Touring Iceland II
North coast: from Reykjavik to Seydisfjordur
Iceland is sparsely populated and its north coast even less. There are no real trees, only grass, moss and some shrubs. And sheep, birds and seals sum up the animal world. But the deserted north of Iceland does have spectacular landscapes, with fjords, lakes, rivers and waterfalls, snow-covered mountain peaks, and bizarre rock formations. Steam and the smell of sulphur direct you to lava fields with mud pots and fumerols.
Travelogue & photos: Willem & Christiane Mosselmans-De Coster
Waterfalls appear out of nowhere
We leave Reykjavik in northern direction for Mosfellsbaer. In Sauerbaer we avoid the tunnel and take road #47 around the Hvalfjordur fjord. On the way we have fantastic views of the surrounding mountains.
We pass Fossatun and take the #518 to Hraunfossar and Barnafoss in the Reykholts valley. Every now and then we see the Langjokull sparkling in the sunshine. The weather is great and the sun shines, it's 16-17 degrees centigrade.
The lava-waterfalls are extraordinary. Many little rivers run for about 900 meters underneath the lava field Hallmundarhraun and only become visible when they drop into the Hvita river.
The first waterfall we see is the Hraunfossar. Fifty meters further is the Barnafoss, at the spot where the Hvita river squeezes through a narrow canyon. It is said that two children fell off the bridge here and drowned, a long time ago. The name of the waterfall means "children-waterfall".
We return to Reyckholt, an important historical town in Iceland. It was the place of birth and residence of Snorri Sturluson, writer of sagas, poet and politician.
We drive on to Deildartunguhver, a warm water spring which produces 180 liters of almost boiling water per second. The steam is so dense that you can hardly see the ground in many places.
We continue on to Borgarnes and then drive via Borg to Snaefellsnes, taking road #54, which is reasonably accessible for a 2WD (for the time being, that is). In Borg we stop to visit the church, which has a modern sculpture next to it.
We also visit the panoramic viewing point Ytri-tunga. Here we have a great view of the ocean and a beautiful white sand beach. It's a paradise for anglers.
We continue on to Budir, where we take a walk. There is a hotel and a remarkable, black church with white windows and entrance gate. There also is a white sand beach.
We return to the #54. This leg of #54 to the north of Snaefellsnes near Olafsvik is in terrible condition. There also is construction going on (to improve the road, as we find out later). We keep up our good spirits and bump on, not very much at ease, until we see the sea in the distance. A little later we turn onto road #574.
Hotel Hellissandur, where we are expected, lies exactly opposite the Snaefellsjokull. We take a nice walk along the sea and return by way of the village. There's a maritime museum, Sjomannagardurinn, which has an exhibition about the way of life of the fishermen in the past.
In front of the museum is a fishing boat from 1826 and a statue of a fisher showing a fish to a child.
High black cliffs with hundreds of birds
We already knew that in this time of the year (July) it hardly gets dark at night in Iceland, but it's a wonderful surprise to wake up with sunshine streaming into our room.
We take the #574 and #579 to explore the peninsula Snaefellsnes and drive to Ondverdarnes at the most western tip of Snaefellsnes. At the end of the road is a lighthouse where some sheep are looking at us as if we are tresspassing on their territory.
We walk for a while until we see the sea. High, black cliffs with hundreds of birds on them, drop sharply down to sea level. This really is the middle of nowhere, except for some sheep and birds there is no living being around.
We drive back for a bit and then turn to Saxholsbjarg. Again we are rewarded with fantastic views of bird rocks (with bird poop) and the sea. There's a lighthouse here as well. We return to road #574.
Our next stop is near Dritvik, at the bizarre rock formations of Djupalonssandur, a small bay in which fisher boats used to dock in the past. The fishermen were paid according to their strength, which was measured by the weight of the rocks they were able to lift. The rocks are still here.
We walk down the stairs and the hill and then have a great view of the lava rocks on the black gravel beach. Here and there are still remains of the Epine GY7, an English ship that was thrown on the rocks near Dritvik by a heavy storm on March 13, 1948. Rescue teams from Arnastapi, Hellnar and Hellisdandur raced to the spot of the wreckage. But because of the bad weather and the stormy sea, they managed to save only five of nineteen crew members.
We walk up the hill and have a nice view of the ocean. Here and there we see lucky trolls. We go back up and take a grass path until we see the ocean again and the lower lying gravel beach.
We return to the #574 and drive farther south. We stop at the Malariff lighthouse, the most southern tip of Snaefellsnes. Just east of it, we can also see the Londrangar & Thufubjarg cliffs.
We drive to Svalthufa & Thufubjarg and walk up, where we have a great view of the ocean and the bird rocks.
We stop at the statue of Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir standing in a boat with her son Snorri on her shoulder, in her place of birth Laugarbrekka.
According to legend, the Viking Thorfinn Karlsefni and his wife Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir landed in America about 500 years before Columbus.
During their stay they had a son, Snorri Thorfinnsson, the first European to be born in America. Gudrid and Thorfinn left America after three or four years and settled on a farm in Glaumbær, near Varmahlid in the north of Iceland.
Our next stop is Hellnar, where we are again surprised by the beautiful landscape, a turquoise ocean and a roughly cut coastline, protruding rock formations with many nesting birds, mountains all around in the most wonderful colors and of course the snow-covered Snaefellsjokull.
We continue on to Arnastapi, a beautiful bay and the last one in the series on our route south on the peninsula. Arnastapi has, just like Hellnar, a beautifully shaped coastline, wonderful rock formations, caves and cliffs that house bird colonies, mountains, and a port in which a few boats float.
The landscape is still dominated by the Snaefellsjokull. In the valley is a white painted house with red roof, which makes the whole view perfect. Picture perfect, that is.
We take the #574 via Hellissandus back to the #575, to the north-east of the Snaefellsnes peninsula. The weather is still fine, there are a few clouds over the mountains, the sky is blue and it's hot.
Just past Hellissandur we stop at the observation point Sjonskliffa, a nesting area of the northern gannet. I want to get out of the car to take pictures, but I am litterally attacked by the birds. So instead I take pictures from the open car window. We don't want to disturb them any longer, so we drive to Rif, where we are also welcomed by a large northern gannet colony.
In Olafsvik, a pleasant fishers village, we visit the port and the pretty church, which has a very special architecture and is visible from a great distance. A little outside the village is a beautiful waterfall.
Just outside Olafsvik we see a road sign to road #570 to Snaefellsjokull. Just when we turn onto it, a heavy 4x4WD arrives. The driver tells us that even with his 4x4 he had to turn back because of the large amounts of snow on the road. It apparently wasn't meant to be, so we turn and continue on our route to Grundarfjordur.
After a while Mt. Kirkjufell and the Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall appear. We walk to the foot of the Kirkjufellsfoss. Up in the grass someone is sunbathing... we are still in Iceland. It's 5 PM and 20 degrees centigrade, no wind. It's wonderful here.
We drive on to Grundarfjordur, a fishers village from which you have a great view of the 463 meters high Kirkjufell. Then we return to our hotel in Hellissandur.
Just before we reach Hellissandur we turn onto the road to Ingjaldsholl, which has a pretty white church with red roof. To get there, we have to pass the colony of "hunters" again. They fly up when they see us come. Some birds dive almost into our windshield.
Seals are sunning themselves on the rocks
We ask at the tourist office if road #54 along the north coast is accessible for 2WDs and not like the road that crosses Snaefellsnes. They tell us that the road isn't asphalted and not in good condition, but much better than the road we mentioned. To be able to see also this side of the peninsula, we decide to take the risk.
We drive north on #574 and after a short while arrive on #54. The road isn't great indeed, and we have to limit our speed to 20 k/p/h, which takes a lot of time, but we are rewarded with fantastic views of the ocean, fjords, high mountains and deep valleys.
At some point we even begin to enjoy the amount of dust our car leaves in its wake, but others do the same. Every now and then we hardly see anything at all. Nobody on Iceland notices that your car is dusty: everyone drives dirty cars here.
Via Grundarfjordur, Kolgrafafjordur, Alftafjordur and Hvammsfjordur we drive to Budardalur, wich is the road to the West-fjords. Just before we reach this town, we take the #56 to the #61, and follow this road in southern direction for a while, to eventually reach road #1.
Because of the wonderful weather we plan to take road #72 at Laugarbakki to Hvammstangi on Vatnsnes and then the #711 to drive round the peninsula instead of going to Blonduos directly.
In Hvammstangi on the peninsula of Vatnsnes we drive farther north and near Stapar we walk to the sea where we watch seals sunbathe on the rocks. Hindisvik is the most northern town on Vatnsnes, and has the largest seal colony. It is a protected area and we are not allowed to walk all the way to the sea.
We continue on to Hvitserkur, where we see a spectacular, 15 meters high basalt formation in the shape of a dragon, rise from the sea. At low tide you can walk under it. Despite the strong wind we see people walk on the black beach below us.
We continue on our route on #717, a road in extremely bad condition, which leads over 12, 14 and 18% inclines, to Borgarvirki where we see basalt columns and rock formations. The wind is so strong here that we have to struggle to open our car doors. We decide not to walk up all the way.
We take the #716, a much better road, to the #1 and drive to Blonduos. This is a larger town on the estuary of the glacier river Blanda. We stop at a church built in futuristic style. We have seen this before on Iceland, but this one is really special.
In Hunaver we pass a very pretty green valley with a farmhouse, a church and a kind of sheep corral. Everything is painted red and white.
A little before Varmahlid, on a hill, is a nice memorial with commemorative plaque of a boy who is apparently looking over the region with a dog at his feet.
We drive to Vidimyri with its pretty peet houses and one of the oldest peet churches in the country. The Vidimyrarkirkja dates from 1834 and is one of six peet churches on Iceland. It was restored in 1934 and is owned by the state. We are late, officially it's open for visitors until 6 PM, but we are in luck and can take a look inside the church. It's in great condition and even has a pulpit and baptismal font.
We drive to the Varmahlid hotel where we will spend the night. We check in and drive to Glaumbaer, some 8 kms farther north.
Next to the church in Glaumbaer stands a nineteenth century peet farmhouse with grass roof, currently housing a museum. Here we see again the statue of Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir and her American born son Snorri on her shoulder, standing in a boat, the same one we saw on Snaefellsnes, in her place of birth Laugarbrekki. After their return from America, Thorfinn, Gudrid and Snorri lived on a farm here.
The polar circle is at a distance of three hours by boat
Today we drive to Myvatn, where we will spend three nights near Laugar. First we visit Holar in the Hjalta valley, 38 kilometers farther north and an important historical site on Iceland. This was the seat of the bishops of Iceland for seven centuries, beginning in 1106. In 1985 the bishop's seat was moved here again.
The current church dates from 1763 and is the oldest church in Iceland. The tower stands free from the main building. The church and the tower are painted white and have black roofs. Near the church are three peet houses with grass roofs.
We take the #767 and #76 to get back to the #1 to Akureyri. The sun is trying very hard to break through the clouds. Again we see beautiful mountains. The views are spectacular.
Just before Akureyri we take road #82 to Dalvik. On weekdays a boat leaves here for Grimsey, 40 kilometers north of the main land on the Polar Circle. The boat is docked in the port today, it looks rather old. A poster tells us that the trip (one way) takes three hours, so you have to spend a whole day on this tour.
We wander a bit. Unfortunately the wind is strong and we get sandblasted. The sea is very wild. We return to our car and drive to the place where the ferry to Hrisey, an island just off the coast by Dalvik, docks.
We return to Akureyri. The second largest city of Iceland is pretty, located on the longest fjord in the country, Eyjafjordur. It has a shopping street with cozy cafés and restaurants, Hafnarstraeti. It is Sunday, but most stores are open.
You can't miss the remarkable, high-lying church. It has two massive towers and pretty stained-glass windows. Along both sides of its 103 steps stairs are strips planted with blue and yellow violets.
We drive by the port to the Godafoss. For some reason we miss the exit to road #83 to Laufas, where a regional museum is housed in a typical peet farmhouse. We have already seen some of those, so we decide to keep going.
We drive straight to the Godafoss, one of the most beautiful waterfalls on Iceland, even though it's only 12 meters high. It is located on the glacier river Skjalfandafljot. After Thorgeir Ljosvetningagodi, alderman in the Althing in Thingvellir decided in the year 1000 to impose Christianity on the whole population, he threw all his pagan idols in the waterfall. This explains its nickname "Waterfall of the gods".
On the bridge at the Godafoss you have a great view of the river. The canyon through which the river runs has wonderfully shaped rocks and rapids.
We drive to our hotel in Narfastadir, 5 km south of Laugar, and check in. Then we drive to Myvatn, our first introduction to the lake and the surrounding pseudo-craters.
Hofdi has especially pretty lava formations. The 529 meters high Bindbelgjarfall rises from the lake. We keep driving and then take a walk in the lava maze of Myvatn; Dimmuborgir, a field with rocks and lava formations that were caused by the drying up of a lava lake.
Back in the hotel in Narfastadir we can finally unpack our suitcases, because we will stay here fro three nights.
A maze of pointy rocks and bizarre basalt formations
We drive to Husavik to explore the Tjornes peninsula and then return via Dettifoss to Narfastadir. It's going to be an exhausting day, because there are so many important sights along our route.
We take the #1 to the #845 and then #85 to Husavik on the Skjalfandi fjord. Just before we enter the town, we see a series of old wooden racks that were used in the past to dry stockfish.
We visit the most beautiful - according to the Icelanders - wooden church in the country. It dates from 1907 and really is beautiful and large. On the other side is the port with boats in different colors. Here is the ticket booth for whale safaris.
The boat, an authentic fishing boat, is ready to leave and still has room for us. Unfortunately the view is very limited because of a thick fog, it's raining and it's cold; but mostly it takes three hours. That would make it impossible to finish our tour of Tjornes and visit Dettifoss. We continue on our tour. We also skip the whale museum in Husavik.
We keep driving north. In Tjornesta, the most northern tip of Tjornes, we stop to take a look at the lighthouse.
A little later we arrive in Manarbakki. It has a folk art museum in an old house and some old wooden peet houses with grass roofs. The exhibition shows how people used to live here in the past. There are all kinds of tools and objects from all over the world. There is even a Belgian church seat.
We continue on via #85 to Asbyrgi and then take road #862 to the Hljodaklettar, a third-rate road, which was already obvious from the fact that it's an F-road. After 14 kilometers of bumping, our walk in Vesturdalur National Park, a maze of pointy rocks and bizarre basalt formations, can begin.
After our walk we drive 14 kilometers back on the same road, because our 2WD is not allowed to continue on this one: a little further you need to cross a river to get to Dettifoss.
We take the #85 to Asbyrgi, a hoof-shaped canyon with steep walls. Some of the rocks are 100 meters high. This spectacular canyon, the largest in Europe, was probably made by two huge floodings of the glacier river Jokulsa à Fjollum. It's a nice spot to wander between birch-trees and a lake with many ducks.
We continue on our route farther south to Dettifoss, taking the #864, a washboard road. Again we have to drive slowly. The first waterfall in the series on our route is the 27 meters high Hafragilsfoss, located between two craters.
It's not a big waterfall, but we are surprised by the beautiful colors in the surroundings. From here you can walk to the Dettifoss, 2 kilometers away. We take the car and drive to the parking lot.
To get to Dettifoss, you first have to descend a series of uneven and rather high steps and then walk for a while. You hear the waterfall before you see it, until suddenly, out of nowhere, the largest and most powerful waterfall of Europe appears. With thundering force the water plunges into a 44 meters deep canyon and leaves a cloud of mist.
One and a half kilometers upstream lies Selfoss, a series of parallel, smaller waterfalls. To get there, walk to the left of Dettifoss. Don't think that you have missed the path: there isn't one. The route goes over uneven rocks. For road signs there are little poles with yellow tops between the rocks.
We are frequently looking for the next pole and then find it a long way up or down. At some point we consider giving up. We hope we won't break our legs. There doesn't seem to be an end to all this walking and clambering. We fall and get up again and finally arrive at Selfoss. We are glad we persevered, the view there is great.
We drive farther south on #864 to Grimsstadir where we can get back on the #1. The first part of the #864 was bad, but here it's even worse. Soon we see a sign "Very bad gravel road ahead - 30 km." Well, we are here and we have to go on, there is no time to drive back round the peninsula.
We drive in convoy so to speak. Even most 4x4s stay with the other cars. In front of us drives a German in a BMW, which is frequently pushed to the left. Our speed is about 15 k/p/h.
Finally we reach the #1. We can look at the landscape again. But we have to hurry to our hotel if we don't want to miss dinner and it's still a long distance. We don't stop on the way, but tomorrow we will explore the area around Myvatn, so it's not a problem.
Lake Myvatn & the Krafla region
Steam rises from the ground everywhere and it smells like sulphur
After breakfast we leave for Myvatn. It's drizzling and the fog is so thick that we don't see the mountains. It's 4 degrees centigrade and we hope it'll get better. We decide to visit the pseudo-craters in Stukustadir on the way back, because at the moment the fog prevents us from seeing anything.
We exit the #1 and take the #848 west of Myvatn. At the observation center in Ytri Neslond we watch ducks with ducklings, and swans on the lake.
We drive to the #1 and stop in Reykjahlid, the only village by Lake Myvatn. A little further we also stop to visit the Grotagja cave which has an underground hot-water spring.
The Hringvegur (#1) leads over the 410 meters high Namaskard pass between Mt. Dalfjall and Mt. Namafjall, mountains in wonderful colors. We drive over the pass and visit the Myvatn natural pool, it is the Blue Lagoon of the north.
We continue on to Hverir, near the Namaskard mountain pass. Hverir is one of the largest solfatars fields on Iceland. Steam rises everywhere, mud pots bubble and there are fumarols in all sizes. Even though we already saw some, it is again very impressive. Also because the colors here are fantastic.
We drive on to the Krafla region, a volcanic area with lava and craters, which was still active between 1970 and 1980. Steam rises from the ground here as well and the stench is formidable.
The Krafla Power Station is a power plant that uses steam. The idea is that by driving geothermic energy through above-ground pipelines it is possible to win electricity. But the project is hampered by nature's wiles, like earthquakes and lava streams.
We drive to Viti, which means "hell"; it is a pretty explosion crater filled with blue-green water. The perimeter of the crater is about 300 meters. It was formed by a huge explosion in 1724, the first of a series known as Myvatnseldar (fires of Myvatn). The activity lasted for 5 years and the bottom of the crater boiled for a hundred years afterwards.
We drive back and stop at the parking lot of Leirhnjukur, a moss-covered lava field with mud pots, solfatars and lava rocks with sulphur deposits. The field was flooded with lava after an eruption of the Leirhnukur volcano in 1984.
Except for three sheep who stare at us, we are alone in the area. The colors of the lava and the surrounding mountains are incredible. We take a walk, keeping in mind that this is a dangerous area and that it's absolutely forbidden to leave the paths: the earth crest is thin enough to fall through it and get seriously burned. We stay on the wooden planking.
We return to the #1 and drive east to Egilsstadir where the F88 to Herdubreid and the Askja begins. It's a 4x4WD road and not for us. The road is terrible indeed. Anyway, it's not allowed to drive on it in a 2WD, so we can't even try; we return to Myvatn.
It's raining dogs and cats and it's only 4 degrees centigrade, the worst day of our trip. We decide to visit the Sigurgeir Stefánsson bird museum in Ytri-Neslond. The museum has a nice collection of stuffed birds and eggs. In a room opposite the museum an old fishing boat is on display.
We drive around Lake Myvatn one more time and stop in Skutustadir, where we visit the church. Opposite it is a cluster of colorful and nicely shaped pseudo-craters.
Wild, inhospitable landscapes
It's grey, but it doesn't rain at the moment. We take the opportunity to stop in Skutustadir to walk to the pseudo-craters. They were formed about 2,000 years ago. Some were partly leveled. We walk all the way up to get a good look. There we have a great view of the surroundings and the lake.
We continue on our route, taking #1 until the exit to Modrudalur (road #901) and cross the bare, desert-like Jokulsdalsheidi plateau in the inland.
It's a pity that it's so clouded that we can't see the mountains in several places. We can't look for Mt. Herdubreid or Mt. Askja in the distance. And now a thick fog spreads as well. We can hardly see the sheep that we pass on the road.
In Modrudalur we stop at the highest lying farmhouse on Iceland, currently housing a bar. Then we drive on over the inhospitable, high-lying and uninhabited Jokulsdalsheidi. Here we are really alone in the world, even our GSM has no coverage here.
We still have to go 24 kilometers in this thick fog, on this bad road in the mountains, next to a ravine. I am glad that I can't see how deep it is. Now we don't even see sheep or birds anymore.
We take the exit to Saenautasel on the Saenautavatn, road #907. The Saenautasel peet farmnhouse with grass roof was built in 1843. It was destroyed in 1875 by an eruption of the Askja, rebuilt in 1992 and now it houses a museum. It shows how Icelanders lived before there were electricity and running water.
We continue to cross the wild, deserted landscape to #901. Meanwhile the fog has cleared up, the rain has stopped and the sky is clear. Now we can see the wonderful Icelandic mountains that we love so much.
We arrive in Egilsstadir around 3 PM. We are expected in Hotel Edda. Before we explore Egilsstadir, we want to drive to Seydisfjordur to find out how long it takes, because tomorrow we need to be at the port on time to embark.
Seydisfjordur is about 30 kilometers from Egilsstadir. The road over the Fjarðarheiði pass is good but leads over dizzying heights between pretty mountains with snow here and there. We drive to the port and now know we can drive this distance in about 30 minutes.
We take a short drive along the fjord and then return to Egilsstadir, where we drive around a bit. Tomorrow our 48-hours sea trip from Seydisfjordur via Torshavn on Faerøer to Hanstholm in Denmark. From Hanstholm we then will drive home in two days. The end of a wonderful trip.
On the way to Iceland Faerøer was visited.