The Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) and the Haute Route are two of the best known multi day walks in the Alps. They both start from Chamonix, with the TMB a ~165km loop around Mont Blanc through France, Italy and Switzerland, while the Haute Route is ~210km partly through France, mainly through Switzerland, to Zermatt in the shadow of the Matterhorn.
They are both phenomenal walks, as good or better than any walks I’ve done in New Zealand, Patagonia, Georgia, Australia, Papua New Guinea, and Peru. I’d recommend doing both if you are able, and walking the TMB first, then the Haute Route. In my opinion the best parts of the Haute Route are better than the best parts of TMB, but it is less consistent than the TMB and notably harder.
Although on paper they look similar, and share stages from Chamonix to Champex, they do differ in a number of ways described below. In terms of the photos the first ones after each paragraph are from the TMB, the second block from the Haute Route.
Both are a visual delight, with seemingly endless glaciers, lush valleys, and stunning vistas. Many people only take photos on their phones but the scenery is so good I’d recommend taking a decent camera to be able to capture it properly.
They’re probably on a par in terms of the number and quality of glaciers, though the Haute Route does take you much closer (and even across) them if you stay at Cabane des Dix and Cabane de Moiry.
Both have Mont Blanc, TMB from all angles while it disappears relatively soon on the Haute Route. The Haute Route though passes by the greatest concentration of >4,000m mountains in the Alps, and ends with the incredible Matterhorn.
TMB has surprisingly few lakes, only Lac Blanc and Lac du Champex (which is also on the Haute Route), though both are quite special. The Haute Route has so many more, and with so much variety, including Lac Bleu, Lac des Dix, alpine lakes of the Grand Désert, Lac de la Bella Tola, Lac De L’Armina, and more that I can’t name.
On the TMB I stayed in refuges / rifugios / cabanes (French, Italian, Swiss names for the same things) every night. Usually set in stunning surroundings, with dinner and breakfast, and dorm rooms, they were a highlight of the walk, and different to anywhere else I’ve hiked. The Haute Route does have them as well, but there are fewer so I ended up staying in BnBs / hotels for two nights, which did offer the luxury of my own room and bathroom, but I missed the atmosphere and relatively solitude of the refuges / rifugios / cabanes. If you want to stay in hotels this is very possible on TMB, but if you’re trying to avoid them on the Haute Route it is difficult.
Related to the accommodation point the TMB generally avoids going through towns and villages, other than notably the section leading into Champex. The Haute Route goes through at least 20 towns and villages, which adds variety and fans of alpine architecture and churches will be happy, but it is a different experience. I’m not a fan of road walking, which was very rare on TMB, but common to a couple of sections of the Haute Route.
On the TMB I didn’t see any wildlife, on the Haute Route I saw ibex, chamois, mountain goats, marmots, and mountain sheep.
Both have generally well formed and clear tracks, with good signage (though Kev Reynolds guides to both are essential, don’t be the couple I came across who came without guidebook or map and got lost by the second village…). The Haute Route does have more challenging sections though, including steeper and slipperier passes to cross, more boulder fields to navigate, and the final two stages along the Europaweg are very exposed and have many roped sections. TMB actually has more ladders to climb (though they can be avoided) than the Haute Route, which just had three at Pas de Chevres, though I found these more terrifying than any on the TMB. The Haute Route has a couple of scary bridges on the Europaweg section to cross. The most exposed sections of the Haute Route are definitely more exposed, and further between shelter, than on the TMB, so you need to watch the weather forecast carefully.
Length and difficulty
The TMB is ~165km depending on whether you take the variants (which are the best parts of the TMB, though also the hardest sections) and Haute Route ~210km (again with a few variants). I worked out that I climbed and descended ~10,500m on the TMB, and climbed ~13,000m and descended ~10,500m on the Haute Route, which suggests that the TMB was harder. However I did the TMB in 8 days and Haute Route in 9 days, finding the latter considerably harder. The track is just more challenging, and the ascents and descents tend to be individually longer. Also I walked the Haute Route in mid July when there was considerable snow on some sections to cross. The highest point of the TMB is 2,532m, while several sections of the Haute Route are between 2,500m and 3,000m above sea level, where the effects of altitude were more apparent.
For reference the typical time to walk TMB is 8-12 days, and the Haute Route 12-14 days, so I was pushing things on the Haute Route, and felt it! It was the joint physically hardest hike I’ve done, with the longer 12 days Larapinta Trail in Central Australia, where I was carrying a pack 6kg heavier with camping gear and food. The rationale for walking the Haute Route so fast was that a typical stage was 5-6 hours long, so I’d be finished by lunchtime doing one stage a day (which is what most people do), but doing two stages a day, particularly on consecutive days, did result in long days. The challenge was that there are far fewer accommodation options on the Haute Route compared with TMB, so I couldn’t break up the stages more manageably.
The TMB is deservedly one of the most popular walks in the world, so expect to share the track with hundreds of other walkers, and have full or near full accommodation throughout the season of mid June to mid September. You should book accommodation at least three months in advance, preferably at least six months to get your first choices. The TMB has become far more popular than the guidebooks reference, you can no longer phone ahead a day to guarantee accommodation. I booked the TMB for the second to last week of the season three months in advance and ended up with a 37km day as everything in between was already booked…
By comparison the Haute Route was far less busy, with only two of my accommodations full when I stayed, Cabane des Dix and Cabane de Moiry. For these popular places, or over weekends, again you should book up months in advance to guarantee space. Unlike TMB, it’s likely to be a long walk to the next option if your first choice is full. Having said that more of the stages start / end in towns / villages where there is generally more availability.
The TMB has better accommodation and more options, is shorter and easier, has less road walking, avoids towns and villages more, and is more consistently enjoyable. The Haute Route has a lot more variety, is far less busy, has more wildlife, and even more spectacular scenery (though TMB is still pretty amazing).