- In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing. Theodore Roosevelt
Climb a Volcano
Mount St. Helens – Washington, USA
Since May of 1980, when Washington state’s Mt. St. Helens blew her cone and covered Seattle with ash that my friends tell me looked like snow, she has gained respect from locals and travelers alike. On a clear day, she is visible in the distance, from Seattle and Portland, Oregon as well, a flattened giant that blew her top.
Since 1987, the southern slopes of Mt. St. Helens have been open to climbers who wish to climb close to (but not into) the crater. Monitor Ridge is a popular trail that starts at Climber’s Bivouac, and takes between 7 and 12 hours to climb. Climbers can gain views of the crater, blast area and other nearby volcanic peaks, but those wishing to climb above 4,800 feet (the rim is at 8,365) must seek a permit.
Mt. Redoubt – Alaska, USA
Mt. Redoubt is an active stratovolcano that erupted violently in March 2009, and is probably best seen from nearby, as opposed to up close. Until recently, climbing Redoubt required some technical expertise, fixed rope climbing and a peakside scramble to the top, but there’s no telling what things will be like after the eruption finally stops, so do your research before packing your gear.
For now, views of Redoubt volcano (from the Russian Sopka Redutskaya meaning “fortified place”) are best taken from afar. The 9,000-foot volcano is less than 200 miles from Anchorage.
Tequila Volcano – Mexico
In Mexico, there are a number of volcanoes that can be easily accessed, including Tequila Volcano, where visitors can actually drive to the edge of the crater and peer inside to see the forests that have sprung up inside. Not surprisingly, this volcano is located a stone’s throw from the town of Tequila, better known for another kind of liquid fire.
Rock climbers will want to summit “the plug”, a lava column that formed inside the mouth of the volcano and was then thrust upward by geologic pressure. Its sheer walls are not for the uninitiated, nor the acrophobic.
Other climbable volcanoes in Mexico
Also near the state of Jalisco is the Nevado de Colima volcano (inactive), which can be climbed, and Volcan de Fuego, which is active, and therefore best seen from down below. High-altitude treks would take climbers to the peaks of Iztaccihuatl and Orizaba (the highest peak in Mexico at 18,404 feet), but these are not for the inexperienced, the guideless or those who are short of time as they require a few days.
Volcan Arenal – Costa Rica
This starring player in Costa Rica’s ecotourism route is far too active and explosive to be climbed safely. It is often socked in with clouds, but nighttime visits to the nearby hot springs bring vantage points to see the small lava explosions and red-hot rocks tumble forth from the cone.
The area has grown in recent years with Costa Rica’s runaway tourism, and you may find more souls with whom to say “oooh” and “aaaah” than you were expecting.
Several hotels and outfitters in the town of Arenal, and nearby Fortuna, run tours, and the Arenal Observatory Lodge offers volcano views from right inside.
Horseback riding and bicycling are popular in this area, with all eyes trained towards the volcano, day and night.
Pacaya – Guatemala
Guatemala’s Pacaya volcano’s ash-lined slopes have been calling to travelers since the gringo trail first appeared. Volcano-lovers generally stay in the colonial town of Antigua, where tours can easily be arranged, and which is a pleasant, oft-visited spot on its own.
The hike up Pacaya starts with a steep climb through a pine forest, up through a strenuous section up slippery ash-lined slopes (two steps forward, one step back). Views from the top extend down to the pacific lowlands and all the way to El Salvador. A guide is recommended as the volcano’s activity is unpredictable, and the route may not always be clear. Also, historically there have also been muggings on this volcano, so going with a tour is a safer option.
For those aspiring vulcanologists for whom one Guatemalan volcano is not enough, you might consider taking a five-day tour with an outfitter that leads hikers up Pacaya, Sta. Maria, Acatenango and Fuego with camping on the slopes of the volcanoes.