MT. ETNA’S snowy roof is perpetually in view from anywhere on Sicily’s east side. Around 430 BC, the Greek philosopher Empedocles is said to have thrown himself into the fires of Mt. Etna. The reasons why he did this vary, but the common theme is that he wanted to prove he was a god.
Etna Sud (Rifugio Sapienza) is the southern access point of Europe’s largest volcano; arrive early to avoid tour buses. One option to reach the summit is a combination of cable car and 4×4 bus; this option would also run you several Euros and give you no sense of accomplishment.
If you want to hoof it on your own, layer up as the weather can change very fast. The elevation difference from the bottom to the point where the 4×4 bus drops its load off is 1000 meters. It’s a couple hundred more meters climb to a couple of smoking craters which can be closely inspected (depending, of course, on volcanic activity).
The highest peak, at 3329 meters, is inaccessible without proper climbing gear (and recommended guide).
From the car park there is a maintenance track that switchbacks up to the top of the cable car run. It is possible to go straight up the slope, following the gondola line, but of course this route is much steeper and can be a bit dodgy in parts as you need to walk over loose rock.
After about two hours of hiking (for someone of average conditioning) to reach the cable car’s top station, where there is a gift shop/cafe. If you didn’t take the combo cable car/bus ticket, this is your opportunity to pay for the 4×4 up. From here the walking route follows the 4×4 bus track. In the spring, when I hiked it, there was a wall of packed snow four meters high on either side of the track. As the buses drive up they belch black smoke out the side that draws a knee-high line all along the snow walls.
Another couple of hours will get you to where the buses stop and unload passengers. The terrain turns to black lava rock and on which you continue until you reach the the two craters. At one of them you could walk along the rim of the crater and stare down into the steaming vent.
You can take the gondola down, but it can be a fun hike down, especially if there are snowy patches which you can boot-ski down on. It was only about 1.5 hours for the descent, making the total around six hours, plus time for sightseeting at the top.
[Note: This was originally published in April 2009.]