Giro dell’Etna

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 start of the Pista Altomontana track

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.

Hiking Monte Inici

Having managed to escape the UK for only a week this year and finding ourselves in Sicily for sport climbing and sunshine, I was surprised that there wasn’t more information on hiking in the mountains given that Sicily is quite mountainous. In fact the only map I could find was of the Etna region.

Spending a few days in Castellamare del Golfo we were making the most of the beaches and the sport climbing in nearby San Vito. Castellamare del Golfo is busy little fishing town which has a typical touristy beach and restaurants. Its is also overshadowed by Mont Inici.

Despite the dominance of the mountain on the town it seemed few people walked up there, with no maps available and very unloved footpaths and trails. There were however intermittent signposts at junctions making it possible to see that once it had been a popular area to hike.

So, armed with digital mapping (which turned out to be pretty accurate on all our walks in Sicily) we set off on the tracks from the view point above the town.

While Monte Inici stands at 1060m and looks like an imposing mountain, its actually covered in wide tracks which are suitable for mountain biking as well as hiking. This does mean that Sicilians also drive off-road vehicles to the summit to forage for fungi and other delights.

From Castellamare the track zigzags endlessly up the steep hillside and heads into the pine woodland.

From here the path splits and we headed East towards Pizzo Stagnone and round to the East side of the hill before more zig zags upwards. The view across the other side of the mountain was fantastic.

As we reached the col between Monte Inici and Pizzo Delle Niviere we entered dense deciduous woodland and we met a German hiker who warned us about large pigs.

Wondering about if he meant wild boar and how dangerous they might be, we continued on to the rather disappointing summit of Monte Inici – and its radio masts. Ok not the summit trig point we were hoping for but worth it for the view.

Since we were here we walked across to the slightly more impressive (definitely only slightly) of Pizzo Delle Niviere. At least this had a trig point of sorts.

Sicilian Trig pillars leave a lot to be desired!

After a bit of debate we decided to make the walk a circuit and descended westwards before contouring round to reach the path across Pizzo Crastone and then northwards to Pizzo del Dottore.

On the descent from the summit we met 2 vehicles of Sicilians collecting mushrooms who also warned us of wild pigs.

At this point the endless switchbacks became a bit tedious in the scorching sunshine and we were pleased to finally reach the descent path on the Northside down to the road.

This section was the only bit that was on narrow paths, and these were a bit overgrown and like wading through the undergrowth and fallen trees, but even then relatively easy to navigate.

We never did see the wild boars/pigs, but I did find porcupine spines and this praying mantis.

The whole circuit turned out to be 26km so a good hikes albeit on relatively easy tracks. A mountain bike would definitely have been the best way to descend!