West Iceland

By adamandheather

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It felt odd that we had spent the better part of 2 days in a new country without really knowing what the landscape looked like. With its persistent mist and rain, the country seemed shy.

The 2-hour drive from from Reykjavik to Snæfellsnes, a prominent peninsula in West Iceland, was defined by the light rain and heavy fog. The road climbed and fell over steady hills, and once dipped under a fjord via a 4km-long tunnel. As we approached the peninsula, we could see the bases of snow-covered mountainsides in the distance, looming spookily in the heavy mist and low cloud cover.

Once on the peninsula, we cleared the clouds and mist quickly, and our view suddenly stretched for dozens of kilometers. Lush fields, ancient farms, massive waterfalls, and beautiful rustic churches revealed themselves, and we felt like we were finally meeting Iceland.

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With the weather improving, we decided to get some miles under our feet. A popular and beautiful trail runs along the cliffs between Anarstapi and Hellnar. Thousands of sea birds nest in these cliffs, and the air is full of sound and movement.

By the end of the trail, we've almost worked up a sweat, and stop in at the seaside cafe for tea and skyrcake before heading back.

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What could be better than an inexplicable zipline at the end of the world?

Near the far western end of the Snæfellsnes peninsula, we stop near Malariff, where the clouds seem to be in an endless loop. They roll in from the sea, dark as night and stretching as far as the eye can see, and then vanish somewhere in between the lighthouse and the landmark rock formation Lóndrangar, leaving the lighthouse in dark and the formation illuminated. The phenomenon continues for the entire hour that we're there, and the effect is eerie.

This is the closest we've gotten to the massive mountain Snæfellsjökull, which is alternately hidden and revealed by the clouds. Its broad dome has loomed at the end of the peninsula for hours, never seeming to grow much closer. Now that we're right next to it, the clouds are working to cover it up.

But hey, for some reason, there's a nice new fitness course set up on the grounds of the lighthouse, including balance beams, tire course, plastic tunnels, and a long zipline with a hard, spring-loaded stop. After a few harrowing trips to the end at full speed, we decide it would be safest to leave it be.

We backtrack east, into the sunlight, which is beginning to turn orange as the sun dips further into the sky. There won't be a sunset, but the golden light makes the scenery even more magical.

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It's around midnight and I wake up to find an orange glow at the foot of the tent. The sun has descended low enough in the sky to peek out from under the clouds. It doesn't add any warmth to the cold night, but it drives home the feeling of remoteness that you get this far north.

During our planning, we bought an Icelandic Campingcard, which gives us access to campgrounds all over the country. They usually consist of a grassy lawn with an amenities building that includes bathrooms and sometimes showers and washer/dryers. The one in Olafsvik is small but nice, and the few groups that are there when we arrive are quickly winding down for the night.

The night is quite cold and we both wake up shivering a few times. Our bags are technically rated for 20 degrees, but aren't handling the 40-degree conditions in Olafsvik very well. With Atlantic Ocean temperatures at their lowest levels in 18 years, will the bags serve us as we get even further north? We may need to get inventive.

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The foot of Kirkjufell ("Church Mountain") crawls with amateur photographers (such as us) at all times of the day. The mountain has been photographed so many times, by so many talented photographers, in so many dramatic lighting conditions, that we didn't have much new to bring to the table on our brief trip through.

Except for ourselves, of course.

But we still managed to get some stories out of it. Heather wandered through a marsh to a pond to get some reflections of the mountain. Along the way, an Arctic Tern popped straight up out of the grass like a ninja, squawking in alarm. Soon there were 3 terns circling around her, screaming and diving. She held in there and managed to get some shots without getting hit.

In some walking areas in Iceland, you can find warning signs that feature only the silhouette of an Arctic Tern. Anyone who's encountered one would consider it warning enough.