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Waterfalls and Glaciers: Blönduós and Húsafell


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My kids had never been river rafting before this summer, and here we were on our way to do it for the third time. I had carefully planned these adventures to begin as mildly as possible and slowly progress in difficulty once I was able to see how they managed the excitement. The first trip had been more like a float, and they had enjoyed the second which had some light grade II rapids. My understanding was that we would be in for some grade III rapids today on Vestari-Jökulsá, the West Glacial River. The fact that they allowed six year olds on the trip allayed my nervousness to some degree but I still wondered if I was really making the best judgment of risk versus reward in scheduling this trip.

The stretch of Ring Road from Akureyri to Varmahlíð had an eerie beauty that morning. A low fog obscured the mountaintops and merged into the milky sky. At times it seemed that we were about to drive into pea soup and I steeled myself for a near-total loss of visibility but the mists always seemed to clear at the last moment. Fortunately for my nerves there was almost no traffic in that rather unpopular region of Iceland in the early morning, despite the fact that we were on the main road that circled the country.
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When we arrived at the headquarters it was clear this was a more serious endeavor than the rafting trips we had taken in Utah. Our guide took a lot more time to give us instructions and informed us we would be wearing dry suits and helmets. The dry suits were a particular challenge to struggle into and at the end the kids looked like a band of Oompah Loompahs that had escaped from the chocolate factory. A short bus ride brought us to the departure point and s soon as I saw the river I wondered if I'd made a terrible mistake. The rafts were on the bank of a river that was completely white with churning foam, and the water seemed to be moving as fast as any I had ever seen. It almost reminded me of the waters of Jökulsá á Fjöllum just before they went off the edge of Dettifoss, not the most comforting memory. I was relieved to learn that the guide who had given instructions to the whole group would be navigating our raft, as he seemed to be the most confident and experienced. As soon as I had a chance to talk to him in confidence I made it clear that I didn't see any of the kids getting pitched into the water as part of the adventure. I wanted him to do whatever he needed to do to keep us all in the raft. He seemed to get what I was saying and told me not to worry. They'd had plenty of young kids on the rafting trips before and never had any serious problems.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that we all ended up surviving the rafting trip. The water was fast and the rapids were certainly rougher than anything we had experienced, but we never came close to getting tossed out. I did notice our guide steering us away from the most turbulent sections but fortunately our kids weren't old enough to notice they were getting a softer treatment. The kids also didn't seem to mind when I declined the offer to jump in the water, although the Icelandic teenagers on the raft ahead of us seemed to enjoy it. I was very relieved when it was over and everyone had enjoyed themselves without injury. We had lunch in a cafe attached to a service station in Varmahlíð, which isn't as bad as it sounds. In fact, this was our third service station lunch in Iceland and the offerings can be quite varied and substantial. As Varmahlíð was barely large enough to qualify as a village, the cafe was also our only option.

Swimming is something of a national pastime in Iceland, thanks to all the geothermal activity that allows natural heating of pools. Some of the most small and remote towns have the most renowned sundlaugs, or swimming pools. In fact, the pool in the miniscule village of Hofsós is often rated as the top swimming pool in all of Iceland. I thought this reputation was worth checking it out and it's never hard to convince the kids to go to a swimming pool. We drove about a half hour north partway up the western coast of the Tröllaskagi Peninsula to Hofsós, a typical Icelandic coastal village with a blue-roofed church and a backdrop of mountains shrouded in mist. The unique feature of the pool was its infinity design, but a rim of land around the far edge detracted from the illusion of continuity with the fjord beyond. I think the kids would have preferred slides like the ones in Höfn but they still enjoyed themselves.
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A fringe benefit of the detour to Hofsós was that we got to drive Highway 75 which traversed the innermost point of Skagafjörður. The landscape is always more beautiful closer to the water. We crossed the base of the Skagi Peninsula before arriving in Blönduós, a tiny town that I had chosen mainly for a restaurant owned by two well-known Icelandic chefs. I had chosen our guesthouse despite my concerns about a shared bathroom but when we arrived it was clear that the third bedroom would be vacant that night. Being the only occupants made the guesthouse more like a bargain Airbnb with some substantial common areas. The COVID precautions that were prominently displayed seemed somewhat eccentric. Avoid contact with stray animals in market areas, in Iceland?
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The coastal town was bisected by the mouth of a river and most of the hotels were packed into a quaint little corner on the southern bank of the river right next to the fjord. I hadn't even realized that our guesthouse was next door to the restaurant so we only had a two minute walk to dinner. Our hotel was adjacent to a classic little Icelandic church and a horse pasture.
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Brimslóð Atelier seemed like a prime candidate to provide our first exceptional dinner in Iceland. The owners have published several cookbooks and are among the most well-known chefs in Iceland. The particular attraction of the restaurant is that the set menu provides locally sourced dishes with the atmosphere of a home-cooked meal. The kitchen was indeed continuous with the dining area although largely blocked from visibility by cupboards, and with two long communal tables there was actually more seating than some of the other restaurants we had visited. We proved unlucky with the evening menu as the appetizer was tomato soup and the entree was Arctic char, a dish we had seen on almost every dinner menu and were trying to avoid. The fish was well-prepared and tasty, but I couldn't describe the dinner as a memorable experience from a culinary perspective.
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Our Ice Cave Tour in Húsafell didn't start until three and it was a two and a half hours drive, so we needed something to do in the morning. Unlike in southern Iceland, where there were always enough waterfalls and canyons and Ring Road sights to fill an entire day, exciting activities in northern Iceland were somewhat sparse. I couldn't find anything worth seeing en route so it looked like we'd have to hang out in Blönduós for a bit. We went back to Brimslóð Atelier for breakfast, which we oddly found more enjoyable than the previous night's dinner. It seemed Blönduós had a decent swimming pool with slides like the one in Höfn. The kids had just been swimming the previous day in Hofsós but there hadn't been any slides, so they jumped at the chance to go again. As it turned out the slides were even longer than the ones they'd been on the last time, so they had a blast. I was going crazy trying to keep track of all three of them because they kept stopping in the middle of the tube and I was imagining one of them getting stuck on something inside. Fortunately there was no one else around to hear me frantically yelling into the tube every two minutes. The most amazing part is that entry was completely free for the kids and our only expense was renting a towel to dry them off with. In the lobby they were selling ice cream but I found the brand name somewhat unappetizing.
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We'd already seen what passed for an old town in Blönduós by walking a few steps from the guesthouse to the restaurant. The only other distinguishing feature of the town was the uninhabited river island of Hrútey which is protected for nesting birds. It is open for hiking all year except for the spring. A footbridge connects the island to the northern bank of the river.
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When we arrived we discovered that there was an avant garde installation by an Icelandic artist called Shoplifter on the island. Colorful tufts and towers of synthetic fiber were strategically placed close to the path that circled the island. Our walk quickly turned into a competition between the kids for who could be the first to spot the next composition. Some were obvious but others were hidden behind other features of the landscape. Our progress was regularly slowed by the profusion of wild blueberry bushes that surrounded us. We were so entranced with the island that we almost forgot our itinerary and had to rush through the final leg of the path to stay on schedule.
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The two hour drive to Húsafell was fairly bland relative to the scenery we had seen on the southern coast and the wild northeast. Nevertheless we had some pleasant views of fields dotted with wrapped hay bales and occasional clusters of Icelandic horses. We drove as quickly as we dared given Iceland's strict photo-enforced speed limits and arrived at the departure site of our next tour in sufficient time to wolf down a quick lunch before rushing to the bus.
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One of the few disadvantages of visiting Iceland in the summer is that the natural ice caves that form under the glaciers every winter are too unstable to visit. The next best thing is the man-made ice cave that was built under the glacier Langjökull in 2015. The bus drove us to the edge of the glacier, Iceland's second largest, where we were outfitted in waterproof outfits and boots. A specialized glacier truck then drove us over the glacier for forty minutes until we reached the mouth of the tunnel. We had seen plenty of desolate volcanic landscapes in Iceland but this was a completely different kind of bleakness. The ash-stained ice extended around us to the horizon in every direction and once again we felt like we had taken a spaceship rather than an airplane to this singular country.
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The entrance to the tunnel was like the open mouth of some giant glacial worm. We quickly reached a chamber where we were provided with crampons to give us footing on the wet ice of the tunnel floor. For the next hour or so we gingerly plodded through a network of neat rectangular tunnels with glistening, lumpy white walls. We occasionally stopped at points of interest such as illuminated chambers, a bottomless hole, and streams of meltwater which could be caught and drunk from a bottle. It was somewhat interesting and fun for the kids but probably not comparable to the beauty of a natural ice cave. At the end we clambered back into the glacier truck and reversed the process until we were back at the departure point in Húsafell.
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We had just enough time to squeeze in a visit to Hraunfossar on the way out of Húsafell. The unique feature of this wide waterfall is that it emerges from below the edge of the enormous Hallmundarhraun lava field when it reaches the Hvítá River. The water originates in the nearby glacier but is completely invisible until it reaches the river because it flows underneath the pahoehoe lava. A walking path provides different perspectives on the waterfall and eventually leads to another waterfall named Barnafoss where the river churns through a twisting passage of sculptured basalt.
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Soon we were gazing once again at marshmallow haystacks dotting green fields on the forty-five minute leg west to Borgarnes, where we would be having dinner and spending the night. It felt good to be back on our normal hectic schedule after slowing down our pace on the northern coast. From the looks of things we were going to be pretty busy for the next three days as well.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 10:20 Archived in Iceland Tagged road_trip family_travel travel_blog friedman tony_friedman family_travel_blog

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