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Erta Ale, Danakil



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Erta Ale, a sight like no other in the world: see, hear and smell an imposing cauldron of boiling magma, just a few dozen meters beneath your feet! At the heart of the Danakil depression, some 100m below sea level, in northern Ethiopia and bordering Somalia, the Erta Ale volcano (literally "the mountain that smokes") rises to 613m and offers a lava crater that is active all year round. A headlamp climb at night, with the orange mouth of fire in your sights, allows you to tread the rim of the enormous hole, admiring the phenomenon under gusts of over 50° and sulfur. With the last eruption having taken place in December 2016, we were also able to move along the crusts of the still-crisp lava, forming exceptional flows in splendid rounded folds, covering older layers and in some places encasing boulders, now trapped for eternity. A truly exceptional experience!

Technical summary

Type ✦ Night hike

Location ✦ Mekelle

Region ✦ Danakil

Country ✦ Ethiopia

Length ✦ 9kms

Elevation gain ✦ 700m

Difficulty ✦ MD

Duration ✦ 4h to 5h (2 days)

Interest ✦ ★★★

Access to the place

Difficult, very difficult and almost impossible to organize on your own. First of all, there are numerous authorizations and military checkpoints along the way, due to the instability of the Afar region and its proximity to Eritrea. An Afar guide and armed scouts are preferable to avoid any problems. Access by 4×4 from the tarmac is not easy, and the logistics of meals and camping are far from easy in this part of the world.

Itinerary description


You'll need a headlamp, as well as something to protect your feet and legs as you approach the crater. A bandana that masks the respiratory tract can be very useful to protect against sulfuric ascents. The trail is marked almost all the way, but at night it's very difficult to follow without a local guide. It takes around 9 km and 700 m of gentle ascent to reach the summit.

Given the spectacular temperatures in the depression (45 to 47° in March during the day), it's not a question of improvising. It's best to go through an Ethiopian agency that takes care of everything from A to Z for this excursion (4 days in the Danakil with the Salt Lake and Dallol). We went through ETT, Ethio Travel and Tour, and the service was entirely satisfactory (ETT Mekele, info@ethiotravelandtours.com, Tel +251 91 402 78 93).


We set off from the last military village, from where we can see the volcano glowing in the distance. After some 30′ of walking on sandy flats, you reach the dried lava slabs. The path then winds its way gradually uphill until it gets a little steeper at the end. At the top, some 200m from the hole, there's an abandoned village with a few traditional huts where we can eventually spend the night (which we did, in a lovely thunderstorm!).


From the village, situated at the top of a small cliff, we descend to reach the rim of the Erta Ale crater, covered by multiple layers of lava. The last layer, 3 months old, shines brightly and in places collapses under our weight. The rim can be reached from the right. The view is straight on to the magma. In places, you can get close to the edge and see almost the entire floor, where the elements are unleashed: cascades of fire, lava gushes, magma swells, huge blocks collapsing to form icebergs jostled by the magma storm. A breathtaking spectacle.


After spending the night at the top, a return to the crater rim at dawn is also well worth the detour. You'll get a better view of the dried lava on the ground. The path back down is then clearly visible. Leave early to avoid the heat, which rises very, very quickly around here.

Map & topo



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