Statistics from several sites and tour companies suggest that trips to both visit and hike volcanoes are climbing. Here's how to do it safely.
I peered over the craggy rim of Erta Ale, Ethiopia’s most active volcano, at the lava lake below. Beneath a gassy haze, boiling, ruby-red molten rock thickened and rose up, swelling like a tidal wave topped off by a fireworks display of crashing surf. Earth is made up of blood and guts, I thought, just like me.
I had stumbled upon the opportunity to hike to the 2,011-foot summit of Erta Ale while planning a road trip across the ancient kingdoms and lakes of Ethiopia’s Rift Valley. The East African Rift runs through Ethiopia’s crusty, northeastern Afar Region. There, the shifting of tectonic plates beneath the parched desertscape produces a chaos of fire and gases that can be seen at the top of Erta Ale, which contains one of the world’s six lava lakes. Though navigating congested urban streets represented the extent of my recent hiking prowess, I decided I had to climb the volcano. The two-day trek turned out to be the most arduous and spectacular event in my month-long trip, and whetted my appetite for more.
I’m not alone in my desire to gaze upon breathtaking vistas, watch heart-stopping pyrotechnics and gain insight into the fiery depths of the planet we inhabit. Statistics from several sites and tour companies suggest that trips to both visit and hike volcanoes are climbing. Volcano Adventures, a tour company founded by German volcanologist Tom Pfeiffer, says its day-trip excursions to Italy’s Stromboli and Etna volcanoes have increased by 15.3 percent since 2014. The number of people climbing Mount Nyiragongo, an active stratovolcano at Virunga National Park in Congo, increased 92 percent between 2015 and 2017. A National Park Service report estimates a 58 percent increase in visitors at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park since 2008, when Kilauea, an active shield volcano, began erupting. And with its current activity — a 4.6-magnitude temblor struck the Big Island on Thursday and shook Kilauea — there’s more opportunity to come.
“Volcano tourism is set to rise with the establishment of more volcanic and geothermal Geoparks and World Heritage sites,” said guidebook author Patricia Erfurt-Cooper, referring to the areas designated by UNESCO to protect the planet’s geological heritage.
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The risk of being trapped, injured or killed while hiking a live volcano, however, means one should undertake careful consideration and planning. Although I returned from my first trek with just a few minor cuts from stumbling over loose, razor-sharp rocks, I realized I should do some research before planning another. So I turned to several experts, including Rosaly Lopes, a senior scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and author of the “The Volcano Adventure Guide,” among others. Keep the following advice in mind when planning a volcanic adventure. Perhaps the most important tip is to consider obtaining travel insurance and extra coverage. As you’ll see below, both natural and political conditions can change rapidly.
Do your research: “Find out as much as possible about the volcano you plan to visit before leaving home,” Lopes advises. For example, which of the six eruption types does it exhibit? Hawaiian and Strombolian eruptions emit gentle lava flow and moderate eruptions, respectively. They represent the least dangerous types to watch. Plinian eruptions (similar in scale to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79) refer to the extremely destructive ones. “Be aware,” warns Lopes. “No two volcanoes are alike, even if they are classified as the same type.” For volcano research information online, check out the Smithsonian Institution’s Global Volcanism Program and the U.S. Geological Survey’s Volcano Hazards Program.
Lopes suggests preparing a checklist that includes information about the volcano’s current and past activity. Find out whether your volcano destination is regularly monitored by scientists from a nearby university; local experts and guides can provide invaluable details you might not find in general guidebooks. Take a look at maps that show roads or trails to the summit. See if escape routes have been provided and find out what kind of local emergency and search and rescue services are available.
Pack protective attire: Determine equipment and clothing based on what type of material your volcano is likely to expel, and your potential proximity to explosions, Lopes says. A visit to the tourist spots at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park shouldn’t require more than a sturdy pair of shoes. If you are hiking on rough, brittle volcanic terrain, such as on Erta Ale, wear long pants, hiking boots and a pair of leather gloves. A hard hat or helmet and protective goggles are advisable when visiting an active volcano that spits out Strombolian explosions, such as Yasur, on Tanna Island, the major tourist attraction in the South Pacific archipelago nation of Vanuatu.
“The more remote the area, the more emergency equipment you’ll want to bring,” Lopes says. “Carry the same essentials you would select for any challenging mountain or rock climbing excursion. Find out if there are cell, radio . . . or satellite communications services. Always carry plenty of water.”
Prepare for plumes: Ingrid Smet, geologist and tour coordinator at Volcano Adventures, advises carrying a gas mask to expeditions with fumaroles — openings that release toxic gases and steam — such as Nyiragongo.
“Even nonerupting volcanoes may produce a plume of gas or lots of fumaroles,” Lopes says. Lava that is entering the sea, as is common in Hawaii, can produce steam clouds that contain hydrochloric acid. Breathing these fumes may cause respiratory problems, eye and skin irritation. Be aware that the wind may change directions quickly. If you find yourself in perilous volcanic atmosphere without a gas mask, Lopes suggests tying a wet cloth over your nose and mouth.
Obey the signs: Always stay within barriers and obey restricted area signs. Last September, three people visiting the Solfatara volcano crater in Pozzuoli, a popular tourist attraction near Naples, died when an 11-year-old boy wandered past a barrier and fell into a pit; his parents tried to rescue him. If you aren’t sure you have firm lava to stand on, tread very carefully and be aware of the weight you bear on each leg. “Try to walk near the edges of flow channels rather than over the middle,” Lopes says. “Listen for crunchy noises underfoot and look for signs of broken crusts.”
Avoid the ‘bombs’: Explosive bursts within the volcano’s main vent can shoot magma “bombs” into the air, accompanied by loud, thunderous bangs and a dance of falling cinders. It’s a joy to watch, but keep in mind that, given the volatility of volcanic activity, there is no established standard for the safe distance from an eruption. Watch the direction and range of flying bombs. If dodging becomes impracticable, Lopes recommends finding a mound or large boulder for shelter and covering your head with a backpack when a helmet or hard-hat is unavailable. Running is advisable only when bombs appear to be pellet-sized and you can outrun their range, she says.
Take care at lava flows: While most visitors to Kilauea head to the Jaggar Museum’s overlook to view the eruption, others choose to walk over the uneven terrain formed by years of recent flows to watch the red-hot lava running into the sea. “Always check with park rangers before hiking out to lava flows,” says Jessica Ferracane, public affairs specialist at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. “Check the park website and watch for daily updates on the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory website for the latest conditions.” A good safety resource is the park’s Lava Safe video on YouTube.
Consider other dangers: Among Lopes’s most frightening experiences exploring an active volcano were a pack of unfriendly dogs and a gun-toting farmer. “There are times when the place itself is more dangerous than the volcano,” she said. Erfurt-Cooper concurs: “Safe access can be a problem in remote regions such as Kamchatka in the Russian Far East, the Aleutians or Mount Erebus. On occasion, volcanoes may become unsafe due to political unrest.” The trek up 11,378-foot Nyiragongo remains popular, despite the ongoing violence in Congo. And tours to Erta Ale, the volcano I visited, have grown since a 2012 incident in which five European tourists were killed by rebels. (The death of a German tourist in 2017 was deemed a tragic accident.) To help evaluate whether your destination is safe, check out the State Department’s travel advisory system.
As you ponder where to see Earth in its perpetual process of reinvention — with 1,500 potentially active volcanoes worldwide, there are plenty of choices — here are some sites recommended by the experts I spoke with.
Silfra fissure, Thingvellir National Park, Iceland: “You won’t necessarily see lava in Iceland,” Lopes says. “But you will enjoy wonderful volcanic landscapes, geysers and geothermal areas.” Silfra is a crack between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates filled with some of the clearest water on Earth. “You can actually see the surface expression of these two plates spreading apart,” she says.
Dallol, Ethiopia: This site, a half-day’s drive from Erta Ale, is “the most beautiful place I have ever seen in my life,” Lopes says. It’s Earth’s lowest land volcano, at 158 feet below the sea, and its sulfurous geysers glow in mineral colors.
Sierra Negra, Isabela Island, Galapagos Islands: The Galapagos archipelago delivers remote volcanic habitats, an array of invigorating activities and the blue-footed booby. Erfurt Cooper suggests visiting sea-horse shaped Isabela Island, for a challenging seven-mile hike on Sierra Negra Volcano, where you can peer into the depths of one of the world’s greatest volcanic calderas.