Monday, October 31, 2016

Iceland 2016: Ásbyrgi to Reykjahlíð

It was cold last night! Even sleeping in the back of the 4x4 was chilly in a down sleeping bag. There was ice all over the ground this morning. But hey, it’s Iceland, what do you expect. 

Before jumping into the daily recap- here’s a quick update on where I’m at. Use this map as a guide. When I flew into Keflavík near Reykjavík, the capital city in the southwest corner of the country, I got on Route 1, the Ring Road, and headed east. Then, southeast towards the town of Höfn I then zig-zagged in and out of many of the East Fjords on the eastern side of the country, making my way towards Egilsstaðir, sort of in the middle of the eastern side of Iceland. From there I headed due north along the coast, passing a few more fjords, and ended up yesterday evening at the farthest, most northern point you can go in mainland Iceland near the Herring fishing village of Raufarhöfn (the northernmost and coldest community in Iceland). After walking out to the lighthouse and far shoreline, where the Arctic circle was only 3km north, I headed south and then west towards Ásbyrgi. The remaining six days will be spent heading north again into the Tröllaskagi Peninsula briefly before heading southwest and then due west towards Snæfellsjökull National Park. I’ll then drive east to do the famed ‘Golden Circle’ route for a few days and then spend a night in Reykjavík. True fact...I’ve been using a big paper map every single day when driving around Iceland. The country is phenomenally easy to navigate. It’s a lovely, now-wrinkled map that will be framed and proudly hung up in my apartment when I get back home.

I woke up this morning once again in Iceland’s biggest national park: Votnajökull. Except for this time in the northern Jökulsárgljúfur unit near Ásbyrgi. Like previously mentioned, it’s a mega park, made up of both formerly Jökulsárgljúfur National Park in the north and Skaftafell National Park in the south, where I did some epic hiking the other day. Camping was just 1600 ISK for a night here in the northern unit. I chatted with a park ranger about national parks and state parks and how it’s crucial to support them, he gave me a few tips on his favorite places to hike and see some of the key highlights of the Jökulsárgljúfur area. 
What’s insanely cool about the Jökulsárgljúfur part of the Votnajökull National Park, is that it’s like Iceland’s own version of the Grand Canyon. It’s a region filled with a treacherous, long, narrow, dark cold canyon, powerful waterfalls, and a few dense patches of forests. Ásbyrgi is a must-see in the national park because it’s a horseshoe canyon. And it’s wild. I hiked a few hours in the morning up to the ridge above Eyjan hill. It was a chilly, windy morning and today the sun honestly didn’t seem to fully rise. But the gloomy cloud cover spurred strong feels of desolation, remoteness, and solitude. 
At the top of Eyjan, you can see for miles in all directions. Huge snowy peaks looking east and west, the North Atlantic Ocean looking north and south, the deep horseshoe canyon a few hundred feet below. It was surreal. Then it started snowing and the hike felt like I was walking through a shaken snow globe. Perfect for an outdoor adventure in Iceland.

The ranger at Votnajökull recommended hitting Route 864 west of the canyon to check out Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe. So I did right as the snow started falling harder. Even in four-wheel-drive and going at 40-50 kmh, with spiked winter tires….the Jimny was fighting a war against the incoming front. The dirt road was super rough, and anything more than three bumps in a row threw the Suzuki sideways and sliding towards the ditch. 
I was the only one on this remote road for about an hour. It was like driving through this barren, frozen blizzardy environment that you’d only dream about. But it was so beautiful. Bare, distant Iceland. I reached Dettifoss after stopping at a smaller yet still impressive waterfall called Hafragilsfoss. Dettifoss is unreal. Peak deep into this dark, glazed with ice canyon and you can both hear and feel the rumble of the rushing water before even seeing Dettifoss. It’s measured at 44 meters high and 100 meters wide, yet some 193 cu-meters per second of water collapse down its face. When I’m back in the states I’ll figure out how to convert that into gallons per second. 
It was neat to see Dettifoss in a winter environment too, snow and ice covering all terrain surrounding it. You can view it from the east side off Route 864 or west off of Route 862. But please, if you’re already heading in that direction, drive a few more minutes and go explore the northern Jökulsárgljúfur unit of Votnajökull National Park.

Iceland is known for its volcanoes. There are quite a handful of big and little, active ones that erupt frequently. Remember how back a few years ago ALL air traffic to/from Europe was canceled, delayed for weeks or re-routed because of the ash in the air? That plume of volcanic ash came straight from a volcano down in the southern part of Iceland. On your way into the Mývatn area, you can actually go and hike around a geothermal power plant nestled at the base of a 2,000 year-old, active volcano landscape called Krafla. Iceland is also known for its ongoing, pro-green attitude and sustainability efforts. So let’s put these two claim to fames together. 
The Krafla Power Station (which you can tour!) is a geothermal power plant that uses hot steam from underground magma to power the nearby area. Unlike power plants in the United States, where if you get within eyesight of one, paranoid security personnel automatically think you’re a ‘terrorist’, you can actually see up-close how the power plant works. All over this volcanic area, you see steam pouring out of ‘boreholes’. Underground magma heats the groundwater above, causes this steam which then goes through these big long pipelines. The pressure and heat differences from that steam spin turbines in the big powerhouse building. A rotor inside the generator is driven by that turbine, magnetic magic occurs and finally electrical current then flows to the power lines. (Thank all the super informative displays for that lesson). The cooling station, with the huge vents on top, even recycles the water back. When you’re next to the cooling building, you can see water just falling down through the grates. Cool stuff.

There’s a ginormous crater in the Krafla geothermal areas called Viti or which means hell' in Icelandic. You can hike up along the rim of it and stare down into a big pool of sky-blue water. That masterpiece was believed to have been created as a result of an explosion during the Krafla Fires (eruption) in 1724. How fun would it be to take a kayak, slide down the rocky face of the crater and splash into that pool of geothermal water? I mean, I do have trip insurance for high-risk activities and a SOS beacon. 
The coolest part next was hiking around at the Leirhnjúkur Solfataras, a craterous area where lava spewed out of the ground about 40 years ago. You guys, this was SO cool to hike through. Literally standing where lava was spilling out, so you can see all the hardened, black lava rocks and sprawling lava field. It’s like you’re on a different planet. 
The weird colors plastered into the ground, floating sulfur smell and the rushes of hot air seeping up underneath your pant legs as you walk. You get to walk past steaming vents releasing that hot air built up below the active volcanic area ground you’re standing on. You can see the many scorching mudspots that bubble. It’s just otherworldly.

Still hooked on all things volcano and geothermal, I stopped at the Bjarnarflag active geothermal area to see the alien-like big mudspots making slow burping ‘bluuuppppp’ noises as they bubble. Then there’s this insane ‘vent’ where steam is just flying out at an ungodly loud volume. So, so, so, so loud but the screaming from below reminds you that yes, your planet is alive and well. It's crazy!

Guess what, I brought a swimsuit to Iceland, in the winter season. Why? To soak in the geothermal pools around the country. You can take a ‘nature bath’ where you dip into this relaxing lagoon of warm heavy sulfur water littered with minerals. I felt like living it up for the night, so I did at the Mývatn Nature Baths and it was amazinggggggg. You can swim in these crystal neon-blue geothermal water pools that are outside. Yeah, the temperature was freezing out of the water, but with the water super warm and enriching, you can rest on the edge of one of the pools and stare off into the Icelandic sunset falling behind the snowy mountains in the distance. It was surreal. There’s also a sizzling hot tub and geothermal steam room. Imagine a typical steam room but like….20 degrees hotter. I chatted with a few New Zealanders about traveling to places like Dubai, Shanghai, Vietnam and Berlin. All three of us were hysterically shocked to see the lifeguards wearing full, reflective Arctic gear and also taking and serving you beer, right at pool side. Paradise found for $24. Totally worth it. One piece of advice though...bring a towel! Otherwise you'll pay to rent one, and don't leave it hanging on the railing by the water like I foolishly did, Iceland's insane winds will blow it into lagoon haha. It’s just one of the many things you have to do in Iceland. When in Iceland, right?

After a few hours of pure relaxation and straight-detox, I was craving a sit-down dinner. I ventured a bit outside of Reykjahlíð and found this delicious place was called Vogafoss or loosely translated "The Cowshed." Homemade mozzarella cheese, geyser bread, craft beer and windows in the dining area that face out to the indoor pasture where the family cows are kept and milked twice a day. I opted for the big vegetarian omelet and some coffee. Gosh Iceland's coffee is rich and good. Moo. Lot’s of Moo. After dinner, I found a gravel parking lot to park the Jimny and crash for the evening.

I love you Iceland. Enjoy some more photos from today's adventures below.