Ring Road through the Ódáðahraun Lava Desert – Northeast High Plateau
We climb higher through mountain roads traversing the land of reindeer in the high plains of the Ódáðahraun lava desert. Winds whip a crystalline arctic snow across the infinite expanse of thin, black highway traversing black lava landscape, punctuated by stunning silhouettes of table and volcanic mountains. This is a geologist’s dream in black and white and bitter cold. This is June when the sun never sets. Imagine the temperatures in winter when the sun never breaks the horizon. I’m amazed as we pass a trotting ewe with lambs pressed alongside at such a cold altitude. She’s headed toward higher ground rather than back to warmer, lower altitude by the sea. I guess that’s what the warm wool is for.
In the distance we see the sentinels of the great peaks of the upper limits of Jökulsárgljúfur National Park along the Flojotsdalsheidi traversing the Highlands. We travel from the Queen of the Elves to the Queen of the Mountains in a single afternoon. Herðubreið rises1677 meters, a tuya formation considered by many Icelanders as the Queen of Icelandic mountains, the grand beauty of the land. We pull to the side of the road where a small cairn of rocks rests beside a small white wooden chair. I am bundled in winter coat, scarf, gloves, and hat as I walk around the fierce landscape as Greg sits in the car with the heat blasting. I compose panos of mountains in profile against the pale white horizon and video winds cascading in a sheer white curtain howling across the landscape. I’m ecstatic in this biting chill and compose my favorite selfie as fierce winds pull my hair and scarf in a horizontal tug-of-war. Shivering, I sit back in the car exhilarated, hungry for the next helping of geological wonder.
Northernmost Black Church on Hrdarstunguvegaur
Historic architecture is one of my favorite landmarks to discover while touring. We are rewarded by a back roads shortcut with two very quaint historic churches, as we drive up and over mountains on Route 944, heading west across the Flojotsdalsherad Valley to reconnect with the Ring Road. As we cut across the Hrdarstunguvegaur, Route 925, the stunning silhouette of one of the three Black Churches in Iceland cuts across the northern skyline. Wind sings through the gate as our boots crunch across gravel parking lot, circling the church anchored on this sparse landscape, punctuated frequently by austere beauty; black clapboard of church, severe in cold repose in the barren north. We are the only people for miles.
Then along an adjacent road, we stumble upon Geirsstadakirkja, a reconstructed archeological site of an ancient farm settlement at Litli-Bakki. The remains of an ancient turf wall surrounds a small Viking church and longhouse. The Geirsstadir church was rebuilt in 1999 by expert carpenter, turf-constructor, and curator from the East Iceland Heritage Museum. We walk through the beautifully crafted wooden branch gates framed into the stone and turf wall. Iceland is famous for its turf homes, churches, and barns. Turf angling to the ground, covers the sloped roof of the trim timber structure. Turf, deep cut, dried, and compacted into a bricklike substance, is both an economical and resourceful material in a sparse landscape where trees are scarce, as well as an excellent insulator in freezing temperatures. Spring flowers bloom from the corner pieces framing the doorway that leads to an interior dirt floor, structural tree poles with information sheets clipped in plastic sleeves, and a small wooden altar with carved cross. Outside is an organic slab table and bench with a minimalist stacked stone sculpture of a Viking ship in the front of the walled area. The expanse of green fields belie the function of this rich farmland owned by the farmer church-guides of this historic plot. Their Icelandic horses circle around a water trough oppposite the gate. Greg walks proudly around the encampment imagining his Norwegian ancestors coming to this very spot in the Settlement Era that began in the 9th C by Norsemen, then in 1264 Iceland accepted the sovereignty of the King of Norway. For a brief moment Greg wishes he’d packed his Norwegian sweater, but in the days to come he will gladly replace it with a sweater of Icelandic design. It is hard to imagine that we are only on Day 4 of our travels. In Iceland, so much to see, so little time, so we make our time extend into a vast expanse of culture and geography along every turn and roadside vista.
Alfaborg Rock in Borgarfjordur Eystri
What looks like a short drive on the map from Seydisfjordur to the Blabjorg Guesthouse turns into a long, slow zigzag on dirt roads off the Ring Road down to the harbor town of Borgasfjordur Eystri. A fine mist of snow obscures parts of the road with ruts brimming with ice and water that further slow our progress as we wind down the spectacular rhyolite heights of the Dyrfjoll mountains. Signature clusters of ewes with twin lambs huddle along the roadside, a few in the colder altitudes, many more in the lower region as we approach the sea. Our hostess kindly meets us after 11pm to give us the keys to our room in the converted fish factory that overlooks the harbor.
We sit in the lovely kitchen-lounge paging through bird field guides identifying whooper swans and knots spotted in previous days as we gorge on homemade spiced cake, a brown bread made from oatmeal, wheat and cocoa (perfect with honey). Binoculars on the windowsill proffer sharp views of bobbing eider ducks and scaups in the surf below against a backdrop of colorful houses nestled above cresting waves. Deep sleep flows into the signature Icelandic breakfast of skyr, homemade breads, fruit, sliced meats, and boiled eggs. Clouds gather to obscure the mountains on another summer day of travel.
First stop is Alfaborg Rock, home to a large population of elves. Its name translates to “Palace of the Elves” where the legendary Elf Queen Borghildur resides. Coffee stop in the Alfa Café is more like a museum visit with local lore, portraits, natural history collections of rocks, wildlife, vintage tools, woodworking collections, even a children’s play area with vintage wooden toys. I purchase a bag of local rocks to respect the sign at Alfaborg Rock for tourists, “Please no rock collecting.” Elf respect. Across the street is a charming private grass house museum, Lindarbakki, with a information board in front.
Puffin Viewing Platform @ Hafnarholmi Islet
Our next stop is a rare site in Iceland – a puffin colony in the cliffs along Hafnarholmi Islet. Usually the colonies are farther out to sea on seas stacks. The scenic harbor has a magnificent staircase up the cliff and boardwalk out to a panoramic viewing deck. We sit inside for over an hour watching puffins come and go in a soft rain. They traverse from feeding jaunts at sea, their wingbeats comical with butts drooping low from the frantic efforts of stubby wings keeping them aloft, defying the laws of aerodynamics. It is decidedly a birdwatchers paradise of accessible habitat as puffins and kittywakes jostle for cliff edges and tufts of grass all around us. We sit motionless and let them entertain by their mere presence in the backdrop of breathtakingly beautiful Nature.
Vista Point Above Seydisfyodur
As we head further north on the eastern shore, we’re grateful for the land of midnight sun. Snow darkens the sky in midday as we gain altitude. Paved roads are intermittent with hard packed dirt roads, rutted and jarring, bordered by sheep, always ewes with twin kids, impossibly comfortable huddled in the windbreak of overhangs in the biting winds. Coming over the mountain pass and driving down the winding road to Seydisfjodur, we are greeted by waterfalls like giant icicles dripping from the peaks. The fjord below is a shimmering steel-gray dotted with the compact and colorful buildings of Seydisfjodur. Green slathers the frozen hillsides like frosting as gray clouds gather and white drizzle of snow decorates the peaks. We pull in beside the roaring of a creek cresting over rocks at the highpoint of a Gufufoss waterfall.
Gufufoss from Above and Below
There is a vista bridge that spans the river above the falls and Greg crosses to explore up and along the far slope. I stand and breath in cold spray blustering back from the edge of the falls and simply listen to the dichotomy of the roar of water below and stunning quiet of snow above.
Color, Murals, and Landmarks of Seydisfjodur
After dinner at the Aldan Hotel we stroll through town among colored buildings and mosaic stone walkways. I can imagine the delight of walking amid arctic windswept winter winds in darkness softened merely by moonlight, past the undulating black & white graphics of the Gullabuid house, or the barren white in the 24-hours of darkness punctuated by the blazing red of Markadur’s Favorite Things Boutique. Color in your dreams along the streets of Seydisfjodur.
River and Waterfalls Along Djupavogshreppur
We notice in the distance a few cars pulling off to the left of the road, drivers hopping out in swimsuits in piercing cold, gingerly stepping along graveled paths. Glacier-melt river meanders along the edge of the Ring Road as we pull over to explore, well zipped up in our insulated coats. Greg walks along the riverbed hiking close to the waterfall where hearty swimmers disappear beyond steep vertical cliffs obscuring the cascading waters. He balances carefully on rounded boulders, as I do the same walking in the opposite direction to get a wider view of the river and turquoise falls peeking out from the precipice. We are unrepentant in our obsession with waterfalls and undeterred by repeated stops to get our fix. I search the guidebooks, and later the Internet, to find images and a name for this beautiful falls and roadside river to no avail. The only information is the GPS tag on my cellphone: Djupavoshreppur. So many waterfalls, so little time, and I realize as I write this post, so few names to encompass this ever present beauty. I think about the joy of being near creeks as a child – I don’t remember their names either. Catching frogs along the creeks feeding Mendon Ponds, then later playing along Irondequoit Creek in Ellison Park. Now I live across from Second Valley Creek. I wince at the lack of imagination for the geology of my current neighborhood. First Valley and Second Valley are the places names of our town. First Valley Creek and Second Valley Creek the names of our lovely waterways on the Tomales Bay watershed. Possibly nameless beauty is a kinder way.
Folaldafoss on the Oxi Pass
We travel north from Hofn and take the Oxi Pass climbing up and around mountain switchbacks with stunning views behind of fjords receding in the distance. Emerald green summer kisses the jagged outcroppings of rocky mountainsides. The dirt road along this section is rutted and rough but worth the stunning views. Near the top, we pass directly across from Folaldafoss, one of several significant falls along the great eastern river Berufjardara. The 54-foot falls plummets to a pool and winds back toward Berufjordur in white calligraphic strokes across the impossible green of summer grasses. Greg sleeps quietly in the passenger side of the car as I stop repeatedly to get increasingly better views of the falls and the atmospheric perspective of receding fjords. The brilliant turquoise of glacier-melt rivers and waterfalls continues to dazzle. We stop at the uppermost vista point and get out to watch colors of water, impossible to capture in still photography, and simply drink in the experience. We are transfixed by zoom lenses that take us closer to cerulean stupor. As the video link promises, it truly is one of the most beautiful routes in Iceland.
Zoom Lens of Cerulean Pools
Land Falls Away Into Water
Day 4 on the road we are on the rollercoaster ride of the Austerlands. Up and down, around and back, weaving through the eastern fjords beneath the shadows and peaks of great volcanic mountains. Sun breaks out sparingly as blue skies appear intermittently through billows of gray and white clouds. We stop constantly, as around every turn, a new view, another waterfall, a mountain with breathtaking height, or peaks lost in the wrinkled sheet of clouds. I am guessing that many pass by the chance to drive the long eastern road because they assume “there is nothing there,” translated as the presence of towns and gifts stores – and they would be right in that paradigm. In fact the eastern shore is teaming with geologic and geographic wonders. We drive the roads in isolation and savor every magnificent view.
Austerlands Fyodurs Wrap Around Mountains
Austerland tributaries & mudflats stretching out beyond Vatnajokull
It’s close to midnight by the time we round the eastern tip and follow the curving bend of peninsula facing the opposite side of Vatnajokull, still obscured by snow and clouds, to our farmstay. We bask in the hallucagenic energy of sun still up, daylight through the night. Our host is not happy about staying up to give us the keys to the guestroom beside the barn. She is familiar with light-drunk Americans straggling in at midnight. She must surely be used to tourists waylaid and delayed by the stunning beauty of nearby Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon. We collapse into bed in Stafafell, across a channel of tidal mudflats facing the national park. It is hard to believe that we are only on day 3 of our trek (day 2 for me, having missed the first farmstay in Akurholt). Greg falls into bed and sleeps in his clothes as I scan the several thousand photos from the first few days in Iceland. I cannot turn my eyes away from this plethora of beauty. I walk outside in the iridescent midnight light and take several photos of the farmstead. Clouds still obscure the view of Vatnajokull’s mighty peaks. Even in morning, as sun clears more of a view the highest peaks are still hidden in mists. While Greg goes in for breakfast, I stroll about the farm composing the colors of light and ice as sunshine reveals more contours of mountains across the mudflats, the grays of frost-flecked stones brushed to the side of the driveway, the textures of Icelandic horses against green grass pastures extending to the water’s edge. We are forgiven by a gracious host who has provisioned a lovely breakfast of eggs, waffles, fruits, with traditional skyr & granola. We are voracious for food as well as for contours of culture; collections of stones and shells along a windowsill, tidy rows of shoes and coats in the foyer, a cross-eyed four-horned goat proudly beheaded and displayed in the dining room. Raised in the Northeast, I am well acquainted with the practicality of foyers as air locks against the cold, as mudrooms to mitigate the rain and slush of incessantly inclement weather. Refreshed from food and sleep we trek along the gravel path back to our room in the light of late morning, so similar to that of past midnight. We unplug our chargers, pack our bags, provision snacks and water for the car, and drive off into Austerland as the Eastern Coast is known. Few tourists travel this coast and we are grateful to have the roads and vistas all to ourselves.
Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon in June 2017
We are worn down by the weather after numerous stops in biting cold along the sandur, ready to forge on to our farmstay along the eastern coast. Fortunately other visitors signal the path to the most amazing site in Iceland. As we pass through a whiteout of winds and snow, a few brave souls bundled in winter jackets cut in and out of the looming white ice dunes crowding the edge of the road. We strain to see what the attraction might be and take the left fork at the next turn. We are stunned by beauty: Jokulsarlon, the glacial lagoon, arctic nursery for icebergs calving off Fjallsjokull and Vatnajokull glaciers. There are not enough names for the colors of glacial blue! Shades of turquoise, sapphire, azure and every ultramarine in the cool spectrum are pressed and radiant in layers of ice. This is an experience that will thrill us over and over again throughout Iceland – the unique bevy of blues from glacial melt. The lagoon meanders into Jokulsa to the sea populated by raucous flocks of gulls, skuas, and arctic terns, all haggling for territory. It is the shortest river in Iceland, looking more like a channel. Icebergs may float about the lagoon for up to five years before making the short transit to the ocean. The geography seems ancient, yet the lagoon is merely 80 years old. In the 1930’s Breidamerkurjökull, a tongue of the great Vatnajökull Glacier came right up to the Ring Road. The lagoon is growing at a staggering 500 meters per year due to glacial melt from climate change. Barely visible across the expanse of water are the two large tracks trailing off Breidamerkurjökull. Breidamerkurfjall Mountain is an offshoot of Iceland’s largest mountain, Öræfajökull. This congregation of glaciers and mountains comprise Vatnajokull National Park Iceland’s largest park in the Skaftafell region, where most Icelanders head for vacation. The storm obscures the majestic peaks, but we pull on sweaters, coats, hats, gloves, everything we’ve got and step out into the storm, snow blowing horizontally, to absorb the views. A few tour boats bustle tourists closer to the glacier pack. We prefer the grand view, the vista of calving tracks across the translucent bay, the distance to take in animate melodies of rushing waters and pelagic birds. The colorist in me delights when two figures in shocking red coats step into my composition of blues for complimentary balance. We stay as long as we have feeling in our fingertips. Breathing in beauty, framing it in photographs, capturing it in video. We collapse into the car exhausted from the cocktail of cold and beauty, another 50 kilometers to go to our farmstay. Hours among glaciers is worth the delay.
Colors of blue at Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon in the middle of a snowstorm in June.
Glacial Outwash of Skeiðarársandur in the Southeast
Most tourists travel only the Southshore to Vik and turn back. If you continue east, one of the most fascinating geographies of the planet greets you in a flat expanse of sand, boulders, and bracken that can survive this cold, wet, shifting landscape. Skeiðarársandur is the largest glacial outwash, sandur, in the world. It’s formed from the massive deposits from the grand Skeiðarárjökull glacier and spreads out across the southern plain meandering to the Atlantic coast. Beneath angry grey clouds we traverse the spectacular geology of sandur encompassing 1300 square kilometers that on a map looks like a massive expanse of spider veins tangling toward the sea. The road rambles along for nearly 50 kilometers of flat, rocky, roiling terrain. Windblown with heavy clouds most of the way, we are glad for the comfort of a car, as bicyclists and a motorcyclist huddle against rock outcrops to shelter from the fierce winds and rain. The guidebook describes this section as “a cyclist’s nightmare.” We stop at the Skeiðará Bridge monument of twisted I-beams from the 1996 eruption of Vatnajokull that erupted and melted with massive flash flooding that rolled 100-2000 ton blocks of ice across the vast glacial tributaries that make up the Skeiðará that flows to the sea. It is estimated that the 100-200 ton ice blocks crumpled the highway like matchsticks. The evidence is in the grotesquely twisted girders forming the monument that waffle and twist like paper strips rather than the most durable construction metal on the planet. Sun breaks out and contrasts the deepening grey edges of arctic clouds rimming Skeiðarárjökull. A lone skua lands and considers us as we read the signs from the displays at the washed out bridge. Reference guides to the sandur describe it in unflattering terms: “tormented, soul-destroying, and barren.” In its own history, after a similar volcanic eruption and flooding in 1362, the region was referred to as Öræfi, or Wasteland. We enjoy the luxury of 21st C sheltered tourists appreciating the glorious geology that humbles human pursuits.
Arctic winds scour the sandur with fierce winds amid isolated farmsteads, calving glaciers, bowed tourists, and ruined bridges.