“To me, volcanoes are the most tangible phenomena showing that our planet is alive,” says volcanologist Arianna Soldati, a National Geographic explorer. Worldwide, there are about 1,500 active volcanoes, most situated at meeting points of tectonic plates.
“Some are sacred to the local population,” Soldati says. Before you visit one, be sure to learn about beliefs surrounding the peak. Also follow local rules and get an update on the volcanic activity. Once you’re there, allow plenty of time for wonder. “Volcanoes are an overwhelming force of nature, and it takes a while for it all to sink in,” she says. Here are four of Soldati’s picks for Earth’s most dynamic destinations.
This Italian island north of Sicily is known as the “lighthouse of the Mediterranean” due to its frequent volcanic activity—and the way its incandescent explosions illuminate the night sky.
With a mild eruption at least every 20 minutes, the lava fountain is a sure bet for travelers, says Soldati. Join a three-hour guided hike to reach the summit by sunset, and from a safe platform, peer down at the glowing, bursting spectacle.
Erta Ale, Ethiopia
In the scorched Afar desert of northeastern Ethiopia, Erta Ale is the site of what Soldati calls the “only somewhat accessible lava lake.”
The southernmost pit of this constantly active, low-profile structure—an example of a shield volcano—has been dubbed the “gateway to hell.” Intrepid travelers can hire an adventure guide who’ll lead them to hot glimpses of the smoldering scene.
Mount Fuji, Japan
Few summits on Earth embody the soul of a place quite like Japan’s Mount Fuji. Dormant since last erupting in 1707, Mount Fuji is a UNESCO World Heritage site—noted by UNESCO as a “sacred place and source of artistic inspiration.”
Soldati calls it “the perfect volcano for its shape,” a remarkably symmetrical cone. Around 60 miles from Tokyo, this iconic stratovolcano rises 12,388 feet and offers a revered sunrise view.
Located in the Indian Ocean some 420 miles east of Madagascar, this French island features a stunning range of volcanic landscapes, Soldati says. Visitors can explore the cinder cones, caldera, and lava flows on foot and by car or helicopter.
Every nine months, on average, Réunion’s shield volcano, Piton de la Fournaise, puts on an amazing show of pyrotechnics.
Writer Katie Knorovsky is a former editor at National Geographic Traveler magazine and currently lives in Asheville, North Carolina. Follow her travels on Twitter @TravKatieK.