On the Volcano’s Edge

Looking for an adventure-packed guy getaway escape? Check out these six active volcano locales for a hot time with molten lava.

You’re winded from the climb and breathing hard, which isn’t easy because the air smells like hell itself—that trademark scent of sulfur. You reach the crest of the hill and crane your neck to see through the mist. At first you see just flashes of light through the clouds. Then you get closer.

A deep rumble shakes the ground below your feet. Mother Nature’s stomach is growling. Then, POW! A jet stream of rocks and fire spew upward like the tongue of a medieval dragon. The crater of Volcán Arenal is “coughing” up rocks and sputtering lava—the famous “strombolian” eruption style named for the volcano off the coast of Italy.

There’s something about a volcano vacation that gets the testosterone going. It seems to be custom built for “man-cations,” trips that guys can take together, with their families or solo. The great thing about volcanoes is their sheer diversity. You can find eruptions that are safe enough to bring the family (Hawaii) or extremely challenging for solo hikes (Stromboli) or great buddy-building options (Arenal in Costa Rica with a side trip to a hot spring spa).

David Swanson is a dedicated volcano vacationer. The National Geographic Traveler contributing editor has traveled to 50 volcanoes in 20 different countries to seek out the grandeur, drama and white-knuckle excitement that you get in what he calls “Mother Nature’s kitchen.”

“That's where it’s all cooking,” says Swanson. “The earth is being formed by many forces but there are few that are as visual as a volcano. It’s unpredictable. It’s the Earth recreating itself right in front of you.”

Swanson explains that you don’t have to be a scientist or athlete to take a volcanic vacation. “There are many types of volcanoes and different types of access to them,” he says.

“The main thing to remember is to check in with local authorities to make sure you’re on a safe path and not putting yourself literally in the line of fire. Active volcanoes are just that … active. They change. One month the lava flow may be diverted to another area. Gases may be at a toxic level. The dangers aren’t always apparent to someone who doesn’t know the local landscape, so get the latest information from the authorities at the site you’re planning to visit and stay on recommended paths.”

Do your research ahead of time; pack a sturdy pair of shoes, a good stiff walking stick and our list of six of the best places on earth to get a glimpse of the real hell’s kitchen.

1. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park surrounds the active volcano of Kilauea on the Big Island, and is one of the most visited attractions of Hawaii. For good reason—it’s one of the most dramatic examples of a live volcano in the world. The ancient Hawaiians’ most-revered goddess was Pele, the Queen of Kilauea. Locals say you can still see her, disguised as an old woman walking through the cooled tracks of obsidian that are dried beds of lava.

Follow the park paths and stay away from closed areas and this is one of the safest places to see a live volcano in action, which is why so many traveling families love it. For a one- to three-hour visit, the park recommends exploring the summit of the volcano via the Crater Rim Drive, an 11-mile road that rings the open mouth or caldera (like the word, cauldron) of the volcano. This is also one of the best places in the world to view moving, molten lava flowing into the sea. Check the official Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Web site for current conditions. A local superstition says you must not take anything from Pele’s sacred volcano or you’ll incur the goddess’ wrath, so hands off those pretty rocks!

2. Volcán Arenal National Park, Costa Rica

February through May is the best time to see the eruptions that make Volcán Arenal so dramatic. It may seem strange to recommend the rainy season as the best volcanic viewing time, but these are the months when you’ll most likely be able to see the incandescent rocks being “coughed” into the air. Nighttime is a great viewing opportunity and you can soothe away tired muscles from your hike in the nearby five-star hot springs resort of Tabacón.

3. Stromboli, Italy

“Stromboli is terrific,” says Swanson. “At night it’s spectacular; it’s glowing embers and you can get a great view of it from the sea.” Hardier travelers may want to hoof it but Swanson warns that although the two-hour trek up is not particularly hard, the trip down is more challenging. “I was literally covered in ash when I got to the bottom.” There are also guide services for hikers in the village of Stromboli. You have to go with an authorized guided group because it’s illegal to climb to the top of the mountain without them. Check out www.magmatrek.it for more information.

4. Mount Bromo, Java, Indonesia

This active 2,392 meter high volcano is topped by a huge crater, the Bromo Semeru Massif. “It’s actually a vast caldera containing seven craters, one of which is active and often has a plume rising from its gullet,” says Swanson. Best time to visit is the dry season (April-November), but all year ‘round you may see villagers from surrounding towns making offerings to the volcano god to appease his rumbling wrath. Although Bromo is currently active, lava hasn’t spewed forth in recent years. What you get with Bromo is a lot of vent steam and ash and great views from the main crater to Gunung Semeru, Java’s highest mountain peak.

5. Réunion Island

Réunion is a volcanic island in the Indian Ocean, east of Madagascar, and technically still part of the French Republic. “Réunion is hard to get to but worth it,” Swanson notes. “You can drive almost to the summit of the mountain. It erupts surprisingly regularly with spectacular fountains.” The volcano itself is called Piton de la Fournaise (Peak of the Furnace). Check out Volcano Discovery—a tour company that offers volcano tours of Réunion and other destinations. Along with the volcano itself, a journey to Réunion offers the chance for travelers to immerse themselves in Creole traditions, Tamil temples and other vibrant reminders that Réunion is a cultural crossroads island off the coast of southeast Africa.

6. Old Faithful, Yellowstone National Park

Technically, Yellowstone National Park sits atop a huge supervolcano that erupted millions of years ago and may erupt again someday—causing apocalyptic destruction. Until then, it’s one of the United States’ most visited attractions and home to 50 percent of the world’s geysers, a word from the Icelandic meaning, “to gush.” A geyser is created by the same action in the earth that make volcanoes, but in this case you get big jets of very hot water and steam. In the case of Old Faithful, it’s pretty predictable. So predictable, in fact, that the National Parks Service has set up a Web cam and you can watch live streaming video of Old Faithful’s next eruption as well as other geysers in the park.

Even armchair travelers, it seems, can live vicariously through a virtual, volcanically induced eruption. 

Destinations: La Fortuna, Costa Rica, Italy, Indonesia, Yellowstone National Park, Big Island of Hawaii

Themes: Family Travel, Outdoor Adventures

Activities: Hiking

User Comments

I prefer the "sleeping" ones Still, I think all the volcanic excitement I can take is hanging out on the dormant volcanoes.