Winter Road Trip: Southern Iceland

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Black sand on white foam. Steep cliffs jutting from flat land. Green moss covered by snow crystals. Red lava under ice caves.

Iceland for me was a foray into a land of extremes.

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Reykjadalur valley hot springs
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Click to check out my interactive road map!

Day One: Reykjavik

Catching the red eye from New York meant an early arrival into Keflavik at 6:45 am. Now, normally that’s not a big deal but seeing as the sun doesn’t rise here in winter until 11 am, we knew we had a bit of time to kill before making it to our hostel. In order to avoid the temptations of a post-flight coma, we dropped our luggage off at our hostel and headed to Sandholt for my favorite breakfast of coffee and sandwiches. It was quickly apparent how much of a tourism boom the country is going through. We counted at least three new hotels opening as well as several gift shops popping up and we barely saw or heard any Icelandic people. Our suspicions were confirmed later on in our trip by our Airbnb host, Stefan, who told us tourism was up 75% compared to last winter.

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Fulfilling my dream of petting pretty Icelandic horses

We had a nice (dark) walk around town, past the tourist-loved Hallgrimska church, until we wandered into the National Museum of Iceland for a quick history lesson. Warning: Visiting a chilly history museum post-sleepless transatlantic flight is not for the faint of heart. The Museum was fascinating, however, and much like the museum I visited in Stockholm,  it had great commentary on treatment of refugees today as well as an exhibition on the parallels between racism in Iceland 80 years ago and questioning the forms in which it still exists today.

A brisk walk later, we arrived back at the Oddsson Ho(s)tel, which seems to be going through an identity crisis as it is comprised of a hostel, hotel, bar, karaoke club, and restaurant. The accommodation was comfortable enough but not great. Its main redeeming quality, however, is the hot tub on the roof. I think this is the first hostel I’ve stayed in where the guests didn’t seem to want to meet new people. Maybe it’s just the cold weather?

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View from our room at the Oddsson

Day Two: Reykjadalur hot springs

After a quick breakfast, we headed out to pick up our car rental. We decided to go with a 4×4 because we knew that the weather was unpredictable and that we wanted to do some off-the-main-road exploring. American Airlines also had an up to 35% off discount for using their portal to book your car rental so it ended up being completely worth the
splurge ($670).

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Our first stop, the Reykjadalur (“Steam Valley”) hot springs, was a short 40-min drive out of Reykjavik. The 3 km hike up to the hot springs was pleasant with plenty of picturesque views. It was such a luxury to enjoy the majority of the hike by ourselves. Once you get to the hot river, depending on how much snow there is, you’ll be able to see a wooden path along the river as well as basic changing areas. I don’t recommend you get into the first part of the river you see! The further up the valley you go, the closer to the source, so the warmer the water is. Wanting to enjoy some privacy, we dipped into the first part of the river, only to realize upon entering that this was clearly the colder side. So, with as much dignity as one can muster while running in a bikini over snow with one’s clothes in one’s hands, I had to scurry on over to the more populated and much warmer side.

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After our hike, we were happy to arrive to our cozy Airbnb of the night in Hvolvsvollur with our host, Guðjón. Another benefit of traveling in the off-season is that we had the entire 3 bedroom place to ourselves. He didn’t speak much English and was dealing with a broken washer so we didn’t get to chat much that night. However, we later came back because I’d forgotten my bag and he was much more relaxed and told us to come back next summer as he’s hoping to add an entire other building to his property just to accomodate Airbnb guests.

Day Three: Vik to Hofn

On our way out the next morning, we found a hidden little waterfall just a short 5 minute drive away. After that one, it was pretty hard to miss Seljalandfoss which is clearly visible from Route One, the main road. Another lovely waterfall nearby, Gljúfrabúi, is lightly hidden in a small cave, a short 5 min walk away from Seljalandfoss. I was quite surprised at the amount of people that were willing to walk over icy rocks into ankle deep cold water to get a view of the waterfall from the bottom. Luckily for me, my husband is part caffeine-addled monkey, part adventurer so he managed to find a way for us to view the waterfall from above in a less treacherous way.

En route to our next stop, we spotted Skogafoss, a well-visited waterfall that’s impressive and easily seen from Route One as well. There was a man who uttered his disapproval at us for not wearing crampons while walking towards the very misty falls and the slippery ice leading to them. It was a short walk and we walked slow so I didn’t think it was needed for our purposes but if we’d wanted to explore around, crampons definitely would’ve come in handy.

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Skogafoss

We’d heard there were a few attractions worth visiting near the town of Vik (pronounced “Veek”), so we headed there next. Our first stop was the Dyrhólaey Arch. The drive up the hill to the arch was a bit steep and rocky so we were glad to have 4WD but we also saw a few 2WD cars up there who managed the climb just fine. The view from above was definitely worth it. From up there, you really get a bird’s eye view of how extreme the landscape is. There’s a small lighthouse that’s actually a hotel on the Arch but it wasn’t open for visiting. A few meters away the quaint Kirkjufjara beach with a natural basalt arch boasts its own views as well. Afterwards, we headed over to Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach which was just down the hill. If you’ve looked up info on Iceland, you’ve probably seen pictures of the imposing basalt columns stacked high upon the black sand. There were an impressive amount of people at the beach but we arrived close to sunset on a cold day when people were mostly just taking a quick snap and heading out.

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Despite the heavy signage and several warnings one encounters before reaching the beach, there seem to be quite a few deaths that occur. While we were there we saw a group of tourists walking close to the waves, trying to get a nice shot, who were surprised by a wav
e that soaked them up to their waist. Sadly enough, a few days before we arrived, a German woman in her 40s visiting with her family was swept into the ocean and died. While eating dinner with our Airbnb host in Hofn, Stefan, the topic of who funds tourist signage (federal v. local government) came up spontaneously. He seemed hesitant to broach the subject with tourists but admitted that the recent influx was cause for concern in Iceland.

Stefán has been working in the tourism industry for the last two decades so he’s seen firsthand the waves of change the recent increase in tourists has brought upon the country. Another question up for discussion regards the balance of protecting the integrity of the country’s natural resources (see: Zion National Park in the US) and saving tourists’ lives. According to him, some Icelandic residents would like to charge small entry fees at the country’s natural features such as waterfalls whereas others would prefer to stick to olden Viking law, which states the land is meant to be free to all.

Day Four: Vatnajökull National Park

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Cute boots near Stefan’s place

We had planned on exploring the less-visited East Fjords but when we checked the road conditions, we saw many “Impassable” areas along the route to get there. We also realized it would require a lot of driving time to go all the way east then back to Reykjavik within 2 days. In the end, we contacted Stefan and decided to stay in Hofn so we could sleep in a bit and could take our time to explore the area instead.

In the end, I was thankful for the chance to sleep in after a rather sleepless night due to the fact that our room’s light switch was in the living room, and some guest decided to flip on all the lights at 3 am. Our first stop of the day was the Jökulsárlón (“glacial river lagoon”), a large glacial lake right outside the Vatnajökull National Park. We managed to arrive before sunrise, which isn’t very hard since it rises at 11 am this time of the year. The tour buses hadn’t started arriving yet so we had the lake to ourselves.

Walking quietly in the dark, looking out unto the alien-like landscape, we heard the glacier cracking, creaking, and calving. It was so moving to get to hear the island breathe. It reminds you that the earth is a living, ever-changing thing and climate change is affecting our lives in a very tangible way. I urge anyone visiting Iceland to watch the documentary Chasing Ice beforehand to have a frame of reference.

Next stop: Svinafellsjökull Glacier. We went to this particular glacier twice. The first time, the weather was horrible and the path was so icy it was too treacherous to climb up to get a good view of the glacier. The second time, in daylight, it looked so different I couldn’t believe we were in the same place. We were fortunate enough to get to see a small piece of the glacier calving right before our eyes. Robin wanted to explore ice caves nearby but I didn’t feel comfortable going in unaccompanied, without gear, when the sun was melting so much of the ice nearby. I also didn’t feel willing to shell out the money for a guided tour so that’ll be an adventure for next time!

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Our day’s exploration ended with a visit to Skaftafell National Park to see the Svartifoss (“Black Falls”) waterfall. Svartifoss is one of the most visited waterfalls in southern Iceland because of the particularly hexagonal black lava columns surrounding the fall. We decided to do a smaller hike to four other waterfalls rather than visiting Svartifoss because it may have required crampons (probably not) but also because we were just plain tired of hiking.

Day Five: Vestrahorn in Stokksness

Despite the beautiful weather we had experienced the first days of our trip, we woke up to a miserably cold, drizzly day. Instead of driving and hiking, we took a lazy day and hung around Hofn. I was looking forward to the opportunity to visit a public pool or sundlaug which I’d heard so much about. It seems every Iceland town has its own – most of which are outdoors. After putting up our jacket and shoes, we headed to our respective shower rooms where you’re shown via a drawing which parts are necessary to wash. People don’t automatically link nudity to sexuality here like in the US so it’s quite normal to shower nude before putting on your bathing suit. After the shower, it’s a brave, brisk walk OUTSIDE over to the swimming area which had three different temperatures: a heated pool, two hot tubs, a sauna and an ice bath. I’m sorry to report I couldn’t bring myself to dip into the ice bath in the negative degree weather but Robin did (of course)! However, I did join the two teens in going down the ice-crusted slide into the pool. Worth it.

The sundlaugs seem to be quite friendly areas; we saw a dad with his two kids strike up a conversation with the two men enjoying the hot pot we were all sharing. It makes sense that pools have become the de facto networking space when you consider the fact that Iceland is too cold to boast European-style plazas and beer was banned until 1989.

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Pretty unmarked waterfalls we stumbled upon randomly near Route One

After we dried off, we drove over to get a view of the Vestrahorn, a 454-meter high mountain, but it was too foggy to get a decent view. A photographer we had met the night before showed us that it was clearly worth visiting in good weather. Good to know for next time! On the way back, Robin tried to teach me to drive a stick shift and if you know anything about me at all you can imagine how that went. We ended the evening with a few rounds of Rummikub while checking out Stefan’s awesome record collection.

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the Vestrahorn

Day Six: Hofn to Stokkseyri

This day really stood out because it was the first time we’d been able to see the sun come out and stay out. We drove straight to the Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon, which was an impressive sight to behold, even in the winter. The canyon is 100 meters deep and 2 kilometers long and contains the Fjaðrá river at the base. It was incredibly slippery until we realized we could just walk on the side closer to the grass to avoid looking like a Marx Brothers sketch. We passed through the Eldraun (“Fire Lava”) fields, which boast a rich history, as they were created in one of the largest eruptions known to modern men.

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Since we were headed back to Reykjavik, we decided to spend the night near Selfoss, at Louise‘s Airbnb farm. There, we met two other couples that were driving around the area: one from Toronto (Alex and Diane), the other from Germany. We got to enjoy a nice meal together and discussed everything from Trump to artificial intelligence to social work.

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Urridafoss spotted near Louise’s place

Day Seven: Stokkseyri to Pingvallavegur

We decided to start out the day with a little bit of history by visiting a reconstruction of a Viking farmstead, the Þjóðveldisbærinn Stöng (“Commonwealth Farm”). It was quite interesting to get to see a turf-covered longhouse and to imagine the lives people led in the not-so-distant past. A few minutes away we soaked in the views of Hjálparfoss, a distinct double-waterfall surrounded by lava fields. I really try to avoid using words like “favorite” while traveling but let’s just say this waterfall was definitely one of the highlights of our trip.

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Hjalparfoss

On our way to Gjáin, we ran into a man whose car was badly stuck as he had been driving at night during a blizzard and couldn’t see he had driven past an “IMG_20170117_115419.jpgImpassable” road sign. Since the sun sets early and he couldn’t move his car, he had spent a long night in the cold. Together we managed to push his car out and he was so overjoyed he gave us two long hugs (!). He asked if we could go over and help another couple that had gotten stuck just up the road as well. As we drove over and got closer, we realized it was Alex and Diane that we’d met the night before. In their case, their heavy 4WD car was so badly stuck that despite almost 1 hour of 9 people pushing, they had to call a tow truck. I felt acutely aware of our luck since we had planned on driving on the same road and would’ve been stuck ourselves had we not arrived later.

With the help of Google, we managed to take advantage of another natural hot pot which although beautiful, was sadly full of discarded socks, bras, and beer cans. Yet another reason why it’s good to travel with empty trash bags! We didn’t need to dip again so we quickly stopped by the not-so-Secret Lagoon, which is a rather historic public pool.

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secret-hot-spring

We did a little bit of off-the-beaten-path exploring (not recommended in winter unless you have 4×4 drive) and found this beautiful valley in Kerlingardalsvegur. At night, we settled into our comfortable if not unconventional former school cum hostel, Ljosafossskoli.

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Day Eight: Golden Circle

We decided to head to another public pool, this time in Borg, on recommendation from the hostel receptionist. After our recent visits to many American National Parks (namely, Lassen Volcanic NP), we were looking forward to stopping by Strokkur (“churn”) and Geysir. We decided not to stop by the Kerið volcanic crater, as I believe it’s an attraction that’s best enjoyed in the summer. However, if you feel so inclined, you can climb into the crater and slide around on the icy bottom for $4 USD.

Upon another recommendation by the receptionist, we visited the nearby Skálholt cathedral, which I highly suggest as a stop if you’re in the area. I’m not usually one for visiting churches or cathedrals but this one, in particular, had a great little museum area explaining how life centered around the church and how the area evolved over time. Our day’s exploration ended with a visit to Gullfoss, arguably the most recognized waterfall in southern Iceland. I’m glad we saved this impressive behemoth for last. It allowed me to appreciate some of the other smaller, less crowded falls without constantly comparing it to this obvious beauty.

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Gullfoss

Day Nine: Þingvellir National Park

Our last day in Iceland was a bit limited on time but we managed to head over to Þingvellir National Park as a final stop. I had seen advertisements for diving in the Silfra fissure which I would’ve loved to try were it not out of my budget. We managed to do a nice hike to Öxarárfoss, as well as to a very historic part of the park. Apparently, Iceland’s national parliament, Althing, was founded in 930 where the park now lies. Definitely worth a visit to any history fan (or any lover of the macabre… lots of rivers and rocks named after hanging and torture sites. Yikes.)

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Oxararfoss

Final thoughts

Visiting Iceland in winter is an experience that I will hold dearly in my memories for a long time. The many waterfalls, basalt columns, lava, and glaciers all made me feel like I was on an alien landscape. Since I’d love for others to get to share in the views that I was lucky enough to behold for years to come, it’ll require us all to take action now. At the very least, I urge you to watch the Chasing Ice documentary so you can see with your own eyes how our glaciers are melting and how it’s affecting YOU, not far away polar bears or penguins… you. In any case, I know I’ll certainly be back to visit, maybe to see the north in the summer?

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