I have a history of creating long-winded and fleshed out travel itineraries that I nurture diligently before leaving for a trip, only to throw them out the window as soon as I step off the plane. Usually these itineraries have to go because either I under or over estimated distances or a fellow traveler suggested something better worth checking out.
Self-aware of my propensity for itinerary-chucking, I typically craft my travel plans very loosely to leave room for improvisation. However, when it came to mapping out the northern part of Iceland's golden circle, I couldn't find much information on what we could see there. I'd picked out a few towns to stop for lunch and a waterfall off the road here and there, but for the most part I figured we would spend two to three days, driving along and looking at farmland. I was wrong.
Northern Iceland began as the least-anticipated part of our adventure and turned out to be our favorite part of the whole country.
Our guidebook told us this rock formation would look like a dinosaur sipping from the water. There was no "some people think..." or "it has long been thought"-- no, this rock simply looks like a dinosaur. No argument about it. No controversy. Intrigued and with an open road before us, we took the side road to Hvitserker and found exactly what we sought.
It looks like a stegosaurus!
Besides marveling over this natural wonder, Hvitserker is a peaceful location to get out and do a bit of hiking. It boasts great sights of the ocean and banks of black sand to walk along.
Our next stop was Glaumber to visit the museum of Iceland's famous turf houses, which I had been so obsessed with. The turf houses were straight out of Whoville, but what I was most excited about was the incredible time of day in which we had arrived at Glaumber.
On one side was a sky of dark and stormy clouds looming over a chain of venomous mountains and on the other side, the uninterrupted sun shining down on this peaceful village scene. With lighting so dramatic and a setting so quintessentially quaint, I couldn't have been a happier photographer.
These pictures are just so cool and I owe all the credit to Iceland's quick-changing weather patterns.
After our first long day of boundless adventuring, we decided to get off Route 1 again, in search of hot springs. Grettislaug, named for an Icelandic outlaw who once bathed there, was a nice simple spring about 40km off the main highway.
For the equivalent of $5 USD, you can take a dip in the springs. It's much smaller than the blue lagoon and far less extravagant, but it was good for us. Grettislaug offers campsites and it is a great place to run into fellow travelers taking on the ring road. I especially enjoyed exchanging tips and must-sees with some people who were driving the golden circle in the opposite direction as us.
This is a massively spectacular waterfall and we got shockingly close to it. So close, there was a real moment that I thought I might have lost my driving partner.
Angela and I were walking around near the top viewing point and when I stopped to take a photo, I looked up and she was gone. I walked ahead an the trail along the river was empty. Naturally, I jumped to conclusions. I searched the water for a bright blue jacket and checked the faces of tourists across the way for panic and concern.
"Hi Jamie!" a tiny voice floated up from below.
I could have killed her. But instead, I followed her down the path that took us right to the water's edge. It was way less risky going down than it seemed, but still. Like I said, we got shockingly close. Here's a little taste in video form:
The Lake Mývatn area is magnificent mess of volcanic activity and it was our next stop along Route 1. It's a volcanic wonderland with so a lot to see. It's a good place to spend a whole day. The following three spots can all be found within roughly 20km from Lake Mývatn.
Angela (@gutograms on Instagram) put together this collage of the different textures that can be found all along this area.
Jarðböðin Nature Baths
Clearly not having had enough of the hot springs, we stopped first at the Mývatn nature baths. With much larger pools and facilities than Grettislaug, these hot springs come with a slightly larger price, but also a heftier smell. Warning: these are sulfur pools-- looks beautiful, smells bad.
But once you get used to the smell, you can relax your aching muscles and enjoy a peaceful overlook over Lake Mývatn and the small towns surrounding it. It's also a great chance to take some glamour shots in the glowing blue water.
Once you get back on the ring road after a relaxing dip in the hot springs, you only need to drive for about five minutes to come upon this alien landscape.
It's a very concentrated area filled with walking paths that will take you close to the bubbling mud pits and steaming vents. The smell of sulfur is even stronger when you find yourself up close and personal with the boiling earth, but it's a fascinating place to explore.
It felt like we had taken a wrong turn somewhere and wound up on Mars.
The Wrong Way to Viti Crater
Our next stop on the road was Viti Crater and this time we really did take a wrong turn. We got off the road early and began a long hike to what we though would lead us to the crater, but really just led us through a long field of snow before arriving on a trail through lava fields.
The trail we had found was the site of the Krafla fires that occurred between 1724 and 1729. As we walked through, the land was still smoking, three centuries later. It was a surreal experience-- a wrong turn I would never take back.
When eventually we did find the crater which was just a little further up the road, it was quite a sight. You could walk along the edge and we might have had we not tired ourselves out on the wrong path.
We almost didn't see this one. It was the end of a long day and we had done a lot of driving. "What's another waterfall?" we thought erroneously. But one thing led to another and we decided to turn off the road and follow the signs for Dettifoss.
Dettifoss is the most powerful waterfall in Europe and it is a force to be seen. Even as far away from it as we were, we couldn't help but feel nervous, but maybe that had something to do with the sheer cliffs we were standing on top of. As for the striking patterns on the cliffs below, they are ice swirls. I had never seen anything like it before, graceful patterns against the backdrop of a fierce Dettifoss.
When you're driving through North Iceland, please take your time and stop for everything. If I hadn't, I could be sitting here at home not knowing about the beauty of ice swirls. And that is too horrible to think about.