ice cave.
Grand Hotel du Montenvers
Mer de Glace Ice Cave
One of the most popular things to do in Montenvers is to hike out to the Mer de Glace ice cave.
To get here, ride the gondola from Montenvers to the glacier moraine. You will then descend farther on a very long series of staircases to get to the edge of the glacier. At Mer de Glace, you can enter the ice cave and walk into the glacier a short distance.
To do all of this (the gondola ride and the hike/stair climb), it will take about 1.5 to 2 hours. This is a big add-on after the Grand Balcon Nord hike.
Mer de Glace Ice Cave
Another view of the steps
We did it and didn’t think it was worth it. But we have also been in ice caves in other parts of the world, and earlier in the day visited Aiguille du Midi, so this became an incredibly long day. This ice cave is beautiful, but it is a lot of extra walking to get here, and you have to make sure you get back to the train station before the final train of the day.
If you have never been inside of an ice cave, it is worth it, but only if you are doing very well on time and energy. You need to make sure you get back to Montenvers before the final train of the day, or you will be hiking downhill back to Chamonix.
Montenvers to Chamonix
From Montenvers, ride the train to Chamonix. The train runs every 30 minutes with the final train at 5 pm or 5:30 pm, depending on the date. Before you go, get the updated schedule here and confirm the final train time for the day of your visit.
We had a Mont-Blanc Multipass which included this train journey. You can also purchase a ticket onsite or online using the link above.
Montenvers Train Station
About Our Experience
We started at 8:20 am with a visit to Aiguille du Midi. At 12:30 pm, we ate lunch at Bar Plan de l’Aiguille, hiked to Montenvers, and visited the ice cave. We rode the 4:00 pm train back to Chamonix.
That is a lot to do in one day. We hike very fast (the Grand Balcon Nord hike took us a little over 2 hours, including the detour to Lac Bleu), which allowed us to add on the ice cave before taking the train back to Chamonix.
To make this work, I recommend taking a 7 am cable car to Aiguille du Midi (8:20 am was the earliest we could get so that is why we started so late), which gives you an additional hour.
What to Bring on the Grand Balcon Nord Hike
Hiking shoes. We recommend wearing hiking shoes for this hike. The trail is rough and uneven in a lot of places.
Water. Bring at least 1 liter of water per person. You can also get water, or something else to drink, in Plan de l’Aiguille and Montenvers.
Sunscreen, hat, and sunglasses. Most of this trail is fully exposed to the sun, so bring along sunscreen and sunglasses.
If you are new to hiking or are curious about what you should bring on a hike, check out our Hiking Gear Guide. Find out what we carry in our day packs and what we wear on the trails.
If you have any questions about the Grand Balcon Nord Hike, let us know in the comment section below.
More Information for Your Trip to Chamonix
CHAMONIX: Get started with our guide to the Best Things to Do in Chamonix. In our Guide to Aiguille du Midi, we cover how to visit Aiguille du Midi and ride the Panoramic Mont-Blanc cable car. Learn how to hike to Lac Blanc and how to hike to spectacular viewpoints of the Argentiere Glacier.
WALKER’S HAUTE ROUTE: The Walker’s Haute Route is a spectacular multi-day trek from Chamonix, France to Zermatt, Switzerland. Learn more about this amazing journey our our Guide to the Walker’s Haute Route.
THE ALPS: In the Swiss Alps, learn about the best things to do in Zermatt, Switzerland and how to plan a trip to the amazing Bernese Oberland. In Italy, hike the best trails in the Dolomites.
ALSACE WINE REGION: Learn how to plan your visit in our 3 Day Alsace Wine Region itinerary. We also have guides to the towns on the Alsace Wine Route and how to spend one perfect day in Colmar.
MORE GREAT HIKES IN EUROPE: From thrilling trails in the Alps to easy walks along the coast, read our article 20 Best Hikes in Europe for some beautiful hiking trails to put on your travel wish list.
Read all of our articles about France in our France Travel Guide.
All rights reserved © Earth Trekkers. Republishing this article and/or any of its contents (text, photography, etc.), in whole or in part, is strictly prohibited.