Photo: People watching a flow of lava from Mount Etna

One of the most active volcanoes on Earth, Mount Etna is the centerpiece of Sicily’s Etna National Park.

Photograph by Saffo Alessandro, SIME

Name: Etna National Park

Location: Italy

Date Established: 1987

Size: 224 square miles (581 square kilometers)

Did You Know?

• Fire Mountain Mount Etna, centerpiece of the national park, is one of the most active volcanoes on Earth. The mountain has been in a state of near continuous eruption for half a million years. Exploring the Etna area reveals a history written in lava, from recent flows still raw to remnant rock of ancient eruptions, long since covered by forests of pine, beech, and birch.

• Top Volcano Etna is the highest active volcano in Europe at approximately 10,925 feet (3,330 meters), though its height often changes when volcanic material accumulates during eruptions and crater walls subsequently collapse.

• Fiery Origins “Etna” may be a composite name formed from the Latin and Greek words meaning “to burn.” Some linguists suggest, however, that it may have its origins in the Phoenician word athana meaning “furnace.”

• Storied Past Few volcanoes in the world have an eruption history so thoroughly documented by historical records—Etna’s date back as far as 1500 B.C. Some 200 eruptions have been documented down through the centuries, but so far most have been fairly light in terms of dealing death and destruction. Only about a hundred deaths have been attributed to the volcano. The mountain hasn’t been entirely harmless, however; in 1928 it destroyed the town of Mascali.

• Grow Zone Etna's lower slopes have been shaped by human hands to take advantage of rich soils for terraced vineyards and groves of apple, chestnut, and hazelnut trees.

• Lava-Carved Caves Over the centuries volcanic lava has carved out more than 200 caves. Local people have used them for everything from sacred burial places to cold cellar food storage.

• Wildlife Large mammals once roamed the volcano’s flanks but today foxes, martens, wild cats, rabbits, and mice are more common. Some of those small mammals help to sustain spectacular birds of prey, such as peregrines and golden eagles.

• Volcanic Caldera The horseshoe-shaped Bove Valley is an ancient volcanic caldera of cliffs, gullies, and lava formations covering some 14 square miles (37 square kilometers). The walls of this large basin tower some 3,280 feet (1000 meters) high.

How to Get There

Catania, Sicily’s second largest city, is located in the shadow of Mount Etna. The Circumetnea railroad leaves from the Borgo metro station, and regular shuttles run from the city up the mountainside to the Rifugio Sapienza.

When to Visit

The best time to visit Etna is during a lava-producing eruption, and such spectacles attract hundreds of thousands of tourists. Unfortunately these events can’t be planned far in advance and require some travel flexibility. But they can last a long time: One lava flow in the Bove Valley began in December 1991 and continued until the spring of 1993.

How to Visit

A relaxing way to get a big picture view of the park is a three-hour trip on the Circumetnea train, which leaves from Borgo metro station in Catania and circles the mountain. Jeep tours to the mountain’s northern side can be booked from Catania, Taormina, Giardini Naxos, and Letojanni. On the south side cars and buses run from park headquarters in Nicolosi, and from other nearby communities, to the Rifugio Sapienza high on the mountain. From this alpine hut, cable cars and jeep busses climb higher toward the summit and guides lead climbs—though not into the dangerous restricted area near the active craters themselves.

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