Earth, Wind, and Fire: A Journey to the Planet’s Beginnings in Iceland

By Michael Lanza

The land is on fire.

Actually, the land appears to be smoldering, stoked by some persistent furnace just beneath the surface. Which is essentially true.

Steam from hot springs and other geothermal features issues from scores of points from here to the horizon. Mud pots bubble and burp, and the color of volcanic activity is everywhere—paint-can spills of ochre, pink, gold, plum, brown, rust, and honey against a backdrop of purple pumice and electric-lime moss. An old, hardened lava flow pours down one mountainside in a jumbled train wreck of razor-sharp black rhyolite. Barren peaks extend ridges like the arms of starfish. Chattering streams carry the runoff from July snowfields smeared across the highlands. Scudding clouds stampede overhead, constantly rearranging the dappled sunlight splashing over the landscape.

It’s a mind-boggling kaleidoscope, and with nothing taller than a clump of moss growing anywhere, I can see for miles in every direction. It looks like Yellowstone’s Upper Geyser Basin, but multiplied exponentially, and with color-enhancing done by a designer of Grateful Dead album covers.

I’m in Landmannalaugar, a park of sorts with a ragtag end-of-the-road campground in the remote Fjallabak (“Behind the mountains”) Nature Reserve of Iceland’s Central Highlands, one of the most active geothermal areas on Earth. Landmannalaugar is famous here both for the hot springs—the name means “bath of the countrymen”—and for the trail I’m hiking. Called the Laugarvegurinn (“Hot Spring Road”), or Laugavegur, it’s a three- to four-day, 33.5-mile, hut-to-hut trek from Landmannalaugar south to Thorsmork. Iceland’s most popular hike, it has earned a place beside the Inca Trail, Nepal’s Annapurna Circuit, and New Zealand’s Milford Track as one of the world’s most beautiful paths.

Storihver, along the Laugavegur Trail in Iceland's Fjallabak Nature Reserve.
Storihver, along the Laugavegur Trail in Iceland’s Fjallabak Nature Reserve.

Laugavegur Trail

In my first hours on the trail, I pass other hikers, mainly Icelanders and other northern Europeans, but mostly I’m alone with the Arctic wind and occasional whistling steam vent or gurgling hot spring. I think that this is how the Earth must have sounded right after its birth, when the ground still constantly trembled and belched and disgorged its surplus of heat and water, and there were no plants rustling in the wind or animal noises to amplify and add complexity to the nascent planet’s soundtrack.

At a spot along the path called Storihver, where numerous vents emit steam and hot water, I wander off-trail over a small rise and come upon a steaming pool about 20 feet across. It sits against a hillside with a hole like a gaping maw. A spring spills from the hole into the pool’s milky aqua waters, which overflow the opposite bank, sending a stream of bright blue water meandering down a gentle valley of impossibly green moss and dark dirt. The startling contrast gives the scene a prehistoric look. I start down toward the pool for a better photo angle, but the waterlogged pumice collapses underfoot like slushy snow, and I frantically scrabble back up the steep slope, afraid I’ll slide into the water and get boiled alive.

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As a kid, before I knew that hot springs could stew meat from bone, I might have taken that plunge. I was enthralled by Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, in which a teenage boy, his uncle, and a guide descend into an Iceland volcano. They explore a vast cavern illuminated by electrically charged gas, discover a subterranean ocean, dodge prehistoric creatures, and generally have the sort of exotic adventure that enchants 12-year-olds from geothermally benign factory towns like Leominster, Massachusetts.

But Verne’s vision of the Earth’s restless plumbing never left me. Now, 30 years later, I’m finally making my own journey to this land of fire and ice. Besides the Laugevegur trail, I’ll squeeze in a whirlwind 4WD tour of the island’s remote interior, plus dayhikes of a snowy peak and more obscure places pointed out by our guides and Reykjavik photographer Thorsten Henn.

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A stream near the Laugavegur Trail.
A stream near the Laugavegur Trail.

At every turn, I’m transfixed by the primeval terrain, and reminded that elemental forces are ever at work shaping it. It’s so raw that I imagine a mighty hand peeling back the planet’s crust to show what’s going on underneath. Verne’s tale may be wild science fiction, but he was right on in choosing this island as its setting; it would scarcely surprise me to see a pterodactyl swoop out of the sky. More than anyplace I’ve been—from Yellowstone’s geysers to the rim of Mt. St. Helen’s smoking crater—this land is defined by upheaval.

That upheaval is a sign of tempestuous youth. Iceland formed only three million years ago—a geologic eye blink—from volcanic eruptions that built its mountains while the island remained buried beneath the Arctic ice cap. It emerged only 12,000 years ago, after the ice cap receded. Smaller than Kentucky, the country has about 150 volcanoes, the greatest concentration in the world. They’re so violently active it’s a wonder humans can live here (never mind the challenges of existence on a tiny, isolated island in the far North Atlantic).

The volcanoes add four-tenths of an inch to the island’s width every year; to a geologist, that’s a serious growth spurt that keeps spurting. Eighteen have erupted since Norse people settled here in the early 9th century. Over the past 500 years, Iceland’s volcanoes have produced one-third of the total global lava output. Some volcanoes, like the country’s most famous smokestack, Mt. Hekla, have blown repeatedly.

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Hiking at Hveravellir in the Central Highlands.
Hiking at Hveravellir in the Central Highlands.

The Center of the Earth

The Laki eruption of 934 spawned the largest lava flow ever recorded worldwide: 4.7 cubic miles of flood basalt that covered more than 300 square miles; the eruption’s release of 219 million tons of sulfur dioxide was also the largest in history. When Laki blew again in 1783, it threw out 3.4 cubic miles of basalt lava in fountains estimated to reach nearly a mile into the air. Legend has it that a pastor named Jon Steingrimsson, in the tiny southeastern village of Kirkjubæjarklaustur, gathered his congregation in the church for a fire-and-brimstone sermon as a lava flow bore down on them. When finally he finished, the people exited the church to find the lava had stopped just beyond the town’s outskirts, at a spot now called “Eldmessutangi,” or “Fire Sermon Point.” They credited their pastor with saving the village.

The 1783 eruption also coughed up 120 million tons of sulfur dioxide that killed more than half the country’s livestock and a quarter of Icelanders. The gas spread a poisonous haze across Western Europe so thick that ships couldn’t leave ports, and killed roughly 23,000 people in Britain and thousands more across the continent. In fact, Laki’s environmental impacts on Europe lasted several years, causing famine and poverty believed to have helped instigate the French Revolution in 1789. Chalk one up for environmental determinism.

For a place like Iceland, you want one of my picks for “The 5 Best Rain Jackets For Hiking and Backpacking.”

Iceland sits astride the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a chain of peaks taller than the Alps and more than six times the length of the Rockies, mostly submerged beneath the ocean. That ridge acts like a wedge forcing apart four plates of the Earth’s crust—the Eurasian, African, and North and South American plates—constantly widening the Atlantic basin.

That phenomenal volcanic and tectonic activity has as its locus a “plume,” or hot vent, at the northern end of the Vatnajokull ice cap, Europe’s largest glacier. Boring 1,000 miles into Earth’s mantle, the plume continually spews liquid rock, a process that gradually alters the shape and position of continents. Author Katharine Scherman, in her fascinating natural and human history, Daughter of Fire—A Portrait of Iceland, describes this area as “a collection of ice-shrouded peaks and craters deformed by glacial action, surrounded by a freakish complex of hot springs, seething mud pots and simmering lakes, with steam shooting through holes in old ice and cauldrons of boiling water under a frozen cover.”

On Iceland, the clock of geologic time has been speeded up; its metaphorical arms spin wildly. Processes that drag out over millennia elsewhere seem to accelerate here, unwinding as if shot with a time-lapsed camera. It doesn’t require much imagination to picture it as the center of the Earth.

Long before Jules Verne’s day, explorers considered Hekla the gateway to hell. Hiking the Laugavegur, I’m thinking the exact opposite.

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2 thoughts on “Earth, Wind, and Fire: A Journey to the Planet’s Beginnings in Iceland”

  1. Hope you’re having a good hiking season. Just back from the Laugavegur here. You were right about how variable and cold the weather can be along the trail! Was prepared for a range, but I’m still amazed by how variable it was, with blue skies and rainbows shifting to thick fog, to strong winds, rain and sleet, then returning back to clear conditions over short periods of time.

    Happy trails. Again, always enjoy your the posts and tips!