Etna Volcano – Sicily’s Heart

Etna Volcano and National Park

Etna Volcano is one of the world’s most famous volcanoes. It is Europe’s highest and most active volcano and Sicily’s greatest natural attraction. Brooding above the city of Catania on the island of Sicily at 3,350 metres, it has been growing for about 500,000 years. Etna’s long recorded history has proven invaluable to the world’s volcanologists.

To the ancient Greeks, Etna was the realm of Vulcan, god of fire, and home to the Cyclops – the one-eyed monster.  As Etna Volcano belches sulphurous steam, the height of its summit changes with each and every eruption. Over 1,200sqm of Etna’s surface is covered with solidified lava.

Etna’s eruptions have been recorded and documented since 1500 BC, when preato-magmatic eruptions drove people living in the eastern part of the island to migrate to the west side. Etna Volcano has experienced more than 200 eruptions since then, although most are moderately small. 1669 saw Etna’s most powerful eruption recorded when explosions destroyed part of its summit and lava flows from a fissure on the volcano’s flank reached the coast and the town of Catania, more than ten miles away. This eruption was also recorded as one of the first to see efforts by inhabitants to control lava flow.

The Catania townspeople successfully dug a channel that drained away the lava from their homes, but when the diverted lava threatened the nearby village of Paterno, the inhabitants of that community forced them to abandon their efforts and drove the Catanian people away. Another huge eruption in 1775 produced large and dangerous mud flows when hot material melted snow and ice on the summit, and an extremely violent eruption in 1852 produced more than 2 billion cubic feet of lava covering more than three square miles of the volcano’s flanks in lava flows. Etna’s longest eruption began in 1979 and went on for 13 years; its latest eruption began in March 2007, and is still on-going today.

Etna Volcano Today

Etna Park Province of Catania
Etna Natural Park

Over 25% of Sicily’s population lives on Etna’s slopes, and is the main source of income for the island through agriculture (from rich volcanic soil) and, of course, tourism. However, the inhabitants of Etna are kept on their toes by the treat of an eruption and realise the potential devastation to their lives that Etna could bring if there were to be another significant explosion. Since Etna is a strato volcano (built up of alternate layers of lava and ash), it has relatively cool lava temperatures and numerous openings (vents), so nobody ever knows precisely where on its vast surface of caverns and craters the next eruption will be.

Etna – Flora and Fauna

Various species of oak, stone pine, birch and beech cover much of its incredible sloped surface. Broom plant and other shrubs dot the area, especially at lower altitudes. Etna’s deciduous trees change colour in the autumn, creating a spectacular exhibition of changing shades of colour.

Wildlife thrives on Etna Volcano where frogs, toads and turtles live in the streams and small ponds of Etna’s forests. There are also various species of snakes and Sicily’s ever-present lizards. Foxes, squirrels, weasels, hare, hedgehogs, porcupine and a few wild cats also consider Etna their home. Looking skyward, you will spot owls, falcons, partridges and may even be lucky enough to see the occasional golden eagle circling; a Mediterranean species re-introduced here in recent years. If you visit the Gurrida Lake you will find herons, ducks and other migratory birds.

Activities for the tourist on Etna Volcano

Despite the uncertainty and threat of Mount Etna’s eruptions, there is beauty to behold; it offers unforgettable hiking experiences and breath-taking views from the summit’s spectacular craters right down to the woods that carpet the lower slopes. Etna offers fantastic skiing in the winter months and mesmerising hikes in the woods during the summer; whilst exploring you can also sample the delicious wines and honey that are grown from the rich soil of this great volcano.

There are an abundance of operators offering guided tours up to the craters and elsewhere on the mountain, and they are well worth considering. These experienced guides know Etna Volcano inside out and back to front and will be able to direct you to the most spectacular spots as well as share their knowledge with you. And if there is an explosion, they’ll know a short cut out! However, if you chose to go it alone and climb this fiery beauty it can be done in a day and here are some recommended itineraries to help you explore.

Western Slope: Monte Gallo and Rifugio della Galvarina.

Start at the clearing on the slope of Mount Gallo, reached via the Nicolosi-Adrano road, following the road for about 12 km to the sign indicating Monte Intraleo. This hike leads to the Galvarina forest refuge.

Casa Pirao to Monte Spagnolo to Cisternazza. This hike takes about five hours. It starts from the Case Pirao on the northern slope, reached by turning off the Linguaglossa-Randazzo road just outside Randazzo. This excursion will take you through the Mount Spagnolo beech wood.

Monte Nero degli Zappini Nature Trail.

This trail offers a view of some of the typical natural settings of the area. It starts from Piano Vetore, which is not far from the Grande Albergo dell’Etna.

Mount Zoccolaro Nature Trail.

Not far from Zafferana Etnea, this steep trek offers spectacular views of the Calanna Valley and the Valle del Bove with patches of aspen and beech woods along the way. Not for the feint-hearted, exercise caution here because a steep precipice flanks the path.