Chronicles of a road trip in Iceland
A COUNTRY OF INFINITIVE BEAUTY AND MANY WATERFALLS
August 15, 2017
By Viktoria Krasteva
We arrive at Reykjavik at 5:30 am. We are a bit beaten up – it is only 1:30 am (middle of the night in Canada) – we hardly had any sleep on the plane and a long day of adventure awaits. We make our way through the airport and then outside to find the shuttle bus. Surprise!!! It is so cold!! Not more than 6-7 degrees C and the wind is brutal. It is only a very short ride to Rent.is’s office where we have to pick up the camper van that will be our home for 8 days. It is a nice van, rather new, 2017 model and most of all 4×4 so that we can go on the F-roads. Or… so we thought. The guy who processes our reservation informs us that we are not insured for the F-roads. The look on our faces are puzzled, disappointed and a bit mistrusting all at the same time so the guy grabs his cellphone and quickly shows us a picture of the same van stuck in deep water on one of the F-roads.
This does the trick – we believe him now but we are still disappointed. It means we will not be able to visit some of the cool places we have been dreaming about in the last 4 months and of course, Murphy’s law, some of the best places are only accessible by the F-roads. I have to revise our planning! It took me a few months, a lot of research, blog reading and YouTubing to come up with the itinerary. How to optimize and complete the Ring Road + some extras in 8 days without missing on anything?!
After a short demonstration on how to convert the van into sleeping quarters at night we hit the road, direction East. We are so excited!! We know we are up for a great treat – marvel at Iceland’s pristine beauty for 8 days but we cannot quite picture it yet in our minds… We stock up with groceries at Netto in Selfoss and head up to our first stop – Seljalandsfoss Waterfall. The surroundings are different from what we are used to but at first we cannot quite tell why. And then it strikes us – there are no trees!!! Not a single one, not along the road, not in any direction… Just grassy farms with white hey bails spread all over like white chess pieces on a giant, green chess board. And we also meet our constant companions to be for the rest of the trip: the Icelandic horses and the “shi-goats”.
The horses are beautiful – I have never seen horse herds roaming freely before. They are strong, independent and untamed. The shi-goats…well this is the name my daughter gave them since they look awfully like sheep but they have corns and climb like goats. They seem to travel always in packs of three and can be seen literally everywhere, even in most remote places where no farms are in sight. We love everything we see – vast, green open spaces, unobstructed by trees or buildings, no large cities, no industrial zones – just endless natural beauty! And some weird shaped mountains covered in green moss start to appear on the horizon on the left hand side.
We arrive at the waterfall soon enough – we see it from far, it is quite high and beautiful. We go for a walk and take gazillion of pictures – little do we know that we will see many waterfalls in the days to come – all majestic and powerful (almost scary when you stand near-by). The Seljavallalaug geo-thermal pool is next. The green mossy mountains are right next to us now on the left hand side and on the right – the blue vastness of the Atlantic Ocean. Further on the horizon are much darker mountains, almost black, with snow on the top. The view in all directions is simply breathtaking…we are no longer chatting in the car… we are just marveling at the scenery. I make a mental note – hopefully this Icelandic view will forever remain as vivid and colorful in my memory as it actually is at this precise moment.
I am a bit worried we will miss the pool as it was described as “off the beaten path” in one of the blogs I read and I don’t expect a road sign for it. I am wrong – there is a sign and so we take a small, unpaved road to the left which ends quickly – need to hike the rest. There is a river along the way and an imposing, green mossy hill. The color of the river is unusual, it is not blue but rather grey so we wonder if the water is perhaps warm… But it isn’t, it is quite cold actually as is the weather – windy and not more than 12 to 14 degrees. So a thought starts to form in my head – how are we going to swim in an outside pool in this temperature?!?
We reach the pool soon, it is indeed beautifully located. It is constructed by man but one of the long sides is actually a rock formation and the temperature of the geo-thermal water is close to 38-40ºC, not chlorinated, completely natural. While in the water you can rest against the rocks and look at the mossy hill and the river – what a view!! And it turns out it is quite OK to be outside in a swim suit and wet since the water is so wonderfully warm ☺.
Another waterfall on the way – Skógafoss – just as beautiful – so another photo shooting session follows ☺. Our daughter misses this one – she is too tired from the short, sleepless night on the plane and she is asleep on the back seat.
A few months ago my husband Greg watched a documentary on Iceland and told me he wanted to see the Sólheimasandur Plane Crash site when we visit. Well…it is the next stop in the itinerary but we drive right past it and decide not to go back – the fatigue is starting to catch up with us too. But we are determined to make one more stop before getting to the camp site in Vik. So we drive all the way up to the parking lot of the Dýrhólaey Arch and the view is marvelous – not just the rock arch in the water (which is impressive) but also the black sand beach and the ocean seen from the high cliffs. Even though it is cold and windy the sun is shining making the colors than much more vibrant.
We start the next day by visiting the beach in Vik – there is some sinister, dark beauty in it – the sand is black, the color of the water – dark grey and so cold, the waves hurry one after the other and the wind deafens you…Back on the road the scenery changes again – the road crosses seemingly endless field of white moss lava rocks; so monotonous and deprived of any other life that gives the impression that we are no longer on Earth but rather driving on another planet. The Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon reminds us where we really are – high, vertical cliffs stand like green, velvet walls while the silver-blue river cuts between them at the very bottom – beautiful, majestic site!
As we continue towards the Skaftafell National Park, snowy mountains are ahead while both sides of the road look like waist land – vastness of small, black volcanic rocks with no vegetation; the sky is dramatic too – covered with heavy, dark clouds. We decide to stop for lunch, just like that – in the middle of nowhere – gives us more time to contemplate this alien beauty. Once at the visitor’s center in the Skaftafell National Park we choose a hike to the Svartifoss waterfall and Sjónarnípa. The falls are less impressive but all of sudden the sun is out, feels much warmer and the second part of the hike turns out to be very pleasant. We pass by another waterfall and continue on the small trail which winds up and down and soon ends up at the edge of a cliff – the view is perhaps the most breathtaking of the whole trip: we see the Skaftafellsjökull glacier reaching a lagoon and small icebergs floating around. Everything is so still, nothing moves or shows any sign of life, colors are shades of metallic grey. I didn’t want to leave, ever!! Once we get down to the visitor’s center we have lovely dinner at a nearby kiosque – fish & chips and lobster soup – delicious!
Even though it is getting late the day is not over yet for us – we visit the Fjallsárlón and Jökulsárlón Ice Lagoons – magical places with light blue icebergs peacefully resting in icy water. Especially Jökulsárlón is overwhelmingly beautiful – we get down to the water and simply cannot have enough of this place!!
We keep driving afterwards towards Höfn, the view is unforgettable as the road in that area is so close to the ocean on the right hand side and bordered by mountains on the left. We don’t make it to Höfn; we take a very small, unpaved road to the right – a huge rock creates a natural shelter. It is in the middle of nowhere, not a sole to be seen and the ocean is a short walk through a grassy field. We decide to camp here for the night. After dinner I take a walk to the ocean – there is no beach, the grass just ends in the water, it is beautiful and peaceful. I start walking back and it must be around 11 pm as it finally starts to get darker, our van looks so small with an enormous, black mountain in the background, two other mountains, these ones velvety green, are on my left. This improvised camping place is like a hidden, rare jewel!!
On our third day we make our way through the Eastern Fjords. The road is scenic – we often stop to contemplate the ocean views from high, vertical cliffs or lonely black sand beaches. On the left is a wall of mountains – black, shades of grey or mossy green. Sooner rather than later we arrive at Djúpivogur – according to the map there is a hot spring. We look around and find the local pool – what a treat after being cold for three days, beaten by the wind and lacking proper shower facilities. There is a large swimming pool and three smaller pools (Jacuzzi type) with water temperature between 36-40ºC. Heaven!! We try all of them several times, we are happy and relaxed. After two hours or so we are back in the car headed to Egilsstaðir. But before getting there we find a lovely spot for lunch – on a grassy platform, very close to the ocean we enjoy the glittering blue vastness of the ocean while savoring some not so delicious pasta with tomato sauce ☺. We also had to fight the wind to keep our gas stove on to cook the pasta but we prevail. In Egilsstaðir we replenish our food supplies and head east to Seyðisfjörður. Beautiful patch of road as we pass by the Heiðarvatn lake and two waterfalls (Gufufoss and Múlafoss).
As we approach the town of Seyðisfjörður on our right there is a large, mossy green mountain with dozen small springs cutting through it from top to bottom. The walk in the town is most pleasant – sitting right on the edge of the fjord, with houses painted in different colors in a Nordic tradition (I read somewhere the houses were actually imported from Norway by the early settlers) with a small port serving as an entry point for tourists arriving by ferry from Norway and Denmark. A bit of rain cuts our visit short and we continue driving in the direction to lake Mývatn. We don’t need to get there today – we just want to get a bit closer and also hope to find another amazing camping spot for the night. The road waves through a deserted mountain area with a lot of small lakes and springs cutting through the grass. No farms, no towns or villages, hardly any cars on the road. Of course, the shi-goats are still present every now and again ☺.
Slowly the colorful scenery gives way to a black, volcanic desert – everything is black, the mountains on the horizon, on both sides of the road all we can see are large areas covered with black volcanic rabble. The place has infernal, outlandish beauty, we are instantly drawn to it; we take a small, hardly visible unpaved road on the right that leads to a small platform overlooking a river. We decide to camp here for the night and set up the van in a sleeping mode. We are exhausted by the long day on the road. Unfortunately the day has not ended yet!! Not long after we close our eyes listening to no other noise but the wind a large 4 x 4 truck pulls next to us with a park ranger inside – it turns our this beautiful area is a national park and we cannot sleep here. Reluctantly, we drive away and make camp at the Grimsstaðir farm half an hour later. We really need our rest now as the next day promises to be very eventful – tons to see and experience in the lake Mývatn area.
Read more: All year campsites in Iceland
Day 4 starts with a visit of the Dettifoss waterfall. We are so lucky to have the waterfall mostly for ourselves – it is quite early in the morning and not many people are sightseeing yet. Dettifoss is massive – certainly not as large as Niagara falls but probably just as powerful. We love it, we get a bit wet from the drops in the air and we leave – a lot more discoveries await. Next is the Viti carter in the Krafla area. There is a large geo- thermal plant sitting on the Krafla field and beneath it is a magma reservoir. The rotten egg smell from the Sulphur is quite distinctive here. The Viti crater is inactive and contains a breathtakingly beautiful cold water lake in its bowl. We climb to the very top to enjoy the beautiful view of the lake and the surrounding orange-brown mountains.
We are very excited for the next stop – the geo-thermal field of Hverir containing numerous holes, large and small, of boiling mud. The smell of rotten eggs is overwhelming, the field is covered in steam from the holes, the color is orange-brown to white at places – if you are to imagine hell – picture Hverir – this is the feeling that overtakes us, we are absolutely blown away by this site.
We then take some small, unpaved road that takes us to the GRJÓTAGJÁ cave (or as it is better know now – Jon Snow’s cave). It looked beautiful on the Games of Throne episode a few years ago, it looks beautiful now too – the water is dark blue and so clear you can easily see the rocks deep below; it is very warm too but unfortunately bathing is not allowed.
We pull into Dimmuborgir next, an area covered with large bolders of white and green mossy, lava rocks where you can take a stroll. We however decide not to because we want to hike the Hverfell crater which resembles a giant football stadium. We have lunch in a quiet spot next to the crater – what a crazy view to have!! And then slowly make our way up on the steep, narrow path. The crater is made entirely of loose volcanic rubble and the view from the top of the whole Mývatn area is fabulous – the bowl of the crater is gigantic and absolutely black but the sun, shining bright when we were at the top makes half of the insight look almost yellowish. The surrounding mountains provide a beautiful color combination – of yellow, red to orange, brown and green. The colors melt into each other and the view is absolutely breathtaking. Full of emotion form the experience we get back to the car and tour the lake – beautiful with green, grassy shores and small islands in the middle, with horses peacefully grazing and swans and ducks floating around.
We decide not to visit Mývatn’s nature baths because they are crowed with tourists and take a dip in the Laugar’s pools instead. Wonderful experience – the pools are outside, beautiful, warm and calm. Last stop is the Goðafoss waterfall (pretty!!) and then we continue to Akureyri. What a lovely town – we take a walk to the port and then the main pedestrian street with restaurants and souvenir shops on both sides. We debate if we should stay in the town’s campsite for the night but decide not to. Instead, we find a remote spot on a grassy hill, surrounded by pine trees and mountains nearby. It is a peaceful dinner and breakfast the next morning. The sun is shining bright and our spirits are light with happiness and excitement. We stop for some pictures of Akureyri from the other side of the fjord and then continue to the Western fjords.
The scenery is beautiful of course, nothing less – large farms follow one after another on one side and on the other – there are again small lakes and springs cutting through the grass. Naturally, we stop for photos every now and again and eventually turn right on an long unpaved road that takes us to a long deserted beach and a few kilometers away we can see the Arch rock formation Hvitserkur. We walk on the beach to the rock – it is very pleasant and relaxing, sea birds circling frantically around us as we pass by their mating sites, si-goats roaming freely. The water is calm and beautiful indigo color – feels almost warm to the touch – I am so excited to be able to experience the Greenland sea. We gather some giant sea shells for our collection at home and set on finding the Geitafell Restaurant.
Apart from being probably the only option in the area the restaurant is a favorite to visitors and has numerous great reviews by bloggers and on Trip Advisor. And this is how it ended up being a point of interest on our itinerary ☺. The restaurant is a small house with an improvised small tour next to it hidden slightly behind three traditional mossy roof houses. It only serves 4 dishes – fish soup, fish and vegetables, lobster and a veggie soup + salad. But they are mostly know for the fish soup. We all take different things and I, sure enough, order the fish soup. To say that the food is very delicious does not really describe well enough how good it really is. We also order a traditional Icelandic desert – Skýrterta – OMG!! (as soon as we were back in Canada I found a recipe online and made it at home ☺ ).
After the greatest lunch in the Western Fjords we can take on more driving so we head to Hólmavik to visit the Museum of Sorcery and Witchcraft – we learn some interesting facts from the Icelandic history there. We then drive all the way to Kaldalón, at the bottom of the Drangajökull glacier. The road climbs up and finishes shortly after Kaldalon. There are a few remote farms in sight but the feeling really is that we are at the end of the world – magical place. We continue to Reykjanes where we find a camp site and the most amazing geo-thermal pool. It is huge and kept absolutely natural, the water varies from 36º to 40ºC. It is quite late when we bathe in the pool and are able to enjoy the sunset and take some awesome pictures.
Read more: The Icelandic Pledge
The next day we first drive to Skálavik – another remote area not hidden in a fjord but sitting directly on the Greenland sea. It is very windy but quite beautiful – a small river winds in the grassy field until it reaches the sea. We take a stroll around on the rocky beach and then drive to Þingeyri. We want to hike to the top of the Sandfell mountain for a beautiful view of the surrounding mountains and Dýrafjörður. But once in the town we get into a bit of a trouble because we cannot find the hiking trail. We ask someone for guidance and they tell us the trail is on the other side of the mountain. We follow the instructions but only find a few farms and a horse tour company.
I ask the lady there for some more instructions and she points towards the town and says: “The trail is in the willich”. I am so puzzled, I don’t know what the willich is. So I ask a few times if she can explain. She gets inpatient and keeps repeating: “In the willich, the trial is in the willich, you know…the little willich…”. I thank her and give up. In the van Greg and my daughter Jamie are cramped with laughter. They say the “willich” means the “village” – the trail starts in the village…☺. I get tears of laughter myself – how couldn’t I figure this one out by myself?!?! We drive back to Þingeyri but the trail is nowhere to be seen. So we turn right and as we are about to drive out towards Dynjandi waterfall, our next stop, we see a sign for the Sandfell trail. Finally!! It is about an hour easy hike to the top and back but so worth it. The view from the top is mesmerizing.
The road that follows is best described by Greg as the “Road of death” – it is an unpaved road through the mountains that waves up and down. We are constantly at the edge of the mountain and there isn’t any kind of protection along the road – one wrong turn is all it takes… Naturally – it is absolutely beautiful and we are as much in love with it as we are struck by fear. It takes us a while to get to Dynjandi… It is just another waterfall, we think. Not so fast!!! The site is beautiful – a cascade of 7, 8 waterfalls, with the biggest one, in a sort of a triangle shape, right at the top. So we walk up, we take pictures, we admire…There is also a beautiful view of Arnarfjörður. A really long drive follows until we get to Varmaland (not far from Húsafell – another geo-thermal area). We camp there for the night – the camp site is enormous and we manage to find some privacy.
The next day starts with a visit of the nearby lava cave Viðgelmir. It is very cold inside, but we learn that 70 years after the eruption the temperature in the cave was around 20ºC and an outlaw used to live there. It was perhaps the best accommodation in Iceland at that time – since the houses were well heated at the time. We get to observe the different lava rock formations pahoehoe (pa-hoy-hoy) – nice and smooth and a’a (ah ah) – spiky (so when you walk on them bare feet it is ah-ah…☺). The names are adopted from Hawaii. Parts of the cave get illuminated as we pass by and we are able to observe some tiny lave stalactites and stalagmites as well as different colors on the cave’s ceiling. The guide is quite entertaining trying to scare us with stories about trolls and elves that live in the cave and then turns all lights off so that we can experience a few moments of complete darkness. Once the lights are back on we check if anyone is missing (abducted by the trolls or elves)…
Next we visit Húsafell and have lunch beside a grassy farm. The moment we pull out our food two horses come to the fence and stare. We stare back – they are so beautiful. We share some food but they are not impressed by our sandwiches. We can’t master the courage to pet them and finally we leave quite disappointed by that. We then drive back to Varmaland and get spoiled in the geo-thermal pools there. After dinner we are not too tired yet and so we drive to Þingvellir National Park which is the starting point for our last day on the road.
Day 8 starts with a walk in the national park – the biggest attraction for us here is the two continental plates (North America and Europe) that meet here. We take a hike to an old, abandoned farm Skógarkot. I guess we took the wrong trail and never got to the farm but this is a lovely mistake because we get to walk through a mossy lava rocks filed and along a small canyon at the bottom of which is a river so deep and so clear that you can see the rocks almost at the very bottom – the water’s color is almost violet. After an hour or so we are back at the car and on our way to the Great Geysir.
Take the test: Iceland Quiz
We are so excited –never seen a geyser before ☺. The site reminds me a bit of Hverir – clouded by steam from the holes in the ground – the only difference – it is not boiling mud but boiling water in the holes. The water is sky blue and so clear and some of the holes are really deep – everywhere there are signs that the water temperature is 80-100ºC – watch your steps!! Unfortunately the Great Geysir does not erupt anymore so now the show is handled by its neighbor – Strokkur which bursts upwards every five minutes or so. We gather around and wait patiently, cameras in hand, videos recording. Eventually, the water flies up in the sky, 20 meters or so and a sort of loud sign comes from the crowd, a sign of admiration and surprise.
After, we visit our last waterfall – Gullfoss – enormous and mesmerizing. The crater of Kerið follows. It holds a sky blue lake and reminds us of the Viti near Krafla but its walls are a lovely reddish color. We spend the afternoon at Krysuvikurberg near Reykjavik. As we approach Reykjavik the scenery changes back to the endless mossy lava rock fields. Eventually we take a small unpaved road that ends on the top of a huge cliff – Krysuvikurberg. The Atlantic roars at the bottom, the view is breathtaking and the remoteness of the place so charming. We walk around looking for ways to perhaps hike down to the water – it is impossible. The cliff is a bird nesting spot for many sea birds – we observe from far – there are exercise ball size caves in the rocks and the birds are hiding there. The sun is out, it is almost warm so we sit near the edge to read and admire the stillness of the place. All of a sudden we spot a dark, rain cloud in the sky moving towards us rather fast – we run to the car, we don’t want to be stuck on this remote cliff when the storm hits.
An hour later we arrive at our Kópavogur AirBNB apartment – what a beautiful sight for sore eyes ☺ – after 8 days on the road we get to enjoy real beds, our own bathroom and cook dinner without fighting the wind. The apartment is cozy and warm. Our hosts are Jón and Magga – they live in the apartment upstairs and are extremely friendly, kind and hospitable. We have shots of Bailey’s and play cards before bed.
We return the van early the next morning and catch a cab to the bus terminal where we book our ride to the airport for the next day. Once this is sorted out we walk to downtown Reykjavik and spend the day walking around the old town. It is so charming with its different colored houses and churches, many restaurants, galleries and souvenir shops. First we have espressos and cakes in one of the many coffee shops and for lunch we savor for the last time the fish and chips in a lovely restaurant at the harbor. In the afternoon we walk around the Tjörnin lake and visit the National Gallery. We catch a bus back to the apartment – makes us feel almost like we live here ☺.
On our last day in Iceland I go for a very early visit of one of Kópavogur’s geo-thermal pools – I am addicted to them now, cannot leave without one last swim ☺. The pool is great, the biggest we have visited so far and has 6 smaller Jacuzzis to relax in the hot water. And I do just that. Once I am back at the apartment, we pack, clean up quickly and head to the airport around lunch. I don’t really want to leave yet – there are many other places that I want to visit and experience. This country and its infinite beauty are enchanting. We are forever in love with Iceland now. Hopefully we will return one day but until then the amazing memories and thousand photos we keep will have to do.
Read more: Recalling Iceland
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