Since 1995, the Vesuvius area has been a protected area with 900 indigenous flower species.
The eruptions of Vesuvius have wiped out the vegetation on several occasions and each time the plants have had to start again from scratch to colonise the lava rocks.
Of the ancient Mediterranean forest of holm oaks that covered the slopes of the volcano, today, in the Vesuvius National Park, only the birch trees remain, which can be found in the Valle del Gigante (the depression that separates the outer cone of Monte Somma from the crater of Vesuvius), on the Atrio del Cavallo and among the Cognoli (pinnacles of tuff and lava) of S. Anastasia.
A dense forest of downy oak, Neapolitan maple and locust trees thrives on the outer slopes of Monte Somma. The lava from the 1944 eruption has been colonised by silver-grey lichen, while broom, field mugwort and helichrysum grow on the older lava.
On the southern slopes of Vesuvius and three quarters of the crater is the Tirone-Alto Vesuvius Nature Reserve, established to protect maritime pine and Aleppo pine forests.
There are not many animals in the Vesuvius National Park due to the poverty of the plant environments, which have not favoured settlement. Mammals include foxes, beech-martens, weasels, hedgehogs, dormice and hazel dormice. More interesting are the birds that gravitate around the area of the Vesuvius National Park. Imperial crows, goldfinches, great spotted woodpeckers and tawny owls can be seen on the peaks of Monte Somma and Vesuvius. Among the reptiles, you are likely to encounter the cervone in the Monte Somma woods and the dark bicco, among the lava rocks.
In the Vesuvius National Park it is possible to go on excursions, walking along predefined nature trails. There are 15 trails and 2 cycle paths.
Path number 5 of the Vesuvius National Park, the most beautiful path, leads from the slopes of the volcano to the great cone of Vesuvius. The starting point of the trail is in the square of the Ottaviano car park, at an altitude of 1000 metres.
The path is about 1 km long, 900 metres of which are uphill. The difference in height is just over 200 metres and the walk takes about 20 minutes. Once you reach the top of the cone, you walk around the crater, on a fairly flat surface. From here, it is possible to admire a breathtaking panorama of the entire Gulf of Naples.
For safety reasons, anyone wishing to visit the Vesuvius National Park from 1000 metres upwards, and therefore walk along path no. 5, must be accompanied by a specialised volcanological guide. There are 37 guides who work 365 days a year, including holidays, and are available on site.
Around 400,000 tourists visit the Vesuvius National Park every year, 70% of whom are foreigners.
The following points of interest along the Vesuvius National Park Trail 5 are worth mentioning:
- A panoramic area that allows you to admire Punta Nasone. This particular place is the highest point of Monte Somma and has a height of 1131 metres. This area is called ‘Punta Nasone’ because of its shape; it resembles the face of a person looking up at the sky with his nose in the air.
The spot where you can see the lava flow from the last eruption in 1944. This part of the Vesuvius National Park is called the ‘lava river’, because of its shape as a river flowing down. The bed of the ‘lava river’ has a grey colour, which is unusual because the magma has a reddish-brown colour. This colour is due to a lichen that entirely covers the lava. This particular lichen is the first form of life that colonises and prepares the soil for new plants that will eventually grow.
- A panoramic area that allows you to admire a completely green hill: the Umberto hill. This hill is a splendid example of a lava dome covered in vegetation. Exactly in this area, in 1855, fractures opened and lava poured out, forming this hill. Today it is completely covered by vegetation, the result of reforestation by man. The west face of the volcano, now completely green, is also the result of reforestation.
- The crossing point near a ‘volcanic bomb’ with a diameter of 2 metres. A ‘volcanic bomb’ is nothing more than a piece of lava that is thrown into the air during an explosive eruption. In Pompeii, volcanic bombs with a diameter of 30 cm have been found dating back to the eruption of 79 A.D., despite the fact that the city is 10 km away as the crow flies. Many people died during that eruption because they were hit by these lava projectiles fired by the volcano.
- The point near the crater rim. There is a painting of Our Lady of Pompeii with the volcano in the background and a plaque with a prayer. The painting and plaque were placed there by Cardinal Crescenzo Sepe, Archbishop of Naples on 14 September 2008.
- The final part of path 5 of the Vesuvius National Park, the tour around the large cone. This is undoubtedly the most beautiful part of the hike. From this point tourists can admire the crater and the wonderful panorama of the Gulf of Naples. At this point there is also the info point of the volcanological guides. Inside the great cone there are fumaroles. This is the hottest place in the crater. The temperature of the fumaroles is about 70-80 degrees centigrade. The bottom is completely obstructed by a cap of solidified lava and the magma chamber is under 8-10 kilometres. The next explosion will only occur when the pressure in the magma chamber is such that the cap explodes. Fortunately, the phenomena, which signal and warn of an imminent eruption, are analysed by the Vesuvius Observatory and monitored 24 hours a day by modern technologies that should allow the evacuation of the population before the next eruption.
In the final part of path 5 of the Vesuvius National Park there are many souvenir shops, some practically right next to the crater and the area called “le capannuccie”. This area is located on the southern slope, the last part of the path’s flat route.
The volcano Vesuvius is 1281 metres high, 500 metres wide and 300 metres deep.
Inside the cone, the various stratifications are clearly visible, the result of the various eruptions that have taken place over the past centuries. The last stratification, which can be seen above the whitish horizontal line, dates back to the lava that escaped during the last eruption in 1944. This eruption mainly affected the northern side of the crater. The lava descended through the Valle del Gigante and reached the villages of Massa and San Sebastiano.
The entire path 5 of the Vesuvius National Park is formed by reddish pyroclastic material, i.e. the mixture of ash, lapilli and small slag produced during the eruptions of Vesuvius. This soil is particularly favourable for agriculture as it is very fertile.