Traveling Iceland in a Campervan

We’re back, the lawn is mowed, and the dog is back to being her typical depressed self (having been briefly, ever so briefly, happy about being home). Before the trip fades, we wanted to share some of our notes on exploring Iceland in a campervan.


The Van

As a reminder, we rented from Happy Campers. We got a “Happy 1,” their smallest vehicle. Ours was a Ford Transit. First off – pretty much all the rentals you’ll find will have manual transmissions. The fellow from Happy Campers said that sometimes ends up being a deal breaker for Americans who show up expecting an automatic. Ours was a diesel, and got perfectly decent mileage. In the back, they have a bench which converts into a bed, along with a kitchen area containing a fridge, sink, and a camping stove. There’s also cutlery, plates, a pot and a pan. Pretty much everything you would need. The fridge runs off its own battery, recharged by the van and the solar panel on the roof, so there’s no problem with keeping things cool all the time. In fact, we had ours set too cold initially, and froze some items. The van also has an auxiliary heater, which burns a little diesel, which can warm the space up before bed. It’s very effective.

Skip the Extras

We also rented camping chairs, a small grill, and a camping table. We wouldn’t do that again. The grill wasn’t particularly effective by ‘merican standards. We found that most of the time, it was either too windy, too cold, or too buggy to want to sit outside and lounge around at the campsite. And, because the sun never sets, we often didn’t pull into our camping site until 10 or 11 at night, at which point we just wanted to eat and get to bed.

Always Be Charging

We were traveling with a fair amount of technology – two phones, a laptop, a camera, a drone, and an Apple watch. The van has a single 12v port. We rented an inverter from Happy Campers, which allowed us to charge the laptop and drone batteries, and also brought a dual port 12v USB charger. We also had a small USB solar panel and a large usb battery.

Because the van had a single port, and it was only powered when the van was running, there was a need to be strategic about charging. On sunny days, we used the solar panel to top up the USB battery, which could be used to charge our phones overnight. We weren’t using the laptop much, so it only needed to be charged every couple days. We also took advantage of any cafe or campsite hangouts to top up batteries when we could.

The drone batteries were the biggest hassle, since they take ages to charge and don’t love running off the inverter, but we had enough batteries that we could make it work.


We brought a bunch of food from the states, having heard about the high prices and limited selection. In reality, that was overblown a bit, but it was still nice to have a starter kit. We brought just under 7lbs of food total (Kat weighed it), including a variety of ramen, velveeta mac and cheese (no milk needed), pasta, and granola bars. One of the best things we brought was a bag full of hot drink options – tea, starbucks instant coffee packets, hot chocolate, and some Malaysian white coffee. It was great to be able to have a hot cup of tea in the van after a hike in blowing rain.

We made an initial stop at Kronan to get fruits, vegetables, pasta sauce, yogurt, hotdogs, eggs and cheese, and did a few more stops along the way. Prices aren’t crazy, though it’s definitely not cheap. Icelandic dairy products are really excellent – we loved the yogurt, butter, and the local cheeses (nice stinky blues and camemberts). Don’t miss them! We kept a supply of hardboiled eggs for hiking snacks. And of course, we bought lots of Icelandic snacks – paprika chips, various cookies and candies – all the requirements of travel abroad.

The van holds enough water for a couple days, and it’s easy to refill (there’s a hose behind every gas station). Many of our dishes just involved boiling water, though we did occasionally use both the pot and the pan – fancy!


If you research a trip to Iceland, you’ll hear a lot about the shelter law which says you’re allowed to camp for a night on any land. That law made a lot of sense at one point, but it wasn’t taking into account 1.2 million tourists per year. Even though you can legally camp almost anywhere, especially in your camper van, please don’t.

Iceland is fully of great campsites, which are very affordable – around $15/night total. They’ll have showers and bathrooms, and many will have kitchens and cafes. Almost every town has nice public baths as well, if the campsite shower isn’t to your liking.

As we noted a few times when traveling the country, Iceland doesn’t have the infrastructure for the number of tourists it’s now seeing. This is especially noticeable when it comes to bathrooms. You see a lot of toilet paper when hiking. From reading online, it sounds like some of the more popular campervan parking spots are similarly overrun. Now, if Iceland wants to continue with this type of tourism, they’ll need to build up some of this infrastructure at the popular sites. But that doesn’t give a traveller an excuse to litter – you carried the toilet paper in, carry it out (see the note on plastic bags a little further down).


As Minnesotans, we’re used to spending a lot of time talking about weather. And quite honestly, none of the weather Iceland could throw at us was worse than what we’re used to in Minnesota. However, it changes with a striking amount of frequency. Days routinely went from bright and sunny and calm, to storming and gale force winds, and back to sunny. Sometimes in a matter of an hour or two. Up in the mountains, it got chilly, but not February-in-Minnesota chilly. Gloves and a hat, a decent raincoat, and a layer or two of clothes was all it took. A fancy wool sweater completes the look.

The Iceland weather app is helpful for knowing what to expect. It seems like common sense, but be sure to pack smart for any extended hike. We saw hikers setting out on lengthy walks ill-prepared for a sudden change. Water is drinkable everywhere, but you should still carry enough food and water to stay safe if you need to hunker down. Most long hikes will have emergency shelter huts as well. Install the Iceland 112 app as well, which can help with requesting emergency aid.


Credit cards are accepted literally everywhere (except the ghost tour – that was the only exception). Make sure you’ve got a card with a chip (you should by now). AMEX is a bit less accepted, though still probably more accepted than it is in the US. Gas pumps want to know your PIN and none of them do AMEX, so be sure you know it – for some banks, the PIN for your chip will be different from the PIN you normally use at an ATM.

It’s actually kind of strange – the whole country runs on credit cards, even for small transactions. It seems like that would mean some crazy proportion of GDP goes to VISA?


There are three cellular networks in Iceland – Siminn, Nova, and vodafone. T-Mobile customers will be able to roam freely on all of them. Other folks should consider getting a sim. Siminn has the best coverage, and sells a data-only 4g sim with 1gig of data for around $18. The convenience store outside baggage claim (not the duty free store) at KEF sells them. Most of the places in the countryside that claim wifi have that infuriating sort of wifi that works just enough to make you think it might be working, but isn’t actual usable.

Other Stuff To Pack

We were very happy to have an assortment of ziplock bags, from small to large. Also, dog poop bags (or a similarly compact roll of plastic bags) make for great van trash and hiking trash collectors.

So long, and thanks for all the rocks

For our last day in Iceland we booked an Inside the Volcano Tour. Since we had to return the Happy Camper first, we pushed our tour back to 1 pm. This turned out to be an extremely good move since our morning did not go as planned.

The night before, we had taken all the dishes inside to be washed and cleaned out the van to get it all ready to go. However when we arrived at Happy Camper (45 minutes away), we realized we had forgotten the rented inverter back at the apartment. We drove back to Reykjavik, Kat jumped out and handed off the inverter, then Colin continued back to Happy Camper. Our paths diverged.

Kat was given the more enjoyable task of procuring baked goods, sandwiches and doing a load of laundry while Colin had to return the van, catch a shuttle to the airport, and a bus back to the apartment. Kat enjoyed a nice stroll around town, a visit to two bakeries, a sit with a dog while waiting for the grocery store to open, and an organ concert at Hallgrímskirkja.

Fortunately, plans from here went better. Colin made it back around 11:45, with some time to spare before our 12:15 pickup for the tour. The sandwiches and baked goods were delightful, and the clothes smelled modestly better.

The tour involved a mini-bus pickup at our apartment, with a transfer to a larger bus at the bus depot, then a 30 minute ride out of the city to a ski lodge. From there, it was a two or three kilometer walk to “base camp,” at the volcano. It was a very well built trail over lava flows and gorgeous mosses and lichen.



Base camp turned out to be a pretty swanky place – a few very nicely built-out shipping containers. Kat made the first exciting discovery when she went to pick up what she thought was a dog toy near the entrance. A little creature moved a bit – it turned out to be a baby arctic fox that lives there. Apparently the arctic fox population is big enough that it is periodically culled, and this one had lost its mom and moved in with the guides. It was very snuggly, and let Kat give it a pet, which was a bit of a highlight.



The trip into the volcano itself is done in groups of 6 or 7 at a time. They’ve modified a window washing elevator over the rim of the volcano, so you clip in with a safety harness and then drop the 150 meters down into the collapsed chamber. It’s a massive space, beautifully lit. We were expecting a tour, but instead we were given some brief safety tips and an introduction, and then let free to wander for around half an hour.



The Thrihnukagigur volcano erupted 4,500 years ago and sits on a fissure in line with two other large vents that date back to 50,000 years ago. This younger splatter/scoria cone was fed by a dyke that is amazingly visible as a large black arch that extends from both sides of the cave, and meet up at the top where the lava actually poured out of the vent. The chamber we were exploring was formed by the partial collapse of the walls of the vent. Usually this collapse is fatal to the internal structure and we had already explored many scoria cones in Iceland with large sloping central craters. In this case, just the inside had collapsed and we were climbing around on blocks that had fallen from the walls and ceiling after the eruption had ceased.




This truly is an amazing site. The walls are beautifully colored by iron, sulfur, copper and calcite. A small magma body is visible in cross sections as the ‘black rose’ high on the chamber wall. The original ground surface created by the older 50,000 year old volcano is also visible along the base of one of the sides. Colin touched it only to find it crumble beneath his hand. The older volcano was formed under a glacier by the explosive interaction between water and magma. This creates hyaloclastite, a fine powder-like material that then gets glued together into a very soft crumbly rock.



Geology aside, the space is simply beautiful. Water droplets steadily drip down into the cave. One of the men who runs the site is a photographer who has lit the internal features so you can really see the lovely colors on the walls. And the mouth of the vent is covered in lavacicles, where the hot lava ran back down into the mouth of the volcano after it was finished erupting. An exceptional place.

After our dip down into the chamber, we had to wait for the next two groups to finish their explorations. We were greeted at base camp by hot lamb soup and the curious arctic fox pup. There is also a path out of the back of base camp that leads to some interesting lava bubble formations.


We were back in Reykjavik by 6:30pm, and after a shower (unlimited, guilt free hot water is amazing), we went back out on the town. Iceland is competing in the Euro 2016 soccer tournament at the moment, and there’s a large screen setup in the town square so people can watch. We watched for a bit (Iceland doesn’t play next until Monday, but there was still a big crowd) and grabbed a hotdog. Then we met up with the Haunted Reykjavik tour, which we’d seen a sign for the night before.

We figured a ghost tour would be a fun way to get a guided walk around the city. Our guide was a lot of fun – she’d spent some time living in the US, and our whole group turned out to be Americans. We walked around town, learning about the folklore, ghost stories, and general Icelandic history and culture. Iceland elected a new President on Saturday, so we got to look in on a polling place as well. Elections on a weekend, imagine that.


The tour wrapped up around 10:00, leaving enough time to get some ice cream cones (this time, dipped with candy toppings). Then it was back to the apartment to pack and get to bed.

Our airport transfer bus came at 5:00am, and after a bit of a zoo at the Reykjavik airport, we made it to our flight. Now we’re somewhere over Canada.

It’s been a fantastic trip, and gave us a taste of many things we’d like to explore more deeply on a future visit. There are huge parts of the country we haven’t seen (or have barely seen), not to mention outlying islands. And we are still deeply uninformed about the Icelandic culture. We’ll just have to return!

Iceland: “We were cold, rainy, and not part of the EU before it was cool”

Iceland is not an early morning country. At least, not in the public sphere. We woke up early(ish) today to make it out the Snaefellsnes peninsula on our last day with the van. We woke up to wind and clouds, then continued on through the foggy rain, passing many a closed gas station. Although we had made coffee in the van, we were really itching for another cup.

We accidentally turned north over the peninsula before reaching the national park, and ended up on a dirt road. We came down to the other side into rainbow and sunshine. It was delightful. We found a bakery in the town of Olasvik that was open and nommed some baked goods over coffee while flipping through the news about Brexit.




Quite honestly, the Snaefellsnes was a bit of a snooze (that’s funnier if you mispronounce it the way we have been). The rain and fog made it hard to see Snaefellsjokull, the towering stratovolcano that is the crowning jewel of the park. After a week of dramatic country, the soggy lava fields were not holding our attention. We poked around a bit, before heading for Stykkishólmur, a picturesque fishing town on the north side of the peninsula.





Stykkishólmur was on our “must-visit” list because it’s home to Eldfjallasafn, a volcano art museum. The museum is an homage to how humans depict and understand volcanic eruptions and was created by Haraldur Sigurdsson, the advisor of Kat’s advisor back in Rhode Island. Haraldur himself was in and out but appeared to be very busy so we did not get the opportunity to say hello.



At the recommendation of the Czech museum docent (he fell in love with an Icelandic girl), we had a lovely fish lunch overlooking the harbor. This was our first and only fancy meal of the trip and it was money well spent. Then it was back in the van for the push to Reykjavik. We had to be in town mid-afternoon to visit the geothermal power plant, another must-see location.


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On the drive, we got to take the tunnel under the fjord leading to Reykjavik. It’s pretty impressive – over 6km long, and dropping almost 200 meters, before climbing back up.

The geothermal plant is brand new (opened in 2006, fully online in 2010) and has a really well done exhibit about geothermal power. The plant provides electricity, hot water, and heating for all of Reykjavik. The exhibit itself explained the science, the environmental impact, and the way in which Iceland tries to act as a promoter of geothermal power around the world. The plant itself was surrounded by low clouds, so we didn’t get any great views, though given the amount of steam it puts out, it’s probably pretty cloudy all the time.



We took a walk around Reykjavik while waiting for our checkin time. We poked in some shops, and visited an ice cream shop, which turned out to be fancy hipster ice-cream (unacceptable), so we visited another ice cream shop (proper). We’ll save the rest of our thoughts on the city until we’ve had some more time, but so far so good.


Hammer down, rabbit ears

Today was mostly about driving back towards Reykjavik, but we managed to sneak in some exploration as well. We woke up and flopped around a bit, before getting it together to make breakfast. We got fancy and fried some eggs, and toasted some of the local rye bread, which is actually baked underground in the geothermal heat.

After breakfast, we broke camp (you know, took off the handbrake) and set out for Dimmuborgir, a labyrinth of pilar-like structures formed after a temporary lava pond drained. It’s actually a very well developed site, with a nice cafe building and a paved parking lot. There are trails crisscrossing the site, including both easy and more rugged options. We wandered around a bit, and got some great drone footage. It was really fun to get lost in the maze, and climb up, around, and under different structures. Seen from above, you get a sense of how big the site is, which makes one feel very small.




After exploring for a while, we’d worked up an appetite for second breakfast, so we popped down the road to the cow shed cafe. It’s a dairy farm and guesthouse with an onsite restaurant. You can actually sit at a window and look into the eyes of a cow being milked, as you eat your food. Which is an experience one rarely gets. We had coffees and cakes, and enjoyed the view of the lake.

From the cowshed, we went back down the road to Hverfjall, a massive tephra cone (over 1km in diameter) that erupted under the lake around 2800 years ago. We didn’t actually hike up to the top, but took some drone footage (and got a chance to show some curious kids in the parking lot how the drone works).



From Hverfjall, we hiked through the scrubland to Grjotagja, a lava tube with a hot pot in it. I gather it was featured in an episode of Game of Thrones. I’ve never seen Game of Thrones, but from what I know of it, I’m guessing the scene involved either sex, violence, or some combination of both. (Cue The Exploited).





It’s a very fun spot, though visitors are no longer allowed to swim in the water. It’s got a magical quality to it – the long exposure shots capture the blue of the water, with steam rising off of it.

Back to the car, we hit the road for the Snaefellsnes peninsula. Along the way, we had plenty of sites to check out though! We stopped at Akureyri for an ice cream and a hot dog. It turns out it’s the second largest city in Iceland – 18,000 residents! It’s a big cruiseship stop though, so it’s very well developed with cute cafes and restaurants. Our ice creams were a bit disappointing (imagine a Dairy Queen blizzard, but made by someone who’s only read about the Blizzard via machine translated websites) but the hot dogs were up to standard.

Our first nerd stop after lunch was to take a photo of a cutaway through a caldera. Kat was thrilled because our photo is just like the one in the book – it actually matched!


Our next stop was a little more perplexing. We were hunting for a particular gorge with a stream running through it. GPS got us close, but it still involved some poking through fields. This gorge is special, because the lava cross-section reveals tree moulds – areas where tree trunks and branches were enveloped. One lava flow killed the tree, and before it could decay, a second flow came through and preserved it. Think Pompeii, but with trees. After some scrambling, we found them .. we think. We found tree root looking holes in lava.


From there, we hit a bit of site fatigue, and just wanted to get some euromiles (kilometers) behind us. We rolled into Borgarbyggd around 8, and got ourselves dipped ice cream cones (to make up for our earlier disappointment) and then visited the town bath. This isn’t a fancy hot spring, but more of a community rec center. It was delightful – the baths are still plenty hot (geothermally heated) and it was a bargain. Our campsite doesn’t have showers, so it was a great chance to get cleaned up and relax a bit after sitting in the van for many hours.



Tomorrow, we’re going to try to squeeze in a lot into a limited amount of time. We need to be back in Reykjavik in the evening, so we’re going to get a very early start to explore the Snaefellsnes. It’s odd to be back into an area that feels more modern – where paved roads intersect other paved roads. We’re not sure how we feel about that.

Truth in Advertising

We’re staying in on a town on Lake Myvatn. Myvatn translates as “Lake of the Midges” (as in gnats). This, I can assure you, is not an exaggeration. One does wonder why, after naming a place something like that, folks would continue to settle here.

“I’ve got a lovely home to show you!” “Oh? Where is it?” “It’s in Biting Spiderville.” “That’s a funny name…”

Perhaps people settle in Myvatn because it’s unlike just about anywhere else on earth. It’s basically like Mordor, but real and not just tarted up New Zealand.

The plan for the day was to hike to Krafla. Krafla is a volcanic system, which was spewing fire as recently as the 1980s. It’s an area of lava flow upon lava flow, steaming vents, bubbling pools and many things which Kat said not to touch.

The plan started to go off the rails relatively early on. Myvatn doesn’t yet have much in the way of tourist infrastructure, and so the hiking trails are in some regards more notional than real. Leaving “town,” we ended up on some dirt roads, then briefly on the main road, then wandered around for a while. Eventually, we gave up and started digging around on the satellite view in Google Maps until we found what looked like trails, then made our way there.

The path hugs a fissure ridge going north from the ring road, where lava spewed out and covered the surrounding countryside in the 18th century. The path runs right along the top, letting you poke down into lava tubes, and get amazing views of the lava fields below.





An hour or two into our hike, the rain moved in, which was rather unpleasant. The forecast had indicated it would be clear all day, so we were ill prepared, but we soldiered on. We could see lava flows form different eruptions, table mountains on the horizon, and a large rhyolite table mountain nearby.

Eventually, the path descended into the lava fields themselves, which was another new experience. An endless sea of lava, framed with snow capped mountains in the distance. It’s mesmerizing. The mesmer was broken by more rain however, this time more intense. Being stubborn, and having few other options, we slogged on, eventually making it to Krafla itself. The supposedly 13km hike (so says the town guidebook) was 17 miles (which is … some… kilometers) in reality. But, the payoff was worth it.



Approaching Krafla (the site itself is called Leirhnjukur), you first encounter a steaming slope of different colored clay. Since it was lightly raining, the clay covered wooden boardwalk was like skating on ice. The water interacts with the rhyolite to create a super fine clay. The Krafla volcanic system has seen a lot of activity in the recent past. There is fresh evidence everywhere of the Myvatn Fires of 1724-1729 and the Krafla Fires of 1975-1984. Long black lava flows tumble toward the lake. Within the caldera itself, the ground is still steaming. We hiked around billowing vents of glassy basalt. The rock here is so fresh that the glassy crust still shines and shimmers like an oil slick. Hot steam churns out all along the ridge and you can walk directly up to anything (as long as you politely stay on the path). The rocks are exceptionally lightweights since they haven’t been altered by weathering and they crunch lightly when you walk on them. And it’s massive. This was Kat’s favorite stop of the trip so far.








The weather was continuing to be unpromising, and a lack of toilets added to the pressure to leave. However, it was already late afternoon, and neither of us was loving the idea of another 17 miles back to town. So, we decided to take the road and stick out our thumbs. After fifteen or twenty minutes of being passed by traffic, a nice Spanish (?) couple stopped to give us a lift back to town. Saved!

We immediately devoured some N1 hotdogs, then grabbed the campervan and hit the hot baths for a well deserved soak. Feeling a little underaccomplished for the day, we decided to hit a few more sights before calling it quits. First up was the rootless cones at Skutustadir at the south end of the lake. These are created when lava flows over a lake. Eventually, the water flashes to steam and explodes upwards, creating what looks like a volcanic cone. We did some drone photography here, since they’re best seen from above, then it was back in the car.



The next stop was Namafjall, which is just south of the Krafla site. It has some even more dramatic bubbling mud pots and steaming fumaroles, and its own distinctive smell. Once again, there’s no gate, no real signage, just some ropes subtly encouraging you not to both drown and burn, simultaneously, in a vat of superheated mud.



Finally, we visited the cone lake at Viti. Which was a lake in a cone. Honestly, at this point, we were pretty dead tired. We looked it, took and obligatory photo, then jumped back in the van for some velveeta shells and cheese. It was a long day, but well worth it. After seeing the old bits of Iceland yesterday, it was awesome to walk through bits that are younger than either of us.

Layer cakes and actual cakes

We woke up in Hofn to a much calmer, more pleasant world. The wind was gone, the rain was ending, and by the time we’d finished breakfast, the sun was shining. We hit the road around 8 with a goal of making it to the north.

Our first stop was Austurhorn, the core of an old volcano. A basaltic magma chamber is visible on the high ridge above, in the form of a wall of gabbro. But we parked out on the peninsula to look for the granophyre intrusion. We were looking for evidence of a basaltic magma intruding into a more acidic magma – blobs of dark material that quenched upon squishing into the older, colder light colored rock. It took us a while of jumping around on rocks with soggy sneakers to find a decent example not covered in lichen. But find it we did! Our first real roadside geology stop of the trip, unimpeded by bad weather.



We wound our way around the mist and cloud topped fjords, catching glimpses of high peaks. Without the blinding rain we were better able to see the layer cake cliffs of the Tertiary basalt formation – the oldest rocks of Iceland that make up the far eastern and western edges of the country. A procession of waterfalls stair stepped down every face. One of them caught Colin’s eye and we stopped for a quick drone flight.


Our next goal was Djupivogur and a small cafe there that apparently sells nice cakes. The town was adorable and the cakes were quite delicious. Mission success.


We hopped in the car and continued our drive through the eastern fjords. Kat’s main goals were photographs of dykes and corries. Vertical dykes cross cut the layer cake basalt lavas on the surrounding cliffs – they are the magma feeder tubes for the large eruptions. Corries are the gentle bowl shaped depressions at the tops of the mountains where tributary glaciers formed and fed into larger glacial systems during the last Ice Age. When the bowls of corries on different mountain tops collide, their intersection creates dramatic triangular points on the mountaintops.



The road itself wound in and out of the fjords, sometimes paved, sometimes dirt, sometimes mostly sheep. It’s tempting to pull off to the side roughly every 100ft to snap shots of yet another epic view. We did end up pulling off for our lunch stop, mostly so we could climb up to a dyke and snap some photos. Our lunch, grilled Icelandic polish sausages with paprika potato chips and some Malaysian white coffee (purchased in Penang, naturally) was a pan-global feast.




That stop was towards the end of our time in the fjords – from here, the road curved up into the mountains. While not truly highlands, it gives a taste of what the highlands might be like. Moving inland, we were traveling forward in time, from old rocks to younger rocks.


The trek across the high plains was gorgeous – very Swiss – but also lengthy. We stopped in Egilsstadir for some dipped soft serve cones and a red pepper, then jumped back in the van for the last couple hours. We had one lengthy detour to visit Detifoss, the largest waterfall (by volume) in Europe, which cuts through some impressive lava flows.



Detifoss is about 30km north of the ring road. You can access it from either side of the river, but only one side is paved. Not knowing this, we went a ways down the dirt track before realizing our mistake. Fortunately, the paved road is brand new and gorgeous, cutting through lava fields and then diving down to Detifoss. It was indeed impressive. Around a half a kilometer south (the river runs north) is Selfoss, an equally gorgeous waterfall. It missed out on being the biggest due to having some side channels which divert some of the flow. Poor Selfoss.

The last half our from Detifoss to the Myvatan lake area brought us to some of the newest bits of Iceland. We’ll explore the volcanic features more tomorrow. Today, we stuck to exploring the hot spring baths. It’s midnight now as we write this, and the sun is still keeping things nice and bright – we’re pretty far north at this point, and it’s solstice. Quite an experience!

Iceland? More like … no actually Iceland is a pretty good name

Remember how yesterday it was windy up in the mountains? Today it was windy everywhere. Like, really windy. Sustained winds of 40mph, gusts even higher. Oh, and spitting rain. Needless to say, it wasn’t a “let’s go for a leisurely stroll” kind of day. More of a “let’s not get blown off a cliff to certain death” kind of day. Driving and snacks mostly.

We were a bit lazy getting going in the morning, owing to yesterday’s hike. By 8 we were up and going though. Last night, we’d managed to buy some butter packs at the campsite store, so this morning we were able to fry some eggs and toast some hot dog buns for breakfast. Kings of the road.

Our first stop was the black sand beach at Reynisfjara. Here, the wind had an added friend – sand! When we rented our camper, we added the extra sand and gravel protection for the front of the vehicle, but the rest is our responsibility. We did our best to park the van pointed into the sandblasting, with limited success. It was intense enough that you could make your way across the parking lot by jumping straight up in the air and letting it blow you forward.

The payoff is an amazing black beach with a backdrop of columnar basalt columns. The weather contributed to the end-of-the-world feel. Out in the sea, you can catch the foreboding Reynisdrangur sea stacks. Legend has it that they’re trolls, caught in the sun and frozen in stone. Looking the other direction, you can see Dyrholaey, the remnant of a submarine volcano.






Properly wind-whipped, we made the short drive into Vik. Vik is one of the main stops along the ring road – it’s got a gas station and a grocery store! We refueled, refilled the water, and got a few extra groceries. We struck out on trying to get a fancy snack, so ended up back at the gas station for a cup of coffee and a soggy pastry. We watched bicyclists contemplating the wisdom of their decisions. And then it was back on the road.

Our drive today didn’t have any specific destination in mind. We knew there were a few things we wanted to check out, but the weather made some sites impossible to see, or too hazardous (stopping by a roadside in thick fog for example). However, we still got to see plenty.

The Fire Districts were first. The plains around us were covered with loopy, lumpy moss-covered masses as far as we could see in any direction. This was where the lava of Eldgja and Laki flooded across the sandur plains and devastated farmland. These two eruptions alone produced more than half of the magma volume erupted in Iceland over the past 1200 years. There was a pull off for curious travelers to walk around on the Laki flows and wonder at the variety of shapes and textures of the lava. Both of these eruptions were fissure eruptions – long lines of fire that spurted lava high into the air. We were unable to see the fissures themselves, due to both the weather and our lack of 4WD.




We stopped next at Fjathrarglujfur, a canyon that shows the end game for the waterfalls we saw yesterday – the waterfall is gone, having backed up to a lake, leaving a gentle slope to the coast. It’s a dramatic sight, with a twisting river snaking between tall cliffs. Looking out towards the coast, you could see the huge lava flows from the Laki eruption in 1783 AD. One of the amazing things about Iceland is that much of the landscape is so young – much of it long after the time of settlement.


The road took us through the town of Kirkjubaejarklaustur which is home to the “church floor,” a location where the columnar basalt has eroded to create a smooth surface. There’s a lot of more modern history related to the site, but we couldn’t quite untangle exactly what happened at this site, versus what happened at other sites nearby.


We continued across the windy lava covered plain and set the slopes of Mt Lomagnupur as our lunch goal. Luckily the sky broke just as we were approaching and we were able to enjoy a brief window of sunlight and mild wind as we cooked fancy ramen and enjoyed the view. Mt Lomagnupur features the highest cliff face in Iceland and has aprons of rock avalanches around it’s base. As an aside, fancy ramen means adding vegetables and a soft boiled egg to ramen from the Korean grocery back home (so many varieties!).


From here, things got rather intense, much like the circus (in tents .. hmm .. that doesn’t work as well in blog form). We had to drive across the Skeidararsandur plain. This is an immense outwash from a glacier on the ice cap. Just endless black rock and ash, kicked up by the wind into near dust-out (what’s the dust version of a white-out?) conditions. A slab sided Ford Transit doesn’t deal particularly well with 40mph cross winds either. White knuckled! Luckily, aside from the occasional oncoming car, there’s very little to run into.

Just across the plain, we had a “oh wow” moment, as we came into sight of Oraefajokull stratovolcano, with a glacier to its side and a rainbow connecting them. We drove a little further and saw another full rainbow with glaciers. And then, like a tease, the sun disappeared and the rain came in full force.



In spite of the rain, we pulled over at Jokulsarlon, the “Iceberg Lagoon,” which is caused by the retreat of a glacier, calving icebergs into the lagoon. It’s still relatively early in the season, so there weren’t too many Icebergs. And near-freezing rain meant we didn’t linger long. But I imagine on a sunny August day it’s quite a sight!


Finally, we made it to our overnight stop in Hofn. Hofn is known for langoustine, so we got all fancy and ate at a diner instead of in the van. A langoustine sandwich for Colin, fish and chips for Kat, and a milkshake to end the day. Now we’re set up at a small campground in Hofn, ready for another big drive tomorrow to the north of the island.

I was promised volcanodogs

Let’s deal with the elephant in the room first. I was promised volcano-grilled hot dogs. Lonely Planet said that if we did this hike, from Skogar to Þórsmörk by way of the recently erupted Eyjafjallajökull, we would be able to grill hot dogs over steaming volcano vents. That did not happen. Now, it’s possible the vents were there, but the 60 mile and hour wind and frigid temperatures meant we weren’t looking as closely as we might have. Would it kill the country to put a big (neon perhaps) “GRILL HOTDOGS HERE” sign up there?

Wait, I think we’ve gotten ahead of ourselves.

The morning was crisp and brilliantly sunny. We got up early to start our hike through Katla Geopark. The Lonely Planet guide says to expect it to take around 10 hours, and gives a distance of 23.4km. My Apple Watch says more like 29km, but regardless, it’s a good trek. You start by climbing the Skogafoss waterfall, and then continue inland. There are (again, according to the book, we lost count) 22 individual waterfalls along the path. When I read that originally, I thought “oh well, probably just little drops aside from the big one” but no, many of them are even more impressive than Skogafoss. And they just keep coming! The landscape is immense – mountains, glaciers, incredible steep drops, and plenty of snow. The immensity of the landscape was matched by the charming little bits – the neon green moss, tiny wildflowers and floofy lambs following along after their mothers.








We made good time across this first section of the hike, though with plenty of stops for photos and one drone excursion. There were a few sections that were of the “don’t look anywhere but where your hands and feet go” variety and we were happy not to be carrying tall wind-catching backpacking packs.

Then we came to … the bridge. The guide warned that calling this a bridge is somewhat charitable, and we’d imagined all sorts of scary scenarios – perhaps it’s a log with a soggy, loose rope? In reality, it’s a perfectly cromulent bridge, though weather has destroyed the rail and some of the walkway on one side. But hey, three boards and one handrail is a pretty nice bridge in my book!



After the bridge, the landscape makes a big shift from lush river to moonscape. This is where the wind really picked up. At times, it was hard to stand upright. The sandblasting effect of the ash from Eyjafjallajökull added an extra level of texture as well. This section, from the bridge to the eruption site, is marked by many snow crossings, multiple steep ascents, and a lot of soggy shoes. Amazingly, there are two shelters on the route, accessed occasionally by superjeep. And apparently a dog. There were dog food cans stacked on the porch of the the first hut.





Leaving the ridge with the last shelter, we weren’t sure what to expect. We knew we were pretty close to the eruption site, but we didn’t know quite what it would look like. It seemed like an endless series of ridges, snow traverses, and scrambling up scree. Finally, we came to the two new mountains, Magni and Modi (that second one has a complicated series of special characters in its name).


At this point, the wind was merciless – this was the highest point on the hike, with no protection. Even though we were promised fumarole hotdogs, we didn’t linger to look for vents that may or may not have been there. This next section was perhaps the most treacherous, with some delicate placements and a few sections where you needed to lower yourself via questionably anchored chains. We moved as quickly as we safely could, with a goal of just getting out of the wind.





During this time, we were entering Godaland – an epic landscape of giant cliff-faced mountains and massive glaciers. There was no ground cover or connection to the green world from the other side of the mountain at this point. We were tiny dots on the overwhelming landscape.

Finally, a little lower down, things began to calm. A long hike across a flat plateau revealed our destination valley. The wind disappeared as we crested over a ridge into Þórsmörk. A green moss covered landscape of twisting pillars and jagged valley walls.



At this point, we had a decision to make. There are two busses out from Þórsmörk in the afternoon – one at 3:00pm and one at 8:00pm. We had tentatively booked tickets on the 8:00 bus, which would have meant getting back to the campsite around 10:30pm. Because we’d made good time, we were on track to (just) make the 3:00 bus, if we hustled a bit. Because the clouds were starting to roll in and we knew it was supposed to rain, we trotted downhill on our last couple miles of descent.

We made it to Þórsmörk with a few minutes to spare. The friendly bus driver welcomed us on board (never mind that our tickets were for another time). A brief word about the bus. Imagine tractor tires and a couple feet of ground clearance, with a fairly normal coach bus on top. Sadly, we failed to get a good picture of this one. It was able to ford deep rivers and climb big rocks without trouble. We followed the long sandur plain out of the Geopark, crisscrossing the river as it meandered back and forth across the floodplain. Many jeeps and 4x4s were headed in as we were on our way out since Þórsmörk is the jumping off point for many deep highland excursions.

We ended up having to make a couple more transfers to get home. One was to a lesser (but still beefy) bus to finish the exit from Þórsmörk, and a third bus which took us from Hella back to Skogar.

Properly tired, we grilled some hot dogs, took our showers, and then camped out in a nearby restaurant with hot chocolates, mostly to steal their electricity for our devices.

All in all, a good day.

Seething and smelly: Like a Trump rally, without the racism

Our first full day in Iceland, and we packed in a lot. Despite the perpetual light, we slept very well in our RV. We woke up and had some instant coffee with yogurt and granola, while the camper shook from the wind. Then it was off to Gullfoss, the largest waterfall in Iceland – and conveniently, just a few minutes up the road from our camp site.

Gullfoss is highly impressive. Two tiers of strong basaltic dolerite overlay weaker sedimentary units, resulting in a breathtaking double falls. The water cascades over the first face only to turn at a sharp angle and tumble into the gorge below throwing up mist and rainbows. The sheer power of the water is overwhelming as it churns and roars over the falls. And in the early morning there were very few tourists around.





After the falls we headed back past our campsite next to the horse farm and continued on to Geysir geothermal area. This geothermal field is dotted with boiling hot pots and rivulets of warm mineral-rich water cascading downslope. The Great Geysir is only active after large earthquakes, however the smaller Strokkur geyser shoots off at a reliable 6-10 minute interval. We really enjoyed watching the pool inflate before ejection and refill again. The whole place smells of sulfur. We climbed up to the overlooking ridge to get a view of the dramatic landscape dotted with fields of purple lupin flowers, a native of North America. After our trek we enjoyed a cookie and ice cream break at the cafe before hitting the road again.




Many miles of ponies and sheep later, we saw a roadside sign for a berry farm. We pulled over and bought some white raspberries and strawberries our for morning yogurt. At the very next turn, we came to the tomato greenhouse. Our friend Dan had recommended a visit, so when we saw the sign we knew we had to stop. It’s a commercial-scale greenhouse facility, growing tomatoes, cucumbers, and lettuce. There’s also a small restaurant. It’s a fascinating facility – they use much thinner glass than a normal greenhouse, because they don’t need to worry about trapping heat – it’s heated geothermal, by water circulating at the base of the plants. The water also provides power, and nearby steam vents provide CO2 to make the plants happy.

After our visit to the tomato farm, we stopped at Grimsnes volcanic field, which is comprised of a series of short rows of scoria cones along volcanic fissures that align with the South Iceland Seismic Zone. We climbed around the rim of Kerith, the water-filled spatter/scoria cone whose crater is deep enough to intersect the water table. We hiked southward along the fissure and admired the various textures and morphologies of the scoria at our feet. The wind and fog were beginning to pick up so we headed back to the car.


Fully scienced up, it was time for food. In Selfoss, we had our first Icelandic hotdogs (Colin’s was deep fried and topped with paprika, Kat’s was covered in fried onions and various relishes). Around lunch, rain arrived. We headed East on the ring road, with no clear destination in mind. Another roadside sign, this time for a woolworking studio and ceramics gallery. During our planning (such as it was) for the trip, we talked about getting matching Icelandic sweaters. But, it turns out they’re really itchy. So instead we simply admired the Icelandic sweaters, and other wool goods. Then it was back on the road, until another “LOCAL GOODS” sign caught our attention.

This time the shop was in an old quonset hut, and was filled with a mix of art, food, and souvenirs. We picked up some post cards (and a bit of yarn).

As we got further down the road, we moved into the foothills of Eyjafjallajökull (that’s the one that erupted in 2010). It’s basically a series of endless waterfalls, each more impressive than the last. We stopped at Seljalandsfoss, which is a thin but tall drop. Even though it was very rainy and windy at this point, there was a good crowd. You can actually walk behind Seljalandsfoss (though it’s no less wet than being in the rain) and get an amazing site of the sandur plains beyond.



Given the weather, we decided to make Skogar our stop for the night, which will be a good base for a hike tomorrow. Skogar has a fantastic folk museum, with exhibits covering many aspects of the history of Iceland – farming, electrification, the telegraph, and folk art. It also has a set of sod houses, which were moved to the site in the 1980s. Some of them were occupied as late as the 1970s. They’re fascinating to poke around – there’s no heat, and things are a bit cramped, but they’re perfectly functional. The museum also takes a decidedly un-American approach to safety, so you can crawl up to the second floor of some of them.



The rain is likely to continue for the rest of the night, so we’ve pitched our camp (well, put on the handbrake?) at the base of Skogarfloss, a massive waterfall that we’ll hike up and over tomorrow.

Iceland? More like Greenland amirite?

So, Iceland then. This is a different kind of trip for us. As in, it’s not primarily centered around eating and hedonism. This time, it’s rocks and lava. Not that we have anything against the Icelandic hot dogs of course.

We left Minnesota late on Thursday evening, which made for an easy flight. Six hours of uncomfortable, wiggly sleep later, and we were in Reykjavik. Well, the Reykjavik airport. Which looks like a stereotypical Scandanvian airport. We were met by a representative from HappyCampers – in fact, he turned out to be the only person working today, due to a national holiday. We rode to their office with a couple from Nebraska.

HappyCampers is one of many folks renting small RVs in Iceland. We went with them mostly because some folks we watched on YouTube had rented from them in the past. We’re driving a Fort Transit Connect, which has been retrofitted with a bed, a sink, a small fridge, and a separate heating system. It also has a camping stove and a solar panel to keep the fridge running. What more could you want?

After getting a tour of the van, we swung by Kronan, the discount grocery story, to stock up for the week. We arrived in Iceland with a bag full of ramen and granola, but needed to supplement it with some yogurt and pasta sauce. As I said, this isn’t a hedonistic trip. We did find a chocolate-covered pastry at the bakery next door though.


Our first mission was to drive south to the end of the Reykjanes Peninsula to see Valahnukur, a volcano that was formed in the ocean. Besides the stunning young lava scenery beside the road, we were able to view a thick sequence of pillow basalt formations where faults had broken apart the small mountain. We tested the drone and enjoyed the colony of nesting birds making homes on the rocks.





Not far away is one of the most easily accessible opportunities to walk between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. It’s literally a parking lot by the side of the road, with a path and a short bridge. We played a game of tag with the continental plates, then got more dramatic drone footage. Bandwidth limits mean the footage itself will have to wait until we’re home, but we can share some stills for now. The rift is the subaerial representation of the mid open ridge and continues north into another volcanic system, our next stop.



We drove north to Thingvellir national park and viewed the fault-bounded axial valley with impressive sheet flow outcrops along the path through Almannagja. We hiked to a waterfall on the northwest side of the park, poking rocks along the way. We viewed the impressive gentle slopes of Skjaldbreithur, the snow capped shield volcano, and the sub glacial ridges and table mountains that ring the Thingvellir graben. This place is of great importance to the history of the people of Iceland, but it is just as impressive as a testament to the forces of plate tectonics, continually ripping and shifting the active landforms.





So far, Iceland is proving to be gorgeous, friendly, easy, and full of ponies. Like, OMG PONIES ponies. Also baby sheep. It’s a bit absurd.

After Thingvellir, we went for a soak in the hot pools at Laugarvatn. Colin is not really the soaking-in-a-hot-spring type, but there were pools of three different temps and we found a toy boat to hold our glasses while soaking.

We are settled into our camp just north of Geysir – the steam from which you can see from the van. We’re not sure of our plan for tomorrow, but whatever it is, it will be full of surprise and adventure!


Both of us are running on empty, so despite the sun being high in the sky (hey, it’s only 11pm after all), we’re going to try for some sleep.