Friday, November 18, 2016

Lusting for the American West

Last night at the local climbing gym, I was chatting with a friend about a recent sixteen day trip he took through Colorado and Utah. We got on the topic about Zion National Park and shared a mutual excitement for hiking the park’s infamous ‘The Narrows’, a cold river running through a narrow, slot canyon with towering walls on either side. It’s truly a magical experience wading through the stream as you meander your way deeper and deeper, farther in. Hiking ‘The Narrows’s is just one of those legendary hikes that you have to tell your kids and grandkids about years later, have to.  Ever since I’ve returned from Iceland, and it’s been about two-weeks now today, I’ve had zero-luck sleeping. Absolutely zero.  I’m blaming it on the recent daylight-savings-time switch, lingering jetlag and the fact that over in Iceland the days were very, very short (in terms of sunlight). Speaking of which, I tremendously miss Iceland. It’s all I’ve been thinking about since I landed back in the states two-weeks ago. Hands-down the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. But bac k on the topic of sleepless nights… I’ve been waking up at weird, odd hours of the morning every night. 5am, 3:15am, 2am. 1:30am. It sucks, yes. And what’s the worst thing to do when you find yourself wide-awake in the middle of the night? Swipe through Pinterest and Instagram. But…but if you’re dreaming about and gawking over the ‘American West’ does it count as a healthy activity? Hell yes it does.

So I don’t get it. I just, don't, get the attraction. I don’t get what my draw to the ‘American West’ is and I'm lost trying to find the answer. It sucks me in fully and doesn’t spit me back out. My drive and desire to explore skyrockets when I see pictures of these mind-blowing landscapes in states like Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, the Dakotas, Utah, Nevada…oh this list continuously lengthens. I scroll through photos, watch videos, read stories in magazines and on blogs and hear accounts of friends who have set-foot in these places- and it all just fuels my wanderlust gene. Inspired, intrigued, hooked. That last adjective is the most appropriately matched to me. Back in 2014 I was in a rut, a hard rut and in need of fresh air and a new routine. So I applied for a full-time, seasonal job at a YMCA up in the Rocky Mountains and moved out to Colorado for six-months. I’ve preached it before and I’ll preach it again, if you want to start new and grow, head west. Nearly everyone I met while living the life of a glorified ski-bum in the Fraser Valley agreed. We were all out there to figure out who we are and what we want in life. It was excellent. That was my first time heading west. When my dad and I stopped at Badlands National Park (my favorite), I got out of the car and felt a wave of relief and just calmness flow over me. I knew this was the right decision to take this next-step.  For that half-year I lived in Colorado, I never once regretted moving out there. In fact, I even still think on almost a daily or weekly basis, because I miss the life I lived there that much.

Maybe it’s the land. The land out west plays games with your mind. It confuses you. You spend so much time trying to crack the disbelief over just how the terrain came to be and you shake your head because you’re just skeptical of the possibility that big, open places out there are that beautiful. From thick pine forests at the bases of snowy peaks and roaring mountain ranges to dry, waving deserts littered with abstract, abnormal and bizarre rock formations. Landscapes so desolate and quiet it feels like time completely halts to a stop.  Landscapes that seem unworldly, maybe even scary, but that good kind of scary. Landscapes that make your hairs stand up, forcing you to ‘Wow’ at every turn on the trail or on top of every overlook. Some of the very-best hikes I’ve ever done have been out west. In places like Canyonlands National Park, the Arapaho National Forest, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Devil’s Tower and Rocky Mountain National Park. I remember last fall, a hike I did through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument towards lower Calf Creek Falls, a waterfall diving down from the Utah blue sky into an oasis below. At one point on the trail, I walked into a small patch of white aspen forest and glowing green grass. I stopped dead in my tracks and my jaw dropped to the dusty canyon floor. It was like a dream, a fairy tale. The golden light shimmering down in between the flickering aspen leaves. I sighed out an ‘Oh my God…” to myself in sheer disbelief. You rarely get that amount of tranquility. Another place that really opened-up my eyes and exploded my mind was the Squaw Canyon area, in Canyonlands National Park’s ‘The Needles’ district. I spent three days backpacking here and it was breathtaking. By far, one of the most adrenaline-filled trips I’ve done.  Pure solitude and terrain that puzzled my mind. The land out there was wild. And I’ve just been aching, begging to get back out there.  It's an addiction, straight-up addiction. You just want to hike more, and more, and more and more because your curiosity is at an astronomically-high level.  The distance and detachment from everyday life and normal society seems far-off when you're in these surreal wilderness settings. You can completely remove yourself, from everything. And it's great. When you’re trekking around solo in unfamiliar places like these, you discover things about yourself and what you’re really capable of. You have time to actually think and clear your head. You can go at your own pace. Meet and talk with as many strangers or as few as you want.  You can interpret your surroundings and discoveries. I can page through my travel journal, a ragged notebook I keep and bring with me on every trip, reflecting. The writing about my adventures out west is like reading rich, romantic poetry. 

Maybe my hypothesis then is right. It's these dreamlike places out west and their magnetizing feels that cling-on to you and trigger that taste for high-quality outdoor adventure. These mysterious backdrops I want to chase and play detective in, trying to get the backstory on how they took shape.  Sure, there are places out on the east coast and down south I want to see at some point, but there are wants and there are needs. I need to get back out west and continue roaming its vast openness. Even re-reading this post and pondering more on the 'why', it's just so hard to explain through spoken and written words. You just have to get out there.


Cheers,
Robby
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Saturday, November 5, 2016

Where, Why and How to Camp In Iceland

Iceland is the most beautiful place in the world. There’s nowhere else I’ve been that even comes close to holding a candle to that statement.  And to experience Iceland’s sheer spectacular surroundings and connect with nature- you should campout while you’re here.

I recently traveled to Iceland for a couple weeks during the off-season in the end of October into early November. For 13 days I drove around the entire country exploring this country’s ultra-impressive collection of natural ‘wow’ spots in an effort to connect more with nature. On the way, I stopped at many small fishing villages that dot the Fjords, developed towns and two of Iceland’s biggest cities- Reykjavik and Akureyri. I like to travel on a budget, a tight one, saving as much as I can in accommodation so I can put it towards gas, the rental car and a few delicious meals or a cup of coffee. Plus this dirtbag-ish way is loads more enjoyable. There’s not this pressing time constraint binding you- you can come and go whenever, not have to worry about checking-in or out, cook your own food, get up in the middle of the night to watch the Northern Lights dance in the sky above and you meet some crazy-inspiring, awesome people traveling around with your exact same mindset. That makes for stove-top meals together and laughing with beers in hand under eachothers’ headlamps under the stars. So obviously, camping is always the way to go. Especially in Iceland.

True fact- you can pretty much camp anywhere in Iceland for free as long as it’s not on someone’s private land or marked with signage prohibiting it (you’ll see red and yellow signs saying ‘No Overnight Camping’). This could change, as the waves of tourists flock to Iceland. Do your research ahead of time to confirm.

Most established campsites have hot water showers, spot-less clean bathrooms and even WiFi. More developed, larger ones will have a common kitchen area or lounge along with electrical hook-ups for campervans and RVs. Speaking of the prior, renting campervans is an exploding trend right now and a clever way to explore the sprawling island. Places like GoIceland Car-Rental, Kuku CampersCampEasy and Happy Campers rent campervans that sleep two and sometimes up to six. Some even have kitchen sinks in them while most have a pull-out stove, WiFi and heaters that keep your living area warm when the car is off. Prices range from about $700-$1,000 USD for one week. The only downside- many of these campervans don’t have 4x4 capability (though a select, rare few do like this model!) so that means no F-Roads into The Highlands region of the country or some of the tracks that carve deep into some of the national park’s interior.  I rented a red Suzuki Jimny (Japan’s version of the Jeep) for two-weeks for a little under $600, with unlimited mileage, manual transmission and four-wheel-drive for off-road wandering (which happened every day). When I couldn’t pitch a tent due to hurricane-strong winds or pouring rain, I tumbled the back seat and folded-flat the passenger seat and easily put my blow-up sleeping pad and down-sleeping bag in place. I’m 6’2 and had a surprising amount of room. The Jimny was both warm and comfortable ‘lil RV that I could easily bomb-down Iceland’s notorious F-Roads and rocky detours off the ‘Ring Road’.

Iceland isn’t cheap, but it’s not at all as expensive as what people may exaggerate. Especially during the off-season months. I found prices fairly comparable (apart from gas, which when converted equaled out to like $6 per gallon) to what I paid for in the United States. All the campgrounds and campsites accept credit card for the night(s), bring coins ISK coins for shower/laundry at paid facilities. Prices are for one person per night. Some campsites only charge you by the night where as others may charge per person camping. If you arrive after-hours at a paid campground and the office is closed or there’s no-one around to take your payment, be honest and pay in the morning- your dollars are what keep these campgrounds (and national parks) afloat and maintained. Some campgrounds may have literally no way to pay for a night’s stay due to possibility of it being closed for the winter off-season, meaning the services (water, toilets, showers) could very well be shut-off. All-in-all I think I spent less than $100 on accommodations over the course of 13 days (including the hostel I stayed in my last night in Reykjavik).

-At the time of this post, November 2016, 1000 ISK = $9 USD
-Prices may change depending on when you visit.
-Some prices below include a 100 ISK guest accommodation tax.
-Some places may be closed or services shut-off in off-season.

So here’s a list of where I camped in Iceland and what you can expect:

Skógar Campsite
Skógar, Southwest Iceland.

*1000 ISK. No WiFi. Hot Shower ($). Water fill-up.
*Pay at the window near bathroom when open.
*Right at the base of the mesmerizingly-cool Skógafoss waterfall.
*Close to the Solheimajokull glacier and Solheimasandur plane crash wreckage.


Campground/Vatnajökull National Park
Skafatell, Southeast Iceland.

*1400 ISK. WiFi. Hot Shower ($). Laundry ($). Water fill-up.
*Support Iceland’s stunning national parks!
*Most car campers camp in the parking lot right in front of the visitor center, grass patches for tent camping are to the left behind the buildings.
*Close to the trailhead for all hiking trails in Vatnajökull National Park including the trail for the Svartifoss waterfall and Skaftafellsjökull glacier.


Höfn Camping & Cottages
Höfn, Southeast Iceland.

*1200 ISK. WiFi ($). Hot shower. Water fill-up. Kitchen. Lounge. Electrical Hookups.
*Less than 10 minutes from the ‘Ring Road’.
*Great community lounge and kitchen area.
*General store sells beer, food and camping supplies.
*Jaw-dropping campsites along the bay for stellar sunrises.
*Across from an N1 full-service gas station.
*Within walking distance of downtown Höfn and its harbor.

Public Campsite
Egilsstaðir, Eastern Iceland
.
*1200 ISK. WiFi. Hot shower. Water fill-up. Kitchen. Lounge. Laundry ($). Electrical Hookups.
*Right next to and managed by the Eglisstaoir tourist information center.
*Super friendly, knowledgeable staff, did not charge me for coffee or WiFi during the off-season.
*I saw the Northern Lights here!
*Nearby grocery stores.
*Cross-road location for continuing on the ‘Ring Road’ or venturing into the gorgeous East Fjords.

Campground/Vatnajokull National Park
Asbyrgi, Northern Iceland.

*1600 ISK. Hot Shower ($). Water fill-up. Laundry ($). Electrical Hookups.
*Support Iceland’s stunning National Parks!
*Big campground with many secluded tent and RV/campervan sites.
*Pay at the visitor center or when a park ranger comes makes rounds.
*I saw a sky full of Northern Lights here! Best display of them.
*Close to the trailhead for all hiking trails in Vatnajokull National Park including the trail for the Eyjan outcropping which you can climb to see views of the forested canyon.
*Close to Dettifoss waterfall and northernmost point in Iceland, Hraunhafnartangi.
   
Hlid
Reykjahlio, Northern Iceland.

*1400 ISK (Free?). WiFi. No running water fill-up, toilets or showers.
*Tons of options for accommodation from tent camping to cabin rentals.
*Office was closed at night and in morning, therefore I did not pay.
*All services were winterized/not working. Maybe campground was closed?
*Close to the Myvatn Lake, Krafla geothermal area, Myvatn Nature Baths.
*Hard to find but uphill from the famous church, on the right.

Public Campsite
Borgarnes, West Iceland.

*750 ISK (Free?). No running water fill-up, toilets or showers. Electrical Hookups.
*All services were winterized/not working. Maybe campground was closed?
*Cool views of the Fjord and marshy shoreline in front of the campsite.
*There was not a ranger that came by to collect payments so I stayed here for free.
*Cross-roads location for if you want to continue on ‘Ring Road’ to Reykjavik or venture off into the nearby, incredible Snaefells Peninsula.
Tröð/Open Forest Entrance Area
Hellissandur, West Iceland.

*Free. No running water fill-up, toilets or showers.
*Not an official campsite, main campground in town was closed for the year.
*Large grassy area near entrance to town’s Open Forest recreation area.
*Located right across the street from the N1 gas station.
*Nearest bathrooms, water fill-up and food store is at the neighboring gas station.
*Very close to Snaefellsjokull National Park!
*The Open Forest recreation area has some fun hiking trails right behind the camping area.
*Leave no trace, please respect the fact this is free public land available for us to camp on.
Public Campground
Stykkishólmur, West Iceland

*1000 ISK (Free?). WiFi. No running water fill-up, toilets or showers.
*All services were winterized/not working.
*There was not a place to pay so I stayed here for free.
*Can get very, very windy.
*The campground area and whole town have WiFi.
*Plenty of restaurants, grocery stores and gas stations just down the road.
*Stykkishólmur is a sweet little town to wander around.

Campground/Pingvellir National Park
Pingvellir, The Golden Circle

*1400 ISK. Hot shower. Water fill-up. Laundry ($).
*Support Iceland’s stunning national parks!
*Pay at the visitor center or when a park ranger comes makes rounds.
*Close to many hiking trails and Almannagja riff, where the tectonic plates meet.
*Camp either in the campground down the road towards the Oxararfoss waterfall, in the front parking *lot of the visitor center or in the grass campground near the bathroom and shower building.
*The visitor center has a café attached to it for a quick bite to eat.
*Located right on the main ‘Golden Circle’ route.
*Awesome view of the snowy mountains when you wake up.


Should I Bring A Tent?
Well you can, but you have to, must have a reliable, all-weather tent. In some places of the country like along the southeast coast and near the western Snaefells Peninsula- it can get seriously, aggressively windy, causing damage to a tent with not the strongest poles or fabric. I've got a solid three-season, Eureka Taron2 backpacking tent that fought the wind hard but it kept me dry and warm. Just make sure your tent is staked down well or weighted with nearby rocks and prepare for a gusty night. But wait there's more....it can also downpour heavily or snow at any time, so make sure your tent can fend off those elements as well. Iceland's weather can be vicious, rough and unexpected...changing completely within a few seconds. Do your homework, bring the right gear and study the weather. Don't have a tent? Places like Iceland Camping Equipment Rental rent tents (along with other gear too). Remember you can always try it and sleep in the back of your rental car if things become dicey.

What About Food?
Buy groceries at a local joint like Bonus, they’re in almost every medium to bigger town or city and their prices are cheap. Not to mention, healthy, not uber-processed food is a big plus when you’re camping. Don’t be shy about gas station food. Almost all full-service gas stations have a kitchen where they cook up soups, sandwiches and of course Iceland’s famous hotdogs. For the love of god, you have to eat one or several. Load up on onions (underneath the hotdog like Icelanders do). I spent about $60 for two-weeks’ worth of food. Living off PB&J (the peanut butter here is SO good), fresh produce, dehydrated cups of beefy noodles, cookies, tea and cereal every morning. Plus since it’s cold like all the time, you don’t need to refrigerate any of the milk or juice you buy. Grab a cardboard box from the grocery store and make it your cupboard for your trip. But! With all the money you’re saving on accommodation by camping and buying your own food, treat yourself to a few local meals. Half the fun of traveling to a new country is trying their food. Iceland has some bomb lobster caugh right off the shore by the way…. and a few legendary craft beers.

How Do I Get Water?

I brought a Nalgene bottle and three collapsible Sawyer water bags for filling. Almost all entrances to the natural attractions and national parks along with most gas stations, but not all (despite what you read) will have a water fill-up. Don’t be afraid to ask. The water that comes out of the tap in Iceland may smell a bit funky but it’s the cleanest, most-pure water you’ll ever drink. Leave all your filters at home and don’t be a goof who buys bottle water in Iceland. Sustainability folks! One last tip- bring a small cup or keep one handy, like reuse the free cup of coffee you get from Olis gas stations when you fill up. Some sinks in the gas station bathrooms aren’t nearly deep or wide enough to fill-up a tall Nalgene bottle or soft water bag.

Cooking Gas?

So I wrote in an earlier post and it still stands true, it’s illegal to bring a canister of cooking gas on a plane. Even in checked baggage. Fear not, every gas station I went to sold them. There are three main types of camping fuel canisters you can buy. The traditional screw-on ones that thread into your camping stove (like my Primus), the taller green Coleman ones that hook-up to a larger camping stove and these blue click-on canisters that only work with its accompanying stove. Know the difference so you don’t accidentally buy the wrong-fitting canister. And open-fires are a big no-no in Iceland.

Will I be Alone?
No (and if you are don’t worry because Iceland is the safest country in the world)! I was so happy to see tons of other people my age in their 20s and 30s, camping out in tents, the backseat of their cars and rented campervans at every single campground. Even in late October and November. It’s way more fun of an environment than any 5-star hotel. When the sun goes down and it goes down very early, meet other travelers who love the camping ways. I met a lot of inspiring people in Iceland trekking around with their best friends or solo like myself. We all told stories, tried to solve the world’s problems over beer, ate dinner together and what’s the best….is you get to hear everyone’s suggestions and secret tips on where to explore. Let’s just say I got a lot of recommendations from fellow campers that weren’t otherwise listed in my guidebook. What was also cool was getting to see some of the same, familiar friends at the next region or town’s campsite again. Hey-hey! Whats’up?!

So please- get over to Iceland and admire this surreal land. Respect the fragile outdoors you’ll eagerly explore and have a blast. Have any questions or need help? Shoot me a direct-message on Twitter or Instagram and I’ll respond as soon as possible. I always like helping out fellow travelers, for me it’s paying it forward.

Cheers,
Robby


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Iceland 2016: Departure From KEF

Today's the final day in Iceland. I felt fully recharged this morning after a restful, solid night’s sleep and hot shower in the hostel. After tent and car camping for the past two weeks throughout the country, this was surely a treat and chance to spoil myself a bit. My flight today was at 4:30pm but per the airport’s regulations, you have to be there I believe 2.5-hours ahead of time, which worked out because the rental car was due back at noon. I had a quick breakfast in the hostel lobby and chatted with an American ex-pat, Thomas, now living in Iceland on the island of Hrisey in the northern part of the country along the Trollaskagi Peninsula, above Akureyri. He taught me a few helpful sayings in Icelandic and we talked about a mutual desire for winter backpacking and our favorite gear as he was seeking out recommendations on his next tent purchase. Speaking of tents….I had to compile all my outdoor gear on the floor in my hostel room and attempt to fold it all up compactly in my Gregory Baltoro 65l pack. No problem. But the tent and part of my down sleeping bag (!) were still soakkkkking wet from the past few day’s non-stop showers. Anyone outdoorsy should know, down + water = not a ideal mixture. I left the hostel around 11:20am and headed straight for the airport in Keflavik. Iceland’s capital city of Reykjavik is about an hour or so from the main airport. So you know what’s been an interesting surprise over here? The music. Iceland’s music is killer and sooo good. From addicting house and dubstep, to trap and even rap. The diversity of tunes from around the world they continually play on the radio stations is sick too. From UK Rapper Fekky, our own Santigold to German DJ, Coeo. Curious? Read this article from FACT Magazine about the fast-rising rap scene in Iceland. Scroll to the bottom of this post....you'll hear Icelandic rapper Emmsjé Gauti with his new hit that came out a few weeks ago, flooding the radio waves. I for sure downloaded this at the hostel after hearing it. Digging it, the beat is on fire.

Security was an absolute breeze at the Keflavik International Airport, way less stress than what you’d get in the land of red, white and blue. You don’t have to take your shoes off (because in the USA, apparently wearing a pair of Converse in an airport labels you a terrorist threat in the eyes of an over-paranoid TSA worker)...and there’s only a metal detector. Not some privacy invasive, unnecessary body scan or air-puffer tube you stand in. I caught up with a friend I met, another awesome and inspiring solo-traveler, in Stykkisholmur a few days ago and we both grabbed a quick bite to eat together before she flew out to Boston and later connecting to Atlanta. Now I’m on a plane called Grímsvötn (named after Iceland's most active volcano, with some sixty eruptions in the past 800 years, the most recent spurt in 2011), 36,022 ft over the North Atlantic heading west towards Greenland. If all goes well, I’ll be landing in Chicago around 6:15pm and back in Wisco by 9pm. By the way...THIS AIRPLANE HAS THE NORTHERN LIGHTS IN IT! How cool is that? Look up at the plane cabin's ceiling. Only on Icelandair will you see a realistic imitation of the dancing Aurora Borealis in-flight. Amazing.
So that begs the question then...where to next? Well I plan to keep checking off as many of our incredible national parks in my home country, like Yellowstone, Big Bend, Grand Teton and gosh I’ve got to get up to the Pac Northwest at some point. One of my bucket list items is to visit EVERY single national park in America. I’ve also had my eyes on a trip to Alaska for quite some time, especially after reading Jon Krakauer’s ‘Into the Wild’ a handful of times. But let’s look abroad- we live on this huge, diverse planet with tons of lands to set foot-in and explore. I’ll have to save up for a while post-Iceland, but I’m hoping to do another global adventure sometime next fall or winter, maybe spring of 2018. As far as adding stamps to the passport, my two top countries I’ve been aching to visit are Nepal and Laos. Something about South East Asia is calling me towards there. I’ve got a best friend in South Korea teaching English I could visit and I’ve been missing Vietnam every, single, day since I left some five years ago. I’d fly back there in a heartbeat, it’s like a second home to me. Back-up travel ideas also include Greenland, Malaysia (ohhhh what I’ve heard about Kuala Lumpur), Japan for a longer time and Russia. I’ve been toying for the past year or so with the idea of spending a lengthened time abroad, either volunteering, working a paid job or just leaving my current job and living out of a backpack for a few months. Oh that’d be a dream. The most expensive part of worldwide travel, and it’s not even deathly costly (airfare continues to drop!) if you know how to book tickets right, are the flights. The rest is cheap and easy, as I’d rather have fun and travel humbly on a low-budget than flourish in expensive hotels and fill a secondary suitcase with souvenirs. We shall see, we shall see. 

I’m going to miss Iceland tremendously. It’s been the most beautiful place I’ve ever been to. The people are friendly and fun, the lands are quiet, desolate, stunning and wild. Every day, from late sunrise to early sunset has been just this on-going adventure. It was like time stopped over here and I could relax and feel at peace. I could connect with nature, every, single, second of the day. And that’s so important to me. Driving to the airport was very hard. I fell in love with this country. It was one of those trips that change you for the better. It opened up my eyes and mind to a lot of new things and seriously helped me reconsider a lot of things going on in my current life that I need to change. This place does magic and shapes you. Plus, I’m stoked to be able to proudly add my guidebook to my growing collection on my bookshelf. But I beg you, I beg you….please go to this small island in the North Atlantic and explore this incredible country that is Iceland. I know I sure as heck will be back here very, very, very soon. Especially with how cheap, quick and easy it is to get to there.

Takk fyrir, Iceland, takk fyrir.

Cheers,
Robby


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Friday, November 4, 2016

Iceland 2016: Stykkisholmur to Reykjavík

Well it felt like I woke up in a hurricane and the not favorable weather stuck around day which slowed down drive times tremendously due to the wind and rain. My tent survived the overnight but I’m sure there may be a pole or two bent due to the insane wind gusts all throughout the night and early morning. Not to mention, it’s completely soaked cabin and rain tarp as take-down this morning occurred in a downpour. But! When in Iceland! You can’t let foul conditions ruin your quest for adventuring.

I headed into town which was still dark and waking up at 9am and topped off with gas. Pre-reading and researching Iceland before arriving led to some worry about gas being insanely expensive. Sure, it’s not cheap but it’s not going to break my wallet either considering how much driving and off-roading I’ve done. To play it safe and allow for curious driving excursions to places off the route 1 ‘Ring Road’, I fill up the Suzuki at every half-tank only has cost me about $16-$30 for each half-tank or about 10-13 litres a fill-up. Not as bad as I had expected. The other convenient thing with fill-ups, is that every single gas pump, even the ones in the middle of dark no-where up in northern Iceland where there’s just a sole light illuminating a pump along the side of the road….take credit card. It’s easy, but per all financial transactions you have to have a pin for your credit card otherwise you are wayyyyyy out of luck. Just to give you an idea on recent costs when I filled up this afternoon, one litre of regular petrol 95 octane cost around 196 ISK where as one litre of diesel petrol cost 184 ISK. You also have to actually stand there and pump it, there’s no handle-lock where you set it, get back in your car, and get out when it clicks full. Many of the gas stations here also have free coffee and wifi, along with free car washing supplies.

Today’s goal was to get over to the ‘Golden Circle’ area outside of Reykjavík, by sunset. This loop takes about a day to do and you can easily access three awesome points of interest in one day: Þingvellir National Park and its tectonic plates, the erupting geysirs and Iceland’s most famous waterfall Gullfoss. 

Before all that, I had one more place to visit over in the Snæfellsnes Peninsula- a 463m mountain called Kirkjufell. Months ago, I had seen photos of Kirkjufell popping up on my Instagram and Pinterest feeds and I remember thinking “I NEED to see this mountain.” It’s gorgeous, inspiring and like your ideal-looking mountain.  It’s right outside the town of Grundarfjörður, west of route 56. On the north side of the road lies Kirkjufell or ‘Church Mountain’ due to its shape resemblance, while on the south side of the road is an outstanding waterfall called Kirkjufellsfoss. If you haven’t caught on, anything that ends with ‘foss’s means waterfall. That moment, right there standing at the top of the waterfall looking out towards the North Atlantic and up at Kirkjufell….that is why I love to travel. Unfathomably beautiful. Even in like 45-50mph winds and pouring sideways rain. Speaking of which, I still can’t get over how the ocean waters around Iceland’s coasts are that royal, deep blue and just pierce out, illuminating through the dull gray overcast skys. It’s like it’s glowing. Never anywhere else in the world have I seen water do that, show it’s true colors that much.

So this post is a double, meaning I’m blogging about what I did today November 2 and the 3. Mainly because the ridiculously strong wind and bad rain today delayed my arrival into the ‘Golden Circle’ area tremendously. What’s been the scariest part of Iceland? Driving in high-wind warning conditions, in the pouring rain and passing a monstrous on-coming semi. Iceland’s two-lane highways with no shoulders or barriers in between mean you are prettttty close to on-coming traffic. Whenever a semi-truck today would pass me at 90kmh, a terrifying wave of water and wind would follow, shaking the entire car to the point where I’d just hold the wheel death-grip tight and hope I stay on the road haha. You kind of just let out a “Ahhhhhhh!” when it’s happening, slightly close your eyes and brace yourself. But hey! I got to my destination this evening safe and sound.

Car camping in Pingvellir National Park tonight, it hasn’t stopped raining. Two more days in Iceland, lots of exploring this fascinating country to be done.The next morning, I woke up and immediately set out on to experience the ‘Golden Circle’. The great thing, is that I can easily do it in the few hours I have before scrambling back to Reykjavík.

The first stop was to check out Þingvellir National Park, a place of paramount importance in Icelandic history as it’s where the first parliament, called Albigi, gathering of the Vikings happened back in like A.D. 930.  It was a meeting place  where skilled artisans like sword sharpeners and brewers to sell their work, banquets and fun took place too, everything from clowns to big games of tug-a-war and wresting. It’s also here where the very first General Assembly in Iceland grew its deep roots. A ‘Law Speaker’ would read out the current laws and write new ones. It’s said too that anyone who attend these General Assemblies at Þingvellir were granted full-immunity from harm. Þingvellir is a geological wonder too because the North American and European tectonic plates way below the ground meet and have continued to slowly drift apart from each other. You can hike through some of the big fissures (cracks) in the ground and as you’re driving through the national park, you’ll see riffs (including the main riff Almannagjá) in the mossy ground that shoot straight down into either darkness or hyper-transparent water. It’s gorgeous to see in person.

Just up the road, a quick detour off the main ‘Golden Circle’ route is a super sweet set of caves dug into the side of a mountain face, called Laugarvatnshellar. Hike up from the parking area on the path towards the peaks and you’ll see two big caves on your left that have been dug out some 50ft into the rock. Back in the earlier 1900s, a couple settled here and built a home within the dark hollows you can walk into. Farmers also used the caves for their protection and could safely stable up to 400 sheep! These caves are also said to be haunted.

Stop two on the tour of the ‘Golden Circle’ was Geyisr. This geothermal area is a collection of bursting hot springs and mud pits along with fluorescent blue and orange pools of past-boiling hot water. If you’re looking to read more about what the heck a geothermal area is, read about this mysterious natural phenomenon in this past blog post. The sulfur smell welcomed me again and I was able to check out a few of the less-active geysirs (Litli Geysir which you d’awe at) and the angry geyser Strokkur which erupts about every ten minutes, shooting a poof of steam and water some one-hundred feet up in the air. It’s so fun to watch it blow! Love it, I could watch Strokkur erupt over and over and over again.

Last but certainly not least in terms of excitement comparison was Gullfoss, the waterfall that Iceland’s proud of. It’s just huge and you can’t help but open your eyes ultra-wide to really accept it’s in front of you.  It’s like a staircase of rushing cold water. The river Hvítá drops first down a 11m fall and then flops again another 22m a few seconds later on. Looking at it dead-on is puzzling as the falls seem to flow right-ward first and then fall left into the deep canyon below. The Golden Waterfalls are loud and a plume of mist soaks you as you stand there taking it all in. You can view Gullfoss from two spots- the first is the upper deck near the visitor center, gift shop, café and parking lot…but it’s a tourist trap with bus after bus of selfie-stick wielding crazies. Go down the steps to a platform that gets you closer to the lower falls and the view is superb. It’s also a bit less crowded.
You know what are really good besides the hot dogs over here? The donuts. Iceland’s pastries and donuts are on-par. They’re realllllll nice (in a ‘Christmas Vacation’ Uncle Eddie voice). I filled up the Suz with gas and headed towards the capital city of Reykjavik where I’d be spending the next day or so until I fly out of Keflavik on Friday afternoon. So I’ll be honest, I’m not a city person at all, but Reykjavík is a winner. I got into the city shortly after 4pm and had a few hours of daylight out to walk around. The streets and atmosphere definitely feels European and that’s a big compliment because gosh I’d love to live in Europe at some point. Maybe after our election in a few days I’ll jump the pond. By the way and speaking of which, just about every other traveler I’ve met not from the United States (not a lot of Americans in Iceland right now), asked if I was worried about the upcoming presidential election? People from Poland, Australia, England, South Korea, Canada especially realize just how screwed up our situation is. Many even jokingly invited me to take refuge in their home towns haha. It’s embarrassing to tell you the truth when talking about the U.S. with some of these other foreigners. Worst case scenario, I’ll have zero-problem moving to Iceland haha. It’s an outdoor recreation professional’s paradise.

If you go to Reykjavík, you must visit Hallgrímskirkja….it’s a extraordinary piece of neo-classical architectural art. You'll be able to spot this Lutheran church from anywhere within the city. 
 It’s just a beautiful building towering some 244ft into the Reykjavík's cloudy sky above all the other pastel colored homes and shops that dot the streets below. I couldn’t stop taking photos of it. Designed  in 1937 by Guojon Samuelsson who took inspiration from Iceland's many basalt lava flows, that you've seen in a few past blog postsHallgrímskirkja was finished after 41 years of on-going construction and inside there's a monstrous 5,275 pipe organ.

I then took a stroll though the city, poking around a few shops, breathing in the scene Next time I come to Iceland I’ll give myself a solid full-day or two in Reykjavík, even the short time I was there it gave off a fun vibe. Rain and sunset came quickly around 6pm and I attempted to get to my hostel I was booked at. Driving a manual-transmission 4x4, in Reykjavík rush-hour traffic, in the rain, at night while trying to navigate with a paper map of the city was hilariously difficult. Yet after spotting a few landmarks, I got to the International Hosteling Reykjavík Downtown Hostel. My roommates were a girl from Australia traveling the world on her life-savings and a father and daughter pair from a small farming town in Poland. They offered me tea and fresh thick honey from their farm as her dad was a beekeeper. We all exchanged English words for Polish words over beers later that night. For the first time in like 13 days, I was able to sleep in a bed. A flat, comfortable mattress with a heavy comforter and….pillow!

Cheers,
Robby 



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Iceland 2016: Hellissandur to Stykkishólmur

After a fun night in our makeshift campground, I got an early start to the day before the run rose at 9am. Turns out, last night we actually camped out at the entrance to an ‘Open Forest Project’ for recreating and conservation in the village of Hellissandur. This meant early-morning hike was mandatory through this small patch of hilly forest, right behind our tents. Getting to see the sun rise over Snæfellsjökull Glacier was brilliant.

So I’m like immensely drawn to this part of the country, more particularly Snæfellsjökull National Park. Something about the broad coastlines, raging tall mountains, rough intense lava fields carpeted in moss and the mountains surrounding the huge ice capped active volcano that is Snæfellsjökull. I had such an amazing time hiking and exploring the park yesterday that I wanted to set aside a whole second day to continue doing it. Tent taken down, I hopped in the Suzuki and headed towards the park. (Last night we all camped out about five minutes outside of the boundaries). Referring to my guidebook, there were a few places along the coast of the peninsula I wanted to check out. First was the Ondveroarnes point, where there’s a lighthouse and also an old stone well dug into the side of a hill by the early Icelandic. Rumor has it you could get holy water, ale and fresh water from there. I crawled into the entrance way  found the mysterious well in the dark. What I like about Snæfellsjökull is that it preserves many historical sites and archaeological ruins inside the national park. For example. At a beach just down the road called Skarosvik, the remains of a Viking, his sword and shield were found there in the 1960s. That beach was gorgeous, different than most of the other black Iceland beaches I’ve tracked around in because this one had gold sand, calmer waves and cubes of basalt along the high edges of it. And the weather was so nice it was almost tempting to go for a swim in those trademark deep blue waters.

Just south of this unique beach was another lighthouse, this one much taller, slender and elaborate, as well as a row of cliffs that shoot straight down to the North Atlantic. Bigggggg drop offs. These cliffs called Svortuloft, are the home for tons of birds including Puffins, Brunnich’s Guillemot (the most common), Razorbills, Kittiwakes and the Great Black-backed Gull…to name just a few. The National Park is also home to Orcas (Killer Whales), Seals and the Arctic Fox. From this area, you can hike about 3 miles round-trip to a huge crater called Vatnsborg, which spilled loads of lava all over the nearby flatland. It’s a sweet hike, passing tons of holes in the ground now filled with soft moss and other vegetation in their shadows. When you reach the crater Vatnsborg, it’s a quick climb to the top and then you’re staring straight down into a 25-30ft deep, wide-open crater where ages ago lava exploded out of. The colors plastered on the wall are faded shades of red, yellow and orange. Super cool. Hidden away around a bend is another small crater, one that drops so far you can’t see the bottom. I dropped a rock and I’m guessing it’s probably 60ft deep. Before heading back towards the trail head, I continued off-trail a little further as my curiosity was just raging. The lava fields became even more rocky, with rocky arch, tunnel and shelves appearing out of the moss. Just unreal. Reminded me at times of hiking through Canyonlands and Arches National Parks in the western United States. That kind of landscape and geography that just puzzles you and plays tricks with your mind.

Next I headed out towards the main road and this happens….watch the video below:
Checking out the visitor center in Snæfellsjökull National Park is a must. It’s not only where you’ll pick up a trail map of this outdoor wonderland, but a whole array of displays and interpretative information. It’s like a museum inside the headquarters. Hours are limited during the off-season, 11am-4pm during the week and closed on weekends.  Plan accordingly.

So I bought a trail map and had about two, maybe three solid hours of daylight left and I was craving more hiking in the interior of the park near Snæfellsjökull. I swung a right onto an F road F575, threw the Suzuki in 4x4 and started the bumpy drive up towards the trail heads for two hikes I had in mind. The first was an easier, 20-minute hike to the top of an open crater called Sjonarholl with crazy-good views looking east and south over the mountain range. Next was the real thrill- to ascend Hreggnasi, a steep wild 469m peak near Snæfellsjökull. If you look in some of the photos below, you can see Hreggnasi’s jagged edge shooting upward towards the sky. The climb itself wasn’t hard, rather very steep in a short amount of time. It took me about 45 minutes to reach the top and it was AWESOME. There was a tiny metal box at the summit with a register so I scribbled my name on a wrinkled piece of paper and put a few stones over it. Looking east was a scary drop-off straight down, but behind me….behind me was this view of Snæfellsjökull's ice cap that was just the best.  I appreciated getting to see the glacier from the opposite side than I did the other day while hiking. The coastal shorelines and maze of lava fields below. Again this nature here just gives off this good positive energy. I love it. The descent took about half-an-hour, and I geeked out over literally every cool lava rock I found. Dusk fell over the National Park and I got down to the car just in time to make a PB&J and get off the F road with a few minutes of last lingering light.

I looked on the map and saw a campground in the town of Stykkishólmur, about an hour northwest of here so that’s where I set off to. I arrived in Stykkishólmur, much more developed than some of the other smaller towns I’ve stayed-in, around 8pm and found a place to grab a hot pulled-pork sandwich and beer. Exactly what I’d been craving after two full-days of ambitiously great hiking.

 The campground was just down the road and I was thankfully able to get my tent set up in the dark via headlamp, just before the wind became monsoon-fast. Fun fact- the entire town of Stykkishólmur is one big hot-spot, meaning there’s free WiFi everywhere.

Cheers,
Robby




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