Iceland is a land of volcanoes, geysers, glaciers and powerful rivers, all of which have carved the physical and cultural evolution of this Northern land
Set in the Northern reaches of the Atlantic Ocean, Iceland is an incredible place to visit. First impressions of the country are that it is cold and barren, but is full of life and in that lies its true beauty. Born of volcanoes and ice, Iceland remains volcanically and geographically active to this day.
The first mention of a settlement dates back to 874 AD when Norwegians travelled here followed by settlers from other Scandanavian countries. Iceland has a small population of about 360,000 spread across 103,000 km2 (40,000 square miles), making it the most sparsely populated country in Europe. Of those inhabitants, two-thirds live in and around Reykjavik
We travelled to Iceland on our way to Europe and spent two fascinating days exploring the country. I only wish we had been able to extend this time a bit longer!
A Two Day Itinerary:
- Jökulsárlón lagoon
When we landed in Reykjavik it was late evening, but as we were in early July, and just past the summer equinox, it was still daylight. It took us about 45 minutes to get to the apartment we were renting, which was small but perfectly formed. We were dog-tired so it was time to retire for the night! Unfortunately, I was unable to sleep, tossing and turning for hours – we had some life-changing decisions that were weighing on our minds.
Day One: Reykjavik and Þingvellir
Reykjavik is a modern town, within a progressive country. The population of Iceland is only about 320,000 people, making it the 177th largest country in the world. It is the size of Kentucky, with half the population of Wyoming, the least populous state in the United States.
After a fitful night’s sleep, we were really hungry, for food and exploration! We quickly found a coffee shop and had our fill of coffee, hot chocolate and pastries. Boy, oh boy things are very pricey in Iceland. The next stop was to pick up our rental car and begin our Icelandic experience.
40km from Reykjavik, Þingvellir (pronounced Thingvellir) National Park is a site of historical, cultural, and geological importance and is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Iceland. Its name is derived from the Old Norse Þingvǫllr, from þing (“thing, assembly”) and vǫllr (“field”), meaning assembly fields. The Alþingi (assembly) at Þingvellir was Iceland’s supreme legislative and judicial authority from its establishment in 930 until 1271. The Lögberg (Law Rock) was the focal point of the Alþingi and a natural platform for holding speeches. Þingvellir was the centre of Icelandic culture. Every year during the Commonwealth period, people would flock to Þingvellir from all over the country, sometimes numbering in the thousands. They set up dwellings with walls of turf and rock and temporary roofing and stayed in them for the two weeks of the assembly.
Þingvellir is notable for its unusual tectonic and volcanic environment in a rift valley. The continental drift between the North American and Eurasian Plates can be clearly seen in the cracks or faults which traverse the region, the largest one, Almannagjá, being a veritable canyon. This also causes numerous earthquakes that occur in this area.
Despite being early July, it was absolutely freezing. To think, a week or two before we had been baking in the deserts of Death Valley. Luckily, we had packed some warm clothing – but this did not seem enough at the time.
Even in July, we were freezing our butts off
One of the most interesting features in Þingvellir National Park is its rift valley
Looking across from the rift valley – Þingvellir National Park, Iceland
A stream flows through the rift valley
A rock is delicately balanced
A waterfall pours in the rift valley
The Golden Circle – Haukadalur
Continuing our journey we completed the rest of what is known as the Golden Circle. The next stop on our Golden Circle road trip was Haukadalur, a geothermal area about 60km away from Þingvellir National Park. There are two famous geysers here called Geysir and Strokkur. In fact, the general term “geyser” was named after this particular one in Iceland.
The Earth churns up boiling hot water that smells like rotten eggs, with steam rising from vents in the earth next to mud pools, fumaroles, and mineral deposits.
The original Geysir no longer erupts after an earthquake shut it down, but a second one called Strokkur constantly explodes with scalding water shooting 100 feet into the air every 10 minutes or so. Haukadalur has a gift shop & restaurant where you can warm up with hot soup.
A group of people wait around the Strokkur geyser
The Strokkur geyser erupts
You can get very close to the geysers at Geysir
The blue water of a hot spring at Geysir
The Golden Circle – Gullfoss
The mighty Hvítá river abruptly disappears into a ravine at a spectacular waterfall called Gullfoss, the next major highlight on Iceland’s Golden Circle. This wide and fast-moving river turns a corner and falls 100 feet, over two stages, into a crevice in the earth, producing thick mist and frequent rainbows. The average amount of water running down the waterfall is 140 cubic metres per second in the summer.
After descending a long staircase from the parking lot, a concrete pathway allows visitors to walk along the edge and look down into the roaring cascade of water. The area around the falls was very windy, and a waterproof jacket was de rigueur as were getting soaked by the spray from the falls. The dramatic scenery at Gullfoss makes it one of Iceland’s most popular attractions.
The mighty Gullfoss waterfalls along Iceland’s Golden Circle
The power of the water leading into the Gullfoss Falls is immense
A photo opportunity at Gullfoss waterfalls
Day 2: Seljalandsfoss and Jökulsárlón lagoon
For our last full day in Iceland, we decided to head out from Reykjavik to the east coast of Iceland – which not far in distance takes some time along the roads of this country. Our destination is the Jökulsárlón lagoon, where large chunks of ice carve off the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier into the lagoon and make their way out into the Atlantic Ocean.
As we travel along the southern coast along Route 1 we come across the waterfall known as Seljalandsfoss, which drops 197 feet into a large pool. One of the interesting features of these falls is that there is a trail that runs up behind the falls.
We arrived at the Jökulsárlón lagoon around lunchtime and book ourselves onto a duck (amphibious vehicle) tour of the lagoon. There is a bit of a wait, and we only too pleased to spend time in the confines of the basic but warm café drinking cups of hot chocolate. When our turn arrived we donned our life vests and boarded our vehicle. It was a truly inspiring experience to navigate through the frigid waters among the hulking icebergs, and despite the cloudiness of the day we got to see the translucent blues and greys as the light passed through the iceberg and reflected off the water of the lagoon. All too soon it was time to start our laborious journey back to Reykjavik.
Skeiðará Bridge Monument