Mount Etna is Sicily’s most famous attraction and it has been wowing visitors since the ancient Greeks first set foot on the island. Home to the one-eyed giant, Cyclops, and rising 3,350 metres above sea level, Mount Etna is easily Europe’s highest volcano. Much of the volcano is made up of solidified lava and in the past a few of the lava eruptions have reached the sea. Today, Mount Etna offers excellent skiing during the winter and amazing mountain hikes, trips and tours during the summer.
The volcano is made up of more than one peak and within the mountain there are some interesting caverns. Mount Etna is considered to be an active volcano although, in relative terms, its lava is cool in comparison to other volcanoes. Oak and pine trees cover much of the mountain’s lower slopes and in the autumn the colours are spectacular and contrast brilliantly with the solidified lava.
Typical wildlife on Mount Etna includes frogs and toads, lizards and snakes, and even turtles living in the streams and ponds hidden in Mount Etna’s forests. Furry animals include foxes, weasels, squirrels, and hares; and amongst the prickly animals there are hedgehogs and porcupines. Gliding majestically above the panoply of trees are falcons, owls and even golden eagles. Other birds that make an appearance are ducks and herons and various migratory species.
One of the most spectacular sights for visitors to Mount Etna is the Alcantara Gorge which is a stunning rock formation created from the mountain’s volcanic past. The rocks are comprised of basalt and lie a little way from the main highway. You should remember when visiting that the mountain air is always cool even in the height of summer and you should dress accordingly.
In the winter between the months of January and April, it is an excellent time for skiing down the side of Mount Etna. You can literally stand on the ski slopes of the Etna and view the coast at the same time and on some days. Where else can you ski down a volcano and lie on the beach the same day, as is possible if you catch the right day.
There are ski lifts on top of the Etna and depending on what eruptions have occurred on this active volcano, the previous months, the ski lifts will hopefully be working when you are there. Every few years lava damages the lifts in part, but lately the lifts have been working fine.
Skiing the Etna is not so much about having the best skiing you will ever do but it is really about skiing in a unique location. If your prime consideration is skiing then you will be better off in the Italian, Swiss or French Alps. Skiing the Etna is more about enjoying the view and skiing somewhere unusual and combining the trip with with good food, great wines in the evenings and the history of the island. You can get further information from the Catania Tourist office at Via Cimarosa 10, I-95124 and you can email them direct at: Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Etna is located on the Eastern side if the island close to the city of Catania. Over three thousand metres high (the height changes slightly all the time, because of the volcanic activity) and has a diameter of about 45 km. The Etna is also called in Sicily Mongibello, from the Italian monte, meaning mountain and the Arabic jebel, which also means mountain.
The slopes of the Etna host many villages, especially on the Etna’s eastern and western sides and are cultivated (mainly with orchards and vineyards, which grow well thanks to the extremely fertile volcanic soil) up to 1,000 metres altitude. However, above this level there are no villages as the likelihood of eruptions reaching above 1,000 metres is higher. On the Etna’s slopes, above 1,000 metres there is barren black volcanic stone, called ‘sciara’, especially on the western side, while the northern side of the Etna volcano is richer in trees and woods.
The higher you go up the Etna, the more it snows and the suitable it is for skiing. The peculiarity of skiing on the Etna is that it is possible to ski down the slope of a mountain, while at the same time enjoying the marvellous view of the Mediterranean Sea. There are two main ski resorts, one on the southern slopes of the Etna, the Rifugio Sapienza, and another on the northern side, called Piano Provenzana.
On the Etna there are many attractions to visit such as caves, trails, old craters and it is also possible to go and see an eruption, as long as within safety distance. You can go by car or by coach up to the Rifugio Sapienza (1,900 metres of altitude) or Piano Provenzana (1,800 meters). If you wish to go further you can go by jeep or on foot, but always with an authorised guide as it can be dangerous if you do not know where you are going; also, there are limits to how close you can get to active craters. There are various agencies that organise excursions on the Etna by jeep or on foot.
Having married a local Sicilian girl in a small church in one of the villages half way up the Etna, I am quite familiar with the area now. The key thing to understand is that when we talk about the Etna we are actually talking about an area which covers miles and miles i.e. would take an hour to drive up to. You cannot thus in reality walk up the Etna in the true meaning in that it is far too big and also because on the higher levels, you are not allowed to go up without a guide. The good news though is that you can drive up as far as the old crater and walk around and also hike further if you book a tour.
In order to get to the Etna, the best way is reaching the city of Catania first. See our getting to Sicily page on how to reach Catania. Then, you can rent a car and drive to Sicily, or ask an agency for an organised tour by coach.