As we continue our Ring road campervan trip, both Bryan and I are a bit stunned at how different and desolate the northern part of the island is. There is a massive plateau or highland between the eastern fjords and those of the north. This area holds a good amount of the geothermal power, and also the rocky desolation of volcanic eruptions. Iceland is just so far north, and the land so raw, it is slow to regrow after eruptions hundreds of years ago. The organic matter is limited and Zoe hypothesized that is a big part of the vegetation puzzle; ie: where are the plants if volcanic soil is so nutrient rich? Well, perhaps there isn’t soil.
Anyway, out of Egillstadir, we rolled up a beautiful canyon-carved valley of farms until reaching the highland of stone… windswept rocks as far as the eye could see! Luckily there was no active snow while we drive up over this high pass and back down a bit into the Myvatn geothermal area.
Here, we visited first the Krafts geothermal power plant and then the actively steaming Krafla volcanic fissure. Here is the some of the freshest lava hardened to rock on the island. The fissure erupted a ton between 1975-1984 and the flows are still uniquely distingushable – with flowing pahoehoe lava rock and sharp, broken Aa-Aa lava rock intermixing for a Stark still-steaming landscape.
The hike out along the flat marshy surrounding area was covered in snow, but once near the fissure it cleared off. There were a few amazing places where a mini landslide exposed the layers and we could see the underlying volcanic layers, a thin soil layer with grass attempting to survive along its tiny line, and the thick black layer of recent lava.
Nearby is another place with active geothermal hot pots and constantly steaming fumaroles. The trails were pretty free-form, so Avi kept running in and out of the steam until we told him to stop because of of poisonous gasses. But then we happened upon a very active fuMarole with a massive constant spewing geyser of warm steam, and he couldn’t help but ask, “can I run through the sulfuric acid. (pause to think). I promise I’ll hold my breath”. Sadly, we said no. But we did get a picture in front of the thing.
The whole place got Bryan and I were talking about the abundance of water, the aluminum smelting plant we saw back in the east fjords, and all the active volcanism when he said, “they must have lots of ramen turtles.”
To which I replied quizzically, “I guess.” It was silence for a while and then I had to know, “what are ramen turtles, Bryan?”
“What?! No. I said raw materials.”
“You are going deaf. You know there are these things called hearing aides that most people use when they go deaf.”
I know. I own a set. I don’t wear them much, but they were along during this trip. I never wore them. Getting old.
We did see many things that could’ve been ramen turtles after that, and the kids debated whether it was turtles who ate ramen or noodles made from turtles or, perhaps, just a flavor of noodle packets.
Just south of the little town of Myvatn we stayed at a campground that happened to be open, so we had to pay. It’s pricey with an average $15 per adult rate to stay at the campgrounds around the country. It’s compulsory, though, as they crack down on tourists parking and pooping all over the place in the summers. Luckily, most campgrounds have still been closed as it’s early May, meaning we must still park there but it’s not charged as no facilities are open. That situation is perfect for us since our little campervan is fully self contained – we occasionally must dump the toilet cassette and fill the water, which is easy at the larger gas stations. So, this campground was open, but offered a 15% discount at there adjacent pizza shop which seemed like value-added until we read their costs. A plate-sized 16″ plain cheese pizza (like something I could eat on my own) was about $26, while most of those with toppings came in around $40 – topping out at $46. We passed on that and just cooked our own spaghetti again, but inside the common dining room as a luxury.
The next day we spent driving around the Myvatn lake and taking in the sites along the way. We began with the Grotagja lava tube cave; it looks like naught but a long pile of rocks from the car park, but when we crawled through the little opening crack we saw the beautiful blue water inside. Swimming isn’t permitted, though it used to be, so we stuck our hands in to feel the warm water and then explored along the inside. Avi especially liked crawling along the tube. We ventured down the rift from the parking and found a second opening with morning pretty light shafts making the water glow.
The kids’ favorite part of the day was visiting Dimmuborgir, a nature park with trails winding through some fun and crazy volcanic formations from a while ago. This is supposedly where the 13 yule lads live with their troll mother and the vicious little yule cat who will eat you if you don’t get some new clothes during the holiday. These guys play pranks, steal, pester, and occasionally leave gifts if you’ve been good. I think my favorite is Pottaskefill – the pot licker – he sneaks the leftovers in your cooking pot which seems quite a help to me, of course, he carries his own spices to add some flavor to my bland cooking. Take a look at all the lads here at Iceland24. Anyway, for us the fun at Dimmuborgir was the central “rough’ trail leading in and out of caves and hollows.
Our next stop was a pretty little hike along the Hofdi forest land. Zoe chilled in the camper for some alone-time during this one, so it was a fun run-hike with Bryan and Avi. before venturing along the ring road away from Myvatn to the town with the coolest city pool in Iceland: Akureyri!
On the way we past another massive waterfall – Godafoss – where we could simply walk right up along the top. The kids weren’t interested in another waterfall (I guess I’m grateful the whining waited for day 7), so Bryan and I were more at ease without kids to keep from washing over. It was powerful, and its special because in the 1000 when Thorgeir made Christianity the official religion, he tossed his Norse gods’ statues in the falls. That is why its goda (the gods’ or the gods’ speaker: the godi) + foss (waterfall). Anyway, it all seemed too much. This country has waterfalls nailed. I challenge you to find another country with as many, or as much massive amount of flow; they are all huge. A smallish thin-looking waterfall here would be the highlight of trip to most other countries.
Akureyri is now where Zoe wants to live when she grows up. It was Finland, but apparently this tiny northern Icelandic town caught her heart with its airport in the middle of the fjord water, the trails and forest park, and the best city pool. Did I mention that already? Well, its true. The kids and I spent about 4 hours there and left simply because our bodies were prunes. It had two super cool slides; one was like a toilet bowl, plus lots of hot tubs and sauna space, and an indoor-to-outdoor entry zone which meant you could stay pruny nearly the whole time. When we were there it was packed with tweens on the swim team, teens on dates, and old people lounging around. The spiral stairway up to the slides was enclosed and warm, so all that freezing rain and snow didn’t dampen spirits. Plus, the locker room was super and I really needed a shower. As always in Iceland, we showered (washed, not rinsed) nude first, donned our suits, and headed to the pools. Bryan took the opportunity for a much- needed nap in the camper; he hadn’t slept well recently with the crazy wind. And, as the kids basically ran off to play on the slides, I was fat and happy like a frog in a boiling pot.
Prior to the pool we visited the Christmas house store just south of Akureyri, and then hiked and played at the various ‘hidden’ playgrounds in the Kjarnaskogur forest. The play here was great; ziplines and crazy tire swings, slides down the hill, and fun swinging bridges.
What with the long daylight, and Bryan being rested, we pushed on to a free (still closed as its ‘winter’) campsite in Varmahlid where we basically just parked, cooked some spaghetti and slept.
In the morning we backtracked a bit to a sign we passed last night; a viking sight, labeled throughout Iceland with the R rune, along the side of the road called Orlygsstadir. Turned out to be the sight from the Sturlinga Saga where a guy called Sturla in 1238 tried to encourage the Icelanders to accept Norwegian rule: he makes his final stand against the locals during the largest battle in Iceland… and it was here! There was a marker and, perhaps only in my mind, a circular shape from an old wall.
Beyond that, this northern portion of the country is prettily full of farm and horse fields, with adorable small durable Icelandic horses that made us think of clean versions of the horses in Mongolia… oh, and more waterfalls. There weren’t many stops along the way, just bucolic rural light to gawk out. It was a very pretty green respite from the rocky lands or windy shorelines we had been through before. Here, in the north and east, we are finally approaching the areas first settled by Vikings, and it became obvious why this was a better choice: the land was fertile and a bit more flat up the fjord valleys; the wind slightly calmer. It’s good the first Viking settlers’ coffins and high-seat pillars washed up on shore in this area; that is how they would decide where to settle.
At this point, it was decision time. Do we venture further north into the West Fjords? For us, it was a no. The weather was crazy and unpredictable; some of the roads were still closed for snow; and we decided the scenery had been amazing the whole trip, and a long drive for a more remote take on the same general theme wasn’t worth it. We opted to skip them, but instead to drive the road around the Snaefellsnes peninsula, starting with my favorite site of the whole trip: Eirik the Red’s house!
You’re going pretty out of your way to get to Eiriksstadir, so you better be really into the sagas or Viking history to make it worthwhile. It’s well off the ring road, up over a steep snowing pass that is paved, and then back down into the area area of Hvammsfjordur – Hvamms fjord valley. All worth it to me! It was windy and crazy, but so cool to stand in the place this guy, who had been exiled from Norway and then exiled from Iceland, had his farm and where Leifur Eirikson was born. Leif, of course, ventured further to North America and into Canada, while his brother in law Thorsteinn traveled as far as long island and his son was born there; not all historians buy the whole tale, but it’s still just a super cool part of history that shows the sagas to be incredible resources. Later, we even read a historical marker at the church in Ingjaldsholl claiming that Christopher Columbus had heard these tales, and traveled to Iceland while he was a merchant marine, to learn of it firsthand. There is a painting of his 1477 visit in that church. That would be a cool story to research!
The sign at the car park even ventures to inform us that The house that stands near the car park is an accurate recreation of the one that would’ve been standing. The ruins of the real home are just up the hill along a trail, and open to view and wander. It was windy and cold, but awesome for a history geek like me.
And the bonus is that we got to see it twice! I’m really making lemonade, here. You see, after Eiriksstadir we drove along route 54 – which is dirt (but not an F road) for about 75km before stopping for a little nap by a creek. When he woke, Bryan went outside for some air and noticed that our camper was missing a stupid hubcap!! SUCKS!! We looked back at pics from the Eirik house and it was there…so even though it had been zip tied onto the wheel, it fell off along that dirt road and Bryan decided we needed to backtrack for it. He was convinced that it couldn’t have been far, so we drove back and quickly found a hubcap!! wrong one. and another, and another, and another, and another, and we started collecting them just in case it made sense to make a trade at some point. “10 minutes” became “another 10 minutes, max” until found about 9 of these stupid things along the road, but none were ours. At some point it was, “well, we are nearly all the way back, we may as well just find the f***ing thing”, until we got back to my buddy Eirik’s house and it wasn’t there. ugh. Bryan was rightfully worried that we would waist more time searching for the proper new one. We just had to laugh, but still it sucked because we wasted hours and would likely be way-way-way overcharged for a damn replacement hubcap.
….and then….. on the way back, after finding 2 more…. I spotted one on the side of the road floating on a puddle about 20 feet off the road. AND IT WAS OUR HUBCAP!! It was like we’d won the friggin lottery.
The north side of the Snaefellsnes peninsula, especially the town of Stykkishomlmur, was windy. Too windy to hike up Thor’s temple hill: Helgafell – to bad, too, as a properly done hike can lead to earning 3 wishes. It was so windy that our little jaunt up to the lighthouse instead seemed like a death wish; I was holding Avi’s hand so hard it seemed we would both blow away!
We stayed the night in Olafsvik, and parked beside the city pool – we got permission at the pool since the adjacent campground was closed. It was a great spot, protected from the wind, which we have had trouble sleeping through since it rocks the camper and blows scary sounds.
Far out on the west coast of the snaefesllsnes peninsula are the ruins of medieval fish drying huts built of volcanic rock, and a seeping spring dug into the ground. There is also that church with Columbus’s painting, as he supposedly spent a winter here. Aside from that, its cliffs of roosting birds (no puffins) and pretty rock formations getting pummeled by the surf along the beaches. Avi, Bryan, and I saw a cool mink along one beach littered with the rusting ruins of an old fishing boat. Wild.
Zoe and I took a special hike from the few homes left of the fishing village called Hellnar, to the still-tiny-but-double-in-size Arnarstapi. We enjoyed being just the girls following the coastal trail along the cliff tops. The sun came out, making it all the more pretty!
Now that we’ve rounded out the peninsula, the roads are better and the crowds are returning. Snaefellsnes is within a reasonable overnight trip from the airport, so we are back in the land of tour buses and crowds. But, the Raudfeldargja ravine was all but empty; well the car park was full, but the ravine itself was a bit too much for most folks, including Zoe and I. The slot canyon had been filled with snow this winter that was not nearly melted, and formed a steep slope the whole way in with precarious drop-offs of melted area along the edges. This adventure became a Bryan and Avi trip, chiseling their feet into the snow back into the canyon s far as they could. Coming out was a bit sketchier as a controlled slide out, but it was a fun time for both those guys. Zoe and I were content to sit in the sun and watch the clouds change.
We were safely back in the camper and on our way to civilization in Borgarnes when the rain storm hit. Until today it had been mostly snow or hail or frozen pellets; Bryan was reminded how much he hated driving in rain and wind, and we felt lucky we had chosen this trip in May during the shoulder season as we got decent temperatures but more snow than rain, which is easier to hike in and deal with. The Borgarnes campground was empty when we arrived, and full of campers by night fall.
In the morning we followed the Locatify Smart Guide tour called Egils Saga; I had downloaded it ahead of time and it really made sense of this part of Iceland. It starts at the Saga Museum in Borgarnes, which looks great but was too pricey for us, and traces the road past monuments and ruins telling the essential bits of Egils Saga and, hence, the settlement history of the area. I had just finished reading this saga on the flight over, so the story was fresh and fascinating, but the kids and Bryan who had only my ramblings to go off of relied on the Smart Guide and it was really great for them! We saw Egil’s farm at Borg, viking burial mounds and sites in the town, and learned to notice the gravestones: Christian graves will face east, while the viking burials faced north – Kjartan Olafsson is buried here.
As rain came, we were back on the ring road to complete the loop in Reykjavik. We hadn’t had time at the beginning of the trip, but now had a nice rainy afternoon available to visit the National Museum to see the country’s treasures, including some massive chunky brooches for holding capes together that sure looked like ramen turtles.
From there, it was another city pool for showers and hot water relaxtion before visiting the IKEA for the best priced meal we had during the whole trip! Hot dogs and ice cream – if you go, use the ice cream dispenser on the right side as it doles out significantly more ice cream into your cone. Our final night found us at a no-frills campground in Vogar near Keflavik for our departure the next day.
A bit of panic this morning as we planned to do our final camper toilet dumping at a gas station in Keflavik, but discovered it had no dump! A bit of frantic driving, and we found the city dump not far away. We successfully returned the unscathed camper right on time – with the hubcap intact. Crisis averted. Off to Spain.
Ten days later we returned to Keflavik airport, nice and sun tanned and full of cafe and chorizo. Our return flights took us from Alicante, back through Keflavik for an awkward middle of the night layover – landing at 0135 and taking off again at 1500 – before an onward flight to LAX and then a Southwest jet home. The wierd layover was tough to decide on; the cheapest hotel (for 4 people, recall) would cost about $160 and we’d need to vacate by 10am with no transportation. A cheap rental car, however, was $80 for a day, so thats what we did. The Hertz in the airport is open all the time; super convenient. We got our car, and drove out to the tip of the Reykjanes peninsula at the Gardur lighthouse, parked and slept in the car. Woke a few times to turn the thing on, heat up, and turn it off, but we were so tired that it was quite restful listening to the waves against the sea wall.
When we woke, we drove around the peninsula anti-clockwise to check out the continent bridge – a continuation of the plate boundary established at Thingvellier. There is a distinct gorge here where the North American plate and the Eurasian plate are obviously spreaded, so the Icelanders built a walking bridge over it. cute. The kids were mostly still sleeping in the car or not wanting to brave the crazed cold wind, so Bryan and I went solo. Next stop, though, they joined us. Because, well, its a geyser called Gunnuhver and it was neat!
It was still early morning, and, tired of sights and travel, we drove the hour into the Reykjavik suburbs to a city pool for a nice long morning of soaking, water slides, hot saunas, old people doing water aerobics, and generally just getting pruned up. Lunch of IKEA again and we headed back to the airport. We bought some food for the long no-frills no-free-food WOW air flight at the grocery, and headed to the airport only to discover that Icelandic security at the aiport oddly thinks that hummus and skyr are ‘liquids’ to be confiscated. To late to save the skyr, I asked if the hummus was spread, would it be ok, and, somehow, yes, it is different if it is spread on the tortillas instead of security sealed in a new package. So, I popped out of the security area, opened our food and made sandwhiches and stuck pretzel bits into the leftover hummus in the containers, which amazingly made it not liquid. This place is too expensive to mess with such things.
It was time to return to our hometown where we would drop right into the lap of another adventure: moving into a new house.