Winter on Mount Etna: Skiing Sicily’s Volcano

Before my most recent trip, Sicily was already one of my favorite places. Its rich history, incredible food, spectacular scenery, and friendly people make it a great place to visit. It’s also where several of my great-grandparents were born, so I have a family connection that makes it feel even more special.

When I first visited Sicily in 2013, we did a day hike on Mount Etna. With its southern latitude and proximity to the sea, Sicily was the last place I thought you could ski. On our hike, however, I was surprised to find ski lifts. It was early summer and very little snow remained on the mountain, but I knew I had to come back someday to ski there—an Etna ski trip was officially added to my bucket list.

One of the challenges of skiing so far south is that snow cover isn’t always reliable. I had no idea how long I’d have to wait to ski Etna, but it turns out that my wait was fairly brief. The winter of 2016-17 was particularly cold and snowy in Sicily, with several large storms delivering snow down to low elevations. In fact, I think Mount Etna may have received more snow than its northerly neighbors in the Dolomites! After a significant snowstorm passed through in mid-February, I decided the time was right.

Etna from the air
Snow-capped Mount Etna above Catania

I took an early-morning flight out of Amsterdam that got me on the snow that same afternoon. The snow-covered, smoking volcano looming over the city was an impressive site to arrive to. As I turned off the autostrada and onto the twisty mountain road towards Etna Nord, my excitement grew. I felt like a kid on Christmas morning! I was skiing by noon and spent most of that first afternoon in awe of the scenery, exploring all of the lift-served terrain, and getting my backcountry legs warmed up with a leisurely climb above the highest lift.

Etna Sud crater and sea
The Montagnola crater just above Etna Sud’s highest lift, with the Ionian Sea in the background.

There are two separate lift-served ski areas on Mount Etna—Etna Nord (North) and Etna Sud (South)—as well as a wealth of interesting backcountry ski terrain. In my three and a half days on the island, I visited both ski areas and checked out their lift-served skiing as well as some of the backcountry terrain. Since the snow conditions were spring-like, firming up overnight and softening during the day, I tailored my day to where the snow was best. Each morning I started off on the groomed runs. Once the snow began to soften, I started exploring the ungroomed, off-piste sidecountry (much of which was easily lift-accessible), and each afternoon I ventured into the backcountry using touring skis and skins. There was plenty of interesting terrain to explore with volcanic craters and natural gullies. The unique scenery left me in awe with the smoking summit of the volcano on one side and the brilliant blue water of the Ionian Sea on the other. I was initially drawn to Etna purely by the novelty of skiing in Sicily—on an active volcano no less—but it turned out that the skiing was surprisingly good! I’d go as far as saying that it’s one of the prettiest places I’ve ever skied and some of the most fun I’ve had on skis this winter.

Etna Sud summit with black and white smoke
There seems to be a constant stream of white smoke coming from the summit, but several times during my visit it was accompanied by dark black smoke too.

Another unique aspect of skiing Mount Etna is that it is still a very active volcano. The most recent—albeit small—eruption had just ended the day before I arrived! In the backcountry on Etna Sud, I skied past a wall of black rocks that was visibly giving off heat; I learned that it was three-day-old lava that was still cooling! Several times during my visit I also saw streams of dark black smoke accompany the usual white smoke coming from the summit craters. Being on an active volcano does pose some challenges and it’s a real threat to the communities and infrastructure on its slopes. Each of the ski areas has had lifts and buildings destroyed by eruptions over the past few decades, only to be subsequently rebuilt. When the volcano is active, skier and hiker access above 2,800 meters (about 500 meters shy of the summit) is restricted. When access is open, or you’re going into the backcountry, it’s still best to go with a guide. Etna can also produce a lot of black ash; when this covers the snow, as was the case towards the end of my trip, it accelerates snowmelt. Despite these drawbacks, when the snow and weather cooperate, skiing in this almost otherworldly setting is a unique and unforgettable experience.

While I’ve officially checked “skiing Etna” off my bucket list, I’m already looking forward to going back again. It was an amazing experience worth repeating, plus I didn’t make it to the summit this time… so there’s still something to check off the list!

Etna Nord Ski Area | Piano Provenzana, Linguaglossa

  • Elevation: 1,806-2,338 meters (5,940’-7,680’)
  • Exposure: east to north-east
  • Lifts: 5 (1 detachable quad chairlift, 3 surface lifts, 1 beginner magic carpet)
  • Best for: snow quality, longer season, groomed beginner and intermediate trails, backcountry access to the summit craters, more skier services (ski school, rentals, etc.)

Etna Nord (or North) is the more reliable of the two ski areas on the mountain. The groomed, lift-served terrain is best suited for beginners and low intermediates. The lower lifts serve mellow blue (beginner) runs and scenic, easier ungroomed areas, while the upper lifts serve a handful of red (intermediate) runs. Better skiers can traverse to some steeper, off-piste terrain from the two higher lifts.

Because its slopes have a northeast aspect, the snow tends to be more reliable than Etna Sud. The season usually lasts longer, running from late December 2016 to late March 2017 this winter. There are several shops and small bar/cafe-type places in the base area, as well as a more substantial chalet with a restaurant at the bottom of the Monte Conca lift. La Capannetta is a small, family-run rental shop in the base area that also offers some basic touring skis and skins at very reasonable prices.

Etna Nord slopes and summit view
The smoking summit above the Etna Nord ski area

Etna Nord is also the best starting point for backcountry skiing to the summit craters thanks to its more reliable snow cover. With the lifts topping out at just over 2,300 meters, it’s a climb of another 1,000 meters in elevation to the summit. Because of the risks involved in climbing so close to the summit of an active volcano, going with a guide is recommended. Unfortunately, on the day I planned to go up, the weather didn’t cooperate. Poor visibility, firmer snow, and strong winds meant I couldn’t make it to the summit, but instead I skinned to about 2,900 meters to the volcanic observatory. From there, I was treated to a descent of over 1,000 vertical meters (3,300′) starting in one of Etna’s famous canaloni or gullies.

Etna Sud Ski Area | Nicolosi

  • Elevation: 1950-2620 meters (6,398’-8,595’)
  • Exposure: south
  • Lifts: 5 (1 six-passenger gondola and 1 surface lift open in 2016-17; the other 2 surface lifts and a double chairlift were closed)
  • Best for: long groomed runs, more interesting for advanced skiers, steeper, lift-served sidecountry terrain, more tourist (but not skier) infrastructure including hotels at the base of the lift

Etna Sud (or South) is a popular tourist destination year-round with a six-passenger gondola that runs every day, weather permitting. The bulk of visitors come to ride the gondola to the 2,500 meter elevation and then continue in a snow cat or 4-wheel-drive bus—depending on the season—to the Torre del Filosofo viewpoint closer to the summit. In fact, skiing here seems like more of an afterthought to the tourist trips. That was fine with me, as it meant no lines for the lifts and uncrowded trails on the way down. On the other hand, it also means that it can be difficult to find accurate information on snow conditions and operating status. In 2016-2017, “bureaucratic issues” (unsure if the issues were with the lift company, the local government, or both) meant that the lowest 3 of the 5 ski lifts never opened. Fortunately, the terrain serviced by these lifts was still accessible from the gondola.

The southern exposure here means that snow cover is less reliable compared to Etna Nord, but when the snow cooperates, there is a lot of excellent skiing here. In terms of the groomed terrain, Etna Sud is more interesting for experienced skiers. The main gondola rises 550 meters (1,805’) and serves two fun intermediate runs, each about 2.5-3 km long. They offer fun cruising with a decent pitch and truly incredible views looking out over the volcanic landscape towards the Ionian Sea. Above the gondola, the Montagnola platter lift climbs another 119 meters (393’) in elevation and serves a gentle beginner run and short, but steep intermediate slope. This short lift also provides easy access to some great sidecountry skiing just to the east of the gondola, with a number of wide-open, bowl-like options and some fun gullies that you can ski almost to the bottom of the gondola, making it easy to do lift-served laps on this excellent terrain.

Etna Sud backcountry
Backcountry skiers on the southern slope of Mount Etna above the Silvestri Craters.

Etna Sud is a popular starting point for backcountry excursions on Etna too. The “Grand Traverse of Etna” traditionally climbs up the southern side towards the summit craters, then descend towards the northeast and finishes at the Etna Nord ski area. Many skiers skin up from the very bottom of the ski area, but you can also use the gondola for the first part, whether you’re just exploring Etna Sud or continuing further. I explored a few of the backcountry areas to the north and east of the ski area itself, finding some nice spring snow and incredible views. The Valle del Bove to the east was especially pretty and had some good steep skiing.

As a popular tourist spot, there are several places to buy food and souvenirs at both the top and bottom of the gondola. The arancini, or Sicilian rice balls, taste particularly good at Rifugio Sapienza after a long day of skiing and exploring!

Arancini

Getting There

Catania-Fontanarossa airport (CTA) is about an hour and a half drive from the bottom of either ski area. There are direct flights from many European cities, including low-cost airlines like Ryanair and Transavia. Renting a car is the best way to get around, particularly to the mountains. Public transportation is unfortunately quite limited throughout Sicily. Beware that traffic can be bad around the airport and signage when approaching the airport is atrocious, so leave plenty of extra time to reach the airport and return your rental car when it’s time to leave. The drive to Etna starts on the highway, passes through several small, hillside towns, then turns into a mountain climb with sharp switchbacks. The road is generally in very good condition and offers some incredible views. You need to carry chains in your car when driving up to Mount Etna from November through April, so be sure to get those with your rental car.

Etna Valle del Bove
A small part of the Etna backcountry

Where to Stay

There are plenty of options for lodging on and around Mount Etna. Lodging and food are generally cheaper in Sicily than in the rest of Europe.

Etna Sud: A short walk from the base of the gondola, Hotel Corsaro has comfortable rooms, great views, and a good restaurant. Some rooms even have balconies to better enjoy the great views. It’s a little pricy by Sicilian standards, but good value for its location. We stayed there in the summer of 2013 and would certainly return. Rifugio Sapienza is right next to the gondola. It seems a little more rustic and cheaper than Corsaro, but still in a great location. Down the mountain, the small city of Nicolosi offers more choices and a bigger selection of restaurants.

Etna Nord: While the ski area here lacks the hotels of Etna Sud, there are two rustic mountain lodges a short drive from the lifts: Chalet Clan dei Ragazzi and Rifugio Citelli both look like cozy, inexpensive options to stay on the mountain. The town of Linguaglossa, down the mountain to the east, also has many lodging options.

Zafferana Etnea: For this winter trip, since I planned to ski both Etna Nord and Etna Sud, I opted to stay off the mountain in a location central to both areas. Fermata Spuligni is located just outside of the small town of Zafferana Etnea and is a 35-minute drive from both ski areas. The lodging was comfortable, if basic and a little dated. The included breakfast was tasty but very limited (pastries, bread with jam, yogurt, and coffee); some eggs or fruit would have been nice before a big ski day. Dinner in their restaurant was quite good, though, with great local pasta dishes, an ample selection of meats, and an extensive pizza menu too. Overall, it was nothing fancy, but a good, inexpensive base for exploring Etna.

Sicilian cannoli
Ricotta-filled cannoli with crushed pistachios are a treat on any trip to Sicily!

More Information

EtnaSci is a guide service and ski school. They can arrange guided backcountry tours and trips to the summit. Their website (only in Italian, but Google Translate can help) has lots of helpful information on skiing Etna, including:

GuidEtna is another guide service that offers backcountry skiing and hiking tours on Mount Etna.

Etna Sud panoramic from Silvestri Crater
Panorama of the southern slope of Mount Etna from atop the Silvestri Crater

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