Raufarhólshellir is one of the longest lava tunnels in Iceland at 1360 m (4500 ft) long. Because of this, and it’s proximity to Reykjavik (just a 30 minute drive), it also happens to be the most popular lava tunnel. If you’ve been following along with my Iceland adventures, I bet you can guess how my morning started.
At 8:00AM, I boarded the tour bus at BSI that would be transporting me to the lava tunnel. I was told by friends and family that this activity was not to be missed and made sure that I could squeeze it into my itinerary. However, the tour was nowhere near as long as the adventures I’d been on so far through the Golden Circle and snowmobiling over glaciers, so it wasn’t too hard to fit in.
Putting On Our Equipment
A mere thirty minutes later, I arrived at Raufarhólshellir. We filed off the bus and into the building, almost immediately met with our new tour guide. She motioned for us to grab equipment and started a quick informational speech on safety. I buckled my helmet over my hat and began putting the crampons over my less-than-perfect hiking shoes.
Although good hiking shoes were recommended, the crampons included worked wonders on the pair I had with, so it wasn’t necessary. However, not everyone was able to get the crampons on so easily. A few people snickered as their bands went shooting across the room, begging for an extra hand to pop them over their shoes.
Once everyone was finally ready, we began the walk outdoors. Just 500 feet from the main door was a large hole in the Earth that we would be heading down into. It was already snowing this morning and with the holes to the underground, the weather didn’t exactly give us a break. If you plan on visiting the lava tunnel in the winter, DEFINITELY dress as warm as you can–you will not regret it.
What Is A Lava Tunnel?
No, sorry to disappoint, there is no actual lava flowing though this tunnel. However, there once was, which is how the tunnel got its name. Over 5,000 years ago, during the Leitahraun eruption, this pathway was formed where the lava flowed through. As I stepped inside, and began to follow the path through the center of the cave, I was amazed.
Every color of the rainbow seemed to dance along the walls, rustic red (from the iron) being the most prominent. The yellow also twinkled in second place, created by the sulfur in the area. I looked back into the darkness, seeing the line of headlamps behind me, dancing through the walls of the cave. It was magical.
As we came across the first hole in the ceiling, a shiver trickled down my spine. The ceiling had caved in long ago, causing a small pile of jutting rocks to pile up beneath it. However, these rocks were now invisible, covered by a tower of fresh, white snow. We walked further.
“This is my favorite part about the winter. These little guys are so cute,” our guide exclaimed, motioning to the railing.
A small stalagmite made completely of ice sat beside us, only about 6 inches tall. It reminded me of a hybrid between Olaf and Casper the Friendly Ghost the way the ice had frozen into uneven crystal blobs.
The History of Raufarhólshellir Lava Tunnel
The further we explored, the more and more of these little ice sculptures appeared. Long ago, there used to be many actual stalactites in the cave, as well. However, since the lava tunnel became more popular around the 1950s, too much tourism caused a lot of these to disappear. People were able to tramp all over the place without proper equipment, many of them losing their footing, getting lost in the abyss or simply leaving trash and empty beer bottles in the beautiful cave.
Most shocking to me, however, was that this only recently became historic property. Before this, it was just another hole-in-the-ground that anyone could come find and climb through to explore. In just 2017, the property was taken over, ensuring that the lava tunnel could remain intact for future generations to see. In addition to this, it’s been made a lot more accessible for people, with lighting and handrails, as well as proper equipment and only being able to enter with a guide.
However, the landlords can’t take ownership of the steps. This is where Raufarhólshellir’s claim to fame comes in. Remember the 2014 blockbuster Noah starring Jennifer Connelly, Anthony Hopkins and Russel Crowe? They actually shot part of their movie in the lava tunnel, as you can watch from the behind-the-scenes started at minute 16 in the clip above. Note: It does have Spanish subtitles.
A Short-Lived Adventure
It took a mere 20-30 minutes to walk to the ending point during the general tour. Our guide pointed out a few more formations and types of lava layers on our way, but nothing too comprehensive. Once we reached our final point, she offered to take pictures for any tourist that wanted a lasting memory and then let us find our own way back, spending as much time as we wished.
I have to say, that although I loved the free time and ability to waddle back up whenever we were done with pictures, I was a bit sad with the amount of people on our tour. If I had the chance to do it again, I definitely would have splurged a little more for a smaller group size. That way, I would truly be able experience the lava tunnel in a more pure form. Even so, I have to agree with my friends and family: The Raufarhólshellir Lava Tunnel Tour is not to be missed.
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