The Walker’s Haute Route (WHR): Hiking Chamonix to Zermatt

Looking for the trail that connects the most famous French Alps town with the most famous Suisse Alps town? The Walker’s Haute Route is the one you want. Taking you from Chamonix, France to Zermatt, Switzerland, it uses a combination of trail segments that crosses glaciers, meadows, and high passes. With the high-altitude trails there’s no shortage of views to be had along the way.

Walker's Haute Route

Quick Stats of the WHR

Distance: 115 Miles

Elevation: 40,000 Feet

Highest Point: Col de Prafleuri at 9,700 Feet

Start: Chamonix, France

End: Zermatt, Switzerland

Average Time: 8 - 12 Days

Fastest Known Time: 20h 26m 32s

Hiking Season: Mid - June through Mid - September

Trail Overview

The Walker’s Haute Route is a popular trail for international trekkers in the alps. The trail is suitable for anyone who is in shape and has some decent backpacking experience.


Although popular, this trail remains much less populated than the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) that is also based out of the Chamonix area.


The WHR and TMB do share a section of the same trail between the Chamonix and Champex section so you can expect larger crowds and more crowded refuges and campsites in that area.

July and August are considered peak season however passing through in early July or 2022 I didn’t feel any crowd to the trail and was left mostly with a secluded backcountry feel.


Which way you go is only a matter of your schedule and preference. From what I’ve read and my experience people tend to start in Chamonix and end in Zermatt but it wouldn’t make any difference.


Both cities have excellent transportation and connected via SBB (Suisse Rail System).


Geneva is the closest airport but there are other options as well including Milan which is a major hub and close to Zermatt.

Walker's Haute Route: Chamonix to Zermatt

Hiking & Route Conditions

The hiking season is contained between mid-June and mid-September because of the melting snowpack that makes the trail dangerous earlier in the season and the snow that begins to cover the trail in early fall.


The route is majority trail but also contains plenty of gravel or paved road sections mixed in, especially closer to towns.


The trail is well marked but not continuously marked all the same. For example, none of the trail markings will allude to it being the ‘Walker’s Haute Route’ but typically sections will have the French GR trail markers of the white and red paint.

As far as the route goes, there are many alternate options and it should be thought of as walking from Chamonix to Zermatt. Trying to stick to a singular official path would be mind boggling especially going in and out of towns that essentially have endless options of trails that get you to the same spot.


Food & Resupply

You’re hiking in Europe so you know the food is going to be hitting great. The trail passes through many towns and villages so don’t expect to lose too much weight on the journey.


Refuges will serve all meals and if you’re staying at the refuge breakfast and dinner will already be included in your room and board price. They all serve wine at a great price and beer at a reasonable price.


Outside of refuges you’ll come across many different restaurants, hotels, and bars.

In terms of resupply, you can by provisional supplies from the refuges and do main resupply in any of the towns that you pass through. Denner is a popular supermarket option that can be found throughout the trail.


Due to the relatively close proximity between towns, your resupply should be no more than two days of food. Everyday will consist of a big climb and keeping pack weight down will be essential.


Here’s a list of each town I did a resupply in:

Chamonix (Start)

Champex

Arolla

Les Haudères

Zinal

St. Niklaus

Zermatt (End)


Even if you take 12 or even 14 days to complete you can see that this is 7 places spread throughout the trek and you can get by carrying 2 days or less food at any time.

Huts & Camping

The great part of this trek is that is can be extremely versatile for your sleeping desires.


Whether you’re trying to stay in a hotel every night, a refuge every night, camp every night, or mix it all together you can plan it out on the Walker’s Haute Route.


Refuges range in price but typical half pension room and board is about 70 euros per person, per night. This comes with sleeping bunk, shower, dinner, and breakfast.


If relying solely on refuges make sure to reserve in advance online, most require advanced reservation even if they are not fully booked.


You can do this by googling the refuge name and looking for their dedicated website. For example, Cabane de Mille.

Unfortunately for this hike there is no centralized booking system. Mostly because it’s spread across numerous counties and parks that are not in connection to each other unlike on the Tour du Mont Blanc.


Hotels can be booked just as easily and operate in any main towns along the way.


Camping is an adventure in itself along this trek and comes with a variety of options depending on which section you are at.


Wild camping is technically not allowed in Switzerland from what you hear but as long as you are in true backcountry areas practicing LNT principles it’s standard along the route.


There are many designated campgrounds in the towns that I would recommend if your schedule puts you in those towns at the end of your day.

The best way to find official camping is to check the AllTrails or GaiaGPS online maps for camping symbols. Popular in-town camping was in Chamonix, Arolla, Les Haudères, Zinal, Zermatt, and other towns as well.


I would also recommend some of the incredible backcountry spots along the way. These are harder to plan but you’ll get use to spotting them on the side of the trail.


Maps & Guides

As mentioned before, there’s not exactly one official route for the Walker’s Haute Route so finding maps that are all conclusive on the same route is difficult.


My best advice is to use a collection of sources and put together what you want and what will work for you.


As far as an online GPS map, I found the AllTrails map to follow the standard route well but excludes exciting pieces that other maps might include as their standard route.

The best and most popular paper map used is the National Geographic Walker’s Haute Route which can be found on Amazon here.


When I hiked I used GaiaGPS, photos of a Nat Geo map I borrowed, and the AllTrails map to piece together the trek that worked for me.

There are only a few differences between the Nat Geo and the AllTrails which I’ll list here:


1. After leaving Chamonix and passing Col de Balme AllTrails follows the standard TMB route to Champex which goes through Trient. The Nat Geo route uses the TMB alternate route, Fenetre d'Arpette which is more scenic as it’s closer to the glaciers of the Mont Blanc Massif.


2. Leaving Champex the AllTrails route stays above Orsières, goes into Sembracher, up to Cabane du Mont Fort, then over towards Lac de Dix. The Nat Geo makes a large alternate off this route through Orsières, up to Cabane de Mille, over to Cabane Brunet, over the suspension bridge of Passarelle De Corbassière, then down to town of Fionnay and up to Cabane de Louvie before intersecting with the other route.


3. Coming out of St. Niklaus and into Zermatt the AllTrails route uses an entirely low-altitude route near the train and roadway. The Nat Geo uses the Europaweg which is a higher-altitude path into Zermatt. (Disclaimer: The Europaweg path has been rerouted to a lower-altitude path coming out of St. Niklaus due to land-slides. There is now a new Europaweg trail at a much lower altitude.)

Final Tips & Knowledge Shared

  • Be flexible with your plan, if things end up taking longer many people will use the rail system to skip a section


  • Be prepared for long ups and even longer downs. If you’re not already in good hiking shape you’ll probably want to keep it to a single climb and descent a day which will work out to about 10 miles of hiking


  • Expect all weather conditions – I hiked through a little fresh snow in mid-July after that storm a Zinal so anything is possible along the route


  • Carry plenty of cash but card is accepted most places including the refuges


  • Water sources are plentiful and good along this trek. Snowpack melt leaves high-altitude sources flowing well into August and all refuges and towns have potable fountains.


  • Try to save a couple days free before and after to explore Chamonix and Zermatt. Both of these had great campground options for less than 20 euros a day which is a steal compared to any other accommodations in those towns.


  • The Europaweg closure was a total nightmare to come across. If you’re planning on hiking the St. Niklaus to Zermatt section, get detailed route instructions from refuges beforehand and do not use the high-altitude Europaweg trail that maps show going to the Europa Hut.

My Itinerary

I hiked at an accelerated pace but this can give an idea of what to expect and what a faster-pace may look like on this trail.


Day 1

Miles: 0

Elevation Gain: 0


I was staying at Camping Arolles in Chamonix for a couple days before starting the WHR and resting up after finishing the TMB the week before.


Even though I could have taken an alternate route from Chamonix to Champex, the route mostly followed what I had just hiked a couple days ago on the TMB. I was also meeting some friends hiking the TMB that would be in Champex so rather than retracing my steps, I decided to take the SBB rail from Chamonix to Champex.


This wasn’t exactly direct but got me as close as Orsières which then didn’t have any busses running up to Champex for a few hours.


Trying my luck with a hitch, a nice Suisse family gave me a ride in their Audi and I met my friends at Lac Champex for an afternoon of relaxing. They’d be hiking the Fenetre d'Arpette TMB alternate tomorrow and we all camped at Relais d’Arpette just outside of Champex.

Day 2

Miles: 25.5

Elevation Gain: 9,869

GPS Route: GaiaGPS Track


Hiked back to Champex stopping at my favorite Boulangerie (French bakery) located at the north end of the Lake for breakfast. I was here just last week on the TMB so was happy to be passing through again.


Leaving Champex I followed the paths down the hillside and through Orsières and proceeded on an uphill that would take me half the day.


Topping out around 9,000 feet I stopped at Cabane du Mille for lunch.

Making my way onwards it didn’t feel like long until I reached Cabane Brunet with a lively crowd outside having food and drinks at the picnic tables.


Hoping to make great progress on this first hiking day I kept moving and crossed the suspension bridge of Passarelle De Corbassière which passes directly in front of a massive glacier.


The trail is quite beautiful descending around the slopes after crossing the bridge and then descends a long way to Fionnay.


Extremely exhausted I stopped in the town square to fuel up before the last climb of the day to Lac Louvie.

Lake Louvie Lac Louvie Switzerland

This was my favorite place along the WHR and unfortunate that the standard route only sees this lake from above.


I ended up passing Cabane de Louvie and stealth camping on the other end of the lake.


Such an incredible night of watching the sunset and waking up to the most perfect milky way scene.

Day 3

Miles: 18.9

Elevation Gain: 5,801

GPS Route: GaiaGPS Track

I got an early start and ascended above the lake as the sun was rising. The two routes meetup just before reaching Col de Louvie.


This section was one of the toughest terrain hiking days due to the glacier rock field you hiking through. It’s easy to temporarily lose the path because the trail is all rock but I would look further in the distance and see a large white and red paint splash on a rock and set course.


This whole section is up close to glaciers that have been receding rapidly.


Cabane de Prafleuri didn’t look lively when I passed around noon so I made the next climb up and Lac des Dix came into scene.

It’s a long flat walk on a gravel road to get to the other end of the lake but made for a nice break from the tough rocky terrain all morning.


The last climb of the day was a drag on my worn body from yesterday’s big elevation but some of the best scenery looking into the glacier peaks nearby.


The climb up to Arolla has two options at the very end. The first is a steep option with a rope or chain to help get you over.

Arolla Ladders

The other is a section of iron ladders built into the cliffs above the moraine. It’s a huge adrenaline rush!


Even getting to the ladders is a very sketchy path with a lot of landslides that drop down a few hundred feet steeply.


Getting over the cliffs via ladder you meet up with the rope path and begin the descent to Arolla through a ski area.


I found the town of Arolla to be spread out annoyingly for hikers because the couple restaurants and shops are a mile above the campground of Arolla.


Luckily, I found a great hotel restaurant down the street from Camping Arolla called Hôtel-Restaurant de la Tsa and was able to ride out a brutal thunderstorm inside.


Day 4

Miles: 21.7

Elevation Gain: 7,508

GPS Route: GaiaGPS Track


Day 4 was dreary AF from start to finish. I chose to road walk out of Camping Arolla because other paths would only go up to come back down to the road.


I also missed the trail that led off the road to Les Haudères so stayed on the road a bit longer before getting a path that shot straight down into town.


There was a Denner grocery store in-town so my breakfast and resupply were taken care of with that.

In typical alps fashion the town was all the way in the valley around 5,000 feet elevation and Col de Terrent would be a 4,500 foot climb with no break.


I could see the thunderstorms rolling over my yesterdays path and hoped that’s where they would stay.


The path down from the Col was a speedy wide track that passed some abandoned looking farm houses before bringing Lac de Moiry into sight.


Like Lac de Dix, this was a dammed water source but this time the trail would be going over the actual dam.


On the approach the rain really picked up and became torrential crossing the dam. Luckily there was a café at the other end for tourists and I sparred no time getting in to get warm.


Last climb of the day was right after the café and led to a big ski resort on the backside of the mountain. I could see the town of Zinal from the top but could tell it would be a long way down.


Zinal was a good size town with some restaurants and bars as well as a large grocery store.


There is a campground about a mile out of the way in town so I chose to stealth camp in the park that’s just before town.


Day 5

Miles: 18.0

Elevation Gain: 7,603

GPS Route: GaiaGPS Track


It was a good weather day which was key after yesterday’s cold rain. Relaxed time leaving Zinal in the morning which then turned into a major climb.


Backside was a large hill down with some great glacier views and you could see everywhere above 8,000 feet had a couple inches of snow from last night’s storm.


I ended up missing a cut-through trail and used the road to get to Gruden. Right where the trail heads out of Gruden and up Augstbord Pass I found a nice hotel restaurant with outdoor patio dining.


This was the first time in Switzerland that the language was not exclusively French – I think it was a Suisse-German dialect. Anyways, I had chicken wings (thought I was ordering chicken tenders) and fries and plenty of Sprite.


Unfortunately, this didn’t sit well the second I started the 5,000 foot climb in the mid-afternoon sun.


The backside of this pass was some of my favorite scenery with rocky meadows and deep valleys with towns below.


When I got to the point of descent towards St. Niklaus I was exhausted and decided to wild camp on the ridge for the night.

Day 6

Miles: 18.7

Elevation Gain: 6,527

GPS Route: GaiaGPS Track


St. Niklaus was a good town to resupply and have a break with their restaurant and café options.


Leaving town, I was expecting to climb up to the high-altitude Europaweg trail and end up at the Europa Hut for night.


Unfortunately, there were no trail closure signs and I made the 5,000 foot climb out of town only to get a trail closure sign and turn back down.


The entire trail was washed out by landslides and impassible. The Nat Geo map was not updated for this and the proper trail is a NEW Europaweg which is only a few hundred feet climb coming out of St. Niklaus.


The trail ultimately led to the main highway headed towards Zermatt but I wanted to see the Charles Kuonen Suspension Bridge so ended up climbing back up to that point the next morning.


Day 7

Miles: 13.7

Elevation Gain: 4,146

GPS Route: GaiaGPS Track


There was a huge thunderstorm last night and woke to completely socked in conditions. I had slept in a flat area on the climb up to the Europa Hut.


In the morning I finished the climb to the bridge but in the cloudy drizzle I couldn’t even see the end of the bridge.

The weather progressed through the morning and found the final day to be quite relaxing and nice hiking with minimal elevation, mostly quick ups and downs which added up but no large climbs.


This section was also quite interesting hugging cliffs, through tunnels, and with chain-assisted climbs.


I imagine you get better views of Matterhorn towards the end of this hike but it wasn’t until I was almost sitting on top of Zermatt that I even noticed it was behind the clouds.

Europaweg

After the couple days of rain and pushing the fast paced hiking schedule I was just ready to enjoy some town food and relaxation in the Zermatt campground.


The final entrance to Zermatt is one of the best views of Matterhorn if you can get it without clouds!

Zermatt Materhorn Sunset

Hope you enjoyed this guide and as always drop a comment or hit my socials @secrethike with any questions!

 

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