THE ICELAND DIARIES: 2 WEEKS PART ONE
Iceland has been a bucket list destination for Lucas and I for quite some time.
What's not to love? Hiking, glaciers, moss, waterfalls, volcanoes, and even the overcast and moody days; Iceland was a dream to visit.
With two weeks, we made sure we had our itinerary ready to go, our route mapped, and both of them double and triple checked for good measure. We—or if I am honest as the extreme planner in our duo, mostly I—didn't want to miss a single thing and, with an arrival time of 6:00AM, that meant we had a full day ahead of ourselves after our flights.
To start, we picked up our vehicle from Go Car Rental. After a lot of consideration while planning, we decided on renting a 4x4 vehicle rather than a cheaper car or a more expensive camper van. As we picked more and more stops for our itinerary, we realized it would be impossible to do without four wheel drive, and we were not disappointed in our choice during our entire trip. Our cute, little (and I mean little) Suzuki Jimny (a.k.a. Jimny Cricket) did us proud.
We had no time to spare before packing our belongings in our new ride and making our way to the iconic and nearby Blue Lagoon. We had pre-booked for the opening hour of the day, and due to the luck of our flights and rental being issue-free, we got to enjoy the best hours almost completely alone in the turquoise waters. We enjoyed the included drink and mud masks, and people continued to arrive until the Lagoon was a hot spot of activity. While entrance allows you to spend the whole day enjoying the spa, we had more plans to get to before the end of our day.
First, the less exciting fuel up for our Jimny and ourselves in the form of gas and groceries respectively. Then, the much more exciting Thingvellir National Park, where tectonic plates collide, marking the continental divide between North America and Eurasia.
Although we enjoy a busy itinerary, we had a brief window of time before our scheduled activity in the National Park and ended up napping while upright in the car (with our bags in the back, we actually didn't have enough room to recline our seats). When we awoke, still groggy, we rushed to get dressed in clothes that could easily be swapped to swimsuits if necessary. To be honest, we had no idea what to expect and were already chilled enough to hope that the swimsuits would not be necessary because we weren't on our way to visit another spa or lagoon.
We were about to snorkel between the tectonic plates.
Arriving at the meeting point, it was quickly clarified that, thankfully, we would not require less clothing than we were currently wearing. We actually ended up outfitted in more than either of us have ever worn: our clothes as a base layer, a drysuit, a wetsuit, and our snorkel and fins, all combining to ensure we stayed toasty warm—minus our heads, hands, and feet—as we entered the frigid 2°C spring water.
Entering the water was otherworldly. Sounds gone, tectonic plates on both sides, the chasm stretching below. It was the clearest deep blue water, that was literally good enough to drink as it was fresh spring water. Additionally, it was cold enough to numb our faces almost instantaneously. After the current carried us to the last area to explore, and we were sufficiently cold, we finally ended our snorkel.
To end our day, we walked through Thingvellir National Park to enjoy the beautiful view and finally set up our first campsite of our trip.
We woke up at the unreasonable time of 6:00AM, but luckily a recurring theme during our trip was a) very early mornings paired with b) late arrivals to camp, which led to c) the best sleeps from being so tired it rendered us unconscious throughout the chilly, and often wet, evenings. It also helped that Lucas drove 100% of the trip and I got a few naps out of it. I'm not a morning person, okay?!
To wake us up, we had a hike up to Glymur Waterfall. A relatively easy hike, but one that paid off in spades as not only did we get a chance to go through a beautiful cave overlooking a river, we also got to cross said river by log and cable wire before hiking steadily up and being rewarded with clearer and clearer views of the canyon and waterfall. To make it a loop, we had to cross the river again at the top and quickly realized that this time there would be no log and no chance of keeping our feet dry. Taking off our boots, we crossed the icy water barefoot (and as quickly as possible).
Next up, we visited Barnafoss, a small-but-powerful fall bursting out of a channel and small archway, and Hraunfossar, an incredibly wide section of falls cascading over an expanse of lava. Both are located within a short walk of each other and were easily accessible. We didn't spend much time here, which became a theme at many of the stops where we didn't have to hike or work for the views.
We drove next to Snaefellsnes Peninsula, which contained the rest of our day's stops: Budakirkja, the beautiful black church; Raudfeldsgja, a crevice in a ravine; Gatklettur, the natural land bridge; and Bardur Snaefellsnes, the half-troll / half-man who settled the area and acts as guardian of the peninsula. Since we were a bit behind schedule and because it was extremely windy (inhibiting our ability to light our stove), we got fish and chips in Arnastapi at a small, permanent food truck. At approximately $30 per person, it was an expensive food truck, but I will say I was very happy as I ate my fresh, hand battered fish, so I would consider it worth it!
The last stop of the day on the Peninsula before driving to our evening's campsite was Kirkjufell Mountain and Kirkjufellsfoss Waterfall. This is said to be the most photographed mountain in Iceland, and we could easily see why. It was also the Arrowhead Mountain filmed in Game of Thrones, adding to the appeal! Although we arrived near sunset, we had an overcast day and the sun didn't make an appearance, but it didn't hinder our enjoyment of the beautiful waterfall with its mountain backdrop.
In the morning, we visited Kolugljufur, where five waterfalls combine. Since we were there first thing in the morning, we had the waterfalls completely to ourselves and we enjoyed the solitude while we took photos.
Up until this point, we hadn't had a dire need for our 4x4, but that finally changed as we made our way to what would be a brief stop, but a long and bumpy drive to get there. Hvitserkur is a large basalt stack along the shore in northwest Iceland, and is thought to resemble many different things like a rhino, an elephant, or a dragon. Personally, my vote is on elephant, though the dragon would add a certain dramatic flair.
To ensure we made the best out of our 4x4, we also had to return "45" minutes back the way we came on pothole and waterboard filled gravel before making it back onto the highway and to our next stop, Godafoss Waterfall.
Godafoss translates to Waterfall of the Gods, and was a deservedly busy location as it offers a lot of views of the crescent shaped falls from different perspectives all without any hiking required. Not only did we get to see it from the East and West from the top, but we also went to the base of the waterfall on the East side for another beautiful view.
Continuing on, we visited Aldeyjarfoss Waterfall. As the last four kilometres of this drive is on a F-Road—a much rougher road that is intended for 4x4 use and is prohibited in rentals that are not four wheel drive—this waterfall is accessible only by 4x4, or by parking on a farmer's property (with their permission) and hiking the rest of the way along the road. We were again grateful for our little Jimny, and hiked only a short distance down to see the waterfall and surrounding black basalt columns.
Our next drive took us to Husavik, the town you will know if you watched Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, and will probably not know if you haven't (unless you are an avid whale fan maybe?). We actually started by visiting the Ja Ja Ding Dong Bar, but were sad to find it closed for the day we were there.
As Canadians, Icelandic weather doesn't sound too crazy. While we were melting in Alberta at 30°C+ before we left, 10°C on average in Iceland sounded like a wonderful reprieve.
At near 0°C with a bitter wind and the possibility of snow overnight, the cold, damp weather in the North had us frozen. Considering it was such a cold evening, we were so grateful to have an evening booking at the Geosea Spa to warm up in while overlooking the foggy ocean.
This is also when we unfortunately learned that our whale watching tour in Husavik (the other claim to fame in Husavik) had been cancelled due to the bad weather. With little flexibility in our itinerary, we managed to make a last minute booking for a whale watching tour for the following morning in Akeyuri, about an hour back from Husavik.
We ended the night sitting in the car with our boxed wine, no less cold, but at least with a few drinks.
In the morning we felt the weather had shifted, but wore as many layers as possible anyway because we were going out on a boat! Like the eager beavers we are, we sat at the very front of the boat. To say that it got cold would be an understatement, and we spent much too long trying to ignore our frozen faces and fingers and even legs as the rain and wind pelted us. And so far we were also not seeing any whales. I blame our egos, but when we finally decided to move inside, we found the door outside crowded with people shivering in the cold. So we huddled along the side of the boat to wait it out.
Eventually, I decided we needed to push in, because I was too cold and the idea of being shoulder to shoulder with other people at the tail end of Covid was actually sounding preferable. Only, when we squished past the people standing outside, the room was nearly empty!
I have no idea why everyone was standing huddled together outside, but there was so much space in that cabin that we felt ridiculous for having spent the last hour and a half in the wind and rain. We never did spot any whales, and the company provided a free makeup tour for either Akeyuri or Reykjavik so we opted to try again when we were near the end of our trip (spoiler alert, we saw whales there!).
Lucas putting on a very brave face in the cold
We actually almost wanted to have long drives following our time around Husavik, because while we were in the car we had the heat blasting (max defrost is a necessity when you are camping and it is wet and humid; 90% of the time we were fogged up from our wet clothes and camping gear).
Fortunately our next stop was sheltered from the cold day. Grjotagja Cave is a stunning blue hot pool of geothermal water, and is also where an "iconic" scene between Jon Snow and Ygritte occurs in Game of Thrones. Although the water radiated heat and looked picture perfect, the temperature fluctuates and is unsafe to touch or swim in.
Namafjall Hverir Geothermal Area was only 10 minutes from the cave and offered Mars or moonlike view with the brown and grey colors, the geysers and vents, the bubbling mud, and the steam emanating from the earth.
Following that, another very brief stop at Viti Crater. Although you can walk the rim of the crater, we opted out due to the wind and rain and since we were very ready to make our way to another lagoon, the Myvatn Nature Baths.
We might have thought three hot pools is too many for four days, but we would have been wrong. Keeping the chill out of dry Albertan bones was a constant challenge during this portion of the trip. The next morning was no different.
Dettifoss is one of the most powerful waterfalls in Europe, and offers different views from the East and West sides. In order to view from both sides can take hours (including a one hour drive between the two), so instead, we chose to do the East side only, as we had heard it was subjectively better and that you can get closer. This also entailed a longer, rougher drive.
As it was our first stop of the day, there was only a single other car in the small parking lot. We started by walking approximately one kilometre to see Selfoss, a beautiful crescent shaped waterfall where the water flows in curtains off the rock. We were soaked by the time we arrived and didn't spend much time taking photos to keep the camera dry.
Our way back to Dettifoss was a quiet hike, we were both soaked through our rain jackets by the time we got back. Lucas ended up even more soaked while we were enjoying the view of Dettifoss when he fell into a puddle, ensuring that what may have been left dry was no longer dry. Laughing was the incorrect response. Although Selfoss was stunning and Dettifoss was incredibly impressive, we weren't necessarily in the best spirits as we left this stop.
But, I was thrilled for our next sight, the Icelandic Arctic Henge. To get there, we had to travel all the way to the northernmost area of Iceland, and it should have taken approximately two hours, but for the first time on our trip, our downloaded Google Maps led us astray and took us on a different, unpaved route that added probably 45 minutes to an hour, and was much less enjoyable to drive on.
The Arctic Henge is a large (each stone is approximately six metres tall) sundial-like structure inspired by the four dwarves of Norse mythology who hold up the sky, Austri, Nordri, Sudri and Vestri. Each stone arch faces the direction of the dwarves' better know namesakes, East, North, South and West. Since I didn't have the hard job of driving the rough roads, for me, it was well worth the visit!
Luckily, on the way back we took the correct, paved road instead. We made our way to Studlagil Basalt Canyon, which ended up being one of our favorite stops on the trip. On the West side, you get a view of the basalt, but from the east side (requiring a short hike, as well as some descent over the basalt columns) you get to go right down to the turquoise water with the basalt columns towering above you. I had heard people say it was like stepping into a fantasy novel, and I would have to agree.
To wrap up a day with a lot of driving, we made our way to Gufufoss Waterfall, a so-called, small-scaled lookalike of an iconic waterfall called Skogafoss. Driving over a mountain pass, we arrived late in the evening with the sky darkening and Gufufoss mostly to ourselves. It was a beautiful last stop for the day before we descended the rest of the way to Seydisfjordur, a fjord-nestled town where we would be camping for what remained of the night.
In the morning we visited the rainbow street in Seydisfjordur before descending another pass to visit Klifbrekkufossar, a multi-tiered waterfall. It was more tiers than we had imagined, using the drone each of the tiers connected to more waterfalls with tiers, so we didn't really know where Klifbrekkufossar ended and other waterfalls began.
And, after some rough weather the previous days, we finally had a blue sky and sunshine!
In fact, at our next stop of Hengifoss and Litlanesfoss Waterfalls, we didn't even wear our rain gear! And we sweat! The beautiful 15°C felt amazing after a few days anticipating we would never feel warm again. We passed Litlanesfoss on the steadily inclining, 2 kilometre hike to Hengifoss, The extremely tall Hengifoss (at approximately 130 metres high) is surrounded by brown and red striped gorge and was beautiful on such a sunny, clear day.
Throughout the day we had a bunch of little stops planned, but our first, the two-person Djupavogskorin Hot Spring, was shut down for cleaning. Not discouraged (because we were actually feeling warm!), we continued on to Fauskasandur Beach with its black sand, Hvalnes Lighthouse, and a Red Chair Art Installation, which really was just a red chair with a beautiful view.
We saved our evening and sunset for Vestrahorn Mountain and the Viking Village. With a small fee, you can enter into the village constructed for an Icelandic movie that never got made, but is allegedly being used instead in the prequel to the Witcher! Not only that, but the area is beautiful, with black sand beach and mountain backdrops. We ended up walking to a "must-see" spot, according to a Viking Cafe employee, but as per our norm, we took a weird route that led us through marshy grasses and took way longer than expected as we tried to avoid soaking our feet. The view was great, but needless to say we took the beach-walk back.
The next day covered a lot of the ice portion in the land of fire and ice, and just covered a lot in general.
We started our day at Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, where ice from the glacier breaks off and floats in the opaque, blue saltwater. Lucas had a drone permit for prior to 9:00AM, so although we had it scheduled for more time later, we did a quick stop and were very happy we did. Not only was there almost nobody else there, but there were seals making appearances nearby in the water, enjoying the solitude.
Very nearby, we visited Breidamerkursandur, where ice from Jokulsarlon washes up on the black ocean shore even in summer. The crystal clear appearance of some of these ice chunks led to the nickname Diamond Beach. The contrast of the ice against the black sand was stunning, and we saw more seals playing in the ocean!
Next, we visited Fjallsarlon Glacier Lagoon. Similar to Jokulsarlon, Fjallsarlon is a murkier and smaller lagoon that is less visited. The morning was extremely foggy, and it wasn't until we stopped back here later in the day that we actually noticed the glacier and mountain behind the lagoon!
A short hike was next on the itinerary and offered misty views of Mulagljufur Canyon with its rugged cliffs and nearly obscured waterfalls. We had a tight deadline to finish this hike to make it back to Jokulsarlon. The canyon made it difficult by not only being so stunning (meaning I wanted to stop for photos constantly), but also because the elevation gain is likely higher than what is depicted on AllTrails. Anything not covered in waterproof gear ended up being pretty soaked from the cloudy moisture.
Although we had a deadline, we managed to make good time and the hike ended up being a favourite, though I am sure I said (and am currently saying) this about each new thing we did in Iceland!
We made it back to Jokulsarlon with no time to spare, and were quickly putting on heavy-duty rain gear for our kayak in the lagoon. Lucas and I ended up being the only two who were in individual kayaks, with everyone else in tandems so we had a group of only a few boats.
Kayaking between the ice broken off the glaciers was surreal and so peaceful. The guide warned us away from approaching the ice as the salt erodes the bottom until it finally flips; ice that is the iconic blue has just flipped, whereas the ashier pieces are likely to flip soon. He also scooped some ash off the ice to allow us to feel the texture—it is much thicker and grainier than expected—explaining why the ash from volcanoes is such a dangerous element.
Not only that, but as soon as he shared that seals may play in the surrounding water while we kayaked, it was very apparent I was excited. The moment he saw a seal nearby he shouted for the Canadians to come quickly to see!
Although we would have loved to stay out on the water, we had to continue on to Skaftafell National Park. We had scheduled in Skaftafellsheidi and Svartifoss Waterfall, a five to six hour hike that is just under 17 kilometres, for what was left of our day. The weather was dry and not clear, but somewhere approaching it.
As we began our hike we realized we were ascending into a raincloud.
We passed quite a few people on the increasingly muddy trail, and each drenched hiker told us that unfortunately the view was completely obscured by cloud cover.
As we reached a trail crossroads a few kilometres into the hike, we started to debate cutting our losses and taking another trail back. The sky opened just enough for us to catch a glimpse of the glacier below, and we snapped a few photos before we decided the remaining 10+ kilometres would not offer additional views and decided to continue on to Svartifoss Waterfall (a smaller waterfall surrounded by black basalt columns) more directly via a shorter trail instead.
All in all it was still an extremely full day, with lots of hiking and activity. We got back and made a nice, heavy pasta for dinner and paired it with more boxed wine. Bon appétit.
Our morning began at Fjadrargljufur Canyon, which fans will note was featured by a certain Canadian artist frolicking in his music video (hint: he has his own doughnuts now). Since it was featured it has also exploded in popularity, meaning it had to be protected from the large swarm of others who wished to frolic there. This meant that aside from the trail to viewing platforms, visitors are no longer able to walk around and explore in order to conserve the area. Although we understood the necessity of protecting the area, the ropes, rubber pathing, and large groups of people on the trail made this area more of a quick walkthrough for us.
The next stop though was Eldhraun Lava Fields, which were so uniquely stunning. On one side of the road was a tiny path with cordoned off lava rocks covered in the bright green moss. After taking some time to enjoy in the rain, we drove just a short distance down and on the other side of the road where there was actually a driving path through the lava fields. We were really glad we didn't pass by the driving path, as it covered so much more area.
On the side of the road Laufskalavarda, or the mysterious rock piles, was another brief pitstop along the Ring Road before we made our way to the highlight of the day: Thakgil and the Remundargil Ravine Loop.
To get to Thakgil it took another hour on rough roads, but with black rocks and green moss surrounding us we had lots of scenery to enjoy. The campsite attendant pointed us in the direction of the parking lot and trailhead. Although we weren't confident driving on a road that disappeared and led to us crossing a tiny creek, we made it to what we hoped was the parking lot only to find zero cars (not reassuring us that we were in the right spot).
The best word to describe the area would be lush. The almost neon green moss was everywhere, contrasting the classic black rocks. We hiked through the mossy canyon, the sides gradually growing taller, until we were as far into the canyon as we could go.
Clearly we missed our path, but it was a happy mistake as we ended up at a small waterfall before backtracking to find the trail again. When we found the trail, it was steeper than we had imagined (and I told Lucas it better be the right path because there was no way I was coming back down it), but luckily the climb was both the right one and a short one.
Reaching the top we had a beautiful, spongy hike across the top of the ravine before descending back to the campsite.
Our last stop of the day was the town of Vik. Arriving, we immediately went to check out the red-roofed church featured in most photos of the town followed by a dinner (that wasn't cooked from a camping stove with only dry goods) out as Smidjan Brugghus.
It is hard to believe that so many sights could be squished into so little time, but Iceland manages to pack so much into such a small country. Stay tuned for part two of our diaries, covering the second week of our trip!