Witness An Eruption: How To See The Volcano In Iceland

erupting volcano crater with molten red lava in Iceland

In March 2021, something special happened in Iceland. A volcano started erupting and it created a brand new – and spectacular! – attraction for people to visit. It is one of those rare chances to see a volcano erupting right in front of you! At the time of writing, the eruption at Fagradalsfjall is still going – so read on for information on how you can see the volcano erupting with your own eyes.

I’ve always been fascinated by volcanoes, ever since learning about them at school. I’ve visited volcanoes in New Zealand, Greece and the Canary Islands, and I’ve dreamed of seeing one erupt – but I knew it was a long shot, as the opportunities to do that safely are rare. Therefore, when news broke of the erupting volcano in Iceland, I was super keen to go there as soon as it was safe and possible for me to do so. I visited it twice in early August 2021 after driving the Ring Road, so in this post, I’ll share my experience of both visits.

The eruption is changing all the time… The info I’m sharing is correct at the time of publishing (August 2021). However, in case things change, I’ll share some links on where you can get the most recent information on the eruption.

History of the eruption at Fagradalsfjall

Fagradalsfjall is a system of volcanoes in the Reykjanes peninsular, near the capital of Iceland, Reykjavik. It formed more than 11,000 years ago, but it had been dormant for an estimated 6,000 years until 2021. In fact, there hadn’t been an eruption in the whole of the Reykjanes peninsula for 800 years. 

Fagradalsfjall sits at the divergent boundary between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates, meaning it is one of the points where these two plates of the earth’s crust are pulling apart. And when tectonic plates pull apart, hot magma bursts out!

As with most volcanic eruptions, the Fagradalsfjall eruption was preceded by a series of earthquakes, which let scientists (and nearby residents!) know that something was moving below the surface. These earthquakes went on for more than a year, and then, on 19 March 2021, a fissure opened in the Geldingadalir valley and the eruption began.

Almost immediately, people hiked out to see the eruption and the lava flows – and I followed their pictures and stories keenly via social media. It has attracted huge numbers of people ever since.

The eruption has evolved over time: fissures turned into craters (at one time, there were seven craters spurting lava; when I saw it, there was one main crater, and shortly after that, it had evolved again into twin craters), and lava started to fill the Nátthagi valley. After a firey start, activity slowed and the volcano went through a period of stopping and starting in June & July 2021. And then it came back in full force in late August 2021.  The lava flow has overrun several barriers built to contain it, and there are fears it will cross the main road on the south side of the peninsula soon.

Black crater and bubbling red lava flowing in channels at the volcano in Iceland
The eruption on 8 August 2021

Is it safe to visit the erupting volcano in Iceland?

Aren’t volcanoes, like, dangerous?  Well, yes…  

It is possible to visit the Fagradalsfjall eruption because it is less dangerous than many other kinds of eruptions. It isn’t the explosive kind of volcano that produces explosive volcanic bombs, huge ash clouds nor pyroclastic flows (like the kind that wiped out Pompeii in Italy).  That’s why people have been able to get right up close to the lava flows. In fact, in the early days, people were cooking pizza and sausages on the hot rocks! 

But there are dangers, of course: there’s a danger from gases emitted from the volcano and as such, there is continual monitoring of the site. You can check volcanoweather.is to see what the gas pollution is like before you visit.

There’s also a danger from walking on the lava. Even black, solid-looking lava could be a thin crust over 1,000°C molten lava below, so it’s a terrible idea to walk on the lava (although I did see some idiots doing that when I visited).

Black crater and red lava at the erupting volcano in Iceland
The erupting volcano in Iceland

How to see the volcano erupting in Iceland

If you want to get up close and personal with a real live erupting volcano in Iceland, you have two options: 1) hike there by foot or 2) fly over it.

I tried both options, and I can say that the first option is definitely cheaper!  But the second option gave better views.  I’ll give you an overview of both options.

Seeing the eruption by foot

Unsurprisingly, most people choose the option to hike to the volcano in Iceland. It is way, way cheaper than taking a plane or a helicopter! And if you like hiking, then there’s an added bonus.

For official information on the safety of visiting the eruption on foot, check out these websites:

Where does the hike to the volcano start?

The hiking route is fairly close to the volcano along route 427, approx 10 min drive east of Grindavík.

There are three car parks, which you can find using the map on VisitReykjanes.is (unfortunately GoogleMaps isn’t updated with the volcano and car parks at the time of writing). It is free to do the hike to the volcano, but the car parks aren’t free. They cost 1000ISK for the day, which you can pay online by entering your car registration number and payment card details (there’s a sign with the info in the car park). 

What is the hiking route like?

There are several hiking walks that have been established since the volcano started erupting. One of them (route A) stopped being viable when the lava flowed right across it (!), so when I visited, most people used route C instead.

A map of the routes is available on Safetravel.is.

Hiking paths to the lava pool in the Nátthagi valley and up the hillside to see the crater
Hiking to the volcano in Iceland: the left fork goes to the lava pool in the Nátthagi valley and the right fork goes up the hillside to see the crater (with the steep ascent in the centre of the photo)

Route C takes you first to the lava pool that has formed in the Nátthagi valley, and then you have the option to continue up a hillside to the right-hand side of it, to get a better view over the crater itself (which is not visible from the lava pool).

The stretch of route C to the Nátthagi valley was fairly easy – a few ups and downs, but mainly flat. 

The path up the hillside to see the crater, however, was more challenging. The first incline is fairly steep and the ground is gravelly, so it is quite slippery.  There’s also not a properly marked path, and people have clearly tried to take a number of routes up the hillside, turning it into a wide, gravelly slide.

Going up was hard work, and coming down was a bit treacherous, to be honest. I saw a few people fall over – and I was one of them (embarrassing, but I wasn’t hurt)!  I also saw a man with a small child going down on his bottom, I guess to avoid the risk of falling over. And as I was leaving, I saw the search & rescue people on their way to help someone who was in difficulty on that slope.  So it is not for the faint-hearted!

gravelly hiking path up the hillside to see the volcano in Iceland
The steep, slippery path up to the viewpoint over the crater

What views are possible from the ground?

In Nátthagi valley, the main sight to see is the pool of lava that has gathered there, and the flows of lava down the hillside from the area where the crater is.  When I visited, these were all black, with no sign of red hot liquid lava – though the lava was still emitting smoke and gas, so I knew it was hot.

black and grey lava flows into the lava pool in the Nátthagi valley
Lava flows into the lava pool in the Nátthagi valley

If you go up the hillside route, you will be able to see the main crater itself – and if you’re lucky, you will see it erupting red hot lava into the air! 

On my visit by foot, however, it was quiet – some smoke, but no visible eruption. I waited around a while, in case it started erupting again, but I didn’t get lucky on that day.

Smoking crater and black lava flows at the volcano in iceland
View of the crater on the hillside – no activity the day I did the hike

Based on other people’s photographs after I visited, there has been a lot to see at the eruption recently: lava spurting from the craters and many flows of red hot lava along the ground, which people seem to be able to get quite close to. I would have loved to have been able to see these lava flows and to get some close up photographs of them, but it just didn’t work out that way for me.

But don’t feel too bad for me because I did get to see the volcano erupting the day after my hike!

Seeing the erupting volcano in Iceland from the air

What options are there to see the eruption by air?

The more expensive, but more spectacular, option for seeing the erupting volcano in Iceland is from the air.  Both small plane and helicopter tours are available, departing from Reykjavik domestic airport. Based on my research, most last 40 – 50 minutes and cost up to 57,000ISK (approx £330).

I was very interested in a helicopter tour. However, in the end, I flew over the eruption on a privately organised photography flight.

Huge erupting volcanic crater with a tiny-looking helicopter hovering over it
Crater with a helicopter hovering, for scale

My flight with Volcano Pilot

If you’re a regular reader of this blog or follow me on Instagram, you’ll know I’m not a stranger to aerial sight-seeing.  I’ve flown over spectacular landscapes in the USA, Peru and Namibia.  So, when I planned a trip to Iceland for the second time, I was keen to see it from the air.  And with the eruption still going, I was even more determined to get that aerial view!

I arranged a photography flight with an Icelandic pilot and photographer, best known on Instagram, as Volcano Pilot. I arranged a bespoke route to cover all the things I was interested in seeing – including the eruption, of course.

The day we had planned to fly was actually overcast with poor visibility, so we postponed it to the next day. 10 minutes after we took off from Reykjavik airport, we saw the smoke from the eruption. And ten minutes after that, we were circling the crater as it erupted!

It was really stunning – overwhelming, really…  I couldn’t quite believe what my eyes were seeing.  I’d been fascinated by volcanoes since I was a child at school, and here I was seeing one erupt right in front of me. It took my breath away.

As it was a photography flight, I was able to open the window to take photos – and I’ve never experienced anything as visceral and intense as leaning out of an open window at 70-80 knots (130-150 kph), pointing my camera down towards a huge crater spurting red hot lava!

Black volcanic cauldron bubbling with red hot lava
Circling this boiling cauldron of lava was a breathtaking experience!

As well as the phenomenal eruption, I also saw lots of other stunning things on this flight. I will write more on this topic asap, but in the meantime, check out my Instagram, where I’ve started sharing pictures: Instagram.com/marthaknight.

The risks with booking an aerial sight-seeing tour

Regardless of the flying option you choose, there are a couple of risks to consider when booking a flight.

One risk is that the weather will prevent you from taking off, as it did for me the day I had originally planned to fly. This is a big risk in Iceland, which can be cloudy, rainy or stormy, even in summer. I believe that most aerial tour providers will not charge you if the flight is cancelled due to bad weather, but I’d suggest you check the terms & conditions before you book.

Another risk, specific to visiting the eruption, is that it might not be erupting at all on the day you fly over it!  Like the day I hiked to the eruption, some days there is no visible activity.  Now, I would say it is still very cool to see the black lava, even if there is no molten lava flowing – but it is not quite the same as seeing an actual eruption.  So, you should be aware this is a risk when you book.

How to keep track of activity at the volcano in Iceland

Whether you’re planning to hike to the eruption or to fly over it, you will probably be hoping and/or praying that it is actually erupting when you go there.

There’s no way to accurately predict what the volcano will be doing when you visit ahead of time, but there is a way you can keep an eye on what it is doing in real-time.  There’s a volcano webcam continually filming the eruption, so you can see what is going on at any time of day or night.

In addition, you could check the pattern of tremors, which show a pattern of activity, followed by rest – I’m not sure how easy it is to use this to predict what will be happening when you visit, but you could try!

REMINDER: The eruption is continually changing

As I’ve already said, the eruption is changing every day, so do use the links I’ve included above to find the most up to date information.  In particular, check Safetravel.is, which is updated every day or two.

If you go to Iceland, I really hope you manage to see the eruption.  It was truly one of the most exciting travel experiences I’ve had!

And if you do go, make sure you check out my guides to travelling to Iceland during Covid, exploring Iceland on a budget and also the best things to see in South Iceland.

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