Sitting under the massive Mýrdalsjökull ice cap, Katla is the third most active volcano in Iceland. Over many years, Katla has contributed to shaping the unique volcanic landscape that the South Coast is now famous for.
One of Iceland’s most important subglacial volcanoes, Katla is currently overdue for an eruption, since the last one was over a century ago. The volcano is kept under close surveillance by geologists and scientists.
Hidden under a large glacier, the unpredictable and mysterious Katla is a natural sight that invites you to witness the incredible power of nature.
Katla Volcano is located in South Iceland and is accessible via the Ring Road. The massive volcano is covered by Mýrdalsjökull, the fourth largest glacier in Iceland. The charming seaside village of Vík í Mýrdal sits in the foothills of the ice cap.
Because of the seismic activity around the volcano, Vik is one of the very few settlements in the area. Glacial floods have washed away entire villages before.
But these same volcanic activities are responsible for some of the country’s most beautiful sights. Thanks to these outbursts, we can enjoy Reynisfjara black sand beach and Reynisdrangar basalt sea stacks.
The Katla volcanic system covers an area of 230 mi² (595 km²) and it has the second largest volcano caldera in Iceland. A caldera is a large bowl-shaped volcanic hollow that forms shortly after a volcano erupts. Katla’s caldera covers around 42 mi² (110 km²) with its edges reaching over 4,265 ft (1,300 m) above sea level. It’s nearly 2,300 ft (700 m) deep and is completely covered by the Mýrdalsjökull’s ice cap.
The caldera is best observed in pictures taken from above, where it's easy to appreciate its massive size.
Katla is one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes. Katla has erupted every half-century or so over the last millennia with the last large eruption in 1918. Katla is thought to have had three small eruptions since 1918, but these volcanic bursts never breached the dense ice cap. Katla’s ice cap reaches 2,300 ft (700 m) at some points.
Volcanoes under an ice cap are a common feature of Iceland. Their eruptions melt the enclosing ice, forcing the meltwater, rocks, sand, and silt to burst out from under the ice cap in a violent stream. This natural phenomenon is called a jökulhlaup or a glacier outburst flood. The most recent Katla’s jökulhlaup occurred in 2011. It was so powerful, it washed away the bridge over the Múlakvísl River.
Since the settlement of Iceland in 874, Katla has erupted at least 20 times, often within a decade after the eruption of nearby Eyjafjallajökull Volcano. This notorious stratovolcano caused great havoc when it erupted in 2010, disrupting European air traffic by throwing a thick cloud of volcanic ash into the air. By all accounts, then, Katla should be filling up its magma chambers for its next volcanic explosion. And Katla is more powerful than its neighbor Eyjafjallajökull.
Katla volcano is a mysterious gem. There is a secret ice cave you can visit hidden beneath its thick layer of ice. Enter Mýrdalsjökull’s outlet glacier Kötlujökull through an ice gate that looks like it’s the doorway to a magical ice kingdom. The natural ice cave is located above the notorious volcano and it takes you as close to Katla as you can get.
From the moment that you step into the cave, you enter a completely different world that resembles nothing you’ve seen above ground. Mesmerizing blue colors alternate with black layers and the ice glitters as the sun rays play on the walls.
A Katla ice cave tour will take you off the usual tourist trails, but we recommend going with a guide. Ice caves are natural phenomena and they can be unpredictable or dangerous. It takes an experienced eye to tell if the cave is safe to visit. A guide will tell you all about the ice formations and share interesting stories about them. Katla ice cave is also the only natural glacial ice cave that’s open all year round, so you can even visit it during the summer months!
An old folktale tells a story about the origins of Katla’s name.
According to the legend, a woman called Katla lived in Þykkvabæjarklaustur, a monastery between Vík í Mýrdal, and Kirkjubæjarklaustur. She was the cook in the monastery and quite a feisty woman who would sometimes boss others around. Some thought her to be a witch because she owned a pair of magic trousers that would help her run around without ever getting tired!
A shepherd called Barði was once ordered to gather his sheep from the hills and get them back to the farm in a short time. He struggled to fulfill the task and secretly took Katla’s magic trousers to help him. When he finished herding all the sheep home, Barði returned the trousers before anyone noticed and thought that would be the end of the matter.
Unfortunately for Barði, Katla found out and wasn’t too pleased. She killed the shepherd and hid his body in a vat with acid meant for storing soured meat. With spring approaching, the levels of liquid in the vat started to lower and Katla was afraid her crime would come to light. Katla put on her magic trousers, marched up Mýrdalsjökull, and disappeared into the glacier.
Very soon after, vicious glacial floods started pouring out from underneath the ice cap. People believed it was Katla letting loose her anger.
Katla volcano can be seen from the Ring Road (also known as Route 1). Most tours that run near Katla Volcano will either pick you up from Reykjavik or offer an option to meet up in Vík, a nearby village by the sea. The village is about a 2.5-hour drive away from the capital.
Katla is only accessible with super jeeps or large 4x4 vehicles. You will notice the guide stopping to release some air from the tires during your journey. This helps the car get more traction and a better grip on the surface.
The road towards Mýrdalsjökull is bumpy and leads through rough tracks of lava fields. But it’ll reward you with views of the grand glacier mountains all around.
Sólheimajökull - A glacier tongue of Mýrdalsjökull, one of the most popular outlets for glacier hiking.
Reyniskirkja - A charming white wooden church dating back to 1929. Perfect for beautiful holiday pictures!
Reynisfjall - A unique volcanic rock mountain that’s a great spot for watching puffins.
Reynisfjara Beach - A famous volcanic black sand beach with sea stacks and large basalt columns.
Vík í Mýrdal - A remote fishing village nestled in the shadow of Mýrdalsjökull.