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Hiking Into Hell: Volcano Trekking Hotspots

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Most of us don't plan our vacations around catching a hurricane or blizzard -- we avoid them -- they can really put a damper on a trip. Yet for some, there is a pent-up force of nature that ignites, if not bubbles over with touristic appeal. The dormant volcano attracts volcanophiles curious to climb up and into a conical crater, who want to take their exploration off the beaten track, and maybe even tempt fate.

Here's our hot list of volcanoes to confront by foot, bicycle, car or even snowboard.

And if seismic hotspots aren’t appealing to the whole family, not to worry, volcanoes accessorize well. Hot springs, rainforest, cloudforest, and a cast of exotic flora and fauna are typically found nearby.

Mt. Luimuiga in St. Kitts

At nearly 4,000 feet the steep incline to reach Mount Luimuiga’s crater is one of the most challenging of the 18 volcanoes dotting the Caribbean. The circular hike up inactive volcano takes about 2.5 to 3 hours each way, and the journey passes through the rain forest where banyan, viper, fern and bamboo trees thicken a canopy of trees reaching 100 feet. While more difficult with each ascent, there are always roots and rocks to grab onto for pulling up. Hikers enter the cloud forest at roughly 2,500 feet to orchids and moss covering dwarf trees, and an ethereal mist adds ambiance and awkwardly slippery moisture. (Warning: At rainforest level, squishy mangos pillaged by French-imported monkeys slip up distracted hikers too.) Inside the crater a plummeting panorama of lush greenery and a gleaming lake tempt only the highest skilled hikers to dare climb down. The island’s famed guide/herbalist, Oneil Mulraine, 63, of Oneil Tours (oneilmulraine@hotmail.com), climbs the volcano in a record 45 minutes each way – at the hiker’s pace he charges $90/person.

Crash: The St. Kitts Marriott Resort & the Royal Beach Casino is the most popular place to stay on the island. Oneil gives discounts through the hotel, which provides a big lunch and snacks for guests. (Oneil shares snacks too.)

Mount St. Helens in Washington, USA

When Mount St. Helens blew her cone in 1980, the “Fuji of America” was no longer. Visitors hike the decapitated volcano trails, but skiing and mountain biking are what separate real daredevils from bucket-listers. The annual Tour de Blast races cyclists up the blast site. Skiers and snowboarders enjoy a skiable vertical of over 6,000 feet. Tackling the southern slopes get climbers closest to the crater. The dangerous tippy top is rarely met -- as the summit is ash covered with snow. Monitor Ridge is the standard route for close cratering and takes 7 to 12 hours by foot. It’s a 4,500-foot ascent when starting from the parking lot at Climbers Bivouac. The journey passes through dense woods, verdant meadows and snowfields. (The best time to make the climb is late May and June.) At the summit, replacing that perfect cone top is a lava dome just 500 feet deep, where shades of yellow, red and white rock flank the crater wall surrounding chunks of rock and ash. Climbers require a permit costing $22/person with a limit to 100 a day.

Crash: Guest House Inn Suites in Kelso is where most Mt. St. Helens hikers stay over. The spot is a hub for other nearby outdoor activities.

Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland

The Blue Lagoon is easy to check off the To Do List once you’re in Iceland. Besides scoping the geysers, fjords, and lunar rock formations, those who join outfits like Glacier Guides can plow volcanoes in an Icelandic Super Jeep, and then weather-permitting, ski down the 5,500 foot Eyjafjallajokull volcanic glacier. OK, 2009/2010 weren’t the years to channel any inner Viking -- the eruptions up through May 2010 at “Black Glacier” gave risk takers pause. Once the fiery theatrics died down, the adventurous (or crazy) clamored to make the difficult 6-8 hour climb over the crevasse-riddled glacier to the summit. The overeager can look and touch the now cooled lava falls, and witness the new post-explosion craters and mountains.

Crash: Visitors make the just under 100-mile drive from Reykjavik to visit Eyjafjallajokull for the day. Hotel Borg is central and the city’s oldest hotel with recent modern renovations. It isn’t as trendy as newer designed hotels, but it’s often the more affordable.

Cerro Negro in Nicaragua

Locals say Nicaragua’s volcano Cerro Negro is due to erupt again any day now. (It last erupted in 2002.) Until then, the brave hike 2,300 feet up ash and rubble carrying a wooden board strapped to a backpack to then surf/snowboard over a blackened bed of congealed lava back down to the bottom.  The top rewards too: beyond the smoldering crater and sulfuric stench – if the dry wind clears -- sweeping panoramic vistas reveal Nic aragua’s fertile plains and colonial cityscapes. Only the truly insane do the full moon climb and witness the fearsome red glow of this suspiciously brewing cauldron.

Crash: Bigfoot Hostel takes groups on the 4.5 hour round trip journey. (A 40-minute drive from nearby Leon, a 45-minute hike up Cerro Negro, and top speeds down the volcano hitting 50mph.) Winter months, for just $32 volcano surfers book the tour with one night of dorm accommodations, a bagel, coffee, t-shirt, sticker and two mojitos.

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