In November, 2014 we did a sailing trip in the Lofoten Islands of Norway. The main goal of the trip was to see the Northern Lights, which we did see on 3 different occasions. It was a spectacular trip. We would go back in a minute!
We slept in late on our first morning in Eskifjordur; the long drive the day before really wore us out. The apartment we rented was missing something very important: filters for the coffee machine. Rather than run around the village trying to find filters that fit this particular machine, I improvised and used wadded up toilet paper as a filter. A little messy, but it did the job and I was properly caffeinated.
The weather this morning was cold and rainy. Our plan for the day was drive to Lagarfljot, a long, narrow lake in the interior of eastern Iceland. The area around this lake is known for having some excellent hiking possibilities and one of the more picturesque waterfalls in the country. To get there, we had to drive over a mountain pass, where it was snowing rather heavily. Fortunately, the weather improved as we crossed the pass and headed down toward the lake.
As we drove along the eastern shore of Lagarflot, we went through an area called Hallormsstaðarskógur, the largest forest in Iceland. We’d seen the occasional small tree here-and-there since we arrived in Iceland, but this was the first time we’d come across an entire forest. The thick birch and ash trees looked more like bushes than trees, but that’s pretty much what constitutes a forest in Iceland.
On the southern end of Lagarflot, we parked the car, shouldered our packs, and started the steep hike to Hengifoss, Iceland’s second highest waterfall.
Thankfully, the snowfall we encountered on the drive over to the lake did not follow us; the weather here was cloudy, but pleasant. We reached the base of the falls after about an hour of hiking. The rock cliffs around the falls showed bands of a beautiful reddish-pink rock that made for a colorful backdrop to the cascading water. We spotted this phenomenon in a number of places around the country. The red bands of rock indicate an ash layer from volcanic eruptions that occurred thousands of years ago. Like rings on a tree, these bands show exact times when major volcanic eruptions occurred in the past.
After adding to our extensive collection of Icelandic waterfall photos, we headed back to the car. After the somewhat strenuous hike to Hengifoss, we both had a sweet tooth that needed satisfying. As it happened, just down the road from the Hengifoss trailhead, is Skriduklauster, a museum located on the site of a 16th century monastery. The museum has extensive displays about the history, and the subsequent archaeological excavations, of the old monastery; but that’s not what we’re interested in. We had a need for sweets, and the restaurant on site had just the thing: From 2:30-5:30, they serve an all-you-can-eat cake buffet. We arrived right at 2:30 and we were the only customers; thus, we had the cake buffet all to ourselves. It was expensive, but worth the price as we were treated to some amazing local bake goods. After getting a good sugar buzz, we took a brief tour through the museum, and then headed back to our home base in Eskifjordur.
After dinner, we decided to drive over Iceland’s highest mountain pass to the nearby town of Neskaupstadur. Although the town was only a few miles away, it required driving over the highest mountain pass in Iceland. The area around the pass was still covered in snow, so much snow that a small ski area on the pass was still operating. At the top of the pass, we had to drive through a long, single-lane tunnel. We weren’t quite sure what would happen if someone was coming from the other direction (tunnel instructions were all in Icelandic). We crossed our fingers, and zipped through the tunnel before having to deal with that question. Driving down the other side of the pass to Neskaupstadur was like entering a whole different world. Even though it’s one of the larger towns in eastern Iceland, it felt like we were at the far end of the world. We parked the car at the far end of town and walked along a short path that followed the top of the cliffs above the stormy sea to a sea cave. Here we found what looked like tiny geodes imbedded in the ancient lava rock.
Our second full day in Iceland’s east coast was spent exploring a couple of small villages nestled in spectacular fjords. Our guidebook raves about the town of Seydisfjordur, so we decided to make this our first stop. After crossing yet another snow-covered mountain pass, we drove into sleepy Seydisfjordur. Sleepy is probably a bit of an understatement; at the time of our visit, it was downright dead. The town is Iceland’s stop for the ferry from Europe. Wednesdays tend to be busy as people are getting on/off the ferry; all other days, it’s pretty quiet. We drove to the opposite side of the fjord from town, where we found a nice hillside to have lunch and watch two humpback whales swimming around the bay.
We drove back over the snowy mountain pass to our next destination: Borgafjordur, an isolated village at the end of the main “highway” in the far north corner of eastern Iceland. This part of our road trip taught us a little something about Iceland’s highway system: just because it shows as a “highway” on the map doesn’t mean it’s paved. The road to Borgasfjordur is a perfect example of this as a big chunk of the highway is without pavement. The non-paved parts were plenty good enough for a car, but it was pretty bumpy in places for our little rental car. At least the weather was fine today, so no mud to deal with.
Our reason for choosing to visit Borgafjordur was very simple: find lots of puffins. At the end of the road, just past the town, is Hafnarholmi, a small island that is home to a rookery teeming with birdlife. The island is also home to a large Puffin colony. A series of boardwalks and viewing platforms around Hafnarholmi allows you to get close to the Puffins and other birds. Our arrival was in the middle of the day, which is when Puffins are generally feeding in the ocean or sleeping in their nests. Still, we were delighted to see Puffins occasionally pop up out of their nest before flying down to the water for a meal.
After the long drive back to our base in Eskifijordur, we cleaned up, had a nice meal, and decided to do a little evening exploration of the magnificent fjord just outside of town. At the end of the road is the remains of the world’s largest Spar quarry. Spar is a type of calcite crystal that is transparent and was once widely used in precision optics, such as microscopes. The quarry was started in the 17th century and didn’t shut down until 1924. Other than some small pieces of equipment, a large crater, and scattered specimens of spar lying about, not much is left of the original quarry. The best part of the hike was that from the quarry, we were treated to a spectacular view of the fjord in the soft evening light.
We drove for a couple of hours along the South Coast of Iceland after our exciting snowcat tour of Mt. Hekla. It was getting late, and we were tired, but we had to make a stop at yet another waterfall: Skogafoss. The early evening light made for some great photography. After getting some shots from the bottom of the falls, we made the strenuous climb up hundreds of steps to the top, which provided some great views looking from the falls out towards the ocean. Our evening “Stairmaster” really wore us out, so we decided to drive just a little ways further and stay the night in the charming coastal village of Vik.
The next day, we awoke to sunny skies. Before leaving Vik,
we decided to take advantage of the nice weather and hike up nearby Reynisfjall, a long narrow ridge that juts out into the sea. A short, steep climb up an old four-wheel drive road ended at the top of the ridge, where the views of the surrounding coast line were nothing short of spectacular. We followed the road to almost the end of the ridge, then looped back along a narrow, winding trail that follows the lofty cliffs that fall straight down to the sea a thousand feet below; this trail can be a little tricky if you’re scared of heights.
We returned to Vik, gassed up the car, and headed down the highway to our next destination: Skaftafell National Park. Before reaching the park, we were treated to stunning views of the Vontajokull Glacier, the largest glacier in Europe. From the main highway, the glacier looked like a vast white sea floating in space, with long glacial fingers stretching down almost to the coast.
We arrived at Skaftafell in the early afternoon, where we threw on our daypacks and started walking into the interior of the park. A nice four- mile loop hike took us to Svartifoss (“Black Falls”), a small, but beautiful waterfall that flows over a dramatic stack of basalt columns. Another mile or so brought us to a spectacular view of Skeidarajokull, a glacial tongue flowing from the main Vontajokull Glacier. After making a short side hike to the base of Skaftafellsjökull (Skaftafell glacier), we got back in the car and drove down the road to a guest house in an isolated part of the South Coast. After a wonderful dinner of locally caught Arctic Char, we settled in for the night as the weather started getting nasty.
We awoke early the next morning with fresh snow on the ground. Before continuing our journey eastward, we backtracked a few miles to the Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon. The lagoon is choked with surreal, blueish colored icebergs that break off from the nearby Breidamerkurjokull glacier. The scene was very quiet, serene, and eerie. Low clouds were overhead, with bright sunshine lighting up the distant glacier. Other than a lone photographer, we were the only people at the lagoon at this early hour. We spent a couple of hours walking along the shore taking photos and videos along the way. We walked along the outlet of the lagoon to the open ocean as the snow began to fall. Out on the beach, waves crashed on the crystalline-shaped icebergs that had drifted from the lagoon out into the sea.
After a quick breakfast, we packed our bags and continued our journey east. We made a long rest stop at the town of Hofn (pronounced “Hup”), where we picked up groceries and had a wonderful Lagoustine pizza for lunch.
The drive east took us away from the glacier-covered mountains of the South Coast, to the dramatic fjords of the East Coast of Iceland. As the crow flies, it’s only about 50 miles from Hofn to our next destination, Eskifjörður. But here, the highways wind in-and-out of the fjords, extending the driving distance to 150 miles. There were multiple times where we would be driving along a fjord, looking longingly across the bay only a stone’s throw away from where we would be in an hour or so. Still, it was a sunny day and we just took our time, stopping at spots long the way to walk around and take pictures. Just outside Hofn, we spotted a herd of reindeer enjoying the sunshine.
In the quirky village of Djupivogur, we came across someone’s interesting art project: Eggin i Gledivik (“The Eggs of Merry Bay”), a collection of 34 egg-shaped granite sculptures lined up along the jetty, all differing slightly in size, shape, and color.
Each sculpture represents the eggs of all the main bird species found in the area.
Around 6:00 PM, after our long drive around the eastern fjords, we arrived at the fishing village of Eskifjörður, where we would spend the next three nights. The apartment we rented was a bit unusual: The space is a former store front on the ground level, which made for a bit of a weird vibe. However, it was a big space with lots of curtains on the “storefront” windows for privacy. Large windows near the high ceiling provided beautiful views of the surrounding mountains.
A few words on planning a road trip in Iceland: Where it was feasible, rather than change lodging every night as we progressed down the road, we would try to find strategically located accommodations, where we could spend 2-3 nights exploring an area in a serious of day trips. I believe this makes the trip a little less hectic as you’re not having to pack everything up each day. The exception to this was the South Coast of Iceland. It’s a large area with very few good locations to set up a single base for exploring without having to do long stretches of driving back-and-forth along the Ring Road. So, for this part of Iceland, we chose to pack up each day and move on. We were happy to finally arrive at Eskifjörður, where we could hang our hats for a few days.
Today, we leave the verdant green cliffs of Heimay Island for the snow and windblown summit of Iceland’s tallest active volcano: Mount Hekla.
The first step in the journey was getting back to Iceland proper. We awoke early, had breakfast, and said goodbye to our hosts Heather and her children. The weather was beautiful, providing a spectacular ferry ride back to the mainland. As we sat on the deck of the ferry enjoying the view, we could see Mt. Hekla out in the distance, beckoning us to visit its slopes. By sheer coincidence, we started talking with a resident from Vestmannaeyjar who just so happened to be going on the same tour as we were. He said he had driven and hiked near and around Mt. Hekla several times before, but had never been to the top.
Instead of climbing, which would have probably taken us a couple of days to reach the summit, we’re heading to the top of Mt. Hekla via snowcat. We met our driver and guide Erlingur of Top Tours in the town of Hella. He was easy to find: He was the one driving a big diesel flatbed truck with a snowcat on the back.
It was a long two-hour drive to the spot where we would drive the snowcat. At one point, the road to the trailhead was too rough for our little rental car, so we carpooled with the gentleman we met on the ferry, who was driving an SUV that
could handle the road conditions.
There were six of us going in the snowcat, including a French couple who just happened to be hanging around the trailhead, and asked to join the tour.
The base of Mt. Hekla is surrounded by old lava fields from multiple eruptions over the last couple of hundred years. We drove the snowcat down an old road through the lava fields before finally ascending the snowfields of the mountain.
At first, the snowcat seemed to effortlessly ascend the snowfields. But, as the morning went on, the warm weather starting softening up the snowpack, causing the snowcat to sink deeper into the snow and making it difficult to climb. It got to the point where Erlingur had to very gradually zigzag up the snowfields, instead of going straight up. This made climbing a very slow process. We made several stops along the way to the summit, allowing Erlingur to assess the route, and for us to stretch our legs and take in the magnificent view of the surrounding countryside.
As we continued up the mountain, the snow got so mushy that we started wondering if we were ever going to be able to get to Hekla summit. About two-thirds of the way up we caught a break: A cloud cap near the top blocked out most of the sun, keeping the snow nice and hard. All of sudden, our little snowcat was flying straight up the mountain.
The summit of Mount Hekla was cold, windy, and foggy.
We could barely see the edges of the volcanic crater and it was too cloudy to see much into its deep interior. Still, we knew we were sitting on an active volcano: Steam vents formed dramatic ice caves in the snow. Erlingur dug a small hole in the ground where we took turns feeling how warm the ground was inside the hole.
Mt. Hekla is still very active. In fact, it had been predicted to erupt a couple of months before our arrival; thankfully, the eruption never happened. Still, it could, and will, let loose its fury in the very near future. I’m just glad the mountain decided to remain in its slumber while visited.
Riding a snowcat to the top of an active volcano is one of the many adventurous activities you can do in South Iceland. There are several touring companies that will take you to interesting places, like active volcanoes, for a very expensive price. Adventure tours, like just about everything else in Iceland, are very expensive. However, I would very much recommend Erlingur’s company TopTours as he provided a great experience, and his prices were nearly half of what other operators were charging for similar tours.
Time to say goodbye to our little apartment in Laugarvatn and head out to our next destination: The Westman Islands of south Iceland. The weather started cold and rainy, but got better as the day progressed. We had some time to kill before we had to catch the ferry to the island, so we made some obligatory stops at some waterfalls along the way. The Seljalandsfoss falls was one of the most interesting that we encountered so far. These falls are unique in that you can actually walk behind them, allowing for some interesting photographs looking out through the water. Be prepared to get wet though; my poor Canon DSLR got soaked, but seemed to survive the experience OK.
We caught the ferry for the short, 30 minute ride to the town of Vestmannaeyjar on the island of Heimay. The island is very small (about 7×4 miles in size), so it doesn’t take long to get from one end to the other. The island is nearly surrounded by jagged cliffs that are chock full of bird nests. We got out and walked along some of the high cliffs hoping to catch a glimpse at some of the islands population of colorful puffins. Didn’t see puffins, but we still enjoyed a beautiful walk along the rugged coast as we watched waves pounding the rocks.
We were really wanting a good view of the island, so we climbed Mt. Hedefll, a now-dormant volcano that erupted in 1973 and devastated a portion of the town. Although the wind nearly blew us away, we were not disappointed with the view from the summit.
After our climb, it was time to head into town where we would be staying with a resident family. We stayed with Heather, a marine biologist, and her two kids. At first it felt a little strange staying in someone’s home, but Heather was very welcoming and invited us to join her and her family for dinner after our arrival. Heather gave us some wonderful information about life on the island, and also provided some good intel on where/when to catch a glimpse of the islands resident Puffins. So, after dinner, we packed up the photo equipment and drove to the south end of the island where there is a short walk to an observation shack overlooking a Puffin rookery. As the evening went on, we started seeing the first few puffins sticking their heads out of their nests. They would have a look around, stretch their wings, and fly down to the ocean to feed.
We stayed in the Puffin blind until about 9:30 (doesn’t really get dark in Iceland in May), then headed back to Heather’s place for a good night’s rest.
Some additional info on our stay at Vestmannaeyjar: We booked our stay with Heather through Air BnB, which allowed us to make the lodging arrangements quickly and easily. Staying with a local is a great way to experience Iceland and I highly recommend doing this at some point during your exploration of this country. Iceland offers many opportunities to lodge with a local, and in some of the more remote parts of the country, it may be the only option available.
Nice, leisurely day getting up late to help alleviate any residual jet lag. Today, we visited two of Iceland’s most popular attractions: Geysir and Gullfoss Falls. Both of these were just a few minutes drive time from our apartment hotel in Laugarvatn, which left us additional time just to drive around and check out the scenery.
Geysir (pronounced “gay_seer”) is Iceland’s version of old faithful. Unfortunately, Geysir itself is no longer faithful since some dumb tourist tossed some rocks in the hole causing the geyser eruption, according to a sign in the park, to be limited to those times during earthquakes. Fortunately, right next door is the Strokkur geyser which erupts with excellent regularity every 8-10 minutes. We enjoyed hanging out by this geyser getting different photo and video angles during each blast.
Our next stop of the morning was the awesome Gulfoss waterfalls. The falls are in a two-step pattern: The upper portion plunges gently through a wide opening; the lower section drops sharply into a narrow ravine. The sound from the combination of these two forces is deafening. There’s a trail that takes you down to the transition between the two sets of falls; the upper trail goes along the top of the cliff above the entire falls giving you a great view across and down the river.
After taking copious numbers of pictures and videos of Gulfoss, we had some time to kill the rest of the afternoon, so we decided to explore the sights on a lonely road that went deep into the heart of the Icelandic interior. Along the way we found another spectacular waterfall, as well as a re-recreation of an Icelandic village that had been destroyed in a volcanic eruption in the 1,100’s. The road took us along a broad river valley where the country had built a large hydroelectric dam. We thought it odd that in the same area where this massive hydroelectric power generation system was installed, they also put up two wind turbines also used for generating electricity. Why would you put in this massive hydro system, then add a couple of little wind turbines? We were confused. Anyway, through occasional breaks in the clouds, we got a glimpse of the mighty Hekla volcano off in the distance. If all goes well, in two days we would be riding a snow cat to the top of this magnificent mountain.
On the way back to Lauvargatn, we made another slight detour to visit an old church that has a small museum in its basement. This tiny museum had artifacts from previous churches dating back hundreds of years. The center attraction was a large rock coffin used to bury a bishop. Also in the museum were some tombstones with unique carvings. The little museum was good for about 15 minutes, and that was pretty much it.
Here’s a very short video of the erupting geysers in Geysir:
Scuba diving and snorkeling are probably the last activities anyone would ever equate with the country of Iceland. But on Day Two of our journey, that’s what we decided to do. Thingvellir National Park, located in western Iceland, is an historical and geologically fascinating area. At the heart of the park is the Lake Thingvallavatn. This lake sits in the middle of the Continental Rift, where the continents of North America and Europe come together – or rather where they are now separating at the rate of 2 cm per year. At the north end of the lake, is the Silfra Fissure, a deep narrow underwater canyon where you can scuba dive or snorkel between the two continents. Valerie and I are both divers, but we’re not certified for diving using dry suits, which are an absolute requirement in these frigid waters (about 35°F). So, we elected to snorkel along the surface water of this amazing canyon.
Getting into a dry suit is probably like getting into a space suit (and almost as complicated). First you put on a one-piece insulation layer. Then comes the rubber suit, which has very tight seals around the legs, wrists, and neck. Then comes the heavy boots, rubber gloves, and hoodie. By the time you’re all suited-up, the only thing that touches the water is parts of your face not covered by the mask. The guides were great at helping us get properly outfitted.
The water temperature, which was barely above freezing, was quite shocking when my face came into contact with it. Fortunately, whatever exposed skin I had quickly numbed up and the discomfort was gone. Valerie was nervous about getting cold but said the only thing that got cold was the tip of her right index finger.
The water in the canyon is amazingly clear; even the tropical waters I’ve been in were not this clear. The gentle current allowed us to float along the Silfra without too much effort. After about a half an hour of floating, we came out at the far end of the canyon. We walked back to the point where we entered the fissure, where we had a little fun jumping off the cliff into a deep hole. After having our little fun jump, we were definitely ready to get out of our dry suits and drink the hot chocolate provided by our guides.
Of course, diving in the Silfra Fissure is not the only fun thing to see in Thingvellir Park. At the base of the nearby Almannagja Cliffs is the convening spot of the Icelandic Alping, one of the first democratic government bodies formed anywhere in the world. A hiking trail goes along the base to the top of the cliffs for a dramatic view of Thingvallavatn and the rift valley. Going the other direction on the trail takes you to the spectacular Oxara Falls.
Here’s a video of our snorkeling tour of the Silfra Fissure: