A Travellerspoint blog

This is the Place: Ogden and Snowbasin


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Choosing a ski resort near Salt Lake City was a real headache. There were several to choose from and they varied substantially in terms of cost, altitude, and suitability for beginning skiers. The most well known resort was Park City, which boasted the largest ski area in the United States and a reputation for catering to the rich and famous. Once I saw that the price for a child's full day ski lesson was four hundred dollars I quickly eliminated Park City from consideration. I had considered $150 to be quite high at Steamboat two years earlier and the only people I could imagine spending $400 were those who were so wealthy that they didn't even think about line items that were under four figures. Those people probably only skied at resorts with worldwide recognition like Park City or Aspen, but bragging rights weren't part of my calculations. I just wanted a good experience for the kids at a price that wouldn't leave me feeling like a sucker.

There was a cluster of smaller ski resorts in the Wasatch Range between Salt Lake City and Park City, and each had some advantages and disadvantages. Brighton had a great deal for families with free lift tickets for kids under ten, but the base altitude was 8700 feet and the summit was at 10500. This wasn't as bad as some of the Colorado resorts but I'm extremely risk averse when it comes to the kids and I didn't want to take any chance of them feeling sick and not being able to enjoy their time on the slopes. I'd chosen Steamboat for our first trip specifically because of the base elevation of 6900 but all of the kids had felt ill at one point or another as we traversed higher altitudes on the road to the resort. I was the only one who had gone to the summit of at 10000 feet and while I hadn't felt sick, I got winded very quickly trying to make my way down the more difficult slopes. Deer Valley was lower altitude and had the added bonus of prohibiting snowboarders, but it was also extremely expensive unless we took a limited option which only provided access to beginner slopes. It might have worked perfectly but it could also have significantly limited the kids progress. I was still weighing the options when I came across a mention of ski resorts near Salt Lake City's northern neighbor, Ogden. There were actually three choices in the mountains east of Ogden and the most promising seemed to be Snowbasin, the closest one to Salt Lake City. The lessons were particularly reasonably priced compared to the SLC reports. My only concern was that there seemed to be a relative paucity of beginner slopes at Snowbasin which might mean that Mei Ling and the kids would be skiing the same terrain over and over again. Ultimately I decided that it was more important to focus on technique than variety on the green slopes and we committed to Snowbasin.

It was an hour's drive from Park City to the small, isolated subdivision outside of Ogden where our Airbnb was located. There's no accommodation at the ski resort so this was the closest option and I think we were lucky to find it. The basement of a good-sized brick house had been converted into an Alpine-style lodge with wood beams, shaggy carpeting, and a gas-powered fireplace. It was the kind of place you might have seen a family base themselves for a ski vacation on a TV sitcom, totally classic. In the morning we admired the view of the snow-covered Northern Wasatch Mountains behind the houses on the opposite side of the cul-de-sac.
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For our first day on the slopes everyone but me was enrolled in lessons. It was a much easier process to get things going that it had been at the Steamboat and Killington mega resorts on our previous ski trips. For the first time we had rented our equipment from the resort and everything fit perfectly based on the information I'd provided online. Hardly anyone else was competing for the attention of the staff and we got everyone connected to their ski instructors and on the slopes quickly. I could probably have benefited from lessons myself but at this point I'm more focused on staying in one piece than skiing faster or on more challenging terrain. I expect within a couple of years the kids will pass me by and I'm perfectly happy with that. Instead I used that first day to familiarize myself with the trails so that hopefully I'd be able to guide my family to the safest routes on the last two days. Snowbasin has a fairly simple layout with a gondola that leads from the base lodge straight up to the top of the mountain. There were no lines at all and I had a relaxing ten minute ride up to the Needles Cirque, a couple hundred feet short of the Needles Peak. From the top of the gondola there were impressive views of the stony cliffs leading up to the peak as well as the snowy panorama of the valley below.
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I didn't have much difficulty getting accustomed to skiing again. It had only been three months since our last trip and the slopes were in good shape considering how late it was in the season. Over the next few hours I explored pretty much all of the intermediate trails on Snowbasin, taking one short break to stop at the base lodge and check on the kids while they were having lunch. Mei Ling was so focused on her lesson that she didn't want to take a lunch break. The best views on the mountain were from Strawberry Peak at the southernmost edge of the resort. From here I could look west past the town of Ogden and across the Great Salt Lake all the way to the Newfoundland Mountains projecting out of the salt flats. The wind was so strong here I felt that it was trying to knock me off the ridge as I skied down a narrow path to the intermediate slope. I made a mental note that it probably wouldn't be wise to bring the family to this side even if they were ready for the blue trails.
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By early afternoon the temperature had climbed well into the seventies and I was just trying to kill time until the lessons were over. As I've mentioned before I'm rather indifferent about skiing and only got back into it so that the kids would learn at a young age. My main goal is to help them get better and avoid getting injured, a task I failed at miserably at Killington a few months previously when I detached my right biceps tendon trying to hold a chairlift that was about to carry Cleo back down the mountain. Fortunately I didn't need to have surgery and pretty much retained full use of my arm but I took it as a warning that skiing is a relatively dangerous sport that can change someone's life in a matter of seconds. I got another reminder of this on my very last day when the snow at the bottom of the mountain had become wet and heavy under the sun's relentless glare. A simple turn on a nearly flat stretch of the trail turned into a cartwheeling wipeout when my rear ski caught in the snow instead of following its partner. The detached skis came to rest several yards away as I slowly inventoried my body parts and found them to be intact. I resolved to be much more judicious with my speed at the bottom of the trails over the next two days.

Once the family was reunited it seemed that everyone was very happy with their lessons and their progress and we decided to proceed with our plan to ski independently for the final two days. We treated the kids to dinner at a Japanese hibachi restaurant called Kobe Teppanyaki which was in the outskirts of Ogden not far from our Airbnb. It was a bit of a drop in cuisine from the previous two nights but it was worth it to see the kids. astounded expressions as the chef executed his repertoire of tricks at the grill.
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On our second day at Snowbasin all of us except Spenser took the Needles gondola to the top with some trepidation. I was pretty comfortable with the route I had chosen which involved taking the narrow traverses that connected the easier intermediate slopes. Cleo was the strongest of the three so I let her forge ahead while I hung back with Mei Ling and Ian to steer them away from the outer edge of the traverse. If they had gone over the edge it wouldn't have been like going over a cliff but it was still a fairly steep incline of ungroomed snow. When I looked back down the traverse Cleo was nowhere in sight so I took off after her fairly quickly. I reached the intersection of the traverse and the advanced intermediate slope without having spotted her and tried to figure out which way she had gone. The traverse continued on the other side of the trail but it seemed unlikely she had seen it and gone all the way across without me. Finally I heard her calling and realized she had diverted onto the intermediate slope and was about a hundred yards downhill, way to far for her to clamber back up to where I was. There really was nothing else to do at this point but for the three of us to join her. The problem was that the place where she was now stopped was the beginning of Sweet Revenge, the steepest intermediate trail I had encountered on the previous day's exploration and the slope I was specifically trying to avoid by taking the traverses. We grouped together at the top and peeked over the lip at an incline which looked even steeper than I remembered. Mei Ling and the kids were terrified but there wasn't really any choice except to go down. I kept everyone together and coached them to make the widest possible serpentine descent with sharp turns to avoid gaining too much downhill speed. For the most part it worked although Ian had some trouble completing his turns and had to wipe himself out to avoid losing control of his descent. It was rather painful the first time but the trial by fire was effective and for the rest of the day there wasn't any terrain that could inspire fear in the kids. We even went down Sweet Revenge three or four more times and each time it seemed less steep than the last.
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Ogden doesn't attract many tourists for anything except the great outdoors, but it did have one area that I was interested in exploring. Historic 25th Street is a restored main street at the center of downtown Ogden that captures some of the style that characterized the city when it was an important junction on the Transcontinental Railroad in the mid 19th century. We did feel as though we'd entered a time warp, perhaps not so much traveling back to the 19th century but possibly the mid 20th. The street was lined with quirky bars, small restaurants, and a surprising diversity of craft stores and galleries. As we've become accustomed to in Utah, an imposing stretch of mountains loomed majestically at the far end of the street. I realized I was probably looking at the very peaks from which I had gazed down upon the city the previous day.
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After walking up and down the entire length of the street we stopped in one particularly intriguing gallery where an artist was sketching in charcoal. She kindly stopped her work to explain the process to the kids while Mei Ling and I browsed the characteristic Western paintings of landscapes and wildlife. Afterwards we stopped by an interesting restaurant we had noticed earlier with a sidewalk patio. It had filled up considerably since we had first passed by and at first the hostess couldn't seat us. As we stood outside calling the the restaurants on my Ogden list trying to find an open table on Friday evening she took mercy on us and found us a great table with bench seats right up against the bar. It was very fortunate we hadn't walked away because Table 25 was an awesome find both for the quality and diversity of the food as well as the atmosphere. The restaurant was less than a year old, another sign of the revitalization of this fascinating street.
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On our final day of skiing Mei Ling and the kids were more confident and familiar with the terrain so I worked with them on their technique, particularly on keeping their skis parallel and controlling their speed with turning rather than by snowplowing. Ian seemed to have become temporarily fearless and a couple of times he had spectacular wipeouts blasting downhill after failing to complete his turns. I found this so terrifying that I had to threaten to ground him at the base if he couldn't keep his skiing under control. He managed to straighten things out and for the rest of the day we explored the remaining territory of the resort. We even made it over to Strawberry Peak although the snow wasn't as good quality there as it had been when I went there alone on the first day. We had lunch at the Needles Lodge near the top of the mountain for a change. The view was good but the food choices weren't as good as at the base lodge. By afternoon the temperature was close to 80 degrees and we had had to deposit our ski parkas at the base. We saw some people even skiing bare chested. The snow was pretty heavy at the bottom of the mountain and the kids didn't argue when I suggested we call it a day with an hour to go before the lifts closed. We picked up Spenser who had really enjoyed his three days of ski school and made a lot of progress towards joining us on the intermediate slopes. Over the three days my family had really impressed me, especially Mei Ling who had to overcome a fear of heights as well as the usual fear of falling that everyone has when skiing. I was really glad that I had chosen to introduce the kids to this exciting sport, even if I personally would rather be spending winter vacations in warm climates.
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Even though we were more experienced three days was still the perfect amount of time to be on the slopes. I think we were all relieved not to have to go back for a fourth day. Instead we piled back into the car and drove back to Salt Lake City where we checked into our next Airbnb, a dated apartment with a walk-through bedroom and cracked porcelain bathroom fixtures. From there we hopped back on the interstate and drove to the eastern edge of the city where small roads snaked off into the canyons among the Wasatch Mountains. Above us in the hills were rows of low-profile homes that were hardly distinguishable from the surrounding landscape in the dusk. We took the turn onto Mill Creek Canyon Road which soon felt as isolated as any mountain road hundreds of miles from the nearest city. As the darkness deepened I started to wonder if the restaurant we were seeking could possibly be located in this forsaken wilderness. Google Maps showed it a few miles ahead but was it possible that I had accidentally entered the wrong information? Perhaps we were actually headed to the Log Haven hiking trail instead of the Log Haven restaurant. We had no cell phone signal and therefore had no choice but to proceed to our destination. Soon enough we were relieved to come across a well-lighted wooden mansion that was clearly the restaurant we were seeking.
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Log Haven is a former private estate built at enormous expense by a local businessman using logs that were shipped in from Oregon and hauled up the canyon by horse-drawn wagons. The property went through several cycles of ownership and underwent its most recent restoration in 1994. It is widely regarded as one of the best restaurants in Utah both for the setting and the cuisine. Once I discovered it during my pre-travel research I was sure to reserve a table well in advance. Our final dinner of the trip proved to be a worthy complement to the other extravagant dinners we had had on this short vacation. Large portions of game and local fish were served with creative vegetable sides in the western style we had grown accustomed to over the past few days. Log Haven had an exceptionally beautiful interior with a wood motif that was maintained down to the construction of the dining chairs. Few think of Utah as a marquee dining destination but I was hard pressed to think of any journey where we had eaten so well so consistently.
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Our flight back to Miami didn't depart until mid afternoon which gave us ample time to have a leisurely breakfast and do one last bit of exploration. We headed back to the Wasatch Range and this time we drove up Emigration Canyon to Ruth's Diner, a historic and beloved breakfast spot set amid the snowy foothills. Despite the remote location the large parking lot was rapidly filling with cars, making me thankful we had pushed ourselves into an early departure from the Airbnb. We had a hearty and filling traditional American breakfast to prepare us for the arduous trek back to Miami. As we left we saw that a substantial line of prospective customers had already formed outside.
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I had spotted a viewpoint on Google Maps so we drove along the canyon road a few miles further until it ascended a hill with a couple of hairpin loops. We parked in the lookout and gazed over the reservoir and the furrowed hills beyond. On the opposite side of the road was a dirt path that ascended to the top of the hill. From here we had even better views of the mountains and some small clusters of mansions that nearly blended into the countryside. We gazed around and bid farewell to Salt Lake City for the second time in a year.
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Our flight home also required a connection but we didn't have the nerve-wracking deviation from the scheduled route that had complicated our outward itinerary. As we flew from the area I craned my neck painfully for one last look behind the wing at the densely populated valley and the vast, surreal lake that gives Salt Lake City its name. I had a strong feeling that this visit wouldn't be our last.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 01:11 Archived in USA Tagged road_trip skiing utah family_travel salt_lake_city friedman tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

This is the Place: Salt Lake City and Park City


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The kids just get a week off school for Spring Break but somehow we've managed to work some of our most memorable trips into that short interval. Five years ago we took an extra week to tour Sicily and Malta but since then we've managed to stay within the confines of the school vacation to see Buenos Aires, Louisiana, and Belize. Late March is a great time of year to visit Central America and I had anticipated tackling Costa Rica, but the kids had made so much progress on their second ski trip in Vermont over New Year that we decided it would be a better idea to keep building on it. We had Southwest Airlines vouchers from our canceled trip to Belize in 2020 that would expire over the summer which meant flying to either Salt Lake City or Denver. Denver would have been a direct flight but frankly I'd found the city to be as boring as dirt on our first ski trip at the end of 2019. We'd already been to Salt Lake City as well on our huge Southwest road trip the previous summer but I liked the vibe there more and I had a couple of ideas for things to do on a return visit. Salt Lake City also had a profusion of ski slopes within an hour of downtown that catered to every budget and level of proficiency.
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There was a huge price difference between departure days for the flights so I decided to cut our trip down to five days. I figured it wouldn't really matter since three days was as much skiing as I could tolerate and I could only think of a day's worth of other activities in Salt Lake City. It felt strange to be sorting through all our ski clothes again so soon after our last trip. Making sure five sets of ski parkas, ski bibs, balaclavas, goggles, gloves, wool socks, warm hoodies, and long underwear are safely packed is not a trivial task. One large suitcase was full before we even turned our attention to the regular clothes and sundries. The only significant annoyance of the flight out was having to make a connection in Houston. Oddly enough, the first time I ever used the in-flight tracking app was the first time we ever deviated significantly from the planned route on a domestic flight. Instead of heading directly across the Gulf of Mexico to Houston we were headed northwest towards St. Louis and the app showed an arrival time an hour and a half past schedule. I kept expecting to see our flight path curving back south and we kept heading in the same wrong direction. Rather than bother the kids who by now were cocooned in charging cables and ear phones I waited for a flight attendant to come by, an event that didn't take place over the next hour. By then the app showed that we were practically over St. Louis, a huge detour from our expected route. I wondered if our plane was destined to disappear over uncharted ocean like that Malaysian Airlines flight. When an attendant finally passed by I flagged her down with barely suppressed anxiety. She seemed a little puzzled by my question and told me that we were going to be arriving late and an announcement had been made at departure. I was sure I hadn't heard anything. A couple of minutes later the captain came on overhead and said that we'd made a detour due to weather and we'd be arriving a almost an hour and a half behind schedule. This would give us less than an hour to make our connection to Salt Lake City which I could see in the app was scheduled to leave on time.

When we finally arrived we hustled off the plane but fortunately we were in Houston's smaller Hobby airport and our next gate was just a hundred yards away. We still had enough time to grab sandwiches before the next flight. On the news I saw that there had been a storm and even tornadoes in Louisiana that afternoon so clearly our detour had been justified. We had actually been lucky to have such a long layover in Houston that we were never in serious danger of missing our connection but it was another reminder that nonstop flights are almost always the best option.
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I hadn't made a dinner reservation for our first night in Salt Lake City, figuring there was a good chance the kids might be sleepy or just beat up from the travel, but everyone seemed in good shape so I made a couple of calls and wound up with a table at Bambara. We picked up our SUV from Alamo and arrived at our Airbnb close to the state capitol uneventfully, quickly dropped off our bags and headed to the restaurant downtown. I generally don't think twice about what I wear to a restaurant in most American cities, especially in Miami, but when I walked into Bambara I felt a little self-conscious about our sloppy travel clothes. The bistro occupied the space of a former bank lobby with a travertine marble floor and a central kitchen that dominated the space. We arrived just half an hour before their closing time so I can't imagine the staff was thrilled to see us but they were very pleasant and didn't betray any sign of annoyance at the sight of the kids. I wasn't surprised when our orders were taken quickly and our food arrived even quicker but we were on the same page regarding getting through the meal with no time to waste. The food was excellent, including creative preparations of regional specialties like elk and salmon. We were thoroughly stuffed after ordering about half the items on the menu and we had an eye-watering bill as a souvenir.
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In the morning we took an early leave of the Airbnb and drove a short distance to the Oasis Cafe for breakfast. This was an upbeat little restaurant with a bohemian flair that shared its building with a bookstore. The windows extended from the floors almost to the ceiling which made us feel like we were eating in the atrium of a hotel. We ordered the usual suspects for a filling breakfast such as waffles and breakfast burritos and left quite satisfied.
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The fueling up was necessary because we were about to hike to the top of Ensign Peak. This was a trail we'd accidentally discovered on our first visit to SLC over the summer but couldn't attempt because of the triple digit July temperatures. Now that it was March we were dealing with far more comfortable weather for walking. It seemed like an easy hike from what I'd read but I wasn't going to take anything for granted so we packed plenty of water. The trail was steep in a couple of places but it proved to be fairly short and we reached the summit quickly. There were great views of the State Capitol and the short skyline of Mormon office buildings. To the east of the valley were the majestic peaks of the Wasatch Range and to the west were the more modest Oquirrh Mountains. According to local lore when Mormon leader Brigham Young first entered the valley he uttered the words "This is the place", indicating that he believed it was the valley in the Rocky Mountains that their prophet Joseph Smith had instructed him to find. A monument at the summit commemorated the moment in 1847 when Young and eight associates gazed over the empty valley and laid out their visions for a new city. Directly below us were the beautiful mansions of the Ensign Downs neighborhood that we had admired on our last visit. On the way down we noticed a few patches of snow whose heavy contents were perfect for packing. Ian lagged behind with me and was able to surprise his siblings with a snowball in his hand once we were close to the bottom.
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We had seen a good chunk of central Salt Lake City on our first visit but somehow we had missed the majestic City and County Building, an enormous Romanesque edifice constructed from blocks of grey Utah sandstone in the late 19th century. It's a building that might have seemed better suited to one of the larger metropolises of England or Germany and was quite surprising to encounter in one of America's less-heralded cities.
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We had already knocked out most of the things I could find to do in Salt Lake City on our first visit. All that was left on my list was the city's botanical garden, Red Butte Garden. To visit the garden we had to drive all the way past the University of Utah to the eastern border of the city, where expansion was limited by the rising foothills of the Wasatch front. The garden is designed to merge almost seamlessly with the untouched wilderness of the mountains. It was a pleasant place to explore and stretch our legs but the time of year meant that almost nothing was in bloom so it felt more as though we were in a park than a botanical garden.
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We still had time to kill before our dinner reservation in Park City so we decided to stop off at Woodward Park City to check out the facility and look at their snow tubing runs. The kids had enjoyed snow tubing on their first ski trip in Denver but my research had told me that once spring came the quality of the runs deteriorated due to the melting snow. I hadn't wanted to commit to the activity and then find out that we would be dragging our tubes down the last half of the slope. Woodward also has ski slopes although these are geared more towards freestylers. The boys had fallen asleep when we arrived so Cleo and I went inside on our own. As I had suspected the tubing didn't look that great. Hardly anyone reached the end of their runs and I saw lots of people getting out and dragging their tubes. Even so there were a fair number of people lining up to participate. I figured there would be a chance to do it better wherever we went to ski the following winter. The inside of the huge, warehouse-like facility was partitioned into different areas for skateboarding, trampolining, and bike tricks. We watched kids skateboarding over ramps and flipping into a foam pit for a while, which I found somewhat terrifying even though it clearly wasn't particularly dangerous. I'm not sure how I'd feel if any of my kids decided they wanted to get into those kinds of sports.

Since we'd passed on the tubing we arrived in Park City a full two hours ahead of our dinner reservation and I really wasn't sure what to do. It's an attractive, narrow little town surrounded on either side by steep hills. The town originally came to prominence in the late 19th century after large deposits of silver were discovered, but by the mid 20th century the silver was exhausted and Park City was a ghost town. Just thirty years later a new boom developed in the form of recreational skiing and mountain biking and Park City experienced a rebirth. The residential side of town is filled with modest homes on the hillside that might be typical of any small town in the western United States. There's a sharp demarcation at the beginning of the historically-preserved Main Street where the homes give way completely to a profusion of restaurants, boutiques and galleries that characterizes upscale resort cities from Aspen to Sedona. Despite it being so late in the season, the sidewalks were crowded with pedestrians who looked like they had just returned from the slopes. A few had bright pink sunburns, a consequence of failing to appreciate the power of the spring sun at high altitude.
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For the next two hours we made our way north on Main Street, sliding into any galleries and shops that looked sufficiently interesting. Much of the artwork in the galleries referenced the town's history with display cases made from antique mining lockers and plenty of silver work. Our favorite establishment was a combination bookstore and gelato cafe that also served up a mean cup of coffee. It was the perfect way to keep up the kids' spirits without messing up their dinner.
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Dinner was at Riverhorse on Main, which my research had indicated was the best choice for our single evening in Park City. Not only did the food have a great reputation for quality and creativity, but the entrees included several varieties of local wild meats such as venison, elk, and trout. This would be our second round of elk in two days but as far as we're concerned there's no such thing as an excessive amount of game. For the second night in a row we got carried away with the ordering and we were so preoccupied with making sure that we didn't leave anything too expensive behind that we almost forgot to enjoy the meal.
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Once dinner was complete we had a one hour drive via the interstate to Ogden, which would be our home for the next three days as we completed the skiing portion of our vacation.

Posted by zzlangerhans 09:52 Archived in USA Tagged road_trip skiing family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (1)

Waterfalls and Glaciers: Geldingadalur Volcano & conclusion


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Having been originally settled only a thousand years ago, Iceland does not have a long and complex cultural history compared to continental Europe or Asia. The most fascinating story of Iceland is in the physical birth of the country itself about sixty million years ago when mantle plumes uncovered by the separation of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates spewed vast quantities of lava onto the ocean floor. The lava eventually rose to sea level to form a large island and the volcanic activity generated by those same plumes continues to shape the coastline and the interior of Iceland to the present day. Virtually every piece of rock in Iceland is of volcanic origin, mostly various forms of basalt. Not long after Iceland made its appearance at the ocean surface another story began to write itself. This was the story of living things, a green wave that transformed the island from shades of black and grey to patchworks of lichen, carpets of thick moss, valleys of low-lying plants, and even birch forests. Although most of the trees were destroyed by the original Norse colonists the greenery of Iceland remains just as remarkable as its geology. However, the ancient tale that Iceland and Greenland were given their oxymoronic names to confuse pirates is probably an urban legend. Although the origin of the term Iceland is uncertain, the country is most likely to have been named for the glaciers and frozen fjords that the original settlers first came across when they arrived from Norway.

Over two weeks in Iceland we had witnessed countless manifestations of Iceland's diverse and changing geology, from glaciers and canyons to thermal pools and geysers. While many of these places are in rapid evolution from a geologic perspective one can be relatively certain that they won't disappear between one year and the next. On our last day in Iceland we had an opportunity to have an incredible experience that might only occur once in a lifetime, a hike within a few hundred meters of an erupting volcano. The eruption of Geldingadalur, also known as Fagradalsfjall, began in March 2021 after a series of minor earthquakes. It was the first volcanic eruption on the Reykjanes Peninsula in eight hundred years. Unlike the typical explosive volcanic eruption like the famous ones at Pompeii or Mount St. Helens this was an effusion of lava from a magma dike that had extended to the surface. It wasn't spectacular enough to get much attention on a global scale but it was also perfectly safe to get within a close distance of the main cone and the lava flow. We had seen one of the crowded parking lots from which people were embarking on the hike to the lava when touring the peninsula on our first day in Iceland. My research hadn't given me a very clear picture of what that hike would be like or what exactly we could expect to see at the end, but we had a time slot open on that final afternoon and the weather was good so we decided to head to the beginning of the trail and see what came of it.
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From the parking area we could see a line of people snaking up a trail that went up to the top of a tall hill that was almost barren of vegetation. Although we were comfortable in our hoodies I insisted on packing the winter parkas, knowing how quickly the wind and temperature could change. As we set off I decided to intercept a small group of returning hikers to glean more information about what to expect from the journey. One member of the group was practically bouncing with exhilaration. He told us that there would be three hills, each one taller and steeper than the last, and that even if we thought we had achieved an adequate view of the volcano we should keep going because the next overlook would be an order of magnitude better. He kept on repeating that it was a life-changing experience and was so effusive that I eventually had to detach myself politely from his enthusiastic recapitulation. It was a relief to learn that we wouldn't be disappointed in our experience that day as I had read that on some days the lava didn't seem to be flowing at all.

Just as we had been promised we could already see the cone and the lava flow once we reached the top of the first hill. It was an amazing sight and more than I had expected as I would have been satisfied with just a trickle of lava. The wind was much stronger at the top and the temperature had begun dropping as well so I was grateful for my decision to bring the heavy coats. We could see a long walk ahead of us along the ridge to the base of the second hill and there's a good chance we would have turned back here if not for that chance encounter with the exuberant returnee. Given what he had told us we had no choice but to keep going.
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The view from the crest of the second hill was similar to the first but a little closer and more intense. I was so focused on watching the bursts and waves of lava flowing over the sides of the cone that I didn't really pay much attention to the third hill until we were almost at its base. This was a much steeper climb than the prior two hills and the trail switched from a straight line to a series of switchbacks. Even with that modification it was very difficult to get purchase on the muddy slope and I had to teach the kids to brace their feet against the rocks that were embedded in the mud. Even so we were constantly slipping and our boots and pants legs became caked in mud. The temperature continued to drop so that the wind chilled us even through the winter coats. The struggle to get to the top of the final hill seemed interminable but eventually we made it and had an absolutely stupendous view of the cone from the shortest distance possible. The sight of the glowing red lava sloshing around and overflowing from the cone was hypnotizing especially with the knowledge that just a splash of that molten rock would be enough to incinerate us. Overhead a helicopter circled precariously through the plume of smoke that emanated from the cone. I had given some thought to this ultra-expensive way of seeing the eruption but learned there was a weeks-long waiting list despite the prodigious cost. At this point I was very glad we'd had no choice but to do things the hard way as the whole experience had been quite rewarding.
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Once I was sure we'd absorbed everything we could from watching the cone there was no choice but to return. I wasn't thrilled about retracing the whole trek but at least there would be more downhill than up this time. When we got to the bottom of the third hill we saw that several people had clambered down the side of the ridge and were standing at the edge of the recently solidified lava flow. This was quite far away from the flowing red lava and didn't seem particularly unsafe so we decided to get a closer look as well. This was the lowest section of the ridge and it was easy to get down at this point. The fresh lava was truly remarkable, a substance with a shape and texture I had never experienced before. At the bottom it looked like congealed black mud but was dry and hard to the touch. This seemed to be lava that had flowed underneath an older upper layer which had cracked and fragmented and resembled the mature lava fields we had seen except without a speck of vegetation. I was nervous about climbing on top of the lava, knowing that there was molten rock flowing underneath the benign-appearing upper layer, but it seemed unlikely that it extended all the way to the edge. Others were venturing out much further and I hoped they wouldn't find out the hard way that mother nature can be very unforgiving.
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My instinct was to climb back up to the ridge and return to the car the same way we had come. It wasn't very exciting but at least we knew exactly how long it would take for us to get to the car and we did have a dinner reservation in Keflavik although we still had plenty of time. On the other hand Mei Ling wanted to follow the lava trail along the bottom of the ridge. I had some misgivings because I wasn't sure exactly where that route would take us but she was insistent and I gave in. At first this seemed like it had been the right choice because we got a much better look at the river of glowing red lava from the lower level.
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As we made our way along the base of the ridge some uncomfortable developments began to take place. The route continued to progress downward while the ridge next to us became taller and taller. The ground became more slippery and irregular and a light rain began to fall which worsened the muddiness of the ground and the coldness of the environment. It seemed that continuing to follow the lava might take us further and further away from the car and actually deposit us in a completely different parking area. From there I had no clue how we would eventually make it back to where we needed to be. I looked at the side of the ridge and while it seemed like a daunting climb it appeared doable. People were making their way along the top of the ridge and I ached to be back on a familiar path so we decided to set off up the slope. At first we did fairly well on the grassy area but as the footholds disappeared and the steepness increased parabolically we began to lose our purchase on the ground. I realized that even though the top was temptingly close the climb was only going to get more treacherous and would ultimately put us in serious danger of injury if we continued. Regretfully I made the decision to turn around and descend back to the trail down by the lava. The thought of returning all the way to the spot where we had originally left the ridge was unbearable so there was no choice except to continue onward and hope for the best.
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For the next three quarters of an hour we straggled along the muddy path under the cold rain. I have to give credit to the kids for continuing onward although they frequently slipped and were obviously suffering. We helped them as much as we could and Mei Ling eventually put Spenser on her back. The other two were just way too big to be carried. Finally with an enormous sense of relief I could see that up ahead the trail led to a flat area across from which was the base of the first hill we had climbed. We were going to get back to our car after all. We were all totally muddy, chilled, and exhausted but I knew we had completed a once-in-a-lifetime experience none of us would ever forget. Not only had we seen an erupting volcano but we had done it the hard way with blisters and scrapes to show for it. Even though we technically weren't allowed to take any souvenirs I did pocket three tiny fragments of that fresh spongy jet black lava for the kids as a memento of their enormous accomplishment that day.

Thanks to the long detour and our failed attempt to scale the ridge we had barely enough time to make our dinner reservation. We piled into the car without even changing and raced down the peninsula as fast as I dared. When we arrived at the hotel restaurant it was still raining and I stopped under the hotel canopy so Mei Ling could bundle the kids inside. I parked across the street and realized my muddy hiking pants and boots were completely unacceptable. I changed into jeans and shoes in the rain next to the car, way past caring about what passing drivers might have thought. I needn't have worried as the dreary wet street was devoid of traffic. Mei Ling had already ordered once I finally made it inside. I saw the kids were also way too muddy for an upscale hotel restaurant so I returned to the car and unpacked clean pants and shoes for each of them as well. I shuttled them individually to the restroom and got them changed. It was a process but it was the last time we would be dealing with the consequences of Iceland's unpredictable terrain and capricious weather. Dinner was the typical underwhelming presentation of old standards we had become accustomed to with a tasty sweet reward for the kids at the end.
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Our final night in Iceland was spent in a grungy motel in the colorless town of Keflavik. There was one final formidable obstacle to overcome, one that we had absolutely no control over. Living in Florida I'm used to keeping a watchful eye on the paths of hurricanes during the summer but ironically the one that was presenting a problem for us now wouldn't even have been on my radar at any other time. Hurricane Henri had started out in the mid-Atlantic, nowhere near Florida, but was projected to make a direct impact on Boston right about the time that our plane would be arriving there. It would be the first hurricane to hit Boston in thirty years which left me feeling quite unlucky even though we'd had plenty of good luck so far on the trip. I had no idea if our flight would even take off so I was constantly refreshing the hurricane tracker as well as the airline site to see if we would find ourselves spending an extra day or two in Iceland. When I awoke at dawn to make sure everything was packed and prepared I saw that the hurricane's impact had been pushed back a couple of hours which gave us a much better chance of arriving in the US as scheduled. Our flight from Boston to Miami was another matter entirely but at least we wouldn't have to worry about being stranded in a foreign country with expired COVID tests.

Mei Ling was unperturbed about the probable disruption to our return, perhaps because there was nothing we could do about it anyway. We returned our car smoothly and the agent failed to notice a scraped bumper on her cursory inspection. The kids got a thrill after boarding when the flight attendants recognized them from the volcano hike and got them some special treats for their toughness. Our flight took off as scheduled and upon landing in Boston we learned that the hurricane had made a last minute turn inland which had caused it to fall apart fairly quickly. It seemed the weather was no longer a threat and we had another uncomplicated flight on the domestic leg. It was a final stroke of good fortune in a trip that had seen several potential disasters culminate in miraculous positive outcomes. Being back in Miami was quite disorienting at first because over two weeks in Iceland it had begun to seem like we had always been there and our previous life in Miami had been a dream. Now we were looking at Iceland in the rear view mirror and that experience seemed completely unreal. Had we really walked on a glacier, rafted a turbulent and freezing river, and gazed upon an erupting volcano or had it been some kind of wild virtual reality experience? I couldn't really compare this two week journey to our month-long road trips in continental Europe but it seemed like this might have been our greatest short trip yet. The only one that might have been comparable was our tour of Sicily four years previously. There weren't enough memorable meals to rank them but the outdoor experiences more than made up for the lack of culinary pleasures.

10. Ásbyrgi Canyon
9. Reynisfjara black sand beach
8. Rauðhólar red hills
7. Downtown Reykjavik
6. Rafting on the West Glacial River
5. Fjallsjökull glacier walk
4. Snaefellsnes
3. Eldfell crater hike on Vestmannaeyjar
2. Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
1. Geldingalur volcano

I chose these ten out of at least sixty individual outdoor sights and adventures that we had in Iceland, a stunning number for a trip just two weeks long. Even though we managed to circle the entire country I know we missed many amazing places between lack of time, lack of knowledge, and lack of courage. Will we be back? I certainly hope so, but probably not until the kids are all in their teens and ready to tackle the more challenging exploration of the interior. I don't know if we'll ever be up to doing the famous multi-day hikes but I would certainly love to see places like Askja and Þórsmörk. Of course there's so much of the world left to see it's really hard to look that far into the future. I feel that between Iceland and the incredible road trip we took in the American Southwest immediately beforehand our family made enormous progress in terms of our ability to explore and appreciate the natural world along with the cities and restaurants that typically form the backbone of our trips. That opens up an entire new dimension of travel for us both in Europe and in the developing world.

Posted by zzlangerhans 17:13 Archived in Iceland Tagged road_trip family_travel travel_blog friedman tony_friedman family_travel_blog fagradalsfjall Comments (0)

Waterfalls and Glaciers: The Golden Circle


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The classic stops on Iceland's famous Golden Circle are the waterfall Gullfoss, Geysir geothermal area, and Þingvellir National Park. Those three are on a straight line east from Reykjavik, so one has to throw in a couple of extra stops such as Secret Lagoon or the Raufarhólshellir lava tunnel to make it a genuine loop. We had been to Raufarhólshellir on our second day and were completely finished with swimming pools and lagoons so our plan was to make it a Golden Line.
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We decided to start with the more straightforward sights and bypassed Þingvellir to get to Geysir. Although Geysir is the origin of the English word geyser and is the largest of the geysers in the geothermal area, the only one that visitors are likely to see erupting is its smaller neighbor Strokkur. Geysir erupts less and less frequently every year and no one seems to know the current frequency or when the last time was that it erupted, but it's safe to say it probably isn't going to happen during any particular visit. It's no big deal either way because Strokkur puts on a nice display every few minutes.
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Behind the cluster of geysers and hotpots near the road a dirt path climbed up the hillside. At the top was a narrow ridge that led to an overlook with a bird's eye view of Strokkur. On the other side of the ridge was a beautiful valley with a meandering creek and farmland with grazing sheep.
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We rested at the overlook for a while and watched Strokkur erupt a couple of times. It definitely wasn't as impressive as being right in front of the geyser but it felt good to breathe the fresh air again after spending so much time in the sulfurous vapors at ground level.
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We made a very brief stop at Gullfoss, just ten minutes further east. It's a beautiful, wide waterfall but we'd lost count of all the waterfalls we'd seen over the last two weeks. In terms of size and forcefulness it was similar to Dettifoss and we decided not to make the trek down to the viewing platform to get soaked by the spray.
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We were going to need to find somewhere to eat before tackling Þingvellir and the only place on our route I knew anything about was the tomato farm Friðheimar. My impression was that it was something of a tourist trap but probably unique enough to be a worthwhile experience regardless. The parking lot was packed and we walked down a tree-lined dirt road to the greenhouse which housed the restaurant. It was something of a madhouse inside and we were originally told that the tables were booked until closing, but Mei Ling worked her usual Jedi magic and got us onto the waiting list. We occupied our time examining the gift shop and the long rows of cherry tomato plants with fruit in various stages of ripeness. Many of the products in the shop were related to the bumblebees that flock around the greenhouse pollinating the plants.
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Eventually we got our table and started off with some of the famous Friðheimar bread. Some people were taking advantage of an all-you-can-eat deal for the bread and tomato soup but it seemed like a waste given the other interesting dishes we saw on the menu. We had quite a good meal of Caprese salad, tomato ravioli, a tomato quesadilla, and some very succulent mussels which we washed down with beer and tomato-based cocktails.
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Þingvellir is a confusing place to visit because few people seem to know its boundaries and several roads enter the park from the main highway. The park is roughly defined as the area between the north shore of the Þingvallavatn lake and the curve the highway makes around it. When most people mention Þingvellir they are really referring to a walking path that extends about a mile from Langistígur canyon to Almannagjá gorge and incorporates most of the well-known sights in the park. There is also a renowned dive site called Silfra in the lake and numerous hiking paths for those planning a longer visit. We ended up at a parking lot in the middle of the walking path, close to the waterfall Öxarárfoss.

Öxarárfoss isn't a very impressive waterfall by Iceland standards but is interesting in that it results from a manmade diversion of the Öxará River designed to create a source of drinking water for the assemblies that were convened there. It is also the source of the renowned Drekkingarhylur "drowning pool" that was used for the execution of women convicted of adultery or incest.
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We followed the boardwalk north to Langistígur which proved to be the most enjoyable part of our stop at Þingvellir. We had this gorge almost to ourselves which made for a very peaceful and enjoyable walk between the jagged, blocky walls of basalt. At the end of the fissure we were able to clamber to the surface level where we could look back along the path almost to Öxarárfoss. Beyond the gorge was the blue expanse of the lake.
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We reversed course and walked all the way back past Drekkingarhylur to Almannagjá. This spot is very significant in Icelandic history because it is the site of the country's first nationwide assembly, the Alþingi. The assembly continued to take place at Almannagjá for eight centuries until it was moved to Reykjavik in 1844. Almannagjá was also chosen symbolically as the site at which Iceland formally declared its independence from Denmark in 1944. For most travelers the main attraction of Almannagjá is that the two sides of the canyon belong to two different tectonic plates, the North American and the Eurasian. The path through the canyon is often described as the "walk between continents". I was pretty sure we had just done the same thing in the quieter Langistígur, and for that matter we had explored another section of this rift just hours after stepping off the plane. If I had insisted on walking the length of Almannagjá I would have faced a mutiny from my tired and hungry family so we returned to our car.
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We poked around for a little bit at the edge of Þingvallavatn, trying to get some good perspectives on this famously beautiful lake, but the sun was already beginning to drop and we thought that Mývatn had been far more pleasing aesthetically. We made our way back to Reykjavik, eventually passing through the familiar string of dizzying roundabouts. I counted about fifteen before something distracted me from my tally. We only had one more chance to try a food hall and I chose Grandi Mathöll in the refurbished harbor district. The food was good although we didn't find anything as enjoyable as SKÁL! from the previous night.
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After eating we spent a little time walking around the harbor checking out the various colorful and weatherbeaten boats that were tied up to the docks. The neighborhood seemed rather inactive in the evening and we decided we would come back in the morning to see if it was more lively. On the way home we saw Reykjavik's famous Harpa Concert Hall lit up in purple for the evening.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 00:13 Archived in Iceland Tagged family_travel geysir gulfoss travel_blog thingvellir tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

Waterfalls and Glaciers: Reykjavik


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After almost two weeks of driving through rural Iceland Reykjavik seemed like a hulking metropolis. We passed through an impressive periphery of residential suburbs and a seemingly endless series of roundabouts before arriving at the city center. In a departure from our usual pattern I hadn't made any dinner reservations in Reykjavik, correctly guessing that we would have grown weary of eating in upscale restaurants. Instead we had decided to sample the capital's cornucopia of food halls, and for our first night I had chosen Hlemmur Mathöll for the simple reason that it stayed open the latest. Hlemmur hosted an excellent restaurant called SKÁL! and between that and pizza for the kids we put together a very satisfying dinner. We were even able to treat the kids to ice cream before the food hall finally closed for the night.
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A lucky and unforeseen bonus of eating at Hlemmur was that when I plugged the address of our Airbnb into the GPS it turned out to be just a block away. We were able to get all our stuff into our high rise downtown apartment without having to move the car. Even though we were exhausted there was one crucial task to be completed. We had brought half a dozen BinaxNOW COVID-19 antigen tests from the United States and they had been occupying space in our luggage all the way around Iceland. It was finally time to break them out and complete the swabs with an online proctor now that we had less than 72 hours before our flight home. This would save us the inconvenience and expense of getting the swabs done at a clinic but I was worried that the online portion wouldn't work out as planned. Of course this was a miniscule concern compared to the far greater problem that we would have if one of us tested positive. Iceland was only having about a hundred cases a day of COVID at that point but given the small population that was equivalent to a hundred thousand cases a day in the United States. The vast majority of those cases were occurring in the capital. The decision to place Reykjavik at the end of the trip was in no small part to ensure that any exposure to COVID would likely come after we had already recorded our negative tests, but that was no guarantee that none of us had picked up the virus in the preceding two weeks. The online proctoring was fairly well-designed but there was no way the person on the other end could continuously monitor the swab as it made its journey from the nose to the testing kit. Once my test came back negative I realized it would be quite simple to switch everyone else's swab with my used swab before inserting it into their kit. That maneuver would have been beyond my ethical boundary but if someone had been positive I think I would have regretted completing the process honestly. Regardless, all of us were negative and a major impediment to our safe and timely return home had been eliminated.

In the morning we drove a few blocks to the highest-rated breakfast place I could find, a bakery cafe on a pedestrian section of the main drag Laugavegur. We had to park a couple of blocks away which gave us a chance to absorb some of the colorful downtown Reykjavik atmosphere on the walk to the cafe.
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There was a long line outside and we made the mistake of deciding to wait, assuming that the long line was confirmation of the positive reviews. By the time we'd realized that no breakfast restaurant could possibly be worth an hourlong wait we'd already committed too much time to walk away. The kids ended up eating takeout sandwiches while we were still on line. Once we finally sat down the process of ordering and getting served absorbed more than another hour of our precious morning so we ended up with a very late start for the sake of a decent but unmemorable breakfast.
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We spent the rest of our day visiting attractions on the Golden Circle which I have written about in a separate entry.

On our last morning in Reykjavik we drove to the Grandi port neighborhood to have breakfast at Kaffivagninn, which is reportedly the oldest restaurant in Iceland. It seemed most of the kitchen staff was in COVID quarantine so only pastries were available. The place had a very strong neighborhood vibe, filled with middle-aged men who looked like regulars that worked around the port.
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The neighborhood was a little more active in the morning, especially a strip of small restaurants and boutiques that had been built inside old storage units with pull-down doors. At one gourmet food store I was surprised to find red bell peppers for the same price that I would have bought them for at a supermarket in the United States. Everything else seemed extremely expensive. Although Grandi has gained a reputation for hipness it seemed run down and a little bit depressing to us.
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I wasn't sure how to fill the rest of the morning. I considered taking the ferry to Videy island but I wasn't sure the payoff would be worth the hassle. I decided we would drive back to the center of town for a closer look at Reykjavik's iconic Hallgrímskirkja which we had only seen in passing the previous day. Opinions are sharply divided on the architectural merit of this imposing Lutheran church. Many admire the broad wings composed of concrete hexagonal columns that evoke the natural basalt structure of Reynisfjara but all others see is an enormous phallus. I could see the merit of either viewpoint. The interior of the church is most notable for the pipe organ with 5275 pipes which one might think of as a giant organ within a giant organ.
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The area across from the church seemed promising so we meandered down the street directly opposite from the statue of Leif Eriksson that stood in front of the church. There was a fascinating grid of commercial streets here with painted sidewalks, wall murals, and street sculptures.
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Eventually we found ourselves back on Laugavegur which was closed to traffic and whimsically painted with an enormous hopscotch board followed by a foot racetrack. When we turned the corner onto upsloping Skólavörðustígur we were greeted with the amazing sight of the entire street painted in rainbow stripes with the central tower of Hallgrímskirkja at the dead center atop the hill.
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Continuing east on Laugavegur we eventually crossed Lækjargata which was the widest and busiest street we'd seen in the country. On the other side was a densely commercial district filled with restaurants, hotels, and government buildings. As we meandered around we were surprised to come across a large pond filled with birds in the very center of the busiest part of town. This was Tjörnin, a natural body of water that may have provided the impetus for the first human arrivals to settle in the area. For centuries the water was brackish due to influx of ocean tides but the installation of locks in 1989 converted the pond into freshwater. Apparently over forty different species of birds can be seen around Tjörnin but the most dominant by far were throngs of seagulls and terns fighting each other over various snacks tourists were tossing into the water. One of the more unfortunate of these offerings was the contents of a bag of giant marshmallows that the gulls would mournfully peck at and then ignore. On the cobblestone patio of a restaurant adjacent to the pond stands the Monument to the Unknown Bureaucrat, a bronze statue of a man whose upper body is encased in a featureless block of stone. This anonymous individual is captured for eternity on his way to or from one of the numerous government offices in the area where he likely helps to craft obscure policies regarding plumbing fixtures or traffic patterns.
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I had read an article about a Reykjavik Street Food Market that was supposed to take place every Saturday in this area, but there was no sign of it at the designated location. Instead we stopped at Kolaportið, a weekend indoor flea market close to the port. It was a reasonably interesting place to browse around for half an hour but flea markets aren't really our thing and we didn't have any room in our luggage even if we had wanted to buy anything. The time had come to take our leave of Reykjavik and begin our final adventure in Iceland before returning home the next day. On the way out of downtown we saw a cluster of people admiring the famous Sun Voyager sculpture by the shore but it wasn't worth the trouble to make our own stop. We were eager to make our pilgrimage to Iceland's newest attraction, the erupting volcano Geldingadalir.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 23:35 Archived in Iceland Tagged family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

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