Feature: Hiking up Piton de la Fournaise
Réunion's iconic feature, Piton de la Fournaise is simply a must-do for walkers. From Pas de Bellecombe, it's possible to hike up to Balcon du Dolomieu, a viewpoint on the northeastern side of the Dolomieu Crater rim, from where you can gaze down upon the bottom of the caldera, some 350m below. Balcon du Dolomieu is a five-hour, 14km out-and-back walk. It's graded moderate and has an altitude gain of about 500m. It can get very busy, but the eerie landscape more than makes up for the crowds of people. Note that since the 2007 eruption it's no longer possible to do a circuit around the Dolomieu Crater and the Bory Crater; ignore all maps showing this circuit, as they're not up to date.
From the car park at Pas de Bellecombe, follow the path to the northeast that leads to a door (closed when the volcano is active). This is where the path starts in earnest by plunging 527 steps to the floor of the immense Enclos Fouqué, reached after about 15 minutes. You're now walking on a field of solidified lava. The route across the lava plain is marked with white paint spots. At times it can feel like you are walking on Mars, with only the dry crunch of the cinders underfoot for company. You'll first pass the very photogenic Formica Leo (a small scoria cone), which you can climb, before continuing on the path. It takes a gradual route up the eastern wall of the cone until it reaches the Balcon du Dolomieu viewpoint. Beware! There's no guard rail, just a white line.
While the volcano walk is popular and is not technically demanding, it shouldn't be undertaken lightly. The landscape here is harsh and arid, despite the mist that can drench hikers to the skin. The chilly wind whips away moisture, leaving walkers dehydrated and breathless.
Early morning is the best time to climb the volcano, as you stand a better chance of clear views, but this is when everyone else hits the trail as well.
Many people get a head start by staying at the Gîte du Volcan and leaving at the crack of dawn; be sure to book well in advance.
Note that following the four eruptions that occurred in 2018, two alternative walks in the Enclos Fouqué, named Piton Kapor and Cratère Rivals, are no longer accessible (ignore all maps showing these circuits). People who aren't fit enough to climb the volcano get down to Formica Leo and back.