07 Feb Spelunking: Exploring Rifts and Caves in Iceland
Spelunking has always been an intriguing adventure to me. First of all, I just love that word. Second, the thought of exploring dark, underground passageways is always an exciting feat. So, when I was researching for our Snæfellsnes peninsula road trip and came across the chance to take a journey into a cave formed by lava, I knew we couldn’t pass it up.
Vatnshellir Cave is a lava tube cave located under Snæfellsjökull glacier. This cave is located in Snæfellsjökull National Park, which is where the story began in the Jule Verne novel, “Journey to the Center of the Earth”. It was fun to think about how this area was the setting for the adventures of such a famous story.
We arrived at the cave in time for their 2:00 p.m. tour and got geared up and ready to head out. Flashlights and helmets were distributed, and we gathered near our guide to learn a bit of information about the cave. Vatnshellir Cave was formed around 8,000 years ago when a nearby volcano erupted. Once the eruption stopped, the top layer of lava hardened while the lava underneath kept flowing, and on a very basic level, this is how the cave was formed. The cave is filled with stories from Icelandic Saga, and we learned about Bárður, who is said to have lived here before he disappeared into the Snæfellsjökull glacier after a family tragedy.
There are many lava tube caves in the surrounding area, but this is the only one open for tours. Vatnshellir was closed by the National Park several years ago, but now, the company we took the tour with, Summit Adventure Guides, has been granted approval to guide visitors through the cave. They are the only operator allowed inside and all of the visits to the cave have to be guided.
We made our way 35 meters underground and around 200 meters into the lava tube. Descending deep into the cave really did make it feel like you were heading towards the center of the earth! A spiral staircase led us down into the first chamber of the cave, and from there, we walked along a rocky path that led us further into the cave. We stopped several times to discuss the various features and formations inside of the cave before heading down another spiral staircase. This staircase was over twice the height of the first, and we spiraled our way down to the bottom, round and round and round again.
Once the entire group was at the bottom of the cave, we turned off our lights and devices to experience true darkness. When the lights were shut off, an eerie silence filled the air. We were standing in pitch black, and weren’t even able to see our hands in front of our faces. Then, once we all got a feel for the darkness, our guide took out a giant flashlight to light up the staircase–it was amazing to see just how far down we had gone.
All too soon, it was time to head back up the giant staircases. Let me just say, it felt much longer going up than down! Either way, we loved getting a look into this unique slice of Iceland that will likely keep changing because of the active geothermal landscapes surrounding it.
Once we emerged back into daylight, we decided it was time to slowly make our way back to Reykjavik. On our drive back to the city, we noticed a parking lot with a trail that led into a nearby rift, and we couldn’t resist stopping. So, off we went—out to explore once again.
It turns out that this rift is called Rauðfeldsgjá, and it’s a fissure that was formed in the Botnsfjall mountain. The entrance to the rift is a short 10 minute or so walk from the parking lot and a slight uphill climb.
Once you reach the base of the mountain, you can make your way inside the rift by hopping along stones in the river. You will be welcomed with an ice cold river and a chamber with vibrant, mossy walls that tower high above. It was serene.
If you would like to explore further, you can hop the rocks and make your way up the stream. Apparently, there is a rope that you can use to pull yourself up and over rocks in the river. We didn’t climb too far upriver because we didn’t want to get our only hiking shoes wet; however, we did see several others venture up ahead of us. We were so glad that we ended up stopping at the rift to explore—it was a great addition to our afternoon tour through the cave.
- Vatnshellir Cave is open from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. in the summer and 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. in the winter. Tours are offered every hour on the hour, but check the Summit Adventure Guides’ website for current hours, pricing and schedules as details may change.
- Access to the cave is only available via a tour—the tours are 45 minutes long. Tickets can be purchased from the small ticket booth on site or in advance from the website, and the booth can be found right off Road 574 along the southern portion of the Snæfellsnes peninsula.
- Wearing good sturdy shoes is a must (no heels or flip flops allowed), and warm clothes and gloves are recommended. I forgot to bring gloves and my hands were freezing—the railing on the staircase got quite cold!
- Rauðfeldsgjá rift is also located off Road 574 and it is east of Vatnshellir Cave. There is a parking lot located just off the road and the hike to the base of the mountain is around 10 minutes.
- If you plan to hike through the river, it’s a good idea to wear waterproof boots/shoes/clothes and be prepared to get wet. The rocks can be slippery and dangerous, so if you decide to hike further into the rift, go at your own risk and be careful!
Have you ever explored any rifts or caves in Iceland? Share your favorites in the comments below!