Siciliy’s show-stopping jewel, Mount Etna, is an active volcano looming over the city of Catania. It lies on the convergence between the African and Eurasian Plates. Etna is a stratovolcano (composite volcano) formed by many eruptions over time.
According to Earth Watch, the Mount Etna volcano is “the tallest active volcano in Europe, currently 3,329 meters high, though this varies with summit eruptions.” That equates to almost 11,000 feet tall and growing with every eruption. Etna is one of three active volcanoes in Italy and stands about two and a half times as tall as Mount Vesuvius. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Mount Etna is one of Mother Nature’s unpredictable gifts.
I had the pleasure of touring Mount Etna with Giovanni Puglionisi, an experienced naturalistic guide and tour leader. He grew up at the base of this massive volcano and possesses an intimate knowledge of the landscape and the volcano’s pernicious moods.
1. Hiking Mount Etna
Hiking up Mount Enta is the number one thing to do for intrepid travelers. Hiking up an active volcano is too cool to pass up, even if you only opt for a short hike around one of the cinder cones. The feel of the volcanic gravel beneath your feet puts Italy’s tumultuous volcanic history in sharp perspective.
When you are planning to explore a vast and unpredictable place like Mount Etna, it is always best to explore the backcountry with a knowledgeable local guide. The volcano is constantly shifting and erupting; therefore, knowledge of what areas are open and which ones may be closed is key to a safe visit. Due to the unpredictable volatility, safety measures can change day-to-day.
When To Hike Mount Etna
I asked Puglionisi about his favorite season to hike Mount Etna. “Speaking about the top craters, the best season is the summer. Instead, for the other altitudes of the volcano, the best for hiking are spring and autumn. In spring, I suggest May and June. In autumn, the best is the foliage period, so in between the end of October and the beginning of November.”
Even beginner hikers can enjoy the majesty of Mount Etna. “One [hike] for beginners is to the Monti Sartorius,” said Puglionisi. “It is a group of lateral craters on the east side of Etna from the eruption of 1865 surrounded by our white birches and provides a great panorama.” The Monti Sartorius 2-mile loop trail is ranked as easy by AllTrails.
“For beginners with good fitness, the Schiena dell’Asino is a panoramic path on the south side that culminates in a breathtaking 360-degree view towards the Valle del Bove, the east coast, and the top craters,” explained Puglionisi. Schiena dell’Asino is, according to AllTrails, a 4.7-mile moderate loop. Hikers are challenged by some rocky scrambles and rewarded with gorgeous views.
If you are not prepared for an all-day hike, try a more manageable hike around one of the cinder cones. A cinder cone is a steep conical hill that forms from a volcanic vent, typically formed by lava eruptions without explosive force. A volcanic crater is a near bowl-shaped depression caused by volcanic activity. Etna is dotted with cinder cones and is home to a number of craters.
The Crater Silvestri is less than a mile hike around the rim of one of Etna’s most accessible vantage points. The Crater Silvestri is ranked as easy, however, be prepared for an uphill climb and a shifting rocky surface. Leave the flip flops for the beach and be sure to wear supportive sneakers or hiking shoes. Even for this short hike — really more of a walk — you will be rewarded with glorious views of Catania and the village of Nicolosi.
With over 180 picturesque vineyards and wineries in the Mount Etna region, visiting them all would be a herculean task. Fortunately, Sicily Active has reviewed the top seven Mount Etna wineries so we can vicariously peruse their offerings.
The rich volcanic soil makes for a perfect terroir and the high elevation is a happy growing ground for grapevines. The hot Mediterranean sun coupled with the temperate breezes extend the traditional growing season, giving the grapes more time on the vine. The temperature variation from day to night due to the high altitude also works in the vineyard’s favor.
However, the steep incline of the mountain makes tending the vines difficult. Most of the vineyard work is done by hand. Additionally, Mount Etna is a fickle and volatile volcano — the risk/reward for vineyard owners can be thrown out of balance by the volcano’s fickle whim.
If you have the opportunity to taste wine from this region, jump at the chance. It is highly memorable.
3. Ristorante La Cantoniera
A quick stop at Ristorante La Cantoniera, near the entrance of Crater Silvestri, is a perfect spot for a cappuccino and a bathroom break. Be sure to have a few coins on you, WCs (water closets) in Europe tend to charge a usage fee.
You will love ogling over the souvenirs lining the walls and display cases. They carry lots of fun trinkets to pack into your suitcase. Peruse the light dining menu; it will satisfy hungry travelers ready to sit, relax, and enjoy the view.
Be sure to sample their fiery liquor — Lava Dell’ Etna. It will warm you up on a chilling volcano hiking day. The shot is like a fireball warming you from the inside out.
Skiing down a volcano is not something many of us do every winter. It’s one of those activities you pine for, plan for, and finally execute. When you do check skiing on a volcano off your bucket list, you definitely will have some amazing stories to tell.
Puglionisi recommends skiing Piano Provenzana on Etna’s north side. You can also enjoy sledding, snowshoeing, groomed cross-country skiing trails, and alpine touring.
Finish off your downhill day with a steaming cup of rich hot cocoa or a strong shot of grappa.
5. Valle Del Bove
Valle del Bove is a surreal lava valley on the eastern side of Mount Etna. This massive and rugged region should only be explored with an experienced guide.
This is one of Puglionisi’s favorite spots where he recalled his feelings. “The majesty of the place and the silence. It is a big valley created in time by the activity of Etna and even the place of old Etna volcanic buildings. All the hiking around or inside the valley is the best [on] Etna and extremely interesting.”
6. Alcantara Gorge
The Alcantara Gorge is stunning. Arrive early if you plan to spend the day. Lifts help you descend to the gorge for a day of splashing and exploring in the chilly waters. If you have the time, the Alcantara Gorge is a memorable experience from your visit to Sicily.
Puglionisi said, “Alcantara is the river that comes from Nebrodi mountains, surrounding Etna along the north side in about 62 kilometers [about 39 miles] and ends on the east coast. A several-thousand-year-old lava flows with prismatic columns of basaltic lava, often with a six-angle section. It is possible in summer to explore the first meters of the canyon with [a] swimsuit in the cold water of the Alcantara River that crosses the canyon for 800 meters [about 2,600 feet]. With more technical equipment and guides, the interior of the canyon is accessible using wetsuit helmets and even ropes and harnesses.”
7. Lava Flows
Watching a lava flow is mesmerizing. The slow, deliberate path of destruction that typifies Mount Etna’s molton march to sea level is beyond your imagination.
“The lava in here flows down like honey, just to give you an idea,” said Puglionisi. “It is moving, warm, and making noise like broken glasses, because it is rich in silicates… to suggest to you that is something living! Forget the avalanche of hot material that runs down chasing you, in here, many times, we can stay so close to feel the heat, but paying close attention. And very few times, opening a lateral crater at a lower altitude, it could be able to reach a town; powerful but slowly giving time for the evacuation.”
Puglionisi’s description of his beloved mountain is beautifully poetic.
Visit Mount Etna
This was my long-awaited, first trip to Sciliy and I loved it. We spent several days exploring and eating our way around the island; it was a magical experience. While you are visiting, you must make the time to visit Etna — even if it is for a partial hike. The view, the volcano, and the vino are well worth the trip. I can’t wait to return and explore more of this stunning island paradise. To connect with Giovanni Puglionisi and set up your personalized tour, email him at [email protected]. You can follow Puglionisi’s excellent adventures on Facebook — his photography is stunning.
Pro Tips: Preparing For Etna
Etna is a fickle mountain with changing weather patterns and fluctuating temperatures. For the very best experience, wearing appropriate clothing is key to enjoying all the beauty Mount Etna has to offer. Like any exploration experience, you need to carry appropriate gear for any circumstance. “Many tourists think that Etna is only its top craters and it is so much more,” said Puglionisi. “Many make the mistake of coming with the wrong shoes like sandals or flip flops and dressing incorrectly. Listen to your guide.” It can be cold at the top even in the summer months. Appropriate clothing, footwear, and outerwear will enhance your Etna adventure.