Hot on the trail

A man in front of an active volcano

After completing Iceland’s sublime but challenging Fimmvörðuháls trail, author Peter Naldrett braves a hike up to the smouldering caldera of an active volcano. 

Head east a couple of miles from the Icelandic town of Grindavik, best known by visitors for its Blue Lagoon geothermal spa, and you’ll soon arrive at a series of car parks that weren’t there this time last year.

Local authorities have been busy cutting their way through the lava field to accommodate the thousands of tourists who have come to this remote spot on the Reykjanes Peninsula to hike up to the country’s latest attraction – an erupting volcano.

The trail is well marked and often fairly busy, especially when the live webcam shows the lava is pouring out of a fissure near Mount Fagradalsfjal. It is now Iceland’s longest-running eruption in 50 years, having begun on 21 March 2021 (although quieter now), and has proved to be a life saver for the local tourist industry that’s been hit hard by the impact of the pandemic.

For a prize as highly regarded as an audience with a volcano, the hike is relatively straightforward. Head away from the car park and take a turning off to the right, which leads up and over a couple of mountains that provide the best view of the main event.

An erupting volcano and hot lavaIf you have more than one day to spare, taking the left turn here brings you to one of the earlier lava fields to have been set down by the volcano on this eruption. A black, twisting mass of contorted rock, you can smell the cooling lava before you can see it. Half the time spent on this short walk will be picking your jaw up off the floor and taking photographs of the fascinating new formations.

The main walk over the mountains will take you about two hours to reach the vantage point, which is essentially in the same spot as the webcams you can find online, here’s one example. To get there, there is one tricky section to negotiate – a steep climb on slippery sand that is harder on the descent, especially if it’s after nightfall.

It’s difficult to do justice to the sensory bombardment you’ll experience if you walk when the volcano is in full flow. You’ll be able to hear the liquid magma sloshing around in the volcano crater. Smells and humid steam – most unpleasant, it has to be said – fill your nose. The incredible sight of a river of lava streaming from the crater is best captured at night, but mesmerising at any time. And nothing can prepare you for the sheer heat emitted by the lava which, on some days, flows down to within metres of the path.

An erupting volcano

This eruption is expected to last a long time, and facilities are being developed on site which include toilets and a food kiosk. But seeing the eruption is not guaranteed so, if you’re serious about it, get it booked into your calendar sooner rather than later, and plan to take the trek on more than one day to give you chance of being there when the action unfolds.

More information

There are a number of hiking routes to the volcano but they are constantly changing due to the changes in the lava size and flow directions. Check for daily updated weather information, GPS tracks and hiking maps.

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