It's an easy one-hour walk from Gavarnie to the cirque, using either the main or the west-bank trails beside the gave draining from it. Luckily, the scale of it is sufficient to dwarf the tourists, but for a bit of serenity it's still best to use the west-bank path, or go up before 10am or after 5pm, when the grandeur and silence are almost alarming. The track ends at the Hôtel du Cirque et de la Cascade, once a famous meeting place for mountaineers and now a popular snack bar in summer. To get to the foot of the cirque walls, you have to clamber over slopes of frozen snow. Take care not to stand too close, especially in the afternoon, because of falling stones. To the left, the Grande Cascade, at 423m the highest waterfall in Europe, wavers and plumes down the rock faces a fine sight in the morning, when it appears to pour right out of the eye of the sun. Scaling the cliffs is obviously a matter for climbers, but the relatively intrepid can get a powerful impression of the majesty of the place and a superb vantage point for photography by climbing the first stage of the HRP path towards the Refuge Sarradets (aka Refuge la Brèche de Roland); the path begins in the right-hand corner of the cirque as you face it, at the edge of the first band of rock. The first, very exposed 100m or so are a little nerve-racking if you're not used to heights, but in dry weather it is perfectly safe.
If you don't want to retrace your steps, an enjoyable and not too demanding walk back to Gavarnie is via the path from the Hôtel du Cirque up the east flank of the Gavarnie valley to the Refuge des Espuguettes (tel 05.62.92.40.63; daily JuneSept, weekends Easter, May, Oct; 2hr). It's a beautiful path, cut into rocky, pine-shaded slopes; at the top, you emerge into open meadows tilting up to the refuge. The climb is well worth the effort for the views of the cirque and the Brèche de Roland. The committed may want to go from here on to Piméné, the bare peak above you. It's a couple of easy, if tedious, hours' climbing, but the view is fantastic: the Cirque d'Estaubé, Monte Perdido and away into Spain. To return to Gavarnie, turn right at the signposted trail fork below the refuge (allow 90min total).