Summer Trip to Iceland: Magnificent Mývatn

The Mývatn region in the northern part of Iceland surrounding a lake (the eponymous Lake Mývatn) contains a large number of interesting geologic features related to the still-active volcanoes in the region. Since there were so many things to do there, we decided to spend a whole day exploring the region.

Dettifoss

Our first activity in the general area is not technically part of the Mývatn region. We approached the Mývatn region at the end of a long travel day that started in the southeastern part of Iceland, taking a slight detour towards the end of our long driving day to visit Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe.

We took the fairly new well-paved road to a parking lot on the west side of the falls. From there it was about a kilometer down a surprisingly barren path to see the Dettifoss. The water for the falls comes from the Vatnajökull glacier, the same one we had been exploring the day before. At the falls, there is both an overlook and a closer viewpoint.

 

There was an optional trail to Selfoss, another waterfall, but we were feeling tired so only walked far enough to see it from a distance.

 

Dimmuborgir

After getting a good night’s sleep (see below), we were ready to see the sights around Lake Mývatn. We didn’t end up taking the most optimal path between sights, but with our campervan it meant that we didn’t end up wasting too much time.

Our first stop for the morning was the eerie lava fields of Dimmuborgir. We got there at 10 for a guided hike led by a park ranger. With her, we walked through the shorter loop, learning about the geology and flora of the area. We also saw the cave of the “Yule Lads”, 13 elf-like creatures (each with a different personality) that function like Santa Claus, bringing different gifts in the 13 days before Christmas.

 

After the guided walk, we did the larger loop on our own to see the Kirkjan (Church) lava tube formation. All in all, we spent about two hours in the park, but would have spent less if just on our own.

 

Note to future visitors: the bathrooms here require a fee. Also, the small gnats are quite annoying, and do not seem deterred by bug spray. Luckily, they do not bite.

Lunch Break at Vogafjós

While self-catering our meals helped us save money, it did tend to get a bit repetitive. And, we had a hard time feeling like we were getting enough good vegetables. So, we decided to splurge and eat out for lunch at Vogafjós restaurant. It is attached to the cowshed of a local farm! Eric got a lamb sandwich, and Della got a crepe with rice and mushrooms. Both came with a salad with house-made cheese. And of course we had to get the ice cream made from the cows on the other side of the walls; it came with two flavors: geysir bread and schnapps.

 

Grjótagjá Cave

Being fans of Game of Thrones, we had to check out Grjótagjá, the small cave in the area with a thermal spring inside, made famous as the location of an intimate moment between Jon Snow and Ygritte. The cave was smaller than we expected, but the water was very pretty, and we could feel the heat rising off of it. Unlike the characters on the show, regular visitors are asked not to get in the water. We also enjoyed exploring the rift that the cave is formed from, and tracing its path all the way down to the rift we saw in Dimmuborgir.

 

Námafjall Hverir geothermal area

Walking through this area of orange soil, screaming steam vents, and bubbling mud pots made us feel like we were walking around the surface of Mars! What doesn’t come across in the pictures is the strong smell of sulfur that permeates the area. We found the whole area very fascinating and enjoyed taking it all in.

 

 

Hverfjall Crater Hike

After initially thinking it might be too tough, we changed our minds and decided to hike up the Hverfjall Crater which dominates the views around Mývatn. It only took us about ten minutes to hike up to the rim. The skies cleared into a sunny day, so we took about an hour to walk the circumference of the rim and take in the views of the surrounding area.

 

Mývatn Nature Baths

As a literal hotbed of geothermal activity, Iceland is known among other things for a plethora of geothermal pools to bathe in. Some of the geothermal waters have been converted into full-scale facilities that are popular tourist attractions. The most famous is the Blue Lagoon near Reykjavík. The second most popular is probably the Mývatn Nature Baths. We visited these baths at the end of our long day exploring the Mývatn region.

Before entering the pool, we followed the local custom of taking a full shower first (in gender-specific bathrooms). We were a little concerned about whether Della could swim in the pool, since she was six weeks pregnant at the time. But, we had read that it was ok as long as the water temperature was at or below body temperature. A constantly updating chart in the visitor center showed that one end of the pool met this criteria, so we spent almost all of our time lounging in the water there. Eric did explore a little bit of the warmer parts as well. The mineral-rich water has a cloudy consistency and left a smooth sheen on our skin. It was a very relaxing way to end out day exploring Mývatn!

 

Camping

The main hub for the Mývatn region is the town of Reykjahlíð, which has a few camping options. We chose the Hlíð campground just outside of town because it was slightly less expensive and less crowded than the Bjarg campsite closer to town. We actually didn’t even take a spot, but instead just “camped” in the parking lot because that kept us close to the bathrooms for nighttime visits. The shared kitchen and dining facility is outdoors, but enclosed in plastic so it was pretty warm.

 

 

We definitely enjoyed the wide variety of activities in Mývatn, and are glad we dedicated a complete day just to the one region! But, after the unique experience of camping in the same place for two nights, the next day we would hit the Ring Road again and continue on to more natural wonders of Northern Iceland.

Summer Trip to Iceland: Grand Glaciers and Incredible Icebergs

After exploring the waterfalls and other scenic sights of southern Iceland, we continued east on the Ring Road. Over the next day, we would have multiple chances to see different pieces of the massive Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Iceland.

As we drove along the Ring Road, we were able to get glimpses of the different “tongues” of the glacier spilling down over the mountains. As we neared one section of the glacier, the surrounding scenery was replaced by a flat plain with very little vegetation. This was the result of a jökulhlaup: a massive flood (filled with icebergs) caused by geothermal events rapidly melting a part of a glacier. The highway was broken up by many metal one-lane bridges that were quite scary to navigate (there are sections in the middle that are two vehicles wide to allow for waiting). This is because parts of the Ring Road had been washed away in a jökulhlaup in 1996. Compounding the stress of driving through this section was the fact that it started raining very hard!

 

 

Skaftafell National Park – Svartifoss Waterfall

We were able to make it through the pouring rain to main entrance of this national park situated at the foot of a tongue of Vatnajökull. We were trying to find the trailhead for one particular trail based on a point on our maps app, but could not actually get there so just went to the crowded visitor center instead. It’s a good thing we did, because that’s where the trail started anyway. It was still raining, so we took some time exploring the visitor center and watching a film about the area, and eating a quick lunch in the car. We then put on a bunch of layers and headed out on the hike to Svartifoss.

The hike was labeled as “easy” at the visitor center, and while it wasn’t rocky, it definitely included a steady and significant elevation gain. We got very sweaty under all of our layers, and it wasn’t even raining much anymore. The waterfall was not as big as the ones we had seen in the previous days, but its background of black basalt columns made for an unique setting.

 

Svínafellsjökull

Just past Skaftafell was a dirt road turnoff for a viewing area of Svínafellsjökull, another tongue of Vatnajökull. This was our first chance to get a close view at a glacier. Just past the parking area is a small trail along the wall of a canyon that contains the massive amount of ice. We sat for a while and tried to take in the sheer amount of ice spilling down from the peaks above into the bay below.

 

Fjallsárlón Glacial Lake

We continued on the Ring Road around the southeast corner of the island and starting heading north along the eastern coast. Our next stop was at Fjallsárlón, a glacial lake made where another tongue of Vatnajökull has formed a body of water and deposits icebergs. It is less well known and visited than the neighboring Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon (although still relatively crowded). We walked down to the shore of the lake and enjoyed the views of the icebergs on the water and Vatnajökull in the distance.

 

We stayed here for about 40 minutes. A note to interested visitors: there is no public toilet here.

Jökulsárlón

Just up the road was Jökulsárlón, the more famous (and crowded) glacial lake filled with icebergs with a small channel connecting out to the ocean. We enjoyed watching as a few big icebergs started slipping down the channel, only to be caught on a shallow part.

 

We followed the channel out the ocean and the black sand beach, where there were small remnants of icebergs that the ocean had pushed back onto shore.

 

To cap off our visit, we walked back out to the main lagoon and watched the big icebergs in the middle, observing their different subtle behaviors. As we were leaving, we noticed a cool effect: the tide had started to come in, so the flow of the channel was reversed, pushing icebergs back into the lagoon.

 

All told we spent over an hour here, and there were public toilets.

Camping in Höfn

We spent the night at the main campground in the coastal town of Höfn. Lonely Planet says the town’s name “is pronounced like an unexpected hiccup (just say ‘hup’ while inhaling)” – gee thanks, that really clears it up! The campground was fairly crowded but we were able to get a spot in one of the areas off to the side close to an ablutions. The main ablutions block with a kitchen area was a little far away, so we didn’t cook there, but we did wash dishes there, take hot showers (fee required), and spend time in the indoor heated area.

 

Driving along the Eastern Fjords

The next day was a long travel day, as there were not any sights that we were particularly interested in seeing along the eastern part of the country. However, the drive was scenic, weaving along the coastline and then in and out of the eastern fjords (with Eric taking his first turn driving the manual transmission campervan).

 

One unexpected highlight was a black pebble beach just off the road, part of Hvalnes Nature Reserve. It was nice and sunny out, which had warmed the smooth black pebbles to a toasty temperature. Della really enjoyed laying on these warm stones and soaking in the heat.

 

By the end of our long driving day, we had bid goodbye to the wonders of Vatnajökull and its associated tongues and lakes, and were back along the continental divide in the magical area of Mývatn, which will be the subject of our next post!

Summer Trip to Iceland: The Golden Circle

After our two days in Reykjavík, we headed out on the main purpose of the trip: renting a campervan and driving the Ring Road around the country.

Our Go Campers Campervan

When we visited southern Africa, we decided that the best way to see and experience the area was to rent a 4×4 truck for a self-drive safari. We had read of many people doing the same thing in Iceland: renting a campervan to allow them to explore the beautiful countryside at their own pace.

After a lot of research and comparison, we decided to rent through Go Campers. We chose their smallest model, the Go SMART 2-person Camper. This vehicle would be both our transportation and accommodation for the next ten days!

Included in the Go Campers rental was pickup from the main bus station in Reykjavík, which was in walking distance from our accommodations. We were happy to see that our Dacia Dokker van was quite new, with only 5730 km (3560 miles) on the odometer and not much wear.

We paid a little extra to rent a cooler, table and chairs to add to the included kitchen and camping gear. We had brought our own sleeping bags so we didn’t have to rent those, but pillows, light blankets and a mattress were included.

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Making dinner the first night using the small pullout shelf. You can also see the chairs and cooler, as well as the storage boxes in the back of the van

The Golden Circle

After acquainting ourselves with our campervan, we headed to the most popular area of the country for visitors: the Golden Circle. This is not a geographic designation but rather just a way to describe the grouping of popular tourist sites near Reykjavik which are located roughly along a circle of highways.

Reykjadalur

Our first stop wasn’t actually one of the main Golden Circle sights but was in the same area. We drove through the town of Hveragerði to the trailhead for the hike to Reykjadalur, the “steaming valley”. We had thought this would not be too popular of a spot since not too much had been written about it, but the crowded parking lot was our first lesson that nothing in Iceland in the summer is unknown.

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The hike was a little tougher than we were expecting, about 3 km with 200 m elevation gain. We also were introduced to the gnats that would pester us throughout the trip (luckily not biting). The scenery was nice but not stunning – until we got to the final part with the large mud pots and steam vents. It felt like we were walking into another world as we walking through the sulfurous steam.

The final destination was a river that we could bathe in – hot water from the springs runs down into the cold water resulting in a very pleasant temperature. We searched for a spot that was not too hot and stayed in for a while, soaking away. We dried ourselves off using the small towels we had brought and then headed back down.

Overall we spent about 3.5 hours. There was a WC at the coffeeshop at the trailhead. We thought there was supposed to be one by the bathing area but could not find it.

Kerið

We spent about 30 minutes walking around the rim of this volcanic crater and then down to the lake in the middle of it. Unfortunately, it had gotten overcast, so the reds of the rock and blues of the lake did not contrast quite as nicely as we had hoped. This was also one of the few natural attractions that we visited in Iceland that charged admission.

Þingvellir National Park

Our first visit to one of the big 3 on the Golden Circle was the Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park. This park is both of geographic and historic interest: it is located in the rift valley between the North American and European continental plates, and it was the site of the Alþingi, a yearly meeting of Icelandic clan chiefs which started in 930 AD (considered the world’s first Parliament). The site was used as a meeting place for Parliament up until 1800.

We walked around the park and saw the main attractions: Lögberg, the “law rock”, where the Lögsögumaður (Lawspeaker) would recite the laws each year (and where the decision was made to switch the national religion to Christianity in 1000 AD); the remains of búðir, meaning “booths”, the structures where the Alþingi attendees and their retinues would stay during the meetings; Þingvallakirkja, one of Iceland’s first churches; and Öxaráfoss waterfall.

Snorkeling in Silfra at Þingvellir

There are so many amazing outdoor adventures to do in Iceland, but we knew we couldn’t afford to do them all. Instead, we went with something we thought sounded pretty unique: snorkeling in glacial water in between the tectonic plates!

A company called Dive Iceland runs snorkeling and diving tours in the Silfra fissure which leads into the Þingvallavatn lake. This fissure is fed by glacial water, so the water is crystal clear… but ice cold! You may be wondering how we could snorkel in such water. Dive Iceland provides full dry suits for all of the guests to be able to stay in the near freezing water.

Since it was the summer, we were able to book a tour that left at 9 PM, and there was still a lot of light. We met up with our guide Tonya, the on shore assistant Elanora, and four other guests. We had worn a bunch of thermal layers as instructed, and they provided an additional thermal onesie. Getting squeezed into the dry suits was an adventure in itself, requiring assistance from one of the guides. Having tight neck and wrist seals was the most important part.

Diving into the cold water was a little scary, but the dry suits did a pretty good job. The gloves are “wet” gloves, so your hands did get cold after a while. And your mouth is exposed directly to the water as well. It was a bit weird to be snorkeling in fresh water after so many times in seawater.

The water was very clear, and almost blue tinted. Our snorkel tour took us through the rift in the direction that the spring water was moving, so we didn’t actual have to spend much energy kicking, as the current would move you along.

The first part of the fissure was narrow and deep, with big boulders at the bottom. Following this were a few shallow parts that we had to navigate over. We started to see interesting green kelp that looked like Silly String. The last large part is nicknamed “The Cathedral.”

We finished up by getting out of the current into a shallow lagoon. Here we could stay in as long as we wanted. Our hands had gotten pretty cold, so we didn’t linger. We did make sure and drink directly from the water – since it is straight from a glacier it is safe to drink.

Back at the meeting place, we squeezed back out of the dry suits and had some nice hot chocolate. Even then it took us a while to warm back up. We definitely enjoyed this unique experience!

Camping at Þingvellir

We didn’t finish snorkeling until late, so it was nice that there was a campground right there at Þingvellir. Earlier in the day we had paid to stay here, which was kind of a funny story. We had been assuming that there were assigned spots and were concerned to make sure to get one, but as it turns out all of the campgrounds in Iceland are basically just open fields. Once you pay for a night, you can just choose any spot in the field you feel like. We tried to pick one pretty close to the ablutions block, which had toilets, showers and utility sinks.

Setting up the campervan for sleeping was a pretty simple process. We simply moved our luggage up into the front seats and spread out our sleeping bags on the mattress in the back. We slept with our heads near the front seats and our feet near the back, with just enough room to be able to lie flat.

Geysir

The next morning we headed to one of the other big attractions on the Golden Circle, the geysers at Geysir (Geysir is where the English word geyser came from). There are multiple hot water spouts and bubbling mud pools in this area crowded with tourists. The eponymous spout Geysir erupts very infrequently currently. However, the geyser Strokkur is very reliable, erupting about every 4 minutes when we were there. We spent about 45 minutes exploring the area and watching the explosions of water. There is a large tourist center with food and restrooms here as well.

Gullfoss

The last major stop on the Golden Circle is the massive waterfall Gullfoss. It is actually composed of two tiers of massive drops. We first walked down on the lower part to get a close-up view, making sure to put on rain jackets to stay dry from all of the spray. We then headed to a nice viewpoint above the falls. We spent about an hour in total exploring here. There are bathrooms in the parking lot, but you have to pay (credit cards accepted, as everywhere else in Iceland).

Back to the Ring Road

Following Gullfoss, we headed back down on a few different highways to rejoin the Ring Road. We didn’t stop for any more attractions, other than to say hi to some Icelandic ponies.

Once back on the Ring Road, we headed east to explore the waterfalls and coastal formations of Southern Iceland.