Its impossible to deny that Mount Etna is fascinating – the most active volcano in the world, its impact on the local landscape and history of Sicily cannot be ignored. Surrounding the volcano the landscape is covered in smaller vents, plateaus of lava and rock formations from centuries of eruptions.
It is however incredibly touristy.
At Etna South, the southerly main active crater, there is a cable car and chalets reminiscent of a ski centre. It is indeed a popular ski area in winter, but in summer you must be guided to the summit on foot or by vehicle.
As two mountaineers the prospect of being guided up a large dome of ash and lava didn’t appeal to us. Thankfully there are alternatives and hiring bikes turned out to be the perfect day out.
All around the Etna national park there are trails, both hiking and mountain biking which are well marked and available on the national park map. As it was, the company we hired the bikes – Etna bike tours – from gave us a pre-loaded GPS for the main trail – the Giro dell’Etna. Including the descent back to the rental place in Milo the total loop would be 55km.
The Trail starts just below Etna South, so we were dropped off with our bikes and GPS on a gloriously sunny day.
The first section of the route is a relatively easy contouring of the volcano on the western side as you follow the Pista Altomontana in and out of the woodland as it heads north past mountain huts. There’s some uphill and some downs but nothing too difficult.
The view inland was fantastic.
Despite the woodland, the landscape on the west of Etna is quite barren as the route crosses the 1843 lava fields, with little growing in them. We passed lava channels and caves until the trail turns eastwards as it heads around the north of Etna.
Here the lava fields from the 1614-24 eruptions are even more barren with not even a bit of grass growing in them and the trail becomes single track, rocky and a bit more technical. A few steps on razor sharp lava was enough to make me a bit worried, even with huge 29″ tyres.
From here the route starts to climb upwards as it heads up to Rifugio Santa Maria and it heads into the pine woodland – which, after the baking sunshine provided a welcome break from the heat. The trail through the pine woods eventually lead to a road at a cafe. We’d been advised that it was worth the uphill ride on the road to the second cafe before having a break. It definitely was.
The second Refugio better catered for bikers and had loads of outdoor seating in the woodland. It also had details of the local trail routes being developed by mountain bikers locally. The woods on the northern and eastern side of Etna definitely have potential for some great technical trails to be developed.
From here, now on the east, we had about 10km uphill on the road before we zipped downhill and eventually into the woods again – following trails.
The descent back to the town of Milo was some of the best downhill tracks I’ve done – not technically and while they weren’t swoopy narrow single tracks, they were definitely fast and endless. Great fun!
If you’re looking for an alternative to joining the hoard up to the summit crater then I’d highly recommend hiring bikes. I think we saw more of the volcano on our tour, learnt more about the different lava fields that we crossed (there’s lots of information signs) and had a much more fun adventure.