That One Time in a Lava Tube Cave: Raufarhólshellir in Iceland

Raufarhólshellir lava-tube cave in winter
Looking up inside the cave.

I stood staring at the tiny hole in the snow-covered earth through which my friend Ingo’s face had just disappeared. This was the entrance to the Raufarhólshellir lava-tube cave? The helmet pushed down my winter hat over my eyes. I tried to push it back up and turned my face away from the ferocious wind. The snowstorm made it difficult to see clearly and I couldn’t wait to be in the refuge of the underground. But it was just a tiny hole and I had no idea how to get in there. Iceland made me feel like such a lava-tube rookie.

“To go in, turn your ass downwards, and back up, okay?” he’d said just before he disappeared into the hole himself, using his hands for support. “How?” I asked out of panic though I’d seen exactly what he’d done, but he was gone. I put my hands on the snow around the opening and turned around but I couldn’t do it- it was scary to go down backwards into the dark hole when I couldn’t see where I was placing each foot. I was afraid I’d slip on the snow and fall all the way to the end. I panicked, did the exact opposite of what he’d instructed and slipped for a few seconds before I turned around and began to dig the spikes on my boots into the snow wall, lowering one foot after another, encouraged by his reassuring voice. Something about “controlled slipping,” “no reason to fear” and “keep going”. A few minutes and a whole lot of embarrassment later, I stood next to him inside the cave relieved that there was no more scrambling. At least for a while.

The Raufarhólshellir lava-tube cave in South Iceland is the third largest in the country and one of the most visited ones due to its location close to the Ring Road. There are four entrances to this 1360m long tube. As lava flows along a channel, like a riverbed, lava overflows along the sides of this channel may connect, expand (on cooling) and solidify to create a roof over the flowing lava. Over time, when the flow stops from the source, the last of the lava moves to the end leaving behind a hollow lava-tube cave such as Raufarhólshellir. Once the lava has cooled and expanded to form the roof, there is no danger of rocks falling loose from the roof of the cave.

Raufarhólshellir lava tube cave Iceland

Inside the cave are lava columns and unique lava formations. The 10m high cave branches off into three tunnels, also formed as a result of lava streams. The eruption that caused the lava flow that formed this cave occurred about 4600 years ago. In winter, beautiful ice formations can be seen inside the cave due to cold air that gets trapped in the interior.

Raufarhólshellir lava tube cave Iceland in winter Raufarhólshellir lava tube cave Iceland - Looking out from inside the cave

We walked around the cave but didn’t go all the way to the other end of the lava-tube- that takes about four hours. Making my way out of the lava tube was much easier than coming in, especially since I could see where I was going.

Watch the video here:

Tips for visiting Raufarhólshellir lava-tube cave:

  1. Wear good hiking shoes and spikes if visiting in winter.
  2. Carry a torch.
  3. It’s not a good idea to visit if you have serious knee or back troubles or claustrophobia.

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I visited the Raufarhólshellir lava-tube cave with my friend Ingo who also runs the Icelandic tour company offering alternative adventure tours around Iceland.

Have you ever visited a lava-tube cave, what was it like? If you haven’t yet, is this something you’d like to do?

If you’re planning a trip to Iceland, read my posts about how to pack for Icelandwhy you should visit in winter, what to do in Reykjavik, and why you should not miss the Snaefellsnes Peninsula in West Iceland. Or for general info, just visit my Iceland Travel Blog.


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