Hiking Mt. Etna, Italy’s Friendly Local Active Volcano

How to visit this well-loved peak in Sicily responsibly.

A view of Mt. Etna partially covered in snow

The frequent bursts of steam—and lava—don’t deter visitors from navigating the slopes of Sicily’s Mt. Etna.

Photo by Hillary Richard

Mount Etna loomed large over everything as we arrived in eastern Sicily that early January. From miles away, I could see the steam plumes rising from the snow-topped behemoth, like blown-out candles on a hastily iced birthday cake. Appropriately, I was on a milestone birthday road trip around Sicily, from Palermo to Catania. The second-to-last stop: Mount Etna, Europe’s most active volcano and also its tallest, at 10,900 feet. Scientists believe Etna has been active for more than 500,000 years, presiding over Sicily long before humans arrived.

I’m no stranger to volcano hikes. I’ve summited several active stratovolcanoes (composite volcanoes) in my lifetime, from New Zealand’s Tongariro to Nicaragua’s Concepción. Italy is the only country on mainland Europe with active volcanoes, thanks largely to its location near two tectonic plates. Vesuvius, the most notorious among them, engulfed and preserved the ancient cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum after a violent eruption in 79 A.D. Stromboli has had regular minor eruptions for thousands of years. While Mount Etna hasn’t had a catastrophic eruption since an infamous incident in 1669, its many eruptions in 2023 filled the news with jaw-dropping photos of lava vaulting into the atmosphere. When I thought of Sicily, I thought of turquoise-colored waters, stunning cathedrals, small villages, ancient ruins and, of course, the wine and food (pasta alla Norma in particular). I hadn’t pictured an almost-constantly gurgling volcano that locals ski down in winter.

Now, one might ask, why voluntarily climb something that could blow at any minute? It’s a perfectly reasonable question, and it sits at the smoldering heart of volcano tourism, which has exploded (no pun intended) in recent years as eruptions have captured the world—Kīlauea in Hawai’i and Fagradalsfjall in Iceland, for example—even as the volcano blowouts damage or disrupt local economies.

Volcano tourism brings thousands of visitors to Sicily each year. Ten municipalities surround Mount Etna, with several villages of 5,000 residents or fewer who depend heavily on tourism from volcano visitors. Since its 2013 designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Etna has been one of Sicily’s top-growing attractions. The Parco dell’Etna has taken steps to keep the crowds in check to maintain the volcano’s integrity: specifically, limited parking, steep access fees, and the strong recommendation to take guided visits. The cable car to the start of the trails (8,202 feet) is 50 euros per person. Navigating Etna’s unmarked paths and frequently shifting landscape requires the expertise of volcano guides. Visitors are permitted to hike up to about 9,000 feet alone, after which a guide is necessary, for both safety and environmental reasons.

Hikers with ski poles walk on snow beside black volcanic ash.

A song of fire and ice: the stark contrasts of Mt. Etna.

Photo by Hillary Richard

A mountain of many moods

On the morning of our hike, my rental car begrudgingly changed gears on the snake-like winding drive from the town of Nicolosi to Rifugio Sapienza (6,266 feet above sea level) in Parco dell’Etna. As we approached the southern slope of the volcano along a twisting road, we spotted the glistening sea, villas with citrus trees poking over the gates, and small family vineyards making use of the area’s fertile volcanic soil.

After acquiring gourmet deli sandwiches for our future lunch break at the meeting point (it’s Italy, after all), we took the cable car up to meet our volcano guide, Vincenzo Greco. Vincenzo is a local volcanologist and second-generation Etna guide. He studied geology at the University of Catania and became the youngest person ever to achieve certification as a volcanology guide in Italy.

We started our ascent—excited to work off days of Sicilian cannoli—and trekked through the Valle del Bove. Winter-tanned Vincenzo introduced us to the volcano. He explained which eruption created which new landscape, noting how old this new rock ledge was or how this patch of ground has changed in the past decade. Six weeks before my arrival, in November, a new vent opened on the southeast crater at nearly 9,200 feet. A second vent opened three days later, effusing the new lava. In December, the lava flows reached Valle del Leone and the greater Valle del Bove, depressions on the eastern slope, creating a lava flow field and burping up occasional ash amid the steam and gasses. The lava flows would stop in February, once again reworking the landscape of Etna.

Everything here changes. I recalled the homes we passed on the way in, squarely in the line of Etna’s fire if she ever got angry enough. With the windy road and altitude, there could be no escape if something happened. You really have to love the volcano, Vincenzo said, or at least love living by it or perhaps just be a bit stubborn.

Vincenzo and Etna have a passionate Italian relationship. He loves Etna, but their quarrels are, well . . . volcanic. He studies her moods and knows her mannerisms. He flew a drone over an eruption once and her heat melted his camera. It was an expensive mistake, but the few photos he got were spectacular.

About half an hour into the hike, Vincenzo ducked toward a large crevasse between two rocks. “Feel this!” he exclaimed excitedly. “But be careful.” I inched forward, waving my hand around in the air aimlessly until a burst of boiling heat hit my skin. It was a small steam vent—Etna saying hello. The power of the invisible heat surprised me. It was a reminder of how easy it is to fall into a false sense of security up here. This isn’t your average molehill. Thanks to unmarked paths and a disorienting amount of regular landscape shifts, Vincenzo and his fellow guides have had to rescue tourists when Etna gets moody.

Mount Etna, a volcano with smoke, and the Catania city, Sicily island, Italy (Sicilia, Italia) laying before it

“You really have to love the volcano,” Vincenzo said, “or at least love living by it.”

Photo by Alberto Masnovo/Shutterstock

Our hiking group turned a corner and came face-to-face with a lava tunnel formed by a previous eruption. We smushed into the narrowing pathway one at a time. The rock walls towered overhead on both sides, blocking out the sun above. Following the same path as a recent river of molten red lava was a stark reminder of Etna’s power.

A crunchy layer of snow covered the black lava rocks throughout the journey, turning the scene into a black-and-white photo anytime the clouds rolled in and covered the bluebird sky. Typically, this time of year, hikers might need snowshoes or cross-country skis in addition to hiking boots. Instead, it was unseasonably warm across Sicily. We sat down for lunch as a crater pumped out billowing white puffs in the distance, our jackets off, the sun blazing. Up next, the final stop: one of Etna’s four main craters, at more than 10,000 feet above sea level.

In some parts, the crater rim narrowed to the width of two footsteps side by side, on loose lava pebbles. The winds whipped the smell of sulfur away. I could see the clouds off in the distance, a white blanket over the valley. Above me, the sun beat down from a bright blue sky. The black lava rocks absorbed the light, but the white snow was blinding. For a brief moment, I grew disoriented. I felt like I could walk out onto the blanket of clouds, thousands of feet above sea level. Maybe it was the combination of altitude, sulfur, and adrenaline, but I felt briefly euphoric in this otherworldly atmosphere. In that moment, I realized Etna’s pull. I brought myself back to earth by looking down into the crater, the bottom of which was so deep it wasn’t visible. Halfway around the crater, a dizzyingly steep drop appeared. With a flourish, Vincenzo appeared to hop off the ledge. Was my guide supposed to jump off? Would I be stuck in Etna’s clutches forever?

The descent was arguably more challenging than the climb. Vincenzo took off, hopping down the steep drop of loose lava pebbles. Others followed suit. Unwilling to body surf down thousands of jagged little rocks, I attempted to switchback. My boots sank deep into the ground with each sideways step, as if I had attempted to walk across a ball pit. I felt my shoes fill with lava rocks. Time to throw caution to the wind. Hiking poles in hand, I “skied” down Mount Etna, sending mini avalanches of lava rocks flying with each skip. The lava rocks felt springy at that speed.

Once we arrived at the cable car, the world changed. We had come back down through the clouds, and everything was gray. The seaside views were gone, covered by fog. I tried to catch one last glimpse of Etna from below. She was gone, off in her own world.

Know before you go

Getting there

Sicily has two major airports: Palermo Airport (Falcone Borsellino Airport) on the west side and Catania Airport (Vincenzo Bellini Airport) on the east. Catania is about an hour from Mount Etna and Palermo about three.

Where to stay

The town of Nicolosi is the gateway to the southern entrance of Mount Etna.

Hotel Alle Pendici is a nine-room B&B dotted with framed photos of Mount Etna throughout the seasons. The rooms are basic but cozy with a ski chalet ambience.

Blanc Maison Etna is a five-room B&B next to a beautifully manicured park. The rooms have views of the pool, the garden, or the volcano.

Tour operators we love

The Society of Guides Vulcanologiche Etna Nord offers a variety of tours with licensed volcano guides, including ours, Vincenzo.

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