Hiking on the ETNA Volcano. The roof of Sicily


I choose to overnight in Taormina as I had planned an excursion to the summit crater of the Etna Volcano the next morning. Taormina is a perfect gate to the Etna, although you may also start from Aci Reale or Catania as distance is pretty much the same.

It took approximately 40 minutes by car from Taormina to Rifugio Sapienza in the municipality of Nicolosi. In fact although the mileage is not very long, you move from the sea level to 1910 meters of altitude (6266 ft) in quite a short time, following a route which meanders on the almost vertical shape of the mountain. Rifugio Sapienza is where you have to park your car, reach the mountain guide kiosk and get equipped for the excursion. They gave us trekking shoes (I had mine but if they feel they won’t work they give you theirs), some very long socks (whose use we discovred later on during the excursion), and protective helmets. I was in a group of approximately 20 people and upon gathering together the guide told us the summit crater was active that very morning, pulling out just white and black smoke. A minor activity he said, but very interesting to see.

The summit crater of the Etna. Photo by Matteo Gazzarata

Although you are in Sicily and you are going to climb an active volvano, you must wear some warm clothes. The summit of the Etna is pretty often wrapped by the clouds and it’s windy, thus at some point you freeze even if you are well covered.

From Rifugio Sapienza we boarded a cable car which took us halfway to the summit at 2504 meters of altitude (8215 ft) with a 10 minutes ride, then we boarded a truck with very big and special wheels, which took us to 2900 meters (9514 ft). That is where we started our hiking to the summit crater and the surrounding area. We couldn’t actually go to the summit crater as it was active by pulling out big clouds of smoke. The colour of the smoke changed constantly spanning from a bright white to a very dark shade of black, depending on the materials and the substances the volcano pulls in the air. You can even feel some tiny grains of dust falling over your face at some point.

White smoke is water vapor. Photo by Matteo Gazzarata

Etna is the biggest and tallest active volcano of Europe and it’s quite a big mountain whose shape changes constantly due to its sudden and massive activity and the lava flows that re-design its surface every time: if you go there next year you won’t see exactly the same landscape I did.

We started walking around a callapsed crater that caused some major lava flows in 2003. It’s not active anymore but if you see the size of it you can feel how massive the activity had been that year.

The 2003 collapsed crater. Photo by Matteo Gazzarata
A close look inside the 2003 collapsed crater. Photo by Matteo Gazzarata

Even if the crater is collapsed, the volcano is still active, so every now and then you feel some heat coming from the rocks and water vapor getting out from the slopes of the mountain. You feel there might another small crater there, but it’s not. It’s just the heat from the inner volcano which melts down what is left of the winter snow (do not forget that you may also skii on the Etna).

Water vapor on the Etna. Photo by Matteo Gazzarata

We circled around the crater created by the 2003 explosions and we got another amazing view over the summit crater which still was pulling out black smoke. I am afraid the picture couldn’t capture the real color of the smoke but believe me: it was very dark.

The summit crater from a distance. Photo by Matteo Gazzarata

Then we started our descent and we discovered why the guides wanted us to wear long socks: they asked us to overturn the socks and to wrap completely our shoes with them. The descent form here is almost vertical and the soil is not solid. Moreover, the clouds wrapped the whole thing so we had to be careful. The surface is made of lava dust which is not actually dust but small grains that hurt quite a lot if they penetrate into your shoes . In fact you sink into this dust up to your knees. It sounds stupid but this was the hardest part of our excursion: avoid falling 200 meters below.

Descent from the 2003 crater. Photo by Matteo Gazzarata

Once at the bottom of the crater the guide gave us some time to remove our shoes and let the lava grains out of them, then he took us to a lava canal created by the 2003 explosion, and we walked right inside of it!!!! You get an impressive but also scary feeling by thinking you are walking exactly where the lava was flowing.

The 2003 lava canal. Photo by Matteo Gazzarata
The 2003 lava canal. Photo by Matteo Gazzarata

Hiking inside tha lava canal is a bit challenging especially in the last section, where the lava stones are still visible, which implies some climbing abilities. Nothing impossible but a bit tiring, especially if you consider that at some point the rocks are still very hot after 17 years. Once out, I got a nice view over the crack that runs for the full lenght of the lava canal.

The crack of the lava canal. Photo by Matteo Gazzarata

From the top of the lava canal we got a view over another crater, generated by the 1996 explosion. Also this one is not active anymore but it also caused a massive lava flow down the slopes of the Mountain. We couln’t manage to go up there as the clouds started falling down and wrapped everything, preventig us from seeing exactly where to step on, thus we accepted a view from a distance.

The 1996 crater. Photo by Matteo Gazzarata

After that we started walking to the panoramic view over the “valle del Bove” which is the area where the Etna was actually, thousands of years ago: an immense collapsed crater that pushed the volcano behind, further into the mainland. We couldn’t see it cleanly because of the clouds, just imagined it a bit.

Valle del Bove. The former Etna Crater. Photo by Matteo Gazzarata

Then, we started our descent back to the cable car and we crossed the so called “Volcanic Desert”. I have not been to the Moon, but I am under the ipression that the lanscape might look like this one:

The Volcanic desert. Photo by Matteo Gazzarata

To plan you excursion to the Etna it is essential to be informed about some features and key factors:

  • Book your excursion in advance with the Mountain Guide office. You may go up alone if you prefer but you take responsibility for your own safety.
  • The excursion is pretty pricy: 75 euro and has a duration of 5 to 6 hours. The Mountain Guides provide you with trekking shoes and jackets if yours are not fit from their point of view. However they do not provide any water or food, and it is planned to have a pit stop for lunch at the panoramic terrace over Valle del Bove.
  • The hike can be uncomfortable at some point, especially during descents and climbing over the lava rocks, thus be informed that it is better if you don’t have any knee related problem. The excursion is not recommended for people with heart or lungs diseases.
  • Stick to your group: at some point clouds may fall down all of a sudden and you can’t see anything farer than your own hands. If you don’t want to get lost, don’t go too far from your guide.

On the way back we stopped in the village of Zafferana Etnea, the homeland of honey making. More than 25% of the national supply of honey comes from this village. If you like to try some, park you car along the main street and walk along it to find several small honey shops.

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