Our second self-guided Ring Road adventure day actually started early, which allowed us plenty of time to experience the best of south Iceland. By the end of our 17 hour journey I didn’t have feeling in my legs anymore, but my eyes never tired of all the ridiculously beautiful landscapes.
Skaftafell Glacier Hike
Once we finished our farm-fresh breakfast in Brunholl, we raced toward Skaftafell to try to secure a last-minute spot on a guided glacier hike.Travel luck was in our favor this day; we just missed the departing 3 hour hike with Icelandic Mountain Guides, but there were exactly two spots open on a 2 hour hike that was leaving in 15 minutes.
We were hastily fit for crampons before loading in a bus to the Svínafellsjökull glacier tongue. Our guide, Kris, led us through attaching the crampons to our boots then handed us each an ice axe before leading us on to the glacier. We spent the 2 hours learning about glacier formations, recent volcanic eruptions and local folk tales as we admired the natural beauty on which we carefully stamped around. As the sun was glaring this day, we peeled off layers and quenched our thirst directly from streams flowing swiftly through the glacial ice.
After our glacier hike we nourished our bodies with Icelandic lamb soup at the visitor center before embarking on a 1.5 km hike to Svartifoss, the “Black Falls”. Along the verdant hike we did some bird spotting and enjoyed laying on the plush reindeer lichen underfoot. We even discovered a troll house as the hike led us upwards on the mountain where we admired the views of the surrounding glaciers and sandur from the top. From there the hike led us down into the ravine where we could walk along the river to the base of the fall. We finished the hike and loaded back into the car to finish our trek westward.
In my guide-book I noticed one brief blurb that piqued both of our interests; nestled away in the cliffs adjacent to a farm near Edinborg was a historical hot spring pool, built in 1923. This pool was not nearly as popular as many others that dot the towns and villages, so the book offered little in the way of directions. When we doubled back to a side lane with a blue sign and saw the name Seljavallalaug indicated somewhere off the lane in an apparent no-man’s land, we realized we were going either on an off-the-beaten-path adventure or just off-course.
We parked the car as far as we could get it down the lane, then set out along the bank of a small river toward a semi-circular verdant cliff face streaming with five small waterfalls. From our vantage point we couldn’t immediately see the pool, but some indication of human life in the distance led us to believe we were on the right path. After climbing fallen boulders and fording the river, we turned a bend where we could clearly see the pool and simply constructed changing rooms.
One family of four and a couple were already enjoying the pool. We stripped off our coats and boots in favor of bathing suits, and immersed ourselves in the warm, clear spring water. The pool was constructed of concrete on three sides, the fourth side was very simply the cliff face. Water was piped down the mountainside from the natural spring, and flowed constantly into the pool on one end. Excess water flowed through a small spillway and into the river below. The surrounding scenery was breathtaking, and the warm water soothed our tired muscles. It was the perfect respite following the hours of glacier and waterfall hikes before our long journey to the Golden Circle. We spent an hour relaxing in the spring water before making our way once again west.
Golden Circle – Geyser and Pingvellir
Since we stopped at many of the main Ring Road south coast attractions the day prior, we were able to head directly toward the Golden Circle. The Golden Circle is a common circuit completed by travelers visiting on long weekends. With the closest site situated merely 45 minutes from Reykjavik, and only 4 hours needed to complete the trip, it offers a kind of microcosm view of Iceland. The typical itinerary includes the national park Thingvellir, the waterfall Gullfoss and the infamous Geysir. There are a number of other waterfalls and geothermal sights and even a “hot springs lake” along the way, so the course depends on the driver. Since it was getting late and we felt fulfilled with the waterfalls and hot springs we had experienced already, we chose to head first to Geysir then Thingvellir before returning to Reykjavik.
Over the course of the two days I had fawned over the beautiful Icelandic horses that dot every verdant hillside, as I was an avid equestrian as a child. I had snapped a few photos from afar already, but I wistfully asked that if any horses were near the roadside and if there happened to be a good place to pull off that we stop the car so I could try to pet one of these magnificent beasts. Rufio assured me he would do his best; not even long enough past the hot spring that I could put my boots back on, Rufio found a good parking spot with a herd not far from the fence. I hopped, shoeless, out of the car and gleefully approached the fence, giving my best clicks and whistles to woo the horses to me. Unfortunately Icelandic horses must not click and whistle in English, because not one budged from their grazing spots. I snapped a few photos and trudged back to the car as a rogue rainstorm marched toward us. I was disappointed, until just outside of our first stop I was jolted again as Rufio hastily turned off the road. There at the gate were several beauties, just waiting to be petted. I approached slowly, and very quickly made friends with two very itchy horses who happened to love chin scratches. Finally appeased, I hopped back in the car as we approached Haukadalur valley.
We drove up the hill to the Geysir welcome center just as the nearby Stokkur erupted into the air. Geysir, for which all other geysers are named, is the earliest recorded geyser in the world, and one of the most impressive. Unfortunately its activity is very dependent upon nearby volcanic activity, so it now erupts only occasionally. Stokkur, on the other hand, offers a display up to 40m every few minutes. We walked along the sidewalk very close to Stokkur, preparing for its eruption. Very suddenly a spray a few meters tall gushed out of the opening. While it took us by surprise, we found the display rather unimpressive. We moved along the path, admiring the field of mud pots, vents and smaller geysers. Just as we reached the opposite side of Stokkur we were taken aback as boiling water rose a full 40 m into the sky. We broke out in laughter over the surprise; Stokkur will often shoot a very small stream just prior to a much larger one, as we witnessed. We waited for the next eruption to take some photos and video. We visited the sleepy Geysir before moving across the street. The welcome center offers food during the day, so Rufio was hopeful to find a snack before we returned to Reykjavik. It was almost 9 p.m. at this point and we hadn’t eaten much during our arduous day. Unfortunately the food stands were closed, but he was able to find some souvenir gifts.
At this point a reasonable person may have skipped the last site in favor of a warm meal and an early bedtime in the city. Being that we are not reasonable people, we headed to the last grand stop on our self-guided tour, Thingvellir. Thingvellir was interesting to both of us for different reasons. I wanted to see where the ancient Nordic settlers conducted the world’s first Parliament. Rufio wanted to see the rift in the North American and European tectonic plates. Despite our hunger and our now noticeably tired legs, there was no debate on what to do, and so in the direction of Thingvellir we headed.
The landscape was once again very noticeably different along this western portion of the country. The rolling farmland, singular ice-capped mountains and plateaus seemed much more reminiscent of the American West; the geography here was less jagged and harsh than it seemed along the southeast coast. Now nearing 10 p.m., the sun still shone brilliantly, though intermittent dense clouds impeded our view occasionally. As we entered the park, the rift became very apparent. We hiked to the top of the plateau to overlook the river and lake that formed as the plates drift slowly apart. We were once again stunned by a magnificent series of waterfalls. We stood on the “Law Stone” where Nordic men and women met their fates many centuries ago. As we left, a brilliant rainbow shone in the distance. A wide smile crossed our faces; this chaotic and dazzling land just couldn’t stop mesmerizing us with its beauty.