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Exploring Surtshellir Lava Tube

Listed under Caves & Caving in Iceland.

  • Photo of Exploring Surtshellir Lava Tube
  • Photo of Exploring Surtshellir Lava Tube
  • Photo of Exploring Surtshellir Lava Tube
  • Photo of Exploring Surtshellir Lava Tube
Photo of Exploring Surtshellir Lava Tube
Photo by gregorybrick
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Iceland formed atop a hotspot on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge as a mass of congealed lava flows over millions of years. One fairly recent lava flow, in a geological sense, contains Iceland’s best know cave, an enormous lava tube, which can easily be explored with a minimum of gear on a day trip from the capital, Reykjavik. You’ll need a light; preferably also a helmet to guard against the potential of falling rock on the remote chance that would happen; hiking boots, as a safeguard against a twisted ankle while scrambling amongst the boulders; and a light jacket.

The whole thing is free. The most difficult part is simply getting there. Away from the main towns, and off the Ring Road that encircles Iceland, most roads are gravel, and some of those are in very poor condition, with deep ruts, so having a 4WD vehicle is highly preferable. In any case, enjoy the volcanic scenery along the way.

Heading out of Reykjavik, you drive to the farm Kalmanstunga, and from there, out into the lava field, called Hallmundahraun, consisting of dark basaltic rocks. As you get closer to Surtshellir, you’ll notice a steady stream of inconspicuous fingerpost signs guiding you towards it. When you arrive, there’s a small gravel parking lot and a footpath leading out over the lava field. Simply follow the line of stone cairns. After a while you’ll begin seeing huge pits, places where the ceiling of the lava tube has collapsed. Do not attempt to descend the sheer walls of these pits, instead continue until you reach the intended entrances, where easy trails lead into the large openings. The air is deliciously cool and a welcome refuge, in summer, from the annoying swarms of lava gnats on the surface above.

Once inside the lava tube you‘ll need a good light, as some parts are in total darkness. Indeed, the cave was so large in places that my lights failed to illuminate the walls. The tube runs in a northeast-southwest direction, and including the much smaller side braches, is nearly 2 kilometers long. Looking up at the right time, you can see “lavacicles”—solidified remnants of lava drippings from the ceiling, comparable to the stalactites of limestone caves. In other spots, grotesque ice formations are found. As you continue, you’ll be able to walk out into the huge pits you saw from above earlier, following the continuation of the lava tube on the other side. Unconnected parts of the tube are given separate names. Hiking through the lava field, you will also find smaller voids known as blisters, where the molten lava blistered upwards.

Surtshellir Lava Tube has a long history, having been first described in 1679. In the olden days it was the reputed lair of a giant, from which it got its name, and later, bands of robbers. An entertaining little piece on “Caverns and Banditti in Iceland,” appearing in The Penny Magazine in 1838, featured Surtshellir. The world’s first map of a lava tube, published in 1757, was of Surtshellir.

Written by  Greg Brick.

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