April 8, 2013
The concept is alluringly simple: Leave your home, your television, your laptop, your job, put on a backpack and walk from Mexico to Canada.
That, in a sentence, describes the experience of walking the Pacific Crest Trail. Usually called the PCT, this epic foot trail meanders 2,650 miles through three states, from Campo, California, to E.C. Manning Provincial Park, in British Columbia. Many thousands of people walk some portion of the trail each year, whether in California, Oregon or Washington, while several hundred attempt to go the full distance. Hikers intending to do so must be fit, brave, ambitious and—at least for a while—unemployed. They must also undertake some serious planning as they begin what will likely be the greatest outdoors adventure of their lives. The PCT is one of America’s three great long-distance north-south hiking trails, along with the Continental Divide and the Appalachian trails. The PCT passes among the world’s largest trees, some of the most fantastic rock formations and one of the driest deserts. It crosses one of North America’s largest rivers, and traverses a wide range of climates and landscapes, from low-lying to deserts to craggy high country to well-watered, mossy forests.
Most people who hike the PCT walk south to north, and for them, the adventure is about to start. Most will depart before May. This allows them to begin when the desert temperatures are still mild and progress northward rather in sync with the warming weather. The April-May start time also works out especially nicely by putting northbounders at the south end of the Sierra Nevada just as the high country snowpack really begins to melt, and if they stay on schedule they should pass through the Pacific Northwest before the first autumn snows.
Jack Haskel, a staff member with the Pacific Crest Trail Association, told Off the Road that several thru-hikers are already a few hundred miles into their walk.
“It’s been a low-snow year, which makes it a decent year to get an early start,” he said.
Hikers must handle some paperwork before they begin—but, happily, bureaucratic obstacles are quite minimal. The PCT Association will grant a PCT Long Distance Permit to anyone planning to walk at least 500 miles of the trail. This document is free, takes two to three weeks to process and paves the way for a hiker to walk every inch of the PCT.
Logistically speaking, now comes the fun stuff—bears, food supplies, dangerous terrain and running out of water. Haskel says there are, in particular, two waterless distances of about 30 miles in the Southern California desert where hikers must tote gallons at a time.
Once hikers reach the Sierra Nevada, a simple water filtering pump can be used at any of hundreds of lakes and streams along the way—but rations now become the biggest priority. North of Kennedy Meadows, hikers cross not a single road for about 200 miles and, unless they trek off-trail to a town, may need to carry with them some 60,000 calories of food a person. Such deliciously laden hikers are gold mines of goodies for black bears, which don’t pose much of a physical threat to people but may easily rob hikers of their supplies if they leave them unguarded—even for just a few moments, whether day or night. Bears, Haskel warns, can be especially problematic near the Rae Lakes in Kings Canyon National Park and in Yosemite National Park’s Lyell Canyon. In places, a plastic bear canister is required—and hikers would be wise to carry one of these bear-proof food containers throughout their journey.
About 1,000 people apply for thru-permits each year. Between 500 and 800 individuals attempt the journey. Fewer than half of them finish each year. The average thru-hiker will take about five months to walk the entire trail, averaging 20-plus miles a day after factoring in rest days. Haskel says many hikers begin at a pace of 16 or 17 miles per day but, by the time they reach Oregon, “are basically doing a marathon every day.” He says the PCT is “an amazing workout” and that thru-hikers can expect to arrive at the finish line “skinny” and, perhaps, fitter than they’ve ever been. Thru-hikers, by virtue of their lifestyle, become voracious eaters, burning 5,000 calories or more per day and, when they’re able, regaining this energy through glorious, face-stuffing feasts. Fortunately, hikers will encounter towns with quality stores and restaurants every few days for most of the PCT’s length. The PCT Association’s website offers guidelines and strategy suggestions for resupplying along the trail.
One need not be starving—just bored of couscous and curry—to stop and eat one of the most famous meals along the entire PCT, the Pancake Challenge at Seiad Valley Store and Cafe, on the Klamath River in Northern California. The Challenge consists of putting down five one-pound pancakes—a feat that perhaps only a thru-hiker (or a black bear) could ever manage. Walking Man Brewing Company, in Stevenson, Washington, is a popular watering hole for PCT hikers. Haskel also recommends Paradise Valley Cafe, near the San Jacinto Mountains in Southern California, popular among hikers for its burgers.
A small fraction of PCT hikers—perhaps just several dozen people—hike the trail north to south, starting at the Canadian border and walking to Mexico. Such southbounders often opt for this route plan due to their calendar schedule; if they cannot break away from school or work until June, they simply can’t begin the journey in the desert, where June temperatures can be crushing. They will also have a poor chance of reaching the Canadian border before winter if they depart from Campo in late June. But hiking in this direction introduces some unique challenges. Most southbounders start after June 15—but even then, much of the trail will still be covered with snow. Southbound hikers can expect not to see the trail itself for snowy sections as long as one mile or more. Thus, getting lost is likely, and many southbounders carry GPS devices for this reason. By July and August, the high country snows will have mostly melted—but October will be just around the corner, and the highest passes of the entire journey lie very much toward the end of the trail, in the Sierra Nevada. Forester Pass—at 13,153 feet—is the giant of them all. It stands 780 miles from the finish line, and southbounders generally aim to cross this beautiful but potentially perilous obstacle before October.
From here, much of the remaining country is desert, which by autumn is mild, dry and beautiful. Many southbounders slow to an easy pace here, Haskel says, as the race against winter is over. Fifteen to 20 miles a day—child’s play for hikers who have come all the way from Canada—brings them in a month or two to the Mexican border at Campo, where a taco—plus a dozen more and a few beers—may never taste so good.
The trail runs 2,650 miles.
The trail leads through 26 national forests, seven national parks, five state parks and three national monuments.
The trail’s midpoint is at Chester, California, near Mount Lassen.
The highest point along the way is Forester Pass in the Sierra Nevada, at 13,153 feet.
Fewer than 200 hikers finish the PCT each year.
About 5 percent of thru hikers walk north to south, considered the more challenging direction.
The first person to thru-hike the entire trail was Richard Watson, in 1972.
The fastest time was set in 2011 by Scott Williamson, who hiked north to south in 64 days 11 hours, averaging 41 miles per day.
A few speed hikers have finished so-called “yo yo” hikes, reaching the end, then turning around and walking the entire PCT again in the opposite direction.
Cyclists may attempt a bike-friendly, 2,500-mile parallel route called the Pacific Crest Bicycle Trail.
February 12, 2013
A crisp, clear stream flows out of Cajas National Park on a 20-mile circuitous route down to the town of Cuenca—but few fish live in these wild waters. Yet the Quinuas River Valley it forms is a hot destination for sport fishermen. They come by the hundreds each weekend, mostly from Cuenca, seeking the most popular game fish in the world: the rainbow trout.
“What kind of trout live in here?” I ask a young man who serves me coffee at Cabana del Pescador, the campground where I have stayed the night. I am only curious how locals refer to the species Oncorhynchus mykiss, which is native to North American and Siberian streams that enter the Pacific but has been introduced to virtually all suitable habitat on earth. In Ecuador, the species first arrived in the 1960s.
“Normal trout,” he says.
I aim to catch a few fish today and have them for dinner, but I move on, up the road, looking for a happier place to fish. The pond here is muddy, surrounded by concrete and a chain-link fence. Trouble is, I won’t find much better. This valley, though populated by a few wild trout in the streams and lakes of Cajas National Park, is a busy center of aquaculture. Trout farming is generally considered a clean and sustainable industry, though it isn’t always pretty. For a stretch of seven or eight miles downstream of the park, nearly every roadside farm has a handful of concrete-banked pools on the premises, fed by stream water and swarming with trout about 12 inches long.
Up the road, after passing a half dozen possible fishing sites, I pull in to one called Reina del Cisne, at kilometer 21. It is a restaurant and sport fishing “club,” as the sign tells visitors. I have coffee—Nescafé, as always—inside. When I am finished, I ask if there is an opportunity to fish here, and the teenage waiter beckons me to follow. “It’s 50 cents to rent a pole,” he says. “Then, we weigh the trout, and you pay $2.25 per pound.” The biggest fish in the ponds out back are more than ten pounds, he tells me.
He pulls one rod from a heap of several dozen—a broomstick-like pole with a stout line tied to the end and a silver barbed hook at the tip. He quickly mixes up a bucket of bread dough to use as bait, drops a hunk into a shopping-style woven basket and hands me my tackle.
“What kind of trout are these?” I ask, still fishing for local lingo.
“Salmon trout. They have red meat,” he says. He adds, “Good luck,” and returns to the restaurant.
For an angler who has fished in the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada and Alaska and New Zealand, this is a sad comparison, and I feel a strange desire to either cry or laugh hysterically. This would make a perfect opportunity for kids, but I know what real fishing, in real waters, is. Here, I have three ponds to choose from—two of them rectangular, concrete basins, the other a muddy, oval-shaped pool 30 feet across with grassy banks. I flick a piece of dough into this most natural-appearing of the options. Several trout dart from the murk as the white ball vanishes in an instant. I bait my hook and fling it into the middle of the pond, slightly embarrassed that I am participating in what locals advertise as pesca deportiva—or “sport fishing.” A similar flurry of fish attack and strip the hook. I re-bait and try again and this time hook instantly into a feisty rainbow. I drag it in and onto the bank, whack it cold with a stick and drop it in my basket. One down, and in another five minutes I have a second fish. I could take more but, frankly, this isn’t fun or engaging. A year ago exactly I was cycling around New Zealand, casting flies at wild trout six times this size and immeasurably more thrilling to catch—wary, elusive, picky and beautiful. The challenge of enticing one to strike made success an accomplishment. Best of all was the experience of being there, fish or none, standing in crystal clear waters surrounded by green meadows and the tall peaks of the Southern Alps. Indeed, fishing is largely about interacting with the environment, and if one catches no trout on an expedition into the mountains, something else is still gained.
But no matter how big a fish one may pull from a concrete-lined pond, using dough balls for bait, the experience feels as hollow as shopping in a supermarket. While I’m here, I hope I might tangle with an eight-pounder, but no such beast shows itself. I wonder if perhaps they tell all guests that giant trout live in these ponds to encourage business. But back inside the restaurant, my hosts show me the de-boned meat of a 14-pounder caught the day before. The meat is thick and heavy and a delicious-looking salmon red. I ask what the trout eat. “Natural food,” owner Maria Herrera tells me.
Down the road, at kilometer 18, I visit a government-run fish hatchery. I roll down the dirt drive, across the stream on a wooden bridge and up a short rise to the facility. I introduce myself to two men in yellow slickers, ankle deep in a muddy concrete basin full of thrashing foot-long trout. The station director, Lenin Moreno, tells me that more than 8,000 adult fish live here. He and his colleague, Ricardo Mercado, are currently trying to get an exact head count in a tank swarming with, they guess, about 300 fish. They take a break and show me to the laboratoria—the hatchery. In the trays and tanks of this covered, concrete-walled facility, 1.3 million juveniles are produced each year and sold to aquaculture operations in four provinces, Moreno tells me.
Outside, they show me a rectangular basin teeming with huge rainbows, green-backed, red-sided beauties that remind me of the two-foot-long giants of New Zealand. Visitors may come here to buy these trout, Moreno tells me. The fish go for $1.50 per pound.
I ask if the meat is red like salmon. “No—it’s white,” Moreno tells me. “But at the fish farms they feed the trout pigment.”
This doesn’t surprise me. The rainbow trout I grew up on were generally white-fleshed fish. Only occasionally on family camping trips as we cleaned our catch would we discover with excitement that the trout had natural pink meat, which tends to be richer and fattier than paler flesh. But in Ecuador’s many fish markets, I have not yet seen a trout fillet that wasn’t colored like salmon, and I’ve suspected all along that this attractive color (which I’ll admit has drawn my wallet from my pocket more than once) was artificially induced. I recall seeing the fillet of a trout caught in New Zealand just outside the outflow of a Chinook salmon farm that was clearly affected by such pigment—probably either synthetic astaxanthin or canthaxanthin, both used in most commercial salmon farming operations (and the latter of which may cause retinal damage). The trout had presumably been eating pellet feed that escaped from the salmon pens, and the meat was partially colored, patchy red and white like a tie-dyed shirt. Yuck.
I poached my farm-caught trout in cheap Chilean Sauvignon Blanc at my hostel in Cuenca, just off the main street of Calle Larga. The meal was fine and exactly what I had been aiming for when I plunked that ball of dough into the pond at Reina del Cisne. But the fish didn’t quite taste up to par. Because although pink-fleshed trout are a sure catch in the mountain fishing ponds of Ecuador, something else, less easy to describe, native to places like Montana and British Columbia, may evade you with every fish landed.
December 11, 2012
As polar bears watch their winter ice recede farther and farther from boggy Arctic shores each year, skiers may notice a similar trend occurring in the high mountain ranges that have long been their wintertime playgrounds. Here, in areas historically buried in many feet of snow each winter, climate change is beginning to unfurl visibly, and for those who dream of moguls and fresh powder, the predictions of climatologists are grim: By 2050, Sierra Nevada winter snowpack may have decreased by as much as 70 percent from average levels of today; in the Rockies, the elevation of full winter snow cover may increase from 7,300 feet today to 10,300 feet by the year 2100; in Aspen, the ski season could retreat at both ends by a total of almost two months; and throughout the Western United States, average snow depths could decline by anywhere between 25 and—yep—100 percent.
These, of course, are just visions of wintertime future produced by climatologists and their computers—an easy venue for climate change naysayers to assault. In fact, a recent report commissioned by Protect Our Winters, an environmental organization, and the Natural Resources Defense Council on declining snow levels also noted that annual snowpack depth has remained stable or even increased in parts of California’s Sierra Nevada. Another study, published in January in Environmental Research Letters, foresaw similar outcomes, predicting that global warming could trigger counterintuitive winter cooling in certain parts of the Northern Hemisphere. But those findings seem tantamount to just the tip of the iceberg—which is undeniably melting. Because the thing is, global warming has already delivered serious wounds to the world’s ski industry. Europe, especially, has been hurting for years. Back in 2003, the United Nations Environmental Program reported that 15 percent of Swiss ski areas were losing business due to a lack of snow. A few years later, in 2007, one ski resort in the French Alps—Abondance—closed down entirely after a 40-year run. The closure came following a meeting of local officials, who reluctantly agreed that there simply wasn’t enough snow anymore to maintain the Abondance lodge as a ski operation. For several years, low snowfall had been attracting fewer and fewer tourists, and Abondance—once the recipient of millions of tourist Euros each year—began stagnating. The Abondance lodge and the nearby town of the same name lie at a little over 3,000 feet above sea level—low for a ski resort and, so it happens, right in the hot zone of 900 to 1,500 meters that climatologists warn is going to see the most dramatic changes in annual snowfall.
But more alarming than the Abondance shutdown is that which took place at almost six times the elevation, at Bolivia’s Chacaltaya Lodge, once famed as the highest ski resort in the world. Here, outdoorsmen came for decades to ski the Chacaltaya Glacier, which historically flowed out of a mountain valley at more than 17,000 feet. But that wasn’t high enough to escape rising temperatures. The glacier began retreating markedly several decades ago, and over a course of 20 years 80 percent of the icy river vanished. The lodge, which first opened in 1939 and was a training ground for Bolivia’s first Olympic ski team, closed in 2009.
Similar results of global warming can be expected in the American ski and snow sports industries. Already, as many as 27,000 people have lost their seasonal jobs in poor snow years in the past decade, with revenue losses as much as $1 billion, according to the recent study conducted for Protect Our Winters and NRDC. The study cites reduced snowfall and shorter winters as the culprits. In total, 212,000 people are employed in the American ski industry.
The irony of the ski industry’s impending troubles is the fact that ski resorts, equipment manufacturers and skiers themselves have played a role in fueling the fire that is melting the snows. The carbon footprint of the ski industry is a heavy one. Seventy million people visit the Alps alone each year to ski or otherwise play in the snow—and travel to and from the mountains is recognized as perhaps the most carbon-costly component of the industry. But excluding tourist travel, lodges and ski resorts are major users of energy and producers of trash. A 2003 book by Hal Clifford, Downhill Slide: Why the Corporate Ski Industry Is Bad for Skiing, Ski Towns, and the Environment, details the many ecological and cultural problems associated with the skiing industry. Among these is clear-cutting to produce those dreamy treeless mountainsides that millions of downhillers long for on many a summer day. The ski resort Arizona Snowbowl, for one, was lambasted last year for plans to cut down 30,000 trees—a 74-acre grove of pines considered holy by indigenous nations. And just prior to the kickoff of the 2006 Turin Winter Games, in Italy, The Independent ran a story under the headline “Is it possible to ski without ruining the environment?” The article named “ski tourism-induced traffic pollution and increasing urban sprawl of hotels and holiday homes in former Alpine villages to the visually intrusive and habitat-wrecking ski lifts” as faults of the industry. The article continued, noting that with the “spectre of global warming … now stalking the Alps,” the ski industry of Europe “is waking up to its environmental responsibilities—just in the nick of time.”
Right: “Just in the nick of time.” That article came out almost seven years ago, and look where we are now. The earth, by most measures, is warmer than ever, and snow is declining. A study just published in Geophysical Research Letters reported that locations in Eurasia have set new records for lowest-ever spring snow cover each year since 2008. In North America, according to the same report, three of the last five years have seen record low snow cover in the spring. It shouldn’t be any surprise, then, that commercial use of snow machines is on the rise. These draw up liquid water and blast out 5,000 to 10,000 gallons per minute as frosty white snow. It may take 75,000 gallons of water to lightly coat a 200- by 200-foot ski slope, and the energy-intensive machines have been blamed for their role in pollution and excessive water use. And while snow machines can serve as a crutch for limping ski resorts, the snow they produce is reportedly quite crummy in quality—and they’re anything but a cure for the greater problem.
Where do you like to ski? Have you seen more exposed rocks and muddy December slopes and snow machines at work? This article offers a summary of how several major ski regions in the world will feel the heat of global warming. Every mountain range around the world will feel the heat.
Will warmer winters mean richer skiers? In 2007, the mayor of the French Alps town of Abondance, Serge Cettour-Meunier, was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “Skiing is again becoming a sport for the rich,” explaining that soon only more expensive, high-elevation ski resorts would have enough snow for skiing.
November 5, 2012
The presidential candidates look as suave and dapper as ever each time they step to a new podium on the long and winding campaign trail—but each man’s well-groomed countenance belies the rigors of the arduous road each has traveled during the 2012 presidential race. Following is a discussion, with some facts and figures from behind the scenes, about the two men fighting to have America’s most demanding job and each candidate’s long, long journey that ends tomorrow at the polls.
Where the candidates have been:
Between June 1 and November 2, the Obama camp—including the president, the vice president and each man’s spouse—made 483 campaign-related appearances. Barack Obama was present for 214 of them. The same four-tiered Romney party, meanwhile, made 439 appearances, with 277 by Romney. In late September, the Obama campaign’s efforts seemed to max out: on September 22, the Obamas and the Bidens made 11 appearances, and 10 the day prior. The Romney camp has more recently made its most active efforts, with 10 appearances on October 31, and 11 the next day. Barack Obama has not visited Montana, Idaho, or Wyoming, among other states, and neither candidate has bothered appearing in Maine, Kansas, Nebraska, Tennessee, Kentucky and Oklahoma.
On October 24, Obama had what may have been the busiest day of his campaign. He flew 5,300 miles and made appearances in Iowa, Colorado, California (to appear on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno) and Nevada, before, at last, catching some sleep on an overnight trip to the major swing state of Florida (which has seen 112 campaign visits by both presidential husband-wife quartets since June), where the campaigning commenced the following morning. Later that day, the president continued to Virginia, Ohio and Illinois, where he cast an early vote. A week later, Obama made another campaign sprint beginning on October 31; forty-eight hours later he had bounded 6,500 miles around the country. November 1 was a particularly exhausting day. After leaving the White House at 9:20 a.m., he hit Green Bay, Las Vegas, Denver and, finally, Columbus, Ohio. And on November 4, he left the White House at 8 a.m. and made visits to New Hampshire, Florida, Ohio, Colorado and Illinois.
How they get there:
The president gets around in his own private jet, called Air Force One. While “Air Force One” is, in fact, the call sign of any Air Force plane on which a U.S. president is traveling, the term more commonly refers to a particular pair of customized Boeing 747s used exclusively by the White House. Operating the planes is not cheap. ABC News has reported that an hour of flight on Air Force One costs about $180,000–usually of taxpayers’ money, unless a flight is considered strictly part of the campaign. But Obama does occasionally journey overland by bus—specifically in a black, slick and shiny armored coach that, just like its duplicate vehicle, cost $1.1 million when the Secret Service purchased the pair last year. By some guesses, Ground Force One, as it’s been dubbed and which has been active during this campaign, travels just six to nine miles on a gallon of gasoline.
Mitt Romney has also covered some impressive distance during his campaign. According to the Huffington Post, Romney will make a last-minute, four-day, 15,000-mile dash that ends tonight after visits to seven states, and he has traveled tens of thousands of miles throughout the campaign. As of late August, he has been traveling mostly on a private jet—a McDonnell-Douglas 83. Running mate Paul Ryan has his own plane—a similar model called the DC-90.
Where they sleep:
Luxury travel goes hand in hand with luxury lodging, and the president has stayed at the Beverly Hills Beverly Hilton Hotel in a room that costs $4,000 per night, the Ballantyne Hotel in Charlotte, North Caroline, the Hotel Bellevue in Washington, and many other fine establishments. And Romney has stayed at the Charleston Place Hotel in Charleston, the New York Palace Hotel, which can cost $9,000 per night, and the Millennium Bostonian Hotel.
How they stay fit:
In spite of their busy schedules, Obama and Romney both take the time to care for themselves and maintain physical fitness. Romney, it’s been reported, jogs three miles daily, whether on treadmills, around the hotel premises or on trails. Obama, too, keeps an exercise routine and aims for 45 minutes of boosted heart rate per day, achieved through running, basketball and even boxing. Although one of the Air Force One jets contains a treadmill, as Obama recently told Jay Leno, the stationary running machine was installed during a previous presidency and Obama does not jog on it during flights.
In the end, for all the sleepless nights and airport marathons and shaking of hands, we wonder: Did their campaign efforts steer the election? Whether Romney wins or Obama, America will know soon which man will get to spend the next four years flying in Air Force One.
October 19, 2012
The seemingly slow-motion ash plume of a distant and erupting volcano; the petrified rivers of lava on the slopes of a mountain; the stories of towns caught by surprise by descending volcanic avalanches: Such are the elements of vulcanism that amaze and terrify us—though not necessarily enough to keep people at bay, and volcanic landscapes, both dormant and active, draw countless tourists to rumbling mountains, rivers of lava and boiling geysers every year. Following are several of the most inspiring volcanic destinations.
Pompeii. Porous rocks, cinder cones, geysers and lava beds may be fascinating for anyone with a geological conscience, but not much volcanic scenery can quite compare with the Roman ruins of Pompeii, in southern Italy, where archaeologists have uncovered human terror frozen in stone. Body casts have been made of partially preserved figures lying curled in fetal position, seated with arms shielding their heads and in other desperate poses. One family of four was even discovered hiding under a staircase, where they succumbed to the fatal blast of heat that engulfed the city on August 24, in A.D. 79. In all, an estimated 16,000 people died that day. Along with human remains, the ruins of Pompeii include artifacts of the era—like various household items and petrified loaves of bread. And looming over it all is the culprit, Mount Vesuvius. Or, not looming exactly—because Vesuvius is only a shade over 4,000 feet tall (various sources give their own exact figures). Yet the little mountain is considered a real hazard and is among Europe’s handful of active volcanoes. It erupted most recently in 1944. The mountain, along with its relatives Campi Flegrei, Vulcano, Stromboli and the often-rumbling Mount Etna of Sicily, marks the interface between the African and Eurasian tectonic plates, where the former dives under the latter, melts in the heat of the earth’s interior and sends plumes of magma upward to create cone-shaped volcanoes. Hikers can ascend Vesuvius without a great deal of effort. The trail skirts the rim of the crater, where rising steam reminds us—and certainly residents of nearby Naples–that Vesuvius hasn’t yet had its last words.
Krakatoa. On August 26, 1883, the entire 2,667-foot-tall Indonesian island of Krakatoa vaporized in one of the most powerful volcanic explosions in history. More than 36,000 people died in the blast and from the resulting 130-foot tsunami, which swamped the Southeast Asian coastline. The explosion was heard 4,500 miles across the Indian Ocean in Sri Lanka and veiled the earth in an airborne ash layer that lowered global temperatures and affected weather patterns for years. Quite literally, Krakatoa’s was an eruption that rocked the world. For decades, the mountain was gone. Then, in 1927, the sea above Krakatoa’s craggy stump began to boil—and in years following a new mountain emerged. Today, Anak Krakatoa—the “child of Krakatoa”—stands more than 1,300 feet high and is growing an average of 16 feet per year. It’s a little mountain still, but plainly one of the most dramatic. At times, cloud systems above the peak glow with the colors of fire—though scientists are dubious whether the new volcano has the potential to explode with anything like the power of its predecessor. The mountain is an object of great intrigue, and tourists who visit the island may even hike to the summit.
Mount Lassen Volcanic National Park. The southernmost peak of the Cascades, Mount Lassen in Northern California rises dramatically from an otherwise nondescript landscape of farm country and rolling hills. Cone-shaped like its volcanic cousins to the north—including Mount Shasta, Mount Hood, Mount Rainier and Mount St. Helens (which exploded in 1980, killing 57 people)—Lassen last blew its lid in a series of eruptions between 1914 and 1917. This activity left its northeast side a ruin of volcanic rubble and desolation. Travelers through the mountain, which is bisected by a highway that cuts up and over and right past the summit, will see steaming pools high on the mountain, as well as a devastated area. Lower on the slopes is a craggy landscape of black volcanic rock and hardened lava flows that appear like a turbulent, frozen river. Hikers can walk 700 feet up to the nearby peak the Cinder Cone (that’s the 360-year-old volcano’s name), atop which is an ominous-looking crater. Wish to climb Lassen itself? The summit stands 10,463 feet above sea level, about 5,500 feet above the hill country at its base and 2,000 feet above the trailhead, where hikers park their cars to make the four-hour round-trip trek.
Mauna Loa. Sometimes regarded as the biggest mountain on the planet (and the tenth-largest in the solar system) when measured from its base at the seafloor, Mauna Loa rises more than 31,000 feet and measures 19,000 cubic miles in volume. (The neighboring Mauna Kea is slightly higher and part of the same massif, but Mauna Loa is generally regarded as the central peak of the Big Island.) While Everest climbers may smirk at the suggestion that a gentle shield volcano in the tropics is anything but a molehill, Mauna Loa ranks as one of the earth’s most active and exciting volcanoes. Mauna Loa has erupted 33 times since 1843 and has long been an attraction for locals and tourists seeking photo-friendly volcano-viewing opportunities. Its eruptions have been relatively benign events—though in 1935, the U.S. Air Force was called upon to drop bombs in the path of a lava flow headed for Hilo to try to divert it. The city wound up untouched, and no people have been killed by Mauna Loa’s historical volcanic activity. The most recent eruption was in 1984—a three-week-long outburst that had the Big Island on high alert, threatened to destroy a prison and provided lava lovers with the photo ops of a lifetime.
Yellowstone National Park. The North America Plate is slowly sliding across the surface of the earth—and lying beneath this moving slab of crust is a volcanic hotspot, a vent fuming with heat. This process has left a linear series of scars on the land, including the nearby Snake River Plain. Today, the place we call Yellowstone National Park sits on top of the gurgling hotspot, and as a result the park features hot springs, geysers and rock formations in addition to its fantastic assembly of bison, elk and other megafauna. In fact, wildlife may attract the majority of Yellowstone’s visitors, who have good chances of seeing grizzly bears and wolves from the highway, yet the sheer thrills of vulcanism are a sure draw. At the Old Faithful geyser, which erupts reliably every one to two hours, crowds gather in timely waves to witness the show as water spews 100 feet and more into the air. And sapphire pools of clear, scalding water bring tourists to the rail along paths that wind through a number of dramatic hydrothermal sites. But the gentle volcanic activity of Yellowstone is a bit misleading—for this region is just one of the earth’s supervolcanoes. The Yellowstone supervolcano has erupted three times, scientists believe. The first event was the biggest—a blast about 2.1 million years ago that released 25,000 times the energy of the famed Mount St. Helens eruptions–itself 400 times more powerful than the Hiroshima atomic bomb. The two subsequent eruptions of the Yellowstone supervolcano occurred about 800,000 years apart—and by this pattern geologists speculate that we’re due for another. Such a huge eruption in Yellowstone today would kill an estimated 87,000 people. So enjoy the placid activity of Old Faithful—and cross your fingers.
We’ve named a handful of volcanic sightseeing spots. What others are worth a journey?