Öræfa, Öræfajökull, basalt, basalt columns, black sand, Black Sand Beach, Breidðakvík, Busmills, church, County Antrim, culture, Diamond Beach, Dyrholaey, Eldhraun, Europe, fjords, food, Giant's Causeway, Gjálp, glacier, Glacier Lagoon, Grímsvötn, Höfn, Hella, horses, Iceland, Icelandic horses, Ireland, jökulhlaup, Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, Kirkjubæjarklaustur, Knappafellsjökull, lava field, museum, Northern Ireland, Pakkhús Restaurant, puffins, Reynisdrangar, Reynisfjara, Ring Road, sandur, Seljalandsfoss, Skeiðarársandur, Skogafoss, Skogar, Snotra Hostel, South Iceland, Suður-Vík, travel, Vatanajokull Naitonal Park, Vatnajökull, Vatnajökull National Park, Vík, Vík í Mýrdal, wanderlust, Wasteland, waterfalls, Woolly Fringe Moss
We left Snotra Hostel while the sun was coming up, stopping on a side road to photograph horses with the sunrise in the background. We passed a couple of wind turbines on the way up to Hella, then stopped at a local bakery before heading east on the Ring Road again. By the time the sun was up, we had made it to our first stop: Seljalandsfoss. I was worried about finding it, but it was actually very obviously to the left of the Ring Road. Another indicator was a large puffin statue on the right before the turn as well as one on the turn itself, both advertising tours.
A lot of birds were circling the cliffs at these falls. The stop includes a little café, restrooms, and – oh, yeah – a parking meter. You can walk up to the falls which have a cave behind them and you can also walk along the trail to some smaller falls along the cliffs. The cliffs face a vast expanse of fields that eventually empty out into the sea. Just remember, getting close to the falls means getting wet and then freezing in the weather…
2. Skógafoss and Skógar
After Seljalandsfoss, we stopped at Skógafoss near Skógar. The legend to Skógafoss is there’s a buried treasure in the pool behind the falls, so many people go in there to look for the gold. Supposedly someone managed to tug on the chest once, but the golden ring on the side pulled off and the chest plunged back into the waters. That ring became the door handle to the local church for some time before being retired to the cultural museum in Skógar where it is still on display.
When you get to the falls, not only can you walk up to them from underneath but you can also hike up a long, shaky stretch of metal stairs to the top. There are options for photos from the top view and also the option to walk out the gate behind you. If you go through the gate (and close it behind you!), you can hike far into the glacier-lined settings. We followed this trail along the river for quite some time. I stopped at a peak where people had made piles of rocks. The one danger with this trail is, if it has snowed over little streams dropping into the canyon, you may find what was once stable becoming soft and penetrable in the morning sun. The mud too thaws and poses a danger if you lose your footing or follow the trail with small children. Otherwise, it is relatively safe and easy to hike quite a way into the gorge.
From the falls, we stopped at the cultural museum in Skógar. For about 2,000 Crowns per person we were able to see three museums: the cultural museum, the turf house museum, and the technical museum. The first featured lots of artifacts from clothes to side saddles and kitchen tools; the second was a display of housing replicas. The third museum showed everything from the first communications (like telegraph machines) to early vehicles in Iceland. It even featured a section on the Icelandic Coast Guard and rescue teams, showing a map of solar-powered communication towers that are used to coordinate not only the rescue of individuals but of entire villages under the threat of a volcanic eruption (which has definitely been a problem in the past!).
3. Vík: Dyrhólaey, Reynisfjara, & Reynisdrangar
We continued along the Ring Road east into Vík, stopping at the restaurant Suður-Vík for lunch. Here they had a delicious Borg Brugghús beer called Snorri which features Arctic barley and thyme. They also had mushroom soup which wasn’t too rich and which was served with homemade bread and smjor (Icelandic butter). One of the servers moved here from Thailand, likely having influenced the menu which features panang curry and rice. From a window along the wall opposite to the bar you could look out and see the fingers of Reynisdrangar reaching out of the sea.
From Suður-Vík, we backtracked up the mountain to the very obvious turn-off to the Black Sand Beach (Reynisfjara). This road leads you to a parking lot on the edge of the beach, immediately next to a wall of basalt columns. Although in Vík í Mýrdal, Iceland, these columns are eerily similar to the Giant’s Causeway near Bushmills in County Antrim, Northern Ireland (which I visited in this post). My first instinct was to wonder if Iceland and Ireland were once flush to each other. And while a map of Pangaea indicates this was likely true, this site about basalt columns around the world make me realize such landscapes can form wherever there is volcanic activity…which also happens to be in a lot of places that have divided over geological time.
The black sand across the beach of course gave Reynisfjara its name of the Black Sand Beach. Beware of the “sneaker waves” as you walk along. Looking to the west, you can see the rock formations of Dyrhólaey. To the east are the three fingers of Reynisdrangar which were seen from the restaurant. Legend has it three giants were towing a ship when they were frozen in place in the water…which is funny to have another giant’s story so near to basalt columns. This beach is yet another Icelandic site featured in the Game of Thrones. (And I do think people must care about that, because I encountered a man in the Þingvellir National Park who was dressed fully like a Crow, minus the sword). After walking around a bit, we headed back to Vík for some photos from the church on the hill, then we continued east yet again along the Ring Road.
4. Vatnajökull National Park Pt. 1: Svartifoss & Skaftafell
Vatnajökull is the world’s largest glacier and it can be found in the Vatnajökull National Park. This park occupies 14% of Iceland and is the second largest in the world by area, following a park in Russia. It is unique in its diverse landscapes, ranging from glaciers to volcanoes and geothermal activity. As we left Vík for this park, we rounded the southernmost part of Iceland and began a slight northward direction, stopping once at Kirkjubæjarklaustur.
On both the east and west sides of Kirkjubæjarklaustur we encountered the Eldhraun lava field. It’s remnants from the biggest lava flow in the world after Laki errupted in the 1700s. The flow covers 218 square miles and was used to train Apollo 11 for their moonwalk. What it looks like is a field of black rocks or strange stacks for as far as the eye can see and, in many stretches, those rocks are covered with a thick Woolly Fringe Moss similar to the appearance of the fields around the Blue Lagoon. It’s crazy to think that the majority of animals and crops in Iceland – and about 20% of the humans – died in that 1783-4 natural disaster that resulted in the altered landscape.
Not much past Kirkjubæjarklaustur we entered Skeiðarársandur, the largest sandur (outwash plain) in the world at about 500 square miles. The outflow continues to swallow more and more farmland since settlement began in Iceland. In 1362, a volcano bellow Öræfajökull (or Knappafellsjökull) erupted, destroying the entire area with a jökulhlaup (flooding) which cause the name to be changed to Öræfa, or Wasteland. This was one of the last sections of the Ring Road to be finished (in about 1974), so before that people in the southwest had to drive the east, north, and west sections to get to the capital city.
Gravel dykes were built to keep floodwaters away from this particular stretch of the Ring Road, but they did nothing for the three bridges washed away by a jökulhlaup from the Grímsvötn (Gjálp) eruption in 1996. As we made our way into Skeiðarársandur, we noticed the high snowy mountains peaking around our view and the intense wind gusts whipping us both towards the mountains and then to the sea. The vegetation was completely gone and a vast, empty plain is all that could be seen. The road carried on straight forever across the plain and dusty sand could be seen blasting through the air.
When we crossed a relatively new bridge and looked to the south, we saw a large, twisted metal object embedded in the sand. “I hate to say it, but I think that might even be a tractor trailer that got blown off this bridge,” said my mom as I fought to keep the car on the road. When I looked up this region later, I realized it was not a trailer piece but instead a twisted girder – what little remains of one of the original Ring Road bridges ripped from the ground in 1996. Maybe it’s good I didn’t know, while in the middle of that enormous plain, the history of Skeiðarársandur jökulhlaup disasters.
When the winds were finally calming down slightly and some greenery returning, we noticed enormous glaciers to the north of the road. We were now able to see Vatnajökul peaking over the mountains. We stopped at a pull-out to take photos, then realized we could also drive straight up to Skaftafell where Svartifoss is also accessible. We drove in closer, saw the parking fees and the time, and decided we didn’t really want to touch another glacier. I’ve hiked glaciers in Alaska and mom has had her share in British Columbia, so we continued on our way.
5. Vatnajökull National Park Pt. 2: Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon & Diamond Beach
I was worried we would run out of daylight, but we reached the Glacier Lagoon at the Golden Hour. The wind coming off the glacier was brutal, but we parked and hiked down to the lagoon to take shots of the lake with icebergs floating in the foreground and the glacier with mountains looming in the background. (I was later befuddled to see this article of some dumb tourists risking their lives and the lives of their potential rescuers to walk across thin ice only days before we arrived.)
Next we popped over to the other side of the road, getting out just before the bridge that crosses the inlet to the lagoon. We drove to where there were still significant rocks in the sand, parked, and walked the rest of the way to the shoreline. We passed some deep ruts where some idiot tried to be lazy and drive straight to Diamond Beach. Just as the sun was ducking behind the mountains and making all the sky and snow pink, we saw it: chunks of crystal ice lining the shoreline on black sand. I kneeled down to take some photos without being consumed by icy waves, my goal to catch the sun in the ice. These ice chunks are why the beach is called Diamond Beach (but I’m not sure all locals know it by that name because some I’ve encountered asked what it is).
6. Höfn & Driving the Fjords
From Diamond Beach, we returned to the Ring Road, crossed the long one-lane bridge, and continued less than an hour to the city of Höfn. Here we ordered some dinner at the toasty Pakkhús Restaurant right along the dock. It was very busy but featured locally sourced fish and potatoes, vegetarian options, and good drink selections. From there, we had to get to Breidðakvík in the heart of East Iceland’s fjords.
By this point, the drive was in the dark. The wind was still relentless, including on this stretch, except now it was starting to include some snow blowing in from the mountains. After Höfn, the Ring Road clings in many places to cliffs – sheer drops to the sea that may or may not include guardrails. The lanes here – as with all of the Ring Road – have no berm and very little wiggle-room within the narrow lanes themselves. Add that to gusts of wind and I was struggling to keep the car on the road while passing anyone, let alone buses and campers and let alone across patches of ice.
I became quickly familiar with einbreð brú (one-lane bridge). We would along the fjords, at one point going from pavement to gravel. Google Maps made two mistakes in getting us to Breidðakvík: 1) It told us a 2.5 hour drive would be under 2 hours and 2) It still thinks the Ring Road goes up the mountain pass to the west when in fact the old section of 1 has been renamed to 95. Our guesthouse was off of 95, just past the turn to Breidðakvík on 97. Since November 2017, 1 (Ring Road) now continues along the coast to the next fjord. I’m pretty sure I saw tourists still making this error and ignoring the closed/lokað signage. It was changed because the pass just gets too much snow and costs too much to maintain it.
When we found our AirBnb, we were greeted by Helga and Stefán who waited up to show us around, offer hot tea and Viking beer, and chat for a bit. After such a long day of driving, we were grateful to have a slow start to our next day.