The name of Iceland’s most famous and active volcano means 'Hooded One', as its 1491m-high summit is almost always shrouded in ominous-looking clouds. Hekla has vented its fury numerous times throughout history, and during the Middle Ages it was commonly believed to be the gateway to hell.
Viking-era settlers built farms on the rich volcanic soils around Hekla, only to be wiped out by the eruption of 1104, which buried everything within a radius of 50km. Since then there have been 15 major eruptions; the 1300 eruption covered more than 83,000 sq km in ash.
In recent years hellish Hekla has been belching out ash in steady 10-year intervals. This ash has a high fluorine content and has poisoned thousands of sheep. The most recent eruption (in 2000) produced a small pyroclastic flow (a high-speed and highly destructive torrent of rock particles and gas, which typically travels at over 130km per hour and can reach temperatures of 800°C). As you travel the region, look for grey pumice…it's probably from Hekla.
Locals live with the knowledge that the mighty mound could erupt at any time; it is long overdue.
For more on Hekla, check out the exhibition at the Hekla Center.
You can climb Hekla, but there’s never much warning before eruptions, usually indicated by multiple small earthquakes 30 to 80 minutes before it blows. Stick to days when the summit is free of heavy clouds, and carry plenty of water – the area's ash makes you thirsty. Most climbs are done June to September.
There’s a small car park where mountain road F225 branches off Rte 26 (about 45km northeast of Hella). Most hire cars aren’t allowed on F roads and need to be parked here, but it’s a long and dusty walk (16km) to the foot of the volcano (or try your luck at hitching).
With a large 4WD you can continue along F225 to the trailhead at the bottom of Hekla (about 14.7km); the largest vehicles can continue a few kilometres further, but most have to park here. From this lower trailhead, a well-marked path climbs steadily up to the ridge on the northeastern flank of the mountain, then onto the summit crater; expect snow walking at altitude. Although the peak is often covered in snow, the floor of the crater is still hot. The trip to the summit takes about 3½ hours.
Alternatively, you may be able to organise bespoke super-Jeep tours here, although some tour companies avoid the area due to the chance of eruption.