Mount Etna is truly a hiker's dream. Hiking on a volcano with views of the Mediterranean Sea in the distance? It doesn’t really get much better than that. But where to start? After careful research and consideration of the lack of hiking we have done recently, I chose the Schiena dell’Asino trail. With breathtaking views of Mount Etna, the Sicilian coastline, and beautiful flora along the way, this trail is top-notch.
According to my All Trails app, the Schiena dell’Asino trail is a there and back trek, 4.1 miles each way, which is moderate in difficulty and fairly heavily trafficked. The estimated duration according to the app was 1 1/2 hours. I’m not sure what type of superhero clocked themselves at this rate; it took us an hour and a half to reach the top, and then another 45 minutes to go back down. We hike at a constant, but leisurely pace so we can enjoy the views and stop for pictures every now and then. Add in another 30 minute snack break at the top, and that brought our total time to just under 3 hours.
The trail is quite rocky in many areas, which made us extremely thankful we chose to wear our hiking boots. It is possible to hike this in tennis shoes; however, I would not recommend attempting this due to the rocky terrain. Your ankles will thank you later! And now, on to the hike!
The Schiena dell’Asino trailhead is located at the meeting point of Strada Provinciale 92 and Via Catania, with a small parking area available. It is also possible to park along the side of the road wherever you can find a spot. Click here for the GPS coordinates to the parking area. The trail head is just off to the right of the parking area and is clearly marked.
The beginning of the trail is extremely rocky, and has a constant incline for about the first half mile. Luckily, this part of the hike is surrounded by densely growing pine trees, which provide much needed shade for this tedious first section. No matter how much your muscles ache and your lungs burn, keep going!
The trial is very easy to follow, just follow the red and white trail markers. There really aren't any offshoots, other than short cuts that irresponsible hikers have made. There is a short side trail that goes to a cave called the Grotta di Pitagora, but we decided not to take it this time. I'm sure we'll be back. Something to look forward to for next time.
About a half mile up, watch for an opening in the trees with a small grassy patch. The view from here is the first reward for all of your hard work. You can see the surrounding mountainside, smaller concave shaped hills, and an impressive section of coastline that reaches up to Taormina to the north and down to Siracusa in the south.
After you come out of the trees, the terrain and vegetation starts to change. The trail meanders among larger rocks and provides soft, volcanic soil for walking. Replacing the pine trees are round bushes, tall yellow grasses, and small cactus plants that remind me of being in the dessert. Other than the trail and the obvious places where lava has flowed, plant life covers the sides of the mountain.
Speaking of lava flows, if you look with an observing eye you can catch dried up lava rivers in various sizes and stages. From solid rock that looks like it was petrified in mid-flow, to patches of soft black soil tracing paths down the mountain, Etna doesn’t let you forget that you are actually walking on an active volcano!
As you continue to trek up the trail, the views really start to open up. Glimpses of Etna’s peak, in all its smoke and glory, come into sight, along with larger rock formations and even more widespread views of the valleys below.
It's at this point of the hike when you start to realize how far up you've really come. When I say “up”, I’m not kidding. There are places where the trail levels off for a bit, but we’re talking about an elevation gain of over 1,300 feet over a distance of only two miles, and that's with the trailhead starting off at 6,000 feet! If you take a moment to sit down and have a breather, look around. You might notice that you're at eye level with some of the clouds, how's that for a view?
As you arrive at the juncture of the Cresta Serra del Salifizio trail and turn left, you'll find yourself walking along a ridge with a steep drop-off that looks directly down the outside of Etna's crater. This area is known as the Valle del Bove, or Valley of the Ox in Italian. If you think it looks like a dried up black lake, you're right! At one time there was a lake here, but it collapsed in on itself and left an empty field of dried lava surrounded by steep and jagged tree covered cliffs. Being that it’s fall, we were lucky enough to witness a stunning array of reds, golds and browns that stood out in stark contrast to the dried up lava field below.
The smoke rising up around you, treacherous rocky cliffs below, seismic activity equipment and a touching memorial to a fallen hiker are reminders that although beautiful, there are dangers lurking just below the surface
The translated words on the memorial are too beautiful not to share:
Stop being silent
Because now he is in the air
In the blue, in the green, in all the sunsets.
We will hear it in the howl of the wind
In the absolute silence
It will emerge from the snow with the first flowers
It will ride on the crests of the mountains
It will descend white along the noisy streams
It will swim in the endless seas
He will hold this little world with his arms of earth
And he will have overcome death by losing life."
The walk back down is much easier, and offers a different perspective on the incredible views this mountain shares with us. The switchback trail winds its way through golden fields of tall grasses amid a backdrop of lush green valleys, smokey clouds, and the sparkling blue Mediterranean Sea.
If you find yourself in Sicily, take some time to get to know Mount Etna and hike on some of her trials. It's hard work, but worth every step!
I hope you enjoyed my guide to hiking the Schiena dell’Asino trail. Stay tuned for more adventures on Mount Etna! I'd love to hear your thoughts and comments below.
Planning to visit Sicily some time in the future? Check out my other posts on living here!