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Four Corners of Iceland
Waterfall in the West
After arriving in Reykjavik on a red-eye flight, myself, my dad, and my older brother spent the day eating delicious food and trying to stay awake while admiring the unique Icelandic culture in their biggest city.
The next day we got up, got coffee at one of the dozens of coffee shops downtown, checked out of our hotel, and hit the road. The weather was clear. A shining sun and temperature of about 14°C (which I knew converted to the upper 50s in Fahrenheit thanks to Google). It didn’t take long for the city of Reykjavik to disappear and the landscape to drastically change to beautiful seaside cliffs along the highway as we drove North to our first hiking destination: Glymur Falls, the second tallest waterfall in Iceland. Just an hour outside Reykjavik, this 4.5-mile hike is pretty popular but we got there early enough to snag a good parking spot and beat the crowds.
We started up the trail and it was gorgeous from the very beginning. We steadily rose in elevation, walked through a mini cave, crossed a log over a river, and eventually came to the best view of a waterfall I’ve ever seen. It’s impossible to put into words the feeling you get when you see such spectacular natural beauty. We continued to make our way closer to the top of the falls and the views got better and better.
The main thing that stood out- besides the 198-meter waterfall- were the hundreds of white birds gracefully flying around the ravine. As we got a closer look we could see that there were dozens of nesting sites all along the cliffs. I had never seen an ecosystem like this. A raging waterfall in a ravine where the only two animals were these birds and a few bugs. We later found out that they were Northern Fulmars, a common bird in coastal Iceland. Further research showed that they nest along sea-side cliffs in the Northern Pacific, Atlantic, and Arctic oceans. They breed in the late spring and summer months, which is why there were plenty of them during our visit in July. Breeding along coastal cliffs (and Icelandic ravines in our case) allows them easy access to the ocean where they hunt for small fish, shrimp, squid, and other sea creatures.
After being mesmerized by the beauty of Glymur, we made it to the very top and crossed the freezing cold river. Thankfully we had sandals we could change into to keep our socks from getting wet. Then we continued to make our way down admiring the never-ending views, being able to see mountains to the South as we hiked West looking out at the ocean.
Geothermal Activity in Landmannalaugar
After a restless night of sleep because of some small bugs that had gotten into our room through a cracked window, we had a breakfast of instant coffee and protein pancakes that we’d gotten from a little convenience store the day before. With our daypacks packed, and our bodies somewhat fueled, we started the 2 and a half-hour drive from the town of Laugarvatn to Landmannalaugar (thankfully pronounced exactly how it looks).
There aren’t many roads in Iceland, and there are only two types of highways: the normal interstates you’d see in any other country, and F roads, which are the bumpy unpaved roads that lead to the highlands. We got to drive on one of these F roads for about an hour to reach our trailhead. The long drive was unlike any other. Crossing over both small creeks and raging rivers on one-lane wooden bridges, passing massive moss-covered mountains, winding through endless hills of barren rocky landscapes; it looked like another planet.
Eventually we made it to Landmannalaugar, a region located in the Fjallabak Nature Reserve, formed by a volcanic eruption in the late 1470s. Our 6.5-mile hike to summit two different volcanoes started through the edge of the lava field that was full of enormous black lava rocks. After winding our way through this 550-year-old lava field, the landscape opened up and put us into a massive meadow surrounded on 3 sides by mountains. The meadow was full of white lupins, which are a common flower throughout most of Iceland. We made our way to the foot of the mountains and started the steep ascent.
The first mountain we were summiting- Brennisteinsalda- was colorful, appearing red, orange, pink, and even blue-ish in some areas. The name “Brennisteinsalda” means sulfur wave. The sulfur gas spouting from geothermal areas all along the sides of the volcano has caused the volcanic ash and rock to change color over thousands of years. We scrambled our way to the top of the peak and were blessed with glorious views of the colorful mountains of Landmannalaugar. The other mountains in the area got their colors the same way. As we descended we got a perfect view of the second peak that we would soon be summiting: Blahnukur. This volcano was menacing. Top to bottom it was a dark gray, appearing deep blue in spots where the sun hit it. Unlike Brennisteinsalda, Blahnukur did not have any sulfur vents directly on it, so its dark color comes solely from volcanic ash and rock. At the bottom between the two mountains, we crossed a small creek and then headed up the steep summit. Eventually we made it to the top and were rewarded with even more jaw-dropping 360° views of Landmannalaugar and the surrounding area.
After taking in the views of endless colors that I didn’t know could be created by nature and making our way back down the second volcano of the day, we retraced our steps and made the long drive back to our room in Laugarvatn. We treated ourselves to some time in a geothermal bath which was walking distance from the guest house, had dinner at a barn restaurant 10 minutes away, and went to bed.
The Biggest Storm of the Year
After two days of smaller hikes and sightseeing, we got to our biggest day. We were going to hike the Fimmvörðuháls (“Fimm-vort-due-halls”) Trek; a 16-mile trail that starts at the Skogafoss waterfall, takes hikers between two glaciers (Mýrdalsjökull & Eyjafjallajökull, good luck pronouncing those) resting on top of volcanoes, and ends in þórsmörk (“thorsmark”), a mountain range and valley named after, you guessed it, Thor.
I read beforehand that the two glaciers create their own weather system and that it is vital to check the forecast before doing the hike. I checked, and it showed us nothing more than some rain showers which is nothing we couldn’t handle. We started the hike early- around 6:30 AM- because we had a bus to catch in þórsmörk at 3:00 PM.
The Skogafoss waterfall was breathtaking. The massive tons of water pouring over the edge of the cliff looked just like the postcards we’d seen in gift shops all around this crazy island. We continued onwards in the light rain hiking up the first 6-or-so miles through “Waterfall Way” where we continued to be blessed by 26 more individual waterfalls. We wanted to stop every 5 seconds to take pictures but knew we had to keep going in order to catch the bus. As we got higher in elevation, the visibility got worse and the winds picked up. We crossed a bridge signifying the end of Waterfall Way and the landscape changed to one similar to our drives to the highlands; rocky, barren, and occasionally mossy. The only difference was the weather. We knew that there was a hut at the 8-mile mark because some hikers choose to backpack this trail, or turn it into a longer trail in þórsmörk, so they’d spend a night at the hut.
By the time we finally made it to the hut the winds had picked up tremendously and the rain had turned to sleet. We walked in and the first thing the warden said was, “someone didn’t check the weather forecast.” We were confused (and frightened) by this storm and explained what our forecast showed us, to which she informed us that we needed to check a forecast from an official Icelandic system because they’re more accurate in predicting the weather between the two glaciers. Now, feeling stupid, the warden continued to make us feel unsafe as she told us “the biggest storm of the year was on the way” (her words, not mine). She gave us two options: to be stuck at the hut with her for over 24 hours, or to make a run for it over the mountain pass and down into þórsmörk. We opted for the latter.
After warming up a little bit and putting back on our wet clothes we started on the longest 8 miles of my life. The winds were sustained at 70mph with gusts up to 100mph. Unable to enjoy the scenery, we were practically running down passing over many patches of snow, loose gravel, and giant rock formations, with the ability to see maybe 10 yards ahead of us. This was the most scared I had ever been in my entire life. Finally, we got off of the plateau and started to descend into þórsmörk. Despite making it below the clouds the rain and wind did not stop until we got to mile 15 out of 16.
Since we had been scared for our lives we ended up doing the entire hike in just 6.5 hours (the average time is 9 hours), so we had about 2 hours before the bus picked us up. Unfortunately there was nowhere to get new dry clothes, so we sat in an information center trying to warm up while talking with the Icelandic man who worked there and a nice German couple while drinking hot coffee. The longer we sat there the safer I felt, but it took at least an hour for the shivering to stop. We now know for all future Icelandic hikes to check the Icelandic weather forecast so that we don’t get stuck in another “biggest storm of the year.”
The Land of Ice
After a terrifying experience the day before, we got up early again and drove 2 and half hours East to Skaftafell, a town located in Vatnajokull National Park. Vatnajokull is the name of Iceland’s largest glacier, covering about 11% of Iceland’s total landmass, and today we’d be hiking on it.
Hiking on any glaciers in Iceland alone is illegal, so we were with a tour group of about 10 people and a fun Polish guide named Przemek who taught us all about the science and geology of the glacier. There are dozens of glacial outlets along the edges of Vatnajokull, and we would be heading up one called Falljokull. After a short 20 minute hike to the foot of the glacier, we put on crampons. Przemek explained to us that glaciers are massive mountains of ice that were formed by hundreds of meters of snow being compacted together and never getting the chance to melt. Eventually the compacted ice packs get so large that gravity takes over and they start to slide down the mountains towards the ocean, leaving a valley or a lake in their place depending on the terrain they are on. However, with global warming, the lower areas of the glacier have begun to melt faster, causing the glacier to look like it is receding. All of the glaciers are in fact still moving towards the ocean, but none of them will make it there because they are melting faster than they are moving. At Falljokull specifically, Przemek explained how the lake that we had to walk around to get to the glacier was formed by the recession of the glacier, and just 32 years ago there was no lake there.
We then set foot on the glacier for the first time and started to make our way up, admiring the natural beauty of the geological wonder. As we got higher we could see how the glacier truly had carved a path in the mountains. On both sides of the glacier we could see moss-covered cliffs that hugged the sides of Falljokull. Traversing our way up the glacier we passed ravines, streams of crystal clear water, and areas that were covered in old volcanic ash. The seemingly never-ending glacier showed us how small we are in comparison to the world, especially considering how we were just on a small tongue of the largest glacier in Iceland.
The sun was out which made hiking on a massive mountain of ice warmer than any of the other hikes we had done. After stopping to take a snack break, lots of pictures, and learning more about the geology of Iceland we made our way back down, completing our final Icelandic hike.