Mount Etna experience by skipping the cable car

One of the highlights of our Sicily road trip in 2019 was visiting Mount Etna. Like always, we did our research but found it very confusing or even lacking in concrete information.

The objective was to combine climbing and paid transportation in some way. Additionally, we didn’t want to begin some pre-booked tour from Catania or Taormina since we were staying at the foot of Etna. In fact, we could see it from our Airbnb terrace.

We chose to approach Etna from the more popular Rifugio Sapienza also called “Etna South”. We did skip the cable car but used 4×4 buses to reach 2900 meters. We did not reach very summit and it not possible either at the time we visited Etna.

View of Mount Etna from Barbagallo Crater near upper 4x4 bus station
View of Mount Etna from Barbagallo Crater near upper 4×4 bus station

Quick reap of Etna South main points

Here is a quick recap of the stations and approximate heights discussed in this article.

  • ~1900 meters – Rifugio Sapienza (Etna South), Parking lot, bus station & hotel. Highest you can drive with your car. It’s also where the cable car station (lower) is located.
  • ~2500 meters – Cable car top station. Place where 4×4 buses start their roundtrip.
  • ~2900 meters – Top station of 4×4 buses (Torre Del Filosofo)
  • ~3326 meters – Maximum altitude of the Mount Etna volcano

We put all these points and paths also on Google Maps for better reference.

Mount Etna south stations and heights
Mount Etna south stations and approximate altitudes

How high did we get to go without a pre-booked tour?

Before going up we were not sure how far they let us go without any pre-booked tour. We got as high as 2900 meters and bit above- only and that time (the year 2019) it was not possible to go any higher with or without a guide. At least our Etna volcano guide said so. For us, it’s not very clear and tours don’t mention what they consider as summits. We guess it can also change in time based on the activity of the Etna.

We got a quick tour around Crater named Barbagallo at the highest point. We only got to walk the rim of that crater which was not far from upper 4×4 station (Torre Del Filosofo).

We could see Etna views quite nicely from there and it was good enough for us because Etna is pretty active. Probably would not be very comfortable to be on the actual summit anyway.

Its rumble was hearable when were up there and a constant stream of smoke and steam was present all the time. At nighttime, the red glow was seeable from time to time. Nice little show to look at on the balcony of our Airbnb Villa.

Walking the rim of Barbagallo crater
Walking the rim of Barbagallo crater

Skipping the cable car (Funivia)

Skipping means ascend around ~570 meters of altitude.

There are two ways to do it.

You can take the longer route by the winding mountain road between 1900 and 2500 meter camps. The same road that these 4×4 buses use to get to the 2500 camp. They are not using the road during the day, but we saw some of them at morning starting the journey up there – the same time we started climbing.

The shorter route is pretty much straight up and it goes almost along with the cable car path. You can see cabins zipping by and hear distinct cable whine most of the time while hiking up.

The road is about ~5 kilometres (3.1 miles) long. For every 8.8 meters of a walk, you gain 1 meter in altitude which translates to ~11.40% gradient slope.

But trail along cable car is only about 2.1 kilometres (1.3 miles) long. This makes around 1 meter of climb for every 3.7 meters of the distance which translates to ~27% gradient. Almost 3 times steeper than the road.

You have to make distance vs gradient choice when skipping the cable car.

But don’t worry about choosing the correct difficulty at the bottom. Around the 1/3 mark, the winding road intersects with footpath, so you can switch between routes. Check map we created for this post to get a better feeling about it.

We were a bit afraid of trails are not clearly identifiable, but eventually, everything solves by itself. Just follow some trails or roads and it all goes pretty logically. The road definitely leads you to top and trails also.

What to expect from the climb?

When we’re looking at the slope, just behind the cable car station, it didn’t look very hard. The road option seemed to be very long compared to the direct route. We chose to hike straight up along the cable cars to challenge ourselves. It seemed doable and we even hoped it will be quicker.

At least we thought.

We consider ourselves as in good physical condition and we are moderately active in sports, but Etna wore us down pretty good. We choose to start early morning so the sun would not add any additional strain. For our luck, it was a bit cloudy.

The ground was a bit gravelly and loose in some parts, constantly alternating, but nothing too serious. Thousands of people have hiked those paths so it was solid enough. Didn’t fell once.

Walking on loose gravel when skipping the cable car
Walking on loose gravel when skipping the cable car

After a while, we were constantly hoping that after next little ridge or horizon there would be a less sloped section for a while. And usually, there was. Not much, but still you could consider it as “resting”.

After the initial admiration of the view behind our backs, it gets a bit boring. When hiking up, constantly tilted forwards, you only see gravel in front of you. Like tunnel vision. On the road, there is much more to see because it’s making those hairpin turns all the way up through the frozen lava fields.

In the middle of the climb, it’s hard to grasp the incline quite well. It’s probably because there is no reference other than cable car gondolas that were zipping by. They were a bit like an artificial horizon’s used on planes.

It gets a bit hypnotic eventually.

But in a good way.

Eventually, we were just pushing through to get to the top. Without seeing the trail end. The only indication of how much more to climb was fitness tracker with GPS calculated altitude.

Slope when skipping the cable car and going straight up
Slope when skipping the cable car and going straight up

It took us around 1 hour and 30 minutes to complete with many short breaks on the way. Probably same time it would have taken us to walk by the road with less burn. We reached the top exhausted but happy. We saw only around 10 people making the same climb with us. Some by the road and some quitting the direct path at the junction.

What about skipping 4×4 buses instead?

At the top cable car stop (2500 meters), there is a cafe doubled as the ticket office. You can also rent clothes and shoes there and visit free toilets. Officially it seems that you are not allowed to go forward on your own and need a 4×4 bus and a tour guide for that.

We chose to go with that option from there. We didn’t have all day to spend on Etna and skipping the cable car was our original plan anyway.

But info regarding going forward is very confusing. This seems to be a common theme related to Etna. Especially about self-guided hikes. There was one sign that prohibits going further, but you can easily miss it if not visiting the cable car station. The sign itself was also a total mess and does not help much and nobody seemed to enforce it anyway. At least not obviously.

Mount Etna Sud - Confusing sign at 2500 meters at the cable car (funivia) upper stop
Mount Etna Sud – Confusing sign at 2500 meters at the cable car (funivia) upper stop

We saw many people walking over the field (skipping 4×4) and visiting smaller craters nearby. Probably they could visit upper crater also. That additional 9 EUR ticket was not checked before we got a quick tour around Barbagallo Crater with a volcano guide.

Skipping 4×4 buses seems to be definitely a much easier and shorter hike. Ascend is around ~400 meters (1312 ft) of altitude. There are two options for that. By the winding road where buses drive or somewhat shorter footpath.

The road is about 3.3 kilometres (2 miles) long with ~12% gradient slope.

Direct hike path is a shorter 2.4km (1.5 miles) but in turn a bit steeper. It’s around 1 meter of climb for every 6 meters of the distance which translates to ~16.6% gradient. Much less than we did.

How much you can save by walking?

By skipping the cable car both ways (ascend and descend) we saved 30 EUR per person. They don’t sell one-way tickets. If you are planning to skip the cable car only one way, you still have to pay full price. If you want to save money – you have to walk both ways.

Same goes for 4×4 buses and it’s roundtrip costs 26 EUR.

A parking tip on Etna Sud

We were there in the morning before 9:00 (in September) for the early start. The big parking lot was empty which is good. But the ticket office, that was located on the side building, was closed. There was also no opening times or automatic parking meters to be found nearby.

If it’s closed or there is nobody there yet – go straight to the middle parking lot where souvenir selling cabins are. We found one in the middle that also sold parking tickets. If there is space you can also park there with the same price which we did. We lost at least 10 minutes to locate where to buy a parking ticket and re-parking.

You have to buy half-day parking tickets. They are sold for particular times – morning until 13:00 and 13:00 until evening. If we remember correctly it was 3.50 EUR for half a day.

In conclusion – was the skipping cable car worth it?

In short – yes it was.

For us, it was not much as a budget thing- more like a challenge.

We have never done a long climb like this before. On the same Sicilian trip, we also hiked Cefalu rock (we called it a training day for Etna) and a year back we conquered Vesuvius. Both of them don’t measure up to this hike, even though Vesuvius probably had the same slope gradient- just much shorter distance.

The whole visit took us around 5 hours in total.

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