Hiking is a good way to see Réunion's rugged mountaintops, cirques and pitons and the French overseas department is never short of hiking trails one could attempt. Many of the island's hiking trails are located in Réunion National Park, but some are outside the park.
The ONF (Office National des Forêts) is responsible for maintaining the network of paths, which is the island's forest administration. The hiking trails do have various steeper passages, some with spectacular views down into the depths, but the risk of falling for "experienced" hikers is low as they are generally well maintained. That said, the trail network regularly gets damaged after storms. It is advisable to enquire at a visitor centre, though you may need a little bit of French for both communication and reading – most maps and information sheets are in French only.
The trails are well signposted, and use minimal French, so not knowing any French will mostly do fine when it comes to sign reading. However, you should take note that the times are marked in [no. of hours]h[no. of minutes] – so a trail that takes 3.5 hours will usually read 3h30. It does not refer to 03:30 (even though in the French language it can mean either).
While the island has many scenic landscapes, a bit of preparation is required. A rainproof outerwear with dry spare clothes is a must, a waterproof nylon bag in the backpack is useful and so is a plastic bag to take your own rubbish with you. Cream, sunglasses and a hat with neck protection are required for sun protection, and a pullover is usually sufficient for thermal protection. On the mountain peaks with altitudes over 2,000 m (6,600 ft), it can get very cold, especially in the months of May to November (southern winter). Proper hiking shoes are also particularly important for the rocky, often rain-damp, greasy and sometimes very sharp-edged paths. Hiking sticks are very helpful, as well as mosquito repellent and a headlamp, also for the mountain huts: because of the proximity to the equator, it gets dark very early in the evening.
In addition to sufficient drinking water, provisions must also be carried on the multi-day tours: at the stage destinations in the interior of the island, water bottles (plastic) and bread are usually available for purchase, you cannot expect for a large variety.
The following three Grande Randonnée trails with breathtaking views of the island. As Réunion is a department of France, the general Grande Randonnée trail system applies in Réunion, except with an extra "R" in it to distinguish it from the trails in Europe.
- GR R1. The is slightly shorter at around four days, and covers the Cilaos, Mafate and Salazie craters.
- GR R2. This route crosses the island from Saint-Denis in the north down to Saint-Joseph in the south. Set aside about a week to cover the route's 130 km (81 mi) trail.
- GR R3. Encircling the cirque de Mafate, consisting of 5 stages.
An alternative is to walk in Mafate, without marked-out footpaths. Visit the villages (known as îlets in French) to get a feel of car-free settlements in beautiful surroundings.
Le Cirque de Cilaos
- Main article: Cirque de Cilaos#Hiking
The Cirque de Cilaos provides some of the most rewarding hiking experiences on one of Réunion's greatest cirques. The trails can be accessed from Saint-Louis by the road of 420 bends (route aux 420 virages). Whilst in this welcoming village sat at the foot of the Piton des Neiges cliff, be sure not to miss the embroidery museum (musée de la broderie).
Le cirque de Mafate
From Cilaos, come along the Taïbit Pass (it takes about 5 hours from Cilaos to Marla, 4 hours from the îlet at Cordes). The cirque is also accessible from the cirque de Salazie along the Col des Bœufs, and there is even a manned car park (unfortunately slightly expensive: around €10/day). By this pass, you can join up with La Nouvelle in two and a half hours of walking through tamarind forest, or Marla in 3 hours. Set aside a few days to enjoy this place to the maximum potential possible.
It is also possible to reach here by the GR2 route from the north (canalisation des Orangers), or from Maïdo by taking the narrow path heading down the "La Brèche" pass, with a 750-metre change of altitude. It’s a fairly strenuous trip, 2 hours down, and 3 hours up (minimum), with dizzying drops. About halfway along, be sure to stop and appreciate the views, above a sheer drop of 1,500 m (4,900 ft).
The cirque de Mafate is home to many villages, or “îlets”. Aside from La Nouvelle (1470 m), there is Marla (1600 m), Trois Roches (1220 m), Roche Plate (1110 m), Grand-Place (530 m), Îlet des Orangers (1000 m), Îlet des lataniers (650 m), Îlet à Bourse (850 m), Îlet Malheur (828 m), Aurère (930 m) and Cayenne (530 m). Although seemingly near from a bird’s-eye view, the journey from village to village requires a good few hours even for competent walkers.
Le cirque de Salazie
The cirque de Salazie’s entrance opens up on the eastern side, allowing easterly winds from the ocean to bring spray, and thus rendering this region one of the island’s most lush. The name of the caldera is potentially derived from the Malagasy word salazy, meaning ‘good encampment’. The various villages an easily be reached from the Saint-André.
The main villages are Salazie (the administrative centre), Hell-Bourg (a pretty, flowery village) and Grand-Ilet.
- Salazie, The Bridal Veil – is one of the island’s most spectacular sights. The eastern side of the caldera is carpeted in lush greenery through which slice a multitude of waterfalls. The area can be reached by crossing the river on a suspended footbridge, and by continuing alongside fields of watercress and chayotes (a green, pear-shaped fruit). A nice route would be to work one’s way through the vegetation and to go right up to the base of the waterfall – a perfect spot for a picnic.
- Hell-Bourg – Starting off from Hell-Bourg, a few lengthy routes can take you to the "trou de Fer" (literally ‘the iron hole’), or the "Piton des Neiges". Alternatively, you could opt for a shorter hike to "Les Trois Cascades" (‘the three waterfalls’), taking just two-three hours for an easy round-trip – still, you’ll need to be equipped with decent footwear though.
- Grand-Ilet is the departure point for a winding route through to the "col de la Fourche" (‘the forked pass’). You can leave your car up in the car park there, and continue the signposted GR1 route, which leads you down to Mafate through the tamarind forests.
Le Piton des Neiges
The highest point on the island, the Piton-des-Neiges commands so much appeal among certain enthusiasts that it brings them back time and time again. It can be reached from a few different places, (Plaine-des-Cafres, Hell-Bourg, gite de Bélouve), with the ascent from Cilaos probably the most popular option. It’s still not an easy venture, though – it takes a good 8-hour day from Cilaos for even competent hikers to complete a full round trip.
To really make the most of it, however, it is well-advised to plan a night-stop at the Gîte de la Caverne-Dufour (3 km from the summit). The hosts are nice people and, after a traditional rum-based fruit punch, a simple meal will take your mind off your exhaustion from the climb.
At the crack of dawn (at around 03:00), grab your shoes again, marvel at the night sky which seems a million miles away from today’s polluted metropolises, then climb further. Walk by torchlight along marked-out paths leading to the summit, where the sunrise will leave an indelible mark upon your memory. Words cannot begin to explain the magnificence of this experience. The descent back to the gîte is no more surprising for most visitors that the initial ascent – it would be the first time to see by daylight the track you followed in pitch black earlier. The natural surroundings make it clear that you are on an (extinct) volcano..
- Route from Cilaos
Take the Route de Bras-Sec where the paths leaves off from. The view is completely unobstructed, and the wilderness is staggeringly beautiful. A good place to take a halfway pitstop would be at the "Grand matarum" cabin. For very good climbers only! The gîte takes bookings (several weeks in advance): Maison de la Montagne (Tel.: ☏), or at the Cilaos tourist information centre ☏ , then book in for a meal and breakfast with the hosts at the gîte (☏ ), 24 hours ahead. The journey back to Cilaos can be made in a single push (descending 1800 m in altitude) – try to take it easy on those knees!
- The other route up is from the Bélouve gîte: set aside between 4 and 6 hours of hiking to get to the refuge hut at the Dufour cave – it is a longer and more circuitous route than approaching from Cilaos.
The path around Bélouve gets very muddy from time to time. The final route is to approach from Hell-Bourg passing through the cap Anglais: allow 6 or 7 hours for this route, which covers 1500 metres of altitude.
Le Piton de la Fournaise
- See also: Hiking the Piton de la Fournaise
The piton de la Fournaise (Furnace Peak) provides some excellent hiking opportunities on the island's only active volcano. Make sure to take to the caldera on a nice day, and leave early morning. The circuit of 14.5 km (9.0 mi) takes about 5 hours of walking.
The greatest danger for hikers in the damp weather after rainfall is the greasy route and the dangerously smooth basalt stones, but the routes also dry out quickly. Fog is easily possible, especially from midday, but deviating or even straying from the specified route is largely impossible due to the dense vegetation generally off the hiking trail.