Askja volcano and the Highlands of Iceland

In August 2014 I went on a truly memorable 14-hour guided tour of the highlands of Iceland with Saga Travel. Our destination was Askja caldera and the Víti (Hell) explosion crater. There had been an earthquake and landslide in July by Askja in July and the water level of Lake Askja was now 2 meters higher than before.

I was in luck to have been able to visit this area early in August, as then the earthquakes started for real and a volcanic eruption started, which lasted for 9 months!

We drove from Akureyri town towards Mývatn at 6:30 in the morning and picked up more passengers there. We then headed straight towards the highlands, got off ring-road 1 and onto the mountain road F88.  Our first stop was at Hrossaborg, which is a 10.000 year old crater in the shape of an amphitheatre. Our driver drove straight into the crater, got out and let some air off the tires (33 psi to 15 psi) to give the tires a wider grip. This is also done when we drive our jeeps up on the glaciers. 

Askja volcano and the Highlands of Iceland

Hrossaborg means Horse Castle as it was used as a natural shelter for horses. The crater is quite extraordinary and the sandstone adds to the mystery of the crater. Scenes from Tom Cruise's film, Oblivion, were shot at Hrossaborg.

We were now ready to drive into the highlands of Iceland. The gravel roads here are bumpy and there are several rivers to be crossed. Our guide was well trained in crossing rivers having driven on this tour countless times, but jeeps often get stuck in the middle of the rivers and have to be towed out.

We made a stop by a small, but lovely waterfall by a river we had just crossed. It is called Grafarlönd river.

Askja volcano and the Highlands of Iceland

The landscape in the highlands is barren and lunar like and at Askja NASA trained Apollo astronauts in 1967.

All of a sudden a beautiful oasis opened up, Herðubreiðarlindir oasis, which got its name from the Queen of Icelandic mountains, Herðubreið. Unfortunately it was rainy and foggy so we didn´t get to see this beautiful mountain. We made a stop at Herðubreiðarlindir, and I was astounded by its green and lush vegetation and the beauty of this place in the middle of this barren wilderness. 

Askja volcano and the Highlands of Iceland

Our guide walked with us up to Eyvindarkofi or the Shelter of Fjalla-Eyvindur, which is the remaining shelter of one of our best known outlaws, Fjalla-Eyvindur (Eyvindur of the Mountains) who lived here in 1774-1775. Fjalla-Eyvindur was an outlaw for 20 years and lived in the wilderness with his wife, Halla. I have visited more of his hiding places in Iceland and it always surprises me how these outlaws were able to survive through the cold Icelandic winters. 

According to Fjalla-Eyvindur this year of his hiding was the worst he experienced during his years as an outlaw. It was dreadfully cold and he didn't have any fire to keep him warm and had to live on raw horse-meat. But here he had clear water, as in this oasis clear water comes straight from the lava.

Askja volcano and the Highlands of Iceland

There is a hut at Herðubreiðarlindir and toilet facilities. It costs ISK 500 to use the facilities, but do make use of them as it is not a given thing that one can find a toilet in the middle of the wilderness.

Our next stop was by the small waterfall, Gljúfrasmiður falls, in the glacial river Jökulsá á Fjöllumwhich is the second longest river in Iceland (206 km).  Jökulsá á Fjöllum means the Glacial River in the Mountains. It is a roaring grey glacial river coming straight from Vatnajökull glacier.

Further north the glacial river creates the most powerful waterfall in Europe, Dettifoss waterfall, plus several other smaller waterfalls. The river is so powerful that I felt sudden fear standing so close to it.

Askja volcano and the Highlands of Iceland

I took a video of it, just to remember how powerful this glacial river really is. Jökulsá á Fjöllum has been in the news a lot lately as we feared that a volcanic eruption were to take place in Bárðarbunga, a major volcano in the Vatnajökull glacier. If that were to happen there would be massive floods in Jökulsá á Fjöllum, which will create chaos in this area and further north.

Let's hope that is not going to happen anytime soon.

We crossed this glacial river a couple of times on our trip, but it is bridged in 3 places.

We now drove for an hour through the wilderness on a winding, bumpy road. After driving through very grey landscape it all of a sudden changed and turned yellow. We had now entered the part of the highlands called Vikrahraun or Tephra lava from a lava flow back in 1961. The landscape was covered in yellow tephra.  And black lava was sticking up from all the tephra, quite scenic.

The driver stopped and let us out to touch the tephra. It is amazingly light. While standing there I felt such strong ties to my country. I had been travelling for 3 weeks and seen all kinds of beautiful landscape, but in the vast wilderness of my country I felt this strong connection and said to myself: "Now, THIS is Iceland".

Askja volcano and the Highlands of Iceland

Now we were getting close to our destination and our next stop was at the amazing Drekagil Dragon Canyon by Dyngjufjöll mountains, where we stopped to have lunch in one of the huts there. Due to the heavy rain the rivers had flooded and we couldn't hike into the canyon, as was planned. But our guide told us about the two dragons in the canyon, from which the canyon draws its name. 

If you look closely then you can see the image of 2 dragons in the upper part of my photo. I couldn't get a better photo in the pouring rain, but I hope you can spot them :)

Askja volcano and the Highlands of Iceland

By Drekagil canyon there is a hut, called Dreki, with sleeping accommodation. If you plan on staying there remember to bring food as there is no food for sale there. We left one of the passengers, who travelled with us on this tour, at Dreki and he was planning on staying there for a couple of days.

He had only brought a sandwich with him as he thought he could buy food at the hut. Our guide had to bring him food on his next trip to Askja, which was 2 days later.

Askja volcano and the Highlands of Iceland

After having lunch at the smaller hut by Dreki, we drove to Askja, which is only 8 km away from Drekagil canyon, and left the jeep by the parking lot. The hike to Lake Askja and Víti explosion crater is an easy one, about 30 minutes long. When we visited there was still a field of snow on the path.

There was heavy rain and wind and the temperatures were low. I didn't bring waterproof trousers and got soaking wet.

Askja volcano and the Highlands of Iceland

When I finally laid my eyes on Víti explosion crater I was in awe. The big crater of Víti with its whitish opaque blue water is like out of this world. The crater is 150 meters in diameter and in it is a 25-30 degrees C hot geothermal, sulphurous lake, in which one can bathe. 

There had been an earthquake and landslide by Askja on July 21st, with a wave estimated to have been as high as 50 meters with water from Lake Askja flowing into Víti explosion crater. This resulted in the water level of Lake Askja now being 2 meters higher than before. When we visited it was not allowed to go for a swim in the crater.

Too bad, as I had been looking forward to that and was wearing a swimsuit underneath my clothes. Hopefully on my next visit I will be able to go for a swim in Víti explosion crater.

Askja volcano and the Highlands of Iceland

Öskjuvatn or Lake Askja and Víti explosion crater got created in a massive volcanic eruption back in 1875. After the eruption a lot of Icelanders emigrated to Canada.

Lake Askja is situated in the crater of Askja volcano and is the second deepest lake in Iceland (220 m).

Askja volcano and the Highlands of Iceland

There is a monument by Askja, raised in memory of the German scientists Walter von Knebel and Max Rudloff, who visited Askja in 1907 to study the area. During their explorations of this area they went in a small boat on Lake Askja to explore the lake and disappeared. It was like the earth had swallowed them up.

Ina von Grumbkow, the fiancée of Walten von Knebel, came to Iceland with an expedition, but it was never discovered what happened to the 2 scientists. A truly sad story. 

Askja volcano and the Highlands of Iceland

We spent an hour by Askja and then headed back. We took a different route back, crossed Jökulsá á Fjöllum glacial river on a bridge by Upptyppingar and made a stop at Fjallakaffi - Mountain Café in Möðrudalur, which is the most remote settlement in Iceland. 

Askja volcano and the Highlands of Iceland

After 14 hours on the road we were back in Akureyri by 20:30 at night. It was an amazing trip, highly recommended. I had wanted to visit Askja for many years, so I am very happy I made it before the roads were closed because of the Holuhraun volcanic eruption.

As Askja is only accessible during the summer months and had been closed due to the landslide, I was in luck to have been able to visit it early in August. Then it was closed again because of the volcanic eruption which lasted for 9 months. In August 2016 I visited this area again with Saga Travel and now a new location has been added, Holuhraun lava field, where you can walk on the new lava. You can read about it in this blog An Amazing Tour to Askja and Holuhraun Lava Field in the Highlands of Iceland

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