After exploring New Zealand for a whole month, I didn’t think we’d ever travel to another country that offered a comparable amount of active – and adrenaline-fuelled – pursuits.
That is, I felt that way until we visited Iceland. Over the course of our two weeks in the country, I fell in love with the Icelandic landscapes as much as I was bewitched by everything I saw in New Zealand. And, importantly for this post, I found myself doing things I didn’t expect.
While in Iceland, we walked on a glacier, spotted puffins in the wild and hiked up a volcano. But one of the very first things we did once we picked up our hire car was to head over to Raufarholshellir.
Located a short drive away from Reykjavik, Raufarholshellir is also known as The Lava Tunnel and it was easily one of our most memorable experiences in Iceland. Even if you’ve never heard of lava tunnels before, read on to discover what it’s like to explore Raufarholshellir, and why you should add this activity to your Iceland itinerary.
Getting to Raufarholshellir
Iceland presented us with our very first opportunity (ever) of driving on the right-hand side of the road. Combine that with the fact that we set out on a super foggy morning, then you may begin to understand some of our nervous jitters. But luckily, the Lava Tunnel is only 30 minutes out of Reykjavik, starting off on the country’s Ring Road before branching off to route 39.
Like with a lot of Iceland’s main attractions, it’s an easy drive but always allow more time than necessary when driving around Iceland. The weather doesn’t allows cooperate, so it’s better to drive slowly – especially in the foggy weather we experienced!
At the time of our visit, construction work was ongoing, so there wasn’t much on site apart from a prefab serving as a temporary office, as well as bathrooms. But it looks like there are plans to have a cafe and shop here in the future.
Once we checked in, we were given our gear for the tour – a helmet complete with head torch – and waited for our tour guide to take us along on our very first lava tunnel experience.
What is a lava tunnel?
Before I get to the actual experience of going into a lava tunnel, it might be worthwhile to explain what a lava tunnel actually is!
Luckily, the tour goes into great detail on the formation of Raufarholshellir, but, since I found all of it really fascinating, here is a quick explanation nonetheless. A lava tube or tunnel forms after a volcanic eruption, where lava flows steadily away from the site of eruption. Over time, the top of this lava forms into a hard crust while, below, the flow continues. Gradually the lava level drops, eventually stopping altogether and kicking off a lengthy cooling-down period (which can take decades).
In Raufarholshellir’s case, this lava tunnel formed after the Leitahraun eruption about 5,200 years ago. And this particular lava tube is one of Iceland’s largest. But, considering that Iceland’s tourism boom can be linked to another eruption, when Eyjafjallajökull sent a massive ash cloud over Europe in 2010, it should come as no surprise that the country is home to many lava tubes – but not all of these have been discovered yet.
Up until a few years ago, Raufarholshellir could be accessed by anyone but due to damage, littering and people breaking off lava formations, the tunnel was closed off. It was reopened as the Lava Tunnel and this was a good move for two reasons. Stairs and walkways were installed, which made the tunnel much safer to explore and, even more importantly, the tunnel is now protected so that people will be able to see it in its preserved state for many, many years to come.
The Raufarholshellir Lava Tunnel Tour
After receiving our safety briefing, we made our way to the entrance of Raufarholshellir Lava Tunnel. It felt like something out of a film as we descended some steps in front of the gateway, which completely obscured what lay beyond.
The start of the lava tunnel turned out to be the opposite of my expectations. Instead of immediately being plunged into darkness, Raufarholshellir actually begins as a light-filled tunnel, with huge skylights punched through the rocky ceiling above us. As explained earlier, the top of the ancient lava flow hardened into a crust, but the thinner parts of this surface have caved into the tunnel below. This is perhaps why the tunnel is called Raufarholshellir, which translates to ‘Split-Mound Cave’. In the winter months, the scene becomes even more magical, as snow falls in from above, and ice sculptures are installed in the tunnel.
We were in Iceland during September, however, so we had a bit of rain coming through instead. This didn’t deter us from making our way over the mossy rocks and an initially uneven path – we were excited to see what lay beyond.
Raufarholshellir Lava Tunnel measures in at a length of 1,360 metres. If you’re worried about claustrophobia, I’m happy to report that there are no tight squeezes on a Standard Lava Tunnel Tour. The main tunnel does go further into smaller branches, but these can only be accessed by booking onto an Extreme Lava Tunnel Tour.
We were content to explore Raufarholshellir’s main tunnel and chambers, which are magnificent. While a tunnel may sound dark and dreary, the space is gently illuminated, which shows off the fiery colours left behind by the lava river.
These colours and textures were, to me, the most remarkable thing about visiting Raufarholshellir. The lava tunnel is filled with so many visual reminders of its formation. The walls of the tunnel bear long grooves left by the gradually changing lava levels. Parts of the ceiling feature basalt columns, created when the lava tunnel began to cool. And, in all parts of the cave, there are splashes of bright reds, oranges and yellows, where the red colour is linked to iron and the yellow to sulphur.
If you’ve ever seen footage of a volcanic eruption, lava is often shown as a glowing, molten entity. Now, even thousands of years later, the lava’s presence has left behind equally vivid shades inside Raufarholshellir.
Despite earlier vandalism, you can also still see stalactites and some dainty-looking lava straws in many parts of the lava tunnel. One of the very first questions that popped up in our tour group was whether any animals lived in the cave. The answer is no, and we learned that, while there are growing numbers of bats in Iceland, they’d struggle to live in this lava tunnel, where the volcanic rock would disturb echolocation, their usual mode of communication and navigation.
At one point in the tour, our guide told us to switch off our head torches and dimmed all of the lights. Even though it felt like we hadn’t ventured that far, we were suddenly immersed into total darkness and silence, apart from the occasional drip of water.
We didn’t stay this way for too long, and it took my eyes some time to adjust again back to the light that slowly returned to the lava tunnel. All too soon, we were taken to a platform and told that we would go no further into the corridor. The guide took a photo for everyone within the group before we made our way back towards the entrance.
As a last mention, we found out that Raufarholshellir had recently been featured on the big screen. The lava tunnel was used as a location in Noah, where Russell Crowe’s title character used it as his cave.
I won’t spoil all of the secrets we learned while on the tour (there definitely are more of these), but, as we made our way back towards the entrance corridor with its skylights, I knew that our afternoon at Raufarholshellir would go down as a trip highlight.
I wanted to discover as much of Iceland’s nature and landscapes as possible during our time there. By visiting Raufarholshellir, it reminded us of another component of Iceland’s biological makeup. Underneath an undeniably mesmerising surface of mountains, glaciers and waterfalls, you can find reminders that these postcard-perfect scenes coexist with powerful, volatile natural forces.
Tips for visiting Raufarholshellir
- Raufarholshellir Lava Tunnel can be a busy attraction, and I would recommend booking ahead. You can book your tickets online.
- The standard tour takes about 55 minutes, with the extreme tour going on for up to 3.5 hours.
- The lava tunnel is cold, wet and slippery. Make sure that you dress appropriately, with sensible footwear and layers of clothing. Throw on a waterproof jacket and, if your camera doesn’t have weatherproofing, bring something to protect it in case water unexpectedly splashes onto it.
- This is a commonsense one, but leave the tunnel as you found it; don’t try to remove any rocks or formations as a souvenir.
Location: Þorlákshafnarvegur, Iceland
Have you been to Iceland and seen a different lava tube? Or have you already visited Raufarholshellir? Let me know in the comments below!
Note: We experienced Raufarholshellir as guests of The Lava Tunnel but, as always, all opinions and genuine appreciation for anything related to volcanoes are entirely my own.
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