An essay accompanied by photos and maps on the 3 times I tried to see flowing lava at Iceland’s Fagradalsfjall volcano: first by hiking in the rain, second by helicopter, and third by hiking at night. The third time, as ever, was a red-hot charm.
Earlier this month, I found myself staring straight down into an open wound in the Earth’s crust. I was flying in a helicopter over Fagradalsfjall, the Icelandic volcano that suddenly began spewing forth on the evening of March 19. I’d paid a hefty sum for a chance to see the lava from above. My attempt a few days prior to see it from ground level while hiking had been foiled by thick clouds and relentless rain, which reduced the visibility to a few hundred meters.
The morning of our scheduled tour, all signs pointed towards a successful day – if “success” in the words of the 21st-century apocalypse-chasing tourist means getting up close and personal with a belching volcano. While driving back down to Reykjavik from northwest Iceland that morning, I could see smoke billowing out from the volcano into the blazing blue sky from a hundred kilometers away. Yet when I piled into the helicopter around 1:30 pm that afternoon with my friends and two tourists from Germany, our Austrian pilot cautioned that the helicopter had already ceased gushing. Helicopter tours, it turns out, don’t function the way that whale watching or northern lights tours work, where you get to go again and again for free until you see the sight you signed up for. Given the high costs of airtime, getting hoisted by rotors into the air is a one-and-done sort of deal. No molten Earth? Sorry, come again next time.
Sans lava, we were able to see all the way to the bottom of Fagradalsfjall’s gaping, black maw. The freshly forged rock coughed up by the planet looked like something out of a horror movie. Glints of lava on the landscape, like glimmers of gold in a murky river, caused the passengers to crane their necks out of the window, hoping to catch some sudden upwelling of lava. But it was not to be.
Still, seeing the sight of the eruption from a helicopter was impressive. It felt like someone had hit fast-forward on geological time, causing new land to form in hours rather than epochs. Braided black ropes of solidified lava twisted their way towards the Atlantic Ocean. Some of them had probably frozen in place after erupting out of the Earth just that morning. After 782 years, the Reykjanes Peninsula was alive again. It had just decided to take a bit of a breather the day we went up in a helicopter.
Another chance at the volcano
A couple of weeks later, the eruption was back. The opportunity to witness a volcano erupt was the main reason I’d wanted to travel to Iceland this summer, once travel restrictions eased. After two failed attempts, however, I’d surprisingly forgotten about it. Hiking in the remote Hornstrandir Peninsula, enjoying waffles at an artists’ collective and cafe in Þingeyri, and soaking in hot springs all turned out to be distractions enough.
Yet on my last weekend in Iceland, one of my friends who’d been in the helicopter but who’d already returned home messaged me that the volcano was spewing again. I hastily figured out how I could rearrange the last few days of my travel plans to see Fagradalsfjall on fire. It would involve three or four buses and one or two hitchhiking trips, along with redoing the tough hike up to the peak that affords a view of the volcano when the weather is favorable. None of that seemed insurmountable, though, and it was far more affordable than paying for another potentially futile helicopter ride.
Around 5:00 pm, a fellow volcano-hunter and I left Reykjavík. By 7:30 pm, we found ourselves hiding from the rain under the bus shelter at the Grindavíkurafleggjari highway roundabout. The connecting bus to Grindavík, the town nearest the volcano, wouldn’t come for an hour, so I tried hitchhiking. Luckily, the second car I flagged down picked us up. The driver, a fisherman from East Greenland accompanied by a sleepy pug who kept dozing off in his owner’s lap, gave some solid advice: go see the volcano at night, when the lava is most visible against the dark sky and soil.
So, after setting up our tent at the campsite in Grindavík, we waited for the sky to darken. We cooked a hearty meal of chili and couscous in anticipation of the 10-kilometer uphill hike ahead of us. It was August, so every passing day meant that nightfall was coming earlier. By 9:00 pm, it was already dusky. We walked through the campsite, which was heaving with people lured by the re-erupting volcano, like moths to a giant flame. Over the past six months, Grindavík, normally a sleepy village that drivers might pass through unless they want to visit the saltfish museum, has been saturated by tourists. Nestled between a few of the many RVs parked at the campsite was an elderly Icelandic choir, whose members were singing a folk song together. I took it as a good omen.
We waited on the side of the road for a shuttle bus to the volcano that was supposed to come every 30 minutes, but it never arrived. So, once again, I stuck out my thumb. This time, the first car that saw us stopped. The driver was a municipal employee who, while kind enough to take us car-less tourists to the volcano, confessed that the people of Grindavík were a bit tired of the spectacle. They just wanted their town, with its single grocery store, a handful of restaurants, and a big bouncy outdoor trampoline, to get back to normal. Yet normal seems a long way away when the residents not only have to contend with overtourism, but also the chance that their only artery to the south coast of Iceland, Route 427, might eventually be taken over by molten rock. As the US Geological Survey underscores, “Lava flows destroy everything in their path.”
Our kindhearted driver dropped us off at the Stóri-Leirdalur Parking Lot, probably the most beautifully named place to park a car I’ve ever visited, just as the long August sunset was getting underway. The late-afternoon storm clouds had blown away and the sky was clearing. As we walked up the gravelly trail, I noticed a pink vertical cloud. I wondered aloud if its reddish tint was an optical effect caused by sunbeams bouncing off all the ash in the air. People in the nearby capital of Reykjavik spoke of how miserable the summer had been, with the eruption keeping sunshine at bay. As we got closer to Fagradalsfjall, however, it became clear that the plume was piping directly out of the volcano vent. It was liquid, red-hot lava—not the setting sun—that was lighting up the sky with an ember glow.
The atmosphere was electric. As the night wore on, the trail became increasingly filled with hikers lured by the chance to see the volcano erupt. Most were foreigners, but many were Icelanders, too, who despite likely seeing the eruption before, wished to relive something truly sublime. Every time Fagradalsfjall erupts, it does so differently, often from a different place. As Heidi Julavits wrote in her article, “Chasing the lava flow in Iceland,” earlier this month for the New Yorker, while eight vents had opened since the eruption began, only one was still active.
As we approached the caldera, the eruption gained strength and everything became increasingly cinematic. I felt like I was walking into a film set. The erupting, red-hot volcano took over the setting sun as the main source of light, flushing people’s cheeks against the violet blue sky. Transfixed, I stared at the loudly sloshing pool of lava from a few kilometers away.
What no photo can prepare you for is the sound a volcano makes. Hot, molten earth gushed up against the crater walls, sometimes spilling over to the other side. Treacly torrents of neon-orange lava slowly flowed down into the Geldingadalir valley below. The smoke, a billowing cloud of magenta and lavender, floated up into the sky and out towards the ocean. I remembered the fisherman from East Iceland who helped transport us to this alien landscape, spurring us on to get here at night rather than wait til morning. In spring, in the early days of the eruption, every day from his fishing boat in the rich waters off Grindavík, he and his crew could see the volcano.
From our own vantage atop the Stórihrútur peak directly facing Fagradalsfjall, I saw a cyclist riding his thick-tired bike across the pyroclastic rock: the definition of hardcore. I smelled ham boiling over a camping stove, making for an end-of-times mini-midnight barbecue. I saw a large and sturdy man helping unsteady hikers down a steep hillside in the dark. Although it was tearing the Earth apart, the volcano was bringing people together.
The feeling of being in a sci-fi film made it easy to ignore the fact that it was getting cold and that it was well past midnight. Nevertheless, sanity eventually prevailed. We started the long hike back to the parking lot, turning our heads every few meters to catch another glimpse of the volcano, now retreating from view. The caldera was getting smaller in our field of vision, but the plume of smoke and ash was expanding as the eruption continued to gain steam.
Eventually, we reached the parking lot around 2:00 am. Now that night had fully fallen, every car turned us down when we tried to hitchhike. Fortunately, a taxi soon rolled up carrying a group of Italian hikers all the way from Reykjavik – a fare costing hundreds of dollars. Hours after midnight, they were about to start their hike. Perhaps they’d catch the sunrise over the volcano. I, however, would soon be back in my tent catching some shut-eye.
The virtual volcano
Back at home, several times a week, I still check the webcams trained on Fagradalsfjall. Some days, the volcano gushes forth lava. Other days, it’s quiet. Now, at night, nothing is visible, for the midnight sun is gone. Having the webcam on my screen also reminds me of how, at so many places I visited in Iceland, whether a bar, a hotel, or a gas station cafe, the venue’s television would be tuned to RÚV2. The Icelandic national broadcaster continuously streams one of the volcano live-feeds on its second channel, even when there’s no visible activity. Some countries have slow news days. Iceland has slow volcano days.
Fagradalsfjall is undoubtedly one of the most documented eruptions ever. It is also one of the most commodified. At other times in Iceland’s history, volcanic rock has been a harbinger of death. Scottish missionary Ebenezer Henderson described of the cataclysmic eruption of Laki in 1783:
“Not only was all vegetation, in the immediate neighbourhood of the volcano, destroyed by the ashes, brimstone, and pumice, which it emitted; but, being borne up to an inconceivable height in the atmosphere, they were scattered over the whole island, impregnating the air with noxious vapors, intercepting the genial rays of the sun, and empoisoning whatever could satisfy the hunger or quench the thirst of man and beast. Even in some of the more distant districts, the quantity of ashes that fell was so great, that they were gathered up by handfuls.”Ebenezer Henderson, 1819
Today, handfuls of rocks are gathered up by resourceful retailers who sell them online as souvenirs. One vendor on Etsy named SagaIceland offers “Fagradalsfjall Volcano Lava from Iceland, Handpicked,” for $17.99 a rock. Another vendor called MagicalMoonThings charges $38.27 for a “FAGRADALSFJALL RED Raw LAVA piece.” Buyers seem pleased. “We (me and my husband) just love our little piece of Volcano ! Thank you so much!” enthused one.
Rock hunters aren’t the only people cashing in on the lucrative volcano. A new candy bar named “LAVA” features a picture of Fagradalsfjall on its wrapper. (This candy seems admittedly unnecessary given that Icelandic confectioner Goa already manufactures a crispy, chocolate-covered wafer bar called Hraun, meaning “lava” in Icelandic.) Grindavik’s Geo Hotel quickly rebranded itself on Google Maps as Hotel Volcano, though it hasn’t yet updated its website.
Capitalizing on the apocalypse
Iceland’s rapid recovery in tourism, while largely driven by the country’s opening to fully vaccinated passengers on July 1 (with regulations slightly more restrictive now due to the Delta variant), is no doubt helped by the volcano, too. Americans in particular have flocked to the country. Nearly every part of the world sent fewer tourists to Iceland from January-July 2021 compared to the same time last year. Yet the number of tourists arriving from the US managed to grow 61% over this period, while tourists from Israel – one of the world’s most vaccinated countries – grew an astonishing 1149%. Iceland is one of the few destinations to which vaccinated Israelis can travel.
At a hip industrial hostel with a rooftop hot tub overlooking a pasture of grazing horses in the town of Hvolsvollur, I met one Israeli backpacker. While munching down grilled cheese for breakfast, he told me how he’d been hitchhiking around the country, hitching rides with people like an Arctic fox hunter who showed him the pelts in his trunk, and a Syrian man who picked him up after thinking he was a fellow Syrian. The Israeli’s favorite sight, he told me, had of course been the volcano, and he’d been lucky enough to see the lava flowing.
The town of Grindavik may want the eruption to end. But Iceland’s tourism industry is probably hoping that the high end of geologists’ forecasts – that the eruption could go on for decades – is correct. Over the past decade, Iceland’s hospitality sector has done well by capitalizing on the apocalypse. The 2007-2008 financial crash made the country more affordable to visit. The 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull helped put the country on the map. Iceland also became one of the first countries to reopen to international tourism all the way back in June 2020, when much of the world was still contending with lockdown.
This summer, Inspired by Iceland, a public-private communication platform, launched a campaign called “Sweatpant Boots.” The catchy commercial cajoles people to get out of lockdown mode and into hiking boots while also offering lucky travelers the chance to have their old sweatpants transformed into hiking boots at a pop-up shop in Reykjavik. The commercial of course, features numerous shots of the erupting volcano on a clear and sunny day.
Today, waking up to a foggy morning at home, I tuned into the webcam to once again check out the view from the very spot where I looked directly into the Earth’s insides. Thick brown mist completely socked in the volcano. The forecast for the rest of the week features rain every day. Fagradalsfjall is a sublime sight, but there’s little to be seen when the weather turns. Just don’t count on the Icelandic tourism industry to tell you that.