Another world greets you just a short 30-minute drive from the Icelandic capital Reykjavik. Raufarhólshellir Lava Tunnel is a terrific example of a lava cave created following a volcanic eruption thousands of years ago.
Tourists have long flocked to Iceland for the northern lights and remarkable lunar-like landscapes. In recent years, interest has increased in volcano tourism as several eruptions made global headlines.
While many people travel during an active eruption (the 2021 eruption lasted nine months), lava tubes are high on the list of must-see volcano-related sites even where there is no volcanic activity.
The beauty of lava tubes
Also known as lava tunnels or caves, lava tubes offer visitors a window into the incredible natural power of volcanoes that continue to reshape Iceland to this day.
A lava tube is formed as lava from an eruption forms a channel, which stays hot as the land around it cools. This hot lava may eventually develop walls around it, which can crust over and/or flow beneath previously cooled lava, forming a tube. Once the lava empties out, it leaves behind a tube-shaped cave with an utterly fascinating interior.
Inside a lava tube, flow ledges show the levels at which lava flowed, colorful rocks line the walls and stalactites may hang from the ceilings. There can also be holes in the top of the lava tube, which can be dangerous for both animals and humans when there is snow cover above.
While not the biggest, it’s still vast enough to leave an impression. Almost 4,500 feet long, the tunnel is typically 30 feet high and up to 100 feet wide.
Since 2017, improvements to the tunnel have made it easier than ever to visit the site while decreasing the amount of damage done to the natural attraction. Sadly, most of the thin lava stalactites were broken off by visitors before the changes, but a walk through the tube is still a wondrous experience.
The tour guide will explain the detail behind what you see, starting with the three large holes that light up the tube in spectacular fashion.
As you delve deeper into the tube, the light dims. What little light there is reflects off the colorful mineral-laden rocks giving a lunar-like appearance to your surroundings. While red dominates, you’ll also see shades of yellow, blue, purple and glittering gold and silver patches.
At the end of the tunnel, you’ll get to experience complete darkness and silence from a purpose-built viewing platform. The typical tour takes about one hour. Longer tours are available into the depths of the tunnel, although sturdy footwear and a good level of physical fitness are required for this.
Other famous lava caves in Iceland
If you’re planning a longer tour of Iceland, there are plenty of other lava tubes to explore that may be more convenient for your itinerary.
The country’s largest lava cave, Víðgelmir, is much younger than Raufarhólshellir, dating approximately 1,100 years old to the time of Viking settlement in Iceland. Guided tours are available lasting anything from 1.5 to four hours at the site approximately two hours drive northeast of Reykjavik.
In northern Iceland, Lofthellir is best known for its impressive ice formations. While it’s safe to visit, some crawling is required to reach the best sculptures. Game of Thrones fans may be interested to visit Grjótagjá, a beautiful lava cave home to a natural hot spring also in the country’s north.