Magma Carta

Twelve great ways to heat up your fall travel plans

Nov 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

YASUR VOLCANO IS ANGRIER during Vanuatu's wet season, which begins this month. The waters off Hawaii's Big Island are cooler now, making for even showier explosions when Kilauea's 2,000-degree lava flows hit the shoreline. And it's the perfect time to visit the magma-oozing, sulfur-belching cauldrons of Central and South America. Thus, we've unilaterally dubbed November International Volcano Month. To celebrate, we've chosen 12 of the world's most spectacular volcanic hot spots—those that sputter reliably, but won't necessarily render you a Pompeian statue. Such endeavors are, by nature, volatile, and several cones are better seen in summer, so check with the World Organization of Volcano Observatories ( before booking your trip.

1. Akutan Island  |  4,275 feet
Aleutian Islands, Alaska

It's a ten-mile hike to Akutan's summit caldera, where endless simmer has reigned for decades and where ash spews from a small hole and lands with a fizz into an adjacent glacial lake. Don't rush it: You'll pass two fields of steaming vents along the way. The groundwater around each vent boils, and there is a variety of hot springs, ranging from a scalding 120 degrees to a tepid 90.

GETTING THERE: Fly from Anchorage to Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island, where you can catch a daily flight to Akutan village. Aleutian Adventure Sports (907-581-4489) runs a four-day trip in July and August for $1,020.

2. Yellowstone  |  8,000 feet
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

When the Yellowstone caldera, now one of the half-dozen largest in the world, last popped around 628,000 B.C., it blanketed everything between California and New Orleans in ash before collapsing into a 28-by-47-mile crater. So? Well, it's the largest grouping of magmatic features on Earth: huge geysers (Old Faithful can reach 190 feet), hot springs, steaming fumaroles (aka vents), and mud pots—the sad remains of geysers that have lost their oomph. 

GETTING THERE: We recommend cross-country skiing it. Yellowstone National Park, 307-344-7381.

3. Kilauea  |  4,090 feet
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii

Most of Kilauea's fiery froth runs through tunnels that spout it seaward from cliffs high above the water. The result? Dr. Evil's wildest dreams incarnate: gigantic steam clouds, boulders of rapidly cooling lava hurtling a quarter-mile above the ocean, and, yes, liquid-hot magma. Accordingly, the action should be viewed only from a half-mile away, on the Chain of Craters Road, or from the air (Sunshine Helicopter offers flights for $160; 800-622-3144). Or hike the 14-mile lava-rock-lined Napau Trail next to still-creeping overland lava flows. 

GETTING THERE: Fly to Hilo, Hawaii. Volcanoes National Park, 808-985-6000.

4. Volcán Masaya  |  2,083 feet
Masaya Volcano National Park, Nicaragua

A wooden cross next to Masaya's sulfur-belching vent marks the spot where ancients offered ritual sacrifices to the bubbling lava. Worse yet, in the 1600s Spaniards lowered themselves into the coughing maw, thinking it contained gold. 

GETTING THERE: Fly to Managua; then rent a car to make the 15-mile drive southeast to the park's entrance (Masaya Volcano National Park, 011-505-522-5415).

5. Arenal  |  5,360 feet
Arenal Volcano National Park, Costa Rica

Hiking all the way to Arenal's rim is forbidden by the park, and though local guides willing to take you anyway might hint otherwise, beware: Unpredictable explosions mean that getting close is nothing less than a gamble with your life. (In a late-August eruption, two Americans were engulfed in hot ash and rocks; one died and the other remains critically injured.) Rather, arrive at dusk and settle into the steaming Tabacón hot springs at Arenal's base (a half-mile west of the town of Fortuna) where you can watch bright orange rivers of lava flowing down its flanks. Or stay at the former Smithsonian observatory, now Arenal Observatory Lodge (doubles start at $35; 888-895-9723).

GETTING THERE: Fly to San José, Costa Rica. From there, the park is a three-hour drive to the northwest.

6. Kick 'Em Jenny  |  -525 feet
Grenada, West Indies

Kick 'Em rises 4,300 feet above the ocean floor, but since it's still 525 feet below sea level, you'll need a submarine or JIM hard-shell diving suit to check it out. Or, wait 50 years and hike the world's youngest island—Kick 'Em grows about ten feet per annum.

GETTING THERE: Fly to St. George's, Grenada. Grenada Visitors Bureau: 800-927-9554.

7. Hekla  |  4,747 feet

By the 1500s, after hearing of Hekla's regular devastating eruptions, continental Europeans had decided it was the entrance to hell (spawning the phrase "Go to Hekla," perhaps?). Since Iceland's earliest settlement, as many as 20 eruptions have covered 80 percent of the country in Heklan ash. Last spring it huffed and puffed for 11 days, but it has settled down since. The steaming cone is approachable via a six-mile hike over tundra.

GETTING THERE: From Reykjavík, drive 60 miles south on Route 1 and Route 26.

8. Stromboli  |  3,038 feet
Stromboli Island, Italy

Few volcanoes can match the Stromboli standard for pyrotechnic display—picture a vat of spaghetti sauce at a rolling boil, shooting out loud blasts of lava and rock up to 200 feet high. You can see the fireworks from the rim, a 3,200-foot climb. Contact locally based Volcavento, which is run by two vulcanologists, to book a guide ([email protected], 011-39-90-98-6383).

GETTING THERE: From Rome, fly to Palermo, Sicily, and then take a train to Milazzo and a ferry to Stromboli.

9. Kronotsky Nature Reserve  |  up to 11,575 feet
Kamchatka Peninsula, Russia

The 2.7 million acres of Kamchatka's Kronotsky Biosphere Nature Preserve contain hot springs, boiling mud cauldrons, and 12 active volcanoes. Hike the Valley of Geysers, a three-mile long section of the Geyser River with more than 150 geysers perforating the steep 600-foot banks (and look for the red, blue, and yellow algae).

GETTING THERE: From Anchorage fly to Petropavlovsk Kamchatskiy, 120 miles south of the preserve (Reeve Aleutian Airways, 800-544-2248). Roads are scarce, so hire a helicopter or a heli-outfitter such as Lost World Tours (011-7-4152-198328).

10. Sakurajima  |  3,668 feet
Kyushu Island, Japan

Sakurajima erupted in 1914 and dumped more than three billion tons of lava into the 230-foot-deep strait between the volcano and Kyushu Island, creating an isthmus. These days, it's illegal to climb any of Sakurajima's three steaming cones, so either ride the tourist bus or pedal the 24-mile road around the mountain on a rental bike (you can find both at the Kyushu Island ferry terminal).

GETTING THERE: From Tokyo, fly to Kagoshima, and then take a 15-minute ferry to Sakurajima. Japan Visitors Bureau: 212-757-5640.

11. Yasur  |  1,184 feet
Tanna Island, Vanuatu

Hire a jeep in the island's main city of Isangel, and drive over lava rock up Yasur's southeast flank, or scramble two miles and 1,000 feet up its northeast side from the ocean. Either way, 300 feet from the caldera's rim is as close as you want to get—owing to the sprays of lava and steam, and the bombs of magma, rock, and even glass that shoot from Yasur's vent every few minutes. Brisbane, Australia-based Volcano Trek outfits three-day trips (011-64-2-66-464305;

GETTING THERE: Fly to Nadi, Fiji, then to Port-Vila, Vanuatu (Air Pacific, 800-227-4446), and then to Isangel (Vanair, 011-67-8-25045).

12. Mount Erebus  |  12,448 feet
Ross Island, Antarctica

The ten-mile route to the summit of Mount Erebus—22 miles from McMurdo Station—isn't technical per se, but the 40-below temperatures do make it a daunting jaunt. The reward, once atop the summit plateau, is a view of a 750-foot-wide lake of bubbling orange lava inside Erebus's crater, 40-foot-tall ice towers created by steam freezing before it evaporates, and cool ice tunnels, also sculpted by bursts of steam.

GETTING THERE: Adventure Network International (011-44-1494-67-1808) custom-outfits expeditions to Antarctica for a starting price of $25,000 per person, which includes airfare from Punta Arenas, Chile.