Let’s get shakin’
Understanding the geology of Iceland, including its volcanoes, is essential for truly understanding the country, its history, and its people. The Hvolsvöllur region is along the volcanic rift, which has been producing rock and creating this geologically young island. In this map, the newest orange rock clearly outlines the most volcanic area (the Mid-Atlantic Ridge on land), and the Hekla-to-Katla area is the topic of this post. The island of Surtsey, at the bottom of the map, was only formed in the 1960s, and the island just above it, Heimaey, was partially covered in a sudden 1973 eruption (more on the Westmann Islands, or Vestmannaeyjar, in another post). You can also keep track of the earthquake activity on the multipurpose Icelandic Meteorological Office site. Some Icelandic people watch this site almost like social media, regardless of if there are any current earthquake/volcanic activity warnings. Given that Iceland sits on top of a huge magma plume, coming from deep within the earth, all of the geothermal, earthquake, and volcanic activity in Iceland is no surprise (tiny spoiler: learn and see models of this at the LAVA Centre)!
Views and volcanoes
Continuing east on Route 1 from Selfoss or your Golden Circle sites, you will pass through the Hvolsvöllur area. On a clear day, you can see Mount Hekla inland, almost always with a cap of snow (hekla means hood). This is the most active and one of the most overdue volcanoes in Iceland. It’s possible to drive inland and get fairly close to Hekla (26 and 264/268 from Hella), but be aware that some of the road is gravel and is slow going. However, watching the landscape change from fertile grazing and hay crop land to barren and foreboding is a stunning sight in at least decent weather. Seeing Hekla grow and loom is also a unique experience for landscape lovers.
Eyjafjallajökull, of 2010 European air traffic debacle fame, is just a bit further along Route 1, making it east of the Hvolsvöllur area but still very much along the volcano theme. It sits very close to the road under its glacier. There are many interesting glacially-carved landforms along this section of the coastal drive, which are stunning on a sunny day and mysterious in the clouds. Across the road from the farm right at the foot of Eyjafjallajökull, there is a small visitor’s center where you can learn about the effect and recovery from the 2010 eruption. It’s free to look at the informative exhibit, with a small amount (850isk at my last visit) charged to watch the 20 minute film.
If you’re curious about volcanoes, the weather is poor, or you like interactive, multimedia museums (though I doubt you’ve seen one like this before), the new LAVA Centre opened in June 2017 situated right in the town of Hvolsvöllur. A short film shows images and video of all recent eruptions with a booming soundtrack (about 20 minutes). Exhibits describe the history, effects, causes, types, vocabulary, and distinguishing characteristics of Iceland’s volcanoes through award-winning environments and multi-sensory exhibits. Be sure not to miss the oral history screens in the lobby, where long-time residents of the area describe their experiences and feelings about living in this very volcanic area – many are residents of the Hvolsvöllur area itself.
Stop and relax
Hotel Hvolsvöllur provides nice rooms and excellent food in the own of Hvolsvöllur itself. It’s a short walk from the town’s pool, which is excellent for the size of the town with a warm 25 meter lap pool and a couple small hot tubs to relax in after a long day (superior to the hot tubs at the hotel). The town has a bank/ATM/cash point, gas/petrol station, and some other food opportunities, making it an ideal break or overnight stay. During the summer, if it’s going to be a clear night, climb one of the hills behind the church to take in coastal views under the midnight sun.
Island views (on a clear day)
One last note for this region, before moving on to the popular, stunning waterfalls that come next as you travel east on Route 1. If you’re not too pressed for time and it’s a clear day, follow the sign for Landeyjahöfn to get majestic views of the Westmann Islands (Vestmannaeyjar). I fully recommend boarding the ferry and spending at least one day and one night on the big island, Heimaey, the only inhabited one home to about 5,000 people. You can climb both of the volcanoes that covered the east edge of the town in the sudden 1973 eruption, so it’s extra recommended for volcano enthusiasts. Just a teaser… ha!