If you can see Mt. Baker, you are part of The Experience

From Mt. Baker to Mt. Vesuvius

The exploration of a not so foreign volcano


Mt. Vesuvius ascends from the water like a monolith above bustling Italian towns. From Naples to Sorrento, the 5,000-foot mountain is always in view while navigating the tight Italian roads and tighter Vespas weaving in and out of traffic.

The lack of a peak is a reminder that this quiet mountain is more than something pretty to look at. It showed its power in 79 AD, freezing the ancient cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in time, burying them in ash. Vesuvius reminded the region of this power again in 1944 with an eruption that filled the sky with clouds of ash but spared the cities from destruction.

Visiting Mt. Vesuvius and the surrounding areas was high on the list as we planned our trip to Italy. Whenever travelling, we try to get outside the cities and explore the local environment. When in reach of a national park, we plan accordingly to give ourselves the opportunity to explore it. What could be better than getting to one in Italy?

I would be traveling from my home volcano of Mt. Baker to one in Italy, where my ancestors came from. Having been to Italy in the past, I was prepared for the level of energy the cities bring. The people are packed tightly into cities laid out before modern times, resulting in the regular sound of honking horns and the revving of engines as people race to their spot in the line of traffic. After a couple nights of Rome, I could not wait to get to the quiet mountain and explore.

Before leaving Whatcom County, I tried to get tickets to the park with no luck. I gathered that tour companies buy all the tickets, so people are forced to ride with them. Some random tickets are released throughout the day, but with spotty cell service, winning that lottery seemed unlikely. So, after a train to Naples to rent a car, we optimistically headed up the mountain. Saying the drive up to Mt. Vesuvius has a different feel than driving up to Mt. Baker would be an understatement. The wide double lanes of Highway 542 gently flanking the North Fork of the Nooksack River as you wind your way through the foothills before passing through Glacier and ascending the mountain was instantly a distant memory. What we experienced were tight roads, tight corners, and tight squeezes by cars and tour buses. It was time to put relaxation on hold and hope for survival.

As we neared the top, I anticipated a booth holding a park ranger wearing a green uniform. I knew some hikes needed tickets, but I had also read that there were plenty of other, free hikes in the park. As the landscape opened up, I could feel I was entering nature. I was surrounded by green instead of houses, and the view out to the Tyrrhenian Sea grew more impressive around each corner. With the summit in view, I felt like we would make it. I would finally be able to take a breath and relax.

Not so fast. The Italians had other plans.

A woman in the middle of the road signaled that we needed to turn right instead of continuing up the road. There would be no getting to an Artist Point parking lot and choosing my direction. We were directed to park along the side of the road and either pay for a shuttle or walk the three kilometers up the road dodging shuttles and tour buses on the just-shy-of a two lane road.

Wanting to survive, we handed over the three euros per person. The shuttle driver was as skilled behind the wheel as any driver I have ever seen, and he safely got us to the top, having to back up twice so that descending traffic could make it by. As we reached the top, the level of chaos only grew. There were little tables selling trinkets and tour buses crammed everywhere with nothing more than a small parking lot for them to turn around. There were also people everywhere. People lined up for shuttles, people herded to tour buses, and people like us, standing around trying to figure out how to get in.

There was only one entrance . If you didn’t have a ticket, you were not getting through. There were no other obvious trails, and now we seemed stuck. After questioning what to do for a few minutes, we decided that maybe this was all we would see, and instead of waiting for a shuttle down, we would risk life and limb and walk back to our car. I saw a little path to my right as we descended no more than half a kilometer. I figured when in Rome – or rather, when on Mt. Vesuvius – so despite everyone else’s skepticism, we took the trail. From the trail, we found what seemed to be an actual path, and we began winding around the mountain, finally feeling a level of calm. We ascended the mountain gradually away from the bays of Naples and were greeted by a large valley filled with towns. We continued circling the volcano rising up in elevation. We had the trail to ourselves until we encountered an Italian family who, between broken Italian and broken English, we were able to gather that if we pushed on up this trail, we would be rewarded.

We continued up and around the mountain and found ourselves looking to the south over Pompei and out to the sea. Sailboats dotted the water, and Sorrento, our home the next night, could be seen in the distance perched above steep cliffs with buildings and villas vining their way up the hill. From this perched-up view, it felt as though you could almost reach out and touch the water. The expanse felt endless, and the world below was deceptively quiet.

While I was never greeted by a ranger in green, Mt. Vesuvius delivered a grand adventure, a great hike through nature, and unforgettable views. We ended up exploring six miles of mountain trail, if you include walking down the road to our car. By the time we reached the road, traffic had subsided and our lives never felt in jeopardy.

It is strange to say that having a volcano around is comforting, but when you live near one, it is unsettling to be away from the mountains. The mountains look over us, comforting us in their wilderness. A journey to them is an escape from our bustling cities to calm the senses. They also remind us never to get too comfortable, or they may display the power building up inside.    X