Chasing Volcanoes – Iceland

Chasing Volcanoes – Iceland

Volcanoes were always a bit intriguing as a child. They came with the dinosaurs that I loved so much and insane destruction and chaos. They were fucking cool – and terrifying.


As an adult, my volcanic adventures came like a slap in the face when in 2010 a certain volcano (Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland) blew up causing complete chaos throughout all of Europe and most flights going through the continent. This volcano, while I eventually learned to cope, became a constant wrench in my planning, and a lesson on being flexible with travel plans. It did not, as I mentioned before, make me super interested in visiting the country of Iceland, but life has a funny way of changing your mind on things.

In March 2021 I found a great deal on airfare to Iceland. And over a few glasses of wine booked flights, a camper van, and a map of the island nation. Fast forward to the end of March and a fully active volcano was erupting near Grindavik, meaning I had a perfect chance to make some peace with geological chaos that had tormented me some 11 years previously.

All joking aside, the chance to see an active volcano was something I could not miss! It also meant that I once again had to be flexible with viewing such a thing and making a unique experience out of the adventure.

How To

Like the majority of the world, I actually had NO idea how to visit an active volcano. Even in my almost 5 years in the travel industry, I actually had not helped anyone arrange a trip to see a volcano. Where does one begin?

A few things to note about volcano exploration, anywhere in the world, is that nothing is predictable with volcanoes, and no one has a clue what anything will be like from one day to the next. Meaning, you might get the best show of your life, like what happened with a co-worker on their visit in August, or you may get a very mild cooling pool of lava. Regardless, you need to visit when opportunity arrises, because it is completely worth it.

For most volcanoes, you need to decide how you want to see the area. You can 1) fly (helicopter/small plane tour) or 2) visit on foot. The former will obviously require a tour and the second can be either a tour or a personally guided visit. In Iceland, it is very easy to go to most places without tours, including an active volcano. Just prepare for an intense day or evening of exploration.

While helicopters or planes are an amazing way to experience something, if you have time constraints, and are traveling on a budget, they may not be your best selection. Hiking, however, is virtually free.

In Iceland, most locations of natural importance will require a parking fee, most often paid via an app. Directions are posted everywhere, just make sure you watch for the signs as you can get a ticket if you don’t pay. This will likely also be sent to your car rental company = an extra fee to you. So while you pay a few dollars to park, the hike is free. However, there will be no bathrooms or other facilities at any of the lots for the volcano, so plan ahead.

I started by planning with this great website from Visit Reykjanes which shares live updates on where spots are active and where you can hike and park for each section. Naturally, this will change based on what the volcano is doing, but it’s a great starting point as you plan your time to visit the site.

Based on my vehicle (a 2wd van), I decided the first parking lot, traveling from Grindavik, was the best option due to its easy accessibility. I also picked the longest hike – because I hated myself that day? I also wanted to move my body after about 24 hours of travel and a long nap.

Path B was approximately 6.4 km roundtrip or about 3.9 miles RT. Since you will also explore around the volcano spot, estimate it’s four miles. Additionally, about half a mile is straight up a mountain – and I mean straight up a mountain. Plan to pull yourself up on the rope system, and to pray to your favorite deity all the way down. I have been to quite a few hiking trails in my life, this was by far the most nerve-wracking.


Gear

It’s easy to assume that because a spot is open to the public that a location is perfectly safe to visit with regular athletic or day-to-day wear. PLEASE don’t assume this in Iceland, anywhere you go you need to be prepared regardles of the season or location. Time and time again I would see the weather change in a matter of minutes, regardless of elevation, time of day, or what the weather prediction had been. Also asume the hiking trails are going to be rough and maintenence will be minimal due to constant damage from weather.

Hiking this volcano I was so greatful I had everything I did because I used all of it.

Clothing:

  • Merino long sleeved shirt – this is warm and moisture whicking, making the hike much more enjoyable but not too warm that I was uncomfortable when I got moving.
  • Hoodie/sweater – I wore one of my favorite sweaters. It’s a lighter weight one but warm none the less. Choose what you prefer and enjoy.
  • Hiking Leggings – my favorite pair is from Eddie Bauer, they are comfortable, moisture wicking, UPD 50, and have pockets. If you are easily cold, wear a thin base layer under these.
  • Smartwool Socks – I mostly only wear these socks anymore. The hiking is my favorite style, they keep my feet dry and warm without feeling heavy. They also have great padding for hiking.
  • Vasque Hiking Boots – please don’t wear tennis shoes on these trail. I scuffed my heavy duty boots pretty bad, but this trail would have DESTROYED basic tennis shoes. Not to mention having ankle support was vital due to the wobbly paths and many rocks.
  • Wool Hat – I have a stocking cap, wool blend, It is 120% my go to for outdoor activities. It keeps my head warm and also looks good,
  • Puffy – My jacket is from Wantdo, I desperately needed this at the start of the hike due to the wind just cutting right through you. As I got some “shelter” and heated up, I removed it. Since it folds up small it fit perfectly in my hiking backpack.

Hiking Gear

  • Hiking Backpark – no matter the brand, make sure it is large enough to hold at least 2 liters of water and a few emergency supplies.
  • Water – I took a 2 liter nalgene for my entire trip, take what makes sense to you. I did use almost this entire bottle for the hike so as not to get dehydrated.
  • Emergeny Gear: I have my own preferences, but basically I take a small first aid kit, utility knife (check legalities of this for each country), emergency foil blanket, a smart straw, and matches. I adjust this based on where I am traveling, but you can decide what is most relevant.
  • Hiking Poles – I saw plenty of people going without poles. I would not have dared this trail without them. I am clumsy, and also have some vision issues. Having the poles helped me get up and down the mountain without as much fear. I frankly think they’re the only way I didn’t get hurt. I only used them on this trail – but it worth the extra weight to have them.
  • Camera – I took both my DSLR and Iphone – worth it for the photos.

My Experience

Beyond the terrifying hike, here is what you can expect from your visit to the Fagradalsfjall Eruption.

  1. It will be a hard hike, but worth it to really take in the Rekjanes peninsula. It’s gorgeous throughout the area, and it’s something you should start your trip with to begin to get to know the country you are visiting. AKA: The land of FIRE and ICE.
  2. The volcanic field, even when inactive (no lava flow) is one of the coolest things I have ever seen. It’s other worldly and completely humbling. The force of one thing and what it does to alter the landscape is remarkable and very much reflective of the life and time cycles that is completely Iceland.

My hike, while scary, was full of gorgeous rock features – almost entirely waste from this and previous eruptions. However, the most impressive thing was not seen but felt. The day I went the temperatures were manageable, but as is always the case in the South of the country, the wind was awful and cut right into anything in its path.

The hike was one that was full of rough pathways. Almost every section of the trail was covered in chunks of volcanic rock. Nothing was broken into gravel, but rather good fist sized chunks that left hikers wobbling across the landscape. As mentioned – I was sooo glad I had hiking boots and ankle support.

Past the field of fist sized stones i then made it to the mountain i had to climb. Guess what looked bigger upon arrival at its base? But being from Colorado and liking a challenge, I went right into it. Then I noticed that the top part was a good 30% grade and that ropes had been placed so hikers could pull themselves up. I weighed my chances of survival, took some time to think through how to do this part safely, and went for it. It was one of the scariest hikes of my life, but completely worth it.

The sketchy rope part of the hike

The top of the mountain acted as a plateau, where, as expected, I was pummeled with more icy wind. An abrupt wake up after the shelter of hiking up the mountain.

As I came within about 100 yards of the volcano that completely changed. One minute I was walking through icy mountain-top wind and the next I was hit with what can only be described as a wall of heat.

Much like coming into a toasty home after being in freezing temperatures, it was a surreal moment. For a second I thought I was just warm from the hike, but then I realized that the temperature change was in fact from the volcanic activity!

Beyond the heat, I noticed that my footing on the tundra-like landscape changed from a soft and mossy step to one that crunched and buckled under my feet – dead plants covered the landscape. They had been killed off by the change in temperature, not burned from the fire of the volcano, but rather destroyed from the heat source. A great illustration of the fragility of the landscape to changes in temperature. It felt almost apocalyptic.

Fried plant life

Once I finally came to the mountain edge, there before me was the massive crater that held the spread ofthe lava flow. While I had seen some glimpses hiking up to this spot, actually standing before it was another experience entirely. Not only is the spread massive, but the force from the volcano had completely altered the landscape. What I learned over the next week was that volcanoes were the constant restructuring of Iceland and that over its 1200 years of human activity, humans (Icelanders) had learned to work with the situation. It also reminded me of the constant change and imperminence of this planet we live on.

While humans believe we are masters of events and this planet, these massive forces remind us that control is an illusion, and that this planet will continue doing its thing well into the future, with or without our species.

As the sun became heavy in the sky, I decided it was time to make my way back down the scary rope and back to my van, then campsite, for the night. As I was hiking down, the day gifted me with one of the most rewarding sunsets I have ever experienced. Making it all well worth while to stay on top of the mountain to take it all in. When the sun shines in Iceland – everything hits differently.

Happy Travels!

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