The last time I came to Iceland, in 2006, I drove the 1,339 km Ring Road in 27 hours. My best friend and I came flying out of Reykjavík in our Toyota Yaris at twice the speed limit, so used to Los Angeles highway speeds and habits that we took the roads like we were fighting our way to the Valley at rush hour. We blasted ACDC’s Back in Black the entire way, shouting the lyrics and riding just as much on our high testosterone levels as on the expensive petrol. We flew through the low fog on the cliff roads on the east fjords, hypnotised by the road into the wee hours of the morning. I remember snapping awake at the wheel on the rocky ledges of mountain road 939, on one of the windiest and most dangerous passages in the country.
We slept only once, for 2 hours, in an Egilsstaðir parking lot.
We had truly believed that our return to Reykjavík would mark us as heroes. We anticipated that American appreciation of getting ’er-done and getting ’er-done quick. Instead we were received as the most amateurish tourists in town. “But didn’t you look at anything?” the Icelanders asked us. “Didn’t you stop anywhere?” We looked at one another, dumbfounded. “Well, sometimes. When we needed gas?”
One man went so far as to open up a photo album from his last trip around the Ring Road, pointing out all of the beautiful places we’d missed. Oops.
So I proposed, nearly a year later, that I reconcile my stupidity with another trip. This time, I’d give my senses all the things I’d denied them that obnoxious day-and-three-hours last July.
Reykjavík – Akureyri
My girlfriend arrived in Keflavík Airport from Baltimore at approximately 6 in the morning on July 2. She had been in transit for nearly 30 hours, and was now battling what seemed to be an oncoming fever. I took her back to my flat and tucked her in, and hoped to God we could do this.
Even with my background in collegiate procrastination, the situation seemed out of control: I wasn’t packed, I had very little idea of where I would be going, and any lodgings I might find once I’d arrived were even more uncertain. My arrival at Hertz was clouded by thoughts of high fevers, hypothermia, and rental car catastrophes on dirt roads so Podunk it’d be a miracle if your telephone could even reach the 112 emergency line.
The 2007 Toyota Yaris is by no means a spectacular vehicle. In fact, it looks more like a colossal cell phone than a vehicle safe for use on barely-maintained Icelandic mountain roads. Still, rental car companies consistently choose this car as the one most suitable and reliable for ambitious foreign travellers, and it is the typical “Tourist!” harbinger throughout rural Iceland. A strong Yaris presence in any carefully surveyed parking lot gives an ofthelpful warning of one national hazard, the fanny-pack brigade.
By the time I got back to my flat, my girlfriend was on her feet, armed with my external frame backpack, our flannel sleeping bag, and the utensils and necessities for three days of semi-legitimate “roughing it.” We picked up a tent for about 4,000 ISK at the cheap appliance store Rúmfatalagerinn and grabbed a few “BBQ Life” disposable instant grills, which would prove most indispensable to our stomachs, wallets, and minds.
An unimpressive stretch of road led us out of Reykjavik and into the western farmlands. There was something about moving clockwise that felt natural: my last trip had moved counter clockwise – it had been intense and dangerous, so masculine it bordered on irrational. But the drive through the mild, green countryside seemed settling. I felt safe, and the contrast was great enough with my original circuit to dispel my fears of laughing Icelanders and let me refocus on the land.
The road went from dull to unbelievable as we came into a mountain pass called Öxnadalsheiði. Green slopes rose dramatically on either side of us and the sun lit up every nook on the mountain face. In utter disbelief of the ubiquitous rolling green, we stopped the car to immerse ourselves in sunlight and explore a meadow that lay at the foot of the slopes. In retrospect, it was one of the least impressive panoramas we would see, but it was also the harbinger for every kid-at-Disneyland sensation we would have in the coming days.
We got to Akureyri around dinnertime and paid way too much (even by Icelandic standards) for a pathetic burger and some skinny fries. After finding a guesthouse just outside of the town centre, we crashed, just hard enough to overcome the lopsided box springs of our three Goldilocks cots.
There is a sign in Akureyri, Iceland’s second largest city, that reads “Akureyri: The Cultural Capital of Iceland.” Somehow this appeared to be an inflated self-concept. After strolling the “Capital’s” only two commercial streets in search of a reasonable cafe, we were nothing short of forced to forage for our breakfast in the brightly lit aisles of the town’s single 10-11. So much for culture.
The ring road took us to the other side of the enormous coastal hill of “Vaðlaheiði,” that stands off against Akureyri, winding into yet another perpetually green and unexciting stretch. It seemed that throughout the drive, the wake of dramatic landmarks nearly always delivered bits of repose, in boring sections of road that acted like the stasis after a massive earthquake. Goðafoss (“The Waterfall of the Gods”), falling for 12 meters on the river Skjálfandafljót, ordered us out of our ring-road hypnosis. We scrambled up a wet cliff and witnessed the wide falls, a full thirty meters of churning water.
The road took us onward to Mývatn, the “fly lake” in Northern Iceland I had been reading about since my middle school Geology class. An unmissable series of craters and grassy miniature volcanoes caught our attention. It was impossible to be disappointed by the sheer bizarreness of these landforms, and a walk around this area (we had to trespass a little) took me back to that “elf country” feeling I had forgotten about a week after moving to Iceland.
Our next scene was Dimmuborgir, on the eastern shore of Mývatn. When you search the internet for this Icelandic “Dark Fortress,” you mostly end up with entries and websites about the Norwegian metal band of the same name, which is sad, because Dimmuborgir offers an enormous playground of dark and towering lavaforms, humbling remnants of awesome volcanic activity. The path through Dimmuborgir unravelled like a tour of an abandoned city, many of the crusty forms themselves (like “Kirkja,” or “Church”) eerie replicas of iconic Baroque architecture.
After a quick grocery shopping excursion, we rolled out of the Mývatn basin. Just after the Green Lagoon (North Iceland’s alternative to the internationally renowned “Blue Lagoon”), we happed upon a cluster of bubbling sulphur pits, which we decided to approach, olfactory assault be damned. While I would have hoped for some swimmable hot spots after some long hours with my Yaris felt interior, the gurgling, smoking wells of grey stink just outside of Myvatn illustrated just how warm the earth is in Iceland – even if it’s not conventionally inviting.
Our original plan would have kept us to the Ring Road until we got to road 863, a 10 kilometre dirt road that continues on to Jökulsárgljúfur national park, a protected area which includes Dettifoss and Ásbyrgi. However, just as we pulled out of the splattering mud pit area, we came upon a well designed pillar reading “Krafla,” the marker for a thin paved road to the North. Without much justification for this stop besides a notably sexy sign font, our visit to the Krafla complex was, in part, a mistake: When I read that the crater “Viti” was one of the sites at Krafla, I had actually mistaken it for the crater at Askja by the same name. At Askja, the crater boasts a geothermal swimming pool inside the crater. I hadn’t remembered that Askja was several hundred kilometres away, in the highlands.
But the 10 minute drive out to Krafla proved to be a mistake worth making. We passed a pristine and strangely quiet geothermal power plant, seemingly undisturbed by workers or official vehicles, and soon found ourselves on the rim of a large crater, staring down into a calm reflecting pool at the bottom. Though Krafla didn’t have any new geophysical bells or whistles to offer us, its size and beauty seemed to compensate. Miraculously, the vast amounts of water and steam made our trip to Krafla seem like a trip to Laugurdalslaug swimming pool, though we heeded the warning signs and avoided getting our feet wet.
The drive on the 862 road out to Ásbyrgi was miserable compared to every other road during the trip. Football sized rocks in the middle of the road made it nearly impossible to navigate the road with any speed, and what should have taken only an hour instead took two or three. When we took the alternative route, the gravel road 864 on the way down, we seriously regretted ever having taken the “government-maintained” 862.
Dettifoss, Europe’s largest waterfall, was our final stop before the campground at Ásbyrgi. From the west side, it was difficult to ascertain the magnitude of the falls, but the roar of the water was enough not to second guess it. Standing on the slippery rocks adjacent to the falls and looking down toward the misty bottom was absolutely terrifying. I couldn’t stop doing it.
A short drive through the green and expansive Jökulsárgljúfur fields took us straight to the campground at Ásbyrgi. Though we considered finishing the day off with a short hike through the canyon, we had to recognise our limits. Obviously, it had been a long day. Despite a screaming French baby or two in the neighbouring campsite, we slept like logs, embracing the food-coma aftermath of our late-night BBQ Life banquet.
The next morning, we cleaned up our tent equipment after using the excellent facilities at the Ásbyrgi campground, which did not quite feel like cheating. A short drive into the canyon itself gave me a full-on authenticity complex as a hiker (“Drive? But where are the trails?”), but a short hike to the walls of the canyon shut me up quick.
I’m just going to give my best flat-out declaration: Botnstjörn, the pond at the end of Ásybyrgi’s bottom trails, is the most beautiful piece of earth I have ever witnessed. A speckled U-shaped rock cliff towers above the pond and the surrounding mossy rocks. The pond itself has two observation decks: one platform on the pond itself, and another Ewok-like outpost with a view from higher ground. Throughout the short hike, I found myself breathless at nearly every turn. There was always some fresh gorgeous view awaiting me. Ásbyrgi seemed at points to be out of place, like some South American cliff, rainforest and all, had been accidentally dropped near the Arctic while the Earth was forming. Though we were tempted to spend the rest of the day taking the hike along the tops of the cliff, we made a pact to come back one day and explore.
Day three gave us our Nordic Hawaii. Though the drive from Ásbyrgi to the painstaking town of Egilsstaðir was even more boring than the stretch from Reykjavík to Akureyri, the drive from Egilsstaðir to the east Fjords showed us the tectonic plates in all their glory: mountains turned on their side, expanses of land where one plate was jutting out of the earth, waterfalls tricking down from heights immeasurable.
Though I have heard Icelanders say nothing complimentary about the East Fjords, this stretch was probably my favourite. A view of the high peak Búlandstindur inspired us to violate some trespassing laws and witness one brief act of the natural theatre from a small rock peninsula, high above the beaches. The thought that these gorgeous pieces of land actually belong to somebody astounds me. We stopped in Höfn í Hornafirði at the end of the day in forfeit, convinced at long last that we didn’t possess the energy to continue on to Skaftafell after all. Höfn was a tidy little town with a quaint harbour, and it would have been nice to stay there for the night if the campsite wasn’t a packed downtown lawn full of tents and loud people in just-as-loudlycoloured windbreakers. We jumped the gun and headed back north about 15 kilometres to the next-nearest, more secluded campsite on our map: Stafafell. It turned out that Stafafell was, indeed, quite satisfactorily peaceful, as the official campground premise seems to have been abandoned long ago, leaving a neat plateau and some very out-of-commission toilets in the midst of some sprawling sheep farm. We didn’t really need facilities that night – just a calm stretch of land – and with its close proximity to the beach, Stafafell was warm and serene, the perfect place to camp for our second night.
An unmemorable but brief drive down the east coast took us from our campsite to Jökulsárlón, the world-famous “glacial lagoon.” Every day, humongous sea-bound chunks of the glacier Breiðamerkurjökull break off into the relatively small lagoon. The scene was absolutely surreal: frosty shades of light blue I had only seen before in Gatorade bottles, and towers of ice hanging out in what must have been freezing seawater. Beached glacial splinters just southwest of the bridge spawned a playground of eager visitors. Though the tourists were more apparent here than anywhere else, nothing could possibly have degraded this experience.
Before finally heading home, we stopped for several hours at Skaftafell National Park, which features a ton of flowered hiking trails and a vantage point for the pokey Skaftafellsjökull glacier. A view of the organ-like Svartifoss, named after the chunks of black rock the waterfall has carved from its banks, was well worth the hour-long hike. Surprised to see elderly travellers showing their sprightly side on this relatively steep hike, we decided to one-up our (much) older counterparts and ambitiously choose the 6-hour path around Morsárdalur. After an exhausting couple of hours, two French hikers coming the other direction explained that “the ice cream was having its third birthday,” an interpretation taken with a grain of salt through my girlfriend’s questionable skills in translation. To more fluent speakers, their helpful advice seemed to signal that the glacier we sought lay at least another three hours away. Exhausted and entirely satisfied with the wonders we’d taken in thus far, we turned back and followed the markers to our dear Yaris.
The drive back to Reykjavik was surprisingly quick, and after many odd road snacks, we were too weary to enjoy the Friday nightlife.