Iceland sits on a 25,000-mile crack on the ocean floor. Two tectonic plates — the North American and the Eurasian — are slowly pulling apart from each other, allowing lava to bubble up into the Atlantic. A serious hotspot not only rests under Iceland but created Iceland: Since the Middle Ages, one-third of all the lava on Earth has erupted right here.
There are hundreds of volcanoes dotting this tiny island country, some ancient, some fairly fresh. Around 30 are active, and yes, some of those are open to touring, climbing, or hiking — some of the best are outlined below.
Most recent eruption: 2010
Though Iceland’s most recent eruption was in 2015 (Bardarbunga), many of us are more likely to remember 2010, when Eyjafjallajokull grounded international air traffic with its enormous ash clouds.
It’s been 10 years now, and Iceland’s most famous volcano is open to visitors (there’s even a visitor center on its flanks). A four-mile, eight-hour day hike can get you there — with the help of a professional guide, of course. You’ll absolutely want one — the entire volcano sits under an ice cap.
Most recent eruption: 1918
Say hello to Iceland’s “most dangerous” volcano. Katla usually erupts when Eyjafjallajokull does, only with more oomph. This one’s largely under the Myrdalsjokull glacier — on your way up here (with a guide) be sure to explore the glacier’s vivid blue ice caves.
An incredibly challenging trek to the volcano’s summit starts at the Seljalandsfoss waterfall, but a more doable hike can be found at the Skogafoss waterfall: the Fimmvorduhals Trail. It’s a 12-plus-hour trek that doesn’t quite get you to the summit, but it does take you past 26 waterfalls and to some pretty phenomenal views.
Most recent eruption: Around 200 AD
This volcano — and national park — is an easy day trip from Reykjavik, making it one of the most accessible options on this list. One hundred twenty miles from the capital, here you’ll find the inspiration for Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth.
While the crater sitting in between the volcano’s multiple peaks won’t transport you to the planet’s iron core, it certainly will feel like you’ve stumbled onto another icy world. Hiking up to the summit along the Snaefellsjokull glacier takes seven to 12 hours and is not for the faint of heart. (The rest of us will just have to read the book.)
Most recent eruption: 1961
In 1865, Askja erupted so violently, hordes of Icelanders decided to leave the country, no longer wishing to put up with the island’s violent, mercurial ways. Now, however active it may be, it’s known as a place of calm — a hot spring sits in a small caldera (known as viti, or hell), and it’s just the right temperature for a good soak.
Bus and 4×4 tours will whisk you through the desolate volcanic landscape to get there, usually departing from Lake Myvatn. Trips usually take a solid 10–12 hours.
Most recent eruption: 2015
Sitting under the Vatnajokull glacier — technically Europe’s largest ice cap — located in Vatnajokull National Park, Bardarbunga is surprisingly accessible. It’s one of the island’s largest volcanoes and, as you can see by that “last eruption” date above, one of its most active, too.
Tours of the national park — the largest in Western Europe — abound, despite and because of that volcanic activity. You’ll spend your days contemplating subglacial lakes, hidden active volcanoes, vast gorges, thundering waterfalls, and just how many of Iceland’s mysteries you’re probably missing, hidden somewhere underneath the ice.
Most recent eruption: 2000
“The Gateway to Hell,” aka Hekla, is only two hours from Reykjavik, and its violent past makes it a must-see. It’s responsible for a decent fraction of all tephra (volcanic debris) on the island, though it’s believed to be safe — for now.
Tours are available, though a parking lot and walking trail do exist about two hours (by foot) from the base. Hekla sits in the Fjallabak Nature Reserve, and partially marked trails around its flanks are suited for the experienced hiker. Glaciers, waterfalls, and fascinating rock formations dot this landscape, too.
Most recent eruption: 1984
More than one “hell” exists in Iceland: The ice-blue lake sitting in Krafla’s crater is also called viti, though this one is cold (there is a hot spring nearby, however). You can tour the Krafla lava fields, which read somewhere between Mars and Yellowstone: mud pots, fumaroles, miles of hardened lava, and steam for miles.
Krafla is in northern Iceland, not far from Lake Myvatn. Drive (or catch a bus) up to the crater’s edge — there’s a 30-minute walking trail around the rim, and it leads to a smaller hot spring, too.