north iceland: the black lava field & solfataras of leirhnjúkur at krafla

Thursday, August 18:  After leaving Dimmuborgir in Eastern Mývatn, we drive to our next destination in the Krafla volcanic region, which encompasses an 818m-high, 10km wide caldera and a geothermal power station.  We plan to walk through Leirhnjúkur, a black lava field and its solfataras, within Krafla. Solfataras are volcanic areas or vents that yield only hot vapors and sulfurous gases.

On our way, we pass the Krafla Power Station. Built by the Icelandic government, construction began with trial boreholes in 1974; the first turbine unit started up in August 1977, and regular operations began in February 1978. Krafla came under the ownership of Landsvirkjun, the National Power Company, in 1985 (Landsvirkjun).

Approaching Leirhnjúkur by car
Approaching Leirhnjúkur by car

The name Krafla also refers to the fires that erupted on and off in the period 1975-84. The events were a striking repetition of what happened during the Mývatn fires which occurred between 1724–1729, when many of the fissure vents opened up. Fissure vents are linear ruptures through which lava erupts, usually without any explosive eruptions.

A collapsed, but still active, volcanic area, Krafla has recorded 29 eruptions, the most recent of which were the Krafla Fires.  In the 1975-1984 period, nine volcanic eruptions and fifteen uplift and subsidence (downward motion of the earth’s surface relative to sea level) events were recorded (Wikipedia: Krafla).

It’s a 20 minute walk through moss-covered lava that originated from the 18th century Mývatn fires.  The landscape is fascinating with its carpeted boulders of lava.

The strange landscape of Leirhnjúkur
The strange landscape of Leirhnjúkur
The strange landscape of Leirhnjúkur
The strange landscape of Leirhnjúkur
The strange landscape of Leirhnjúkur
The strange landscape of Leirhnjúkur
The strange landscape of Leirhnjúkur
The strange landscape of Leirhnjúkur

To our east, we can see the crater Viti.  This 300m-wide explosion crater was formed in 1724 at the beginning of the Mývatn fires.  We originally plan to walk around the rim of this crater, but our walk around Leirhnjúkur is so long and time-consuming that we don’t have time to do it.

walking to Leirhnjúkur
Viti
Leirhnjúkur
Viti
Leirhnjúkur
Viti

To our west we can see Leirhnjúkur, a rhyolite formation 593 meters above sea level.  The hill rises less than 50 meters above the surrounding lava field.  The rhyolite of the hill is porous due to the geothermal heat and has in several places turned into clay, hence the name Leirhnjúkur — “clay hill.”

Leirhnjúkur
Leirhnjúkur
Leirhnjúkur
Leirhnjúkur
Leirhnjúkur
Leirhnjúkur

After our long walk across the lava field, we are finally in the midst of the craters, steaming vents and fissures of Leirhnjúkur.

Leirhnjúkur
Leirhnjúkur

There are warnings about the danger of this area, as it’s still active and there are many hot spots.  We stay on the relatively safe marked trails, including many wooden walkways, around the field, crossing older lava covered in vegetation before climbing onto the darker, rougher new material.  Stains of red or purple mark iron and potash deposits, while white or yellow patches indicate live steam vents to be avoided (Rough Guides: Leirhnjúkur).

Leirhnjúkur
Leirhnjúkur

Several mud-pits and steam vents are located on the northern slopes of Leirhnjúkur.

thermal pools at Leirhnjúkur
thermal pools at Leirhnjúkur
thermal pools
thermal pools
thermal pools
thermal pools
Leirhnjúkur
Leirhnjúkur
Leirhnjúkur
Leirhnjúkur
the solidified lavafields of Leirhnjúkur
the solidified lava fields of Leirhnjúkur

The magma boasts a full spectrum of colors, with the greens of moss and lichen next to the scorched earth colors of sulphur and rhyolite (Visit Húsavík: Krafla Caldera).

Leirhnjúkur
Leirhnjúkur
the solidified lavafields of Leirhnjúkur
the solidified lava fields of Leirhnjúkur

When we get to a high viewpoint, we can see Gjástykki, where the main area of activity was during the 1980s.  It’s a black swathe between light green hills, amazing in its scope.

the solidified lavafields of Leirhnjúkur
the solidified lava fields of Leirhnjúkur
the solidified lavafields of Leirhnjúkur
the solidified lava fields of Leirhnjúkur
the solidified lavafields of Leirhnjúkur
the solidified lava fields of Leirhnjúkur
the solidified lavafields of Leirhnjúkur
the solidified lava fields of Leirhnjúkur
Leirhnjúkur
Leirhnjúkur
Leirhnjúkur
Leirhnjúkur
Leirhnjúkur
Leirhnjúkur
Leirhnjúkur
Leirhnjúkur
Leirhnjúkur
Gjástykki
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Me and the extensive lava fields
Leirhnjúkur
Gjástykki
Leirhnjúkur
Gjástykki

This is our third walk of the day, and it’s a long one!  By the time we finish, it’s after 3:00 and we still have to visit the mighty waterfall of Dettifoss, at the southern end of Jökulsárgljúfur and then drive a long haul to the eastern town of Seyðisfjörður.  Already my legs are aching. 🙂

north iceland: mývatn to the dimmuborgir lavafeld

Thursday, August 18:  We leave Goðafoss around 10:45 a.m. and we’re on our way to our next stop, Mývatn.  We pass another pretty but nondescript lake along the way, and within a half hour, we’re at shallow Mývatn, a lake that sits in an area of active volcanism in the north of Iceland, not far from Krafla volcano.

A lake somewhere between Goðafoss and Mývatn
A lake somewhere between Goðafoss and Mývatn

Route 1 takes us to the southwest corner of Mývatn, where the icy swift-running Laxá (Salmon River) flows away from the lake.  The scenery here is magnificent.

Mývatn
Mývatn

In the distance, we can see the iconic Vindbelgjarfjall, a 529-meter mountain on Lake Mývatn’s western shore.  Its formation dates back to the Ice Age and is part of Krafla volcanic system.  Supposedly this mountain offers fantastic views across the lake, but we have many other walks planned today and opt not to do this one.

Mývatn
Mývatn

The skies are so blue and the air so clear that I’m in heaven.  I love nothing better than this kind of weather, with breezy temperatures in the high 50s and no humidity.

Mývatn
The Laxá

The Laxá is known for its brown trout and Atlantic salmon fishing.

Mývatn
The Laxá

We spend quite a bit of time walking on the shores of the turbulent Laxá.

Mývatn
The Laxá
Mývatn
The Laxá

We stop near Vindbelgjarfjall, where we’re attacked by the midges, or swarms of small flies.  Mývatn’s name translates as “lake of midges;” we have our only experience of them at our brief stop, thank goodness.

Vindbelgjarfjall
Vindbelgjarfjall
Vindbelgjarfjall
Vindbelgjarfjall

We continue up the western side of Mývatn to the small town of Reykjahlíð on the lake’s northeast corner. With its 300 inhabitants and a smattering of guesthouses and hotels, the town serves as the base for the area but doesn’t have much to see other than Reykjahlíðarkirkja, the Reykjahlíð Church.

Reykjahlíðarkirkja
Reykjahlíðarkirkja

At the end of a 2-year period of Krafla volcanic eruptions from 1727-1729, the Leirhnjúkur crater sent lava flowing toward the lakeshore, destroying farms and buildings in its path but miraculously parting before the church and sparing it from destruction.  Rebuilt on its original foundation in 1876, the church was built again in 1962.

Reykjahlíðarkirkja
Reykjahlíðarkirkja
inside Reykjahlíðarkirkja
inside Reykjahlíðarkirkja
cemetery at Reykjahlíðarkirkja
cemetery at Reykjahlíðarkirkja
Reykjahlíðarkirkja
Reykjahlíðarkirkja
Reykjahlíðarkirkja
Reykjahlíðarkirkja
Reykjahlíðarkirkja
Reykjahlíðarkirkja

Mývatn Lake was created by a large basaltic lava eruption 2300 years ago, and the surrounding landscape is dominated by volcanic landforms, including lava pillars and pseudocraters. We take a hike in the giant Dimmuborgir (“Dark Castles”) lava field, on the eastern side of the lake.  We follow the Church Circle path, which is 2.3km but seems longer!

Dimmuborgir
Dimmuborgir

Dimmuborgir was created about 2300 years ago during an extensive volcanic eruption. Tremendous rivers of lava flowed from a 12km-long fissure south of Hverfjall (Hverfell) and running through Laxárdalur and Aðaldalur valleys all the way down to the sea.

Geologists believe that during this eruption something blocked the flow of lava causing a lake of lava to form. As the lava in the lake had started to solidify, the blockage gave way and the molten lava flowed out leaving behind the parts which had solidified. These conditions created fantastical geological formations. (Edge of the Arctic: Dimmuborgir).

Dimmuborgir
Dimmuborgir
Dimmuborgir
Dimmuborgir
Dimmuborgir
Dimmuborgir
Dimmuborgir
Dimmuborgir

We walk the Church Circle path through Dimmuborgir, marveling at all the unusual lava formations, caves, and arches.

Click on any of the photos below for a full-sized slide show.

I get quite warm and feel like we might be lost because the walk seems to be taking longer than it should.

me at Dimmuborgir
me at Dimmuborgir

I love the heather and colorful flora found throughout the lava field.

Dimmuborgir
Dimmuborgir
Dimmuborgir
Dimmuborgir
Dimmuborgir
Dimmuborgir
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Dimmuborgir

At several points, Mike argues that we seem to be circling around to the same place we were before, but I feel certain each new lay of the land is different from the ones we’ve passed through already. I tell him we need to keep proceeding on. It turns out I’m right. 🙂

Mike at Dimmuborgir
Mike at Dimmuborgir
Dimmuborgir
Dimmuborgir
Dimmuborgir
Dimmuborgir
Dimmuborgir
Dimmuborgir

Finally we reach a vantage point where we can see the lake and the parking lot, so we know we’re going in the right direction.

Dimmuborgir
Dimmuborgir

After we finish our walk at around 1:30, we hop in the car to head to Leirhnjúkur, part of the Krafla caldera. Its last eruption was from 1975 to 1984.