Exploring Iceland’s Volcano Hiking Trail
How to get to the Volcanic Trail in Iceland
Taking in breathtaking landscapes like Eldgjá, Hvanngil, Mount Strútur and the summit of the towering Mount Sveinstindur, the Volcanic Trail Tour runs through the remote interior of Iceland. It’s around a five-hour drive from Reykjavík to the beginning of the trail, following some of the narrow, challenging F-roads into the centre of the island.
Since this isn't a loop hike, driving yourself isn't advisable. You'd end up at a different location from where you started, requiring a ride back to your car. Given that public transport doesn't serve this area, your options are to book a guided tour or arrange private transfers to drop you off at the trailhead and pick you up at the end of your trek.
The most convenient way to experience this hut-to-hut, long-distance trek is by joining a guided tour with transfers to and from Reykjavík. On an organised tour, you don’t have to worry about booking your place in the mountain huts or mapping out the itinerary – all of this is taken care of.
The Volcanic Trails Tour vs the Laugavegur Trek
While many hikers flocks to the Laugavegur Trek through Iceland’s highlands, you’ll find a quieter route on the Volcanic Trail Tour from Mount Sveinstindur and the Hvanngil Valley, ending with a day on the Laugavegur-adjacent trails. The Volcanic Trails Tour takes in Iceland’s wild, volcanic scenery from jet-black valleys streaked with moss at Eldgjá to an other-worldly lava forest at Skælingar and the summit of Mount Sveinstindur for endless views over the beguiling scenery.
Both the Volcanic Trails Tour and the Laugavegur Trek are hut-to-hut treks through Iceland’s uninhabited middle where you spend 6 to 8 hours a day hiking the trail and stay overnight in rustic mountain huts with very basic facilities. The huts on the Laugavegur Trek are very popular and book up fast in advance, so you need to be quick in getting your accommodation sorted. While the Volcanic Trail follows a less-trodden path, it does share some of the same huts at the Laugavegur Trek towards the end of the route, so booking in advance is still a good idea. Better yet, you can leave all the booking and organisation to someone else by joining a guided Volcano Trails Tour.
What to pack for the Volcanic Trails Tour
You will be carrying everything you take with you (including any rubbish you create) on your Volcano Trails Tour, so you’ll want to stick to the essentials. A sturdy, waterproof pair of hiking boots are essential along with several pairs of protective hiking socks, blister plasters and a small first aid kit. The mountain huts have beds in a shared dorm setup, but you need to bring your own sleeping bag, food and drinks. If you bring a water bottle, you can fill it up along the way as a large section of the trail follows the Syðri Ófæra River and Iceland’s glacial river water is perfectly safe to drink.
Despite the trail only being open in summer, a waterproof jacket and fleece combination is the way to go as the Icelandic weather can be extremely unpredictable throughout the year. Several sports t-shirts and trousers that dry quickly are a good idea as it can get hot walking uphill and sudden downpours can happen at any time. Not all the huts have shower facilities, so dry shampoo is your friend. Some, but not all, hiking huts have electricity so a power pack to charge electronics is essential as you’ll want to snap endless photos of the incredible landscape along the way.
All About Volcanic Trails in Iceland
You’ll find the Hvanngil hut in the middle of Iceland’s wilderness. It is actually on the Laugavegur trail, but also marks the end of the main Volcanic Trail Tour. It sits on an unpaved F-road which can be reached in summer, 171 kilometres (106 miles) from Reykjavík.
While most visitors to Iceland head to the popular Fimmvörðuháls and Laugavegur routes which take you past the famous Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull ice-topped volcanoes, there is a lesser-known volcanic trail that runs between Mount Sveinstindur and the Hvanngil Valley (the Volcanic Trails Tour). This volcanic trail can be completed over six days, staying in hikers’ huts and rustic cabins along the way. If you want to escape the crowds and spend a few days hiking in Iceland’s volcanic landscape, this is the experience for you.
Mount Sveinstindur stands at a mighty 1093 metres (3408 feet) high, so climbing to the top rewards you with views over some of Iceland’s other towering peaks and volcanic craters for miles.
Mount Strútur is 937 metres (3,175 feet) above sea level and reaching the peak requires 797 metres of climbing.
Mount Sveinstindur is in Iceland’s central highlands, near the beginning of the Volcanic Trails Tour. The road that runs along the base of Mount Sveinstindur is 300 kilometres (186 miles) by road from Reykjavík and it takes around five hours to make the drive from the capital.
Over the six days between Mount Sveinstindur and the Hvanngil Valley, you’ll cover a minimum distance of 85 kilometres (52 miles), with 24 kilometres (15 miles) being the longest stretch in a single day. Each day requires between 6 and 8 hours of walking with some steep ascents and quite a lot of uphill hiking. It is considered a challenging trail and requires a decent level of fitness and some prior experience in multi-day, long-distance hiking. The Fimmvörðuháls and Laugavegur routes, while incredibly popular, are also considered challenging trails.
For any long-distance hike in Iceland, layers are the way to go. While the trails through the interior of the island are only open in the summer months, weather in Iceland is changeable and packing a waterproof jacket and wearing sturdy, waterproof hiking boots is essential. You’ll want a pair of comfortable trousers that dry quickly (not jeans!) in case of sudden rain and a warm jumper or fleece and a sports t-shirt to account for cold days and warm weather.
You can plan a hut-to-hut hike yourself, along the popular Laugavegur trail or the Fimmvörðuháls trail, or even the Volcanic Trail between Mount Sveinstindur and the Hvanngil Valley. It is important to book each hut in advance of your trip as they tend to fill up quickly and you don’t want to be left out in the cold. As you need to carry all your stuff with you on a hut-to-hut hike, it’s important to plan your packing carefully. You will also need to plan transport to and from the beginning and end of the hike. Of course, if you join an organised tour like the Volcanic Trail Tour, all of the logistics are taken care of and all you need to do is walk.
You can see cooled, solidified lava at any time on Iceland’s volcano hike trails. The jet-black rock of old lava creates an other-worldly feel to the island’s valleys, plains and caves. If it is the amber glow of molten lava you want to see, you may be disappointed as the conditions surrounding fresh lava during an eruption often make it too dangerous to get close enough to witness it.
Both the Volcanic Trails Tour and the Laugavegur Trek are hut-to-hut, multi-day treks across the empty interior of Iceland. However, the Volcanic Trails Tour follows a different, less-trodden route than the Laugavegur Trek. Both treks take you past volcanoes and ice caps, but the Volcanic Trails Tour sees fewer visitors so it feels like you are the first people to discover this other-worldly landscape.
A hut-to-hut trek in Iceland involves a trail through the empty interior of the island where there are no permanent settlements but there are dedicated hikers’ huts to spend the night. The huts along the trails are basic with beds, camping areas and WC facilities. Some have small shops to stock up on supplies, some have outdoor grills or communal kitchens for cooking, and some have hot showers, but others are very basic and just offer a place to lay your head and unroll your sleeping bag at the end of a day of hiking.
In most of Iceland’s mountain huts, it is not possible to buy hot food or drinks, so you should bring your own food with you. You also need to bring your own sleeping bag and most have a bunk bed set up in shared dorm-style rooms. In most huts, you can’t leave any rubbish and need to take all trash with you and it is generally good etiquette to leave your muddy hiking boots at the door and wear socks inside.
On the Volcanic Trails Tour, you’ll see the diversity of Iceland’s landscape with highlights being the ‘Canyon of Fire’ (Eldgjá) where black sand is streaked with vibrant green moss, and the lava forest at the Skælingar area where great mushrooms of solidified lava look like a forest of trees from a fantasy realm. There is also the view from the top of Mount Sveinstindur, which stretches for miles across Iceland’s volcanic landscape and reaching the top of this towering peak offers an enormous sense of achievement.
There are plenty of active volcanoes you can hike in Iceland as ‘active’ doesn’t necessarily mean the volcano is erupting right now. The hikable Fagradalsfjalls volcano on the Reykjanes Peninsula is considered an active volcano as it has erupted recently (in 2023). On the Snæfellsnes peninsula, Snæfellsjökull is an active stratovolcano that you can summit on a guided tour, and it is possible to climb Eyjafjallajökull on the south coast and the Eldfell volcano on the Westman Island (although it hasn’t erupted since 1973) is still considered an active volcano.
Hiking Iceland’s volcano trails between Mount Sveinstindur and the Hvanngil Valley, past the active volcanoes of the Katla system, is perfectly safe. Seismic activity is carefully monitored in the area and, these days, the population of Iceland gets a lot of warning before a major eruption. In terms of personal safety, Iceland is one of the safest countries in the world and solo hiking comes with very little risk, but in terms of navigating paths and changeable weather conditions, hiking the volcanic trails with a trained professional guide leading the way is the safest option. If you are planning to complete this trek alone, or any other hikes in Iceland, make sure to register at Safetravel.is and leave your travel plan behind for the rescue team.
Eldgjá is part of the Katla volcano system and is a long chain of volcanic craters, fissures and vents. Walking through Eldgjá feels as though you are traversing a long valley with jet-black rocks and sand streaked vibrant green with moss.