Last update: 29 January 2020
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. Eldfell is very colourful, the track is easily accessible, 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.
Track through the lava field towards the harbour, with the towering shape of Heimaklettur in the background. The harbour entrance is between the edge of the lava and Heimaklettur… It’s incredibly beautiful, but intimidating at the same time.
Where are the Vestmannaeyjar Islands?
Vestmannaeyjar (also known as the Westman Islands) is a volcanic chain of islands just off the south coast of Iceland, directly across from Eyjafjallajökull. Heimaey, the main island, may look tiny on the map, but there’s a lot of spectacular scenery densely compressed into its 13,4 square kilometres. The ferry departs from Landeyjahöfn and takes 35 minutes. You’ll see the turn-off to the harbour near Seljalandsfoss on the Ring Road.
The birth of the Fire Mountain
In the middle of the night people in Vestmannaeya 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 had suddenly ripped open across the eastern side of the island. After a couple of months it had coughed up a completely new volcano, which was aptly named Eldfell, the fire mountain.
The lava fields on the edge of town, with Eldfell and Helgafell looming in the background.
The resilience of Heimaey
The Eldfell eruption almost devastated the island, causing 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 that was pulled off to save the harbour is legendary. After relentless work in harsh conditions, the advancing lava flow that nearly closed off the harbour (and the lifeline of the island) was finally brought to a halt.
As they mention in this short documentary, ‘No-one had ever fought a volcano and won’ – but on Heimaey they did, in the face of adversity.
Goslok, the end of the eruption
Eldfell went on erupting for over 5 months. When it finished its business on July 3, more than 400 houses were buried underneath daunting lava flows up to 60 meters deep, and 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 flows.
The intimidating lava flow that nearly closed off the harbour also created a new & improved version, making it even better and more sheltered than it was before. And the newly risen bulky volcano itself made the town more sheltered from the fierce prevailing winds coming in from the southeast, effectively forming 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 at several places and gardens around town, and continue to grow & blossom.
The weather station on the exposed southern tip of Stórhöfði still retains its reputation as one of the windiest places in Europe.
Eldheimar volcano museum
In 2014 the Eldheimar museum opened, where this compelling story is told with impressive images and interactive displays. It’s built around some of the houses that were excavated from underneath the lava, and it also features the Surtsey eruption. It’s a must-see in combination with the walk up to Eldfell.
Houses on the edge of the lava
The ominous rugged lava flows surrounding the eastern edge of town are clearly visible from the harbour and the town centre. At the end of Vestmannabraut you’ll see a few houses that escaped the inferno just in time, and literally ended up with a huge lava flow in their back garden.
A natural yet unusual garden fence…
The front porch of one of the houses that hasn’t been so lucky is now reconstructed on the edge of the lava flow. It’s called Blátindur (after the second highest peak on the island), and it now features a wide screen showing a slideshow about the history of the house, the family who lived there, and the eruption. It was officially opened in July 2017 during the Goslok Festival.
The reconstructed front porch of Blátindur house.
Meandering paths across the lava field
Between the harbour and Vestmannabraut a stairway leads up from Kirkjuvegur to the top of the lava flow and the start of the walking track. You can meander along various paths across the lava field, and 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, as well as memorials and wooden signs with the names of the streets that are now buried 30 to 60 meters below.
Vatnsdalur, 40 metres beneath the lava…
The lava flows are covered in fields of blue and purple lupines in June and July. A spectacular sight in the glow of the midnight sun!
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 😉 It’s called Gaujulundur, and was created in 1988 by a local couple. 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 lava garden is entirely maintained by volunteers today.
Eldfell volcano hike 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. 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 the road between Eldfell and Helgafell. This is a shorter hike, but you’ll be going up the steep and gravelly side.
Walking track up to Eldfell.
Looking down into the crater.
On the way up you’ll pass along the crater, with a cross memorial at the bottom. Along the colourful top ridge there are several features & outcrops sculpted by wind erosion into continuously changing forms. You can see natural art everywhere.
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 😉
And yes, you might catch some northern lights too…!
The views are incredible in all directions. Especially in the last hours before sunset, when the colours are enhanced and light up in brilliant shades.
Helgafell, the ruling volcano on Heimaey before the eruption of Eldfell.
View to that other famous volcano, across the sea on the mainland.
Mossy lava fields
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 along a small path through the lava field, or follow the gravel road back into town.
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…
Nowadays, Eldfell occasionally still erupts a rainbow 😉
Want to explore more of these spectacular views? Here you can find a variety of walking tracks around Heimaey. The biggest challenge is choosing just one…
You can read how to travel to Vestmannaeyjar in this article.
(c) Nancy Claus – Wilderness Coffee & Natural High
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 called ‘Heyr himna smiður’. It’s an old Icelandic hymn that became quite famous when Árstíðir did an impromptu impression in a train station in Germany (their video went viral on YouTube in 2013).
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Wilderness Coffee with a view 😉
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