The walk to the top of Eldfell is the one every visitor to Heimaey wants to do. It’s that famous volcano that spectacularly erupted out of nowhere on 23 January 1973. In this article I will show you all the details of the Eldfell volcano hike. You can also read about the fascinating story of this eruption. Eldfell celebrates its 50th birthday in 2023! 🌋
No-one had ever fought a volcano and won
But on Heimaey they did, in the face of adversity. Despite the loss of about 400 houses, the Vestmannaeyjar people managed to divert the lava flow, create a better harbour entrance while at it, and rose from the ashes again.
Eldfell has cooled off in the meantime, and now provides a myriad of walking tracks through mossy lava fields and up to the colourful slopes of the volcano.
Track through the lava fields towards the harbour, with the towering shape of Heimaklettur rising up behind. The harbour entrance is between the edge of the lava and Heimaklettur.
Eldfell volcano hike
The track towards Eldfell is easily accessible from the town. It meanders through the lava fields by the harbour, before it goes up to the volcano itself. Further down in this article you can see photo’s of the path and find out more about the Eldfell volcano and crater hike.
Eldfell is very colourful and the views are absolutely stunning in all directions. From the top you can gawk onto the impressive lava flow that was furiously roiling & boiling only a few decades ago, and single-handedly enlarged the island by several square kilometers.
It’s incredible to think it didn’t even exist 50 years ago.
The youngest volcano in Iceland
A Google search usually refers to Surtsey as the youngest volcano in Iceland, but that’s not entirely true. Surtsey was formed 10 years before Eldfell. It rose from the sea in 1963, and is in fact the newest volcanic island in Iceland.
Surtsey is also the latest addition to the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago, which now consists of 15 islands (and some more rocks and pillars scattered around). Surtsey is on the Unesco World Heritage List, as it provides a unique insight in the evolution of life on newly formed land.
The mysterious island of Surtsey, shimmering off the coast of Heimaey.
The birth of the Fire Mountain
On 23 January 1973, in the middle of the night, people in Vestmannaeyja town looked out their window and saw the field in their back yard had just started erupting out of nothing. Huge fountains of liquid fire came straight from the ground and roared up to 150 meters in the air. It must have been such an intimidating sight… yet awe-inspiring at the same time.
A volcanic fissure suddenly cracked open across the eastern side of the island. After a couple of months it had coughed up a completely new volcano. It was aptly named Eldfell, the Fire Mountain.
The giant crater rim of Eldfell.
The lava fields on the edge of town.
The resilience of Heimaey
The Eldfell eruption almost devastated the island, and caused the entire population to evacuate overnight. Without knowing if they would be able to return, or if their beautiful island would ever be habitable again… Some people stayed behind, and the ingenuity they pulled off to save the harbour is legendary. Heavy-duty equipment and pumps were engaged to blast huge amounts of seawater onto the advancing lava, in a desperate attempt to slow it down by solidifying on itself. After relentless work in harsh conditions, the lava flow that nearly closed off the harbour was finally brought to a halt. The lifeline of the island was saved.
As they mention in this short documentary, ‘No-one had ever fought a volcano and won’. But on Heimaey they did, in spite of it all.
Goslok, the end of the eruption
Eldfell went on erupting for over 5 months. When it finished its business on 3 July, more than 400 houses were buried underneath daunting lava flows up to 60 meters deep. Most of the rest of the island was covered in several meters of volcanic ash & rubble. It took months to clean up the aftermath, and make the island somewhat habitable again.
The end of the eruption is celebrated every year during the Goslok Festival. It takes place by the harbour in the first weekend of July.
The harbour entrance of Heimaey, between towering cliffs and the huge Eldfell lava field.
The intimidating lava flow that nearly closed off the harbour also created a new & improved version, making the harbour even better than it was before. The newly risen bulky volcano itself made the town more sheltered from the fierce prevailing winds coming in from the southeast. It effectively formed a wind-blocking structure with its neighbour Helgafell.
Before the eruption hardly any trees could grow on the largely windswept island. After Eldfell arrived, trees have slowly but steadily sprouted in several places and gardens around town. They continue to grow & blossom.
The weather station on the exposed southern peninsula of Stórhöfði still retains its reputation as one of the windiest places in Europe.
Path through the lava field above Austurvegur.
Meandering paths across the lava field
Between the harbour and Vestmannabraut street a stairway leads up from Kirkjuvegur to the top of the lava field. This is the start of the walking track towards Eldfell. You can meander along various paths across the lava field, continue on to Eldheimar museum and up to Eldfell itself. From the stairs it takes about 45 minutes to walk to the top.
There are several signposts along the way. You can also find memorials and wooden signs with the names of the streets that are now buried 30 to 60 meters below the lava field…
Vatnsdalur, 40 metres beneath the lava.
Memorial signpost of Urðarvegur.
The hike up to Eldfell volcano and crater
Eldfellsvegur is the road between the lava field and the volcano. The walking track to Eldfell starts on the other side of this road. You’ll see an information sign with a map at the beginning of the path. This is the easiest way up, and the most practical if you’re walking from town and through the lava fields. It also has the best views.
There’s another track from the small parking place near Fellavegur, the road between Eldfell and Helgafell. This is a shorter hike, but you’ll be going up the steep and gravelly side.
The tracks up to Eldfell.
Looking down into the crater.
On the way up you’ll pass by the half-open crater, with a memorial cross at the bottom. The rest of the crater wall ended up further down in the lava field, when it broke off and tumbled across the lava flow towards the harbour entrance. This notorious chunk is called ‘Flakkarinn’ and now sits on the edge of the harbour. It’s the unmistakable red hill at the end of the lava field. There’s also a scenic lookout point at the harbour entrance near Flakkarinn. It’s incredibly beautiful, but intimidating at the same time.
Along the colourful top ridge of Eldfell there are several features & outcrops sculpted by wind erosion into continuously changing forms. You can see natural art everywhere, in various stages of erosion. Unfortunately, some of these sculptures have disintegrated by now.
The throne of Eldfell. Sadly, it fell apart in 2021…
The colourful top ridge of Eldfell.
Warm spots on the ridge
If you walk along to the very end of the ridge, you can find some steamholes still emanating heat from below. In earlier days they were sometimes used by recourseful locals as a volcano oven, to bake bread or cook a BBQ meal. Over the years the temperature has steadily cooled down, but they provide great little warm-up shelters for when it gets a bit chilly.
In wintertime, when Eldfell has been snowed upon, you can see exactly where it’s still warm on the top. 😉
The warm spot on the Eldfell ridge.
And yes, you might catch some northern lights too…!
Colourful sunset views
The views from the top of Eldfell are incredible in all directions. Especially in the last hours before sunset, when the colours are enhanced and light up in brilliant shades.
Nowadays Eldfell is dormant, but occasionally it still erupts a rainbow. 💜
Helgafell, the ruling volcano on Heimaey before Eldfell came around.
The vast lava fields behind Eldfell, on the eastern side of the island. It’s mind-boggling to think that only a few decades ago this was all furiously roiling and boiling…
Mossy lava fields around Eldfell
On the way down, there’s a path veering off to the right, towards the bottom of the crater. It circles around the crater wall, and leads to a sweeping view of beautiful mossy lava fields. Along the way you’ll see a giant broken up lava bomb stuck on the outer side of the crater.
You can continue further on a small path through the lava fields, or follow the gravel road back into town.
Mossy lava fields.
A giant lava bomb from Eldfell.
Houses on the edge of the lava
The ominous rugged lava fields surrounding the eastern edge of Vestmannaeyjabær are clearly visible from the harbour and the town centre. At the end of Vestmannabraut there are a few houses that escaped the inferno just in time. They literally ended up with a huge wall of rocks in their back garden, where the lava flow stopped.
The dramatic 2021 eruption of Cumbre Vieja on La Palma, with its huge lava fountains from many crater pits at once, was a flashback for many people on Vestmannaeyjar to their own sudden backyard eruption in 1973…
A natural yet unusual garden fence.
The house that was spared…
The front porch of one of the houses that hasn’t been so lucky is reconstructed on the edge of the lava field. The house is called Blátindur, after the second highest peak on the island. It now features a wide screen with a slideshow about the history of the house, the family who lived there, and the eruption.
The new Blátindur front porch was officially opened in July 2017 during the Goslok Festival.
The reconstructed front porch of Blátindur house.
Eldheimar volcano museum
In 2014 the Eldheimar museum opened, where the compelling story of the Eldfell eruption is shown with impressive images and interactive displays. Eldheimar is built around some of the houses that were excavated from underneath the lava. It also features the eruption of Surtsey, the island that rose from the sea 10 years before Eldfell came around.
It’s a must-see in combination with the walk up to Eldfell.
Gaujulundur lava garden
Further on, there’s a sweet little garden tucked away in a sheltered trench in the lava field – complete with elf houses, a tiny garden house, and even something that looks like a miniature Dutch windmill. This is Gaujulundur garden, created by a local couple in 1988. They planted and cultivated hundreds of different local plant species, and turned it into a unique little oasis in the formerly barren lava field. The garden is entirely maintained by volunteers today.
Fields of lupines
The lava fields are covered in huge amounts of blue and purple lupines in June and July. It’s a spectacular sight in the glow of the midnight sun!
Flowery fields of lupines, with Eldfell and Helgafell looming in the background.
Lupine covered lava fields, with Flakkarinn on the left and a stunning view to that other famous volcano, across the sea on the mainland.
Eldfell hike summary
Distance: 4 kilometres return from Vestmannabraut or Eldheimar museum.
Time: About 1,5 to 2 hours.
Eldfell summit: 205 metres above sea level.
Difficulty: Moderate. Some exposed sections that can be (very!) windy.
This handy interactive map shows the walking route from the lava fields on the edge of town up to the top of Eldfell. You can also zoom in for more details of the track, and click on the icons for pictures of stunning views along the way.
This is one of the top-5 reader’s favourites of 2020, and every year since.
Other tracks & hikes on Heimaey
Do you want to explore more of these spectacular views? In this article you can find a variety of walking tracks around Heimaey. The biggest challenge is choosing one… 😉
Where is Vestmannaeyjar?
Vestmannaeyjar is a volcanic chain of islands just off the south coast of Iceland, directly across from Eyjafjallajökull. They are also known as the Westman Islands. The main island of Heimaey may look tiny on the map, but there’s a lot of spectacular scenery densely compressed into its 13,4 square kilometres. The ferry to Heimaey departs from Landeyjahöfn harbour and takes 35 minutes. You’ll see the turn-off to Landeyjahöfn near the Seljalandsfoss waterfall on the Ring Road.
(c) Nancy Claus – Wilderness Coffee & Natural High
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Last update: 23 April 2023
First published: 23 October 2017
Read how to travel to Vestmannaeyjar in this article.
Wilderness Coffee with a view! 😀
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These videos show some impressive and heart-wrenching footage of the eruption in progress, and how the harbour was saved. The song in the second video is ‘Heyr himna smiður’. It’s an old Icelandic hymn that became quite famous when Icelandic band Árstíðir did an impromptu impression in a train station in Germany (their video went viral on YouTube in 2013).
More to explore & discover
Dalalæða – Spectacular waterfalls of fog
Ode to the mountains – The magic of Mount Taranaki
Kerlingarfjöll – Steaming valleys and surreal landscapes
El Hierro – A volcanic hotspot underneath the sea
Mount Etna – Vigorously steaming from all its craters