Preparing for this trip I read books, articles, news stories, blogs and followed some social media sites. One good site was a Facebook Group called “Iceland – tips for travelers.” I got a lot of insight about driving, places to eat, and general impressions from the site. One other benefit was seeing other participants’ pics. One visual really struck home with me – it was from Studlagil (Basalt Columns) Canyon and even with all my reading, I had never heard of it. It has only become more widely known in the last few years.
What a hidden gem.
We were on our way from the Diamond Circle to Egilsstadir in eastern Iceland, a fairly unexciting drive with no services (gas, food, restrooms) along the 100-kilometer route. We had the time and thought we’d give it a try, not really knowing what we would find when we arrived. It was an offshoot from the Ring Road, on 923. We drove about 12 miles on a mostly good, but unpaved road. Farms were widely scattered and sheep roamed freely next to and on the road. The relatively colorless drive became more and more green as we drove. It was beautiful.
Eventually, we arrived at Grund’s tree farm and found a parking lot and unexpected facilities. Good clean bathrooms (scan your credit card for a small charge), well-stocked vending machines, and very surprisingly, a food truck. And then there were the stairs – 239 to be exact (well we may be off by 1, but we’re pretty sure). Wow – it was worth the effort.
The canyon is 500 meters long with hexagonal basalt columns on both sides. Designs that look like some alien sculptor put them in place and formations like jewels spilling down the cliff face into the bright blue-green river. There is a dam that has re-directed much of the river’s flow and made it both visible and accessible.
We could tell people could access the area and get a closer look from the other side but were not quite sure how to get over there. My husband thought he’d figured it out and he was correct; it was a long 5-kilometer walk towards the canyon on the other side. We also did not want to risk climbing around more rocks, so we settled for our absolutely stunning overview.
The Diamond Circle is another fairly new region that Iceland has been preparing for more visitor access. A key part of this route is now part of the Vatnajokull National Park (previously the Jokulsargjufur National Park). Husavik is also on the Diamond route and it continues north around the peninsula to Tjornes and then comes SE towards Asbyrgi Canyon. We were turned on to this site by the hotel staff in Husavik and it was an unusual sight to see. We really needed a drone to get an ariel shot to see the humongous horseshoe-shaped “hoofprint” left by Odin’s giant 8-legged horse. The more mundane explanation for the cliffs would be an ancient glacial flood but doesn’t Odin’s story sound more interesting?
In any case, no mere mortal photos do this justice or can capture the scope of the site. Hikers head up and walk a trail in the middle or around the perimeter.
Next up and high on our list of must-sees – Dettifoss Falls. This is Europe’s most powerful waterfall at 150’ in height and 340’ wide, it puts out in excess of 130,000 gallons of water every minute. It’s massive, loud, wet, and I thought intimidating.
A trail runs from the parking area about half a kilometer to the first viewpoint. The lower viewpoint was closed for safety reasons. To get to the higher viewing areas visitors have to navigate rocks and uneven footing, and an entire portion had no guard rail of any kind. Other “guard rails” consisted of a rope strung between poles. It was cloudy (so no rainbows today) and at the upper view, we were soaked with the mist. Seeing Dettifoss was fabulous but I will confess my heart was pounding and it was not from the exertion of the hike!
Let me not forget to mention the midges. They were out in full force and we were the only people I saw with head nets (thankfully I still had them in my possession from the day before). Several people we passed commented on what a good idea this was. People were using scarves and face masks to try and keep them out of their mouths and noses. It would’ve been intolerable without our nets (3 for $12.99 at Amazon).
Of note, Selfoss Falls is reached from the same site and there are good, free bathrooms by the parking area.
Today we explored the Lake Myvatn area of North Iceland. In the space of just a few hours we saw craters, a massive geothermal area, a city of lava formations, a peek into the Grotagia Thermal Cave, a string of pseudocraters, and of course, the 14 square mile lake.
Located about 30 minutes from our base of Husavik, the landscape on the way was rolling hills surrounded by pastures. Once we reached the Myvtan area we headed to the Namafjall Geothermal Area. Much larger than the area we saw in the Golden Circle, this massive site is filled with steaming vents and bubbling mud pots. The smell of hydrogen sulfide fumes is pretty overwhelming, but when you put together the smell, the sound of the rapidly bubbling liquid, and the otherwise barren, sandy moonscape appearance you feel like you are on a set of a sci-fi movie.
From there we ventured a bit further down the road past the Krafla Geothermal Power Plant to see the Viti (Hell) Crater. Formed during eruptions in the 1720s, the crater is filled with hot water. Not as colorful as our last crater in the Golden Circle, but nevertheless it cut an imposing figure.
Next stop, the Grjotagia Thermal Cave where one of the Game of Thrones most memorable scenes took place. The love scene between John Snow and Ygritte. It’s a smaller space than I would’ve guessed and it must’ve been complicated to get all the necessary filming equipment on location. When we visited a bunch of people were crammed in the cave taking selfies and after going part way in, I decided not to hang around. As a result, I did not get a great pic. Above the cave, you can follow the path to the top and view a really long fissure created by a buckled ridge of lava. On private land, this site is not always open to the public.
Getting closer to the lake, we started to see the famous midges, the flying (non-biting) insects that give the lake its name, Myvatn (midges). We had brought along head nets and they did come in handy as we wandered around the Dimmuborgir Lava Formations. Aptly named “Dark Castles,” the saga tells us this is where the devil landed when he was cast out of heaven. I can believe it. The huge formations were actually created underwater when magma leaked up making all sorts of dramatic shapes. Several trails are laid out through the sensitive terrain and it’s easy to see imagery and figures (think trolls) in the rocks. I didn’t realize til later, this was the site of Mance Rayder’s army camp in the Game of Thrones Season 3. Honestly, this is not a Game of Thrones Tour, I just keep bumping into sites and realizing how much they filmed here.
The midges are pretty bad and swarm this time of year. It makes hanging around the lake pretty undesirable. Since boating is restricted, the lake appears quiet, calm, and otherwise peaceful (if it weren’t for the midges). Those bugs do have their purpose, they help make the area prime breeding ground for about 115 species of birds that live and migrate through. If fact, during our lunch stop in Reykjahlid we ran into a group that was on a bird watching tour, no doubt they would be checking out the nearby Sigurgeir’s Bird Museum.
The Skutustadir Pseudocraters provided our final stop in this region. You can see the crater-like mounds in a huge area. They were formed when giant bubbles formed in molten lava and then burst when steam rose to the top. This was a type of landscape new to us, something we’d never seen.
Many draw comparisons between this area and Yellowstone National Park. Other than the fact they both have geothermal fields, to me, they seem distinctly different. I give the Lake Myvatn area due respect for being its own unique spot on earth.
We made sure to visit Husavik since it’s the center of Iceland’s whale watching business. The cute town is nestled around the harbor. We got into oversized waterproofed jumpsuits and hunkered down for the ride north into Skjálfandi Bay, a designated whale sanctuary. It was freezing. The company – North Sailing uses authentic oak schooners as part of its whale watching fleet, ours was the Saeborg. They had called us earlier in the day to let us know the weather was expected to take a turn for the worse and suggested we take an earlier excursion than planned. We did, thankfully. Later would’ve been more windy and even colder.
Many types of whales frequent these seas, and we saw four humpback whales and spent time following and watching them. The highlight was an unusual grouping of three of these usually solitary animals – but two of the three were a mother and baby – so cool to see. The whales’ journey to the colder waters for feeding and I have to say, trips in Alaska are definitely more comfortable. On this afternoon, we welcomed the mugs of hot chocolate they passed out on the trip back in (the cinnamon bun was cold, but I ate it anyway)!