Friday, October 28, 2016

Iceland: Skaftafell to Hofn

So I was super stoked to wake up in Vatnajökull. Covering 14% of the entire country, Vatnajökull National Park is not only the biggest national park in Iceland but in Europe as a whole. And today I’d be hiking the Skaftafell section of it. Created in 2008,Vatnajökull National Park is grand combination of former Skaftafell and neighboring Jokulskargljufur National Parks.  At, 13,900 square kilometers It’s massive, look at any map of Iceland and find the big ice cap (it’s the world’s largest ice cap outside of the north/south poles encompassing some 8,100 sq km of the park’s size) in the southeastern part of the country. Vatnajökull is home to the tallest mountain in Iceland, Hvannadalshnúkur which stands at 2,110k km. I hiked up to Svartifoss, one of Iceland’s most recognized waterfalls. It’s intimidating at first sight, surrounded by dark, wet basalt columns straddling either side of it. Super cook to finally see in person. To fill the itch for hiking, I continued east on the S6 trail a few hours to reach the Sjonaenipa viewpoint of the Skaftafellsjökull glacier. Honestly, this was one of the most breathtaking hikes I’ve ever done. Not just because it was pure solitude, just me and wild Iceland, but because of the diverse terrain, all 360 degrees around. Ascending the ridge, you look west and there’s a giant glacier that shines a bright blue glow visible from miles away. Look south and gaze across the black sandar towards the North Atlantic coastline, the sun reflecting off the dozens upon dozens of streams and rivers below. I look east and see snow-covered peaks thousands of feet above the trail. I just couldn’t believe it. It was just, perfect. Gives me the chills hours later thinking back on that hike. Then you reach this overlook, and the sprawling Skaftafellsjökull glacier appears. Again, my appreciation for nature skyrockets. Down below me, hundreds of feet sits the lagoon at the edge of the glacier, icebergs floating in the calm cold water. (There’s a 3.6 mile trail that takes you from the National Park headquarters to the lagoon). Then I hiked down, through thick patches of birch trees that filled the ridge, towards the car. Cross that national park (a European national park!), off my adventure bucket list. Please, if you go to Iceland, visit this treasured, impressive place of protected wilderness.

Back on route 1 the ‘Ring Road’, I headed for the town of Höfn where I’d crash for the night. A drive along Iceland’s southeast coast wouldn’t be complete without a stop at the glacial lagoons at  Jokulsarlon. Touristy, yes, but worth a stop for sure. Avoid the crowds and explore the lagoons from one off-highway parking turn outs before the bridge (if you’re coming from the west). The lagoon, at the foot of the Breioamerkurjökull glacier which stems from the previously mentioned massive Vatnajökull ice cap, is where you’ll see icebergs that have fallen from the glacier drifting slowly in the water until they make their way out to the North Atlantic.  You may see some crash into each other! The colors and shapes are spectacular, polarizing and you should definitely take time to absorb it all. Supposedly some icebergs can float for up to five years in that lagoon. Before leaving you have to, have to, have to stop at the river mouth/entrance to where the river from the lagoon spills into the ocean. It’s just south of the ‘Ring Road’, pull near the beach and walk towards the waves. You’ll find hundreds, if not, thousands of smaller icebergs sitting in the black sand. It’s mind-boggling, dazzling and ridiculously neat to see the contrasts.

Pressing on towards Höfn hopefully by nightfall, I made one last stop in Vatnajökull National Park, to check out the Heinabergjökull glacier and its accompanying lagoon. The gravel entrance into the national park’s land is just off the ‘Ring Road’ and you should probably, well, you need a robust 4x4 (especially after heavy rain) to access it. Ford a stream and buckle-up because the rocky road is crazy bumpy and will throw your ride around. But it’s so, so, so, so worth the 15 minute drive to this incredible oasis. At the end of the dirt road, sits this big, quiet blue glacier, Heinaburgjökull. And there’s not a single soul around. Just you. I walked down to the lagoon, again filled with icebergs drifting slowly in the current and looked around. Pure, Iceland. I fell in love with Votnajökull National Park even more, and Heinabergjökull might be my favorite place I’ve been to so far on this trip. Its tranquility, serenity and calmness is hard to match.

I arrived in Höfn around 7pm, half-an-hour after the sun was completely down. Since I’d been saving a good chunk of money by car camping at some of Iceland’s campgrounds, I decided to treat myself to a nice, sit-down dinner in town. Höfn is a bigger town along the coast and a refuge for ‘Ring Road’ travelers looking to rest. It’s a harbor town, that thrives on fishing and the catching of lobster. Lobster or Langoustine. I found a wonderful restaurant called Kaffi Hornio that specializes in craft beer and local seafood. Guess what? Robby eats seafood now, well, crab and lobster for sure. The waiter told me how the lobsters caught in Hofn are smaller and sweeter than other lobsters around the world. So of course I splurged and got a pasta dish with fresh lobster from the bay, hot coffee (gosh I’ve missed that) and a ‘toasted‘ porter from one of Iceland’s microbrews. Delicious, delicious, delicious. Not too pricey either at 5800 ISK. It’s fun to sit-down in a nice restaurant by yourself and go all-out. ‘Twas an ideal way to wind-down the busy day.

Later that evening, I registered at Höfn Camping, a campground right in town for 1000 ISK for a one-night stay. This campground is open year-round, has WiFi, a lounge/cafeteria, shop for camping gear and spotless, clean bathrooms/showers. There were other car campers, all in their 20s and early 30s, staying the night too and we all met each other over cheap beers in the lounge/cafeteria. A group of Canadians, a Spaniard, a Switz and a couple from Steamboat Springs, Colorado. We spent hours laughing, sharing stories, comparing road maps and trip notes, giving each other suggestions on where to stop, comparing our car camping setups (someone had a sink in their camper van!) and figuring out how to solve the world’s problems. It’s these conversations and interactions with complete strangers I love. Even when trekking solo, you meet some of the greatest people with that same thirst for traveling.