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Mount Etna: Everything you need to know about hiking up one of the world’s most active volcanoes

Mount Etna erupting
Mount Etna erupting   -   Copyright  AP Photo
By Ruth Wright

Mount Etna, the volcano on the Italian island of Sicily, has been in the news more than ever this year. It erupted just yesterday, the 50th eruption this year, sending rocks and lava spewing into the air and providing a spectacular light show for the thousands of residents who live in the many surrounding villages.

This might all sound like a dangerous setting for a Sunday hike. But I’m here to reassure you that hiking here is very safe as long as you plan ahead. Experiencing the energy that emanates from the ‘Mother of Sicily’ isn’t to be missed.

What to pack to hike up Mt Etna

Like most tourists, I thought you could only see Mt Etna from a cable car. But it turns out there are hundreds of hiking trails all over the volcano. If you have half a day free, a hike is the best way to get up close and personal with the volcano.

You aren’t allowed to hike up Etna alone above a certain altitude, so I joined an 8km group trek with Trails of Sicily.

8km might not sound like far, especially as we were walking for 4.5 hours. But we ascended 400m and most of it was uphill so it feels like much longer. Make sure you wear proper hiking boots and long trousers for when there’s brambles to walk through.

Having heard some of the stories of tourists who decided to go it alone, I’m glad that hiring a guide is compulsory. More on the benefits of using a guide later.

Trails of Sicily
The group trekking up Mount EtnaTrails of Sicily

From Rifugio Citelli up to a belvedere

We started and finished our trek at Rifugio Citelli, a meeting point and hotel 1740m up (the highest point is at 3,300m). It was set to become the landmark we could look down at to gauge how far we’d come or, when the going got tough, how far we had to go.

The whole walk took 4.5 hours and took us from 1750m altitude to 2150m up. Our destination was a ‘belvedere’ or a panoramic point in the valley of Valle del Bove.

While walking, most of the path was covered in small black rocks, similar to gravel. It was more pleasant to walk on than a hard path and the satisfying crunch underfoot became a meditative sound I could focus on when the route got hard.

We had two guides, Asia Pioro and Luigi Cutore. Their passion for Etna shone through every time we took a break from hiking and learnt about the spot we’d reached.

My favourite line of the day was from Luigi. When one of the group asked if you can hike all the way up to the top he said, “We’re in Sicily so permission is a concept open to interpretation.”

Born and raised in Catania, the city at the foot of Etna, he is qualified to comment. He went on to clarify that you can only hike up to altitudes determined by the local authorities. Check these at the time of your trip as they vary depending on recent volcanic activity.

The Sicilian sense of humour

Alongside the volcanic rock we were walking on, there was a surprising amount of plant life. It turns out things can grow up to 2600m. Beyond this point, nothing can grow because of the atmospheric pressure, altitude and destructive eruptions.

On the way up we saw ‘ginestra’, a large shrub, and lots of birch trees. But my favourite by far was ‘astragalo’. Its name in Sicilian, which is a separate language from Italian, is ‘cuscino da soggira.’ This means ‘mother-in-law pillow’, named as such because it has spikes but you can’t see them. Classic Sicilian wit.

Trails of Sicily
Woman watches a crater on Mt Etna smokingTrails of Sicily

How many craters does Mt Etna have?

I had no idea that Etna doesn’t have just one crater. It has four active summit craters plus more than 300 lateral craters. These 300 were formed during lateral eruptions but are now dormant.

Mt Etna has been in the news for its frequent eruptions during 2020 and 2021, but the activity actually intensified back in 2018.

There seems to be a friendly rivalry between volcanologists and mountain guides. Luigi told us.

“Volcanologists think they can predict her but us guides know she is unpredictable. She will do what she wants. All we can do is respect her.” I loved this view of nature - that we have to live in service of it, rather than the other way round.

Mt Etna reminds airlines of the need for respect fairly frequently. Catania airport, one of Sicily’s international airports and only 32km away, often has to close following an eruption because of volcanic ash in the atmosphere.

Ruth Wright
Hikers taking in the view of one of Mt Etna's cratersRuth Wright

Is it safe to climb Mt Etna?

As long as you walk with a qualified and experienced guide, it is safe to climb Mt Etna. Guides know if it’s safe to go up, based on eruptions and weather. But last minute cancellations are actually quite rare - hikes often still go ahead even when the volcano is erupting. This is because when eruptions are from the summit, you can hike a safe distance away.

If you’re a person who likes to know the hard facts, I’ll give it to you straight. Mt Etna has killed 77 people in its history. This may sound like a lot, but the last serious incident was in 1979 when 9 people died during a hike to the summit crater. As a result, you now have to have a guide with you to hike up to this crater.

Molten lava is the biggest threat, but this hasn’t reached a settlement since 1928 when the town of Mascali was destroyed. Even then, the residents of Mascali had plenty of warning because lava moves slowly. So although it destroyed roads and buildings, the residents had already left so no one was hurt.

Safety is far from the only reason to use a guide, of course. Not only will you learn all about the volcano but they’ll share anecdotes, past experiences and local tit bits that you couldn’t find in a guidebook.

Trails of Sicily
Mount EtnaTrails of Sicily

What is the best time of year to hike up Mt Etna?

To avoid winter conditions, autumn or spring are best. Sicilian summers are very hot, but treks do still happen. Just be prepared for an early start to beat the heat.

As with any hike you’re taking to appreciate the view, visibility makes a big difference. I was excited at the start of our trek as it was a really bright and clear day. Though, luckily, that is most days in Sicily. Clouds descended about an hour into our trek but we could still see a lot and enjoy the views. So don’t be disheartened if you have bad visibility when you set out as it can clear in a matter of minutes.

You won’t regret a trek up Mt Etna

Sicily may be known for its beaches, historic old towns and endless food, but there are plenty of hiking opportunities here too and this is one of the most spectacular.

As a way to get below the surface of Sicilian people and the magnificent natural wonder many live next to, Mt Etna is perfect.

Next time, I’d like to hike up closer to the summit. But for my first volcano adventure, this adventure was perfect. It was definitely a physical challenge but at least I burnt off some of the granite and cannoli.