Experience Volcanic Activity at Mount Hekla
The History and Legends of Hekla Volcano
The Hekla volcano was formed thousands of years ago and is still one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes. Formed from layers of ash and lava, it is considered a stratovolcano despite how it looks. Stratovolcanoes are usually cone-shaped, but Hekla is like a long ridge of heaped rock. In English, Hekla translates as ‘cloak’ and people speculate that the name derives from the near-constant presence of clouds around the volcano.
Since the year 874 AD, Hekla has seen 20 significant eruptions, though this volcanic system has been active since pre-historic times. Scientists have dated eruptions back as early as 5050 BCE. In 1104, one of Hekla’s most dramatic eruptions put it on the map. Half of Iceland was covered in tephra (rock fragments ejected by volcanic eruption) and farms and settlements within a 15-kilometre radius of Hekla had to be abandoned. The eruption became known across Europe, leading to one of the most famous myths around Hekla – Christians of the time believed that Hekla was one of the main doorways to Hell. In a text from the middle ages by Cistercian monks, Hekla was compared to Vesuvius which was considered the “chimney of Hell”. In the text, Vesuvius was called a “small furnace compared to this [Hekla’s] enormous Inferno.”
Hekla’s activity has been sporadic over the centuries with gaps as long as 250 years between eruptions, or as short as 10 years. On average, Hekla tends to erupt every 100 years, but since 1970 it has changed its pattern and small eruptions have occurred every 10 or so years. The last Hekla eruption was in the year 2000, a spectacle that featured fire fountains and bursts of Strombolian eruption. One of the biggest eruptions was in 1947 when bombs of lava spewed from the fissure and were thrown as far as 32 kilometres. The resulting ash cloud travelled as far as Helsinki. The activity continued over 13 months until it eventually settled down. Now, Hekla is monitored closely for any signs of seismic activity as it has been ready to erupt again since 2006.
How to Experience Hekla
There are a few ways to experience the beauty and awesome power of Hekla yourself. First, you can admire the volcano from the viewing platform at the LAVA Centre in nearby Hvolsvöllur while also learning about Iceland’s volcanic history. The drive from Reykjavík to Hekla takes around two and a half hours and is on mostly paved roads. However, if you want to drive closer to Hekla, a 4x4 or super jeep is required as it is an off-road experience.
Once you reach the Hekla area, there are plenty of hiking trails to explore. Meandering walks lead past cascading waterfalls and through the valleys between the volcanic ridge, with views of Hekla at every turn. Hiking to the top of Hekla is not advised at all as the volcano system has been ready to erupt since 2006 and in the past there has been little warning before an eruption.
There is also the opportunity to experience Hekla by super jeep on a 4x4 adventure across the Hekla lava plains and up the slopes of the volcano. If slow and steady is more your thing, there are several horse farms in the area that offer horse riding experiences. The Icelandic horse is a unique animal and following the bridleways and narrow paths through the countryside on the back of a famously friendly, small horse is the perfect way to see this isolated part of the country.
Sight and Attractions around Hekla
Hekla is in the south of Iceland where there are plenty of natural wonders to fill your days with outdoor adventures. Nearby, you’ll find hikes past scenic waterfalls in the Gjáin
Valley, and trails that lead to the majestic cascades of Háifoss up in the hills and Hjálparfoss which sits within the lava fields of Mount Hekla. Within the area, you also have the small folk museum of The Commonwealth Farm which features a replica turf-roofed Viking farm and church – perfect for pictures.
If you plan on hitting the hiking trails around Hekla, you can stop off at the Secret Lagoon for a soothing soak on the way back to Reykjavík. The geothermally heated pool has attracted outdoor bathers since the 19th century and the bath-warm water is the ideal place to rejuvenate sore muscles after a long hike. If you’re refuelling after a hike or fueling up ready to hit the trail, Sólheimar eco-village can also be included on a day trip to Hekla. Here, geothermally heated greenhouses grow vegetables which are turned into hearty Icelandic soups and stews.
From Hekla, you can also re-join the Route One main road along the south coast of Iceland to experience glacier walks, black-sand beaches and fairytale waterfalls.
All About Hekla Volcano
Normally, the Hekla hike is only for experienced mountaineers and climbers as snow storms frequently occur on the slopes of the mountain. At the moment, the mountain is still very much an active volcano.The climb is challenging, the trails are only partially marked and since Hekla has been ready to erupt since 2006 and there has been very little warning in the past, it is not at all recommended that you hike to the summit at this time. There are plenty of hikes in the area at ground-level of various distances and levels of difficulty where you can catch the view of Hekla from a safe distance.
In terms of driving distance, Hekla is around 155 kilometres (96 miles) from Reykjavík. It takes around two and a half hours to drive from the capital to Hekla, so makes for an excellent day trip if you want to experience Iceland’s volcanic landscape.
The Heklugjá volcanic ridge where you’ll find the Hekla volcano is thousands of years old. Geologists have studied the landscape and determined that Hekla is somewhere between a fissure vent and stratovolcano, meaning it was created by the build-up of mixed lava and tephra eruptions.
Part of a long volcanic ridge called Heklugjá, you’ll find Hekla in the south of Iceland, inland from the sea. From the nearest car park, it’s a 16-kilometre drive to Hekla and you’ll need a 4x4 or super jeep to tackle the road and trail conditions.
Hekla is often said to be a stratovolcano – a volcano built up from layers and layers of ash and lava that has solidified over the centuries. Stratovolcanoes tend to have steep sides and are the iconic cone shape of movie screen volcanoes. However, Hekla is not cone-shaped as it is considered an intermediary between a stratovolcano and a fissure vent.
Hekla has a unique shape, like a long, ridge-like heap of rock rising out of the lava fields. But that’s not the only unique thing about the volcano. It is said to be Iceland’s most active volcano, and is steeped in myth and legend having been labelled the “gateway to Hell” in the middle ages.
Hekla is one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes. Since the year 874, there have been 20 significant eruptions of Mount Hekla. The most recent eruption was in the year 2000 which was relatively short (compared to Hekla’s historic eruptions), only lasting a few days. Hekla is an active volcano, and while it is considered safe to visit the area, climbing to the top of the volcano is not safe. Seismic activity around Hekla is constantly and carefully monitored and it has been ready to erupt again since 2006.
Ever since the 1104 eruption of Hekla coated the island in volcanic ash, this volcano has been thought of as the “gateway to Hell”. There is documentation that suggests Christians across Europe in the middle ages believed Hekla was the entranceway to the underworld, through which damned souls would travel. There are also Icelandic folk tales that say witches would meet atop Hekla and that the once-forested slopes of the volcano were home to magical herbs used in incantations. Legend still has it that witches gather on top of Hekla at Easter.
The last eruption from Hekla was in the year 2000. It started around 6pm on the 26th of February and ended on the 8th of March, so was a relatively short eruption. A fissure 6 to 7 kilometres long opened up along the ridge. While it didn’t cause any fatalities or significant damage, it was a dramatic spectacle with many people flocking to the area around the volcano to witness the huge plume of smoke belching into the sky.
From Reykjavík, you can drive to Hekla yourself by following the Route One main road from the capital and turning onto road 26 which leads into the interior of the country. As it is an active volcano, it is important to check Iceland’s meteorological office’s website before setting off for your Hekla self-drive adventure. The volcano is constantly monitored for activity and while it is safe to visit the trails and area around Hekla, it’s not safe to scale the volcano. If you want to visit Hekla as close as you can safely get to the volcano, you can join guided experiences like super jeep adventures, guided hikes and horse riding experiences in the area.