Summer Trip to Iceland: Not Just Nature in the North

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.

Goðafoss

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.

 

 

Akureyri

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.

 

 

Summer Trip to Iceland: South Iceland’s Stunning Scenery

After touring the Golden Circle, we headed east on the Ring Road along the southern coast of Iceland. When we were making our list of sights to see in Iceland, this area definitely had the highest concentration. We were able to see all of the places we describe in this blog in just a day and a half!

Seljalandsfoss

This waterfall is just off of the Ring Road -in fact, you can see it as you are driving up! There is a path that goes behind the waterfall which we knew we wanted to take, so we made sure to put on our rain gear and snow pants to make ourselves as waterproof as possible. We spent about 30 minutes exploring.

Gljúfrabúi

Just north of Seljalandsfoss is another waterfall which appears hidden from a distance, as you can only see the top part of the falls with the rest obscured by a rock. You can get to the base of the waterfall by walking through a narrow canyon – we were able to do this by hopping from rock to rock. It was quite wet in there but very pretty. We also climbed a steep path on the rock that blocks the view of the falls to see it from that vantage point but were underwhelmed with what we could see from up there.

Camping at Gljúfrabúi

At Gljúfrabúi, there is a campsite right next to the falls. We decided to stop our travels for the day here and enjoy the view of both Gljúfrabúi and the nearby Seljalandsfoss. Again, the campground was mostly just an open field so we had our pick of spot. The campground has a main building that includes a shared kitchen which we used to cook our dinner and do our dishes in a warm environment. We hung out here throughout most of the evening enjoying the cozy environment and free Wi-Fi. There were hot showers at this campground, although you had to pay to use them.

Eyjafjallajökull

The next morning we packed up and continued east on the Ring Road. We paused briefly at a pulloff with views of Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano which had a large enough eruption in 2010 that its ashcloud disrupted flights in and out of Europe.

Skógafoss

Our next stop was another massive waterfall, Skógafoss. We first enjoyed the view from the base of the falls, then climbed a path of approximately 420 steps to get a view of the top of the falls.

Sólheimasandur

In 1973, a US Navy plane crash landed on the black sand beach of Sólheimasandur. Everyone survived, but they left the wreckage of the plane on the beach. You used to be able to drive all the way out to the plane, but the local landowners decided to restrict access. Now, you have to park right off the Ring Road and walk 4 km to the crash. We were nervous that we would miss the parking for this unofficial site, but there was a large parking lot full of vehicles that was easy to spot. We spent about 2 hours total here, walking out, taking pictures, and then walking back.

Dyrhólaey

We then stopped at the Dyrhólaey peninsula, the formation we could see from Skógafoss. Our main interest here was watching the puffins that nest in the cliffs. We also enjoyed the views of the various sea arches ranging from small to massive. We chose not to drive to the top of the promontory where there was a lighthouse.

Reynisfjara

On the other side of the bay from Dyrhólaey is a beautiful black sand beach with mystical basalt column caves. We had a fun time sitting on the columns and imagining how they had been formed. We were happy that there was a bathroom here as there hadn’t been at the previous two stops.

Eldhraun

As we continued our drive along the Ring Road, we enjoyed the views of glaciers in the distance and purple flowers in the foreground. We then drove through the massive lava field of Eldhraun. The lava flows, which are the biggest lava flow in the world resulting from a volcanic eruption in the late 18th century) are now covered with thick, puffy, green moss. We felt like we were in a fairy tale! We first stopped at an official rest area where we could get somewhat close to the lava, and then at a more unofficial pull-off where there was a road through the fields. We were very careful to stay on existing paths/roads as the moss is fragile. These viewing areas weren’t on many maps, so if you are curious to visit, the official rest area is here and the unofficial area is here.

Fjaðrárgljúfur

Towards the end of the day we visited this canyon near the Eldhraun lava field, following the trail along the canyon rim. Our legs were pretty tired so we only went to the first few viewpoints. There was a bathroom here as well.

Camping in Kirkjubæjarklaustur

We spent the night in the town of Kirkjubæjarklaustur in its main camping area. This tongue twister of a name means “Church Farm Cloister” – the locals just call it Klaustur for short. The camping area was probably the most crowded of any camping area we stayed in. Many of the other campers seemed to be Icelandic families there with their children. We enjoyed our dinner outside, but then retreated to the shared kitchen and dining area for some warmth later in the evening.

Kirkjugólf

Within walking distance of the campground was Kirkjugólf, the “church floor”. Here, the hexagonal basalt columns like we saw at Reynisfjara have been smoothed down to ground level. It really does look like a tile-work floor at first glance!

 

Next, we continued on the Ring Road to the southeastern portion of Iceland, where our first glimpse of glaciers was to be had!