Iceland 2016: Days 1 & 2


Mark, Lisa, Ellen and I arrived in Iceland very early on the morning on June 18th. Jeff was not with us; he had jetted off to Germany a few days earlier to run a Tough Mudder with... you know what, it's a long story and he can write about it his own damn self if he wants. The point is, he wouldn't be joining us until Sunday evening.

After grabbing our rental SUV (there were some complications, I may write a whole post about the car), we set off for our first stop, the little waterfall-filled valley Gjáin. It's about a two hour drive from the airport, past the famous volcano Hekla and situated between Landmannalauger and Geyser. The first thing we noticed is that there were huge fields of purple flowers everywhere, something we had not seen on our previous trips to Iceland. They're called lupins or lupines and they cover huge swaths of open fields in Iceland in late June. Really incredible to see. There were even lupines growing right up to the very edge of the roads.

Having to drive two hours in Iceland to visit a sight is not the worst thing in the world.

The first time you see Gjáin it's hard to believe that it isn't part of a movie set. It's a sheltered little valley where two little rivers drop in via waterfalls, then come together along with several springs bubbling straight out of the valley walls to form more rapids and waterfalls. It's protected from the wind (some, it is Iceland after all) and vegetation is suddenly abundant. It would make an excellent Garden of Eden, except it's a little chilly to be wearing just a fig leaf. Also there are no fig leaves for a thousand miles. Or apples, or snakes, so maybe it's not that much like the Garden of Eden, but it's certainly a beautiful, sheltered oasis of waterfalls and springs and caves and abundance.

Crystal clear water. You can tell this river is not sourced from glacial melting.

After Gjáin, we made a few stops on our way back towards civilization. The road we were on (32) followed the Þjórsá river, and there was a scenic overlook (Google Maps calls it "Western Þjórsárdalur") that provided a great view of both Hekla and islands in the river that were completely carpeted by lupines. A good rule in Iceland: if you see this sign and have 15 minutes to spare; pull over. You won't regret it.

Things that only come to mind in Iceland, vol. 1: "This would be a great place to watch an eruption."

Lupines!

Ellen and Hekla

Another thing we noticed that is different in June, as opposed to August (or February for that matter) is that there are lots of baby sheep and horses running around, and they are ADORABLE. We tried to resist the cuteness, but we just had to pull over and take some pictures. We definitely didn't try to entice one of the baby horses to come closer so we could kidnap it and take it home with us though, I swear.

OMG SO CUTE!!

Next up was a pit stop in Selfoss for a very late lunch at Tryggvaskáli, a lovely place with a great view of the river and bridge. I had a bacon burger with camembert smothered in bernaise sauce with a side of bernaise for the fries. They really love their bernaise in Iceland. It really hit the spot, as did the three or four cups of coffee since we were working on only a few hours sleep on the red-eye flight over. One of the best burgers I've ever had, and definitely the best burger that was probably made from horse meat. Cute and delicious!

Our next stop, just a little ways down the Ring Road (in other words, back towards Reykjavik), was Reykjadalur, a hot spring which is a hot stream as opposed to a hot pool. The weather had turned from decent to "normal Icelandic" (chilly, very windy & rainy), but the parking area was full of cars and even a couple of tourist buses. Over the past few years, Reykjadalur has gone from "unknown, off the beaten path gem" to "popular and somewhat crowded attraction" probably due to its close proximity to the capital area. Unfortunately it may soon belong to the group of too-crowded-to-bother sights along with Gullfoss, Geyser and some others.

Waterfall downstream of Reykjadalur that hikers pass along the way.

It's a nice hike from the parking lot to the actual bathing area; about four and a half miles round trip with an elevation gain of 850 feet. It's a very active geothermal area (hot springs gotta get hot) and the trail offers the opportunity to get up close and personal with some of our planet's inner workings. Like "make one bad step and you'll be cooked alive in a pot of boiling mud" close. It's fun! I swear!

The swimming area has boardwalks right next to the stream and plus sign shaped "changing areas" for people with nothing to hide. Bring a bathing suit, a towel, a bag for your stuff, and some dry clothes to change into after; but do not bring your modesty as it will serve no purpose here. Beach towels held up by your friends are not an effective modesty screen in 30 MPH winds.

Boardwalk in Reykjadalur with changing station and rock dams in the stream.

The stream itself is not very deep at all, but people have stacked up little rock dams, which creates some deeper spots and gives the stream the look of a staircase. Tiny, cold streams flow in from the sides, cooling the main creek when they join. The further upstream you go, the hotter the water is, and vice-versa, so one can always find an area where the temperature is just right. We picked out our spot, stripped down to our suits, shoved our bags in a dry corner of a cross and hopped in.

A look further upstream, where it was too hot to get in.

While we were enjoying our soak, a tour group of 15-20 American college kids (and one angry looking Icelandic guide) showed up (that's them in the upper-left hand corner of the pics of us in the stream). They used the same changing cross as we did and buried our stuff under all of their stuff. One girl at least had the decency to entertain us by wiping out hard on the slippery boardwalk. Once they had all gotten in, we figured that was our cue to head home. But as nice as our time in the hot spring was, those first few minutes after getting out, in the cold and the wind, trying to find your stuff and dry off and get out of your wet suit and into some dry clothes without showing all these college kids what 20 more years will do to them -- that's about as cold as I've ever been. Lisa never really warmed up and eventually had to leave us and jog back to the car. When we were all back at the parking lot, we warmed up with some hot chocolate from the little coffee stand there. It was time to head back to Reykjavik.

Our AirBnB place was just one block over from Laugavegur, the main drag in Reykjavik with all the shops and restaurants. By the time we had all showered and were ready to go it was about 9:30. We ended up trying four or five different spots before we finally found a place that was still serving dinner that late. And after some delicious sushi and wine, we headed home for a solid ten hours of sleep because we were exhausted.

A photography display right out on the street in Reykjavik, with Hallgrimskirkja in the distance. I'm sure this is Chris Burkard's work but I'm not sure what this display was all about. It was still there the following weekend when we returned to the city.

Thankfully, we had no firm schedule set for Day 2 and we were able to sleep in and get ready without rushing, a true luxury for an action packed vacation. We did some window-shopping on the Laugavegur and enjoyed some delicious crêpes from the Crêperie. They're so good that Lisa stole one from another patron, which we got to eat as a bonus crêpe while the hungry couple watched us eat their food and waited patiently for the cook to make them a new one. After filling up on our own and other peoples' breakfast we set off to explore the Reykjanes peninsula.

Reykjanes is a very active geothermal area, and as such it is home to mostly lava fields and not very hospitable for farms or residents in general. All of the villages, farms, and major international airports are located on the coast, with the middle being mostly a mossy wasteland. It makes for lovely drive though.

Our first stop was Kleifarvatn, a large lake in the Reykjanesfólkvangur Nature Preserve. It's a really beautiful spot, with sheltered coves, black sand beaches and cool lava formations that you can climb up and have someone take a glorious, majestic picture of you. It's basically the whole point of going to Iceland anyway.

Kleifarvatn. The clouds are frequently so low in Iceland that you feel like if you reached and stretched a little bit you could grab them.

Mark being majestic and pensive.

So majestic.

A beautiful setting for a picnic lunch, presumably, if you didn't fill up on crêpes at breakfast.

Seltún geothermal area, just down the road from the lake. After a few good lungfuls of sulfury air we were off again.

Our next stop was Valahnúkur, cliffs overlooking the sea on the far southwestern tip of Reykjanes. As with all cliffs in Iceland, they feature amazing views of the coast and thousands of sea birds.

Valahnúkur. Formed in a single eruption, the formation features many different types of lava, which makes it very interesting to geologists.

The views from the top of Valahnúkur.

When you want to take a video looking down but you're also a little scared.

Reykjanes lighthouse.

Our last stop before heading to the airport to pick up Badger was the Miðlína or "Leif the Lucky" bridge between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates over the Álfagjá rift valley. It's kind of a tourist trap; there are many rifts like this one in a plate boundary region and none of them are the definitive split between continental plates (Silfra makes a similar claim: "scuba dive between two tectonic plates!") However, it's a beautiful spot and still a great representation of how Iceland is constantly being pulled in two different directions.

A Bridge to Nowhere.

Ripples in the black sand dunes near the bridge.

The giant sperm sculpture could only mean one thing: we were back at the airport to pick up Jeff. From here, the story continues on the Fimmvörðuháls post.

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