On July 29, our family of four took our first trip out of the country since before the pandemic to the magical, surreal landscape of Iceland. I had first visited Iceland back in 2008 with my father and was spellbound by her unearthly beauty and astonishing mystique. While I had wanted to return to this phenomenal country and explore it more, the idea quite frankly did not pop back into my head until late in the Spring when our family had all been fully vaccinated and heard the news that Iceland with its small population of roughly 368,792 hearty souls was welcoming back vaccinated tourists. As someone who follows travel news closely, Iceland’s clever tourism pitch got my attention.
Icelandair has long had direct flights from Minneapolis to Keflavík, and to meet the increase in demand, Delta Airlines also launched a non-stop flight from my home town airport as well. The flight to Iceland from Minneapolis is roughly six hours. The only downfall is that the flight is too short to really get any sleep and the time change is a difficult five hours ahead meaning jet lag was going to be an issue that first day. The good news is we would have nine full days to adjust.
We landed at Keflavík International Airport at approximately seven in the morning to yet another endless summer day. At this time of year, Iceland has almost 24 hours of daylight and on sunny days it feels like the sun never truly sets.
Landing in Iceland feels like landing on the moon. The airport is located on the southwestern tip of Iceland’s Reykjanes Peninsula, one of Iceland’s most volcanic regions. As you land, you are completely in awe as you witness endless plains of black, barren lava fields, smoky geysers misting up into the air and cone-shaped volcanoes off into the distance. It is one of the craziest landscapes we had ever seen and it set the tone of adventure for our amazing ten days exploring the land of fire and ice.
After going through the lengthy line at customs and and getting our rental car, we were off on our way to Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavík, approximately 40 minutes northeast from the airport, driving through the very unusual landscape we had seen only hours before from the plane.
Below is some footage of what the landscape looks like. it is definitely worth spending a day exploring all the fascinating sights on the Reykjanes Peninsula. There is more than just the Blue Lagoon!
We arrived at our rented two-bedroom apartment in the heart of the city and were soon off to sleep. We knew we needed some rest to not only battle jet lag but also for something even more exhilarating. That afternoon we had hired a private guide through locally-owned Troll Expeditions that would take us on a five-hour hike up to see Iceland’s newest volcano, Fagradalsfjall. And if we were lucky, we would see the volcano doing its magic before our very own eyes.
The highly anticipated eruption in the Geldingadalur Valley began at 8:45 pm on March 19, 2021 when a reported 700 meter long fissure opened near Fagradalsfjall. Since then, it has been putting on a surreal, volcanic show of molten lava rivers and spurts ever since. It is the most accessible eruption in Iceland given its location making it an instant tourist attraction for thrill-seekers and curiously-minded adventurers. (Tip: For those who love volcanoes and want the full history of Fagradalsfjall along with spectacular photos and video check out this fantastic, insightful article).
We knew when we booked the tour that there was a chance we would see absolutely no volcanic activity but took the risk. The thought of seeing a live volcano in full eruption made it worth the fatigue and cramming too much in on the first day in Iceland.
Around 3 PM, we were back on the Reykjanes Peninsula once again in the town of Grindavik awaiting our guide at the local N1 gas station. As we pulled into the tiny parking lot, I looked around and only saw a young man wearing a blue t-shirt standing outside and he looked barely older than my teenage son. I thought for sure it couldn’t be our guide but of course I was wrong (I never heard the end of it from my teenage daughter!). At once we were introduced to our enthusiastic, knowledgeable guide Siddi and we were on our way.
We drove about fifteen minutes to reach one of a handful of parking lots for the volcano. Having a good guide was key at that moment as apparently the best routes to reach the volcano are changing constantly.
It was an unseasonably warm day by Icelandic standards with the sun shining and the temperature reaching approximately 65 degrees F (18 C). We were surprised that it was so warm and never once during our trip had to use our rain gear or warm jackets. I guess we had hit the jackpot on Icelandic summer weather.
We began our walk following an uneven gravel path leading us to the start of the expansive black lava field that flows like a river down towards the sea. When you see it for the first time, you are in a bit of disbelief at its massive size (width and length) and can only imagine what it must have looked like with crimson red molten lava flowing down it. Siddi told us that as the lava shoots up out of the volcano and travels down through the valley, it cools rapidly and actually doesn’t take long to change colors from red to black as it hardens and dries. You can often see vents of hot steam seeping up through the lava fields reminding you of how ungodly hot the rock is just below the ground. Siddi told us stories of how tourists naively thought it would be a good idea to roast marshmallows over the steaming vents. Obviously it is not advised to walk on the lava at all as it is still changing and there are hidden vents of dangerously hot steam all around. But of course we saw tourists walking on it anyway.
Once we reached the lava fields, we began our very steep ascent up the side of the mountain where we would get a bird’s eye view of the volcano and if we were lucky, catch an eruption.
The hike up was challenging and steep with the strong smell of sulphur in the air and an incredibly, voracious wind hitting our face. Despite the jet leg and challenge of the rigorous hike up, we were all elated and thrilled with excitement. Siddi talked along the way telling us more about the volcano and its history. The reason for the huge excitement about this volcano is it is the first time in over 800 years that this area has seen an eruption and it is also one of the most accessible active volcanoes Iceland has ever had. We knew it to be true given the hordes of fellow hikers, drones, and even multiple helicopter tours from high above all wanted to catch a glimpse of the world’s newest rock being formed on earth.
After about forty minutes or so, we reached one of the first of several viewing areas where we captured our first view of the steaming volcano. Siddi had been up there earlier in the morning with some other guests and they witnessed an eruption. There was a chance we would see one too.
We continued our walk for another three hours heading down to the freshly made lava fields where we saw tiny brilliant red lava rivers that looked like delicate strings of a spider web. Unfortunately they were too far off in the distance to capture them on film. We hiked on past the tourists to the end of the valley where the landscape became perhaps the most mystical of all. It felt like a set from a Marvel movie it was so incredibly surreal.
As we hiked back, we marveled in awe at what an incredible place Iceland is. While we had not seen the volcano erupt, we had seen some of the newest rock created on the earth and the experience was an unforgettable delight. It was a fantastic way to start off our ten day trip driving around the Ring Road. We could hardly wait for the next day for our adventure to begin!
Want to learn more?
While you don’t necessarily need a guide to go on the hike, it does make the experience much more personal and rewarding. Our guide was extremely knowledgeable and told us a lot about the history of the Geldingadalur Valley and the Fagradalsfjall Volcano. Here is the tour we did with Troll Expeditions: Fagradalsfjall Volcano Day Tour and we chose the private tour so it was just for our family of four. Even better!
To see the massive scale of the lava field, I put together three short video clips and had to take out the sound since the wind was howling so loud. This gives an idea of the vastness of this breathtaking place. My favorite view is at the end as you feel as if you are on the moon! Unfortunately I couldn’t capture the tiny rivers of lava in my phone camera but they were there reminding you that an active volcano was right next to us.
Since we didn’t get to see the volcano erupt, I became a little obsessed with watching the live feed on YouTube. Check it out here! Also, I found this magnificent video that shows the volcano at its peak.