Exploring Sicily's fiery Mount Etna volcano

Story highlights

  • Mount Etna is open to tourists every day of the year unless authorities deem it too dangerous
  • An ascent that includes a cable car, 4x4 bus and guided walk is the easiest way to explore the volcano
  • The volcano's peak is actually a series of craters, some more active than others

At approximately 3,350 meters, it's Europe's highest and most active volcano.

Living up to its volatile reputation, Mount Etna blew its top again over the weekend.

Etna eruptions are relatively frequent -- the past 12 months have seen a string of powerful lava fountains, flows and ash emissions.

The result: a landscape that constantly changes as lava hardens, craters collapse and, in some cases, are created.

A trip to the top section of Etna is a bizarre experience -- from near the stunning peak it's easy to understand why the volcano is one of Sicily's most popular tourist destinations.

More: 10 things to know before visiting Sicily

It's tricky to line up a visit when the volcano is spewing fury like an angry goddess (Aitna, or Aetna, was the Greek goddess of the volcano), so most Etna tourists end up with the saner, sober version.

The images in the gallery above are from one such lava-less visit.

Yet even on calm days, the Etna landscape is otherworldly -- it only takes a bit of imagination to picture James Tiberius Kirk stumbling about with his tricorder looking for life.

Bleak yet stunning

With black lava sand, volcanic gravel and rocks that crunch underfoot, the volcano is a world apart from the classic beaches and hilltop Baroque towns that dot Sicily.

For hikers who start from the amenity-packed base at 1,800 meters, the scenery varies little. The walk up can be monotonous.

Another way up is via a cable car from the base that connects with a 4x4 bus to take visitors to the 2,800-meter mark.

A guide meets each vehicle and leads a walk around the area -- this is a good way to see some of Etna's numerous craters.

Total trip time: up and down in two hours, including lots of photo opportunities. For most visitors, it's the easier, more efficient way to see the volcano.

You can get closer to other parts of the volcano by signing on with one of many authorized Etna expedition tour outfits.

Cable car, 4x4 and compulsory guide fees cost about €57.50 ($80) per adult. Cable car only is €27.50.

At almost three kilometers above sea level it isn't always exactly gelato weather on the mountain. Layered clothing is a smart idea.

The volcano turns into a no-frills ski resort that operates December to February, depending on snowfall.

Getting to Etna

In peak summer months, Etna traffic gets busy.

The easiest way to get the mountain is via public bus from Nicolosi or other nearby towns.

In less hectic periods, driving is ideal. The windy road on the south part of the peak that crisscrosses old lava flows is a nice teaser for the scenery to come.

Comprehensive driving directions can be found on the Etna administrative headquarters website.

Maps, expedition operators and more details can also be found at the Etna administrative headquarters.

Mount Etna is open daily, all year (when not erupting in a life-threatening way), 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. (last cable car); in winter to 3:30 p.m.