Have you guys also thought that it is impossible to visit the inside of a volcano? I always assumed that there has to be either boiling hot or solidified magma, right? That is not the case in a dormant volcano Thrihnúkagígur. It is the only place in the world, where you can be lowered in an open cable elevator 120 meters down into a massive magma chamber. Who would say no to that?
Ivar knows how much I am in love with Iceland so the trip there was the best birthday present I could ever wish for. We are no strangers to Iceland, and as this trip was about to be my fourth visit to the “Land of Ice and Fire”, we wanted to make it unique.
Last time we went to Iceland in winter, and we visited the ice caves at Vatnajökull glacier, so we had the “Ice” part covered. This time I wanted to focus on the “Fire” part. And what could be better than going inside a volcano?
Before I start marveling about how amazing it is to stand inside a magma chamber of Thrihnúkagígur volcano, let me write something about the volcanic activity on Iceland and what is causing it. I am by no means a volcanologist or geologist, but I still find the science behind it very fascinating.
Why are there so many volcanoes on Iceland?
Slicing through the center of Iceland is the Mid-Atlantic Ridge – an underwater mountain range. It extends about 16,000 km along the north-south axis of the Atlantic Ocean and separates the Eurasian and the North American tectonic plates. As the tectonic plates move apart, fissures form in the crust and allow molten rock from underground to surface as lava.
Iceland’s position on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge makes it a hotspot for geological activity (like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions). The land can be seen to be splitting apart in many areas of Iceland. But perhaps the most known place is in Thingvellir national park, where you can even snorkel or dive in a fissure between the tectonic plates. Another area with a lot of volcanic and geothermal activity is the Reykjanes peninsula where the Thrihnúkagígur volcano is situated.
Thrihnúkagígur – one of a kind volcano
The volcano’s name, unpronounceable for anyone but Icelanders, would be directly translated as ‘Three Peaks Crater.’ It is a dormant volcano. It last erupted over 4,000 years ago. The first person who descended into the magma chamber in 1074 was Árni Stefansson, a doctor from Reykjavík and a lifelong cave enthusiast. What shocks me though is that at first, he was disappointed by his discovery!
I dreamt about finding a drainage channel with lava falls, lava pits and formations, never seen by a human eye before. Instead, I found an expanse of bare rock with a pile of rubble at the bottom, like a stone quarry. So, I decided it was just a rather big, ugly hole. I did not think what an achievement it was to be the first person to go into it.
Most of the time, when the volcano erupts, the crater is then closed by the cold lava. What makes Thrihnúkagģur special is, that the magma in the crater simply disappeared.
It’s like somebody came and pulled the plug and all the magma ran down out of it.”
Stefansson came back to Thrihnúkagígur 16 years later with his brothers to map the enormous magma chamber. It was then when they came to realise how unique this volcano was. In 2004 he publicly presented the idea of making Thrihnúkagígur accessible to the public which was well received.
After the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull in 2010, National Geographic became interested in filming a documentary about Icelandic volcanoes. It would have been a difficult task to lower a big film crew more than 100 meters down so they had to come up with a more practical solution how to get people there.
(I am not sure if it is the same documentary. There is just a small section about Thríhnukagígúr volcano. It is mainly about Eyjafjallajökul eruption and possibility of another eruption of Lakí, Katla or Hekla. But it was still an interesting documentary, that I would recommend to watch!)
Long story short, the first season when the general public had a chance to descend in an open elevator inside the volcano was in 2012. It turned out to be a big success, and the tours are running every year from May to October ever since.
SHORT HIKE Over the misty lava fields
Thanks to the volcano’s location just 20km outside of Reykjavík, the tour can be a great day-trip from the capital. Usually, Inside the Volcano arranges a pick-up by a minibus from hotels in Reykjavík, but we decided to spend the night in Borgarnes and drive to Thrihnúkagígur by ourselves.
We could not have chosen better weather. Once we got closer to the Bláfjöll mountain hut where we were supposed to meet our guides, and the rest of the group, the landscape got covered by thick fog. I loved it! We could not see farther than a few meters, but it gave the mossy lava fields unique charm.
The walk from the parking place to the hut at the foot of Thrihnúkagígur volcano took about 40 minutes. The truth is that we could not see much because of the fog, so it was a bit monotonous. But I am happy about that part of the tour. For me, it takes away a bit from the charm of a place, when there is a parking place filled with cars and big tourist buses right next to it.
GEARING UP TO GO DOWN
Our group consisted of 10 people that were further divided into two groups. We made it to group one. I think it was perfect to go down in the elevator when there was nobody else in the magma chamber. The group number joined us about 30 minutes later and while we were inside the volcano, they could spend their time chilling in the Base Camp and sipping hot chocolate.
Our guide put down three basic rules how to behave inside the volcano:
- You are allowed to walk only on the marked paths
- No trash is to be left behind
- You are not allowed to bring any stones or other souvenirs from down there
The lift is for the time being the only way how to get into the volcano (apart from rappelling down which would be something for Ivar!). Construction of a tunnel and staircase is being discussed to allow easier access, but I think that it would take a lot away from experience. It is not the same as abseiling down, but it might be as close as it gets to that feeling that Mr. Stefansson might have had when he first went down.
SIX MINUTES RIDE TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH
Walking on the bridge towards the open elevator feels a bit like walking a plank. I usually have vertigo, but a) I couldn’t see the bottom and b) I was far too excited to feel scared. It feels like a real-life journey into the center of the Earth (even though in the original book from Jules Verne are professor Lidenbrock and his nephew descending into Snaefellsjokull volcano).
The whole way down takes about 6 minutes, but I felt like it was much shorter. I did not know if I should look left or right or down or up. And before I realized it, we were at the bottom.
The opening is very narrow, so for a short time, the elevator is touching the rock, making it a bit bumpy ride. But in a while, it widens, and there is this undescribably huge colorful space where you can see bits of magma that solidified on the walls of the chamber creating an orange layer that looks like melted candle wax.
INSIDE THE VOLCANO
Once at the bottom, our guide provided us with information about the history and formation of the volcano, and then we were free to explore.
I have to say I am not a fan of organized tours. I hate the feeling of being herded like a cattle from place to place and sticking to a group of people. As a photographer, I need my freedom to roam around and search for the best angles, and as an individual, I need my space to let a place talk to me so I could sink in the impressions. Therefore I was very pleased that our guide allowed us to walk around as much as we wanted (as long as we stayed at the marked path).
I have no words to describe nor the incredible colors of different layers of rocks in the magma chamber neither the size of it. Even the pictures do not do it justice because I did not have a wide angle lens with me. And even if I did, I do not think that I would manage to take a picture that would catch the spirit of the place.
OUR REVIEW OF INSIDE THE VOLCANO TOUR. WAS IT WORTH IT?
The volcano itself was amazing; I didn't expect so many colours inside. It was like we traveled to another planet and time. Before the trip, I was afraid that it would be that kind of mass touristic attraction with 30 people in the group. But our group had only ten people, and for the journey under the surface, we were divided into two smaller groups. I was happy that I could explore the volcano almost alone. After the experience, we have been offered hot soup (meat or vegetarian) and beverages.
For me, this trip was 100% worth the money.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION ABOUT THE INSIDE THE VOLCANO TOUR
- Availability: Beginning of May – End of October
- Duration: 5 – 6 hours. The hike is about 40 min one way. You will spend about 30 min inside the volcano.
- Booking: Remember to book in advance!
- Price: 359 USD (318 EUR, 44 000 ISK)
- Food: At the starting point and in the Volcano Hut you can have coffee and tea. After you return from inside the volcano the guides prepare traditional Icelandic lamb soup (or vegetarian one).
- Clothes: Remember to bring warm and waterproof clothes. The guides can lend you a fancy yellow rain coat.