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.

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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.