Rising nearly 3,000 feet out of the sea, Gros Piton and its twin, Petit Piton, dominate the west coast of the island nation of Saint Lucia. These iconic pyramids may be the most celebrated peaks of the Caribbean. Only Gros Piton (2,619 feet), the taller of the two volcanic mountains, is easily accessed and climbed by tourists.
A trip to the summit of Gros Piton is a cultural and botanical experience, not just a hike to a pretty view. You'll make your way on back roads, through sparkling, unspoiled Caribbean countryside more typical of half a century ago, till you reach the historic village of Fond Gens Libre. There you'll get a trained guide (this is required) and head up a beautifully laid out trail onto the rugged seaward flank of the peak. The route is a great one for adventurous kids--safe, but with lots of scrambly parts and fun stuff to explore, even caves. About 2000 feet up, you suddenly enter an enchanting, dripping, rampant rain forest. There are two summits, both with fantastic but different views.
The hike up Gros Piton is 4 miles round trip. If you hit both summits, you'll do 2400 feet (700 meters) of total ascent on the round trip. Allow anywhere from three to six hours to complete the entire route.
Gros Piton is located five kilometers (as the crow flies) south of the pretty town of Soufrière on Saint Lucia's west (Caribbean) coast. By rental car or taxi, the trailhead is about 45 minutes north of the big airport at Vieux Fort, and a good two hours over tortuous but spectacular roads from Castries, the capital. It's marked on this map of the island, and shown more locally on this Soufrière District plan.
Situated at the foot of Gros Piton is the community of Fond Gens Libre, whose name means “valley of the free people.” This is here where you access the trailhead, pay your fees, and hire a guide.
You reach Fond Gens Libre by turning off the main west coast highway at Etang, a hamlet half a kilometer south of the well-marked Fond Doux resort. Look for the Gros Piton signs. From here, it's about ten minutes on a quiet lane through lovely unspoiled glades to a signposted turnoff into Fond Gens Libre.
A permit is required, as is a guide. Both of these are obtained at the Interpretive Center at the base of the mountain in Fond Gens Libre. The fees are $35 USD per person. In general, they want you to start before 3 p.m. Reservations aren't usually necessary. For info call one of the numbers below (phone numbers for this organization seem to come and go -- all 6 contacts may or may not work):
758-286-0382 / 758-459-9748 / 758-459-3965 / 758-285-7431 / 758-459-7200 / 758-459-5212
Gros Piton is a great climb all year long, but the dry season is probably preferable. When damp, the upper part of the mountain has some very slimy footing.
The weather in Saint Lucia is uniformly hot year-round. You'll do best to start your hiking by 6:00 a.m. Rainfall in the wet season (June-November) is about double the remainder of the year, but showers can occur at any time and, conversely, long stretches of gorgeous weather are possible even in the wettest months. Hurricanes are relatively infrequent in this part of the Caribbean.
You'll have to park near the rum shop at the east end of Fond Gens Libre and walk the main pedestrian street through the village to the little office where tickets are sold. From there, the path leads fairly gently through pasture and forest and around to a low promontory, with nice views, on the Caribbean side of the mountain. It then turns sharply uphill and climbs the next 1500 feet very steeply, often on steps. A few hundred feet below the top you find yourself on a steeply rising ridge, with rocky footing and ever lusher foliage, before emerging on a broad, forested north-south summit ridge. Turning right takes you to the higher south peak, which has a nice view across the rolling southern end of St. Lucia. But the prime reward is to the left: 10 minutes of walking and scrambling through a fabulous forest take you to the north peak, with a stunning view of Petit Piton.
Camping on or near the mountain is not permitted or practical. Good nearby lodging includes La Haut Plantation (about US $150 double B&B; awesome views of the Pitons); Crystals (quirky, unique, and a little more expensive; even better mountain views); and Fond Doux (restored cottages 1 km east of Petit Piton). For relatively budget accommodation (about US $75) there is the Downtown Hotel in Soufrière, and Mango Splash (located on the beach about 15 km south).
You can camp on St. Lucia, but the location is about an hour's drive away. St. Lucia National Trust (tel. 758/452-5005) operates a small campground at a pretty beach called Anse Liberté, in the fishing town of Canaries, north of Soufrière. Tents are provided, and rates are reportedly $25 - $75 USD per night. There are nearby community pit toilets and community cooking areas.
Gros Piton is made up entirely of dacite (a volcanic rock similar to basalt) that is about 260,000 years old--i.e., very recent in geologic terms. It represents the core of a lava dome volcano that formed along the western edge of a large preexisting caldera from a collapsed stratovolcano. The caldera was centered around the present-day sulfur springs a couple of kilometers to the northwest of Gros Piton. The area is still volcanically active but, apart from minor steam explosions, there have been no eruptions on Saint Lucia in the last few hundred years. Saint Lucia is fortunate to be spared these events, since neighboring Martinique and St. Vincent have been afflicted by the first and ninth most deadly eruptions of the twentieth century, respectively.
Saint Lucia tourism website
Pitons Management Area (UNESCO)
Geology description (Soufriere Foundation)
Nice video comparing the two Piton climbs
Video of drive to trailhead (this guy takes a circuitous route, via Choiseul)