“there was a constant reminder of where we truly were; roads cut through frozen lava.”

MOUNT ETNA UNESCO World Heritage Site

We got an unusual early start for Mount Etna and escaped morning rush hour. When you leave the city, there is only one way up. Hazy but otherwise sunny, with large swatches of what we thought were wild goldenrod, but were a tall shrub or small tree that is covered in golden flowers called Mount Etna broom bush. The higher you go, the vegetation changes.

Mount Etna broom bush

The winding two lane road had walls lined with black lava rock. The absence of homes, when I half expected ski chalets, was disconcerting since I was going up a mountain where patches of snow were seen. Yet there was a constant reminder of where we truly were; roads cut through frozen lava.

decorative lava rock

Periodically, there were excavations of the lava rock; some above ground and some were quarries. You can see the thickness of the lava flow on the next photo.


We stopped and looked at a few pieces and held some in our hand. They were about the size of large briquettes in a bbq grill. No different than what you see in landscaping, and now we had the occasion to see the source.

lava up close

From our car window we could see how the volcano had shaped the landscape. As we drove up, there was the reminder that this is an active volcano (10,950ft) and building anything is cautionary. It was apparent a few homes had caught the lava flow and were mere skeletons.

When we reached the south side at Refugio Sapienza, an outpost (6,200ft), there was only a couple of tour buses and a handful of cars. This only added to the bleakness of the area as if it was a mining operation. Gone were the yellow flowers, and black lava was everywhere.

Through the haze we could see Catania and the sea.

It is permissible to walk all the way to the crater. Some were prepared to do so with back-packs, hiking poles, and hard hats. That’s when it really hits you that this mountain could spit out rocks!

Mount Etna is the largest active volcano in Europe, a mecca for volcanologists and tourists. The worst lava flow (eruption) was back in 1669 and Catania, (over ten miles away) suffered heavy damage by the lava flow. Ignoring the warning signs caused loss of life, and thousands were homeless because they didn’t flee the area. Evidence of ditches to divert the flow can be seen.

Look at the left of this photo to see hikers going up one of the craters.

The centerpiece is the cable car, which takes you up to 8,200ft. Once there, you can take 4×4’s to the 9,600ft level to the summit. We were torn whether to take the excursion up, but two factors came into play: we really weren’t prepared to spend the good portion of the day, and looking back, we felt ill prepared to make the ascent by how the people were dressed.

Resting up from our climb back at the visitor center, using their Wi-Fi, we saw a video on the volcano and its history. We concluded that we wanted to come back again with the proper attire and go all the way.

Weeks later we read that there was an active pit crater, located in the eastern inner wall. Past efforts to stop the lava flow have even brought the Marines into the area by helicopter to drop concrete blocks at the edge of the lava tunnel.

We learned that the layers of volcanic ash contain minerals that are beneficial to plant life and the earth is so rich in nutrients that some farmers do not have to add fertilizers or chemicals for their crops. They profit with wonderful fruits, vegetables, nuts, and wine for this area. Still…a volcano is a source of pollution, even death.