Why Iceland’s Volcanoes Are a Must-See

Iceland isn’t just about the Northern Lights and quirky Reykjavik. This island stands on the cusp of the Arctic Circle, straddling the rift between continents and boasting an arsenal of the earth’s most awe-inspiring volcanic wonders. Its landscape is a spectacular canvas painted with geysers, hot springs, and, most notably, an array of formidable volcanoes.

For anyone drawn to the raw power of nature, Iceland’s volcanoes offer a window into the fiery heart of the planet. Positioned on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, Iceland is a hotspot of volcanic activity, making it a premier destination for those who want their travel served with a side of adrenaline.

From the infamous Eyjafjallajökull to the towering Öræfajökull, each volcano has its own story, shaping the island’s rugged landscape and the resilient culture that thrives in its shadow.

The Most Famous Volcanoes in Iceland

1. Eyjafjallajökull – The Volcano That Stopped the World

Remember when flights across Europe ground to a sudden halt in April 2010? That was thanks to Eyjafjallajökull, the unpronounceable Icelandic volcano that captured the world’s attention. Its eruption threw ash into the sky, halting air travel and making it the poster child of volcanic disruptions. Today, Eyjafjallajökull serves as a stark reminder of nature’s unpredictability and as a magnetic pull for the curious traveler.

Tourists can explore the area through various local tours offering hikes around the still-somewhat-steamy crater and visits to the Eyjafjallajökull Visitor Centre, where they can relive the eruption through an immersive documentary.

Positioned just a few hours from Reykjavik, it’s a trip that offers both awe-inspiring views and a lesson in recent geological history. For the best experience, travel during the Icelandic summer when the days are long and the paths less slippery.

Eyjafjallajökull - colossal Volcanoes In Iceland
Eyjafjallajökull | @norrisniman

2. Katla – Iceland’s Sleeping Giant

Just beneath the surface of the Mýrdalsjökull glacier lies Katla, one of Iceland’s most formidable volcanoes. Known for its powerful eruptions occurring roughly every 50-100 years, Katla is long overdue, with its last significant eruption in 1918.

Visitors to Katla can explore its icy covering and venture into the depths of nearby ice caves, offering a surreal blend of glacial and volcanic landscapes. For those planning a visit, local guides are essential, as they provide not only navigation and safety gear but also invaluable insights into Katla’s fiery past and icy present.

Tour options range from super jeep tours to the glacier edges to more strenuous hikes for those looking to quench their thirst for adventure. While in the area, don’t miss the chance to soak in nearby geothermal pools — the perfect end to a day of exploring one of Iceland’s natural furnaces.

Katla Ice Cave - colossal Volcanoes In Iceland
Katla Ice Cave | @g.f.photo

3. Hekla – The Gateway to Hell

Hekla, standing tall and formidable, has been one of Iceland’s most active and unpredictable volcanoes, historically dubbed “The Gateway to Hell” by awestruck medieval Europeans.

This volcano has erupted more than 20 times since Iceland was settled in the 9th century, with its latest activity recorded in 2000. Hekla’s shape is deceptively tranquil, resembling a boat keel, which belies the volatile force lurking within. Adventure seekers and hiking enthusiasts can embark on a journey to Hekla’s summit, a trek that offers panoramic views of the surrounding lava fields and distant mountains.

It’s essential to check with local volcanic activity monitoring before planning your hike, as Hekla can erupt with little warning. The area around Hekla is also rich in folklore, with tales of spirits and witches frequenting its slopes during the medieval times, adding a mystical layer to your hiking adventure.

Hekla | @hit_iceland

4. Grímsvötn – Under the Ice

Nestled beneath the vast icy expanse of Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest glacier, Grímsvötn is Iceland’s most frequently erupting volcano, with the most recent activity in 2011.

This volcano combines the elements of ice and fire in spectacular fashion, often resulting in massive steam explosions and ash clouds when the magma reaches the ice. Visiting Grímsvötn is an expedition suited for the bold, involving a trek across the glacier with expert guides who can navigate the crevasses and monitor volcanic activity.

For those not keen on extreme adventures, there are aerial tours that provide a safe yet breathtaking view of the eruption site and the glacier’s surreal beauty.

Grímsvötn’s eruptions are particularly interesting for their subglacial lake, which often drains rapidly post-eruption, causing massive flood events known as jökulhlaups, adding an element of raw power to its already fierce reputation.

The summit of Grímsvötn
The summit of Grímsvötn | @brucekirkby

5. Bárðarbunga – A Subglacial Marvel

Deep beneath the surface of Vatnajökull, the same vast glacier that covers Grímsvötn, lies another colossal force of nature: Bárðarbunga. This large volcanic system is renowned for its intense seismic activity and significant eruptions, the most recent of which in 2014-2015 formed a new caldera and produced spectacular lava flows that were visible from space.

The area surrounding Bárðarbunga is less accessible than other volcanic sites in Iceland, making it a true expedition for the most adventurous travelers. Those who make the journey are often treated to a unique volcanic landscape that includes new lava fields and ice cauldrons.

Helicopter tours offer a safer and more feasible option for viewing Bárðarbunga’s raw beauty, providing stunning aerial perspectives of the caldera and surrounding newly-formed geological features.

This remote volcano is a reminder of the powerful dynamic forces shaping Iceland’s landscape, offering a once-in-a-lifetime experience for those who witness its majesty.

Bárðarbunga, Iceland
Bárðarbunga, Iceland

6. Askja – The Moonlike Caldera

Askja, a remote volcano in the central highlands of Iceland, offers one of the most alien landscapes on Earth, often compared to the moon’s surface. Indeed, Apollo astronauts trained here in the 1960s to prepare for lunar missions.

The central feature of Askja is its massive caldera, formed during a catastrophic eruption in 1875 that led to a mass emigration from Iceland. Today, Askja remains a popular destination for those willing to tackle the rough highland roads to reach it. The journey involves a full day’s drive from the nearest major town and a hike to the caldera’s rim, but the effort is well rewarded.

Visitors can descend to the Víti crater, where geothermally heated water allows for a surreal swimming experience. The stark, expansive beauty of Askja makes it a must-visit for those seeking solitude and a profound connection with nature’s raw power. Safety precautions are crucial, as the area is isolated and conditions can change rapidly.

Askja, Volcano in Iceland - Colossal Volcanoes In Iceland
Askja | @geology_with_helga

7. Krafla – The Fire Meets Ice

Krafla, with its stunning caldera and history of volcanic activity, is a testament to the dynamic geological forces at play in Iceland. Located near Lake Mývatn in the north, Krafla experienced a dramatic period of eruptions from 1975 to 1984, known as the “Krafla Fires,” which reshaped the landscape. Today, visitors to Krafla can walk through lava fields still warm to the touch and visit the Viti crater, a massive explosion crater filled with blue water that contrasts starkly with the surrounding black lava.

The area is also known for its geothermal activity, featuring boiling mud pools and steaming fumaroles that create a surreal, otherworldly atmosphere. The nearby Krafla Geothermal Power Station illustrates how Iceland harnesses this volcanic energy, providing a fascinating look at sustainable energy practices amidst such raw natural power.

The accessibility of Krafla makes it an excellent destination for those looking to experience Iceland’s volcanic activity up close without venturing too far into the wilderness.

Lake Krafla, Iceland
Krafla | @arnarkristjans_photography

8. Laki (or Lakagígar) – The Fissure of Doom

The Laki fissure and its craters are part of a volcanic system that caused one of the most catastrophic eruptions in recorded history in 1783-1784. This event had profound effects not only in Iceland but also across Europe, altering climates and causing widespread famine. Today, Laki stands as a silent witness to the destructive power of Earth’s interior.

The site is accessible via a scenic drive through the rugged highlands, offering visitors a chance to see the extensive series of craters that were formed during the eruption. Hiking along the fissure provides a vivid perspective on the scale of the eruption and the landscape’s dramatic transformation.

The area is somewhat remote, making it less frequented than more accessible sites, but it offers an unparalleled insight into the effects of volcanic activity on both the environment and human history.

A visit to Laki is a powerful reminder of nature’s capacity to reshape worlds and is a must for anyone interested in the broader environmental and historical impacts of volcanic phenomena.

Laki | @icelanduntouched

9. Þórðarhyrna – The Hidden Threat

Adjacent to the more notorious Grímsvötn, Þórðarhyrna might not capture as many headlines, but its quiet presence is just as significant in the volcanic landscape of Iceland.

This lesser-known volcano provides a unique opportunity for those seeking a more off-the-beaten-path adventure. Þórðarhyrna’s eruptions are typically characterized by the effusion of basaltic lava flows, similar to those seen in Hawaii, creating slowly expanding lava fields that can reshape the terrain over time.

For the intrepid explorer, visiting Þórðarhyrna involves a combination of hiking through rugged terrain and possibly a guided tour to safely navigate the volcanic area.

The journey to and around Þórðarhyrna offers a profound sense of solitude and an intimate encounter with the raw power of Earth’s geology, making it an ideal spot for those looking to escape the more touristy spots and dive deep into Iceland’s volcanic heart.

10. Öræfajökull – The Towering Titan

As the highest peak in Iceland, Öræfajökull is not just a volcano but also a prominent landmark in the Vatnajökull National Park. This majestic mountain houses the infamous Hvannadalshnúkur peak, which beckons climbers from around the world to its icy summit.

The climb to the top of Öræfajökull is challenging but rewards adventurers with breathtaking views across the glacier and beyond. The volcano itself is known for its explosive past, with significant eruptions recorded in the historical annals of 1362 and again in 1727, which have shaped its current form.

For those less inclined to mountaineering, the surrounding areas offer stunning vistas and informative visitor centers that delve into the history and geology of this towering volcano.

Öræfajökull’s combination of accessible natural beauty and the thrilling challenge of its peak make it a versatile destination that caters to a wide range of interests, from casual sightseers to serious alpinists.

Öræfajökull | @James.Rushforth

11. Snæfellsjökull – The Mystical Peak

Snæfellsjökull is perhaps as famous for its literary significance as it is for its geological features. Immortalized by Jules Verne in “Journey to the Center of the Earth” as the gateway to a subterranean world, this stratovolcano captures the imagination of both adventurers and literary enthusiasts alike.

Located on the western tip of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, Snæfellsjökull is not only a visual marvel, crowned with a glacier that can be seen from Reykjavik on a clear day, but it also offers a variety of activities that make the most of its breathtaking landscapes. Visitors can embark on glacier hikes, explore lava tube caves, or simply soak in the stunning coastal views from the mountain’s base.

The area around Snæfellsjökull is steeped in mysticism and folklore, often associated with energy vortexes and other supernatural phenomena, adding an element of mystery to each visit.

Snæfellsjökull, Volcanoes in Iceland
Snæfellsjökull | @gaukaurfromiceland

12. Rauðaskál – Apple Crater

Located in the scenic Heimaey in the Westman Islands, Rauðaskál, known locally as “Apple Crater,” is a lesser-known yet fascinating volcanic site. This small, reddish-hued crater, which resembles the shape of an apple, provides a unique contrast to the more immense and fierce volcanoes scattered across mainland Iceland. Rauðaskál formed during the Eldfell eruption in 1973, which dramatically reshaped Heimaey, adding new land and altering the lives of its inhabitants forever.

Visitors to Rauðaskál can enjoy a gentle hike up to and around the crater, offering panoramic views of the surrounding area, including the newly formed lava fields and the expansive North Atlantic. The hike is relatively easy, making it accessible for all levels of adventurers and a perfect spot for a family outing. The area’s rich history is palpable, with signs and guides detailing the 1973 eruption’s impact on Heimaey and its recovery, providing a profound sense of the power of nature and human resilience.

Exploring Rauðaskál offers a more intimate and serene volcanic experience, ideal for those looking to enjoy the beauty and tranquility of Iceland’s volcanic landscape without the crowds found at more popular sites. This charming crater is a reminder of the unexpected beauty that can arise from nature’s most destructive forces.

Rauðaskál aka Apple Crater
Rauðaskál aka Apple Crater | @christianals

Having journeyed through the land of fire and ice, exploring some of the most famous volcanoes in Iceland, it’s clear that each mountain tells a story that is as unique as it is compelling. From Eyjafjallajökull’s ash clouds that once grounded planes across continents to the serene, alien landscapes of Askja, these geological giants offer a window into the raw power and beauty of nature. They challenge adventurers to trek their rugged paths, reward onlookers with breathtaking views, and inspire all who visit with their majesty and might.

For those planning to explore these volcanic wonders, remember to tread lightly and respect the fragile ecosystems that surround these powerful forces of nature. Whether you are an avid geologist, a seasoned hiker, or a curious traveler drawn to Iceland’s unique landscapes, the volcanoes of Iceland offer an unparalleled adventure that is as educational as it is exhilarating.