The Volcano Is Dead, Reykjanes Lives On

The Volcano Is Dead, Reykjanes Lives On

Photo by
Lea Dörschel

Who would have thought that the Reykjanes peninsula would become one of Iceland’s most visited places? Thousands of tourists streamed to the heart of the peninsula to witness practically back-to-back volcanic eruptions at Fagradalsfjall. The fascination was intense with the visitor-friendly, capital-adjacent spectacle of nature. 

Although the volcano is now dead, having last shown signs of life in August 2022, Reykjanes is very much alive! With a laundry list of nature sights to visit, I ventured out one Saturday in January for a DIY adventure around the UNESCO Geopark.

Let’s go to Mars!

A short 35-minute drive south of Reykjavík, you’ll find yourself facing a big lake by the name Kleifarvatn. In winter it’s completely frozen over, while in summer the reflection of the sun often glistens on the surface of its beautiful marine blue waters. Being winter, I’m seeing it in its frozen state. Still, the largest lake on the peninsula is a sight to behold, surrounded as it is by beautiful lava rock formations resulting from previous volcanic eruptions.

A curved road follows Kleifarvatn’s western shore, from which I admire beautiful panoramic views to a geothermal area called Seltún — which so happens to be my next stop. 

You’ll know you’re in the right place if you’ve begun to sense the faint smell of sulphur in the air — it’ll greet you in the car park even before you lay eyes on the hot springs and mud pools. Walking through the pungent steam along the wooden paths flanked by bubbling pits feels like taking a stroll on another planet, like visiting Mars. The chemical composition of the soil and gases at play at Seltún create a wild variety of colours, with different shades of red, silver, blue, grey, white, beige, yellow, brown, and orange all around. I lament having left home without my space suit.

The beauty of water

Looking out across the expanse from Seltún, I spy another lake in the distance. Grænavatn gets its name from the distinctive green shade of its water, created by its high concentration of sulphur — a key component of the area. It was formed over 6,000 years ago and fills two maar type explosion volcanic craters.

But enough about lakes, I yearn for the sea and head west along Reykjanes’ south coast, which is known for beautifully formed basalt cliffs and rock formations. Among them is Brimketill, a stunning lava rock pool located at the bottom of some steep basalt cliffs. During high tide, you can spend too much time mesmerised by the waves crashing against the cliffs and spilling frothy water into the pool. 

Ready to meet a ghost?

Driving another few minutes down the road — another great feature of Reykjanes is the close proximity of all its geological and geothermal gems — you’ll soon spy a huge cloud of steam rising high into the sky. It’s coming  from a gigantic hot spring called Gunnuhver, which gets its name from an old tale about Guðrún Önundardóttir (nicknamed Gunna) who died about 400 years ago. Legend has it that Gunna’s ghost sought revenge against her landlord, and murdered him and his wife, while driving others on the peninsula mad. Luckily, two courageous farmers eventually managed to trap Gunna’s ghost in the hot spring.

If you dare to walk through the steam of Gunnuhver, take care not to get trapped like Gunna — you can navigate by the prominent white Reykjanes lighthouse perched on top of a hill in the distance, a one-kilometre walk away

A bridge between continents

The last stop of my self-drive adventure was a personal highlight of the day. The Reykjanes peninsula lies on the fissure zone of the Mid-Atlantic ridge, one of the world’s major tectonic plate meeting points. The bridge between continents lets visitors walk from the Eurasian plate over to the North American plate — or vice versa, if you’re feeling crazy. If you dare to walk beneath the bridge, then you are technically walking between the two continental plates. Wild!

You may not be able to warm yourself by an active volcano right now (at least not in Iceland), but there’s still plenty to see and do on a daytrip around Reykjanes. There are remnants of the peninsula’s volcanic history everywhere you look. It’s a fascinating place to come face to face with the forces of nature that have shaped the landscape over thousands of years.

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