Active, Dormant, & Extinct Volcanoes of the National Park System

April 30, 2019Katherine RivardLandscapes
Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park

Scaling rocks that never peak, leaving a gaping hole capable of spewing rock, ash, molten lava, or boulders across the landscape. They’ve been known to end civilizations, or in modern times, cause flight pattern disruptions that lead to billion-dollar losses for airlines. Today, there are approximately 1,500 active volcanoes around the world. Many more are dormant or extinct. Though these fascinating landforms are not frequently discussed, they are more prevalent than one might expect. Of the 169 active volcanos existing in the U.S. today, many can be found within the boundaries of our national parks.  

How They Work

Put simply; volcanoes are areas where materials from within the earth come out. The material is fluid molten rock, or magma, which, once it reaches the surfaces, is referred to as lava. This material is originally part of the mantle, the largest layer in the Earth located beneath the outer crust.

Though the mantle is extremely hot, it remains solid in most cases due to extreme pressure. When the material does melt, magma forms and moves towards the outer crust. Once pressure has built, the magma pushes through a vent or fissure in the Earth’s surface, a weak area of the rock.

The Earth’s surface is cracked along several tectonic plates that are continually moving. Most active volcanoes form along the border of two plates. The plates create volcanoes and other geographical landforms based on the way they move against or alongside each other.

Scientists understand the causes of volcanoes but are still unable to predict the eruptions. They monitor signs such as earthquakes, deformation of land, or increased gas emission, all potential signs of an imminent eruption. Ultimately, the buildup of gas and pressure within magna results in an eruption, which can vary in type, from a slow emittance of lava to a devastating explosion of rocks and ash.

Doubly Volcanic

Aerial view of a volcano crater with lava and smoke coming out of the top at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Aerial view of a volcano crater and lava flow at Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park.

National Park Service

Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park's name lets you know exactly what to expect when you visit. Seventy million years of the ocean floor moving northwest over a hot spot in the Earth’s mantle resulted in a volcanic chain of islands. Among these islands is Hawai'i, home of Mauna Loa and Kīlauea Volcano. Though Mauna Loa only erupts periodically, Kīlauea Volcano provides visitors with a fascinating show during its ongoing eruptions.

Outside the Lower 48

Our non-contiguous states and territories are rich with volcanic history. Lake Clark National Park and Preserve in Alaska is a jaw-dropping mix of rugged mountains, steaming volcanoes, and turquoise lakes that leave adventurers awed by its landscape. Two active volcanoes cohabitate in the park alongside hundreds of miles of glaciers. Though one of the volcanoes has not erupted in recorded history, the second volcano, Redoubt, most recently erupted in 2009, when it produced 19 major ash explosions.

A Plethora of Alaskan Volcanoes

 A partly snowy brown mountain with a large crater at the top. Steam rises from inside the crater at Katmai National Park & Preserve.

Steam rises from inside the crater at Katmai National Park & Preserve

National Park Service

Considered one of the world’s most active volcanic areas, Katmai National Park & Preserve is home to at least 14 active volcanoes. Despite Alaska’s icy façade, below the Earth lies the basis of the Ring of Fire, along which 90 percent of the world’s earthquakes and most volcanoes occur.

The most recent eruption at the park was in 2006 when Fourpeaked Volcano erupted. The only volcanic eruption larger in recorded history was Tambora in 1815, located in Indonesia. Visitors to the park can explore the area via the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes Tour, a park ranger-led day-long tour that includes an optional hike down to the valley’s floor, an incredible landscape covered in ash.

Natural and Cultural History Combine

Most well-known for its cultural resources, Petroglyph National Monument is also home to remnants of erupting volcanoes, allowing today’s visitors to hike along some of the volcanic cones and take in the stark basaltic landscape. The Rio Grande Rift, deep below the surface is responsible for many of the park’s formations and created the ancient flows long ago whose remains continue to awe visitors. Generations of Native and Hispanic people also visited this area, considering it a sacred place of worship.

Join the Volcano Club

Aerial View of the Cinder Cone at Lassen Volcanic National Park.

Aerial view at Lassen Volcanic National Park

National Park Service

Fun fact: every rock at Lassen Volcanic National Park originates from its volcanoes. Providing a smorgasbord of volcanoes, this California park includes all four types (shield, composite, cinder cone, and plug dome). The park’s dedication to volcanoes and informing the public about their significance has even resulted in a chance for anyone to receive a “Volcano Club Card” once they’ve learned more about volcanoes and completed 7 activities either in the park or online.

The Anomalies

Capulin Volcano National Monument's namesake erupted between 56,000 and 62,000 years ago and is now considered extinct. The eruption spewed fire, ash, and lava across the land and materials left behind from eruptions piled up to form the conical mountain as it stands today. This and other volcanoes in New Mexico are an anomaly. Unlike most volcanoes, which are located along the Pacific Ring of Fire, along other plate boundaries below the earth’s surface, or over hot spots, New Mexican volcanoes are on the interior of the North American plate.

An Eruption in Arizona

Volcano crater at Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument

Volcano crater at Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument

National Park Service

Where meadows and forests stood, suddenly grew a 1,000-foot high cinder cone volcano — Sunset Crater. A blanket of black cinder lay across the area, leading up to the red rim of the volcano and the rough, jagged lava flows that are still visible today, 900 years later. Not far from this “new” volcano, stands Lenox Crater Volcano, a 300-foot-tall cinder cone volcano that is much older. Hiking along the craters and lava at Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument is a great way to get up close and personal, though caution is necessary, as lava can be sharp and brittle.

Miles of Lava Tubes

When you think of New Mexico, do you think Lava Country? You wouldn’t be wrong if you did. However, lava country doesn’t necessarily mean a barren landscape. At El Malpais National Monument, pygmy pine forests have grown on top of vast lava fields. Besides hiking along the landscape, visitors can explore lava tube caves, unbelievable geological formations that allow you to see a whole new side of volcanoes. The lava tube system in the park is 17 miles long — one of the longest in the continental United States.

Exploring Alaska’s Wild Side

Aerial view of snowy crater at Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve.

Aerial view of snowy crater at Aniakchak National Monument & Preserve

Michael Livingston / USGS

Interested in visiting a park that is often looked over by many national park visitors? Travel to Aniakchak National Monument & Preserve in a remote part of southwestern Alaska and you’ll find yourself in a wild landscape along the Ring of Fire that’s known for its bear population and its notoriously bad weather. An eruption 3,500 years ago created a caldera where a 7,000-foot volcano once stood and a “dead zone” that was unsuitable for occupation for the next 1,500 years, after which, pre-historic communities came to the area and thrived.

The last eruption in 1931 contributed to the raw, rugged volcanic landscape, but hot spots and warms springs hint that another eruption could come any time. No formal trails exist in the park, but hikers will find the ash and cinder fields of the caldera floor to be prime for hiking.

The dramatic sites of volcanoes, whether dormant giants jutting out of the earth or spluttering mountains propelling lava and rock from deep within, often bring to mind a landscape similar to Mordor from Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” or thoughts of the embalmed city of Pompeii from ancient times. In reality, volcanoes are present in many of our national parks. Just as beautiful and majestic as mountains, volcanoes are the far more unpredictable cousin who could act up at any time. Learn more about these amazing geological formations or hike your way around them next time you #FindYourPark / #EncuentraTuParque.


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