What It’s Like to Hike to See Iceland’s Erupting Volcano

One way to break out of that pandemic funk: watching lava flow in Iceland right now.

What It’s Like to Hike to See Iceland’s Erupting Volcano

On May 24, 2021, hikers could watch the Geldingadalsgos eruption in Iceland from just hundreds of feet away.

Photo by Laura Dannen Redman

Geldingadalsgos Volcano Site Hike Reykjanes Peninsula, Iceland Distance: 4 miles round-trip (give or take) Difficulty: Moderate

Despite this being an otherworldly experience, it begins, like many adventures, in a car park. Ever since the Gerlingadalur eruption began on March 19, 2021, Icelanders—and now vaccinated international visitors such as myself and my husband—have made pilgrimages to see the lava spew, bubble, and flow across this stretch of the Reykjanes Peninsula in southwestern-most Iceland. What’s astonishing is that this once-in-800-years display of nature’s force is only a 45-minute drive south of Reykjavík. It’s even closer to Keflavík Airport, the largest airport in the country—a mere 20 minutes by car. Imagine that: an active volcano one would deem “accessible.” You could land in Iceland in the morning from the United States (there are flights from Boston, JFK-NYC, and Washington, D.C., as of May), await your negative COVID test results at a nearby hotel, and once cleared, see the volcano erupt in the same day.

“It’s the best tourist eruption in the world. You can walk to it,” says Ryan Connolly, our Hidden Iceland guide, a native Scot who moved to Iceland five years ago to become a glacier guide. (File that one under #lifegoals.) With boots tied tightly and nerves running high, we drive toward the Fagradalsfjall volcano near the fishing village of Grindavík, and park in a new lot that’s been created in the last month to keep up with visitor demand.

Iceland Tourism says a record 6,032 tourists were at the eruption on March 28, though many trekkers are locals who come back week after week to track the volcano’s progress. The numbers have gone down since that initial surge in interest, dropping into the hundreds in June (you can track foot traffic to the hour on this site). Given that this is an effusive eruption—which means the lava flows slowly and steadily, and the volcano could continue to erupt for weeks, months, even years—volcano seekers can safely get within feet of the a’a lava (the slower, rockier stuff), if they so choose. From noon until midnight, Icelandic Coast Guard personnel keep daredevils in check and warn hikers if the conditions become unsafe.

After Connolly uses a device to confirm that gas readings are low enough to proceed (a shift in the wind could end your journey), we begin the hike on a newly widened gravel path that’s now the two-lane highway equivalent of what was once a rocky scramble over uneven terrain. A steady saunter leads to a relatively steep incline, up and over a crest; about an hour and 15 minutes later, as we pass boulders covered in moss while navigating loose volcanic rock, the main crater comes into view. It may seem asleep; it may simmer and bubble like a pot about to boil over; or you may catch it during one of its truly awesome displays.

Words don’t do justice to the sensory overload: Lava rockets out of the crater’s maw, like an overzealous science experiment by the gods. Even from hundreds of feet away, you can feel the heat, as strong as a shield. Up close, the air seems to shimmer. The change in pressure, the warmth, the disbelief that you’re that close to lava—it’s almost too much to process. Listen closely and you’ll hear the lava’s progress: it sounds like a fireplace crackling, or glass breaking. Is the lava moving toward you? Ever so slightly, imperceptibly. Look closely and you’ll swear the lava is exhaling.

People have called it hell on earth, but also heaven; with its fields of charcoal-colored lava and fire-y crackle in the distance, it’s easy to compare this to Tolkien’s Mordor. The site of Geldingadalsgos (the Gerlingadalur eruption) is growing rapidly and changing constantly, so your visit will always be entirely unique. Could it get more epic than that?


Hiking back from seeing the Gerlingadalur eruption as the sun starts to set—at 11 p.m. in May.

Photo by Laura Dannen Redman

Follow the eruption 24/7 with this live cam.

>>Next: Iceland Has Reopened to Travelers—Here’s Everything You Need to Know

Laura Dannen Redman is the digital content director of AFAR based in Brooklyn, New York. She’s an award-winning journalist who can’t sit still and has called Singapore, Seattle, Australia, Boston, and the Jersey Shore home.
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