Askja is one of the largest calderas in Iceland and is situated in the middle of the Icelandic Highland. It is an active volcano, about 50 square kilometers in diameter, and holds the second deepest lake in Iceland, Öskjuvatn. It is a fascinating place to explore but not exactly the most beautiful natural wonder in the country, as the environment is volcanic, cold, wet, harsh, and dark, with limited vegetation. The weather seems to be gloomy all the time in the few weeks you can visit without a blanket of snow covering the whole area. The volcano is extremely powerful and dangerous. When it erupted in 1875, the tephra and ash had devastating effects, ruining farms and living conditions in the northeast part of the island and even affecting other Nordic countries and northern Europe which is hard to comprehend since the eruption only lasted a few hours. Since this catastrophic event, eight other eruptions have occurred in Askja in the 20th century, the latest one being in 1961. Fortunately, all of these eruptions were very small.
Víti is an inseparable part of the caldera, an explosion crater formed in an eruption in 1875. Situated on the northeastern shore of lake Öskjuvatn, Víti is around 300 meters in diameter and contains a small, geothermal, 60-meter-deep lake of mineral-rich warm and hot water, depending on where you decide to swim. Although the name isn’t particularly inviting, many visitors and tourists like to dip into Víti, preferably naked. The water is not conveniently hot but warm enough to strip and take a short swim and admire its strange chemical composition. Many enjoy floating in a pool situated inside a volcano that erupted not so long ago, and that some say is capable of erupting without any notice. When you come home, you can say that you went “skinny-dipping in Hell” and survived. Apart from swimming in the water, the slopes of the 12-meter-high crater are extraordinary and a joy to explore and photograph making the difficult descent to the bottom of the crater well worth it.
Stories about Askja
There are also many interesting stories connected to Askja. It is, in essence, a dark place. Probably the most interesting and mysterious story is that of Walther von Knebel. This German geologist disappeared by the lake in 1907 with his associate in an unresolved accident or some other mishap. He was one of the first geologists to do comprehensive geological research in Iceland and stayed by the caldera for weeks. One morning they went on a boat on the lake, never to be seen again. A year later, his fiancé Ina von Grumbkow visited Iceland and Askja to investigate the suspicion that her husband had been killed, and, afterwards, she published a book about her journey and research. No one has ever been able to get to the bottom of this mystery. In 2014 a large landslide fell from one of the slopes of the lake Öskjuvatn and caused large waves that flooded to the other end of the lake. It was a catastrophic event and most of the people that knew the story of Walther von Knebel thought that this landslide and flood on the lake probably answered the questions surrounding his fate.
How to visit Víti and Askja?
Any location in the Highland of Iceland is not accessible during the winter. The most secure and convenient way to visit Askja and Víti is to purchase an organized tour or rent a good 4X4 car during the summer season, between July and September. The rental car needs to be a four-wheel drive capable of crossing rivers and taking you through bumpy dirt roads. You will find the intersection on Road no. 1 to Road F88 in the northeast region in Iceland. You turn south on Road F88 and drive until you reach the junction of Road F910, then drive west to Drekagil and Drekaskáli hut. From the campsite at Drekagil, you take Road F894 to the parking lot and hike the 2 km to Askja and Víti.