North By Northeast: A Road Trip To Iceland’s Arctic Henge

North By Northeast: A Road Trip To Iceland’s Arctic Henge

Photos by
Art Bicnick

Despite its well earned reputation, Icelandic winter isn’t all bad. On a clear day, the short days—four or five hours, around the solstice—can be beautiful. The sun during this perpetual gloaming glances off the tops of the mountains and the bottoms of the clouds, casting long shadows and lighting up the landscape with a dusky, ambient glow, from soft purple through all shades of orange to deep, fleshy pink.

We set out from Egilsstaðir eager to make the most of the few hours of light. Our destination is the far-flung fishing town of Raufarhöfn—home to a large-scale but little-known artwork called The Arctic Henge. The journey will take us around a seldom-used and apparently spectacular stretch of Iceland’s northeastern coastline.

Once past the city limits, the northbound Ring Road is deserted, and a dusting of snow dances over the asphalt as the road carves its way through a long valley to the ocean. We coast gently into the Jökuldalur valley, where the Ring Road veers inland towards Mývatn. But our path lies east, and we turn right to skirt the deep Jökla river canyon. Soon, we’re racing along the flatlands past a wide expanse of black sand crisscrossed with a shining rivulets, overlooked by jagged mountains that jut up through a blanket of sunlit mist.

North East Mountains by Art Bicnick

Human intruders

At the end of the fjord we find a promising hiking trail that leads seaward through the marshy grass. It soon hits the coast and ascends over some cliffs to overlook the long black beach of Héraðssandur, before ending abruptly at a vast green-blue rhyolite cliff named Móvíkurflug. We stand in the freezing wind beneath the shrieking seabirds, regarding this remote and spectacular spot. When we turn and head back, the incoming tide is has already wiped away our footprints.

The road north zigzags steeply upwards. The Hellisheiði Eystri mountain pass is a precarious and improbable route, carved into the mountainside in such a way as to make us feel like intruders in the unrelentingly severe landscape. We weave carefully between the twin peaks of Heiðarskarð and Heiðarhnúkar, crawling along near-vertical scree slopes. When the descent finally begins, we get occasional glimpses of the ocean, and the rapidly bruising horizon.

As we arrive in Vopnafjörður—the first of three sleepy coastal towns on the way to Raufarhöfn—a fierce snowstorm is engulfing the town. The locals scatter, running home wrapped in scarves and hoods. We trundle out to the lighthouse, located on a short promontory, and the storm ends as quickly as it began. The sun glows through the stormclouds, illuminating the fjord with an eerie glow.

The arctic henge

As the daylight fades, we race towards Raufarhöfn, passing the dilapidated hamlet of Bakkafjörður and the port town of Þórshöfn. We get to Raufarhöfn at nightfall and cruise through the village determined to glimpse the Arctic Henge, which sits on a hill overlooking the harbour.

The henge was built as an ambitious hobby by a recently deceased local who hoped it would bring visitors to the area. In its current unfinished state it’s made up of four huge pointed arches, constructed by leaning massive stones against each other, surrounding a central pyramid structure. As darkness falls, the moon rises from the glittering sea, passing upwards through the eastern arch and bathing the henge in white light so strong it casts shadows on the ground. It’s a powerful moment that feels laden with significance at this remote and curious site.

Arctic Henge by Art Bicnick

Forgotten coast

The next morning, we cruise past the henge once more on the way out of town. The paving soon ends, and we roar over the snowy gravel towards a sole spike on the horizon. Hraunhafnartangi is a tall, well-kept lighthouse, visible for miles around, on the northern tip of Iceland’s mainland. We stride out onto the peninsula over a frozen surface of ropes, bird bones and other seaside detritus, feeling a welcome sense of space and solitude.

The onward road passes through an outback of farmland that appears all but uninhabited except for occasional tyre tracks in the snow and scarecrows that flap disconsolately under the wheeling gulls. The road sweeps past a lake with an island graveyard in its centre, and out into the dramatic wash of Öxarfjörður, where gnarled lava formations give way to a wide bay of icy dunes.

Ours is the only car that turns off to crawl slowly into the vast horseshoe-shaped canyon of Ásbyrgi. A dense forest sits nestled in its crook, where a well-kept walking path crosses the frigid camping ground and traces through snow-laden trees to a frozen lagoon at the foot of the canyon wall. Large snowflakes start to fall as I climb a creaky wooden stair and look out at the trees and towering cliffs receding to the hazy pink horizon. It feels like the precise moment of the seasons’ change.

Before a forecasted storm arrives to blot out the roads completely, there’s time for a final stop at Dettifoss. We’re the only people crunching up the slippery path as the roar increases gradually, shaking the ground until the waterfall is revealed: a thundering wall of water that tumbles into a deep crevice with force, sending a fog of spray high into the air. The power of the waterfall is mesmerizing, and its scale somehow mind-expanding. I linger at the brink of the torrent for a few moments before finally turning away, quietly wishing this rewarding drive into the wilderness could go on, and on, and on.

Snow at Ásbyrgi Canyon

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