Friday, October 28, 2016

Iceland 2016: Skógar to Skaftafell

Last night was quite a ride inside the Suzuki.

While I got some quality cozy sleep, it was so windy and it was rocking the little SUV back and forth all night. At times I felt like it was going to tip over. After breakfast out the back (did you know Cheerios are about the only American cereal you can buy in a grocery store over here?) I suited up in rain gear and hit the road for the first stop of the day: Sólheimasandur. In 1973 a U.S. Navy Douglas DC-3 crash-landed on the black sand beach of Iceland. You can still visit the untouched plane’s hull and wreckage today, some 53 years later. The entrance path is just a few minutes east of Skógar and just past route 221, on the right side of Route 1 the Ring Road. I parked and hiked about 30 minutes out to the crash site. 
On the hike, I met a nursing student from Arizona who also was exploring Iceland by herself and had also done her fair share of solo traveling. We clicked so well and shared the trek out to Sólheimasandur together. You hike through black-sand as far as the eye can see and then a shiny silver airplane appears just feet from the North Atlantic Ocean. Creepy is an understatement. I crawled inside, you can still see the oxygen tanks below where the cabin floor once was and heading towards the cockpit, wires still remain entangled in the metal plane’s frame. Super cool, but just eerie too. If you do this hike out to the crashed plane, make sure you have good rain and wind gear on. Not the kind of conditions you’d want to be caught in alone.

After thawing out in the car, I drove back to check out Sólheimajökull, a glacier that leads up to the massive Mýrdalsjökull Ice Cap. Wind still blowing strong and it absolutely pouring, I trekked out 15 minutes to the base of the glacier, which can be viewed from the shorelines of a lagoon with floating icebergs in it. Sólheimajökull is a glacier that both advances and retreats based on conditions, and oh it’s beautiful. Hike around the base of the glacial lagoon for even more wow views. Seriously guys, is like a high of adrenaline and wanderlust 24/7 in this fascinating country.

Back on Route 1, the Ring Road, I pressed on for the town of Vík, the southernmost city in Iceland. On the way I had to stop at Dyrhólaey, along the coastline where the North Atlantic unleashed its fury on natural rock formations including the Dyrhólaey Arch. The waves were HUGE! Dyrhólaey is in a nature preserve home to many birds including puffins ( but they aren’t here this time of year). 
Close by Dyrhólaey is the cave Loftsalahellir (can I just say for a sec that all these names sound way more fun if you pronounce it like Gandalf from Lord of the Rings? Totally was doing that out loud. No shame). Clearly, a road again where you have to have 4x4 unless you want your rental car floating in water, it’s a steep hike up to Loftsalahellir but once there you feel like you’re back in time, looking out over the fields below and Atlantic ocean. It’s said Loftsalahellir was used for council meetings in the Icelandic Saga times.

Crossing off my destination list, I wanted to check out one more place before getting to Vík, the black-sand beach at Reynisfjara. I’ve heard about this place and it seems just mysterious. Sure enough. Powerful crashing waves, basalt columns stacked perfectly as high as the eyes can see, and thick, black-sand. Out in the distance from the shore, you see tall towers in the middle of the ocean, Reynisdrangur. I continue to have my mind blown away by Iceland’s raw beauty.

I entered Vík, stopped to fuel up, and grab a bite to eat. Many blogs and guides I’ve read about Iceland say to try the hot dogs from the gas stations. Well, I did and Iceland’s delicacy claim to fame is legendary. Get it with fresh fried onions underneath. Icelandic hot dogs = glorious. Oh, by the way, someone asked me how the weather was in Iceland? Not as cold as I thought, high 30s and low 40s during the day with temps dropping to the high teens at night. It’s INSANELY windy just about all the time and it’s always either raining or snowing. That doesn’t shield away any of this incredible country though.

Leaving Vík, I continued on a large uninhabited section of route 1 the ‘Ring Road’ toward the town of Skaftafell. Wide-open coastlines and black-lava sand flats where the horizon doesn’t end. At one point, you pass huge open patches of land filled with lava rocks absolutely covered in thick green moss. I pulled over and walked around on them to fill my curiosity. Moss everywhere! There wasn’t a vantage point where there weren’t mossy-covered lava rocks. Again, it’s like a living Doctor Seuss book. Every footstep was spongy. So cool! 
With only an hour of daylight left, I turned onto Route 206, towards Fjaðrárgljúfur, a two-million-year-old canyon that shoots deep down to the clear, rushing Fjarora river. Purely amazing to hike along the edges and stare some 300ft down into this dark, mossy canyon. I want to go back and explore more as I write this blog post up. Probably my favorite spot of the day. The sky was dark at 6pm and got back on the road for a final push to Skaftafell. Driving route 1 the ‘Ring Road’ at night is hypnotizing. No shoulders to drift off onto should you get tired, rain, and perfectly straight roads. Cue the tunnel vision.

I finally arrived at the campground outside the Skaftafell visitor center in Vatnajökull National Park around 9pm, cooked up a hot bowl of beef noodles on the stove, and retreated inside the Suzuki when it started raining again. So I would have thought tent camping would be my main method of sleeping here in Iceland but I guess that’s not the case and not common at all this time of year. The majority of people I’ve talked to, are sleeping in the back of their car or renting campervans. There are multiple travelers doing the same thing right now in this parking, a neighboring friendly couple from Mallorca in southern Spain came over to say hello…and then backed their rented RV camper into a row of boulders. Eeek, hope your rental insurance is good. Buenas suerte with that.

Andddd now it’s pouring. Time to call it a night, crawl into the back seat, catch up on some reading of Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire (a wild book you should all read about the American west’s deserts) and get some sleep. Big day of hiking in Vatnajökull National Park and exploring more of southeastern Iceland in the AM.

Oh, and sorry about the raindrops on the lens. It was a soaking, windy day.

Enjoy some other photos I shot today below.