Hiking to Glacier Blanc, one of the best hikes of the French Ecrins National Park

Glacier Blanc in the Ecrins National Park of the French Alps
Yep, that's it, that's Glacier Blanc

Past September (2017), I have been on a 3-week hiking vacation in France and Spain. One of the hikes we did was the one to the Glacier Blanc in the Alps of France (Ecrins National Park), by far one of the best hikes of Europe. Therefore, I decided to write a hiking guide on this three-day hike, hoping to inspire others to hit the trails as well. 

We took our time and spend three (half) days on this up-and-down trail, but it is possible to do it in two or maybe even one day too. I'll refer to those options later in this guide when necessary. For most, however, it will remain an up-and-down hike, as the glacier is surrounded by some of the highest peaks of the Ecrins National Park that are - as far as I know - impossible to traverse without climbing experience. 

This hike starts at a place called (Pré de Madame Carle) at the end of a narrow winding road in the valley below the glacier. This place has a large parking and two refuges (huts), a winter refuge (Refuge Cézanne) and the summer refuge/hotel (Refuge du Pré de Madame Carle). When we were there, both were closed. Too bad, as after a most uncomfortable night sleeping in the car somewhere in the forest of the French Jura, we were looking forward to sleeping in a bunk in a hut (called 'refuge' in French). Off to a good start. 

Luckily, both these refuges were situated next to the parking, so we could hop back into the car and find somewhere else to sleep. We drove back down the winding road and found a nice hotel in the village of Ailefroide. Not really a place we would normally pick (as we find hotels often too expensive), but the nights at this altitude were too cold for the camping gear we had with us.

Day 1, September 20th, 2017 (Wednesday)

After a great breakfast, better than we ever make ourselves it in a hut, we drove the small one-lane road from Ailefroide to the parking at Pré de Madame Carle (alt. 1874). 9 o’clock in the morning and it was still freezing -1 Celcius according to the car thermometer. Why were we doing this again?

We strapped on our backpacks and put on our boots, and when the sun finally rose above the mountains we set off. The first few hundred meters of the track were near flat. On this section, you'll walk through the first and last patch of forest you'll encounter on this trail. After crossing a stream (Torrent du Glacier Noir according to the GPS), the uphill zigzagging began. 

Wide riverbed Pré de Madame Carle at the start of the Glacier Blanc hike in the Ecrins National Park in the Alps of France
Bye trees!

About two zigzags up, we passed the last trees. Zig-zag, zig-zag, zig-zag. Higher and higher we went, while the track remained quite accessible. Zig-zag, zig-zag. At an altitude of about 2250 meters, the zig-zagging stopped and we entered the Glacier valley. This place provided great views of the valley below, the surrounding peaks and the glacier further up the mountain and is a great destination for a day-hike.

After a lunchbreak at this great place, we set-off again. The next section is a ±200 meter climb to a plateau. On this section, the track becomes a little rougher. What looked like an almost wheelchair accessible track before (don't recommend that though), became smaller, with rough gravel and rocky patches. This part of the track passed under cliffs and trough some cracks, often with cables for support. For most of the time, this section provides a great view on the glacier and the valley below.

To me, however, this section of the track was hell. Not because it was too difficult, but as my lungs decided there was not enough oxygen at this altitude. Ascending from about minus 2 meters under sea level (back in the Netherlands) to over 2000 meters above in two days was a big nope for them. I started to tire faster and faster and I was eventually even unable to walk 10 meters without hyperventilating. Not sure whether it was the best choice, but we pressed on.

Marmot Marmota marmota in the French Alps
Angry looking mountain beaver:
'Leave me alone!'

After this climb, we crossed a plateau with alpine vegetation, a stream and mountain beavers (alpine marmot). This is also where the old Refuge Tucket can be found, stemming from a time when the glacier hadn’t retreated as far as it has now. The new refuge, Refuge du Glacier Blanc (alt. 2556 meters), is situated on a cliff another ±100 meters above the plateau. 

With near to no slope, I was able to walk several hundred meters across this plateau without hyperventilating. But don't cheer too soon, as in the distance the last climb of the day was rising up.

Normally, this last climb to the refuge will take no more than half an hour if you're fit. The track on this section winds up the cliff on which the refuge has been built. Like the previous climb, this section is again rough, rocky and with cables for support. If you managed to get up the previous climb, this one will be no problem.

At the refuge, we were greeted by the resident beaver. A limping marmot with cataract that would probably not have survived for long if there were no humans. But please, don’t feed wildlife, as this can make them dependent, obnoxious and even dangerous. In addition, most of our food is unhealthy and may make wildlife sick.

The refuge felt like home, like a castle, like a fortress, and most of all, like not having to walk another meter for the rest of the day (except for climbing staircase to the unguarded winter refuge on the second floor). A hike that will normally take about three to four hours, took us more than 6 hours. But we made it, that is the most important, and looking back, it was definitely worth it the trouble.

The view from higher up the mountain from Refuge du Glacier Blanc in the Ecrins National Park in the Alps of France
Refuge du Glacier Blanc

Day 2, September 21st, 2017 (Thursday)

After a most comfortable night cocooned in my sleeping bag and some extra blankets provided by the refuge, we set off for a day-trip to the glacier. At first, we hoped to hike further up the mountain to the next refuge (Refuge des Ecrins), but we abandoned the plan when some mountainclimbers we'd met in the refuge told us that it was only accessible via the glacier. As we are no trained climbers, we didn't feel like climbing the glacier would be a great idea. Glaciers are treacherous and have both visible and invisible holes and crannies, so please don't try to climb them without the proper experience and gear.

The direction to take for the hike to the glacier speaks for itself. Up the valley, towards the big grey and white ice thingy. There is no one route, as everyone picks their own route in this rocky terrain. Just follow the stacks of rocks over several glacial moraines (mounts of debris left by the retreating glacier) and via avelanche paths that run off the surrounding mountains. Glad our backpacks were light on this day.

Hiking along Glacier Blanc in the Ecrins National Park in the Alps of France
'Somewhere along the way is a point where you rise
above the mountain spur that blocks the view on the
rest of the Alps, which provides amazing views.'
With each moraine, the views are getting better and better, both of the glacier and the valley below. Somewhere along the way is a point where you'll rise above the mountain spur that blocks the view of the rest of the Alps, which provides amazing views in clear weather. On our hike, the weather was perfectly clear and the views were breathtaking. 

The hike from the refuge to the glacier took about two hours on a very calm tempo. Luckily, the altitude was no problem for me today, as I was able to acclimatize to the altitude overnight.

Once at the glacier, we dared to set a few steps onto it. I know, I said not to do that without experience, but this part was full of footsteps and without crannies. We were very careful, mom, really! The highest altitude we reached was 2874 metres (according to the GPS), which is exactly 1000 metres higher than the parking at the start of the hike. We took our time hanging around there, enjoying the scenery and taking photos as we only had to return to the refuge before dark (about another hour/hour and a half down).

The view from on top of Glacier Blanc in the Ecrins National Park in the Alps of France
View from Glacier Blanc, group of soldiers practicing glacier climbing for scale

Day 3, September 22nd, 2017 (Friday)

I won't bore you with a step-by-step description of the third day, as we went down by the same way as we came up. This time though, we ran down the mountain in about two or three hours. Once down in the valley, we said goodbye to our new Irish mountain-climber friends that we'd shared the refuge with and drove off. Down the winding road, trough the valley, and - after a quick bath in a super cold lake - on to the start of our next hike in the Ecrins National Park. But that's a story for another time.

Practical information

Acces: By car, set your navigation to lead you to the village of Ailefroide and keep following the only road trough the village to get to the parking at Pré de Madame Carle.
Huts: Refuge/Hotel du Pré de Madame Carle (summer), Refuge Cézanne (winter), Refuge du Glacier Blanc (guarded in summer, unguarded in winter).
Distances: Pré de Madame Carle - Refuge du Glacier Blanc, 3 or 4 hours; Refuge du Glacier Blanc - Glacier Blanc, 2 hours; Glacier Blanc - Refuge du Glacier Blanc, 1 or 2 hours; Refuge du Glacier Blanc - Pré de Madame Carle, 2 or 3 hours. (Distances are personal estimates and may differ depending on experience and fitness).
Highest point: 2874 meters (highest point we've been).
Height difference: 1000 meters.
Prices: Varying, Refuge du Glacier Blanc (unguarded in September 2017) 8,- per night deposited in a letterbox in the refuge. Parking was free when we were there, but is probably paid in the summer.
Highlights: Views, glacier and wildlife (marmots, various birds and others had encountered Chamois when we were there).
Safety: Be prepared for all weather types, don't proceed if you are uncertain and don't climb the glacier without the proper experience.

If you liked this post, feel free to share it using one of those nice social media share buttons or move on to some other amazing hikes listed below. You can also pin one of the images below to your Pinterest boards, or check them out on my board about the Ecrins National ParkI really appreciate all shares!

Recommended further reading:

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