Lava and Moss – The Lava Fields of Iceland

The volcanoes of Iceland are well known and are visible as you explore the landscape. Equally present are the lava fields, but these are often overlooked for the glaciers and steaming fumaroles. They lay in dark, sprawling fields across the barren landscape.

detail of moss covered lava

The lava fields in Iceland vary in age. Some are ancient while others are relatively new. The largest in Iceland is Eldhraun which was formed when Laki erupted in the 18th century. Located close to the village of Kirkjubæjarklaustur, the original lava flowed down the riverbed of the Skaftá river and down into the low-lying farmlands of Meðalland and today it is a mass of jumbled lava and moss.

Looking after the Icelandic moss and Lava Fields

The moss that grows in Iceland forms part of a fragile ecosystem. There are over 600 different types of moss growing in Iceland and many can survive the sub-zero temperatures that are common in the winter months and thrive in the cool damp conditions. Despite their resilience care has to be taken when visiting the lava fields. Following the path or road is essential to prevent damage. Once driven or walked on, the lava field will hold the tyre marks and damage for long periods of time.
In the north around Krafla, the lava fields are within an area of geothermal activity and have steaming vents and hot pools in close proximity. If there are barriers or boardwalks, make sure you stick to them.

green moss on black lava

Naming Lava Fields

In Icelandic ‘Hraun’ means lava, so anytime you see this in the name of a place there is a chance that you will encounter lava.
Examples include
Eldhraun – Fire (Eld) Lava (Hraun)
Hraunfossar – Lava (Hraun) Waterfalls (Fossar)

Lava Fields in Iceland

There are a number of lava fields in Iceland which are all slightly different. Listed below as some of the more accessible lava fields that can be visited.

Reykjanes Peninsula

lava field and volcano with summer flowers

Without realising it, many people will see their first lava field on the way from the airport towards Reykjavík. The whole area is one large lava field including the Blue Lagoon. There have been multiple eruptions along this small peninsula over thousands of years and so relatively new lava fields can be found running into older lava fields with moss and trees establishing themselves. Four active volcanic systems are found in the area and these continue to grumble today.
Close to Reykjanes Lighthouse on the southern-most tip there is a large area of cliffs that are made up of a range of types of lava which have been exposed by the action of the waves which is completely different to the vast expanses of lava seen elsewhere.

lava columns on the coast

READ MORE: EXPLORING THE REYKJANES PENINSULA

Eldhraun

moss covered lava field

This is the largest lava field in Iceland and covers 565 km² of lava. It was formed between 1783 and 1784 when Laki fissure and the adjoining Grímsvötn volcano erupted. This was one of the biggest volcanic eruptions since the ice age and the effects were experienced around the world with weird weather and failed crops.
Today the Eldhraun lava field is softened by the moss that grows across it’s rough surface and trees are attempting to talk a hold. It can be seen from Ring Road 1 before reaching the turning to Fjaðrárgljúfur.

lava covered in moss and plants

Leirhnjukur

lava flow with mountain behind

This lava field is part of the Krafla lava fields, formed after the eruptions in 1720 and more recently from 1975 through to 1984. These lava fields stretch for 36km and are still steaming in places. As soon as you leave the parking area the huge amounts of lava can be seen. As it is so new there is very little vegetation although some small plants and mosses are starting to emerge. This is one of the areas in Iceland where you need to stick to the path. Hot pools as well as steaming vents are dotted across the landscape.

edge of a lava flow

READ MORE: KRAFLA AND THE LAVA FIELDS

Dimmuborgir

lava with hole through centre

Close to Leirhnjukur on the shore of Lake Mývatn is Dimmuborgir. This is a landscape of huge lava peaks that were formed 2300 years ago as lava tubes above a lake. What we see today is the effects of the steam trapped between the surface of the lake and the lava below forming bubbles and pillars of steam. It is steeped in folklore with Grýla, a half-troll, half-ogre and her husband Leppalúði living in Dimmuborgir with their thirteen sons. These sons are now known as the ‘Icelandic Santa Clauses’ or Yule Lads and come to homes to terrorise people in the lead up to Christmas.
Dimmuborgir is very busy with a number of walking paths, guided tours and a restaurant.

lava fields

Holuhraun

sunset over lava fields

Holuhraun is a large lava field north of Vatnajökull glacier in Iceland’s Highlands. It is very new with the most recent eruptions lasting between August 2014 and February 2015. Huge fountains of lava were seen from the 7km long fissure that opened up from the Bárðarbunga volcano.
The lava field covers 85 km² and is crossed by the F905 and F910 to Askja and Dreki. It has a wide range of lava from small rocks to giant smooth pillows that appear to have formed in different areas. The read across the lava field is rough and can only be attempted in good weather in a 4WD vehicle.

Mountain in centre of Holuhraun lava field

READ MORE: EXPLORING THE HIGHLANDS OF ICELAND

Berserkjahraun

lava coated in moss

Berserkjahraun is between 3000 and 4000 years old and is tucked away in a corner of the Snæsfellsnes Peninsular between the towns of Stykkishólmur and Grundarfjörður just off route 54. As with many places it is steeped in folklore and this area is part of the Icelandic Eyrbyggia Saga. Unlike other stories, excavation of the area revealed the remains of two large men, adding some weight to the story of the two fighting Berserkers and the farmer’s daughter.
This lava field has large jagged boulders which are covered in moss set against the surrounding mountains.

moss covered lava field on grey day

Hallmundarhraun

The lava field is located north east of Reykholt gets its name from Hallmundur which according to Gretti’s Saga lived in this area. This large lava field was formed when the volcanoes under the Langjökull glacier erupted in 930. It covers 200 km² in area and is over 50km long and 7km wide. The eruption is documented in ancient song called Hallmundarkvida or Poem of Hallmundu which provides details of how things happened.
The lava field has a number of unique features including Hraunfossar waterfall and the Viðgelmir lava tube.

lava field at sunset

Hraunfossar

waterfall with blue sky and green trees

Hraunfossar is a unique waterfall in Iceland and looks amazing especially in the autumn when the trees are turning. The waterfalls are made up small rivulets flowing out of the Hallmundarhraun and into the Hvítá River. It covers approximately 900m of the river and has a large viewing area and walking trails.

Viðgelmir Lava Tube

columns inside a lava cave

Viðgelmir lava tube is the second longest known lave tube in Iceland and stretches for 1585 metres with an average height of 7 metres . It is located in the centre of the lava field about 30km from the craters and once in the cave you are about 25 metres below the surface of the lava field. Over the winter months the cave entrance fills with snow and ice and during colder periods this may remain, blocking the cave.
Inside the cave has a number of chambers and narrow passes, all with different textures and appearances depending on the temperature of the lava at different times of the eruption. You can visit the lava tube in a guided tour during the summer months which takes you deep into the lava field.

Westman Islands

westman lava

The Westman Islands are some of the newest volcanic islands in the whole of Iceland with Surtsey Island appearing in 1963. Heimaey, the largest island experienced a large volcanic eruption from Eldfell mountain in 1973. The eruption led to a large lava flow which engulfed part of the town destroying homes. This lava field can still be seen, bright red and yellow above the town.

lava field by church

READ MORE: ADVENTURES IN THE WESTMAN ISLANDS

Photographing Icelandic Lava Fields

Let me start with the easy answer here – photographing lava fields is a nightmare as you can see from my less than amazing attempts! They are, by their very nature flat and featureless and not very good to photograph. If you have the means then aerial landscape photographs of lava fields can be amazing. These show the rivers against the lava as well as the textures and features of the landscape.


For everyone else without a plane or drone, the best way to capture these landscapes is to look more intimately. Pick out individual features. Rocks, collections of pebbles or the plants that grow between the boulders are much more interesting that an endless expanse of lava.

The black of the lava against an often grey sky can also confuse your camera. I have written about tone and the camera sensor and lava can confuse your camera completely.

READ MORE: TONE IN PHOTOGRAPHY

As a basic guide, you need to make your camera think that the black lava is blacker than it really is so you can override its algorithm and make the black appear black. This can be done by adjusting the exposure compensation before you take your photograph. This may appear as EV on the dials or settings on your camera. You may need to experiment a little to figure out exactly how much compensation is needed.