Some places instantly evoke specific mental images. With Cuba it’s the old-style cars in every shade of the rainbow. Africa is often associated with safaris, and Hollywood has a movie star on every corner. When I think of Iceland, the dramatic, otherworldly landscape is one of the first things that comes to mind. Everywhere you look you’ll see remains of volcanoes and jagged piles of lava rock, steaming geothermal pools and bubbling geysers, towering snow-covered mountains, and cascading waterfalls. In my experience, brief as it was, there’s never a bad view in this country. I’m no stranger to getting up close and personal with the rugged outdoors. We have gorges, all kinds of water, and rapidly changing weather patterns in the Finger Lakes too. But Iceland was like Ithaca on steroids!
Driving the Ring Road in our Land Cruiser turned out to be an excellent choice. For eight days, as we navigated between our various destinations, I stared unblinkingly out the car window so as not to miss a thing. Like the postman, we drove through pounding rain, bright sunlight, snow showers, gusts of wind that bordered on hurricane strength, and fog-sometimes all of the above in the space of a few hours!
During this time, we took three hikes that gave us a good understanding of the different regions of the land of fire and ice.
Skaftafell (Vatnajokull National Park, South)
This park is so large that it’s divided into four territories. It’s one of the areas I wish we had more time to explore on foot. The hike we took on our second day was an easy one, about 3.7 km round-trip on a mostly flat, well-maintained trail. The weather that morning was one of those “English rains”, a gentle, but soaking, drizzle, the kind that lends a touch of melancholy to your surroundings. Eventually, we ended up close to the bottom of the Skaftafellsjökull glacier. Even after the trial ends, it’s possible to safely get a bit closer but visitors are encouraged to pay attention to the warning signs like this somewhat dire one!
The Skaftafell Visitor Center is far from elaborate, but this tiny museum gets right to the point! There’s a short (but informative) film, a gift shop, and a few exhibits, including one rather Edward Goreyish one about some young researchers who unexpectedly disappeared, never to be seen again.
Haverfjall (Lake Myvatn, North)
A few days later, we took a volcano hike, recommended to me by a fellow tourist I met over breakfast. This one started out easily enough but suddenly got very steep very fast. The middle to the end of the ascent is almost a vertical climb on loose stones, so bring your water and watch your footing, especially on the way down. The view from the top makes it totally worth it. On one side is the enormous tephra crater (formed about 2,300 years ago!) which I found beautiful in a stark and simple way. On the other is a panoramic view of Myvatn and the surrounding areas. If you take a leisurely stroll around the crater’s rim you can experience both of these from every possible angle.
The walking path between Hellnar and Arnarstapi (West)
Walking path is a deceptive term, since this cliff walk requires you to navigate over sharp lava rocks, through mud, and around various natural obstacles. With unusual black lava formations on one side, the green, whitecapped sea on the other, and birds like gulls, arctic terns, and fulmars circling and wheeling about, it’s a truly spectacular walk. There’s a rumor that whales can frequently be spotted off shore but, once again, we weren’t lucky enough to see one. Mother Nature runs on her own schedule…
The trail begins below the Fosshotel Hellnar (which has a lovely staff and excellent restaurant btw) and meanders along until you reach the next village, another small fishing community with more striking views. Here you can grab a bite to eat, see the stone monument built for the legendary Barour the half-human, half-ogre, who locals believe is the true owner of Arnarstapi, or check out other area trails. This particular village has another claim to fame as well; it was the last stop in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth before the characters climb the Snaefellsjokull. Who knew? Might be time to read that novel again!