North Iceland

By adamandheather

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Our road trip now leads us out of the Westfjords and into North Iceland. This is where you start getting into deserts, volcanic zones, and powerful glacial rivers.

Our first landmark is Hvitserkur. Legend has it that a club-wielding troll was turned to stone by the rising sun. This rock formation stands about 15 meters tall and is made of magma that was solidified as it rose up through a fissure in the earth. The sides of the fissure have been worn away by the tides, but the hard magma rock remains.

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"I am awaited in Valhalla!" the warboy shouts, frantically spraying chrome in his face. The outrageous and exhilarating Mad Max: Fury Road is playing out onscreen, and the Valhalla reference feels especially appropriate.

We weren't really expecting Akureyri to be so inviting, but as the day goes on, we get more comfortable and decide to slow things down a bit. We spend the afternoon in a coffee shop getting caught up on journals and correspondence. We hit a few clothing stores to fill the gaps in our cold-weather wardrobe.

The cinema has two screens but is showing eight films, with each screening basically once per day. When we first see Mad Max listed for 22:30, we figure we won't be awake that long, but spending a few hours in a coffee shop will alter your clock. The theater is surprisingly high-quality, if small.

Afterwards, we set up camp just outside of town in the long-sparkling twilight.

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As we scramble down the rocks towards the base of the falls, they turn from majestic to frighteningly powerful. The water has tangible power and fury -- an unrelenting flow of murky green glacier-melt. Downstream, the same water courses through a much narrower chute at an astounding rate.

We're getting into the big stuff now. Goðafoss is on the river Skjálfandafljót, which flows from the giant glacier Vatnajökull. This glacier dominates the eastern side of the island, covering 8% of the nation with an area of 8,100 km² (over 3,100 square miles) and has shaped the landscape through its outlet glaciers, rivers, and underlying volcanoes.

Goðafoss earned its name in 999, when Iceland elected to convert to Christianity. While traveling home from the legislative assembly, one of the priests of the old religion threw his idols into the falls.

We bet that he waited until he was safely across the river before doing so.

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A debate ensues: is the pungent sulfuric odor in the air a powerful accompaniment to the otherworldly geothermal landscape, or just completely disgusting? In the gusty, gloomy 40-degree weather of Mývatn today, it's tough to stay in the moment.

As Iceland's Route 1 stretches east from Akureyri, mountains rapidly give way to a flat, desolate landscape. Green hillsides covered in tundra and tiny birch trees turn in to chaotic, choppy fields of moss-spotted lava flows. As we reach the shores of the lake Mývatn, giant craters, technicolor hills, and billowing clouds of steam appear, evidence of millennia of continuous volcanic activity.

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The Mývatn region is famous for its midges, small insects that swarm in such high density that they can appear like mist or smoke. Most of the t-shirts in the souvenir shops include depictions of them, and the campground has an enclosed shed configured as a cooking and dining area sheltered from the swarms. The cold and wind keeps the midges down today, and the shed provides a merciful break from the chilly air.

In the contest for best-named lava field, Dimmuborgir ("Dark Castles") wins. It feels like a strange sculpture garden. A footpath leads through a forest of tall, jagged magma formations that reach up to 10 meters high, including arches, tunnels, caves, towers, and a big vaulted room named Kirkja ("The Church").

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The Mývatn region features astoundingly different landscapes in close proximity. A short walk from Dimmuborgir is Hverfjall, a tephra cone volcano formed over 2000 years ago.

A trail gradually leads up the gravelly side slope of the cone and leads to the rim. On reaching the rim, we realize that we've climbed the shortest side of the cone. The opposing side is a kilometer away and, at 420 meters, seems twice as high. A well-traveled path leads around the entire rim and takes an hour to walk.

To the south and east is flat, barren earth, leveled and devastated by millennia of lava flows. To the north are hills of vibrant colors, huge steam columns rising from the earth, and numerous volcanic cones looming over the landscape.

And that's where we're headed.

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Recent drilling found magma only 2.1km below the surface. The geothermal plant was nearly scrapped in the planning stages when they found far hotter vents than expected. Patches of earth steam and bubble with unnaturally vibrant color. The nearby volcano of Krafla has erupted 29 times in recorded history.

The Krafla lava fields are intimidating. In Iceland, many eruptions spring from fissures, tears in the surface of the earth through which magma escapes. We cross many of these still-steaming fissures and come face-to-face with lava cones that are only decades old. The cooled lava around these cones is smooth and flat, and looks much like broken-up pavement. It's eerily flat and easy to walk on. The violence of these eruptions becomes practically tangible as we stand at the foot of a lava cone, and we quickly move along.

The nearby crater of Víti ("hell") is filled with an eerie green lake.

In between, the tundra takes on an odd texture, assuming a pattern of small mounds that stretch for kilometers.

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You stand at the doorway of the locker room, dripping wet from the mandatory pre-swim shower. Between you and the hot pools is a 30-yard outdoor walk in the 45°F air. There is a 25 mph wind, so be sure to tie your towel to the railing so that it doesn't blow away. The tile is slick, so walk slowly. The sun is well-hidden behind the thick clouds.

And... go!

The Jarðböðin Nature Baths are located in the center of the Mývatn volcanic area, and glow bright blue due to the mineral content. There are three bathing areas: the hot tub, the warm pool, and the tepid pool. The tepid pool is empty. You learn where the hot water enters the warm pool by noticing where people are clustered. When a space opens up in the tiny hot tub, you judge whether the trip through the open air is worth it.

Caveats aside, a few hours in the hot pools here are just what we need. The water is soothing and mitigates the soreness we're still carrying from backpacking in Hornstrandir. The mineral-rich water makes our skin soft and feels wonderful on our aching, blistered feet. For the first time in a long time we build up significant body heat, and it feels like a dream.

At least until the sprint back to the locker room.

Bonus feature: the guy in the black-and-yellow trunks in the photos illustrates the running-centric out-of-water experience.

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Iceland sits on the mid-Atlantic ridge, the meeting point of the North American and Eurasian plates. These are moving apart from each other. Across Iceland it's common to find fissures, where the surface of the earth is literally ripped apart.

Although it's since been filled in somewhat by rubble, the depths of the Grjótagjá fissure still steam, and its caves contain thermal springs that are up to 120°F, too hot to swim comfortably, and with a high risk of collapse.

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East of Mývatn and the Krafla volcanic region, the landscape becomes desolate. Grey expanses of volcanic rubble stretch for tens of kilometers, and the region is too arid for plant life to take hold. The strongest illustration is the sudden absence of grazing sheep, the otherwise ubiquitous obstacles in Icelandic driving.

The sudden appearance of the Jökulsá á Fjöllum ("Glacial River in the Mountains") is a surprise. It flows from the massive Vatnajökull, the ice cap that covers 8% of the country. The river flows into the canyon Jökulsárgljúfur, which was primarily formed by a catastrophic volcanic eruption and the ensuring flooding, instead of the more typical long-term river erosion.

The edges of the canyon are lined with columnar volcanic basalt, making it look eerily like it was designed and constructed by an ancient culture.

It's also home to some of Iceland's most spectacular waterfalls. Our first stop is the beautiful and elegant Selfoss.

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Its spray is visible from several kilometers away. You hear it long before you ever see it. It takes several minutes to take in its scale.

The canyon drops steeply and widens considerably at Dettifoss, where the volume of water and huge vertical drop earns it the title of "Europe's most powerful".

No place on the western rim of the canyon is immune from the spray, and the trails are slippery and eroding rapidly. Sightseers hide their cameras inside their raincoats until they find the right moment to whip them out for snapshots. Faces glisten with water droplets and shine in wonder and awe.

We can't help but stand and stare, overwhelmed.

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The rain finally breaks, and we set out for a day hike.

Basalt rules at Vesturdalur in North Iceland. Centuries of flooding have washed the rubble away from volcanic cinder cones, leaving the hardened magma plugs exposed.

In a light drizzle we walk among huge, angular formations of black basalt that tower over the river valley. Hljóðaklettar means "Echoing Rocks", and these concave formations shape and reflect sound just like a stage. The sights and sounds are eerie.

Along the way we talk to some backpackers who are making the trek from Ásbyrgi Canyon south to Dettifoss, collapsing a typical two-day hike into one. They've covered that ground so quickly that we begin to regret not making the trek ourselves.

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From the highway, two flat planes stretch off into the distance, one trending straight and the other sloping gradually downwards. At the end of the canyon, over 3 kilometers away, the canyon closes with a cliff face over 100 meters high. A rock formation named Eyjan ("The Island") stretches into the center from the shallow end, lending the canyon's depression a distinctive horseshoe shape. Legend has it that Odin's horse Sleipnir once flew low and touched the ground with his hoof, leaving the canyon in his wake.

The valley is peaceful and still, and tall trees have taken over its floor. It feels strange to see such a forest this far north, surrounded by many kilometers of barren land.

It was a photo of this canyon that sealed our commitment to traveling to Iceland. The sight of such a lush forest and unusual rock formation opened our eyes to the diversity of the country's landscapes.

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Our little 4WD shudders violently and lurches to the right, seeming to skid sideways for a second. It's enough to get our eyes open wide and our hearts pounding. These gravel roads are well-graded for the most part, but the occasional series of gigantic potholes proves to be too much for our suspension to handle. We can't keep up with the Land Rover in front of us, and it eventually recedes into the thick, pea-soup fog that hangs over the road.

We're driving back down to the ring road along the eastern side of the canyon Jökulsárgljúfur, and it gives us a chance to revisit its massive waterfalls from a different perspective. We have the Hafragilsfoss overlook to ourselves, and even the mighty Dettifoss has only a few dozen visitors on its east bank.

With the spray of Dettifoss drifting exclusively to the west, we have clear views of the falls all the way up to the edge. The spray has so much volume that it forms cascading waterfalls down the black, columnar basalt cliffs on the opposite side. The upper bank of the river is surprisingly calm, with the last few meters of water flowing smoothly and giving little hint of the violence occurring just over the edge.

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As Heather white-knuckles our Suzuki over the mountain pass to Seyðisfjörður, we get quieter and quieter. The fog is impossibly thick, and oncoming cars appear and disappear in seconds. When the road isn't winding up a steep switchback, its sides drop off to lakes thick with ice.

This is a time for concentration.

The fjords of East Iceland are a casualty of our schedule. We don't have time for more than an overnight stay here, but we're hoping to get a glimpse of the landscape on our way through. Once we descend out of the clouds into Seyðisfjörður, we immediately resolve to return. The mountains on either side are massive and imposing, and the seaside town is picturesque, but we don't have time to linger today.

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Puffins are not graceful. They are clumsy fliers, flapping their wings in a desperate attempt to defy physics. You easily spot them in a crowd -- they're the ones that look like they're in trouble.

At the end of a long, remote road that winds around the remote fjords of the northeast is the port of Borgarfjarðurhofnvegur. The small, hilly peninsula that protects the port from the ocean houses a large puffin colony, where hundreds of the birds dart around, taking turns fishing in the sea. A set of wooden platforms have been set up for viewing, and we walk right into their midst.

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