20 Days in Iceland – Part I

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Length of stay: 20 days
Visited: June 2016

Highlights:

  • Skogafoss and surrounding waterfalls
  • Glaciers
  • Snorkeling at Silfra
  • Hike to Glymur
  • Exploring Surtshellir cave
  • Mud pot magic
  • 24 hours of pure daylight

The Land (or Song?) of Ice and Fire. Iceland has been gaining popularity over the past couple of years. With its stunningly beautiful landscape and magnificent geothermal attractions, it is any nature enthusiast’s paradise. And due to its close proximity to the Arctic Circle the days are endless in the summer and the night sky is often illuminated with the aurora borealis in the winter.

With Icelandair’s free (up to seven-day) stopover program, Iceland is becoming increasing affordable and easier to visit. But for us Iceland was not a stopover, it was the destination. Our game plan was to rent a car for two weeks and go on an epic road trip counterclockwise around the island. For the remaining week we planned to visit Reykjavik for a couple of days before embarking on a four-day backcountry camping adventure of the Laugavegur Trail (55km one-way) up in the Highlands. Our final day would be spent at the Blue Lagoon for rest and relaxation before flying home. Despite the reputed crazy weather in Iceland, we planned to sleep in our tent the entire time.

Not everything went according to plan. We did camp every single night though. And we managed to stay warm and dry. We have no regrets shelling out that extra money to buy a legit expedition tent prior to our trip. We did, however, miss out on  hiking the Laugavegur Trail. Buses only started to run up to Landmannalaugar two days before our flight. And hiking 55km in two days isn’t exactly realistic. There are so many factors outside our control, like the weather, that make it impossible to plan every little detail. You just got to roll with the punches and enjoy every moment. Iceland is such an amazing country. The scenery looks straight up from J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. It is just that awesome. Just make sure all your gear is waterproof. And if you are going to camp, make sure your tent can take one hell of a beating.

Below is a map of our time spent in Iceland. We drove counterclockwise around the island. Each day corresponds to a different color, with the exception of our 4 days spent in Reykjavik.

Day 1: Ice Ice(Land) Baby

We arrived in Keflavik just before midnight. During the middle of a windstorm. We picked up our rental car and drove about 10 minutes to the Sandgerdi campsite. Not sure how we managed to set up our tent in the wind. But it still being light outside (despite the fact that it was well after midnight) definitely helped. It was a good preview for the wild weather in Iceland.

Day 2: Southwest Iceland

When we awoke the next morning we packed up our tent and threw our sleeping bags and sleeping pads in the backseat. There was no sense rolling our gear back up when we’re just going to unpack it again later in the evening. Given how late we arrived in Iceland the night before we had yet to hit up a grocery store to stock up on food and supplies. So we scarfed down a granola bar to keep our hunger at bay. Once we piled back into the car we were ready to embark on our two-week road trip counterclockwise around the island!

And it was a little slow to start. We drove along the Southwestern part of the island first stopping at  the Bridge Between Continents. It is supposed to symbolize connecting the North American and Eurasian continental plates. But it ended up symbolizing the feeling of being underwhelmed. And probably our least favourite “attraction” (if you can even call it that) in Iceland. Better to get it over with first because everything we saw in comparison was infinitely times better.

We then drove to the geothermal area of Gunnnuhver. There is a short walk along a boardwalk to view some bubbling hot springs and sizzling steam vents.

From there we followed some sketchy dirt road that led us to some bird cliff along the Reykjanes Peninsula. We climbed to the top of the cliff and watched the waves ravage the shoreline.

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After our first taste of some of the geothermal activity in the area we drove down to Krysuvik for more. There are hot springs, fumaroles, and (my personal favourite) mud pots. The area is covered in vibrant yellow, orange, and red hues from all the sulfur. And gray from all the mud pots.

One of the things we were really looking forward to doing in Iceland was exploring the many caves around the island. Most (probably all) of the caves require an experienced guide and special equipment. But when we heard that Raufarholshellir cave was fairly accessible and open to the public, naturally we had to check it out. The cave was easy enough to find, it’s located right off Route 39, and there was even a special point of interest sign to indicate where to turn off. We grabbed our headlamps and scrambled into the entrance of the cave.

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The cave is actually an old lava tube. It was fairly easy to navigate and since large parts of the ceiling have collapsed a lot of natural light penetrates through these openings. We didn’t even need to use our headlamps. But then again we didn’t venture very far in the cave as the path ahead looked a little icy and dicey.

At this point we were starting to get tired so we drove to Thingvellir National Park and set up our tent for the evening. Not bad having a gorgeous view of the snow-capped mountains as a backdrop.

Day 3: Snorkeling at Silfra and the Golden Circle

We awoke to the sound of pouring rain against our tent. We heated up some water for tea and oatmeal in the vestibule of our tent waiting for a window of opportunity when the rain subsided to pack up our gear.

This morning we signed up to go snorkeling at Silfra. The Silfra fissure was created by a rift between the North American and Eurasian continental plates. Its pristine water boasts of super clear visibility (over 100m) making it ideal spot for snorkeling and scuba diving. That is if you can handle the cold.

Luckily the rain let up near the start of our snorkeling adventure. We met up with Dive.IS at the Information Center in Thingvellir along with the rest of our snorkeling group where we received a detailed game plan. We then clamored back into our car and followed our guide to the snorkeling site.

We were advised to wear long thermal underwear (long johns) and two pairs of wool socks. I wore three. We were then given a thermal onesie to put on prior to donning  our dry suit. Each of us is then inspected to determine whether we’re in properly fitting gear and whether any adjustments need to be made. They ended up having to tape around my wrists and a bit around my neck to ensure no water would penetrate through the dry suit.

Waddling to the snorkeling site with all our gear was quite the challenge. But it sure helped warm us up before jumping into the frigid waters (with a temperature around 2°C – 4°C). Our faces were partially exposed and the gloves were not fully waterproof, but once you adjusted to the numbness from the water, it was pretty incredible. It was a little challenging to move around because we were super buoyant. And when we reached the end it was even more challenging to stand upright to get our fins off before climbing up the ladder. But we made it. Once we surfaced back onto dry land and shuffled back to the entrance where a warm cup of hot chocolate was waiting for us. It was the perfect way to warm back up our insides.

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For the remainder of the day we hit up all the attractions along the popular “Golden Circle” route – including (the rest of) Thingvellier, Geysir and Gullfoss. Starting first with Thingvellier National Park where parliament in Iceland was first established. There are some hiking trails in the area including one that provides sweeping views into the valley below.

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Next up on our self-guided tour of the Golden Circle was Geysir. You may be thinking to yourself that Geysir looks an awful lot like the english word for “Geyser”. And you’re right. In fact, the term geyser was derived from Geysir. So you know that it must be pretty impressive. We wouldn’t know though as Geysir’s eruptions are quite infrequent. Buuuut, it’s neighbour, Strokkur, erupts every 4 to 8 minutes to heights of around 15 to 20m (and sometimes higher). And we were pretty impressed with that.

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Last but not least, the final attraction on the Golden Circle route was Gullfoss. Its name translates into “Golden Falls” and it sure is incredible. It looks as if the waterfall is being swallowed into the crevice below. The sheer amount of spray coming off the waterfall was intense.

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After hitting up all the major attractions along the Golden Circle route we made a quick detour at Kerid. This is one of the few (maybe only?) places where we were required to pay a small entrance fee. Its volcanic crater lake was an astonishingly nice turquoise colour. There is a trail that loops around the rim of the crater. And midway through our hike it started to pour.

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From there we then drove to Urridafoss on the way to our campsite. At that point the rain had subsided so we walked down the gentle path to get closer view of the waterfall.

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We had a little bit farther to drive before reaching our campsite at Hamragardar. It’s located just off the ring road right before the turn to get to the Seljalandsfoss waterfall. The campsite had heated kitchen facilities which we gladly used to warm up our dinner and keep away from all the gnats and midges.

Day 4: (Don’t Go Chasing) Waterfalls

Waterfalls are everywhere in Iceland. Everywhere. And they are all generally pretty impressive. This morning we planned on visiting nothing but waterfalls before heading over to Vik.

The first waterfall we hit up was conveniently located behind our campground. Gljufrabui waterfall can be accessed via two paths. The first involves a climb up to the top of the cliff.  The second involves taking a super secret path along the river. We opted for the second route. Since it was raining lightly we wore our rain gear (full-out rain pants and rain jacket), but we’re glad that we did because the spray off the waterfall was intense! This may not be the mightiest of waterfalls in Iceland, but being at the base of it was pretty amazing.

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From there it was about a 5 minute walk or so to get to Seljalandsfoss. This is another waterfall that offers an up close experience. So up close, in fact, that there is a path that leads behind the waterfall.

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Afterwards we walked back to our campsite, packed up our tent and gear, and drove to Skogafoss. And Skogafoss is no joke. This is one of the largest waterfalls in Iceland in terms of volume. Just look off the spray coming from the base of it. It’s a steep climb to the top of the waterfall, but you’ll be rewarded by an amazing view from on top (of the world).

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Skogafoss also marks the start (or end) of a popular hiking trail to (or from) Thórsmörk. The trail is 25km one-way and passes between two glaciers: Eyjafjallajökull and Myrdalsjökull. The most challenging part of the hike was climbing to the top of Skogafoss. Since we were already there, we decided to hike a few kilometres of the trail as a series of captivating waterfalls are located near its start. Easily one of our favourite hikes. Ever.

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We decided to turn back when we were getting hungry and the weather was starting to take a turn for the worst. We ate some lunch in the car and continued onwards to Vik. Along the way we passed a glacier point of interest sign and decided to take a random detour. Best decision ever. We drove down some sketchy gravel road to a parking lot. From there it was a fairly short hike to the base of the Solheimajökull glacier.

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Once we piled back into the car we continued onward to Vik. Vik is known for its famous black sand beaches. Living up to also being known as the wettest coastal village in all of Iceland, it rained pretty much the entire afternoon that we were there. Sure we felt ridiculous buying rain pants prior to our trip. But these babies are definitely up there for being part of our most useful/prized gear that we bought with us.

We first stopped at Dyrholaey. We walked along the black pebbled beach and watched the waves pound against the shoreline on one side and admired the ragged rocks jutting from the sides of the cliffs on the other side. It rained for the entire duration of our hike. But we were snug as a bug in a rug in our rain gear.

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At this point the rain was starting to let up so we then drove to the other side of Reynisfjara beach. We walked to the end of the black pebbled beach to see a series of basalt sea stacks that appear to be emerging from the ocean.

We planned to sleep at the  campsite in Vik. But due to the sketchy facilities (no heated kitchen, the women’s washroom was out of order, and there was no hot water) and the constant downpour of rain to the point where the grounds looked flooded, we decided to just keep driving onward. We managed to find a sweet campsite (that was relatively dry) near Kirkjubaejarklaustur. After being exposed to the rain all afternoon, we were happy to have access to a heated kitchen and a hot shower. Even if we did have to pay for it.

Day 5: Skaftafell

It rained pretty much the entire night. We heard the people next to us climb into their car in the middle of the night. Sucks for them. We remained dry. We made breakfast inside the heated kitchen area and then packed up our gear to resume our road trip around the island. We planned to spend the day at Skaftafell, which is part of Vatnajökull National Park.

In the morning we hiked up to Svartifoss (3km roundtrip) – or in English, “Black Falls” due to the surrounding black basalt columns. The trail starts off at the Information Centre and passes through the campground area. After that the trail involves a steady incline upwards until you get to Svartifoss.

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We signed up for a glacier hike with Arctic Adventures for the afternoon. After getting fitted for crampons and signing a waiver, we piled onto a yellow school bus which drove us all the way to the Vatnajökull glacier. The glacier hike took about three hours in total with about an hour of the time dedicated to being on the actual glacier. We signed up for one of easier hikes, but in retrospect, we should have opted for a more challenging one as we didn’t venture very far on the glacier. This might have had something to do with the fact that about half the people in our group weren’t even wearing proper clothing and/or others were struggling with the hike to even get to the glacier.

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Afterwards we headed back to the Skaftafell Information Centre and went on a hike to the Skaftafellsjökull glacier (3.7km roundtrip). The hike itself was fairly easy and the path is paved for the first part of the hike.

We were planning on sleeping at the campgrounds in Skaftafell, but decided to just keep driving because it started to rain and we just didn’t want to deal with that. Along the way we passed by an impressive number of glaciers. We stopped at two glacier lagoons: the (less known) Fjallsárlón glacier lagoon and then the (more known) Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon.

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Runoff from the nearby glaciers has created these two lagoons filled with icebergs of varying shapes and sizes. Jökulsárlón is much larger. And you can even watch as icebergs from the lagoon flow out into the Atlantic Ocean. The beach is just scattered with these pristine looking icebergs. And if you are lucky you can even sometimes spot a seal in the lagoon.

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Day 6: Driving along the East Coast

We stayed at some random hostel with a campground in its backyard about an hour outside Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon. To say this places is strange would be an understatement. We woke up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and when we unzipped our tent there were these three young guys with a soccer ball walking around the field. Kinda sketchy, right? But that was only just the beginning. When we went inside to use the washrooms, the lights in the main hall were turned down, music was playing, and there was a colourful disco ball slowly rotating from the ceiling. And no one was in sight. Super weird. We then returned to our tent to try to fall back asleep, despite wondering whether we were going to be murdered in the middle of the night, when  all of a sudden the song “Roxanne” is blaring from out of nowhere. And someone is (horribly) singing along. What is happening right now? As soon as the song ended, the music stopped.

When morning came, we packed up our tent and hightailed it out of there. We then began our day of driving along the Eastern part of Iceland. Driving here is definitely not for the faint of heart. The towns (and therefore gas stations) are more spread out. There is also a stretch along the ring road that is unpaved. And you might be second guessing whether you are actually going the right way. Especially since you are driving up some pretty serious steep switchbacks.

But despite the challenging driving our highlight came while we were in the car when we passed by a pack of reindeer by the side of the road.

Today was mostly a driving day. But we did make a brief detour to Seyðisfjörður – a picturesque town surrounded by mountains. Driving here also required driving up some pretty steep mountains. While it was snowing.

Once we got into the Northern part of Iceland we stopped at the first available campsite, which wasn’t until Lake Mývatn – i.e. “the lake of midges”. And let me tell you, the name was quite fitting. These midges were everywhere. Everywhere.

Day 7: Lake Mývatn

This morning we drove down to Iceland’s most powerful waterfall: Dettifoss. You can access the waterfall via two roads: Route 862 (paved) and Road 864 (not paved). The viewing platform towards the base of the falls was inaccessible due to snow. But we could still admire its beauty from up above.

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There is another (smaller) waterfall, Selfoss, located a bit further upstream from Dettifoss.

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We drove down Route 862 to get to Dettifoss since we were planning on hiking the horse-shaped canyon of Asbyrgi and afterwards Hljodaklettar (Echo Rocks). Unfortunately the snow thwarted our plans as the road was still closed from winter. That just meant more time for mud pot magic!

We headed back down to the Lake Mývatn area to visit Krafla. This site contains two intact Viti craters filled with turquoise water. Or in our case, turquoise water with lots of snow.

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After walking along the rims of the craters, we headed over to the Leirhnjukur lava fields. It’s about a 5km stroll along the area. The first part of the trail was covered with snow, but once we made it past that, the path was reasonably easy to navigate.

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We then went to the geothermal area of Hverir. The mud pots at this site are phenomenal. Even before arriving you can tell the geothermal activity here is going to be amazing based on the strong sulfur scent. And there was some pretty serious hissing by some nearby steam vents going on.

Located a few minutes away is Grjotagya, a small cave with a hot spring inside. It used to be a popular bathing site back in the day, but the temperature of the water has since increased making it a bit too toasty. Just ask John Snow and Ygritte – although the water wasn’t the only steamy thing in that scene from Game of Thrones.

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We then went to climb Hverfjall. The rim to its crater is accessible via two routes: from the northwest or the south. The path from the northwest starts at the parking site just off the ring road. So obviously we chose this path for convenience. The crater is about 1km in diameter, so it’s a pretty short hike around the rim. The only strenuous part of the hike was the ascent (and descent) to (and from) the rim itself. The hike wasn’t particularly very scenic – as you can probably tell from the photo below.

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Afterwards we drove back to the campgrounds at Lake Mývatn. We ended up cooking dinner inside the inner vestibule of our tent as the kitchen was pretty rammed with people.

Part II can be found here

L & K

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