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What it was like to visit Iceland in 2021, from lava flow to the Arctic Coast Way

What it was like to visit Iceland in 2021, from lava flow to the Arctic Coast Way

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To get to Iceland's erupting volcano, turn right out of the airport, hang another right to pass the famous Blue Lagoon, grab a hearty pre-hike breakfast of bread, avocado, bacon and eggs at Hja Hollu in the seaside town of Grindavik, and then find the makeshift parking lot east of town.

Or, just follow the smoke on the horizon.

"The volcano is especially active today," the rental car agent told me, casually gesturing toward the Keflavik airport's big windows. I turned my head, and it was right there: a huge mushroom-like plume, visible for miles on an otherwise sparkling morning above the alien landscape of mossy igneous rock on the Reykjanes Peninsula.

Iceland's hottest attraction in 2021, the volcano at Fagradalsfjall was the very first priority on our 10-day August itinerary. Icelandair's six-hour overnight flight from Minneapolis had deposited us, sleepless, at Keflavik at 6:30 a.m., and check-in wasn't for hours. Besides, it's a good idea to start the vigorous two-hour hike by 9 or 10, before the surge of awestruck tourists becomes a veritable festival.

We parked in the roadside lot and selected one of three trail options. The first sign of volcanism was a jet-black river of solidified lava that newly filled a valley below us, some of it still smoldering. Two French tourists had amused and alarmed Icelanders for squatting on the flow to roast marshmallows. Fresh lava has since cut off the trail we chose.

After a steep and slippery ascent, we caught the first glimpse of lava undulating in its crater, a mass of bright crimson that looked unreal. At the nearest safe viewing area, maybe a quarter-mile from the caldera, a dozen other early birds were shooting volcano selfies, sending up a drone or just gazing in wonder.

When the tour helicopters would pull away, I could hear the violent churning of the magma, sounding like an angry storm at sea. Occasionally the liquefied rock thrust so high that it splashed outside of the crater, trickling down the side. The eruption paused on Sept. 18, not before becoming the world's longest in this century.

Within hours of arriving in Iceland, we had already experienced the top highlight of our trip. And we still had a whole country ahead.

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