6 Places Where You Can (Safely) Watch Lava Flow

Lava flowing down a hill

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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. But thankfully the latter (usually) carries only a small risk, and the reward of seeing a huge lava lake or lava falling into the ocean is worth the trek.

Lava flows with their glowing, red-and-orange rivers of fire are a breathtaking natural feature to behold — as long as it's from a safe distance. And that experience is possible at these six spots around the globe.

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The Big Island of Hawaii

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Hawaii has five active volcanoes, and four of them are on the Big Island. Kilauea is the most active, and it's one of the most active volcanoes in the world having been continuously erupting since 1983.

Most of the time, the eruptions are fairly calm, and visitors are able to see lava flowing from fairly close. In fact a coastal lava viewing area recently opened at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park about 900 feet from a cascade of lava falling into the Pacific Ocean. Visitors are strongly urged to stay within the marked area for safety, and an incident on Jan. 2 underscores the dangers of ignoring that warning. A group of visitors ducked under the ropes and wandered onto the cliffs. Park rangers chased them out of the area, and just 15 minutes later, the lava delta where they had been standing collapsed into the ocean, creating waves up to four stories tall.

Tourists who follow the rules are welcome to engage in lava-spotting at the park, whether it's inside the volcano's crater or flowing down the island. Join a guided national park lava tour or take a boat tour to watch the molten rivers fall into the ocean. If you don't mind spending a few hundred bucks, consider a helicopter tour to really get a prime vantage point.

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Erta Ale, Ethiopia

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Ethiopia's most active volcano has been described as "hell on Earth," and it's 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, and it could take up to a whole day depending on wind and sand conditions, the Wall Street Journal reports. 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 (with temps hovering above 120 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, hiking happens at night) to the crater, in which visitors will see one of the few lava lakes in the world.The bubbling, glowing lava and the charcoal gray hardened portions have been simmering away possibly since 1906.

A shield volcano, Erta Ale is in politically volatile northeast Ethiopia, and the U.S. State Department warns that travelers face risks "due to the potential for civil unrest related to sporadic and unpredictable anti-government protests that began in November 2015." (In 2012, five European tourists camped on the crater rim were killed and five were kidnapped in a pre-dawn attack by rebels from neighboring Eritrea, government officials said.)

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Mount Nyiragongo, Democratic Republic of the Congo

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Like Erta Ale, Mount Nyiragongo in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has a persistent lava lake in its crater — the largest one in the world. This stratovolcano is located in Virunga National Park near the Congolese-Rwandese border — another violence-prone region. The State Department warns U.S. citizens to avoid unnecessary travel to DRC due to ongoing civil wars, very poor transportation infrastructure and poor security conditions.

Nyiragongo last erupted in 2002, sending lava flowing into the city of Goma and killing 147 people. This volcano is known for especially fluid lava that flows almost like water.

However, even seasoned, adventurous travelers testify that seeing the lava lake at the crater is one of the most amazing experiences of their lives. Tourists up for the challenge can take a guided hiking tour up the steep slopes in 4 to 7 hours, depending on your speed. And don't forget that though you're on a volcano in Africa, it's freezing at the top. "Bring twice as many clothes as you think you'll need, and then some more. Pack some warm gloves for sure," this travel website says.

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Mount Etna, Italy

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Mount Etna in Sicily 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, of course, foot. Depending on your mode of travel and how high you go, you could go up and down in an afternoon, or take your time and explore longer.

Live Science says Mount Etna is a series of nested stratovolcanoes with four distinct summit craters, and it has a longer written history of eruptions than any other volcano, dating back to 425 B.C. Etna's history can be seen in the centuries-old solidified lava flows that reach right into towns and villages. It’s possible to see hot lava, too: "There are numerous fissures and vents on the flanks of the volcano that often produce slow-moving pyroclastic flows at low altitudes," Live Science reports.

But as CNN points out, despite the constant volcanic activity, “It's tricky to line up a visit when the volcano is spewing fury like an angry goddess (Aitna, or Aetna, was the Greek goddess of the volcano), so most Etna tourists end up with the saner, sober version."

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Pacaya, Guatemala

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Pacaya is an active complex volcano in Guatemala that first erupted about 23,000 years ago and has been erupting continuously since 1965. This popular tourist attraction is close to Antigua and less than 20 miles from Guatemala City. It's part of the Central American Volcanic Arc, a chain of volcanoes stretching along the Pacific Coast of Central America.

Rent a horse or hike this volcano — it's a fairly easy, one-hour hike, according to Trip Advisor, and you can get so close to the lava that roasting marshmellows over the hot streams has become a common activity. Previous visitors say you can do the short hike with or without a guide and you're "guaranteed" to see volcanic actitity.

And good news: There are no government travel warnings for U.S. residents visiting Guatemala!

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Villarrica, Chile

Photo: Jonathan Lewis/Wikimedia Commons

Villarrica is an active volcano near Pucon, Chile that rises above a lake and town of the same name. It's a permanently active volcano with a small lava lake in its crater, and it's one of three large stratovolcanoes along the Mocha-Villarrica Fault Zone located 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 may be canceled due to volcanic activity) or hop in a helicopter for a fly-over. Some Trip Advisor commenters called the hike "very steep" and "a bit tough," with one noting that the last hour was "a vertical ice sheet." In the winter, apparently people like to slide down the mountain in the snow. (Extreme sledding, anyone?)