Hiking Mount Etna is one of the most popular things to do in Sicily, if not the most popular one, and with good reason. The trek is a pretty exciting excursion because of its high level of volcanic activity and easiness to climb to the top.
The popularity of hiking Mount Etna is increased by the mountain’s prestige thanks to its inscription on UNESCO’s world heritage list in 2013 because of its “outstanding universal value”.
Furthermore, unlike other active volcanoes in the world which can be hard to reach, Etna is located a mere 45min drive from Taormina and a similar distance from Catania, and the craters are reachable by cable car and 4×4 vehicles, making it a convenient day trip from Sicily’s eastern coast.
Mount Etna is considered Europe’s most active volcano and the world’s most active stratovolcano, that is, a volcano whose lava has low-viscosity, so instead of exploding easily and elegantly, lava accumulates in the magma chamber and then explodes violently.
In the case of Etna, magma accumulates and constantly explodes in different places and at varying degrees, mostly through the side vents that are found on its flanks rather than through the top crater.
As a result of this constant activity, Mount Etna volcano is forever changing in height and shape as each explosion minimally alters its look.
But Italy is no stranger to volcanoes. The country has three and Mount Etna is the largest and tallest. You may be more familiar with Mount Vesuvius, which created the Pompei landscapes, but that is a third of Etna’s size.
At the base, Etna measures 140 square kilometers and at the top, it has four summit craters. You cannot land in Catania or fly over Sicily and miss its majestic shape from the plane.
Because of the mountain’s size and its large cone, you can hike Mount Etna from two sides, north or south. Your experience will differ greatly depending on which one of the two sides you choose because of tourism development, infrastructure and volcanic activity. It is also possible that one side is closed due to activity, while the other is open.
Is Mount Etna dangerous?
If it is so active, is hiking Mount Etna safe?
Etna has had hundreds of explosions since its formation 500,000 years ago, the most important of which in our time occurred at the end of the 17th century. At that time, lava reached the walls of Catania but it took 5 weeks to get there because it advanced slowly.
Short closures of the mountain and airport because of dangerous fumes or explosions are a constant feature at Mount Etna and are monitored live by the local authorities.
Experts believe that Mt. Etna has exploded more than 50 times since the 17th century, half of those in the 20th century, and many in the last two decades.
Etna’s explosions can be either from the top craters or from one of the hundreds of vents on the flank, some of which are very close to the near 1 million population that live on the mountain.
These vents can be very low to the ground level and you may be able to get really close to them depending on recent activity when you visit, while the top craters can only be visited with experienced guides.
The top explosions usually stay within the top crater without any lava coming outside and are dangerous because of the fumes and ashes, while the explosions from the vents on the flank of the volcano are the ones to carry lava.
The experts are always on site monitoring volcanic activity, there are even live cams on the mountain, and local authorities have in the past built barriers and walls to minimise damage by deviating lava flow like they did in 2001.
When important explosions occur, ash, lava and all the consequences of volcanic activity, are more likely to cause more damage to infrastructure than to people.
However, Mount Etna is thought to have killed 77 people in its history, and 13 in the 20th century. Given the low relative mortality rate, it is considered one of the safest volcanoes, and the amount of tourism infrastructure and people living around and on the mountain are testimony to its relative danger.
That being said, nature is unpredictable and, as my guide stressed and repeated half a dozen times, Etna is famous especially for its unpredictability and, even expert guides like himself who live on the mountain, are not able to anticipate an explosion taking place the next day.
Case in point, all those 13 people killed in the 20th century were taken by surprise explosions expelling rocks.
So you have two options. Accept a low risk and hike Mount Etna to the highest point, or join one of the tours that stays below 2,000m above sea level where the risk is minimal. If you are set on your choice, you can find the best options for tours here.
If you are still considering to hike Mount Etna, you will be happy to know that, while other volcanoes around the world, such as Santa Ana Volcano in El Salvador or Pacaya in Guatemala, require you to hike for hours up a steep incline to get close to the action, you practically get carried up Mount Etna with minimal physical exertion to almost 3,000m.
So let’s take a look at what it takes to hike Mount Etna.
Plan your visit to Mount Etna Volcano
So you are up for it and want to hike Mount Etna volcano, but you are unsure about what you can actually see and how best to hike to the top of Mount Etna. Believe me, I know.
The information available online or from tour companies is confusing and does not explain really what goes on or how to plan your trip to Mount Etna.
Some say you go to 2,000m above sea level, some talk about lava fields, lava flow, lava caves, hiking around the edge of the volcano, cable cars, 4×4 rides. But really, what does this all mean?
Let me clarify all this for you.
First of all, you can only climb Mount Etna to the top on a tour like this one, the volcano is active and general access without expert hiking guide is limited to the 2,800-2,900m above sea level which in turn is only accessible with Alpine or Volcanology guides.
Secondly, there are two sides to Etna, the north or the south side, and each will give you a different experience. If you type Mount Etna on Google Maps that will take you to the South side which is the most popular and the only one allowing access to the top.
Lastly, you need to decide if you want to visit Mount Etna independently or on a tour. And if you prefer the hassle-free tour option, what is the right tour?
Let’s look at all of the options for hiking Mount Etna.
The two sides of Mount Etna
You can visit Mount Etna from two sides, the north side and the south side.
Some of the tours which do not ascend to the top will go to the north side, whereas the only way to get to 2,900m or to the top is via the south side Sapienza Refuge.
Mount Etna’s North side
On the north side of Mount Etna you will be able to get up to the platform at 1,800m above sea level where all the tourist development is, see the lava fields created from previous explosions and hike around, but you will not be able to get close to the top.
There is no path or way to go further up on that side. If you are not sure about safety, you should pick the north side and stay at 1,800m.
Mount Etna’s South side – Sapienza Refuge
Via the south side is where you can actually get up and close with the volcano and really see the craters, the previous lava explosions and the constant smoke coming out of the top.
You can drive up to the platform at 1,800m above sea level, leave the car and then take the cable car to the 2,500m cable car station. From there, you get on a 4×4 bus to 2,900m and then a guided hike up a few more meters to the craters.
In terms of tickets and prices, you have three options:
- Drive up Mount Etna to 1,800m above sea level by car (free if you go on your own)
- Reach 2,500m above sea level by cable car (35 euro)
- Hike Mount Etna to 2,900m above sea level by cable car + bus + guide (65 euros)
- Hike Mount Etna to 3,300m above sea level only on a guided tour (45 + 65 euro)
You can buy the cable car tickets on their own to climb to 2,500m above sea level, or the combined cable car plus bus and a guided tour around the crater at 2,900m. If you want to go to the top you will need a guide at 45 euro for the group tour I suggest.
The latter two options are the most expensive, but they are the best ones. In fact, I would go as far as to say that they are the only options you should consider. There is no point in staying at 1,800m or at 2,500m.
Why? Let’s look at what you see at each level.
Climbing Mount Etna to 1,800m
Staying at 1,800m above sea level (i.e. not getting the cable car but staying at the parking level) is nice but does not show you anything of what Mount Etna has to offer and the effort to get to the top is so minimal that it more than compensates for the extra effort.
At 1,800 you see the volcano a bit closer than from the bottom, but you don’t learn anything about it. At this level you have the cable car offices, a few restaurants, a large parking lot and some tour companies and rental gear shops.
If safety is what you are concerned about, remember that nobody has been harmed by Etna’s explosions since the 1980s.
Climbing Mount Etna to 2,500m
Staying at 2,500m (i.e. getting only the cable car ticket without the bus and guide to the top) will not give you much more than staying at the 1,800m platform, and you will have spent 35euro.
At 2,500m there is a basic restaurant and souvenir shop but you are not allowed to climb up to 2,900m on your own, you need the bus+tour guide for that. The views from here, on a rare clear day, are nice but you only see part of the top of the volcano as the craters are hidden behind. You don’t see the smoking top crater from here either.
What if you just walk up to 2,900m on your own?
Fair to say that there are a lot of people and the staff are not stressed about people doing their own thing. Nobody will stop you from walking up to 2,900m on your own (I even saw a few people from the bus who were doing just that), but it is dangerous and treacherous, and you will need a really long time.
The rocky, sandy/dusty path is tough and really steep, and in the winter months (which extend until June at Etna), it is covered in snow.
Even if you made it to 2,900m, without the explanations from the guide, you would not learn much about the volcano because there are no signs.
Climbing Mount Etna to 2,900m
The best option when visiting Mount Etna is to go all the way to 2,900m above sea level and join one of 20min tours with a guide from the Italian Alpine Club. This option gets you to almost 3,000m from where you can clearly see two of the craters and walk around the rim.
The 65 euro ticket to the top is extremely pricey, probably one of the most expensive entry tickets to an attraction I have ever paid, but a must-visit place like Etna justifies it and not getting to the top is missing out.
To get there, take the cable car then get out of the building and join the queue for the 4×4 buses that ride to the top. You need to scan the ticket at a machine, so don’t lose it.
When you reach the top the 4×4 buses will stop at the Torre del Filosofo which is a small hut, get off the bus and look for a guide that is gathering a group of people by the path up to the volcano and then just follow him.
This part is a bit messy and disorganised because there can be a lot of people in the high summer season and there are no signs, so people jump queues and there is a general sense of chaos.
The guides from the Italian Alpine Club vary in quality. They are all very knowledgeable, after all they spend their days at Etna, but they don’t all speak great English or have an interest in teaching.
I noticed three of the guides during my hike up to Etna. One was patient, explained things for people to hear and spoke good English.
At the other end was our guide, who spoke really fast, in very poor English and without much interest to share. His English was so poor that he could not even answer standard questions so I felt really disappointed that I could not make the most of the visit.
If you are not in a rush, it pays to simply wait and listen to more than one guide for a couple of minutes until you find one with good enough English. Tours are departing constantly as buses fetch people from the cable car to the top continuously.
The tour at the top is interesting because you get the chance to walk around the two extinct craters and hear a bit about the volcano. The guide will take you literally around the two craters that are in an eight shape and interconnected.
The lava here takes on several colors from the various explosions, and you can also see the dried lava fields around the craters and flowing down.
The guide will point at the fumes coming out of the main crater (because Etna is always active) and at the heat and smoke coming out from the ground. You can just move a few of the rocks to find vents from where the heat escapes.
When the tour is done, simply follow the same itinerary down. You can stay at the top for as long as you like, nobody will check.
Climbing Mount Etna to the top 3,300m
The only way to climb to the top is on an organised and guided tour with expert volcanologists or alpine guides. This is essential because they are knowledgeable on the terrain, on the safe paths, and are able to identify weather patterns, smoke or ashes that would make the hike dangerous.
The climb to the top follows the same way as the hike to 2,900m but continues at that point up the last 400m to the volcano’s rim. This part can be quite tough depending on the weather, especially the wind that sometimes blows intensely.
The last hike can take up to 2h depending on the fitness level of the entire group as the guides will wait for the slowest climber. You need to be relatively fit to hike to the top of Etna volcano.
Bear in mind that the weather and volcanic activity will determine whether you actually are allowed to make it to the top and that the guide may decide to abort the climb or to stay at a lower level if he deems it unsafe.
Visiting Mount Etna on your own or as part of a tour?
Mount Etna is one of the volcanoes that you can actually visit on your own without a tour, except if you want to hike to the top where a guide is required.
That does not mean you can get to 2,900m unaccompanied, it means you don’t have to join a pre-scheduled tour but can simply just show up and get cable car tickets with the package to the top and minimal to no wait.
But let’s look at the pros and cons of going on your own vs. booking an organised tour.
Hiking Mount Etna on your own
If you want to hike Mount Etna on your own you will have to drive to 1,800m in your own car (the road is in perfect condition and Google Maps works) and then decide how far up the mountain you want to go. It’s a good stop over if you’re having a road trip across Europe.
Contrary to what you may read online, independent travelers can go all the way to 2,900m high (100m below the top), although a guide from the Italian Alpine Club will have to escort you to 2,900m.
Going on your own means you can organise your day as you please, go at your own speed, and then visit other sights in the area. We got up at sunrise (thanks to jetlag) were done with breakfast by 8am and then drove to Etna.
We stayed in the area after Mount Etna to visit some other places like a honey farm, and had lunch at a traditional restaurant housed in an old winery.
Visiting Mount Etna on a tour
If you prefer to be driven and get more insights from a tour guide, or you want to climb to the top, you can join one of the many tours that visit Etna.
Tour companies will pick you up from your hotel or a pre-agreed meet-up point (depending on the tour you choose) and provide a guide which will add to the visit.
However, guided tours at 2,900m are only provided by guides from the Italian Alpine Club and your own guide cannot take you there, so the information at the volcano is the same whether you drive or join a tour.
If you want to climb to the very top, your guide will hike up with you all the way.
Most tours of Mount Etna start early and include other sights in the area such as the honey farm, oil groves, restaurants, wineries, lava fields, lava caves and even the Alcantara Gorge, depending on the tour.
Things to check when booking a tour to Mount Etna:
- Does the tour actually go up to Mount Etna (to 2,900m) or does it stay at 2,000m only? Most of the tours advertised as Mount Etna tours do not go up to the volcano but stay at the lava fields found at 2,000m
- Is the price of the cable car included? If not, this can be between 35-65 euro. If you see a tour costing less than 80 euro you can be sure it does not include the cable car ticket
- Is gear such as hiking boots and jackets provided? Mount Etna is really cold even in the summer months (zero Celsius in June for example) and most tour companies will offer rental of equipment or give it for free. Alternatively, you can bring your own or rent it from the cable car store. See the section below about what to bring for more details
- Do they pick you up from your hotel? If not, you should look at the cost of getting to the pick up point. Note that the tour to the top of Mt. Etna starts on the mountain already
Here are some of the best tours of the volcano which you can easily book with Get Your Guide (and cancel up to 24h before the tour starts). Note that most of the tours which include the hike to the top mention the “Upper craters”:
- Sunset ascent of the volcano where you can actually see the sun setting and then sample the local honey and wine at organic farms. This tour includes all equipment so you don’t have to pack your own (trekking or snow) shoes and jacket as well as the trip to 1,900m (Silvestri craters). They also pick you up from your hotel.
- This is a semi-DIY tour of the volcano for those who don’t want commitment. You get transport to 1,800m and then you can choose if you want to take the cable car and all to the top or not. The price for this is not included so you need to pay extra, and then you get taken back after lunch. So it is basically transportation only (which is why it is so cheap). However, bear in mind that there is not much else to do in the area so you might spend a lot of time being idle, unless you want to chill around, take photos and hike around the area at 1,800m on your own.
- This one is the regular tour with all included, same as the previous but with the price of the cable car added (no price arbitrage, the difference in price between the two is the cost of the cable car ticket). Equipment rental and meals are not included either. Meet up point is the bus station at Taormina.
- To make a day of it, choose this tour which includes the ascent to 2,900m and then also lunch and Alcantara Gorges. Bear in mind the entry ticket to Alcantara Gorges is not included and neither is lunch. Meet up point is the bus station at Taormina. This is a good choice if you want to visit Etna and also the gorge which is stunning.
- If you want to hike Mount Etna to the top, here is one of the few tours providing that. Note that the tour price is just the cost of the guide, cable car and 4×4 bus to the top are not included, as aren’t any meals and drinks but you will get trekking shoes. This tour starts at the Sapienza Refuge already so you need to get your own transportation to the mountain.
How long does it take to climb Mount Etna
With all the details above you should have a good sense for how long you need to climb Mount Etna but let’s look at the breakdown:
- The drive from Taormina to Sapienza Refuge is about 45min each way and 90min return
- Queueing for the cable car tickets then taking the 20min cable car is another 45min return
- Queueing for the bus up to 2,900m plus the 10min bus ride is another 30min return
- The guided tour is 20min and you can always stay a bit longer for photos so let’s say 30min
- Hike to the top and descend: 3h
- Total time to hike to the top of Mount Etna: 6h 15min minimum. If you like to take things easy, have a drink on the way, buy souvenirs, etc. then make it 7h to be safe
Best time to hike Mount Etna
Etna is an all year-round destination, if you are dressed appropriately.
As mentioned before, you can climb all the way to almost 3,300m above sea level, so, even if the beach temperature is steaming well above 30 degrees Celsius, Etna can still be covered in snow.
The best time to visit Etna is between June to September, when the snow has melted and the landscapes are green and covered with colorful flowers. Especially in June, the beautiful flowers that spring on the slopes are stunning.
From October to May, Etna can be really cold and walking on the snow much tougher, so make sure to dress adequately. This is also when the weather can be most unpredictable with winds and snow close the mountain.
If the day is clear, the trucks working in the area will make sure snow is removed from the path, but wearing proper shoes is essential to walk around the craters and to the top.
If you don’t have your own, or don’t want to pack it on your travels, this is when a tour where gear is provided is most recommended because they can give you snowshoes and sticks to be able to walk on the powder snow. Bonus for the brave winter tourists, you can ski on Mount Etna and will most likely see very few tourists at the top.
What to wear to hike Mount Etna
Coming prepared for your Mount Etna hike is essential and don’t be fooled by the temperature at the ground sea level, Etna has snow all the way until June on many years. That means that the temperature at the top is close to zero year-round.
Because of this, and because they know visitors don’t necessarily come dressed for the occasion, there are shops at the cable car stations that rent equipment out, namely jackets, hiking boots, scarves and gloves. Rental prices are however exorbitant and you can almost buy these items for the price.
Bottom line, make sure to wear appropriate clothes, or book a tour that includes them, or you will pay the price, literally. Here is what you need to wear to hike Mount Etna:
- Hiking boots are not essential if you are not going to the top, we trekked Mount Etna in trainers and that was more than enough. You will be walking mostly on gravel-like lava rocks. If you are going to the top you want to wear proper hiking boots which will protect you from falls, ankle twists, and the heat from the ground. In winter time, you will need extra footwear such as snow shoes, so make sure the tour company provides them. I have had these hiking boots from Timberland since my gorilla trip to Uganda in 2009 and they are durable, comfortable and perfect for light treks.
- A good jacket is a must-have item when hiking Etna volcano, you will need it even in the summertime. In winter, temperatures can drop significantly and you will be walking on snow so bring a really warm one. In summertime expect to be between 0 and 10 degrees, in spring and autumn, you should expect temperatures close to zero Celsius. Columbia makes really lightweight jackets with hood.
- Gloves, hats and scarves are not essential outside of winter if you have a good jacket, but if you plan to take photos, you will need good gloves to keep warm. In winter, gloves and scarves are a must.
- A bottle of water and snacks are a nice to have, or you can simply buy anything you need from the cable stations. Remember that you will not be spending a long amount of time at 2,900m. If you are climbing to the top, to 3,300m then bring water and snacks to keep your energy for a 3-4h hike return.
- Sunglasses are key. In winter, the reflection on the snow can blind you and in summer the sunshine will. I always wear polarized Oakley sunglasses because they truly protect my eyes and never fall. Plus when I don’t need to wear them they stay put on my head holding my hair. They are not a fashion statement, they are a functional life saver. I have been using the same model since 1996 when I was a lifeguard on the beach and stared at the sea and beach 8 a day.
- Sunscreen is essential as there is absolutely no shade. Don’t be fooled by the cold into thinking that you will not sunburn, sun rays are even stronger at higher altitudes. I have been using biore sunscreen for years because they are not sticky, you can even wear make-up over the sunscreen so it’s perfect for when you are not at the beach and don’t want to look oiled up.
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