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Explosive Nature: Hiking Mt. Etna Offers an Up-Close View of Sicily’s Volcanic Terroir

Rising on the eastern edge of Sicily, Mt. Etna is the most active volcano in Europe and, as a wine region, has been heating up, too. A UNESCO heritage site, Etna’s scientific value is globally significant. No wonder this hotspot is a bucket list item for geologists, hikers and wine lovers constantly searching for terroir-driven experiences alike.

Part of the thrill of hiking it is climbing something with exceptional levels of unpredictability. Dramatic and poised, Etna occasionally rumbles and spews ash— it erupted this spring— but almost constantly whispers gas plumes (mostly water vapor), resulting in dramatic billowing white formations from its summit craters.

With each step on the crunchy pea-sized gravel you can feel the evidence of millennia of the ground beneath your feet’s volatility.

Etna first erupted underwater nearly 550,000 years ago. Lying in the collision zone between the African and Eurasian continental plates, its origin and formation is a complex geologic situation newly hypothesized every few years. But one thing is evident from walking on its surface: Etna is continually remaking itself with each eruption, adding layers of historic lava flows of basaltic composition.

Whispers of gas plumes hang over hillsides
Whispers of gas plumes hang over hillsides / Photography by Craig Finetti

“We have seen some 200 paroxysmal eruptive episodes since 1998,” says Dr. Boris Behncke, a volcanologist at INGV-Osservatorio Etneo in Catania, Sicily. He has been studying Mt. Etna for more than 30 years. He attributes its explosive nature to the high proportion of water vapor in the magma.

In addition to Etna’s four active craters, Behncke estimates the current number of flank vents, cones and craters is approximately 350 and suggests that hikers watch out not only for those, but also be cautious of classic mountain hazards.

While there are various routes to ascend Mount Etna, the most common starts from Rifugio Sapienza (at 6,350 feet) at the southern end of the volcano, where a 15-minute aerial cable car gives you a head start.

“You come with running shoes, and we will change them for you,” chuckles Giambattista Petrillo, a 22-year veteran Etna guide (Etnaguide.eu). He recommends sturdy boots, a hat, a jacket, gloves, long pants and a backpack with a sandwich and water. A hard hat is provided at the check-in station—just in case.

The round-trip hike to the highest point (9,580 ft.) is three hours from the top of the cable car terminal. Of course, there are different excursions, and anything can change depending on Etna’s current weather conditions and mood.

On a good day, it’s cold, and the winds are persistent. Porous and crunchy iron-rich basalt rocks gnash, press and shift with each uphill step. Lava flows resemble a sea of uniform blackness. Yet in other parts, volcanic bombs dropped here— some as large as the barriques aging Nerello Mascalese you’ll find not far from here— dot an other-worldly landscape devoid of flora and fauna. The once fiery projectiles of past eruptions now sit impressive but motionless.

Arial shot of Mt. Etna
Arial shot of Mt. Etna / Photography by Craig Finetti

The sky contrasts Etna’s mineral-rich earth. On a clear day, Catania appears before the Ionian Sea. Clouds form magically and move swiftly with Etna’s wind. Spiders and their long silky webs advantageously fly on the currents to higher elevations, seemingly to meet up with summit-loving ladybugs that take the migration flight.

The hike’s highest point is a crater resulting from a three-month-long eruption in 2002 and 2003. Across the massive bowl, trekkers in the distance resemble a trail of ants. Finally, a welcomed descent from the rim leads to lunch in the most priceless setting—inside Barbagallo crater. “The crater is actually a double crater,” explains Behncke. “And one of the more explosive eruptions from the flanks of Etna in recent centuries.”

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Walking down the eastern side of Barbagallo is a different challenge, requiring more finesse than might. Boots are submerged in ankle-high rocks down a 35-degree slope. The guide’s advice: Resist the urge to slide down sideways. Face forward, plunge heel first, give in to the unsteady downward ruler-length slide motion, and repeat. The removal of sharp beads of lava from inside the boots is highly likely at the bottom of the trail.

The return tram ride provides a moment of relief and a feeling of fierce accomplishment. This calls for a trip to even lower elevations where lava flows meet grapevines for a well-earned bottle of Etna Bianco (complete with a taste of the minerals you just trod).

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2023 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!