Mount Etna is Europe’s highest active volcano. Certainly, it’s a must-see during a trip to Sicily. And, there’s no better way to explore Mount Etna than by hiking on its magnificent volcanic carpet. As always, there’s the age-old question of whether a Mount Etna tour is necessary or whether you can hike Mount Etna without a guide. As is often the case in Sicily, the rules regarding access can be confusing, contradictory and often ignored. In this guide, we’re going to explore your best options for doing the Mount Etna hike. We’ll talk about the best Mount Etna hiking tours (which usually start near Rifugio Sapienza) as well as doing the Mount Etna hike independently and the accessibility rules in relation to this.
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The Ultimate Guide to Visiting Mount Etna
Mount Etna is a breathtaking volcano that’s been blowing the minds of visitors for many years. Personally, Beck and I spent much of 2022, volcano hiking in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua in Central America. After doing around 20 volcano hikes that year, you’d think we’d have been all volcano’d out! But, when a trip to Sicily was calling in the not-too-distant future, Mount Etna, of course, was at the top of the itinerary list. And, rightly so.
From our Central America travels, one thing was instilled in our thinking – you should always hike active volcanoes with a guide. Sounds logical and reasonable, right? So, admittedly, carrying over that thinking, we thought it best to explore Mount Etna, a very active volcano, with a guide, doing one of the many tours on offer. Of course, there are many Mount Etna hiking tours to choose from and other tours with less of a focus on hiking. The plethora of options is overwhelming. So, to make life easy for you, we’ll go through all of the best Mount Etna tours.
Of course, many people are interested in hiking Mount Etna without a guide. Yes, visiting Mount Etna on your own is possible. But, there are a few caveats and things to know. So, we’ll explain the rules and regulations for climbing Mount Etna independently. Also, we’ll explain, step by step, exactly how to hike Mount Etna without a guide, as it’s not so straightforward. Indeed, there are many different options regarding transport on certain parts of the volcano.
So, hopefully, this guide will answer all of your questions and concerns about hiking Mount Etna, whether guided or independently. Anyway, let’s start by looking at Mount Etna hiking tours.
Mount Etna Tours
Given Mount Etna is an active volcano, most people choose to do a guided tour. That’s exactly what Beck and I did. As mentioned, there are tonnes of Mount Etna tours to choose from. To help you decide which Mount Etna tour is best for you, we’ll go through a few important points to note below. Namely, we’ll talk about what part of Mount Etna there is to explore (Etna South vs Etna North). Additionally, we’ll talk about the main differences between doing a Mount Etna tour in the off-season compared with peak season.
Visiting Etna South vs Etna North
Mount Etna is a complex volcanic area with over 300 craters! Although, there are four (or five depending on who you ask) main craters, which are the active ones. There’s the southeast crater, which is the most visited crater, that you’ll explore from Etna South. Because the southeast crater complex is formed by two distinct craters, some people count the southeast crater as two craters, rather than just the one crater complex.
You’ve also got the northeast crater, which can be explored from Etna North. It’s possible to do a hiking tour to explore the northeast crater but is far less common. Then, there are the Bocca Nuova and Voragine craters, which are the two central craters, which were previously just one crater, called the Central Crater. Similarly, it’s possible to do a hiking tour to explore the central craters, but very few companies offer this tour.
Most Mount Etna tours explore the southeast crater. So, the far majority of people will visit Etna South and hike to or near the southeast crater. Indeed, that’s what Beck and I did. To that end, most of the information about hiking Mount Etna, in this guide, refers to hiking Etna South. If you’re hiking independently, most will do so from Etna South and this is reflected in the information in this guide.
If you’re the intrepid type, interested in exploring the northeast or central craters, then these tours may suit you best. Both start from Etna North. GetYourGuide offers tours for exploring each of these craters. To explore the northeast crater, consider Mount Etna’s North Slope Craters Guided Hike Tour. To hike to the central craters, you could do the Mount Etna Central Crater Guided Hike for Advanced Hikers.
Visiting During Off-Season vs Peak Season
If you visit during the peak season in summer (June to August) or even during the shoulder seasons from April to May and September to October, most, if not all Mount Etna tours will be available. Usually, by April, and certainly by summer, most of the snow atop Mount Etna would have melted, so there are fewer restrictions on accessing the craters.
If you choose to visit in the off-season, between November and March, as Beck and I did, you’ll find fewer tours are available. Indeed, many tour operators only offer tours between April and October. So, you’ll have fewer options to choose from. Also, between November and March, because of snow, there are more limitations on activities. For instance, because of snow, on a tour, you’ll unlikely hike to or near the summit of the southeast crater, which is approx. 3,340 metres above sea level. You’ll likely only hike to around 2,900 metres above sea level.
Mount Etna Hiking Tours
Now you know a little bit more about which Mount Etna craters there are to visit and the differences in visiting during off-season and peak season, let’s look at the most popular Mount Etna hike tours. As mentioned, most tours (and the one discussed below) explore the southeast crater from Etna South.
Personally, Beck and I did GetYourGuide’s Mount Etna Summit and Crater Guided Trek Tour, operated by Etna Est. We’ll talk all about this fantastic tour in the following section – Mount Etna Hiking Tour: Our Experience.
Mount Etna Summit and Crater Tour
We highly recommend this Mount Etna Summit and Crater Guided Trek Tour that we did. Certainly, it’s one of the most popular Mount Etna hiking tours!
Another popular and similar option is GetYourGuide’s Etna Guided Trekking Tour to Summit Craters, operated by Ashàra Volcanological Guides in Sicily.
Please note, that for both of these two hiking tours mentioned above, you’ll need to get yourself to Rifugio Sapienza independently by car. Thankfully, if you don’t have a hire car and need to be picked up from Catania, some tour companies offer Catania pick-up and drop-off. GetYourGuide’s Mount Etna Cable Car, Jeep & Hiking Tour to Summit, operated by Sicilying S.R.L. is a similar summit hiking tour that offers pick-up and drop-off in Catania.
Best Mount Etna Tour From Catania
The Mount Etna Cable Car, Jeep & Hiking Tour to Summit is the best tour starting from Catania
The other Mount Etna hiking tour option worth mentioning is GetYourGuide’s Mount Etna Trekking Trip off the Tourist Path. This is a great option for those who want to do some hiking, but want to avoid the tougher climb to the summit. Indeed, it’s a great tour for exploring the quieter trails at Mount Etna, away from the hoards of tourists doing the organised summit tours. This tour also offers Catania pick-up and drop-off.
Other Mount Etna Tours
There are many other Mount Etna tour options that don’t involve hiking or as much hiking. Let’s briefly look at these options below.
- From Catania – Mount Etna Sunset Tour: visiting Mount Etna at sunset is a memorable experience. With Catania pick-up and drop-off, you’ll enjoy a stress-free and unforgettable trip to Mount Etna.
- Mount Etna Morning or Sunset Day Trip with Tasting: if you like the finer things in life and want more of a cultural experience, then the Mount Etna tour with tastings should be right up your alley. It’s possible to select the option of a sunset tour, so you get the best of both worlds.
- Etna Helicopter Tour: after flying our drone at Mount Etna, we can only imagine the delights of seeing an active volcano from the sky. This is the most luxurious tour option and would be a memorable experience. Unfortunately, the tour doesn’t seem to be running currently.
Best Half Day Etna Tour From Catania
This Mount Etna Morning or Sunset Tour From Catania is the most popular half-day tour, which includes tastings
Hiking Mount Etna Without A Guide: Is It Possible?
It’s possible to visit Etna on your own and hike without a Mount Etna guide. Of course, we don’t recommend exploring an active volcano without a guide. If there is an eruption, an unexpected event or something else goes wrong, you’ll want to be with a local guide. Period. But, if your heart is set on hiking Mount Etna independently, then you’ll be happy to know that it’s possible. Although, the rules around hiking Mount Etna independently aren’t so clear cut.
According to our guide, there has always been a limit as to how high you can hike Mount Etna independently. The limit has always been 2,900 metres above sea level. Basically, you’re not allowed to hike beyond this height if you’re hiking independently. This means you can’t hike to the crater summits (3,340 metres above sea level) without a guide. Certainly, it would be a shame to hike all that way and not be able to hike to the craters.
Of course, some people ignore the rules or even shadow organised tours to reach the southeast summit. Other than the guides getting angry at you and discouraging you to do this, we’ve never heard of any accounts of people being fined or punished. Of course, this isn’t the point. Wandering around the craters of an active volcano, without a guide, is just putting yourself and others at risk.
Anyway, if you’re happy to follow the rules and just hike to 2,900 metres above sea level, let us talk you through, step by step, how to do just that.
How to Visit Etna On Your Own
So, you’re thinking of hiking Etna without a guide. Even so, there are different options and hiking itineraries to choose from when hiking Mount Etna, independently, from Rifugio Sapienza. Let’s go through your possible journey, step by step.
- Get to Rifugio Sapienza: either drive there yourself or catch a bus. More details on how to get to Mount Etna can be found here.
- From Rifugio Sapienza (1,900m) to the Mountain Hut (2,500m): from Rifugio Sapienza, you can hike to or catch the cable car to the Mountain Hut. You can hike, for free, from Rifugio Sapienza to the Mountain Hut. But, it’s a fairly dull and arduous hike. If you choose this option, then consider hiking up the mountain road instead of the hiking trail that follows underneath the cable car. The mountain road is much easier to hike up and down on. If you want to take the cable car, in 2023, the price is a whopping €50 per person for a return trip.
- Mountain Hut to Unimog (4×4 bus) Parking Area (2,700m): from the Mountain Hut, you can continue to hike, for free, to a maximum allowed altitude of 2,900m. You can follow less defined trails from the Mountain Hut, or, follow the Unimog road until the Unimog parking area, which is around 2,700m. From the parking area, the lookouts at the base of the southeast crater, which are around 2,900 metres above sea level, are nearby. Alternatively, you can catch a Unimog to the nearby parking area and hike the remaining distance to the lookouts at 2,900m. In 2023, the Unimog costs €30 per person for a return trip.
- Return to Rifugio Sapienza: you’ll then hike back down or use the Unimog and/or the cable car to descend.
Mount Etna Hiking Tour: Our Experience
Doing a hiking tour is, above all, the most logical option for exploring Mount Etna regarding safety and accessibility of the crater summits. Below, we’ll tell you about our experience doing GetYourGuide’s Mount Etna Summit and Crater Guided Trek Tour.
In terms of getting to Rifugio Sapienza, you’ll need to drive there yourself. That’s because the tour starts at 8:30am and the earliest bus to Rifugio Sapienza arrives around 10:15am. So, public transportation won’t be an option. Of course, the most convenient option is to stay at Rifugio Sapienza itself!
Stay at Rifugio Sapienza
Why not stay at the cosy and comfortable lodge at Rifugio Sapienza and explore Mount Etna, literally from its base?
In terms of hiking gear that you’ll need, hiking boots are mandatory. If you don’t have hiking boots, the guide will give you a pair. This is included in the price of the tour. You’ll also be given a helmet, which no one usually wears. But, you’ll need one with you to do the tour.
At around 9am, you’ll walk from near Rifugio Sapienza up to the Mount Etna cable car station to begin your journey up the volcano.
Personally, when we visited, the activity at Mount Etna was considerably high. For that reason, at the time of our visit in early 2023, the Sicilian government had placed restrictions on accessing the summit craters. So, even on our hiking tour with a guide, we were only allowed to go 2,900 metres above sea level.
At times when this restriction is in place, it’s reasonable to consider hiking independently, particularly if you’re on a shoestring budget, as you’ll essentially reach the same height compared with doing a tour. Although, after all, we always recommend hiking an active volcano with a guide due to safety risks.
Mount Etna Cable Car
By riding the Mount Etna cable car, you’ll eliminate the need for tedious hiking from Rifugio Sapienza to the Mountain Hut. The catch is, the cable car isn’t cheap. Usually, the return cable car ticket is around €30 per person. But, in 2023, the prices have risen sharply to €50 per person for a round trip. Personally, we had booked the tour, about two months in advance, when the tickets were still only €30 per person. Indeed, it was quite a shock to be told the tickets had gone up by €20! But, as that’s the rate set by the Sicilian government, there’s no room for negotiation.
Our ride on the cable car was scenic but very stop-start. Perhaps, that’s because we were the first group to go up that day and the cable car was just warming up! Anyway, once you reach the Mountain Hut, the Mount Etna walk begins.
Exploring Europe’s Highest Active Volcano
From the Mountain Hut, you’ll begin your guided hiking tour of Mount Etna. Personally, we had a very knowledgeable and well-travelled guide, who told us loads of interesting information about the volcano. By doing the hike with a guide, you’ll likely take less-defined trails, which are particularly fun and adventurous. After seeing many awesome volcanic features, such as lava fields, lava tunnels and fumaroles, you’ll eventually reach the base of the southeast summit. In particular, you’ll hike up the edge of a lateral crater to access an awesome viewpoint.
DJI Air 2S
As mentioned, we couldn’t continue to the crater summits given the accessibility restrictions as a result of the high activity of the volcano. But, even so, from the base of the southeast crater, you’ll enjoy mesmerising views of Mount Etna. Luckily, we had superb weather. We hope you’re also lucky as a clear day brings exceptional views of the volcano.
After some lunch, you’ll then continue your hiking adventure. You’ll take an alternate route back to the Mountain Hut, exploring different areas of Mount Etna. Of particular note is Valle del Bove (Valley of the Ox), which is a huge depression that was formed during a huge eruption of Mount Etna.
Once you reach the Mountain Hut, you’ll jump back on the cable car, returning to Rifugio Sapienza. Once you arrive, the tour is essentially finished and you’re free to do as you please after returning your helmet (and hiking boots if you rented them) to the office.
How to Get to Mount Etna
To explore the popular southeast crater of Mount Etna, you’ll need to get to Rifugio Sapienza in Etna South. Below, we’ll look at your options for getting to Rifugio Sapienza.
Getting to Rifugio Sapienza By Car
The easiest and quickest way to get to Rifugio Sapienza is to drive there yourself. In the peak season, you’ll need to pay for parking at Rifugio Sapienza. Otherwise, you may be fined. As of 2023, the rates are €3.50 for half-day parking and €6 for full-day parking. You’ll likely pay €6 for full-day parking (beyond 1pm) if you’re doing a hiking tour. But, in the off-season, you don’t need to pay for parking as no one is checking. Of course, confirm this with your guide on the day. Personally, we didn’t have to pay for parking in March.
If you don’t have your own car, you should hire one using Discover Cars. Personally, we use Discover Cars and highly recommend them for finding your ideal car hire at an affordable price. Booking online is super easy and the free cancellation policy is great.
Personally, Beck and I picked up our car hire from Catania International Airport. For an automatic car, we only paid around €7 ($7USD) per day!
Getting to Rifugio Sapienza By Bus
It’s possible to get public transport to Rifugio Sapienza by taking the bus. The buses depart from Catania’s Stazione Centrale at 8:15am. There’s often a single departure or sometimes two departures in the peak season. As mentioned, this bus arrives at Rifugio Sapienza at around 10:15am (after stopping at the town of Nicolosi).
Because most Mount Etna hiking tours start at around 8:30 or 9am, taking the bus won’t be a viable option if you’re doing a tour. But, if you’re visiting independently, you could certainly use public transport. The return bus departs Rifusio Sapienza at 4:30pm. It arrives back in Catania at around 6pm. The trip back is shorter as the bus won’t stop at Nicolosi. This bus will set you back around €6.60 per person for the roundtrip.
Usually, the company running this shuttle bus is AST Buses. In the peak season, it’s recommended to buy your tickets in advance, the day before. Otherwise, at the very least, arrive early on the day, by the latest 7:30am, to guarantee a seat. You can find the AST Buses office here.
Transportation to Rifugio Sapienza Included in a Tour
Thankfully, some tour companies offer Catania pick-up and drop-off as part of the tour. GetYourGuide’s Mount Etna Cable Car, Jeep & Hiking Tour to Summit and Mount Etna Trekking Trip off the Tourist Path offers Catania pick-up and drop-off.
Where to Base Yourself For Visiting Mount Etna
Most people visiting Mount Etna will base themselves in Catania. But, we’ve got an even better idea! We highly recommend basing yourself at the foot of Mount Etna in the charming town of Zafferana Etnea. That way, you’ll have sublime views of Mount Etna from your accommodation.
Personally, Beck and I stayed at Villa Vulcano in Zafferana Etnea. This lodge is an outstanding option for those wanting a budget stay near Mount Etna. Although, it felt more like a luxurious stay (at a super affordable price), given the excellent location, facilities and staff.
Indeed, we highly recommend avoiding staying in the busy city of Catania and staying in the relaxed, quiet and charming town of Zafferana Etnea. The benefit of a shorter drive to Rifugio Sapienza is just another benefit of basing yourself closer to Mount Etna. As mentioned, the most convenient accommodation option would actually be staying at Rifugio Sapienza itself.
Of course, if you don’t have a car hire, are catching public transport or are getting picked up from a tour company, you’ll need to base yourself in Catania. We recommend checking out Booking.com to explore your accommodation options in Catania.
Mount Etna Facts and Useful Things to Know
Before you visit Mount Etna, there are a few useful things to know. Mount Etna is Europe’s highest active volcano and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Because of this, Mount Etna is one of the most highly visited tourist attractions in Sicily. Below, we’ll cover some facts about Mount Etna and essential information that’ll help you be prepared for your visit.
Mount Etna Altitude and Elevation
The elevation of Mount Etna is approx. 3,340 metres above sea level. The highest altitude of Mount Etna is actually at the southeast crater complex. There’s a mighty difference between Rifugio Sapienza at around 1,900 metres above sea level and the summit of Mount Etna. That’s why the cable car and Unimog are there to ease your journey from the bottom to the top of the volcano.
Of course, if you’re hiking independently, from Rifugio Sapienza, even to the highest allowed limit without a guide (2,900 metres above sea level), you’ll have your work cut out. That’s why the Mount Etna hike difficulty is considered very hard if you hike all the way independently.
FYI – because you’ll go beyond 2,500 metres above sea level, altitude sickness is a risk. Sure, most people will be fine. But, if you’re feeling a bit rough as you explore Mount Etna, it’s possible that you may be experiencing altitude sickness. If you’re feeling unwell, make sure to let your guide know.
Mount Etna Weather
At around 3,340 metres above sea level, the weather at Mount Etna can be unpredictable, which is typical for mountain climates. In winter, you can expect snow to cover most of Mount Etna. Needless to say, it can get well below freezing in winter. And, even during summer, you can expect cold weather atop Mount Etna. Make sure you’re prepared – take plenty of layers! Read our What to Pack and Wear section for more information.
When Is Best to Visit
There isn’t necessarily a best time to visit Mount Etna, as it really comes down to personal preference. Most people visit Sicily in summer for the warmest and best weather. But, the weather at Mount Etna is unpredictable. Even in summer, Mount Etna can still experience bad weather, poor visibility and even thunderstorms and lightning. Also, in summer you’ll have to contend with the huge number of visitors during the peak season.
By the same token, visiting in winter isn’t recommended. Because of snow, access to Mount Etna may be severely limited. Perhaps, to avoid the crowds, but to avoid limited access due to snow, it’s best to visit just outside of the peak season. By mid-April (May to be sure), most of the snow has melted and the peak season hasn’t begun. Similarly, just after peak season, in September and October, you shouldn’t have any limited access due to snow and the crowds should start to thin. With this in mind, visiting just outside of peak season may be the winning formula!
Of course, you can never guarantee good weather, that high up a mountain, any time of year. So, best of luck when you visit!
Facilities and Amenities
You’ll find plenty of shops, restaurants and also toilets around Rifugio Sapienza. At the Mountain Hut, you can also buy food, drinks and souvenirs. There are also toilets at the Mountain Hut, which are convenient to use before setting out on a hiking tour.
Below, you’ll find the most frequently asked questions about Mount Etna.
How Long Does it Take to Climb Mount Etna?
This depends on how you visit. Most hiking tours, that reach the summit, take around six hours, with around three to four hours of hiking. If you’re hiking independently, without using the cable car or Unimog services, the hike up could take anywhere between 2–4 hours, depending on your level of fitness. Of course, the hike down would be much quicker, taking around 1.5–3 hours, again, depending on your level of fitness.
Is the Mount Etna Summit Open?
Not all the time. The Sicilian government will restrict access to the summit, usually prohibiting access higher than 2,900 metres above sea level, when there are high levels of volcanic activity.
Is it Safe to Climb Mount Etna?
Yes, if you hike with a guide, hiking Mount Etna is much safer. Certainly, hiking independently isn’t as safe. And, above all, Mount Etna is an active volcano. So, as is the case with exploring any active volcano, safety is never guaranteed.
Can You Drive Up Mount Etna?
How Often Does Mount Etna Erupt?
Mount Etna erupts fairly regularly. On average, it erupts every 2–3 years.
Is Mount Etna Worth Visiting?
Yes, absolutely. We highly recommend visiting Europe’s highest active volcano.
What to Pack and Wear
Here is some gear that would be helpful to use when hiking Mount Etna.
Osprey Skarab 30
The Osprey Skarab 30 is our go-to hiking backpack for day hikes. This well-designed unisex backpack is comfortable and spacious, so you’ll have plenty of space to pack everything without feeling the strain on your upper back.
Osprey Ultralight Raincover
A waterproof backpack cover is an absolute must when you’re adventuring outdoors. The Osprey Ultralight Raincover Medium is a high-quality waterproof cover that’ll keep your backpack bone dry.
GRAYL Reusable Water Bottle
The GRAYL GeoPress is the best water filter bottle that allows you to purify 710mL (12 ounces) of water. This bottle will make water safe to drink wherever you’re hiking.
BUFF Original Ecostretch
The BUFF Original Ecostretch is a great option when it comes to multifunctional headwear. We use the Ecostretch as a neck gaiter to keep the sun off our necks and it helps us keep warm in cooler climates.
To find out more about all of the gear that we use and recommend, read our guides about our favourite hiking gear, travel gear and camera gear. Otherwise, read our comprehensive travel packing checklist.
Leave No Trace
As always, make sure to bring back anything that you take with you onto Mount Etna. It goes without saying when exploring any natural setting, but, please, leave no trace.
Certainly, you’ll want travel insurance for doing riskier activities, such as climbing active volcanoes!
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- The rules are constantly changing: the Sicilian government sets the rules for cable car pricing and limits on volcano accessibility. In 2023, our guide even mentioned that the limit for independent hikers will reduce to 2,500 metres above sea level. In theory, this means the Mountain Hut would be as high as you’re allowed to go. So, don’t be surprised if the prices and rules are different when you visit. Please let us know in the comments if any of the information in this guide is incorrect or outdated. After all, pricing, hiking limits and rules and regulations are constantly changing.
- Visit in the off-season: yes, there are fewer tours available to choose from. But, you’ll enjoy much quieter hiking trails at Mount Etna. Also, the volcano looks even more exceptional with a dusting of snow.
- Do other hikes in Sicily too: for information about all of the best hikes in Sicily, read our Sicily hiking guide.
Will you hike Mount Etna with or without a guide? We hope this guide has helped you make your decision for when you visit Mount Etna.