One of the most exciting aspects of Sicily is its volcanic activity. The Aeolian Islands, to the north of Sicily have active volcanoes, but none as famous as Mount Etna, situated near Catania on the eastern side of the island.
The easiest access is on the southern side of Etna, where there is a cable car station at Rifugio Sapienza, at a height of 1923m. It’s roughly a thirty minute drive along the winding mountain road from the town of Nicolosi.
There are several types of excursions available, all of which start by taking the cable car up to an altitude of 2500m. From here, 4WD jeeps continue the journey up to 2900m by winding across the black lava landscape like a scene from a Sci fi film, passing craters formed by eruptions in 2001 and 2002 along the route.
From this point there are magnificent views up towards the smoking summit of Etna, and of the craters and the mountain below. There’s also a guided walk around a large crater, formed by the eruption of 2003.
The Summit Craters
From this point, the ascent to the summit craters begins. Excellent, knowledgeable guides will point explain the different types of lava along the walk – some sharp, jagged rocks, some smooth black sand, and point out which eruption caused which lava flow.
The landscape really is extraordinary. The classic, cone shaped summit of Etna stands high above, its dark black colour contrasting beautifully with the backdrop of clear blue skies. Even if the weather isn’t so good, the summit still makes for a stunning sight when shrouded in cloud and mist.
- The path winds slowly up to the summit and can be quite steep in places, making it difficult to hike through the sandy gravel.
- It gets cold and windy towards the summit, even in summer when the temperature in the rest of Sicily is baking hot.
Having been out of bounds for some time due to volcanic activity, it is now once again possible to reach the summit craters on Etna, though strongly recommended that you do it on a guided walk and not alone.
The summit of Etna is 3345m, making it the highest volcano in Europe. There are three craters here: the Cratere Centrale, Cratere di Sud Est and the Cratere di Nord Est. It’s possible to walk around all three craters.
Standing at the top of a volcano, peering over the edge into the abyss is an incredibly exciting experience. The craters throw out thick plumes of warm smoke and at times the strong smell of sulphurous gases is overwhelming. Much of the ground is stained yellow from the sulphur and there are billows of smoke rising from vents in the ground all around the summit.
The Journey Down
Due to the nature of the terrain, going downhill is a lot easier than normal. The sand like qualities of the lava make it possible to jog down the steep slopes without putting any strain on the knees.
The path down goes past a refuge cabin that is barely visible, buried under lava. As the descent continues, the landscape begins to change as more and more vegetation starts to appear. There are fantastic views of the numerous craters that adorn the mountainside and on a clear day, it’s even possible to see the coast.
The Gruppo Guide Alpine Etna Sud ticket office, for all hiking excursions is situated near to the cable car office, at Rifugio Sapienza. A full day excursion like the one outlined in the article takes between 5-6 hours and costs €55-60 ($70 USD). It includes cable car, jeep and guided walk as well as hiking boots and jacket. Other tours are available out of Catania.
Where to Stay
It’s certainly possible to do a day trip from Catania, either by car or by bus. Alternatively, there are several beautiful villages around the foothills of Etna, including Nicolosi, Bronte and Mascalucia.