Finding solitude in Iceland
Iceland had over one and a quarter million visitors
in 2015, yet we were determined to find solitude…
Rumors of the rugged natural beauty and friendly Icelandic people are common. So are rumors of the prices and the throngs of tourists cluttering up even remote destinations in the country. My wife, Kristin, and I figured the best bet to find some solitude while still being able to explore some of the country’s most beautiful places would be to visit on the brink of winter. So we rolled the dice and gambled a bit with the weather, planning a 12 day sojourn that would take us around the entire country via the Ring Road.
We didn’t want to be tied to a strict itinerary; being forced to make it to certain towns in order to check in for a reservation. We had a loose literary marked out on our National Geographic map of the Country. That way if we found a location we really liked, we would have the flexibility to stay more than one night. We also knew we wanted to try and get off the beaten path and avoid the areas with the highest concentration of tourists. These factors led us to decide on renting a camper van with Rent.is. We knew this decision would allow us to sleep nearly anywhere and to get well off the path of the giant tour buses which shuttle people on an endless loop from hot spot to hot spot. We decided on Rent.is for a few reasons, the most important of which was that the camper van has a heater that runs on an auxiliary battery. That way, we’d be able to heat the camper for a few hours each day without risking killing the main battery and ending up stranded. The cold winter night temperatures made us thankful for this decision many times!
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Our first night after arriving in Iceland was spent in an AirBnB in Reykjavik where we were able to explore the downtown area on foot. The prices and the tourists, both lived up to the rumors. The next morning, however, our shuttle arrived to take us to our camper van and our journey began. We started off as many do, by driving a portion of the Golden Circle. This loop can be completed in a single day from Reykjavik in a rental car or tour bus and hit some amazing attractions. But don’t expect to be alone on this loop, regardless of what season you choose to visit. We hit the Great Geyser and Gullfoss, both pictured below.
Crowds at the Great Geyser
Instead of completing the Golden Circle which would lead us back to Reykjavik, we departed and headed towards our first night’s destination which was Landmannalaugar. Unfortunately we had discovered that roads to that park were already closed for the winter, so we found a spot to sleep with a great view of the volcano Hekla. It was a gorgeous clear night for a great sunset and temperatures dipped to -5° Celsius. We’d brought about 70 pounds of food with us, so we got out some tasty packs of soup, heated up some water on the stove that comes with the camper van, ate dinner and went to sleep.
Immediately upon waking, we headed for the Ring Road and Skógafoss. With its close proximity to Reykjavik, Skógafoss was packed with tourists. However, we knew there was a trail that climbed to the top of the falls and then continued several miles all the way into Landmannalaugar. We knew we were not going to hike that far, but we put on our hiking gear and headed out. This was one of the highlights of the trip, as the number of waterfalls on this hike quickly outnumbered the tourists who dared to venture away from the primary viewing platforms for Skógafoss. Once we got a tenth of a mile up the trail, it was just us, the sheep, and the waterfalls. And oh were there waterfalls. In the approximately 3miles we hiked up the canyon, there were 88 waterfalls as evidenced by the posts in the ground marking each one! It was, amazing and we had definitely accomplished finding solitude for a great portion of this hike.
• Number of people encountered in the parking lot: upwards of 100
• Number of people past 1/10 mile on the trail: 4
Read more: Waterfalls in Iceland
Skógafoss parking lot crowds
Solitude on the Skógafoss Trail
Skógafoss Fog and Canyon
After the Skógafoss hike, we spent the evening in the quiet town of Vik. Driving along the Ring Road was a glorious experience, with postcard perfect views in virtually every direction. Unless, the fog is so thick that you can’t see more than a couple hundred feet! That is a good way to describe our drive from Skógafoss to Skaftafell National Park. We took our time, stopping a few times for short hikes (including the hike to the downed American plane on the beach) and arrived at Skaftafell just in time to cook up some dinner on their covered picnic tables. We spent the night in the parking lot, and woke up to explore Skaftafell.
Skaftafell was another highlight. We picked out a hike that was a loop and looked to be about 10 miles in length. We geared up and headed out just after daybreak, wanting to take advantage of the short days. Waterfalls, glaciers, jagged mountain peaks, mud, ptarmigan, a blizzard, and most importantly: solitude. If you journey to Iceland, no matter the month, make sure to spend some time in this park. The constantly changing weather made for some incredible light during this hike too!
• Number of people encountered in the parking lot: dozens
• Number of people past 1/10 mile on the trail: 3
Skaftafell Parking Lot and View of Glacier
Skaftafell Sun Burst
After the hike, we boogied over to the sizable town of Höfn for the first of two nights there. On the way, we of course had to stop at Jökulsárlón Lake where several icebergs adorn the emerald blue waters. Don’t forget to set your parking brake, some unfortunate tourist did and their car ended up at the bottom of the lake! We stopped at an N1 for a notorious hot dog which they sell during all hours of the day. It was good, but it was still just a gas station hot dog! We visited the community center here, making our first stop at the local Sundlaug. This place was full of native Icelandic people, and the water was ohhh so nice! These facilities are commonly equipped with a gym, a large swimming pool, at least two hot tubs of varied size and temperature, and even a cold tub for some great contrast therapy!
After the soaking pool, I began to have some mild stomach pain which we attributed to the gas station hot dog.
However, upon parking for the night and settling in the pain intensified to the point where I was writhing in pain. My wife, an emergency room nurse, had assessed the situation and come to the conclusion that I had a kidney stone. Using our WiFi, we found out there was a clinic in Höfn which opened at 8. So, we struggled through the night and went into the clinic. They agreed it was a stone, gave me some painkillers, and off we went. We tucked ourselves into a cozy café for the day, charged up all our electronics, and waited for my pain to subside. Being in a camper van was ideal for this, as we lost an entire day but we didn’t have to call ahead to change any plans. So it was definitely not an ideal way to spend one of our limited vacation days, but the flexibility of our chosen mode of travel made the impact minimal. Plus, I got to have the most delicious meal of our trip – a $30 hamburger with bacon and cheese!
Stone passed; we wake up and head towards Reykjahlíð where we planned to soak in the Mývatn Nature Baths. Not 10 minutes after slipping into the pools, we were treated to a fantastic show of the Northern Lights. The lights from the baths and the nearly full moon definitely faded the aurora, but it was none the less majestic and incredible. It was one of the huge wish list items we had for this trip, so we left the pools very happy indeed. We cooked up some dinner in the parking lot, as the aurora continued to transform the sky. Finally, we departed for a quiet campsite on Mývatn Lake.
Akureyri was our next destination, and it was immediately clear that this was not just a small Icelandic town but a real city. It was bustling with activity. We decided to eat some real food here instead of our usual soup packets, and decided on a small café which was quite tasty. Then, it was off to the sundlaug it was rumored to be one of the best in Iceland. It did not disappoint, and we took our sweet time soaking in the warmth and cleaning ourselves up. Without any hotel accommodations, we took full advantage of the showers in the sundlaugum (editor’s note: Icelandic for swimming pool)!
We embarked on another long drive, with the destination of the Geitland Nature Reserve. We wanted to get a look at the Langjökull glacier. This is where they run the popular Into the Glacier tours. Unfortunately the weather was not ideal and views were extremely limited. It’s also advisable to have very sturdy 4×4 vehicles to visit this site. We got to catch a glimpse of the gigantic vehicles they use to travel on the glacier, they were monstrous pieces of machinery that made our camper van look like a sub-compact vehicle! After this, we headed back down towards Reykjavik, with the intention of stopping at Glýmur which is Iceland’s tallest waterfall. Poor planning again, we did not realize the hike to Glýmur was estimated at over 2 hours. It was cold, and we decided we just didn’t have it in us to hike that far at this point in the trip. So, we headed back into town and concluded our trip with some celebratory cocktails and dinner! We highly recommend the Brennivín cocktails at the Scandinavian tapas restaurant Rok in Reykjavik.
Iceland is indeed a land carved from fire and ice. It is an extremely inhospitable land, with extreme conditions. One of the best parts of the trip was simply driving the Ring Road, stopping at random pull outs, and taking in the jaw dropping beauty. The position of the sun at this time of year makes for extraordinary light conditions, with long sunrises and long sunsets. The constantly changing weather also made for some great photography. We will leave you with a few last phots of such random stops along our route, places that tour buses simply can’t stop at.
Hekla Sunset on First Night Out
Random Stops on Ring Road
Random Hike Outside of Kirkjubæjarklaustur.
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