It was my first night camping in Iceland and I was in the middle of what seemed to be a hurricane, walking along the side of the highway at 11:00 at night with a German, a Polish guy, and a Russian, 10 miles from camp. I thought, how did I get myself into this predicament? Well, I’ll just start from the beginning.
The land of fire and ice. Volcanos surrounded by glaciers. Waterfalls, geysers, glacial rivers, lava fields, hot springs and clean air. Lured by the amazing pictures I’d seen, I decided to stop in Iceland for 10 days on my way back from visiting a friend in Germany. Being a poor college student, I decided to bring my tent, backpack and hitchhike my way around. When I was in Germany they were experiencing one of the worst heat waves in 10 years, being from Colorado, I was out of my element. All I could do was look forward to the cool crisp air that was waiting for me 1,414 miles to the north.
I had booked my first 2 nights in hostels to acclimate to being out on my own. The main airport in Iceland (Keflavik) is about 30 miles outside the Capitol city of Reykjavík so I had to find a ride there. As soon the plane landed I asked someone for a ride to the city and we headed out. Once I made it to the hostel I was staying at I looked around a bit, and decided to take a 30 minute nap.
I woke up the next morning to my roommate getting dressed. Damn. Well, time to explore. I spent the rest of the day exploring downtown Reykjavík. It is a actually a fairly large city with a population of 150,000, but the downtown has a small town feel with all kinds of small shops to explore and sculptures to look at. The marina was the most interesting thing to me seeing all the fresh catches of the day being hauled off the boats. The weather was rainy and gloomy so there wasn’t much to do outside. I ended up going to the bookstore and buying one of the few English choices, then loading up on the cheapest food that was available, instant noodles, and got my stuff ready to head out in the morning.
I had never hitchhiked before and standing out there with my thumb up made me feel more homeless than I ever had, but soon enough someone picked me up. I didn’t have any plan of where I wanted to go so I just decided to head east. I ended up in a car with a group of German girls that were on the quest to see a puffin. Now, they were not just casually trying to see a puffin and if they did they would be happy if not it’s not a big deal. They were going to see a puffin if they had to go through hell to see one. We went to 3 or 4 different spots. Puffins live on high cliffs overlooking the Atlantic, so the ocean spray combined with high winds and rain made for excellent conditions to get absolutely soaked from every direction. By the time they dropped me off at a town called Skógar, I was soaked to the bone. But, I had seen a puffin.
I set my tent up right near the bottom of the incredible Skógafoss waterfall. At the campground I started taking to a group of people who had just recently met. A German girl named Lena, polish guy named Jakov, and a Russian named Dennis. After some instant noodles the German girl said there was an abandoned hot spring up in the mountains about 10 miles from where we were and of course after being frozen solid all day, we decided to head out. When we finally caught our first glimpse of the pool, the view was breathtaking. Waterfalls cascaded down through stunningly green carpets of moss. Nestled up against the volcanic walls was a pool with a small bath house. One side is the raw mountainside itself where the volcanically heated water trickles down into the pool. Soaking in the thermal waters was an almost surreal experience. By the time we were done it was near dark and we had 10 miles to walk. We made it back to camp soaking wet and freezing, but with a great story to tell. The next day Dennis and I decided we wanted to make the 20 mile hike to Þórsmörk (Pronounced Thorsmork).
We started our hike bright and early at noon. The next 8 mile climb to the camp at the halfway point we crossed some of the most beautiful landscape I’d ever seen. The trail follows along the river as it ascends to its starting point beneath the Eyjafjallajökull ice cap. It seemed as if around every bend there was a spectacular waterfall, that if placed anywhere else on earth, would draw thousands of tourists a day. But here, it’s just what you see when you look to the side of the trail. At the top there is a small A-frame with a kitchen that we had been fantasizing about all day. When we finally caught sight of it, it was around 5 o clock with a storm coming in. We sat and ate in the hut debating whether we should stay the night or not. It cost about $45 and with the uphill portion behind us we thought it would just be a little hop, skip and a jump to the base camp in Þórsmörk. During that time we got to talking to a group of Canadians that were also planning on getting to Porsmork that night so we decided against staying the night there and pushed on with our new comrades.
The past winter was one of the worst they’d seen in years, which meant the next few miles of trail would be covered in about 4 feet of snow and ice. The tops of the poles marking the trail were barely visible. The descent into the valley is surreal. Supposedly this pass was where JR Toilken got the inspiration to write the Lord of the Rings. And I can see why. We descended from snow pack to lifeless plateaus, then finally to hillsides blanketed in grass and wildflowers. Glaciers loomed above our heads while the runoff cascaded to the bottom of the valley meandering through the volcanic soil eventually joining forces to form the river Krossá. We finally caught sight of the forests that surrounding Þórsmörk, which literally means “Thors Wood”. Iceland is rumored to have been covered with forests until the Viking arrived in the early 9th century. Between grazing sheep, and trees being cut down for building materials, the forests were decimated. Nowadays, they are few and far between, 11% of the country is covered by glaciers, another 30% is lava fields, while only 21% can support vegetation. There’s a joke in Iceland that says, “If you ever get lost in a forest in Iceland, all you need to do is stand up.” So it is a welcome sight especially with the weather how it had been. We finally made it to the first small camp around 11:30 pm and had just enough time to set up our tents and get some dinner in the small dining hut. The next day we got an early start for the main camp in Porsmork which we were told had a sauna and hot spring. That may have played a small part in the decision to make the 20 mile hike in the first place.
The main camp in Þórsmörk is a small lodge surrounded by fields to camp in and about 20 volcano huts. Our Canadian friends were going on to complete the Laugavegur trek, so we said goodbye and they headed off. As soon as they left I set my tent up in between a few trees about 30 feet from the hot spring / sauna. We only planned on staying one night there but the scenery, combined with the sauna, warm showers, and good company, we ended up staying longer. The next few days were spent resting up, spending too much time in the sauna, and just soaking in the serenity of the place. Þórsmörk lies in the shadow of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, the same one that grounded flights all across Europe in 2010. And yes, the one from Walter Mitty. The camp is far from the beaten path and requires high clearance 4×4 to get reach, so it isn’t as busy as a lot of the other places I visited. I think I could have spent a few weeks there at least. But, the time came when we had to leave and we ended up hitching a ride on a greyhound bus back to the main highway.
That night me and Dennis decided we were going to try and spend the night in an old abandoned farm we spotted earlier, so after stocking up on food, we headed east to find it. When we finally got dropped off in front of it somewhere along the highway, we realized it was a protected historical site from the 1700’s. But, luckily we weren’t too far from the hot spring pool we had swam in a few days earlier so we just decided to pitch our tents there for the night. The walk there was beautiful. The rain had subsided and the sky opened up to reveal that deep blue sky that had been eluding us the past few days. The sun was just setting along the horizon to our west and the fields had a golden glow about them. The road we followed went through farmers fields and pastures where Icelandic horses were roaming.
At the pool, there were a few other people hanging out and we gladly jumped in. The next morning me and Dennis woke up early to get some swimming in before we had to head out. His flight left a day before me so once we got back to the ring road we said our goodbyes and he headed west towards the Capitol, and I headed east bound for Skaftafell in Vatnajökull National Park.
I got picked up by a family from Hainan, China. Her dad stalled the car about 24 times over the next 100 miles and after some laughs we finally made it to the park. Walking up to one of the waterfalls, I got to talking to this guy from Israel and another named Werner from Chile. Guy, (he was actually named Guy) from Israel explained to me that he had just finished with his training in the army, and the military pays for them to go out and travel for a few weeks after training is over. We walked around most of the park but didn’t make it all the way to the crown jewel, Svartifoss. The next morning I got up early to take some photos of the waterfall before it got overrun with all those dreaded tourists (me not being in that category obviously ). When I got back I met up with Guy and Werner and we planned on meeting up at a camp about 70 west of where we were. I wanted to keep pushing east to try and reach Jökulsárlón, the iceberg lagoon.
I made it there around midday and decided to go on an amphibious boat ride through the lagoon. The lagoon was at the foot of the Vatnajökull glacier, AKA the biggest ice cube in Europe. Snow capped mountains loomed high above the impossibly large ice floes that made up the glacier. After the boat ride I walked over to the black sand beach nearby. The sun was out and the weather was amazing so after taking some photos I fell asleep on the beach, right next to stranded icebergs for a few hours.
I made it back to the town of Vik where I was meeting up with Guy and Werner just as it was getting dark. We met up and healed to get a gourmet dinner at the nearby gas station. Now, if you ever find yourself in Iceland you can’t leave until you try the hot dogs they serve at gas stations. I’d say that’s a top 3 priority if you ever visit.
The next day was my last full one and I decided to take my time getting back to Reykjavic where I was going to stay that night.
One of the places I wanted to visit most was the Sólheimasandur plane wreck, so on the way back I got dropped off at the gate where the plane was supposed to be. There isn’t sign marking the spot so using a GPS/ phone to find it really helps. I caught my first sight of it 3 miles later. Once a symbol of the golden age of air travel, the Douglas Super DC-3 airplane lies hollow and forgotten on a deserted black sand beach, untouched since it went down more than 4 decades ago. Although no one died in the crash, it is still an incredibly eerie place to visit to say the least. All that remains is the husk, dented and bruised from 42 years of punishment by the Arctic winds and rain. The words “UNITED STATES NAVY” are still faintly visible on the fuselage.
I hitched a ride further west until I reached Seljalandsfoss, one of Iceland’s most visited waterfalls. I found a good bench and spent some time there taking in the view for the last time before I had to head back home to Colorado.
The final ride back to Reykjavic was exciting yet sad. Iceland had been the most incredible place I’d ever been. I was blown away at how a place so small could have so much untamed beauty. It is a land of contrasts. Volcanos blanketed in ice caps, waterfalls, mighty rivers, geysers, hot springs, thermal vents, mountain ranges, lava fields, glaciers. It is also a land of mystery and lore. It was rumored to have been settled first in the 7th century by Irish monks, who were then driven out by the Vikings, who settled there and It became a stronghold until it came under Danish rule in the 14th century. There are still small villages that believe in figures like Thor, and Loki. And after 10 days immersing myself in the landscape, it’s not hard to see why. But the daydream couldn’t last forever. School loomed on the horizon and I was excited to see my family back home. You can’t possibly see it all in one visit, and I’ll be sure to be back.