southwest iceland: skógafoss to dyrhólaey, and back to vik

Tuesday, August 23:  At the western edge of Skógar, the beautiful 62m-high waterfall Skógafoss tumbles over moss-engulfed cliffs in a striking display.   Because of the mist from the waterfall, on sunny days there is often a double or single rainbow.  Today, we find a beautiful single rainbow at the waterfall’s base.

Skógafoss with rainbow
Skógafoss with rainbow
Mike at Skógafoss
Mike at Skógafoss

According to legend, the first Viking settler in the area, Þrasi Þórólfsson, buried a chest of gold in a cave behind the waterfall, where it would be hard to reach. When three local men attempted to retrieve the chest years later, they placed a hook in an iron ring on the side of the chest.  They pulled hard, but the chest was so heavy the iron ring came loose and the mission was aborted. The ring was placed on the door of the church in Skógar and can now be found in the Skógar Folk Museum (from a placard at the waterfall).

Skógafoss
Skógafoss
Skógafoss
Skógafoss
Skógafoss
Skógafoss

We can’t resist climbing up the trekking trail on the eastern side of the waterfall.  It’s a steep climb, but as we rise above the plain, we have some fabulous views to the south and southeast.

view from the path up to Skógafoss
view from the path up to Skógafoss

As we reach the crest of the cliffs, we find the Skógá River rushing over the sharp rocky edge.

Skógafoss
Skógafoss

From the top, we can see the Skógá River as it makes its way to the North Atlantic Ocean.

the view from Skógafoss
the view from Skógafoss

At the top, there is a line of people gingerly crossing over a steep stile.  We’re at such a dizzying height here, that we have to hold tightly to keep from blowing away and toppling down the cliff.

above Skógafoss
above Skógafoss

We see from the top that the trail continues indefinitely, up and over increasingly higher mountains.  Apparently the Skógar cliffs create a clear border between the coastal lowlands and the Highlands of Iceland.  There are quite a few trekkers up here, hardy souls with camping gear on their backs.

the Skógá River
the Skógá River

This is one of the treks I would love to do someday.  The route between Skógar and Þórsmörk goes through the pass Fimmvörðuháls, which winds between the glaciers Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull.  This is one of the most popular walking routes in Iceland, despite being 22km (14 mi) long and involving 1,000m (3,300 ft) of climbing. The route from Skógar is particularly beautiful, as numerous waterfalls are passed along the way. The route is only accessible between mid-June and late-August. On the night of 16 May 1970, three travelers died in the mountain pass in a snowstorm (Wikipedia: Fimmvörðuháls).

I’ve seen photos of this hike and it looks absolutely magnificent!  It’s on my bucket list for a return trip, but we’ll have to be suitably geared up to camp and carry our belongings on our back.

This famous route continues as the famous Laugavegur trekking route to the hot springs of Landmannalaugar. It is noted for the wide variety of landscapes on its 55 km (34 mi) path. The route is typically completed over 2–4 days with potential stops at various mountain huts (Wikipedia: Laugavegur).

Skógá River
Skógá River

At this waterfall above Skógafoss, numerous photographers are scrambling down the rocks with tripods in hand.  It looks like a risky undertaking to climb down these precipitous banks!  But they seem determined to get those photos at all costs.

Skógá River
Skógá River
Skógá River
Skógá River
Skógá River
Skógá River
Mike at the Skógá River
Mike at the Skógá River
me at the Skógá River
me at the Skógá River
Skógá River
Skógá River

As we walk back to the cliff edge, we stand in a long line again to climb over the steep and rickety stile. It was difficult enough to get over it as we climbed uphill, but it’s looking even more scary going downhill.  This one narrow stile must be shared by uphill and downhill hikers, and it’s slow going.  People seem a little apprehensive going over it. Admittedly, I’m a little nervous about it myself!  While in line, we meet two young ladies who look exhausted.  They say they’ve hiked 25km since 7 a.m. They are looking forward to setting up their tents in the campground at the base of Skógafoss.

On our way back to Vik, we decide to stop once again at Dyrhólaey, since we didn’t get a proper view of it this morning.  By this time it’s 5:00 pm, and the wind has whipped up to a ferocious frenzy.  I push the car door open against the tempest and stumble down a couple of paths to take pictures, while Mike stays in the car with the heater on.  I have never felt such a strong wind!  It goes through my jacket, the layers underneath, my skin and even my bones!  I fear it will lift me and carry me away over the black sand beach all the way to Reynisfjara, which I can see in the distance.

Dyrhólaey
Dyrhólaey
atop Dyrhólaey
atop Dyrhólaey
view from Dyrhólaey
view from Dyrhólaey
view from Dyrhólaey
view from Dyrhólaey
view from Dyrhólaey
view from Dyrhólaey
windswept views
windswept views
view from Dyrhólaey
view from Dyrhólaey
view from Dyrhólaey
view from Dyrhólaey
looking west from Dyrhólaey
looking west from Dyrhólaey

After getting my fill of views and sea squalls, I hop back in the car, which luckily Mike has kept cozily warm.  Though we have both become sick during this trip, Mike is taking care of himself, while I continue to push myself, despite a bad cough and cold. Little do I know how much I’ll regret this later.

We return to Vik and the Hotel Puffin, where we have slightly cooled beers in our room.  Mike had put them out on our “balcony” earlier, hoping that the cold winds would keep them chilled, but I guess the wind didn’t get to them.  Then we go to dinner at Suður-Vík, a restaurant with wood floors and a friendly ambiance.

me at Suður-Vík
me at Suður-Vík

We share a salad with sun-dried tomatoes, olives and feta cheese and a delicious asparagus soup, although the soups don’t ever seem to be hot here.

salad with sun-dried tomatoes, olives and feta cheese
salad with sun-dried tomatoes, olives and feta cheese
asparagus soup
asparagus soup

Then we share a pizza with mushroom, paprika, olives, onion and sun-dried tomato.  For dessert, we have a warm apple pie with Fossis ice cream.  It’s all delicious.

pizza with mushroom, paprika, olives, onion and sun-dried tomato
pizza with mushroom, paprika, olives, onion and sun-dried tomato

Tomorrow, we will head back to Reykjavik.  It will be our last full day in Iceland.  Though we’re both miserably sick, I’m still not ready to go home!

Today: 16,109 steps, or 6.83 miles.

southwest iceland: skógar folk museum

Tuesday, August 23:  By the time we leave the Sólheimajökull glacier tongue, it’s close to 2:00.  There is still so much to see, and daylight hours are running out!   We head west on the Ring Road until we come to the Skógar Folk Museum.  The museum preserves the cultural heritage of the Vestur-Skaftafellssýsla region in the form of  old buildings, tools and equipment used at land and sea, crafts, books, manuscripts and documents.

We stop in briefly at the Museum of Transport to get a map, and then we head out onto the grounds, where we find the Skógar Church & the Skal Farm.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Skógar Church & Skal Farm

On our way, we see the landscape of Skógar with the Turf Farm in the foreground.

the back of the Turf Farm
the back of the Turf Farm

Consecrated in 1998, the Skógar Church at the Folk Museum boasts a new exterior, but inside it uses remnants of older churches, in the style that predominated Iceland from the Middle Ages to the 19th century.  The windows are from the Church of Gröf, 1898. Bells date from 1600 and 1742.

Skógar Church
Skógar Church

All church furnishings date from the 17th and 18th centuries.  It preserves the original interior of the church of Kálholt, built in 1879. The altarpiece is from Ásólfsskáli Church (1768) and chandeliers from Steinar Church and Skógar Church (16th century). (Pamphlet – Skógar Folk Museum).

Inside Skógar Church
Inside Skógar Church

The Farmhouse from Skál, Síða, was built in 1919-20; it was reconstructed at Skógar Museum in 1989. The house was lived in until 1970.

Skal Farm
Skal Farm

Baðstofa, the communal room where the household slept, ate and worked, was built over the cattle shed to benefit from the warmth of the animals.  The kitchen and parlor are in the front section of the house. The storehouse, from Gröf, Skaftártunga, dates from about 1870 (Pamphlet – Skógar Folk Museum).

I love how the house takes up so little space yet offers community and warmth in this cold climate.

The House of Holt was built entirely of driftwood in 1878 by the Regional Commissioner. It was the first timber house in Vestur-Skaftafellssýsla. The wall panels in the west room are from the wreck of the hospital ship St. Paul, from 1899.  The house was lived in until 1974 and rebuilt at Skógar in 1980 (Pamphlet – Skógar Folk Museum).

House of Holt
House of Holt
The grounds of the folk museum
The grounds of the folk museum

The Schoolhouse is from Litli-Hvammur, Mýrdalur, built in 1901.  It was reconstructed at Skógar in 1999-2000.

The Old Schoolhouse
The Old Schoolhouse

In the Turf Farmhouse, the parlor dates from 1896, bedroom from 1838, pantry from about 1850, kitchen from about 1880, baðstofa (communal room where the household slept, ate and worked) from 1895, storehouse from 1830, cattle shed from about 1880, smithy from about 1950 (Pamphlet – Skógar Folk Museum).

The Turf Farm
The Turf Farm

In these buildings, we can see how the people of Iceland lived in past times.

The Turf Farm
The Turf Farm
The Turf Farm
The Turf Farm
bedroom inside the Turf Farm
bedroom inside the Turf Farm

After the Turf Farm, we go into the Museum Building, opened in 1949.  Its first permanent building was built in 1954-1955 and enlarged in 1989-1994.  One man, Þórður Tómasson, collected the artifacts and the houses of the open-air museum over 75 years.  Today, the museum has 15,000 regional folk craft artifacts exhibited in three museums and six historical buildings.

Bed-boards were first used in the 17th century.  The board was placed at the side of the bed during the night.  As beds were usually shared by more than one person, they were crowded, and the bed-board ensured that no one fell out of bed.  In the communal living, sleeping and working room, there was no heating but body heat.  During the day, the bed-board was removed and the bed was used as seating.  Bed-boards were often carved with the owner’s initials, a date or a prayer, in ornamental “head lettering.”

bed-boards
bed-boards

In the museum’s Maritime Hall is the fishing boat Pétursey, built in 1855 and in use until 1946.  The hull’s design conformed with conditions on the south coast: with no harbors or moorages, boats had to be launched straight out into the open waves of the ocean, beached on return.

The fishing-boat Pétursey in the Maritime Hall
The fishing-boat Pétursey in the Maritime Hall
The fishing-boat Pétursey
The fishing-boat Pétursey

On the north wall are various kinds of fishing gear, examples of how whalebone was used, and equipment for transporting the fish catch home from the shore.

The Maritime Hall
The Maritime Hall
saddles
saddles
Icelandic dresses
Icelandic dresses
tapestry
tapestry

In the south loft are large chests carved by renowned craftsman Ólafur Þórarinsson (1768-1840).

display in the Folk Museum
display in the Folk Museum

There are many displays of saddles, metalwork in brass and copper from riding gear.

saddle display
saddle display
painting and creatures
painting and creatures

The Natural History collection was donated by a private collector in Reykjavik and includes birds, eggs, insects, plants and rocks.

Eggs
Eggs
Arctic Fox
Arctic Fox

Since I was unable to get up close and personal to a puffin at Reynisfjara, I’m excited to find one here in the museum.

Puffin
Puffin
Oystercatcher
Oystercatcher

After our walk around this fantastic museum, we head to the waterfall Skógafoss, where we’ll find gold at the end of a rainbow. 🙂

southwest iceland: dyrhólaey to the sólheimajökull glacier tongue

Tuesday, August 23:  After leaving the black sand beach and the puffin colony at Reynisfjara, and after stopping back in Vik so Mike can change his wet shoes, socks and jeans, we drive down Route 218 to visit Dyrhólaey, a rocky plateau with a huge stone sea arch.

A frigid and tempestuous wind nearly picks us up and carries us away when we get out of the car here.  It’s not an atmosphere conducive to lingering.

Dyrhólaey
Dyrhólaey

We can’t stay long here anyway because I suddenly have the urge to pee and there isn’t a restroom to be found anywhere!  It’s rather an emergency and I ask Mike to find me a hidden area where I can stop, but no place is hidden. Every possible stop is out in plain view.  I tell him we’re going to have to go back up the road to look for a spot.  It seems we are looking forever.

Dyrhólaey
Dyrhólaey

Finally, we find a dirt road and head down it.  I can at least find a hiding place behind the big rock jutting up from the plain.

This is one of the big problems one encounters traveling in Iceland.  Facilities are sparse.  Though a gorgeous place to visit on holiday, the country is simply not equipped to handle the large numbers of tourists comfortably.

scene along Rt. 218
scene along Rt. 218

On this dirt road, we happen upon the cave Loftsalahellir, used for council meetings in saga times.  However, we don’t climb up to it as we have a lot of other places we want to see today.

Loftsalahellir Cave
Loftsalahellir Cave

Some cows rumble by, mooing and heaving, as we make our way back to the Ring Road.

strolling cows
strolling cows
on a mission
on a mission
bursting at the seams
bursting at the seams

Back on the Ring Road, we continue west and pull off the main road to follow a 4.2km rutted dirt track (Route 221) to the Sólheimajökull glacier tongue.  On the way, we spot a pretty rainbow over the desolate landscape.

a rainbow on the drive to the Sólheimajökull glacier tongue
a rainbow on the drive to the Sólheimajökull glacier tongue

We park in the crowded car park and begin our hike to the glacier tongue.  We first wander through a mossy landscape and then pass groups of people gearing up to hike atop the glacier.

hike to the Sólheimajökull glacier tongue
hike to the Sólheimajökull glacier tongue

As we hike to the glacier, the fickle sky spits rain and then clears intermittently, offering a few rays of sunshine.

mossy environs
mossy environs
hike to the glacier
hike to the glacier

We see the glacier tongue ahead and though there are signs warning us not to go too close, we figure we’ll go as far as other people are going.  Of course we won’t climb on the glacier itself because we haven’t signed up for a guided tour.  I can’t help but wonder how the guides know with certainty about the safety of the glacier.  It seems that the glaciers are alive, shifting and heaving, melting and changing.  How can anyone know what is safe and what isn’t?

Sólheimajökull glacier tongue
Sólheimajökull glacier tongue

A beautiful canyon on the other side of the lagoon entices us, but there is no way to get to it.  Sunlight paints the mossy mountainsides in glowing chartreuse.

Sólheimajökull
Sólheimajökull
Sólheimajökull glacier tongue
Sólheimajökull glacier tongue

We pass a guide instructing a group about safety measures as they gear up with helmets and other equipment.

Sólheimajökull glacier tongue
Sólheimajökull glacier tongue

If you look closely at the glacier in the photo below, you can see a couple groups of glacier walkers climbing the face.

Sólheimajökull glacier tongue
Sólheimajökull glacier tongue
backlit glacier
backlit glacier
Sólheimajökull
Sólheimajökull
Sólheimajökull glacier tongue
Sólheimajökull glacier tongue

I am always pretty cautious in places that having warning signs.  The sign here reads: Warning: The glacier can be dangerous.  Please do not go out onto the glacier without proper equipment and knowledge, preferably accompanied by a glacier guide.

I’m ready to stop right here, but we see other people going up to the glacier’s face and Mike wants to continue on.  I follow hesitantly.

Warning sign
Warning sign
Sólheimajökull
Sólheimajökull

We get as close as we can to the glacier without going on it.  We can see various groups of people climbing the glacier and on top of the glacier.  Obviously, we could have signed up for a glacier walk, but we didn’t.  Now, seeing hikers atop this towering glacier, I feel relieved we didn’t try to do this.

Sólheimajökull melts into a lagoon bounded by piles of rocks and black sand. We wander around, enjoying solid ground underfoot.  I’m happy enough to stay earthbound.

Sólheimajökull
Sólheimajökull
Sólheimajökull
Sólheimajökull
Sólheimajökull
Sólheimajökull
me at Sólheimajökull
me at Sólheimajökull
Sólheimajökull
Sólheimajökull

As the sun comes out and the skies turn blue with smatterings of clouds, we make our way back to the car park.

Sólheimajökull
Sólheimajökull
Sólheimajökull
Sólheimajökull

In the car park, we eat a cheese and turkey sandwich for our lunch, and then we continue west on the Ring Road.  Our next stop will be the Skógar Folk Museum.

south iceland: exploring around vik

Tuesday, August 23:  We have an expansive breakfast at the Puffin Hotel and then take a walk down to the black sand beach, where we can see Vik’s iconic cluster of basalt sea stacks, Reynisdrangur.

Monument in Vik
Monument in Vik

Legend says that the stacks originated when two trolls dragged a three-masted ship to land unsuccessfully and when daylight broke they became needles of rock (Wikipedia: Reynisdrangar).  Other legends say they’re trolls that got caught out in the sun (Lonely Planet Iceland).

The large ridge at the western end of the beach is Reynisfjall ridge, and though it’s possible to climb up to the top, we don’t do it, as we have a lot to squeeze in today.

Reynisdrangur
Reynisdrangur
Reynisdrangur
Reynisdrangur
Reynisdrangur
Reynisdrangur
cairns
cairns
the beach at Vik
the beach at Vik
Reynisdrangur
Reynisdrangur
Vik
Vik

We drive up to a hill overlooking the town, where we find Vik’s 1930s church, Vikurkirkja, and wonderful views of the town and Reynisfjall.

Vikurkirkja
Vikurkirkja
Vikurkirkja
Vikurkirkja

A fishing company started operations here in 1876, despite the difficulty in docking a boat since Vik has no harbor.  The fishing operations died out mostly with the originators, but people did sail from Vik intermittently, well into the 20th century.  In 1884 the first goods were shipped to the beach at Vik, marking the start of commerce. It became a certified market town in 1887. Eventually the town became the main point of commerce for Vestur-Skaftafellssýsla County.

view from Vikurkirkja
view from Vikurkirkja

In 1905, the town had 80 residents and new jobs were created.  For the first time, the town had registered residents that included a teacher, organist, photographer, three cobblers, doctor, priest, magistrate, foreman, goldsmith, saddler and postman. Clearly the first two decades of the 20th century were a period of great improvement for the county.  The Surgeon General of Iceland said that progress was “tearing everything apart at the seams” in the county.  The slaughter of sheep started in Vik, the first two electric generators were built in the county and a phone was installed in the town.

view of Vik from Vikurkirkja
view of Vik from Vikurkirkja

During the 1920s, the town seemed to be filling with people and there were 317 residents by 1925.  Residents then started to decline and the town started to make its name in Icelandic society as a sparse village whose population did not increase in proportion with national increases.  Autos became more popular and by 1930, there were about 15-16 cars in the county, creating jobs in transporting people and fixing automobiles.  The depression brought unemployment and lean times, although the tide turned by 1941. In 1941, the one shipping vessel was replaced with automobiles, as most of the largest waterways had been bridged.

Vik from Vikurkirkja
Vik from Vikurkirkja

Vik’s population reached its maximum in 1974 with 384 residents.  In recent years, the population has been just under 300 people who work in a variety of jobs in industry, agriculture, health care, tourism and more.

view of Reynisfjall ridge from Vikurkirkja
view of Reynisfjall ridge from Vikurkirkja
view of Reynisfjall ridge from Vikurkirkja
view of Reynisfjall ridge from Vikurkirkja

After leaving Vikurkirkja, we drive along the west side of Reynisfjall ridge, where we see sheep dotting the hillsides.

sheep on Reynisfjall ridge
sheep on Reynisfjall ridge
sheep dotting the slopes
sheep dotting the slopes

We park at the black sand beach at Reynisfjara, where we can see in the distance one of the south coast’s most recognizable natural formations, the rocky plateau and stone sea arch at Dyrhólaey.

black sand beach at Reynisfjara
black sand beach at Reynisfjara

We walk in the direction of the sea stacks, where people are wandering about in droves near the stack of basalt columns that look like a church organ.

Reynisfjara
Reynisfjara
Reynisfjara
Reynisfjara
Reynisfjara
Reynisfjara

In the grassy areas above the sea columns and around the caves carved out of the cliffs, we can see the puffin colonies for which Vik is famous.  In the following pictures, you can barely make out the white puffin dots in the green moss.

puffins at Reynisfjara
puffins at Reynisfjara
puffins at Reynisfjara
puffins at Reynisfjara
puffins at Reynisfjara
puffins at Reynisfjara

We love watching the puffins with their bright orange feet and their wings flapping like the first flights of the Wright brothers. I adore the puffins!

puffins at Reynisfjara
puffins at Reynisfjara
puffin colony at Reynisfjara
puffin colony at Reynisfjara

Some parts of the beach are black sand, while other parts are volcanic rock or pebbles.

black pebble beach of Reynisfjara
black pebble beach of Reynisfjara

We get another view of the iconic sea stacks Reynisdrangur from the west side.

Reynisdrangur
Reynisdrangur
Reynisdrangur
Reynisdrangur
the North Atlantic Ocean
the North Atlantic Ocean

The waves are inconsistent, some of them bursting surprisingly high on the shore.  Mike warns a woman to move before she gets her feet soaked by a rogue wave.  Then, while he’s focusing on taking a picture, a sprightly wave sweeps over his feet, soaking his shoes and the bottoms of his jeans.

Reynisdrangur
Reynisdrangur

We make our way back to the parking lot; Mike is now annoyed that he’s gotten his feet wet at the beginning of our day.  We’re luckily not far from Vik, so we’ll have to head back to our hotel for him to change his socks, shoes and pants.

Reynisfjara
Reynisfjara
Reynisfjara
Reynisfjara

We walk a little to the west on the beach to get a view of Dyrhólaey.

view of Dyrhólaey from Reynisfjara
view of Dyrhólaey from Reynisfjara
view of Dyrhólaey from Reynisfjara
view of Dyrhólaey from Reynisfjara

As we’re driving north on Route 215, we make a quick stop at the little church of Reyniskirkja.

Reyniskirkja
Reyniskirkja
Reyniskirkja
Reyniskirkja
Reyniskirkja
Reyniskirkja

It doesn’t take long to get back to Vik, where we go into the hotel for Mike to change.

Puffin Hotel in Vik
Puffin Hotel in Vik
Puffin Hotel
Puffin Hotel

Then, we’re on our way to Dyrhólaey.

south iceland: finishing our hike at vatnajökull national park and heading to vik

Monday, August 22:  The final section of our 5.5km loop hike at Vatnajökull National Park takes us around the traditional turf-roofed farmhouse of Sel.

Sel
Sel

The farm Sel in Skaftafell was built in 1912 and is a good example of the farms in this area until the middle of 1900.  Until 1974, the area was very isolated because of the glacier rivers on both sides.  Therefore the inhabitants had to provide themselves with whatever was needed.

These houses, for example, are built from driftwood collected from the coast.  The last residents in Sel were Ólöf Sigurðardóttir and her husband Runolfur Bjarnason, in 1946.  The farm is now under protection of the National Museum of Iceland.

The traditional turf-roofed farmhouse Sel
The traditional turf-roofed farmhouse Sel

From the vantage point at Sel, we can see the huge Skeiðarársandur stretching endlessly to the ocean.

Sel
Sel
Sel with the sandur backdrop
Sel with the sandur backdrop

I love this photo of an Icelandic horse standing on a slope with the sandur sprawled out behind and beneath him.

an Icelandic horse with the sandur behind
an Icelandic horse with the sandur behind
Skeiðarársandur
Skeiðarársandur
Sel
Sel
Sel
Sel

We go into the farmhouse where we find beds and a stove.  They’re no longer used today, but we can see how these hardy souls once lived.

We continue to follow the loop at Vatnajökull National Park, heading downhill all the way.

Sel
Sel
Sel
Sel
Sel
Sel
me in the backyard at Sel
me in the backyard at Sel
Mike at Sel
Mike at Sel

We cross a bridge over the river we had seen at the beginning of the hike and then get on the well-traveled trail.

finishing out hike at Vatnajökull National Park
finishing out hike at Vatnajökull National Park

Though it was tough climbing uphill at the beginning of the hike, I’m more wary heading downhill.  It’s very steep and gravelly, and since I’ve taken many a tumble on steep slopes covered in gravel, I proceed with caution.  Some areas luckily have rubber erosion matting, which helps me to keep my grip on the ground.

final views at Vatnajökull National Park
final views at Vatnajökull National Park

Below is a map of the national park.

the lay of the land
the lay of the land

I’m so happy to reach our car in the parking lot so I can finally sit down.  I’m exhausted.  Now we have a long drive ahead to Vik, where we’ll spend the night.

The Ring Road in this part of the country passes through some bizarre landscapes.  There is a vast desert-like plain of black volcanic sand with tufts of grasses, the Mýrdalssandur, where material from the Mýrdalsjökull glacier has been deposited.  Water from that glacier flows out to sea through this plain.

We also pass through an otherworldly landscape of rocks covered in a mossy brownish-green fuzz.  We get out to take a picture, and the wind is so strong it nearly lifts us up and carries us out to sea!

landscape east of Vik
landscape east of Vik
landscape east of Vik
landscape east of Vik

We pass through more endless sandy stretches with black rocks strewn haphazardly about.  Finally, after what seems like a drive to the furthest isolated reaches of the world, we arrive at the very nondescript Hotel Puffin, right in the center of Vik.  The wind is howling in this place!

Hotel Puffin is quite expensive and when we booked, the only room available was one with a terrace.  Though we had thoughts of sitting on a terrace having a glass of wine an overlooking a nice scene, we were on the first floor and overlooked a trashy looking building and a garbage bin.  No matter how we tried, we couldn’t get the terrace door open, so we finally gave up, knowing that it was too blustery and cold to use it anyway.

The rooms have an interesting volcanic pebble floor, which we haven’t seen in hotels elsewhere in Iceland.

our room at Hotel Puffin
our room at Hotel Puffin

After a bit of a rest, we head to dinner at Ströndin Bistro & Bar, which sits on the main road behind the N1 petrol station.  The place is packed.  Our waiter is Antonio, who hails from Germany but lived in New Zealand for 10 years;  he now lives here in Vik.  He is very helpful, trying to juggle a table of 10 and us; he seats us at the only empty table – for four – and asks if we would mind sharing a table with another couple; soon he brings a Swiss couple, Julie, a secretary for a law office, and Sebastian, a chemist.  They speak French, as well as perfect English.  They tell us that though some Swiss speak German, and they have studied German for 11 years, they still can’t speak it with other Swiss people. Because of the mountains separating communities, it’s easy to drive 100km and not be able to speak or understand the German spoken in the next town.

Sebastian and Julie at Ströndin Bistro
Sebastian and Julie at Ströndin Bistro

We so enjoy talking with these two.  We ask them their thoughts about Brexit and they think it is the beginning of the EU’s dissolution.  If Germany leaves, they say, it will fall apart.  Poor countries like France, Spain, Greece, and Portugal are pulling the rich northern countries down. The Swiss voted down a referendum for more vacation time and the French didn’t understand it, they tell us.  I love hearing the perspectives of people living in Europe just months before our looming election in November.

Our time here is the highlight of our day, a bit of warmth and social time to top off a long, cold and blustery day.  I enjoy a wonderful dinner of Plokkfiskur með rúgbrauði, Icelandic Cod stew with potatoes and onions, served with rye bread and butter.  Mike has Pönnusteikt Fagradalsbleikja með salati, bakaðri kartöflu og dillsinneps sósu, pan-fried Arctic char, served with baked potato, fresh salad and dill-mustard sauce.

Total steps today: 19,388 (8.22 miles).  Only two full days left in Iceland, sadly.

southeast iceland: a hike to svartifoss & sjónarsker at vatnajökull national park

Monday, August 22:  After leaving the Interstellar scenes at Svínafellsjökull, we head further inland to the south end of Vatnajökull National Park, known as Skaftafell.  We had been in the north end of this huge park when we visited the waterfalls Dettifoss and Selfoss.  This is Europe’s largest protected reserve and was formed when the northern Jökulsárgljúfur National Park merged with Skaftafell National Park to the south in order “to protect the Vatnajökull ice cap and all its glacial run-off under one super-sized preserve,” according to Lonely Planet Iceland.

This area is Iceland’s most heavily touristed wilderness and apparently there are myriads of trails, both long and short, easy and difficult, here.  We’re aiming for a moderate hike, the 5.5km round trip hike from the visitor center to Svartifoss to Sjónarsker and finally to Sel, which I’ll cover in a different post.

As you can imagine, since we start at the bottom edge of the mountains, near the sprawling outwash plain of Skeiðarársandur, the hike is all uphill.

As we climb increasingly higher, we can see the sweeping Skeiðarársandur, the largest sandur in the world, which covers an area of 1,300 km2 (500 sq mi). It was formed by the “Skeiðarárjökull Glacier, a large outlet glacier draining south from Iceland’s largest ice cap Vatnajökull. This glacier is well-known for the massive glacier outburst floods, jökulhlaup, that are generated by Iceland’s most active volcano, Grímsvötn” (From a Glacier’s Perspective).

Vatnajökull National Park
Vatnajökull National Park

As I mentioned in a previous post, a sandur is the outwash plain of a glacier; silt, sand and gravel are scooped up from the mountains by the glacier, carried by glacial rivers or glacial bursts down to the coast, where they’re dumped in huge desert-like plains of gray-black sands and rocks (Lonely Planet Iceland).  Skeiðarársandur is the prototype sandur for which all other sandurs are named.

Vatnajökull National Park with Skeiðarársandur in the background
Vatnajökull National Park with Skeiðarársandur in the background

As we climb, we see a river that flows into the sandur.

the river leading to Skeiðarársandur
the river leading to Skeiðarársandur
Vatnajökull National Park with Skeiðarársandur in the background
Vatnajökull National Park with Skeiðarársandur in the background

We continue our climb along a canyon until we get a glimpse of a minor waterfall, Hundafoss.

the gorge downstream from Hundafoss
the gorge downstream from Hundafoss
Hundafoss
Hundafoss
Hundafoss
Hundafoss

As we continue up, we can see the tips of other mountain peaks in the distance.

Climbing through Vatnajökull National Park to Svartifoss
Climbing through Vatnajökull National Park to Svartifoss

And of course, to the south, we can still see the immense sandur.

Climbing through Vatnajökull National Park to Svartifoss
Climbing through Vatnajökull National Park to Svartifoss
Climbing through Vatnajökull National Park to Svartifoss
Climbing through Vatnajökull National Park to Svartifoss
Svartifoss
the river leading to Skeiðarársandur

Finally, we reach a point where we get our first glimpse of Svartifoss, or Black Falls.

Svartifoss
Svartifoss
Svartifoss
Svartifoss
Svartifoss
Svartifoss

As we get close to the falls, we are bowled over by the geometric black basalt columns that flank the waterfall like ominous soldiers.  These columns are similar to those seen at the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, and the island of Staffa in Scotland (Wikipedia: Svartifoss).

Svartifoss
Svartifoss
me at Svartifoss
me at Svartifoss
walls at Svartifoss
walls at Svartifoss
Svartifoss
Svartifoss
Svartifoss
Svartifoss

After hanging out a bit at the waterfall, we cross a footbridge downstream from the waterfall, where we continue climbing to Sjónarsker.

Mike at Svartifoss
Mike at Svartifoss
Vatnajökull National Park with Skeiðarársandur in the background
Vatnajökull National Park with Skeiðarársandur in the background

It’s exhausting, all this uphill climbing, but we’re rewarded at the top by magnificent views of the surrounding mountains and Skeiðarársandur.  Many people continue longer hikes from here, but we’re not geared up to do such a thing.  Not to mention that it’s awfully windy and cold up here at these heights!

the view from Sjónarsker
the view from Sjónarsker
Sjónarsker
Sjónarsker
view from Sjónarsker
view from Sjónarsker
view from Sjónarsker
view from Sjónarsker
view from Sjónarsker
view from Sjónarsker
view from Sjónarsker
view from Sjónarsker
view from Sjónarsker
view from Sjónarsker
view from Sjónarsker
view from Sjónarsker
view from Sjónarsker
view from Sjónarsker
me at Sjónarsker
me at Sjónarsker
Mike at Sjónarsker
Mike at Sjónarsker

We can even see another glacier tongue to our west.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
view from Sjónarsker to another glacier tongue

Of course, we have amazing views of Skeiðarársandur with the river snaking out to the North Atlantic Ocean.  It’s so immense that it boggles the mind.

view from Sjónarsker to Skeiðarársandur
view from Sjónarsker to Skeiðarársandur

From here, we get to walk downhill, thank goodness, to visit the traditional turf-roofed farmhouse, Sel.  By now, I’m pretty exhausted from all our walking today!

southeast iceland: hof to svínafellsjökull

Monday, August 22:  After leaving Fjallsárlón, we follow the Ring Road inland, keeping our eye out for a small town called Hof, where there is a storybook church.  We find the town nestled up against the slopes of a mountain

Hof
Hof
Hof
Hof
Hof
Hof

We easily find Hofskirkja, the wood-and-peat church built in 1884 by the carpenter Páll Pálsson, sitting in a thicket of birch and ash. It was the last turf church built in the old style on the foundations of a previous 14th-century building.

Hofskirkja
Hofskirkja
Hofskirkja
Hofskirkja

It is one of six churches still standing which are preserved as historical monuments.  The church is maintained by the National Museum but also serves as a parish church.

Hofskirkja
Hofskirkja
Hofskirkja
Hofskirkja
Hofskirkja
Hofskirkja
Hofskirkja
Hofskirkja
Hofskirkja
Hofskirkja

The little cemetery with its mounded graves and white crosses is charming, with bunches of purple flowers here and there.

cemetery at Hofskirkja
cemetery at Hofskirkja
cemetery at Hofskirkja
cemetery at Hofskirkja
cemetery at Hofskirkja
cemetery at Hofskirkja

After walking around this quiet place and using the very well-maintained WC, we’re on our way to the glacier Svínafellsjökull.  We drive down another 2.5km dirt road to a car park where there is a short but slightly treacherous hike to the glacier snout.

A memorial at the beginning of the hike tells of two German hikers, 25 and 29, who disappeared into the glacier in 2007.  The families of the two hikers erected the memorial.  Maybe one day,as the glacier retreats, someone will find the remains of these two unfortunate hikers.

Svínafellsjökull
Svínafellsjökull
Svínafellsjökull
Svínafellsjökull

According to Lonely Planet Iceland, scenes from 2014’s Interstellar were filmed here.  I saw that movie in China and guess I’ll have to see it again to see if I recognize this scene.  You can read about it here in Iceland Magazine: Reporter from CNN makes a tribute tour to Svínafellsjökull outlet glacier which was used as a set for Interstellar.

Svínafellsjökull
Svínafellsjökull
Svínafellsjökull
Svínafellsjökull
Svínafellsjökull
Svínafellsjökull
Svínafellsjökull
Svínafellsjökull
Svínafellsjökull
Svínafellsjökull
Svínafellsjökull
Svínafellsjökull
Mike at Svínafellsjökull
Mike at Svínafellsjökull
me with Mike at Svínafellsjökull
me with Mike at Svínafellsjökull
Svínafellsjökull
Svínafellsjökull
Svínafellsjökull
Svínafellsjökull
Svínafellsjökull
Svínafellsjökull

We leave here and head next to Vatnajökull National Park, but not before stopping to admire another outlet tongue of Svínafellsjökull.

Svínafellsjökull from a distance
Svínafellsjökull from a distance

More glacial views are to be had from the Ring Road.

view from the Ring Road
view from the Ring Road

On one side of us, looking inland, we see the offshoot glaciers of Vatnajökull; on the other side, bordering the North Atlantic Ocean, is Skeiðarársandur, the largest sandur in the world.

 

southeast iceland: höfn to fjallsárlón

Monday, August 22:  We check out of Höfn Guesthouse early this morning, as they don’t serve breakfast.  We gobble down a banana and some yogurt and then we’re on our way to Vik, with numerous stops planned along the way.

Of course, we must make a few random roadside stops to take pictures of interesting scenes, like this pretty red-roofed farmhouse.

Farm along the Ring Road
Farm along the Ring Road
Ring Road landscape along southeast Iceland
Ring Road landscape along southeast Iceland

We make a quick stop at Brunnhólskirkja, a charming church that caught my eye yesterday as we zoomed along the Ring Road back to Höfn.

Brunnhólskirkja
Brunnhólskirkja
Brunnhólskirkja
Brunnhólskirkja
Brunnhólskirkja
Brunnhólskirkja

We find a memorial at the Hjallanes loop, a 7km hiking route which goes from a working farm in Skálafell towards Skálafellsjökull glacier and back to Skálafell.  Hjallanes is within the boundaries of Vatnajökull National Park, a remarkable area due to both glaciology and plants.  Although we’d love to do this hike, we have so many other things to squeeze in today that we bypass this one.

Memorial along the Ring Road
Memorial along the Ring Road

We stop to have a look at Skálafell, the working farm located between the town Höfn and the Glacier Lagoon where the Hjallanes loop begins.

Skálafell working farm and guesthouse
Skálafell working farm and guesthouse
Skálafell working farm and guesthouse
Skálafell working farm and guesthouse

As of 9:15 a.m. this morning, we have driven 2,025 km during our entire Iceland trip, and we still have some distance to go.

We make a brief stop at Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, the same place we visited yesterday. We had to backtrack to Höfn Sunday, where we spent a second night, and so had to drive right past Jökulsárlón again.  It is a grayer day than yesterday, so we don’t take any more photos; we mainly stop to use the facilities and to grab a snack of mushroom soup, bread, and a chocolate-covered doughnut with sprinkles. 🙂

Not far past Jökulsárlón, we find a small sign off the Ring Road indicating Fjallsárlón.  This lesser-visited trail gives access to two glacial lagoons with a tiny river flowing between them.  Here icebergs calve from Fjallsjökull, part of the bigger glacier Vatnajökull.

Fjallsárlón
Fjallsárlón

It’s a dark and cloudy day and this lagoon is not heavily touristed, so the place feels a little desolate and eerie.

Fjallsárlón
Fjallsárlón
Fjallsárlón
Fjallsárlón
Fjallsárlón
Fjallsárlón
Fjallsárlón
Fjallsárlón
Fjallsárlón
Fjallsárlón
Fjallsárlón
Fjallsárlón
Fjallsárlón
Fjallsárlón
Fjallsárlón
Fjallsárlón
Fjallsárlón
Fjallsárlón

By the time we’ve walked around Fjallsárlón, we’ve walked 4,705 steps, and our day is just beginning!

Fjallsárlón
Fjallsárlón

We continue our drive towards Vik, with a few dramatic scenes along the way.

Ring Road views
Ring Road views
Ring Road views
Ring Road views

Before the road goes inland, we get our first view of the immense sandar, the flat and empty area sprawling along Iceland’s southeastern coast. This is the outwash plain of the glacier; silt, sand and gravel are scooped up from the mountains by the glacier, carried by glacial rivers or glacial bursts down to the coast, where they’re dumped in huge desert-like plains of gray-black sands and rocks (Lonely Planet Iceland).

Ring Road views
Ring Road views
Ring Road views
Ring Road views

We continue inland to the storybook church at Hof.

 

southeast iceland: last night in höfn

Sunday, August 21:  After leaving the Fláajökull glacier tongue, we continue to backtrack east along the Ring Road, where we run into a herd of Icelandic horses, and right across the street, some sheep.  Of course we have to stop for a visit.

Icelandic horses near
Icelandic horses near Höfn

I love how the horses’ long manes and bangs that cover their eyes.  They’re so adorable!

Icelandic horses near
Icelandic horses near Höfn
Icelandic horses near
Icelandic horses near Höfn
Icelandic horses near
Icelandic horses near Höfn
Icelandic horses near
Icelandic horses near Höfn
Icelandic horses near
Icelandic horses near Höfn
Icelandic horses near
Icelandic horses near Höfn
Icelandic horses near
Icelandic horses near Höfn

Just across the road, we find some sheep having a pow-wow.

Icelandic sheep
Icelandic sheep

Back in Höfn, we check into our new guesthouse Höfn Guesthouse.  It’s right above the town’s post office.  With 12 guest rooms, it has shared bathrooms and a little kitchenette with a microwave and electric kettle. No breakfast is served here. We settle in, have some hot tea and cheese and crackers.

Höfn Guesthouse
Höfn Guesthouse
Höfn Guesthouse
Höfn Guesthouse
Our room at Höfn Guesthouse
Our room at Höfn Guesthouse

After a bit of a rest, we head to Pakkhús, a restaurant overlooking the harbor in Höfn í Hornafjörður.  We have beers in the lower level while waiting for a table upstairs.  While sitting downstairs a little Dutch-looking girl with a bowl haircut seems to be fascinated with me.  She keeps walking over to our table and staring intently at me, as if I were some alien creature.

Pakkhús was originally built in 1932 as a warehouse, mainly from scrap wood of other houses.  The restaurant specializes in langoustine (Icelandic lobster); Höfn is often called the capital of langoustine in Iceland.  According to the menu, the langoustine here “comes fresh, straight from Sigurdur Olafsson SF44, the red ship often seen just outside our window and boats of Skinney Þinganes.”

I have Humar: oven grilled langoustine tails with spiced butter and garlic, served with mixed salad, bread and pink langoustine sauce.  It’s delicious!

Mike has Grænmeti: potatoes from local farm Seljavellir in a pie crust along with other vegetables, gratinated with icelandic feta cheese, served with mixed salad and yogurt sauce.

Mike at Pakkhús
Mike at Pakkhús

After dinner, we take a nice walk around the promontory Ósland, along Hornafjörður.  There’s a long trail through the marshes here.  Across the lagoon, we can see the glacier offshoots we visited today, one brilliantly lit by rays of sunlight.

The glacier tongues around Hornafjörður
The glacier tongues around Hornafjörður
glacier tongues around Hornafjörður
glacier tongues around Hornafjörður
The glacier tongues around Hornafjörður
The glacier tongues around Hornafjörður
marshy path on the promontory Ósland, along Hornafjörður
marshy path on the promontory Ósland, along Hornafjörður
the marsh path
the marsh path
the marsh path
the marsh path
the marsh path
the marsh path
the marsh path
the marsh path

From the marsh trail, we can see the memorial to fishermen lost at sea; we visited this monument briefly last night.

memorial for fishermen lost at sea
memorial for fishermen lost at sea
Hornafjörður
Hornafjörður
the marsh path
the marsh path
the marsh path
the marsh path
the marsh path
the marsh path
the marsh path
the marsh path

It’s cold and windy out on this promontory, and we’re feeling pretty bad now with our colds and coughs and tickling throats.  Though we’d like to stay out longer, we need our rest.

Tomorrow, we continue west to Vik.

Total steps today: 15,946 (6.76 miles).

southeast iceland: fláajökull glacier tongue hike

Sunday, August 21: Backtracking to the east, where we will stay another night in Höfn, we take a detour to a walking trail that goes to the Fláajökull glacier tongue, one of many glacier tongues flowing south from Vatnajökull glacier.

We have to take a gravel access road for 8km to a small car park.  It’s a long, bumpy and slow drive but manageable enough in our 2WD car.

A sign at the entrance warns of quicksand and dangerously cold water, sometimes covered with a thin layer of ice.  There is also a high risk of falling rocks and rock slides in steep hillsides next to retreating glaciers. The sign also warns that “fatal accidents have occurred due to collapsing blocks of ice, falls into crevasses and hypothermia.  Some have never returned from a glacier visit, their fate still unknown.”

The glacier tongue doesn’t look like it’s that far away, but, as we find every time we walk to a glacier, appearances are deceiving.

Fláajökull glacier tongue
Fláajökull glacier tongue

It is an awfully gray day, and quite dark and uninviting.

Fláajökull glacier tongue
Fláajökull glacier tongue
Mike at Fláajökull glacier tongue
Mike at Fláajökull glacier tongue

We cross a suspension bridge that leads to the trail.  It’s a wobbly bridge and we can’t help bouncing around on it like a couple of kids as we cross.

suspension bridge at Fláajökull glacier tongue
suspension bridge at Fláajökull glacier tongue
Mike on the suspension bridge
Mike on the suspension bridge
the wobbly suspension bridge at Fláajökull
the wobbly suspension bridge at Fláajökull

We cross paths with a man and woman walking across the rocky field in the picture below.  The woman tells us she thought it would be a shortcut, but because the ground is sandy and rocky, it was not a shortcut after all.  She advises us to stay on the trail.

Fláajökull glacier tongue
Fláajökull glacier tongue

It takes us a while to get to the lagoon at the edge of the glacier tongue.

Fláajökull glacier tongue and lagoon
Fláajökull glacier tongue and lagoon

Apparently, Fláajökull has retreated more than two kilometers (1 mile) over the last century.

Fláajökull glacier tongue
Fláajökull glacier tongue
Fláajökull
Fláajökull
Fláajökull
Fláajökull

There are a few spots of color, little tufts of wildflowers that manage to eke out a living in this rocky terrain.

wildflowers eking out a living on the rocks
wildflowers eking out a living on the rocks

The path winds along the edge of the lagoon over rocky terrain with often poor footing.  Sometimes it’s a little close to the edge and, as some of the ground on the edge of the lagoon looks muddy, I can’t help but wonder if it’s quicksand, especially after reading the warning sign.

the barren landscape around Fláajökull
the barren landscape around Fláajökull
the barren landscape around Fláajökull
the barren landscape around Fláajökull
the barren landscape around Fláajökull
the barren landscape around Fláajökull
the barren landscape around Fláajökull
the barren landscape around Fláajökull

The path, covered in loose rocks, rounds a precarious point on a narrow ledge.  I’m leery about proceeding around this point as I don’t want to fall into the icy water or sink into quicksand! Mike goes to the point while I linger behind, refusing to go any further.

Mike at Fláajökull
Mike at Fláajökull

From this point, Mike can see some hardy souls who have walked around the point up to the edge of the glacier, but I’m not willing to be one of those hardy souls.  The path is just too narrow and I’m too much of a klutz.

We slowly make our way back along the path, where I find more colorful wildflower tufts tucked in around the rocks, the only splashes of color in this barren place.

We continue picking our way among the rocks along the glacier tongue’s lagoon.  Several times we lose the path and come to a dead-end where it’s impossible to proceed.  We have to backtrack and gingerly find our way to the path again.  It’s not well-marked at all.

Fláajökull's lagoon
Fláajökull’s lagoon
Fláajökull's lagoon
Fláajökull’s lagoon
Fláajökull
Fláajökull

Finally, we make it back to the car park.  From there, we drive slowly back along the 8km gravel road, passing some sheep along the way.

Icelandic sheep
Icelandic sheep
the 8km gravel road back to the Ring Road
the 8km gravel road back to the Ring Road
Icelandic sheep at Fláajökull
Icelandic sheep at Fláajökull

We head back to Höfn, where we will check into our second hotel there, eat some dinner, and take a walk on a marshy path on the promontory Ósland, along Hornafjörður.