Due to Reykjavík’s location in the southern part of Iceland, most of the popular tourist destinations in the country are the waterfalls, glaciers, and volcanic features in that part of the country. So, as we continued our counter-clockwise loop around Iceland into the north, the crowds of tourists were smaller, and we were still able to find more stunning scenery while finding out a little more about the culture of Iceland itself.
Our first stop after leaving Mývatn was another beautiful, glacier-fed waterfall. Goðafoss, meaning “waterfall of the gods,” is named so because after Iceland’s official religion was changed to Christianity at the Alþingi in the year 1000, the lawspeaker threw his statues of the Norse gods into the waterfall.
You can park on either side of the waterfall; we chose the east side. Goðafoss is very pretty, with crystal blue water, but the gnats here were very persistent so we didn’t linger very long. There is a smaller series of waterfalls just downstream that are also worth taking a look at.
The Ring Road then passes through the city of Akureyri, Iceland’s second largest urban area. We parked our campervan for free near the fancy Hof Cultural and Conference Center. We wandered through the small and cute main part of the central business district, and climbed the stairs to Akureyrarkirkja, the main Lutheran church in town. We found a relatively cheap burger place called DJ Grill and got some tasty burgers for lunch before hitting the road again.
Tröllaskagi Peninsula / Herring Era Museum
We next took a detour off of the Ring Road to drive the edge of the Tröllaskagi (“Troll”) Peninsula, a mountainous finger of land jutting out into the ocean with fjords on either side. Unfortunately, the gloomy weather didn’t let the area show off its best side, but we did enjoy the views we could see. We also experienced a few one-lane tunnels, which were pretty nerve-wracking to go through! They weren’t controlled by lights at all; instead, traffic both ways used the same lane with pullouts every few hundred meters to help solve the issue of two cars meeting head on. Nerve-wracking to say the least!
We stopped along the way in the town of Siglufjörður to visit the Herring Era Museum. In the first half of the 20th century, herring was a huge part of Iceland’s economy. Siglufjörður itself, located on a fjord near some of the best catching grounds, became a boomtown, with thousands of laborers flocking to the town and working in the catching or processing of herring. However, in the 1950s, the herring numbers precipitously declined, and by 1969 they were gone, and Siglufjörður’s golden period ended. Three of the old buildings from the herring era have now been converted into an immersive museum allowing you to get a feel for what that time in Iceland and Siglufjörður was like.
The first building, an old salting station, has exhibits on the history of the herring trade, and then on the upper levels has recreated the dormitories where the “herring girls,” the seasonal workers who came to the town to work in the summer, and the herring fishermen were housed. The second building, an old herring factory, has exhibits and old machinery demonstrating how herring was converted into both meal and oil. The third building contains old boats used for herring fishing set up on recreated piers.
Our visit happened to coincide with a local arts festival, with different members of the community showing off their talents. The boat building had musical acts, including a man playing an accordion, which definitely helped transport us back to the heyday of Siglufjörður and the herring industry.
Camping in Varmahlíð
After finishing our scenic detour along the Tröllaskagi peninsula, we rejoined the Ring Road and then stopped for the night in the town of Varmahlíð. Our original plan was to camp in the town’s main campground, but it was packed with Icelandic families and we wouldn’t have been able to get a spot close to the WC. Instead, we headed back to a place we had seen on our way into town that looked more like a private residence but did have a camping sign.
The sign gave its name as Lauftún. There was a large grass field that we just pulled into and picked a spot, then went up and rang the doorbell at the house. An older woman took our camping fee, which was by far the cheapest we paid all trip. It appeared to be a working farm, and Della had fun playing with the horses in the pen nearby. We later discovered a large room with seating and cooking areas that was being used by a local hiking club for their annual party. There was a small bathroom and a hot shower.
Glaumbær Turf Farmhouse
We had both been reading the book “Burial Rites” which is set on an Icelandic farm in the 1830s and describes the traditional Icelandic farmhouse made out of turf, so we were excited to get the opportunity to see an example of one in person. Glaumbær is just up the road from Varmahlíð so we made it our first stop the next day.
A farm has stood on the spot since Iceland’s “Age of Settlements” around 900 AD, and the turf farmhouse that you can tour was built in 1876. We used the self-guided tour brochure to explore the different rooms of the house. The walls are indeed made of thick pieces of turf, and the house has very few windows. The rooms are independent units accessible off of a single hallway, so they do not feel very well connected. One of the rooms we were most interested to see was the baðstofa, which served as the main sleeping and living quarters for all of the residents. It would have been very cozy confines during those long winters!
Kolugljúfur Gorge / Kolufossar Waterfall
We took a short detour off of the Ring Road to visit a small gorge with a pretty series of waterfalls. We took a short series of trails in either direction from the small parking area to get good views of the series of cascades. Note that there are no services here.
We enjoyed our brief time in northern Iceland, seeing more beautiful sights and getting to learn a little more about Iceland’s history and culture. Next, we would again detour from the Ring Road and drive the circuit of the Snæfellsnes peninsula.