Why do I love Iceland? Definitely not for the rainy weather or funky seafood. I love Iceland because visiting Iceland feels like you are travelling back to some primordial time when the great mountain ranges of the world were just beginning to form. It’s seeing geology in action! Volcanoes are constantly reshaping the landscape, adding new lava fields and forming new mountains. Precipitation causes glaciers to form, grinding through the landscape, leaving raging rivers and scenic valleys in their wake as the water fights it’s way to the ocean.
With only 13 days to see the sights of the country, we tried our best to squeeze as much in as possible. We hiked the famous Landmannalauger and Fimmvörðuháls Trails, saw a good chunk of the indescribably beautiful Skaftafell National Park, went ice climbing on a glacier, rode Icelandic horses, drank with the locals in Reykjavik, saw the Northern Lights, and swam in the Blue Lagoon. I think we did pretty well.
Skaftafell/Vatnajokull National Park
Upon arrival at Skaftafell, we wondered the campgrounds looking for the perfect spot to pitch our tents far enough from others to not hear them snore at night but close enough for a quick jaunt to the bathroom, eventually finding a perfect spot!
We spent the first day hiking to the top of Kristinartindar Mountain. The hike up to the peak was intimidating and involved a class 2 scramble and a little bit of bravery on my part. Once we made it to the summit, the views were amazing. You could see two glaciers coming off of the Vatnjokull Ice Cap, the largest glacier in Europe.
The next day, we went on a 13 mile hike up another valley to get an up-close view of the Morsárjökull glacier. When we returned to camp, we found a group of about 25 teenage students pitching their tents directly next to our secluded area. Since there were so many other open areas, we looked on incredulously as one determined camper set up his tent so close to Matt’s that he couldn’t get it fully staked out. Our once peaceful campsite now appeared to be some strange mix of co-ed labor camp and frat party. Unable to move our tents because of the rain, we endured the night surrounded by chatter and the sound of the students’ school bus periodically starting it’s engine to prevent it from freezing. Lovely.
On the third day, we moved our tent. We also went ice climbing on a glacier. Ice climbing is totally rad and totally freaky. Our guide, Mike, was patient and laughed along with our silly banter as we chatted between climbs. There were only four people in our group, so we were able to climb in three different spots. Mike asked the group on the final spot if we wanted to try something harder. Of course my husband and brother-in-law were gung-ho. Me, not so much. The final spot was steep and overhanging. I imagined falling into the black shadow at the bottom off the crevasse, or not being able to make it up and poor Mike having to hoist me 60 feet out off the icy crack. I seriously did not want to do this, but after a solid pep talk from Mike and a little harassment from my husband and brother-in-law, I was ready to go. I took a fall after getting stumped on the overhanging section, but I was able to fight my way up the icy crux on the next try. The thrill of the experience is something I will never forget and hope to try again soon.
Landmannalauger and Fimmvörðuháls Hike
The Landmannalauger and Fimmvorduhals trails are probably the most popular hikes in Iceland. Combined, they total about 48 miles. Iceland has designated camp sites at huts maintained by the Icelandic Touring Association. Camping outside of the designated areas is not impossible, but technically, it is not allowed and is discouraged. A WORD OF CAUTION: If, for some reason, you choose to camp outside of the designated camping areas, please be aware that Iceland is an active volcanic island. Toxic gases that you may not notice or smell during the day will sink into mountain bowls at night. If you unknowingly pitch your tent in one of these bowls, you may wake up at 1 a.m. choking on volcanic gases and wondering if you are going to die. Not fun!
Again, there is tons of information about the logistics of these hikes on the internet. If you are wondering if you should bring your rain jacket, rain pants, and rain gloves, YES. BRING THEM ALL. YOU WILL THANK ME LATER. The scenery you will pass through is unlike anything you may ever see in the world. We chose to go cross country(off-trail) for a few sections. As a result, we were able to get pretty close to a glacier and had a fun river crossing in a valley that most people never get to see. The bus system in Iceland is super easy to use and everyone speaks wonderful English, so there is really no excuse for not making this trip if you like hiking.
Reykjavik has a lovely downtown area. We were able to see most of the main sites in one afternoon. Beer is expensive in town and Iceland has strict liquor laws, so I recommend loading up on alcohol in the duty free section at the Iceland airport when you arrive. You will not find better deals in town and you may have difficulties catching a store when it’s open. We were able to find some good happy hour deals and made friends with a friendly local who showed us around town for the night.
As a horse enthusiast, leaving Iceland without riding the famous Icelandic horse was not an option. We took a half-day tour with the wonderful Islenski Hesturrin which is based near Reykjavik. The horses were well-cared for and we were able to experience the tolt, a specialty of the Icelandic Horse, while riding through old lava flows. So cool!
Since our flight back didn’t leave until the evening, we stopped at the Blue Lagoon on the way to the airport. We had read that you could find therapeutic silica clay to make a face mask with at the Blue Lagoon, so Matt started collecting goo from the bottom of the lagoon and putting it on his face. A few clumps of hair and one candy bar wrapper later, he realized that the goo was just goo and that he had been collecting the dirt from the lagoon’s drainage area. We eventually found the actual mask material in a nice container at the back of the lagoon. I now have material to make fun of my brother-in-law for a lifetime! Thanks Iceland! Click here to see the rest of our photos. Questions and comments welcome!