8 Places Where You Can (Safely) Watch Lava Flow

Streams of lava pouring during eruption of Kilauea volcano, Hawaii
Paul Souders / Getty Images

Hiking up an active volcano is not an activity for the faint of heart. The rough terrain, the dramatic temperature changes, the hours-long physical activity — oh, and the risk of a volcanic eruption that sends lava flowing down the very mountain you're climbing. Thankfully, the latter (usually) carries only a small risk, and the reward of watching lava flow into the ocean or spray into the sky is worth the trek.

Lava flows — glowing, red-orange streams of molten rock that pour from erupting vents — are a breathtaking natural feature to behold, so long as it's from a safe distance. The U.S. Department of the Interior estimates that there are 1,500 potentially active volcanoes on earth. Many are near impossible to get to; some, however, aren't.

Here are eight spots around the globe where you can watch lava flow.

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Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii

Lava with Kilauea erupting in background at Volcanoes National Park
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Two of Hawaii's five active volcanoes are contained within Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island. Kilauea, the star of the park, is one of the most active in the world, continuously erupting since 1983.

Kilauea's eruptions are typically calm, and visitors can watch its lava flowing into the Pacific Ocean from a coastal lava viewing area about 900 feet from the flow itself. The park is also home to Mauna Loa, the world's largest subaerial volcano in both mass and volume. Both Kilauea and Mauna Loa are shield volcanoes (the wide kind with gently sloping sides) — only the former has experienced lava explosions.

Visitors of Volcanoes National Park get the chance to see inside craters and watch lava flowing down the island. There are guided tours, boat rides on which molten rivers can be seen flowing into the ocean, and helicopter tours offering a prime vantage point.

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Erta Ale, Ethiopia

View into the lava lake of Erta Ale volcano, Ethiopia
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Ethiopia's most active volcano is often described as "hell on Earth," and not just because of the rare lava lake in its crater. The journey to Erta Ale begins with a five-hour drive through the desert, which can wind up lasting a full day in harsh wind and sand conditions. The last part of the drive goes right through a bumpy field of hardened lava.

From the base of Erta Ale, it's a three-hour hike in the dark (because temperatures regularly surpass 120 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, hiking happens at night). At the crater, visitors get a glimpse of one of the few lava lakes in the world. The bubbling, glowing lava has been simmering away possibly since 1906.

A shield volcano, Erta Ale is located in politically volatile northeast Ethiopia, and the U.S. State Department cautions against visiting certain parts of the country due to civil unrest.

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Mount Nyiragongo, Democratic Republic of the Congo

Lava lake in Nyiragongo volcano, Congo

Mike Korostelev / Getty Images

Mount Nyiragongo has the world's largest lava lake in its crater. This stratovolcano (made of alternate layers of lava and ash) is known for its fluid lava that flows almost like water. It last erupted in 2002, sending lava flowing into the city of Goma and killing 147 people, and scientists predict it may erupt again in 2024.

Tourists up for the risk and the challenge can take a guided hiking tour up the steep slopes in four to seven hours. They should remember to pack warm layers, though, because despite being a volcano in Africa, Mount Nyiragongo is very cold at the top.

It's located in Virunga National Park near the Congolese-Rwandese border, which is another violence-prone region. The State Department urges U.S. citizens to reconsider travel to DRC due to poor transportation infrastructure and poor security conditions.

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Mount Etna, Italy

Volcano Etna eruption
Antonio Zanghì / Getty Images

Sicily's Mount Etna is Europe’s tallest and most active volcano and one of Italy’s top tourist destinations. It's very accessible: You can explore the mountain by car, bus, bike, cable car, train, or foot. Depending on your transportation method, you could go up and down in an afternoon, or take your time and explore longer.

Mount Etna is actually comprised of several stratovolcanoes that have four distinct summit craters. It has a longer written history of eruptions than any other volcano, dating back to 425 B.C.E. Etna's history can be seen in the centuries-old solidified lava flows that reach nearby towns and villages. On your visit, you may encounter slow-moving lava flowing from the numerous fissures and vents located at low altitude.

Periodically, Etna erupts from its flanks and summit. Its eruptions are characterized by Strombolian (mild, intermittent) explosions, lava flows, and ash plumes.

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Pacaya, Guatemala

Hot lava flowing from Pacaya, Guatemala
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Guatemala's Pacaya is an active complex volcano (meaning: a multifarious structure that has at least two vents or has an associated volcanic dome) that first erupted about 23,000 years ago and has been erupting continuously since 1965. That it's close to Antigua and less than 20 miles from Guatemala City makes it an especially popular tourist attraction. Pacaya is part of the Central American Volcanic Arc, a chain of volcanoes stretching along the Pacific Coast of Central America.

You can get to this volcano by renting a horse or hiking. It's a fairly easy, one-hour trek, and you can get close enough to the lava to roast marshmallows (seriously, it's been done). Whether you do the short hike with or without a guide, you're almost guaranteed to see volcanic activity.

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Villarrica, Chile

Lava fountain within the crater of Volcan Villarrica

Jonathan Lewis / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

Villarrica is a permanently active volcano near Pucon, Chile, that rises above a lake and town of the same name. It has a small lava lake in its crater, and it's one of three large stratovolcanoes along the Mocha-Villarrica Fault Zone located in Villarrica National Park. The most recent major eruption was in March 2015, when thousands of people were evacuated as Villarrica spewed lava and ash thousands of feet into the air.

Tourists can join guided hikes to the crater (which are subject to cancelation when there is volcanic activity) or hop in a helicopter for a fly-over. The hike is very steep and can be icy at high altitudes during winter.

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Mount Yasur, Vanuatu

Mount Yasur, Vanuatu, erupting at sunrise
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Vanuatu, an archipelago east of Australia and west of Fiji, is a hotspot of volcanic activity. One of its most active and well-known is Mount Yasur, a stratovolcano that has been continuously spewing molten rock at least since Captain Cook observed it its ash eruptions in 1774. Yasur's eruptions are characteristically Strombolian and Vulcanian (short, violent explosions), and the constant light emitted from its summit has earned it the nickname "Lighthouse of the Pacific." In the past, these eruptions have triggered tsunamis.

Yasur is located on Tanna Island and can be reached by a 15-minute walk from an access road.

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Sakurajima, Japan

Volcanic lightning and lava flow at Sakurajima, Japan
by Mike Lyvers / Getty Images

Sakurajima is the most prominent geographic feature of Kagoshima, Japan. Located right in the bay, it would be entirely surrounded by water were it not for a land connection to Osumi Peninsula — created by a solidified lava flow, no less. Its three main peaks are the source of persistent activity, be it strong Strombolian spews or frequent ash explosions accompanied by lightning.

Lava flows, which are rare in Japan because of the high silica content of the magmas, are a top tourist attraction in Kirishima-Yaku National Park, where Sakurajima is located. The best way to admire Sakurajima's activity safely is from the Yunohira Observatory, Karasujima Observation Point, Arimuar Lava Observatory, or along the Nagisa Lava Trail. There's also a ferry that runs the two miles from Kagoshima Port to the Sakurajima Ferry Terminal.

View Article Sources
  1. "How Many Active Volcanoes Are There on Earth?" United States Geological Survey.

  2. "Mauna Loa." United States Geological Survey.

  3. Hyde, Walter Woodburn. "The Volcanic History of Etna." Geographical Review, vol. 1, no. 6, 1916, pp. 401-408., doi:10.2307/207484