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How The Eldgjá Volcano Eruption Shaped The History of Iceland

Have you ever stumbled upon a secret so magnificent that it feels like discovering a treasure? That's Eldgja for you—a colossal volcanic canyon nestled in the heart of Iceland. 

Now, we're not just any outsiders looking in; we've wandered, explored, and truly connected with Iceland, gaining intimate knowledge of its icy veins and fiery heart. Eldgjá is not just a landmark; it's a pivotal chapter in Iceland's epic volcanic saga. Its eruption centuries ago did more than just reshape the land; it wove into the fabric of Icelandic culture, influencing everything from folklore to the very ground beneath their feet. 

In this blog, we're unraveling the tale of Eldgjá, revealing how it's much more than a crack in the earth but a key to understanding Iceland itself. Ready to journey into the heart of fire and ice with us?

Eldja Canyon Iceland

The Massive Eldgja Eruption That Shaped Iceland's History

Eldgjá's eruption from 939 to 942 AD was monumental, not just in scale but in its ripple effects across Iceland and beyond. Covering 780 square kilometers (about 300 square miles) with 18.6 cubic kilometers (around 4.5 cubic miles) of lava, it marked the largest flood basalt eruption known in history. 

This event did more than alter landscapes; it catalyzed the Christianisation of Iceland, viewed as a divine sign against old pagan ways. Its global impact was profound, cooling temperatures worldwide and contributing to the coldest summer in 1,500 years. Eldgjá, or 'Fire Canyon,' embodies a significant chapter in Iceland's story, demonstrating nature's power to shape human destiny.

Eldgjá: The Largest Volcanic Canyon in the World

Eldgjá Canyon, a jewel in the crown of Iceland's volcanic wonders, boasts staggering stats and facts that underline its global significance:

  • Part of Vatnajokull National Park: Since 2011, the northern part of Eldgjá and the breathtaking adjacent waterfall are included in Vatnajokull National Park, turning it into a sought-after destination for thousands every year.

  • Extensive Volcanic Fissure: A sprawling fissure, Eldgjá stretches 75 km (47 mi), linking the mighty Vatnajökull glacier to the fearsome Katla volcano.

  • World's Largest Volcanic Canyon: This title-holder measures 270m (886 ft) in depth and expands up to 600m (1969 ft) in width over a 40 km (25 mi) stretch.

  • Geographic Stretch: From the hot springs of Landmannalaugar to the historically significant village of Kirkjubæjarklaustur, its range is as impressive as its size.

  • Creation of Lava Fields: Its eruption gave birth to three primary lava fields, drastically shaping the coastal plains.

  • Varied Geological Features: Eldgjá's rich volcanic landscape includes ground fractures, normal faults, hornitos, and spatter ramparts.

The Crater, Waterfall, and Glacier of Eldgjá

Discovering Eldgjá isn't just about the canyon itself; it's a gateway to exploring breathtaking waterfalls, craters, and glaciers around South Iceland. For nature lovers and adventurers alike, this area is a treasure trove of natural wonders, each with its own story. Here's why:

  • Öfærufoss Waterfall: Nestled within the Eldgjá fissure, this stunning 40 m (131 ft) waterfall cascades in two tiers through a lush, moss-clad canyon. It's a sight so serene that it feels like stepping into a painting.

  • Vatnajökull Glacier: As Europe's largest glacier, it's a monumental ice cap that encapsulates the essence of Iceland's icy allure. Near Eldgjá, it provides a stunning contrast to the fiery volcanic landscape. Vatnajökull Glaciers is also one of the best glaciers in Iceland for glacier hiking and ice caving.

  • Lakagígar Craters: The Lakagígar craters, also known as Laki, are a row of 130 giant craters that stretch 25–27 kilometers (16-18 mi). The craters are located southwest of Vatnajökull National Park and are part of Skaftafell National Park.

Hiking Trails Around Eldgjá Volcano

From the car park, a world of adventure awaits, with trails that cater to every level of enthusiasm and stamina. Here's what you're in for:

  • Descend into Elgja Canyon: Feel the magnitude of Eldgjá up close. Wander through craters and gorges, where each step tells a story of the earth's fiery power.

  • Panoramic Views: Make your way to the top for a view that'll have you reaching for your camera. The vastness of the landscape stretches before you, a patchwork of nature's artistry.

  • To Ófærufoss and Beyond: Fancy a short hike? The 2 km (about 1.2 miles) trail to Ófærufoss waterfall is a walk in the park, offering stunning sights without much sweat.

  • Challenge Accepted: For the trail warriors, the 7 km (roughly 4.3 miles) trek to the summit of Gjátindur will test your mettle. At an altitude of 943 m (around 3094 feet), the reward is a breathtaking vista of Eldgjá Canyon, especially when the weather gods smile upon you.

You can also check out our article about our guide to hiking in Iceland for some helpful tips before you hit the trails.

eldgja hiking trails

How To Get There Eldgjá in Iceland

Getting to the awe-inspiring Eldgjá Canyon is an adventure in itself, accessible only with an off-road 4x4 during the summer months (June to September). Here's how you can approach this natural wonder:

  • North via F232-233 alongside Myrdalsjökull glacier: This route is the roughest and least traveled but offers unparalleled wild landscapes.

  • North from Vík via F208: A challenging yet popular choice, F208 from the north is preferred for its relatively smoother trail. It requires crossing numerous fords from Landmannalaugar, a roughly 35 km (about 22 mi) drive that takes around an hour.

  • South from Landmannalaugar via F208: This path also demands fording through numerous streams and takes about the same time for a similar distance.

  • Preferred Route: Most visitors opt for the northward F208, coming from Kirkjubæjarklaustur or Vík. It takes under an hour to cover about 50 km (31 mi), with only one significant ford to cross near the site.

  • Road Conditions: The initial 16 km (10 mi) off Road number 1 towards F208 are in excellent condition; however, the next 24 km (15 mi) become progressively more rugged, leading to a small 5 km (3 mi) track to Eldgjá Canyon car park.

The Legacy of Eldgjá

The legacy of Eldgjá is a testament to how natural wonders carve out a country's identity and history. This colossal volcanic canyon, with its dramatic landscapes and tales of ancient eruptions, is a vibrant thread woven into the fabric of Iceland's culture, environment, and tourism industry. 

It stands as a symbol of nature's power and beauty, drawing adventurers and scholars alike eager to witness and study its majesty. For those looking to immerse themselves in Iceland's raw and captivating allure, renting a campervan in Iceland presents an unparalleled way to explore Eldgjá and beyond, offering the freedom to discover at one's own pace.



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