Thousands of hikers every year head to Guatemala’s Pacaya National Park to watch slow-moving lava flows. (Courtesy: INGUAT, Guatemalan tourism bureau)
With Iceland’s Bardarbunga volcano threatening to erupt and spew ash, potentially disrupting global air travel, it’s a reminder of the power — and the majesty — of volcanoes. Amazingly, travelers around the world continue to flock to active volcanoes to get up close and personal with these angry giants; more than 1.5 million people visited Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park last year, and 60,000 climbed Guatemala’s Pacaya volcano.
From the red-hot magma of Hawaii to the rocky top of Mount Fuji, here are eight of the top global destinations where you can visit volcanoes — some of which have been quiet for hundreds of years, and others that continue to boil and bubble. Mind the warnings, and experience the power of planet Earth.
In the distance is the Halema’uma’u crater, viewed from Jaggar Museum in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. (Photo: Mark Wasser)
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park: For ease of access, as well as views of all things volcano, from live magma to ancient lava crusts and interpretive centers, you can’t beat this national park on the Big Island of Hawaii. You can cruise by car along Crater Rim Drive and survey the massive caldera from scenic viewpoints, and you can even hike around the area to track the paths of historic lava flows. The Halema’uma’u crater has been erupting steadily since 2008, with its fiery glow often visible, particularly in the evening. Just be sure to check the lava flow report for the latest conditions, because as Jack Handey said, “If you ever drop your keys into a river of molten lava, let ‘em go, because, man, they’re gone.”
The Temple of Jupiter in Pompeii, with Mount Vesuvius in the background (Photo: Woody Hibbard/Flickr)
Mount Vesuvius and Pompeii, Italy: One of the few iconic tourist destinations that’s more impressive in person than you would expect. The entire city of Pompeii was buried by a fast-moving ash explosion from nearby Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. The ash encased bodies, buildings, and a coliseum so perfectly that in a visit to the excavated site you truly feel as if you’re walking back in time, seeing the interiors of buildings with paint and mosaics still intact, along with the haunting plaster casts of the cringing victims of the blast. The ancient brothel looks ready for business, but try to refrain from any ménage à trois action inside it. Bold hikers can climb nearby Mount Vesuvius, which most recently erupted in 1944; it still belches smoke and is closed when things get too active.
Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument: Erupting in 1980, Mount St. Helens blasted away 150 square miles of forest in southern Washington along with a sizable chunk of the mountain itself. The area has since been declared a national monument and recreation area, with 110,000 acres of hiking trails and observation points, as well as a slowly recovering wilderness. Several visitors’ centers on the edges of the park offer interpretive guides and volcano education. It’s also possible to climb to the crater rim, a round trip of seven to 12 hours that will reward you with some impressive views at its 8,365-feet elevation. Surprisingly, the biggest danger at the crater rim is falling ice cornices.
The non-swimming-friendly crater pools of Mount Kelimutu (Photo: Bill Fink)
Mount Kelimutu, Indonesia: On the island of Flores, Indonesia, the craters of a triple-coned volcano are filled with dramatically colored (and lethally acidic) pools, ranging from greens to reds and browns, depending on the underground mineral flows. It’s a fairly remote area but is becoming more accessible with a new eco-lodge and tours. Visitors can ride along with a tour to the top for a dramatic sunrise vista — or be cheap and stubborn, and hike to the top for a sunset view as I did, then stumble back down through the jungle in the dark. Nearby villages cling to the sides of the slopes, offering handicrafts, local cuisine, and an optimistic viewpoint that the volcano’s not going to erupt again.
Remains of a bridge destroyed in the 1996 eruption in Iceland’s Skeidararsandur area (Photo: larfi/Flickr)
Volcanic Iceland: Iceland is a huge geothermal hotbed of volcanoes, geysers, and massive hot springs (not to mention waterfalls, sweeping mountain vistas, and icebergs). Assuming that the whole country doesn’t blow up in the coming weeks, Iceland will remain one of the world’s best spots for volcano tourism. I road-tripped across the country, stopping in the Skeidararsandur area to look at the displays related to its 1996 eruption, avalanche, and flood. In addition to the rocky lava flow, supersaturated ash fields contain quicksand, so watch where you step. Among the display items is the mangled solid steel bridge destroyed by the flow. Many local tour operators can take you up to and even inside of Iceland’s volcanoes.
Fuji in the distance (Photo: Bill Fink)
Mount Fuji, Japan: The saying goes in Japan, “There are two kinds of fools — those who have never climbed Mount Fuji and those who have climbed it more than once.” I did it twice — once in a crowded summer, again in a snowy spring. The long-dormant volcano (known as Fuji-san or “Mr. Fuji” to locals) stands as a towering, 12,388-foot-tall cone above lush farmlands. Hike up the rocky slopes, staying in huts along the way, or power up in one day (or by night to enjoy the sunrise). The rocky, trash-strewn crater, which looks like an ashtray, is a disappointment, but the views from it are unparalleled. Be mindful that popular summer weekends will turn the paths into a huge hiker traffic jam, while off-season hiking risks inclement weather. At least you won’t have to worry about an eruption, the last having been in 1707.
La Soufriere is still active and surrounded by jungle. (Photo: Bill Fink)
La Soufriere, St. Vincent: On the northern end of the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, La Soufriere (loosely translated as “The sulfur-spewer”) is an active volcano that last erupted in 1979. The jungled, smoking crater looks like something you’d see in Jurassic Park, an ominous hot spot with a crater lake that can be viewed from the windy rim hundreds of feet above it. The rim, 4,000 feet above sea level, can be reached after a hike of a few hours, which takes you alongside banana plantations and through a jungle.
If you really want to see lava up close, you can hike the Mount Pacaya volcano. (Courtesy: INGUAT, Guatemalan tourism bureau)
Pacaya Volcano, Guatemala: Within Guatemala’s Pacaya National Park, thousands of hikers each year ascend the slopes of 8,300-foot-tall Mount Pacaya across ash and rocky lava fields and walk right up to slow-moving molten lava flows — no guardrails here! Overnight campers on the volcano boast of roasting marshmallows over glowing lava holes. The typical guided three-mile tour (by foot or horseback) takes visitors past some hot points but avoids the more dangerous areas. And do stay tuned to warnings — the most recent area evacuations were this March as a large eruption took place, sending plumes of ash miles into the air.