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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 in Utah 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 raft 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 activity.

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 as 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 privately I made it clear that I didn't see any of my 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. 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 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 selected our guesthouse despite my concerns about a community bathroom but when we arrived it was clear that the only bedroom we weren't using would be vacant that night. Being the only occupants made the guesthouse more like an inexpensive, oversized Airbnb with 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 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 in Höfn 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 icy surface 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 Comments (0)

Waterfalls and Glaciers: The Diamond Circle


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From Mývatn we retraced our route about forty minutes to Dettifoss and then continued another twenty minutes to the turnoff for Rauðhólar. This isolated geological marvel should not be confused with the site by the same name located just outside Reykjavik. We could see the red hills that the site was named for in the distance but their visibility was deceptive. We had to trudge along the dirt path for almost an hour through what seemed like an endless lush carpet of green and purple scrub before we finally arrived at the base.
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A trail led us close to the crest of the tallest hill but a rope prevented hikers from treading on the red surface of oxidized scoria. Up close the maroon slope of the hill was even more impressive, especially when contrasted with the greenery that was attempting to overtake one side. On the side of the hill that faced the river the red scoria mixed with black in a streaky pattern. In the other direction a steep and narrow trail led downward towards the irregular lava pillars of Hljóðaklettar.
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We saw some more intrepid hikers braving the steep path but we opted for a more prudent route at the base of the hill. In the end we decided not to make the journey all the way down to the river to see the formations of Hljóðaklettar up close. I've since wondered if we might have missed a very unique experience, but the extra hour would have meant skipping something else later in the day. I was still thankful that I had figured out a way to fit Rauðhólar into our itinerary since both the walk through the green and purple field and the views from the top of the hill had been amazing.
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We continued north on 862 and eventually intersected with 85, a long loop that provides access to the northeastern coast of Iceland while the Ring Road courses inland. Just a few miles east we found the turn-off to Ásbyrgi Canyon and had a quick lunch at a service station. Ásbyrgi isn't one of Iceland's best known sites, probably because no one makes it there unless they have more than a week to complete the entire Ring Road with time to spare to venture into the northeast. That was fortunate for us because if Ásbyrgi was on the Golden Circle it would be so packed with tourists that the atmosphere would be completely destroyed. Ásbyrgi was completely different from the narrow gorges we had seen previously in Iceland. The canyon was an enormous horseshoe-shaped sloping depression with walls of sheer basalt. As one proceeds further into the canyon the walls become higher until they reach a breathtaking one hundred meters. A separate tongue of basalt called Eyjan extends from the beginning of the canyon into the center where it suddenly terminates in a sheer cliff. From the road, Eyjan looks like a giant monolith in the middle of the canyon but it is an illusion. Behind the cliff is a strip of land that gradually converges with the rising ground level.
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A short, easy trail led from the parking area through a wood to an algae filled pond at the base of the basalt cliffs. Here the cliffs were at their tallest and most impressive. It was hard to believe that something so immaculate could have occurred through the chaotic forces of volcanism and flooding. The ancient Icelanders must have felt the same way as they concluded the canyon was a hoofprint of Sleipnir, the eight-legged horse of Odin. In more modern terms it was like a scene from a video game where the cliffs defined the boundary of a virtual world. The basalt had developed a chunky, faceted appearance from years of erosion and displayed patches of red from oxidation and green from plant life. There was one viewing platform at the water level and another on a slope overlooking the pond.
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The path on the slope ended adjacent to the cliff, where a sign warned that rocks fell from the walls at frequent intervals. Dusty chunks of basalt at the foot of the cliff testified to the truth of the warning. That didn't seem to deter many visitors but was enough for me to keep that part of our exploration brief. The texture and coloration of the stone walls was even more impressive up close.
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I was so taken aback by the awesomeness of Ásbyrgi that I completely forgot about my plan to walk the two kilometer trail to the top of Eyjan, which would have afforded a bird's eye view of the entire parabolic extent of the cliff face. I only felt a sudden pang of regret once we were already well on our way to Húsavík. Regardless, the cliffs of Ásbyrgi had been even more breathtaking than Rauðhólar. It had definitely been a wise decision to complete the Diamond Circle rather than driving straight to Akureyri from Mývatn.

The main draw of the coastal city of Húsavík is the profusion of whale watching boats that depart from the port. That wasn't an option for us as Mei Ling gets seasick easily and the boys are somewhat susceptible to it as well. I've heard a lot of horror stories about seasickness on those trips. We stopped in the town just to get a quick look at the port and see the Whale Museum, which I would describe as modestly interesting. The green and white town church was an attractive landmark in the upper part of town overlooking the port.
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We continued west on 85 from Húsavík which eventually terminated once more at the Ring Road. Here we reversed direction eastward a short distance and found the turn-off for Goðafoss. Like Dettifoss, there are two roads leading to opposite sides of the waterfall although in this case it's a much shorter drive to go from one to the other. Goðafoss translates to "waterfall of the gods", a name it received when the Icelandic chieftain Thorgeir Thorkelsson tossed his pagan idols into the cataract in the 11th century after deciding the country would bow to pressure from Norway and convert to Christianity. It has the reputation of being one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Iceland but after seeing so many over the previous week we couldn't find much to set it apart from the rest. The wind was exceptionally strong and cold so we decided against taking the path down to the lower level or visiting the opposite side.
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We finally rolled into Akureyri without much time to spare before dinner. We had a beautiful drive down the shore of Eyjafjörður which gave us a nice preview of the city on the other side. Eyri Restaurant was in a tiny suburb called Hjalteyri, about fifteen minutes north of the city. Aside from the restaurant there were nine or ten houses and the obligatory abandoned fish processing plant. Beyond the plant we could see the snowcapped mountains on the other side of the fjord. There was a playground with one of those colorful bubble trampolines that the kids seem to never get tired of. The restaurant was a farm-to-table type of place with a great reputation but I suspect they were short-staffed or otherwise having an off night. Fortunately we had already learned to temper our expectations regarding dining out in Iceland. We had a short drive to our guest house which was also north of the city and crashed almost immediately thanks to another exhausting day.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 03:40 Archived in Iceland Tagged family_travel travel_blog husavik tony_friedman family_travel_blog asbyrgi rautholar Comments (0)

Waterfalls and Glaciers: Mývatn


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We made it to Mývatn just in time for our dinner reservation at Vogafjós Farm Resort, a farm that also operated as a hotel and restaurant. We had to walk right by the cow shed to enter the restaurant and the smell confirmed that the farm was in full working order. The food lived up to the restaurant's rating as one of the best in the lake area, especially the sampler plate of Icelandic specialties.
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Despite the excellent food I felt irritated that we hadn't been able to see anything on our itinerary north of Dettifoss. I had marked Rauðhólar and Ásbyrgi as optional stops, but was I sure we weren't missing something exceptional? As we ate I studied the map and realized that there was a way we could return to the area and visit those places without compromising our itinerary for the next day. Since we were having an early dinner, we could knock out a couple of the sights around the lake before it got dark and then get out of Mývatn earlier the next day. We could retrace to Rauðhólar and Ásbyrgi and then take the coastal road west through Húsavík. If we didn't dawdle too long at any one place we'd be able to make it to Akureyri for our dinner reservation at 8:30.
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After dinner we wasted no time driving back along the Ring Road to the turn-off for Krafla. This volcanic caldera is famous for the blue pool called Viti at the base of the crater. The eruption that formed the crater is also responsible for the nearby steaming lava field called Leirhnjúkur. On the road to Krafla we passed by an enormous geothermal plant and then parked in a lot right next to the caldera. We could see Viti from the lowest part of the crater rim but decided to walk up the narrow edge of the crater anyway. It was a little scary because of the wind and the steep slopes on either side of the rim, but probably not steep enough for us to fall all the way down into the water. Viti appeared more dark blue than the legendary turquoise, possibly due to the clouds and the lateness of the hour. The area around the crater was another volcanic wasteland dotted with other calderas and small patches of grassland between them.
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On the way back to Mývatn we stopped at the Hverir geothermal area right off the Ring Road. This was more impressive than Seltun from the first day but the lack of a boardwalk made me nervous to take the kids for a stroll among the boiling mudpots. The kids were more than happy to stay with me on the viewing platform because of the powerful sulfur smell and the clouds of annoying midges that were harassing us. Mývatn is actually named for the midges which periodically swarm the entire area around the lake. Some people claim they bite but this is hotly disputed and we didn't feel any bites, but nevertheless they are quite annoying and get into every part of the face including the mouth and eyes. After a while I realized it was preferable to breathe through my mouth and swallow the occasional midge than to suck them into my nose. One way to avoid the issue is with hats that come with nets attached but out stay in Mývatn was so short that we didn't bother.
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The quickest route to our hotel was along the western shore of the lake. Mývatn was completely different from Lagarfjlót, the lake we had driven alongside in the morning, but no less beautiful. Instead of a mirror-like surface, Mývatn had an irregular shoreline full of little projections and inlets as well as numerous little ponds not far from the main lake. The vegetation around the lake was lush and there were numerous uninhabited islets that were equally verdant. Guesthouse Stöng was another ten minute drive down a dirt road from the main highway. By the time we arrived the sun was below the horizon and the isolated cottages were half buried in the mist, illuminated by the last few rays of sunlight that filtered through the clouds. It was a ghostly sight but we were glad to finally have a place to rest our heads. When we unpacked we found Ian's lost hoodie in the dirty clothes bag and no one would admit to having stuffed it in there. Regardless, we accepted this find as a good omen for the second half of our journey.
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In the morning we had better light in which to take stock of our surroundings. It seemed as though we had stumbled upon another beautiful accommodation in the middle of nowhere. The cottages looked as though they had fallen from the sky into an enormous field of dandelions. The lake was too far away to be visible and the cinder cones that surrounded it were just distant shadows on the horizon. This bucolic environment was a world apart from the volcanic wasteland we had explored the previous night. The only hotel we had stayed at with a more impressive setting was The Garage in southern Iceland.
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After a typical buffet breakfast we got started on our itinerary. We wanted to find the best way to experience the lakeside atmosphere so we drove to the nature preserve Höfði. From the small parking lot a trail led into the wooded area which was surprisingly dense for Iceland. Eventually we reached the shoreline where we could get right up to the clear, aquamarine water and enjoy the curiously shaped little islets that dotted the surface of the lake. I was expecting to be tortured by the midges here but we had no problem with them at all, perhaps because it was so early.
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The turn-off for Dimmuborgir was just a short distance away. This protected area of lava pillars was formed by steam pressure from ground water trapped beneath a pool of lava. The entrance had some elevation which made it a good vantage point to look outward over the lake. There's a lot of local mythology about Dimmuborgir due to the resemblance of the structures to a miniature city. It was quite a long walk from the parking area to the most well-known formations. Kirkjan is a short tunnel whose entrance has an ogee arch shape suggestive of a Gothic church.
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It's strictly prohibited to climb on most of the lava formations due to their brittleness. One exception is the short clamber up to an elevated circular window in a wall of lava that's a favorite for photographs. On the other side of the window is a trail leading to Hverfjall, the largest cinder cone in the lake area. There's a path to the top of Hverfjall but since we had already climbed to the top of the caldera at Krafla we gave that one a miss.
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If I had to do Dimmuborgir over again I probably would have skipped Kirkjan. The walk took a lot of time and the formation was crowded with tourists and not really that impressive. We could easily have spent another day at Mývatn checking out all the different ravines and hot springs or even fishing but we still had a lot on our plate before our arrival in Akureyri that evening. We bid our farewell to the lake and got back on the road to complete what is known as the Diamond Circle.

Posted by zzlangerhans 03:24 Archived in Iceland Tagged family_travel travel_blog krafla husavik viti tony_friedman family_travel_blog goðafoss dimmuborgir hverir Comments (0)

Waterfalls and Glaciers: Hengifoss to Dettifoss

On Saturday we had more things on our itinerary than we could possibly accomplish so we were strongly motivated to get out of Egilsstaðir early. It wasn't until the car was completely packed that we realized we were missing Ian's hoodie. This might not seem like a serious problem but we had packed light and the only other option for outdoor activities was his winter coat. It was also a good quality item that hadn't been worn until this trip. We scoured our cabin and then unloaded all the bags and opened them but it was nowhere to be found. We even went back to the restaurant where we'd had dinner the previous night but it wasn't there either. By the time we gave up on finding it we'd lost a half hour and were fighting off a bad mood. Soon after we got on the road, however, our exasperation dissipated as we found ourselves driving along the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes I have ever seen. Lagarfljót is a long, skinny lake that doesn't get a lot of tourist traffic despite being the largest lake in East Iceland. It's best known for abutting Hallormsstaður, Iceland's largest forest, and possibly hosting a sea monster. Driving along the eastern shore of the lake was an epiphany as the road approached the water's edge and we could see how faithfully the mirrored surface reproduced the colorful landscape and cloudy sky. We couldn't resist the temptation to pull off the road and absorb the sight. On closer inspection we saw that by some refractory property of the surface the details were blurred slightly, almost as if an impressionist had painted the reflection of the landscape on a giant canvas spread across the ground.
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My research had told me that there was an extraordinary buffet restaurant close to the road so we took the turn off for Hótel Hallormsstaður to fuel ourselves for the hike that lay ahead. The clusters of birch trees that we passed through felt incongruous after a week of seeing nothing but grass and scrub on the Icelandic landscape. The Lauf buffet restaurant inside the hotel lived up to expectations and we ate vigorously while looking out over the forest and the far side of the lake.
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The trailhead for Hengifoss was on the opposite side of Lagarfljót but there was a convenient causeway that traversed the lake. We had already seen several of Iceland's famous waterfalls but we had learned there was a lot more to appreciate than just falling water. Each one had been unique in the combination of height, forcefulness, and setting. Of course, half the fun of a waterfall at the end of a trail was the task of getting there. This one began with a long climb up a hill alongside Hengifossárgil gorge.
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After a couple of sheep gates we reached an overlook with a spectacular view of what to me was the most amazing waterfall we had seen yet. The flow wasn't particularly powerful but the background was incredible. The river had cut a deep gash in the rock so the top of the waterfall was already halfway down the cliff, and it poured a long distance into a tranquil pool before flowing into the gorge. The upper walls of the chasm were lined with a remarkable display of basalt columns that looked like a colossal design project. This was actually Litlanesfoss, about two thirds of the way to the end of the trail where Hengifoss lies.
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We continued onward until we reached a bench with decent views of the final waterfall. Hengifoss was an attractive waterfall in its own right with a backdrop of layers of basalt separated by stripes of red sedimentary rock. Given that we were pressed for time we made a collective decision that we'd walked far enough and decided to turn our attention once again towards sustenance.
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After our buffet breakfast it was too early to sit down for a full lunch, but the Klausturkaffi cafe inside the historic home of Icelandic novelist Gunnar Gunnarsson is so renowned for its seafood soup and cake buffet that we had to make a stop. The 1930's mansion is quite beautiful and distinctive, constructed of dark basalt and white mortar with a lush and well-maintained turf roof. We arrived just as the cafe was opening and had a piping hot tureen of seafood soup that was almost like a bouillabaisse in its richness, followed by a fluffy rhubarb pie. The cake buffet looked amazing but it would have been far too much to handle so soon after breakfast.
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We doubled back towards Egilsstaðir on the western shore of Lagarfljót and then took the Ring Road west to the turn off for Stuðlagil. This colorful canyon was revealed only after the Kárahnjúkar hydropower plant was brought into operation in 2009, diverting water from the Jökulsá á Brú river and lowering its level dramatically. Even after ten years the canyon hasn't made it into the 2019 edition of the Lonely Planet so it was fortunate that I supplemented the guidebook with my own research. I did make one significant mistake that caused us to miss the experience of entering the canyon itself, which was in trusting one person who wrote that the hike into the canyon was four kilometers each way. That led me to choose the option of the viewing platform above the canyon which had a parking lot adjacent to it. Only once we were looking over the platform did we see another parking lot on the lower level much closer to the entry point that is accessible to any four wheel drive vehicle. One excellent resource where locals explain the different access points to the canyon is the reviews on Google Maps.

Although we didn't have to hike at all to get to the platform we did need to descend about a hundred stairs and of course ascend them on the way back. The basalt columns that line the canyon are truly amazing in their different curvatures, heights, and coloration. We were fortunate to have the opportunity to see something so beautiful even from a distance but it would certainly have been even more spectacular to have explored the bottom of the canyon.
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There was a heavy concentration of worthwhile sights about half an hour north of the Ring Road before arriving at Mývatn. I knew we wouldn't have time to see all of them before our early dinner and my plan was to see as much as we could and try to push back our dinner reservation if we wanted to. When we reached the turn-off that Google Maps had given us we encountered an interesting sign. Were the authorities trying to help us or were they tricking tourists out of the best experiences for their own nefarious reasons? We decided to put our trust in the local authorities over Google Maps.
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We drove up 862 instead of 864 and after about twenty minutes reached the turn-off to Dettifoss as promised. We learned that Dettifoss can be observed from either the east or west sides but there's no way to cross over without returning all the way to the Ring Road. People are divided about which side is the best. On the west, where we were, there's more spray and the view is partially obstructed unless you cross the barriers and get dangerously close to the edge. However the road is paved and well-maintained and the waterfall is still quite impressive. People also agree that the view of the Selfoss, the other waterfall close by, is better from the west. The road to the east is gravel and people say that flat tires and dents are quite common even with a four wheel drive. The area around the parking lot was very desolate and volcanic, even for Iceland. We followed a path through a lava field with stubby basalt columns towards the cloud of mist we could see arising from the gorge. After about a kilometer we found ourselves at the top of a path that descended to the edge of the most thunderous and terrifying waterfall I've ever seen.
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Dettifoss is known for being the most powerful waterfall in Iceland and the second most powerful in all of Europe. The river appeared foamy and angry even before the water burst over the edge in a cascade of grey and white loops. Invisible rocky projections blocked the downward flow in spots and added to the sense of chaos. The strongest human alive would have fared no better than an ant in that cataclysm. Even from a safe vantage point behind the rope the sheer ferocity of the waterfall was intimidating. We navigated our way to the highest viewing platform via a path that went perilously close to a ten foot drop-off. From here we could finally see where the sheets of water impacted the bottom of the chasm. We could also see people on the opposite side who had clambered down to the slippery basalt above the gorge for a closer look. There was no barrier whatsoever and it was hard to believe that no one ever plunged to their deaths from that precarious spot.
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We doubled back towards the parking lot and then took a path about half a kilometer upstream to Selfoss. This waterfall shares its name with the town we stayed in on the first night, despite the fact that they are in completely different parts of the country and there's no waterfall in the town. The distinguishing feature of Selfoss is the way the basalt columns separate the water flow into individual streams, but the waterfall isn't very high and I don't think most people would drive out of their way for it if they weren't already going to Dettifoss.
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The restaurant declined to move back our reservation which turned out to be a good thing as an extra hour and a half would not have been enough time to visit the next spot on our itinerary. We returned to the Ring Road and drove another half hour en route to Mývatn, the most well-known lake in northern Iceland.

Posted by zzlangerhans 03:01 Archived in Iceland Tagged iceland family_travel travel_blog family_travel_blog lagarfljot Comments (0)

Waterfalls and Glaciers: Vestmannaeyjar


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So far things had gone smoothly for us in Iceland. We had accomplished everything I had planned in the first day and a half and we were now proceeding to one of my most eagerly anticipated destinations. Eighteen years earlier I had stood alone atop the dormant volcano Helgafell and seen the most breathtaking view of my life up to that point. With no one to share it with, I resolved to return one day with a family of my own. That moment had now arrived although our late ferry departure meant it would have to wait until the next day. The short ferry ride passed quickly as I braved the sharp wind to watch birds swooping around the uninhabited islets of Elliðaey and Bjarney. The islands are ringed by steep cliffs and each has a single puffin-hunting lodge that is the only sign of human intrusion.
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Heimaey is the only inhabited island of Vestmannaeyjar, which is known to English speakers as the Westman Islands. The rocky outcrops surrounding the harbor were like natural versions of the stone forts ringing the port of Valletta, Malta. The twin volcanoes of Eldfell and Helgafell loomed behind the town with the former's enormous crater clearly visible.
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The town seemed larger and more impersonal than on my last visit, but perhaps my memory had faded over time. The sky was overcast and there were few people on the windy streets. I had to drag the large suitcase with its eroding wheels about half a kilometer to our hotel, where our room was mercifully on the ground floor. We only had a short time to unpack and recuperate before walking around the corner for dinner. My first and second restaurant choices were closed on Mondays, but Einsi Kaldi provided us with a solid meal. Our friendly waitress helped address my confusion about the different names I'd heard for the town. Of Vestmannaeyjar, Vestmannaeyjabær, and Heimaey which referred to the archipelago, which was this island, and which was the town on the island? The waitress assured us all the terms were interchangeable and could refer to any of the locations but I think she just wanted to spare us from having to pronounce the longer words. We asked her about eating puffin and she told us it could no longer be found on restaurant menus due to a decline in the population from my last visit. Apparently there's still some limited hunting permitted and she actually called her aunt to bring in some cured puffin breast for us to try. The heavily spiced raw meat wasn't anywhere near as enjoyable as the savory grilled puffin breast I'd enjoyed on my prior visit but at least Mei Ling could say that she'd tried it.
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In the morning we fortified ourselves with breakfast at a no-frills bakery down by the port. According to my weather app it was low 50's, same as every summer day in Iceland, but it felt a lot colder thanks to a biting wind that whistled unimpeded through the low buildings. I knew if we headed southeast to the outskirts of town we would find our way to the base of Eldfell. It wasn't possible for us to miss it - the twin peaks were visible from every spot on the island. Not far from our hotel we passed through the beautifully-landscaped town park. There was a small playground with a colorful trampoline made of a vinyl sheet stretched over trapped air underneath. It was a quite effective piece of equipment and I wondered why I'd never seen anything like it before. Later we would see the same kind of trampoline in half a dozen other towns in Iceland.
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As we continued onward the wind grew stronger and more chilling. Thankfully we'd brought and worn our heavy winter coats but I'd decided against the long underwear that day. The islanders obviously took great pride in their small plots of land and many had quite creative arrangements of plants and flowers. I saw a sign for the Eldheimar Museum and we ducked inside more to get out of the cold for a short time than out of any particular desire to see the exhibits. The museum is dedicated to the 1973 volcanic eruption that created Eldfell and buried half the town under a lava field. Due to a series of fortunate coincidences no lives were lost during the eruption and much of the town was spared from incineration by the incandescent material ejected from the volcano. Although Heimaey could easily have been rendered uninhabited like the other islands in the archipelago, the town recovered and thrived and is now more populous than ever. Outside the museum we found an abandoned ball and passed it around for a bit before it was lost over the hillside.
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Behind Eldheimar we found a dirt path leading up a steep hillside. This was the beginning of the trail to the Eldfell crater. Even though the top of the hill was always in sight, it never seemed to get closer no matter how long we scrambled up through the green scrub. Spenser and Cleo tore off ahead and seemed to have limitless energy while I had to struggle to keep up. I couldn't let them get too far ahead because I didn't really know for sure what we'd find at the top. Warning signs are a rare sight in Iceland. Meanwhile the town below us was gradually beginning to look like it was made out of Lego.
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Once we finally clambered over the lip of the hill there was a sudden change in terrain. We were now on a wide platform at the edge of Eldfell crater, about halfway between the upper and lower lips. There was no sign of plant life on the edge, just volcanic gravel with a scattering of larger porous rocks. The northern cliffs, Norðurklettar, formed an imposing green backdrop to the town. They looked tame and surmountable from this angle but I knew from my research that it was one of the more treacherous areas of the island. Looking over the lower lip of the crater I could see the lava field from the most recent eruption, now coated with moss, and the mountains of the peninsula on the far side of the harbor.
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The beauty of Heimaey was beginning to reveal itself but we were still only halfway up the sloping crater. We could see a few scattered figures walking precariously on the upper edge, and I was weighing whether it was safe and advisable to push on to the top. Mei Ling, Spenser and Cleo took the decision out of my hands by tackling the upward path along the ridge while I was still trying to judge the force of the winds at the top. I had no choice but to chase after them, dragging Ian along with me.
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It would have been tragic if we had called off our ascent at the middle. As soon as we reached the upper edge I was reminded of why I had maintained my desire to return to Vestmannaeyjar for so many years. To the north Bjarnarey's green surface provided a sharp contrast to the volcanic barrenness we were standing on. Behind it the mainland blurred into the ocean so that the glacier Eyjafjallajökull appeared suspended in midair. To the south the lush Stórhöfði peninsula projected into the ocean and beyond that just a few rocky islets broke the serenity of the watery expanse. I pointed out to the kids how the wind created waves and ripples in the grass on Helgafell that made it seem like water. It's difficult to find words to describe the complexity of the exhilaration I felt at the ridge above the crater. It was a simultaneous awareness of the heights of the world's beauty, the constant struggle of living things to adapt to and overcome the environment, and the cruel indifference of our planet to the life that makes it unique in the known universe. The wind was frighteningly loud and gusty but never threatened to push the kids off their footing.
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We spent some time exploring the upper rim but there really wasn't much to do except gape at the views and examine some of the larger blocks of tephra from the eruption. I realized that there was no way we'd be able to walk to the end of Stórhöfði as I had planned. It was much further than I had remembered, and there was probably more to see if we walked north. On the descent I regretted not wearing my hiking boots as my knees kept twisting on the loose lava. We tried to find a trail that would take us directly through the lava field but eventually we gave up and followed the road to Gaujulundur, a whimsical garden carved out of the lava field a few years after the eruption. Besides hundreds of varieties of local plants, the garden contains elf houses and a miniature windmill.
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Here we found a walking path towards town that allowed us to enjoy some waist-high scrub and an overlook with views of the harbor channel. Some kind of quarrying operation was taking place at the water's edge but it didn't detract from the beauty of the ocean as it slipped serenely between the peninsula and the mainland.
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A few hours after departing town from the south we re-entered it from the east, close to the port. We ate at the popular restaurant next to our hotel which was awful, the first bad meal we had had in Iceland. We still had a couple of hours to kill before our ferry departure so we went to the Sæheimar Aquarium, which is also a beluga whale sanctuary. I'd been warned that the belugas were sometimes away in open water and there was very little else to justify the high admission price, so I was careful to ensure that they would in fact be present before we went inside. They were indeed there and very interactive with the humans they could see through the glass wall of the enclosure. It was my first time being up close with these beautiful and graceful animals and I was glad we had chosen to stop by. The only other part of the aquarium worth noting was a puffin rescue center with just one occupant. I'm not sure if he was a recent rescue or one of the permanent inhabitants they get from time to time.
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We had spent less than half an hour in the whale sanctuary and still had time to kill. We followed the road past the port to the northwestern corner of town which was an industrial area with a strong odor of fish. We scrambled up a low wall and a grassy bank and we found ourselves at the foot of the northern cliffs. I was instantly wary because I had already researched this area and concluded it was far too dangerous for us to climb in. From one cliff we found a rope that the locals used for practicing spranga, the island sport of rappelling. Mei Ling and Cleo still seemed to have inexhaustible energy and took off up the steep grassy slope with Spenser not far behind. I really didn't want them to climb all the way up to the ridge and I didn't feel like chasing down the kids so I implored them to stop halfway up. Thankfully they acquiesced and turned their attention to following around some bemused sheep. After five or ten minutes of that it was time to head down to the terminal and catch our ferry back to the mainland. It had been an extremely productive day of hiking and although we hadn't explored the island completely I felt I had kept the promise I made to myself almost two decades earlier.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 00:09 Archived in Iceland Tagged road_trip tony family_travel travel_blog westman_islands tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

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