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Inside the Volcano

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After hiking through a field of lava, donning a helmet and harness, and climbing to the top of a perfectly conical volcanic crater, we gathered our courage and stepped onto a cable lift… the kind normally used to wash the windows of skyscrapers. Then we were lowered four hundred feet underground into the magma chamber of a long dormant volcano. A little scary, but visiting Þrihnúkagígur was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity we couldn’t resist.

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The Þrihnúkagígur (“Three Peaks”) volcano southeast of Reykjavík has lain dormant for over 4000 years, but it wasn’t until 1974 that a team of local adventurers led by Árni Stefánsson discovered the cavern which is accessible through the mouth of one of the craters. Here was a perfect magma chamber, without any of the magma. Immediately recognizing it as a place unique in the world, Árni labored for years to open the volcano to tourism, finally succeeding in 2012.

Tours inside the volcano are run exclusively by 3H Travel. A bus picked us up in Reykjavík and brought us to the Blafjoll Mountain Ski Resort. From here it was an hour-long hike over a lava field to the camp at the foot of Þrihnúkagígur, where we met the team, examined diagrams of the magma chamber and played with an injured arctic fox cub that had taken refuge there.

Although it doesn’t look like much from the base camp, the underground dimensions of Þrihnúkagígur are impressive. It’s spacious enough to comfortably fit the Statue of Liberty and taller than Reykjavík’s Hallgrímskirkja. But these are just facts and figures; we weren’t able to truly comprehend the volcano’s size until being lowered into it.

Þrihnúkagígur is unique in that it has managed to retain its conical shape even after the release of its magma. Scientists believe this is because the magma drained out the bottom, instead of exploding out the top… “It’s like somebody came and pulled the plug,” said Haraldur Sigurdsson, the volcanologist who founded Stykkishólmur’s volcano museum. The lift takes about seven minutes to reach the floor, and the tour allows a half-hour to explore, before the ride back up.

It’s an amazing feeling, crawling around the jagged rock, peering up at the tiny crater now 400 feet overhead, feeling the walls which have been either scorched black by the lava’s heat, or are still vividly colored by the earth’s minerals… yellow, red, orange. It’s exactly how you always thought the interior of a volcano might look, and the experience of simply being there is unforgettable.

There’s no denying that at 37,000kr ($310) apiece, the tour is prohibitively expensive. But turning people off is partially the point, since this is the kind of operation that simply can’t support large numbers. Still, after you’ve paid $310, driven an hour out of Reykjavík, hiked an hour, and then waited at camp for your turn, it’s a little frustrating to have only 30 minutes inside the chamber.

But this is a petty gripe. In the grand scheme of things, these were probably the only 30 minutes I’ll ever spend inside an actual volcano. Overall, it’s an experience we can’t recommend enough.

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September 16, 2013 at 1:47 pm Comment (1)

Hiking around the Western Snæfellsness, Part 2

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Our excursion into the Snæfellsjökull National Park was the first big hike we’d embarked on in Iceland, and was an incredible introduction to the country’s nature. By the early afternoon, we had already seen an old Irish well, an amazing crater and a lava-field. But the second part of our day would prove to be even more action-packed.

Snekkjufoss Waterfall
Snæfellsjökull, always in the distance, led us on

A long walk from the Saxhóll Crater brought us to its sibling, Rauðhóll, which we circled along a nicely-marked path. Circumnavigating the crater took about an hour, and the scenery was stunning. Here, unlike at Saxhóll, the vegetation has largely returned. We were all alone, within sight of both the sea and the Snæfellsjökull Glacier, and fell completely under the landscape’s spell. I don’t think we talked at all. It would have been wrong to interrupt the natural, silent harmony by blurting out some idiocy like “Gosh, this sure is pretty!”

We continued up a dirt track in the direction of the glacier until reaching two waterfalls: Klukkufoss and Snekkjufoss. Both were lovely. Smaller Klukkufoss fell over basalt columns, while Snekkjufoss thundered into the valley. The river powering through Snekkjufoss was fed by the Snæfellsjökull Glacier. A shining white beacon always visible on the horizon, the glacier was our companion throughout the day.

After the two waterfalls, we hiked up the third and final crater of the day, Sjónarhóll, and enjoyed an unparalleled view of the valley. A field of lava stretched out in front of us, Hellissandur and the beautiful Ingjaldshóll Church were visible in the distance, while the Atlantic Ocean claimed the horizon beyond.

Now we had the task of getting back to our tent at Hellissandur. It was already late in the day, so we chanced a shortcut along an unmarked trail past Burfell Mountain. Note: when a trail in Iceland is described as “unmarked”, that’s exactly what it means! There was neither track nor stake to lead the way, and so we just kept heading north, up and down huge hills, over agonizingly bumpy terrain, past concerned-looking sheep, and across rivers which started small but were becoming unnervingly larger as we distanced ourselves from the glacier.

Eventually, it had to happen. At the foot of Burfell, we found ourselves ringed in by uncrossable rivers. The summer’s glacial run-off was in full swing and these rivers, which on the map looked like tiny streams, were raging. We followed the tamest river east, downstream, searching for a fordable spot, only to encounter another river joining in from the south. And now we were completely hemmed in, and had to move south, 180° opposite of our goal.

Crossing Rivers Iceland

After an hour of hiking in the wrong direction, we found a relatively shallow spot, and stripped down to our undies. At this point, we had been going for thirteen hours, so the freezing water was actually a helpful way to revive. It took another hour before reaching the coastal road. We weren’t anywhere close to our campsite, but a road means cars, means transportation, means hitchhiking. Luckily, hitchhiking in Iceland isn’t just safe and convenient, but can be a real life-saver. We were picked up by the very first car which passed.

In all, we had walked over twenty miles. Way more than planned. We managed to get our tent erected, then collapsed into our sleeping bags. The next morning, we awoke in utter agony, but the experience was worth the pain. Snæfellsnes is home to some seriously amazing nature, and this hike introduced us to a lot of it.

Locations on our map: Rauðhóll | Klukkufoss | Snekkjufoss | Snæfellsjökull

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August 9, 2013 at 5:44 pm Comment (1)
Inside the Volcano After hiking through a field of lava, donning a helmet and harness, and climbing to the top of a perfectly conical volcanic crater, we gathered our courage and stepped onto a cable lift... the kind normally used to wash the windows of skyscrapers. Then we were lowered four hundred feet underground into the magma chamber of a long dormant volcano. A little scary, but visiting Þrihnúkagígur was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity we couldn't resist.
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