The Mer de Glace is one of the most visited natural tourist sites in France. It is located on the largest glacier in France, in the ski resort of Chamonix Mont-Blanc. The famous ice cave can be reached by the Montenvers train or on foot.
History of the Mer de Glace
The Mer de Glace was discovered in 1741 by William Windham and the naturalist Richard Pococke. The two English friends went to visit the ice houses in the Chamonix valley, ignoring local superstitions that they were the haunts of demons.
When William Windham saw the glacier, he saw the sea, which had frozen suddenly due to the presence of an icy breeze.
The Mer de Glace, formed by the Leschaux and Géant glaciers, is known to be the largest in France. With a length of 7 km, its surface area is 40 km² and its thickness is 200 metres.
The development of the Montenvers esplanade in the 1880s
In 1880, the Grand Hôtel du Montenvers was inaugurated. The first tourists converged on the site, accompanied by mules and sedan chairs. Then in 1882, the cog railway project was launched.
But the Chamonix people were not in favour of this construction, which they feared would denature the valley and have repercussions on the work of the guides and muleteers, whom they wanted to protect. Nevertheless, the railway line was built and opened on 9 August 1908 as far as Le Caillet.
Since then, the arrival at Montenvers has been improved. In 2025, a different esplanade from the one we know will be inaugurated. The aim of the work? To rethink and enhance this listed tourist site in the face of the impact of global warming.
A glacier facing global warming
Although the landscape aspect has long been emphasised on the Montenvers esplanade, the players in the area are now refocusing on the heritage value of the site. This is due to the increase in temperature and the ever-increasing retreat of the Mer de Glace. It must be said that in 25 years, the glacier tongue has retreated by 800 metres. It has also lost 100 metres in thickness.
This change has forced the world of high mountain tourism to adapt. For example, themountaineering season has shifted in recent years from May to June. Until then, it took place in July and August. As for the Mer de Glace cave, its future remains in doubt. The new cable car leading to it will allow hikers to get closer to the major routes on the massif once the ice is gone.
France 3 Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes
What to do at the Mer de Glace ?
The Mer de Glace is a very popular tourist site. We therefore recommend that you go at the very beginning or end of the season, in order to avoid the crowds. Please note that during the peak season, waiting times to access the site can be doubled.
Discover the ice cave
The ice cave, which is redesigned every year, allows you to travel to the heart of the glacier. It highlights the life of mountain dwellers at the beginning of the 19th century. Accessible via a cable car, it is also possible to go down on foot, via a footpath. It takes about twenty minutes to walk down.
For those who prefer the cable car, bear in mind that there are 580 steps between it and the entrance to the cave. So make sure you wear suitable footwear. You should also bring warm clothes, as the temperature drops considerably.
Visit the Glaciorium
The Glaciorium is an interpretation centre dedicated to glaciology. Its objective is to explain to visitors how a glacier works, from its formation to its progression through its ecosystem. As these expanses of ice are indicators of the climate, the centre also looks at the consequences of global warming. A part of the Glaciorium is dedicated to the human settlement around the glaciers.
Sleeping at the Montenvers refuge
The Montenvers refuge was built in 1880. It is situated at an altitude of 1,900 metres and overlooks the Mer de Glace. The whole place was renovated in 2017. The refuge now has 17 rooms for 1 to 10 people. You can also enjoy the restaurant Le Panoramique. Pets are allowed.
From 226€ per night.
Eat at the restaurant Le Panoramique
The restaurant Le Panoramique is worth a visit. Renovated in 2016, the restaurant is decorated in the style of a dairy, while being revisited in a more industrial style.
Le Panoramique is open in season and you can enjoy the terrace or the indoor room overlooking the Mer de Glace. I promise you won’t be disappointed.
Getting to the Mer de Glace
There are several options if you want to go to the Mer de Glace. From the sporty hike to the family hike via the Montenvers train, the possibilities are numerous. The choice will depend on your expectations, but also on your physical condition.
The Montenvers train
Less athletic people and families with young children can take the Montenvers train to reach the Mer de Glace.
The train departs from the centre of Chamonix, at an altitude of 1,035 metres. You will reach the Montenvers station, located at 1,913 metres, in 20 minutes. On the way, you can enjoy the view of the mountains.
This small rack railway, known to everyone in the valley and beyond, runs on a gradient of over 9%. Improved as railway technology has evolved, the Montenvers now has electric locomotives. In the 1990s, this small train could accommodate over a million passengers a year during the peak season.
If you should take it, don’t hesitate to go and talk to the driver. You may well learn some anecdotes and secrets about this popular means of transport for holidaymakers and mountaineers alike.
An extra tip: book your ticket before your journey. This way you can avoid long waits, especially during the summer holidays. Don’t hesitate to leave early in the morning either. Not only will there be fewer people, but you’ll also get a better view of the mountains.
Hiking the Grand Balcon Nord
The Grand Balcon Nord is a family hike with a positive difference in altitude of only 171 metres. To reach the trail, take the first section of the Plan de l’Aiguille cable car. Then follow the path indicating “Montenvers Mer de Glace”. Just before the last descent, you will overlook the Mer de Glace and be able to admire the view of the Drus, the Grandes Jorasses or the Aiguille Verte.
Even if the trail is well maintained, we recommend that you wear mountain boots or trainers with a minimum of grip, such as those for trail running. Also, don’t hesitate to bring sticks, especially if you tend to have sore knees.
Distance: 5.7 kilometres Verticalrise: 171 metresVertical fall: 549 metresTime: 2 hours 15 minutes
Extra tip: remember to book your return ticket for the Plan de l’Aiguille. You can then take the Montenvers train on the way down, which will save you time.
Walk up from Chamonix
The last alternative to reach the Mer de Glace is to walk up from Chamonix Mont-Blanc. This is a good option if you are sporty and used to hiking. Indeed, the route has a positive difference in altitude of 900 metres for a short distance.
This means that although the forest landscape can be pleasant, particularly in summer, it is better to be well-poised. All the more so as the flat sections are more than limited.
Duration: 2 hours 30 minutes for the ascent.
What to do around the Mer de Glace?
Chamonix is not only about the Mer de Glace and the Montenvers train. There is a wide range of tourism options in the ski resort, which is considered the capital of mountaineering.
Extend to the Aiguille du Midi
If you decide to go to the Mer de Glace via the Plan de l’Aiguille, take the opportunity to go up to the Aiguille du Midi. Once at the top, you will have the chance to see the Mont-Blanc up close.
Don’t hesitate to try the Pas dans le Vide, a glass cage above the eternal snows. Sensations are guaranteed, especially for people who are prone to vertigo.
For a complete visit of the Aiguille du Midi, allow between 2 and 3 hours, including the journey. Don’t forget to wear warm clothes and appropriate footwear, even in summer, and take sunglasses.
Hike to the Chéserys and enjoy the view
Another possibility is to go hiking. Although there are many routes in Chamonix, we can only recommend that you go up to the Chéserys lake.
There are 4 ways to get there: from the Col des Montets, Argentière or Les Praz. You can also choose to take the Flégère cable car. You will have, from the lake, a nice view on the Mer de Glace. Do not hesitate, then, to continue to the Lac Blanc.
An extra tip: leave very early in the morning or at the end of the afternoon. In addition to enjoying the sunrise or sunset, you will avoid the many hikers present on the trails during the day. You will also have a better chance of seeing some ibexes on the way.
Visit Chamonix Mont-Blanc
A stay in Chamonix, whether short or long, would not be successful without a visit to the village. Between the Alpine Museum, the Crystal Museum, the restaurants and the golf course, there is plenty to keep you busy.
And for families, we recommend a stop at the Parc du Merlet, where your children can meet the local wildlife.
And for those looking to relax after a long day of hiking, we suggest a visit to the QC Thermes de Chamonix. Relaxation and recovery guaranteed! And if you’re looking for tourist accommodation for your holiday in the Alpine resort, you’ll be spoilt for choice.