Thursday, August 18: After leaving Dimmuborgir in Eastern Mývatn, we drive to our next destination in the Krafla volcanic region, which encompasses an 818m-high, 10km wide caldera and a geothermal power station. We plan to walk through Leirhnjúkur, a black lava field and its solfataras, within Krafla. Solfataras are volcanic areas or vents that yield only hot vapors and sulfurous gases.
On our way, we pass the Krafla Power Station. Built by the Icelandic government, construction began with trial boreholes in 1974; the first turbine unit started up in August 1977, and regular operations began in February 1978. Krafla came under the ownership of Landsvirkjun, the National Power Company, in 1985 (Landsvirkjun).
The name Krafla also refers to the fires that erupted on and off in the period 1975-84. The events were a striking repetition of what happened during the Mývatn fires which occurred between 1724–1729, when many of the fissure vents opened up. Fissure vents are linear ruptures through which lava erupts, usually without any explosive eruptions.
A collapsed, but still active, volcanic area, Krafla has recorded 29 eruptions, the most recent of which were the Krafla Fires. In the 1975-1984 period, nine volcanic eruptions and fifteen uplift and subsidence (downward motion of the earth’s surface relative to sea level) events were recorded (Wikipedia: Krafla).
It’s a 20 minute walk through moss-covered lava that originated from the 18th century Mývatn fires. The landscape is fascinating with its carpeted boulders of lava.
To our east, we can see the crater Viti. This 300m-wide explosion crater was formed in 1724 at the beginning of the Mývatn fires. We originally plan to walk around the rim of this crater, but our walk around Leirhnjúkur is so long and time-consuming that we don’t have time to do it.
To our west we can see Leirhnjúkur, a rhyolite formation 593 meters above sea level. The hill rises less than 50 meters above the surrounding lava field. The rhyolite of the hill is porous due to the geothermal heat and has in several places turned into clay, hence the name Leirhnjúkur — “clay hill.”
After our long walk across the lava field, we are finally in the midst of the craters, steaming vents and fissures of Leirhnjúkur.
There are warnings about the danger of this area, as it’s still active and there are many hot spots. We stay on the relatively safe marked trails, including many wooden walkways, around the field, crossing older lava covered in vegetation before climbing onto the darker, rougher new material. Stains of red or purple mark iron and potash deposits, while white or yellow patches indicate live steam vents to be avoided (Rough Guides: Leirhnjúkur).
Several mud-pits and steam vents are located on the northern slopes of Leirhnjúkur.
The magma boasts a full spectrum of colors, with the greens of moss and lichen next to the scorched earth colors of sulphur and rhyolite (Visit Húsavík: Krafla Caldera).
When we get to a high viewpoint, we can see Gjástykki, where the main area of activity was during the 1980s. It’s a black swathe between light green hills, amazing in its scope.
This is our third walk of the day, and it’s a long one! By the time we finish, it’s after 3:00 and we still have to visit the mighty waterfall of Dettifoss, at the southern end of Jökulsárgljúfur and then drive a long haul to the eastern town of Seyðisfjörður. Already my legs are aching.🙂
Thursday, August 18: We leave Goðafoss around 10:45 a.m. and we’re on our way to our next stop, Mývatn. We pass another pretty but nondescript lake along the way, and within a half hour, we’re at shallow Mývatn, a lake that sits in an area of active volcanism in the north of Iceland, not far from Krafla volcano.
Route 1 takes us to the southwest corner of Mývatn, where the icy swift-running Laxá (Salmon River) flows away from the lake. The scenery here is magnificent.
In the distance, we can see the iconic Vindbelgjarfjall, a 529-meter mountain on Lake Mývatn’s western shore. Its formation dates back to the Ice Age and is part of Krafla volcanic system. Supposedly this mountain offers fantastic views across the lake, but we have many other walks planned today and opt not to do this one.
The skies are so blue and the air so clear that I’m in heaven. I love nothing better than this kind of weather, with breezy temperatures in the high 50s and no humidity.
The Laxá is known for its brown trout and Atlantic salmon fishing.
We spend quite a bit of time walking on the shores of the turbulent Laxá.
We stop near Vindbelgjarfjall, where we’re attacked by the midges, or swarms of small flies. Mývatn’s name translates as “lake of midges;” we have our only experience of them at our brief stop, thank goodness.
We continue up the western side of Mývatn to the small town of Reykjahlíð on the lake’s northeast corner. With its 300 inhabitants and a smattering of guesthouses and hotels, the town serves as the base for the area but doesn’t have much to see other than Reykjahlíðarkirkja, the Reykjahlíð Church.
At the end of a 2-year period of Krafla volcanic eruptions from 1727-1729, the Leirhnjúkur crater sent lava flowing toward the lakeshore, destroying farms and buildings in its path but miraculously parting before the church and sparing it from destruction. Rebuilt on its original foundation in 1876, the church was built again in 1962.
Mývatn Lake was created by a large basaltic lava eruption 2300 years ago, and the surrounding landscape is dominated by volcanic landforms, including lava pillars and pseudocraters. We take a hike in the giant Dimmuborgir (“Dark Castles”) lava field, on the eastern side of the lake. We follow the Church Circle path, which is 2.3km but seems longer!
Dimmuborgir was created about 2300 years ago during an extensive volcanic eruption. Tremendous rivers of lava flowed from a 12km-long fissure south of Hverfjall (Hverfell) and running through Laxárdalur and Aðaldalur valleys all the way down to the sea.
Geologists believe that during this eruption something blocked the flow of lava causing a lake of lava to form. As the lava in the lake had started to solidify, the blockage gave way and the molten lava flowed out leaving behind the parts which had solidified. These conditions created fantastical geological formations. (Edge of the Arctic: Dimmuborgir).
We walk the Church Circle path through Dimmuborgir, marveling at all the unusual lava formations, caves, and arches.
Click on any of the photos below for a full-sized slide show.
I get quite warm and feel like we might be lost because the walk seems to be taking longer than it should.
I love the heather and colorful flora found throughout the lava field.
At several points, Mike argues that we seem to be circling around to the same place we were before, but I feel certain each new lay of the land is different from the ones we’ve passed through already. I tell him we need to keep proceeding on. It turns out I’m right.🙂
Finally we reach a vantage point where we can see the lake and the parking lot, so we know we’re going in the right direction.
After we finish our walk at around 1:30, we hop in the car to head to Leirhnjúkur, part of the Krafla caldera. Its last eruption was from 1975 to 1984.
Thursday, August 18: This morning we enjoy a fabulous breakfast at the Lamb Inn and then soak in our parting views of the valley and the farm before heading east on the Ring Road.
Before we leave Akureyri, we stop at the road that crosses Eyjafjörður at its tip and look at the view toward the south, where we stayed the last two nights. Then we’re back on the Ring Road heading toward Seyðisfjörður in East Iceland. We have a 182 mile drive ahead of us with multiple stops planned along the way.
Our first stop is Goðafoss, which means Waterfall of the Gods. Though not the largest or most powerful of Iceland’s waterfalls, it is one of the most beautiful, flowing over a horseshoe-shaped ledge in two main chutes and one smaller one with numerous vantage points. It is part of the river Skjálfandafljót, which runs through the ~7,000-year-old Bárðardalur lava field in Northeast Iceland.
Goðafoss played an important role in Icelandic history. At the Alþingi, or National Assembly, in the year 1000, lawspeaker Þorgeir Þorkelsson had the job of settling the growing disputes between Christians and those who worshiped the old Nordic gods. After 24 hours meditation, he declared Iceland would be a Christian nation.
Legend has it that on his return home past the waterfall near his farm, he dispensed of his pagan gods by throwing them into the falls in a symbolic act of the conversion. This, according to the legend, is how Goðafoss got its name.
We climb around on the ledges bordering the west side of the waterfall and then clamber above the waterfall.
Then we take the path to the bridge downstream from the waterfall and walk up the east side of the river.
It’s a spectacular day out, cool and breezy and sunny, and we have fun exploring both sides of this amazing waterfall.
The skies and the clouds are simply spectacular.
The eastern side of the waterfall is less crowded as the path is further from the parking lot. On this side, we’re thrilled to find a rainbow rising out of the mist.
Finally, we visit the service center Fosshóll, close to Goðafoss, where we get drinks and snacks, use the facilities, and head further along the Ring Road to the Mývatn region.
Wednesday, August 17: We arrive back at the town of Dalvík, a village on the western shore of Eyjafjörður in the valley of Svarfaðardalur, just in time for our 3:00 whale watching trip with Arctic Sea Tours.
Arctic Sea Tours
Arctic Sea Tours
As soon as we check in, we’re given arctic suits and told to hop into them. It’s actually getting quite warm this afternoon, so it’s too hot to be wearing these suits. Many people keep the tops unzipped and folded down over their behinds.
When everyone has arrived, we all march down to the marina to board the boat. The marina with its backdrop of snow-capped peaks is charming and picturesque.
marina in Dalvík
our seafaring boat, the Draumur
We aren’t going out into the Greenland Sea but will stay in Iceland’s longest fjord, Eyjafjörður, measuring 60km from head to mouth. The tour is for 3 hours.
The fjord is surrounded by hills and mountains on both sides; the mountains are taller on the west side. The mountains pictured below on are the east side.
Freyr Antonsson is the man in charge. After we’re underway, he shows us photos of the creatures we might encounter, especially the great humpback whale, white-beaked dolphins, minke whales, small harbor porpoises and possibly even the majestic blue whale. Today, we’ll see only humpback whales and harbor porpoises.
Even though it was warm on land, it’s quite cold and windy out on the fjord. Luckily we’re bundled up in our Arctic suits and winter hats.
We can see the tip of the island of Hrísey in the middle of Eyjafjörður. It is the second largest island off the coast of Iceland and is often referred to as “The Pearl of Eyjafjörður.” It has a population of approximately 120 people and has been continuously inhabited since the Settlement of Iceland (Wikipedia: Hrísey).
We can see the western mountains on Tröllaskagi, the “Troll peninsula.”
The mountains surrounding the fjord are treeless and capped with snow.
onboard the boat
Mike on the Draumur
As we approach the mouth of the fjord near the Greenland Sea, we start to see some humpback whales. Their backs rise out of the water and we can sometimes catch a glimpse of their tails before they submerge again. When they’re just under the surface of the water, we can see a flat area in the water with bubbles rising.
Sometimes when they surface, their backs are just slightly above water, but other times, they curve out of the water in a nice hump.
I’m excited to finally capture one decent tail picture. It’s very difficult to capture the whales on camera as you have to be looking at the sea in the exact spot where they rise up unexpectedly and you have to have your camera ready to shoot. Often, they are simply too far away to get a decent picture.
During the trip, the crew hands out hot chocolate and cookies for a warming-up snack.
As we head back to Dalvík, the crew passes out fishing poles all around and people toss their lines overboard. It’s amazing how quickly they start to pull in fish. Different people on board pull up cod and three other types of fish. This young man catches a big one!
Mike even tries his hand at fishing but doesn’t catch anything.
The captain cleans all the fish on board, tossing the heads and entrails overboard, while seagulls flap along overhead hoping to catch some scraps.
We arrive back at the marina and head back to the Arctic Sea Tours office.
Click on any of the pictures below for a full-sized slide show.
Back at the Arctic Sea Tours office, Freyr Antonsson fires up the grill and barbecues the fish we caught and he cleaned. We each get a small portion of the various fish cooked with a butter spice topping.
After enjoying our snack, we get on the road back to Akureyri and the Lamb Inn. At the inn, we soak for a while in a hot tub behind the inn and talk with a couple from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Ray and Marybeth, who are enjoying their holiday in Iceland. They are quite the talkers.🙂
We have 8:00 dinner reservations at the Lamb Inn and we find our dinner to be one of the best we have in Iceland. I order traditional fish gratin (made with cod) “dressed up” with butter and rye bread. It’s delicious!
Mike’s meal of slow cooked lamb shank with chives, mashed potatoes and wild mushroom sauce is also wonderful, and I’m not generally much of a meat eater.
We’ve had a busy day with our drive all around Tröllaskagi, our hike around and above Siglufjörður, and our whale-watching tour. Tomorrow we’ll sadly have to leave Akureyri for the east of Iceland. We should definitely have planned more time for our trip.
Wednesday, August 17: A woman at the tourist information/library suggests that we can take a hike along the avalanche-repelling fence backing up the town of Siglufjörður by looking for the 1936 house and then following the trail up. We find the house and begin our hike.
The mountain with its shored-up slopes looms above, along with a waterfall near the house.
Once we start walking along the ridge of the avalanche wall, we can see the pretty little town below.
Looking north, we can see the opening of the fjord to the Greenland Sea.
As the sun is out and it’s warming up a bit, I can finally walk without multiple layers and jacket.
It takes a while to figure out how to get from the avalanche wall to the mountainside, and we actually have to backtrack and go down the steep wall on the town side to go around the end of the wall. Then we hike up and up, looking at the backside of the wall.
We meet up with an Austrian hiker who has a lot more time than we do. We’ve determined that we can walk as far up as we can go until 1:00, at which time we need to turn around to walk back down and drive back to Dalvík for our 3:00 whale-watching tour. The Austrian hiker parts ways with us at 1:00 to follow some of the 19km of marked paths above the avalanche-repelling fence and above the town. You can see him walking up the mountain in the photo below.
We make our way back down the mountain.
Back in town, we make a quick stop to walk around the marina and the brightly-colored cafes.
Wednesday, August 17: This morning, we enjoy an excellent breakfast at the Lamb Inn, and then brace ourselves as we head out into overcast skies and spitting rain. We’re heading up Tröllaskagi, or the Troll Peninsula, which lies between Eyjafjörður, the longest fjord in Iceland, and Skagafjörður, a deep bay in northwestern Iceland. The peninsula is mountainous, with several peaks at 1,000 meters above sea level; this part of the country has the highest elevation outside of the central highlands. Sparsely populated, residents here base their livelihoods on agriculture or fisheries.
Our first stop is the sleepy town of Dalvík. We catch views of the snow-capped mountains to the south of town and then head into town where we book a 3:00 3-hour whale-watching tour with Arctic Sea Tours. As it’s not even 10:00, we should have plenty of time to explore the northernmost tip of the peninsula at Siglufjörður.
Three tunnels connect Dalvík, Ólafsfjörður and Siglufjörður. The first we encounter north of Dalvík and is a 3.4km one-way rock-solid tunnel. We see there are pullovers on the right side of the tunnel, about every 170 meters. We’re not exactly sure who has the right of way, but as we approach another car’s headlights, we see they pull off into the pull-off on our side of the road. We find out later that we should have been the ones to pull off, as the southbound cars have the right of way. We finally figure this out in time for our next encounter; luckily we only meet a few cars in the tunnel. The map below shows the fjords, the towns and the tunnels.
After the 3.4km tunnel, we emerge into the isolated and mountain-locked town of Ólafsfjörður. All we do in this town is to stop at a gas station to get drinks and use the bathroom. We see some downhill ski slopes above the town as well as a pretty little cemetery.
The next tunnel is a 7km two-way tunnel. It seems to last forever. We emerge from this tunnel at Héðinsfjörður, a nearly 6km-long deserted fjord at the northernmost point of Tröllaskagi before Siglufjörður. Here we stop to breathe some fresh air and recover from being under a mountain for 7km!
Below is the tunnel under the mountain from Ólafsfjörður to Héðinsfjörður.
In the picture below is the tunnel from Héðinsfjörður to Siglufjörður. This two-way tunnel is 4km long. These tunnels were opened in 2010 and improved the living conditions of the people of Siglufjörður immensely.
We emerge above the pretty little town of Siglufjörður, called Siglo by the locals. We stop at a lookout in a stand of pine trees.
Further down the hill, we stop at a pretty little cemetery with white crosses. Finally, we’re starting to see some glimpses of blue sky.
We wander around the picturesque marina at Siglufjörður for some time. It’s turning into a beautiful day!
Siglufjörður is an excellent natural harbor with good fishing grounds. Fishing and fish production have always been the most important way of living. Because of the high and treacherous mountains of Tröllaskagi surrounding the fjord, transportation has always been difficult and often dangerous. The first road to the community opened in 1946, providing a summer passage. In 1967 a road opened along the north coast through an 800m-long tunnel. Due to land characteristics and avalanche threat, this road is dangerous and often closed in winter.
Siglufjörður had 3,000 residents during the herring era, which ended suddenly in 1968. In 2010, the population in Siglufjörður was 1214 and in Ólafsfjörður was 852.
We stroll around outside the Herring Era Museum, but we decide we’d rather go on a hike above the town rather than spend time in the museum. The museum opened in 1994 to tell the story of herring catching and processing in Iceland. The three buildings of the museum were part of an old Norwegian herring station, according to Lonely Planet Iceland.
The herring adventure started in 1903 under Norwegian initiative. Within 40 years, this previously sparsely populated village was transformed into a thriving town of more than 3,000 inhabitants. Until 1968, when the herring disappeared, the entire work and life of the people of Siglufjörður centered around the herring catch and its processing with 23 salting stations and five smelting factories in the fjord.
Siglufjörður was also one of the most important ports in Iceland and on more than one occasion, the herring exported from the town accounted for more than 20% of the nation’s total exports. With its booming industry, Siglufjörður also became attractive to tens of thousands of workers seeking employment.
In bad weather, the sheltered waters of the fjord became home to a massed fleet of hundreds of international herring ships. The streets of Siglufjörður were so crowded, colorful and active that they resembled the teeming avenues of major world cities, according to a sign near the village.
We stop in at the local library/tourist information to find out about hikes near Siglufjörður.
We find there is a hike that goes above the town, so we decide to spend some time walking under the rare blue skies after we eat our lunch of bread, cheese and cookies at a picnic area along the fjord.
Tuesday, August 16: We arrive at Lamb Inn Öngulsstadir at around 7:00 pm. We immediately fall in love with its idyllic setting in the valley at the end of Iceland’s longest fjord, Eyjafjörður.
The Lamb Inn is set on a former farm and the family still lives adjacent to the property.
Mike finds a Border Collie that reminds him of our dog, Bailey.
After settling in, we drive into the town of Akureyri, Iceland’s second urban area after the Capital Region, and the fourth largest municipality. It would be considered a small town by most standards, with a population slightly over 18,000. Known as the Capital of North Iceland, it’s an important port and fishing center.
We are debating between eating at Rub 23 or Strikið. We opt for the latter. But first we take a short stroll around the town.
Akureyrarkirkja, or The Church of Akureyri, is a prominent Lutheran church that towers over the center of the city. It was designed by Guðjón Samúelsson, the State Architect of Iceland, and completed in 1940.
Doors on Akureyrarkirkja
Walking down from the hill, we can see the harbor at the end of Iceland’s longest fjord, Eyjafjörður.
We settle in at Strikið, on the fifth (top) floor of Skipagata 14. I’ve become fond of an Icelandic white ale, Einstök Ölgerð. We enjoy our views over the harbor and I love my meal of Wolffish and Caridean shrimp in lemon & capers, potato mousse, parsnip and mussels sauce. Mike orders Reindeer burger with “Ljotur” blue & white cheese, herb mayonnaise, salad, peppers and tomato in brioche bread, served with fries. He doesn’t seem as enamored with his meal; for one, it’s too much food. He says the reindeer has that gamey flavor similar to venison.
After dinner, which is after 9:00, we stroll around by the harbor and enjoy the beautiful light as the sun goes down. We see the cultural center, Hof, used for music and other performing arts.
We also find some whale-watching boats.
At nearly 10:00, the sun is finally setting, as we return to our hotel for the night.
Total steps today: 10,315, or 4.37 miles. This is one of our lesser days of walking, as we were in the car most of the day; we drove a total of 242 miles. :-) Tomorrow, we plan to explore some of the northern fjords.
Tuesday, August 16: After we finish our hike, we get into our car for the long haul to Akureyri. Unless we see enticing hikes along the way, we don’t plan to stop, except to take pictures. Our first stop is on a bridge over a river where we see a couple of horseback riders in the middle of nowhere.
a river runs through it
horseback riders in the distance
When we see these sheep close to the roadside, we have to stop to take a picture of the horned fella scratching his back on the bottom of the sign.
A field of yellow flowers with a barn on a hill also entices.
Sometimes it’s the sky over a grand sweeping landscape that beckons.
A mountain bathed in sunlight with sheep in the forefront seems unspoiled and pastoral.
Luckily, we’re seeing a lot more blue sky than we have so far in Iceland.
Some of the farms seem to be huge operations.
We pull off at a spot below where a bridge crosses a river; here we find a woman out salmon fishing. Later, we hear that Eric Clapton likes to go salmon fishing in Iceland. An article in Ice News, published on August 6 of this year, tells of how Clapton nailed one of the biggest salmon so far this summer, at 28 pounds. You can read an article about it here: New York Daily News: Eric Clapton catches giant salmon, breaks local record in Iceland.
a fishing spot
While we’re at this spot, someone drives up in a car, and, voila!, it’s Wang Wang and her mother, who we last saw this morning at Freyja Guesthouse in Reykjavik. What are the chances that, having left at different times, we would meet again at this minor pull-off?
Of course in typical Chinese fashion, we take pictures of each other and then do a selfie.🙂
By the time we leave, the fisher woman is thigh high in the river. She doesn’t seem to have caught anything by the time we leave.
We continue on our way, making a couple of stops for more scenic views.
I adore this little church, which almost looks like someone’s private church, all lit up as if from the heavens.
Finally, we come in our journey to the narrow 30km long scenic valley known as Öxnadalur on the Ring Road between Varmahlíð and Akureyri.
At one spot, we find glimmering intertwined ribbons of water flowing over a rocky terrain.
We pass multitudes of waterfalls falling from the rock faces in the gorgeous valley.
At long last we are approaching Akureyri. We stop for this magnificent vista right before the road heading north to Dalvik. Finally, we have blue skies!
We leave our little paradise viewpoint and continue our drive through Akureyri, in route to our hotel, Lamb Inn Öngulsstadir; it is 6.2 miles south of the town. Before we head out of the town, Mike searches in vain for a Vinbudin, the state-run liquor store (the only place to buy booze aside from the Duty-Free, bars, and restaurants). There are 48 Vinbudin locations across Iceland and they all seem to close between 4:00-6:00. We usually arrive too late to find one open, and tonight is no exception. Oh well, I guess we’ll have to buy wine with dinner later in Akureyri. Buying alcohol in a restaurant or bar is never an economical choice in Iceland. That won’t stop us though.🙂
Tuesday, August 16: This morning, we meet a young Chinese lady and her mother in the breakfast room at Freyja Guesthouse. It turns out they’re going to pick up their rental car in Reykjavik today and then head around the Ring Road (Route 1) north to Akureyri. We’re doing the same today, but as we already have our rental car, we can get an earlier start. It’s nice to chat with them about our shared experiences in China; the daughter, Wang Wang, can speak fairly decent English; her mother can speak very little. This is the second time I’ve met a Chinese mother and daughter traveling together. The first time was in late July of 2015, soon after I left China; at that time, Mike and I met my student Christine and her mother in Washington as they were traveling down the East Coast.
When we leave Reykjavik it’s raining. So far, we haven’t had luck with the weather. We pass ponds, streams, harbors and rivers all over the pastoral area known as Hvalfjörður. We find farms tucked into the flat areas at the bottom of rumpled and fuzzy green mountains. They’re usually isolated places, set alone on a plain with a mountain backdrop.
Not too long after we leave the city, we go through a 5.7km long tunnel under Hvalfjörður. Before the tunnel was built in 1998, drivers had to spend an extra hour going around the fjord. The tunnel seems to be made of solid stone and runs 165m below sea level.
I love the treeless mountains of Iceland. Covered in moss, they look like behemoths covered loosely in a blanket of velvet . Everywhere we see bales of hay, wrapped in white or black plastic wrap, lined up neatly atop green fields. The farmhouses and barns are often white-walled with red roofs, and when rays of sunlight hit them at the right angle, they glow like beacons from another world.
And then of course there are the Icelandic horses. These horses, bred in Iceland, may look the size of ponies, but they are actually registered as horses. Long-lived and hardy, in their native country they have few diseases. Icelandic law prevents horses from being imported into the country and exported animals are not allowed to return (Wikipedia: Icelandic horse).
The horse displays two gaits in addition to the typical walk, trot, and canter/gallop commonly displayed by other breeds. The first additional gait is the four-beat lateral ambling gait known as the tölt. The second additional gait is called a skeið, flugskeið or “flying pace.” It is used in pacing races, and is fast and smooth, with speeds often reached up to 30 mph (Wikipedia: Icelandic horse). Not all horses have this latter gait.
I have been a horse lover since I was a girl; because of this I’m always urging Mike to pull over when I see them standing near the road.
As a matter of fact, I’m constantly asking Mike to pull off the road so I can take pictures of everything. I love the farmhouses and barns, the sheep, the horses, the sweeping and strange landscapes that change around every turn. It will take us forever at this rate to get to Akureyri, 242 miles from Reykjavik.
We decide to fill up with gas at the N1 at Borgarnes, a tiny town that has one of the original settlement areas and sits on a scenic promontory at Borgarfjörður. It costs us about 5,300 Icelandic krona, or around $46 to fill half our tank! It’s expensive to rent a car in Iceland, and even more expensive to drive it!
While I’m in the gas station getting some coffee, I chat with a woman who’s from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She and her husband are heading west to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula in Western Iceland. It’s known as “Iceland in Miniature” because many national sites can be found there. Sadly, we miss this area of Iceland, which boasts the volcano Snæfellsjökull, the setting for Jules Verne’s novel, Journey to the Center of the Earth. In addition, scenes from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty were filmed on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. The woman asks if we went to the Kaldidalur Corridor, which skirts the edge of a series of glaciers, and the Langjökull ice cap. Of course we have to respond in the negative to this too.
There simply isn’t enough time to go everywhere and do all the activities we want to do without being rushed.😦
The name Borgarnes means “Borg peninsula” and refers to a farm of that name, Borg. Borg was the home of Egill Skallagrímsson, the titular character of Egil’s Saga (Wikitravel: Borgarnes).
We drive into the town and climb up to the sculpture called Brákin, memorializing a dramatic moment from Egil’s Saga. It’s named after Egil’s nursemaid who saves Egil’s life by jumping into the sea to escape Egil’s enraged father. Sound confusing? It is – that is unless you know the Icelandic sagas.
While standing atop the hill at this overlook, the skies open up. Mike has seen it coming and has run to the car. I’m too late, and I get drenched!
We leave the cute little town and continue our drive. My jeans are soaked and it will take some time for them to dry out.
Although we don’t see many trees while in Iceland, there is apparently a lot of native birch woodland that is protected by The Iceland Forest Service (IFS), established according to the forestry and soil conservation act of 1907. There are also cultivated forests of various species, experimental forests and arboreta, according to an article Forestry in a Treeless Land. We come across this small forested spot along our drive, with a sign indicating it is managed by the IFS.
We pull off the road when we cross a bridge over a small scenic canyon; we want to have a look and stretch our legs, take in a breath of fresh air.
a small canyon along the road
When I see farmhouses set in idyllic spots, I ask Mike to please pull over. It’s not always easy to pull over on Iceland’s roads as they are two-lane highways, one lane going in each direction, with no shoulders. The highways sit atop elevated beds so if you pull off, you will tumble down an embankment about 8-10 feet. We often try to pull off onto farm driveways or small gravel pull-offs along the roadside. On some stretches it is impossible to pull off. Every so often, when we don’t see anyone behind us, we stop the car in our lane; inevitably another driver appears out of nowhere barreling down the highway at 90km/hour. We can’t count on another driver seeing us in time to stop; they’re probably oohing and aahing at the scenery just as we are!
The total length of the Ring Road is 1,332 kilometres (828 mi). The road is paved with asphalt for most of its length, but there are still stretches in eastern Iceland, about 32km, with unpaved gravel surfaces (Wikipedia: Route 1 (Iceland)). We are surprised by this because we thought we’d read the whole road was paved. We were misinformed.
Many smaller bridges, often constructed of wood or steel, are single lane, especially in eastern Iceland. There are no signals at these one way bridges; drivers are expected to look across the bridge, if possible, and yield to whoever arrives first. On some of the really long bridges, where we can’t see the other side, there are shoulders where drivers can pull over to let people pass by.
As we’re zipping by on the highway, Mike sees a place where people are hiking. As we’ve already passed it, we stop to take pictures of the bizarre volcanic landscape.
a strange & desolate landscape
landscape near Grábrók Crater
stark lanscape near Grábrók Crater
landscape near Grábrók Crater
Mike is looking back longingly in the direction of the hiking spot we passed. At his request, we decide to turn around and do the hike. We’re glad we do. We find these are the Grábrókargigar craters, protected as natural monuments in 1962. The goal of protecting the craters was to preserve the beautifully formed scoria cones that formed in “modern” times and are remarkable natural formations. The area’s vegetation, particularly moss vegetation, is vulnerable.
There are three craters within the protected area. Litla (small) Grábrók has mostly disappeared due to mining operations before the area was protected. The crater we are climbing up is Stóra (big) Grábrók, which rises up near the main road.
We climb up the well-maintained wooden walkway and steps, enjoying the views of the surrounding landscape.
Beneath us, we can see some settlement ruins.
We continue up the wooden walkway to the rim of the crater. We can see down into the crater. Of course, the crater is asleep these days; there is no gurgling lava, no rising steam, no ash, no gaseous sulphur smell.
The Grábrókargigar craters are part of the Ljósufjöll volcanic system and are the most easterly craters in the system. The Ljósufjöll volcanic system belongs to the Snæfellsnes volcanic zone, which is a peripheral zone (i.e., not a rift zone). The volcanic system extends far to the west on the Snæfellsnes peninsula. It is believed to be somewhat younger than 3,600 years. The lava, alkali olivine basalt, from the craters covers a large portion of the Norðurárdalur valley.
view from Grábrók Crater
view from atop Grábrók Crater
view from Grábrók Crater
inside Grábrók Crater
view to the west from Grábrók Crater
As we walk around the perimeter of Grábrók Crater, we can see Grábrókarfell, another crater within the protected area.
We also see some settlements ruins near the base of Grábrókarfell.
All over Iceland, we see campers like the one below, rented from KúKú Campers: “DON’T STINK AND DRIVE!” You can check their website to see costs for renting different types of vehicles. As there is no shortage of campgrounds throughout Iceland, this is an economical option for an Icelandic road trip. During what KúKú calls the “Sexy Season” (June 16-August 31), prices range from 135-279 euros per night. As we are spending around $100/day to rent a car + gas + hotel rooms averaging around $180 per night, it would have saved us money to travel this way.🙂
As we pass by the pretty farmstead we saw from the rim of the volcano, I have to ask Mike to pull over again for another picture.
We continue our drive into North Iceland, and we still have a long way to go till we reach Akureyri.
Monday, August 15: After resting for a while in our room, we drive about an hour southwest of Reykjavík to the Blue Lagoon, which sits in the lava fields of Grindavik on the Reykjanes Peninsula. Our original plan was to stop here on our way from Keflavik the day after we flew in to Iceland, as it’s only 20 minutes from the airport, but we waited too long to buy our tickets and the Sunday morning spots were all taken by the time we got online to book. Thus we bought 8:00 tickets for this evening, figuring we’d enjoy a relaxing time in the hot pools before we take off tomorrow morning for our long drive around the Ring Road.
The lava fields of Grindavik are a surreal landscape of scattered multi-hued rocks covered in moss and interspersed with grasses. It isn’t a landscape that invites walks, although apparently there is quite a demand for ATV adventures, or quad-bike rides.
We arrive a half-hour before our 8:00 timed entry. We walk down this paved walkway with an icy wind blowing right through us.
As it’s too early to check in, we follow other people along a path to the right of the entrance and spend some time walking around mineral lakes in a permeable lava field just outside of the Blue Lagoon. Because of its mineral concentration, water from the Blue Lagoon cannot be recycled and must be disposed of here.
At one end of the natural pools, we can see the Svartsengi geothermal power plant. The man-made Blue Lagoon was formed in 1976 during the plant’s operation. It is fed by the water output of the plant and is renewed every two days. Superheated water is vented from the ground near a lava flow and is used to run turbines that generate electricity. After going through the turbines, the steam and hot water passes through a heat exchanger to provide heat for a municipal water heating system. Then the water is fed into the lagoon for recreational and medicinal users to bathe in (Wikipedia: Blue Lagoon (geothermal spa)).
The silicate minerals are the primary cause of that water’s milky blue shade.
Finally, it’s near 8:00 and we enter the facility. For our ~$70 (each) ticket, the “comfort” package, we get one beverage of our choice, a towel, and two masks: a silica mask and a green algae mask.
Inside, I don my bathing suit and try to figure out the confusing lock system on the lockers. There is one scanner for a whole wall of lockers. When you shut the door of your locker, you scan your wrist band and it locks the door, flashing the number of your locker (#233). If you accidentally scan it twice, it opens the locker right back up again. I keep closing and opening the locker — yes, because I’m a klutz and technologically challenged(!) — and I’m a little leery that it is actually going to stay locked. As all my belongings are in the locker — passport, money, camera — I am worried it won’t stay locked when I leave the room.
Before entering the spa, all people must practice Icelandic etiquette: we must be naked for our pre-pool showering. There are lots of official-looking women in the shower area to make sure we do just that. I am already in my bathing suit, but have to take it off to shower thoroughly!
I don’t want to take my camera into the spa because I want to relax and not worry about getting it wet. We float around the pool and stop to get our silica mask, which we apply and leave on for 10 minutes; after that time, we simply wash off in the water. We float over to the swim-up bar and get some white wine, which we drink next to the vents, where the water is hottest. Then we lollygag over to the spa area and get our green algae mask. It’s funny to see all the people floating about with their masks on and wine glasses or beers in their hands. It’s all rather otherworldly.
After lingering in the Blue Lagoon for over an hour, we finally get showered and dressed and prepare to drive back to Reykjavik. We have a long drive tomorrow on the Ring Road to the north.
On our way back, we make a stop at a grocery store to pick up some snack food for our road trip tomorrow: destination Akureyri.
Total steps for today, Monday, August 15: 13,734 ( ~ 5.82 miles).