Five top volcanoes to climb, from Ecuador to Iceland

When summited safely, volcanoes offer an exhilarating glimpse into the depths of the earth. Climbing these smoky summits offers a real taste of the intrepid.

By Sarah Barrell
Published 6 Sept 2019, 13:00 BST
Sunset over Cotopaxi, Ecuador

The sun sets over Cotopaxi, Ecuador. From the summit on a clear day, views stretch for hundreds of miles across the Andes and Ecuador’s string of volcanoes.

Photograph by Getty Images

1. Cotopaxi, Ecuador

The main event in Ecuador’s awe-inspiring Avenue of the Volcanoes, Cotopaxi is the smouldering crown of the Andes. The stratovolcano last erupted in 2015, and constant ominous unrest means there’s the ever-present fear of ‘the big one’ wiping out much of the Ecuadorian capital, Quito. Still, it’s a red-hot ticket for hikers who can stand both the two-day trek and altitudes that reach 17,500ft. There are various warm-up hikes around Ecuador’s surrounding volcanic peaks to test your mettle before attempting this bubbling behemoth, but should you be up to it, the hike to Cotopaxi’s perfect conical shape is rewarded (by some game local operators) with the chance to mountain-bike down.

Yet the headline here isn’t the joyride, but the show-stopping, high-altitude views from the summit. On a clear day, these stretch for hundreds of miles across the Andes and Ecuador’s string of volcanoes. This should more than reward travellers who tackle Cotopaxi’s ‘heart breaker’ route that summits the snow-capped mountain, usually in the early hours of the morning — after a cup of coca leaf tea to help counter altitude sickness — before a sunrise bathes the slopes.

2. Cerro Negro, Nicaragua

The youngest volcano in Central America, Cerro Negro is one of Nicaragua’s most active. An hour’s hike is rewarded with epic views where surfers ride rocks and plumes of white ash on specially designed boards. But if it’s molten lava you’re after, Nicaragua has plenty of choice; Masaya’s surface lava lake and Telica’s steaming crater both have bubbling magma.

3. Eyjafjallajökull, Iceland

Notorious since its fiery volcanic ash closed much of Europe’s airspace in 2010, an ascent of this subglacial Icelandic volcano demands expert guidance. It’s best attempted in summer and only with guides who know the glacial terrain and supply relevant technical kit. On a clear day, you’ll be rewarded with fabulous 5,500ft summit views.

4. Kilauea, Hawaii

The ever-oozing magma and fiery lava lakes that resulted from its massive 1959 eruption make this peak on Hawaii’s Big Island a truly novel climb. Kilauea isn’t a monster, with a modest summit of just 4,090ft, but steep, jagged rocks can make it a tricky ascent. The last notable event here was in 2018, when molten lava reached nearby towns.

5. Sakurajima, Japan

Of all Japan’s 100-plus active volcanoes, Sakurajima, in the Kagoshima Prefecture, sees multiple, small, daily eruptions including towering smoke stacks, volcanic lightning and falling ash. It’s closely monitored, making hikes to nearby observation points relatively safe, with trails through spiky black smoking lava fields.

Published in the Adventure 2019 supplement distributed with National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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