Updated: Jul 24
When it comes to adventure travel, you don’t necessarily need to go plummeting out of a plane with a parachute strapped to your back to feel adventurous (although you certainly can). The Mer de Glace glacier near Chamonix in the French Alps is equal parts strenuous and glamorous. It’s a perfect outing for people who want to feel the majesty and ruggedness of the region in a more controlled environment than backcountry skiing or snowshoeing.
When you see the glacier, it’s hard not to think about what early Alpinists must have thought about such an imposing natural wonder. They were there to explore on their own accord, armed with whatever primitive climbing gear they had and sheer grit. But for the average person visiting it today, it’s much easier to experience and a heck of a lot less dangerous than it was then. Although “easier” probably isn’t the best way to describe it. The Mer de Glace is the largest glacier in France at more than four miles (six kilometers) long and 656 feet (200 meters) deep, it’s downright massive and still takes quite a lot of effort to reach the mouth of the glacier.
It should be said that this is not for the faint of heart considering the altitude in the Alps and the fact that it’s a whopping 500 steps down to get inside the glacier. And what goes down, must come up. That means you’ll be trekking back up those 500 and some odd stairs as well. The good news is, you’ll have zero guilt about all the local beer and fondue you’ve partaken in while in Chamonix.
How to get to Mer de Glace Glacier from Chamonix
The Montenvers-Mer de Glace train
The Montenvers-Mer de Glace train will take you from the main station in Chamonix almost 6,300 feet up (1920 meters) to the Montenvers railway station in about 20 minutes. This historic rack-and-pinion railway has been running since 1908 and the charming red cars still have the antique wooden slat benches reminiscent of that vintage après ski feel. You’ll inch through towering evergreens and curl around cliff-sides that overlook the surrounding mountain ranges until you reach the stone station.
There’s a gift shop, café and restaurant all at the station where you can see the stunning peaks of Les Drus (12,316 feet/3,753 meters), Les Grands Jorasses (13,795 feet/4,205 meters) and the Aiguille du Grepon (11,423 feet/3,482 meters). This is a good time to advise you to use the restroom because it is a LONG way down to the glacier and there are no facilities once you get there. You’ll get on a small gondola right outside the train station for a quick ride down to the staircase where you will begin your trek down to the base of the glacier and the entrance to the famed ice cave.
The ice cave inside the Mer de Glace glacier
If you’ve never seen the inside of a glacier, and it’s a strong possibility that most people haven’t, it is even more surreal than you might imagine. For starters, it is a shocking electric blue, like Caribbean turquoise water frozen in ice. The cave itself is well lit, unbelievably smooth and carved in wavy shapes that really amplify the spaces. They’ve laid out carpet pathways, so you don’t have to worry about slipping as you wind through the slick tunnels that open to soaring caverns.
These rooms are full of massive, hand-carved ice sculptures that reflect the latest pop culture phenomena (like the massive throne replica from HBO favorite Game of Thrones) to exhibits telling the history of the glacier and the mountaineers who first began trekking to this part of the Alps. What’s even more interesting is that every single year when the glacier reforms, the grotto must be hand-carved again by a group of craftsmen who maintain it throughout the season. It’s a true work of art each winter because the grotto has to be chiseled and redesigned based on current conditions and specifications. As you walk through, you will see other people touching the smooth ice and have the urge to do the same. It’s almost surreal.
It’s also a very eye-opening experience because you will see and hear the water dripping as the ice slowly thaws around you. It’s a stark lesson in climate change once you see how rapidly the glacier is melting.
Why you should see the Mer de Glace glacier
When it comes to transformative travel, this is one of those experiences that fits the bill. The Mer de Glace glacier, on the north side of Mont Blanc massif (a tight group of mountains), rests within a mountain range that may as well be considered endangered. It’s melting at such an accelerated rate, scientists are speculating that it will have receded completely in the next 80 years with France’s second largest glacier, Argentière gone by 2080.
Glaciologist Luc Moreau told the Guardian in 2019 that Mer de Glace is melting at a rate of 40 meters (131 feet) each year and that’s only getting worse thanks to our fossil fuel usage. That’s nearly 50 yards, half the size of a football field, that is melting every single year because of global warming. What that means for people who want to see the glacier for themselves can best be illustrated by the number of stairs you’ll need to descend to get there. In 1988, you hopped off the gondola and walked down three steps, two years later in 1990, it was 12 steps. Take a look at this timeline data compiled from Compagnie du Mont-Blanc and published in this article by New Scientist to see just how drastic it is:
1988 – 3 steps
1990 – 12 steps
2000 – 118 steps
2010 – 321 steps
2015 – 370 steps
2019 – 580 steps
In the last 30 years, the glacier has melted so fast and so much, they’ve gone from needing 3 steps to having to build 580 steps for people to reach the glacier. By the time you read this article, the ice cave may have had to be moved further up the mountain all because humans can’t seem to curb their dependency on carbon emissions.
So, how is this transformative? It gives you first-hand experience with how your behavior, along with the rest of humanity, directly affects our planet. It’s one thing to learn of global warming in school, or to hear about it on the news as some distant problem that you as one individual can’t possibly do anything about. But it’s a completely different beast to see it in action with your own eyes.
Visiting the Mer de Glace glacier, or any other glacier for that matter, shows you the ethereal grandeur of Mother Nature, and just how special this planet is. You are a tiny speck next to an incredible hunk of ice, yet we are the same tiny specks who are destroying it. Witnessing this in person, gives you a renewed sense of responsibility to take better care of the environment through your own actions.
While there will always be people who point out that flying to this destination in the French Alps only increases carbon emission, thereby still putting the glacier at risk (and they're right), the awareness and advocacy brought about by the few visitors who do see the glacier can spread at a much faster rate than the ice can melt.
Things you need to know before visiting the Chamonix glacier
Two things: let’s just reiterate that there are no facilities inside the Mer de Glace. That means there are no restrooms, places to get water, or anything else you may need once you begin your descent into the glacier. You truly need to take care of everything when you get off the train, especially if you have children (or if you've had a child and your bladder just ain't the same like me). You will work up quite a sweat climbing back up the staircase and will likely need water, so get it at the gift shop in the train station.
And the other thing: while you likely aren’t going to climb over 1,000 steps unless you have relatively good mobility, we still passed a dozen or so people on the stairs who highly underestimated the amount of physical exertion it took to get back up the staircase. If you are an American, you will question why there aren’t any warning signs telling people with heart conditions, breathing problems etc. that this may not be safe for them. We are so spoiled in the U.S. by people warning us that certain activities may not be safe for those with certain restrictions. You will NOT get that here.
If you are not American, you will have likely already assessed the journey using your own common sense because you’re likely not accustomed to all the oversight. That said, if you feel like you’ve got good enough mobility, this is worth the journey. You can always stop along the stairs and take breaks if you need to (like I did), even if people have to squeeze by you.
What you should do after seeing the Chamonix glacier
Reward yourself, of course. There’s a restaurant with unbeatable views called Le Panoramique Mer de Glace within walking distance. On a sunny day, it’s an excellent place to sit outside on the patio overlooking the glacier and soak up the sweeping views of the mountain range. They’ve also got a good selection of snackable foods to enjoy, like a charcuterie board with some piping hot raclette and a tall adult beverage after your long descent to the glacier. Just be advised the service can be a little spotty (it is a touristy place after all) and the hours aren't always obvious.
More things to do near the Mer de Glace Glacier
Ashley Oñoz-Wright has been a travel writer and editor based in Las Vegas, NV for the last ten years. Her work has been featured in Manifesting Travel, Modern Luxury, Sophisticated Living, Greenspun Media Group, Vegas.com and LasVegas.com. She holds a degree in Sociology & Anthropology from DePauw University.