Another world welcomes you just a 30-minute drive from the Icelandic capital Reykjavik. The Raufarhólshellir Lava Tunnel is an excellent example of a lava cave created after a volcanic eruption thousands of years ago.
For a long time, tourists have flocked to Iceland for the northern lights and remarkable moonscapes. In recent years, interest in volcano tourism has increased 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 forms when lava from an eruption forms a channel, which remains hot as the land around it cools. This hot lava can eventually develop walls around it, which can form a crust and/or flow under the previously cooled lava, forming a tube. Once the lava empties, it leaves behind a tube-shaped cave with an absolutely mesmerizing interior.
Inside a lava tube, flow ledges show the levels at which the lava flowed, colored rocks line the walls, and stalactites can hang from the ceilings. There may also be holes in the top of the lava tube, which can be dangerous to both animals and humans when there is a layer of snow on top.
Raufarhólshellir isn’t the largest of Iceland’s lava tubes, but its location just 30 minutes from the capital, Reykjavik, means it’s ideally situated for many travellers.
While it’s not the biggest, it’s big enough to make an impression. At nearly 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 and have decreased the amount of damage done to the natural attraction. Sadly, most of the fine lava stalactites were broken up by visitors before the changes, but walking through the tube is still a wonderful experience.
Your tour guide will explain the details behind what you see, starting with the three large holes that illuminate the tube dramatically.
As you go deeper into the tube, the light dims. The little light that there is is reflected in the colorful rocks loaded with minerals that give a lunar appearance to its surroundings. While red dominates, you’ll also see shades of yellow, blue, purple, and bright gold and silver patches.
At the end of the tunnel, you will be able to experience complete darkness and silence from a specially designed viewing platform. The typical tour lasts about an hour. Longer tours deeper into the tunnel are available, although this requires sturdy footwear and a good level of fitness.
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 largest lava cave in the country, Víðgelmir, is much younger than Raufarhólshellir, dating to approximately 1,100 years from the time of Viking settlement in Iceland. Guided tours are available that last between 1.5 and four hours at the site, about a two-hour drive northeast of Reykjavik.
In the north of Iceland, Lofthellir is best known for its impressive ice formations. While it’s safe to visit, some tracking is required to get to the best sculptures. game of Thrones fans may be interested in visiting Grjótagjá, a beautiful lava cave that houses a natural hot spring also in the north of the country.