This is the last in a series outlining my family’s exploration of Iceland during the summer of 2019, pre-COVID. It was a mostly outdoor experience, exploring the wild and natural sights of a beautiful country during the height of summer. For the full journey, and notes on places to go and things to see, check out the other posts in this series.
- Part 1 – Grundarfjörður
- Part 2 – Snæfellsnes
- Part 3 – Golden Circle
- Part 4 – Roaming in Reykjavik
- Part 5 – Landmannalaugar
- Part 6 – Southern Coast
- Part 7 – Jökulsárlón
- Part 8 – Departure and Epilogue
This was it. Our journey to Iceland was coming to an end, and here, on our last day, we had only enough time to visit one last, nearby waterfall before heading back to Keflavik airport and make the long flight home. We had plenty of time to reminisce, to think of highlights and lessons learned, and plan for a future journey – I’ve attempted to capture those highlights here, in the hope that others find it useful (keeping in mind, our trip occurred before COVID changed the world, so while I don’t assume everything has changed, there may very well be some new details to consider).
But before I get into that, let’s discuss Gluggafoss. The name of the falls translates to “Window Falls”, and it is a very unique cascade.
The lower falls is a fairly straightforward wide drop over a shelf that creates a substantial space within and behind the primary cascade. We couldn’t resist making our way behind the flow and crouching onto mist-slicked boulders, feeling much like the trolls that apparently wander this land.
The upper falls is a narrow drop in a slot that is mostly blocked by rock – actually compressed volcanic ash and pumice – that opens in various windows revealing the waterfall beyond. In places, the falls splash across the rock and split both inside and outside the tunnel created by the volcanic blockage.
A sign here indicated that during one of the more significant eruptions of Hekla (back in 1947), the ash fall completely clogged up the watercourse, and that the falls have been slowly eroding their way back into the tunnels and reopening the windows that give the falls its name. Now, the primary effect is that the falls make a short drop out of sight, make a quick 90-degree turn to fall again, then disappear into a tunnel and behind a wall, only to erupt through another opening several dozen feet lower. Now you see it, now you don’t. A most unusual waterfall.
Turning away from the cascade, the view stretches across grassland grazed by shaggy Icelandic ponies, to Eyjafjallajökull dominating the skyline beyond. Land of fire and ice.
Some Practical Trip-Planning Thoughts
Iceland is a fantastic place. It is dramatic, a place that is clearly cherished and supported by a local population that appreciates the value of their natural landscapes. We were able to spend more than a week, almost all of it exploring some outdoors landscape, and never tired of it. Never felt like we needed some touristy stimulation to distract us from the natural beauty of the place.
It is easy, it’s accessible. That’s true if you’re content to make day trips out of Reykjavik, even on buses, to the “touristy” sites around the Golden Circle, or if you’re willing to go farther afield. You can do what we did – hop from base camp to base camp and make daily road trips to various destinations – or you can rent a live-aboard campervan and circumnavigate the entire ring road and sleep in your mini-RV at one of very many, frequent spots along the road. An entire industry has grown to support this type of exploration, and at least when weather is good, it’s easy to plot your own course.
If you’re traveling from North America, driving is easy – on the right – and if you’re from the US, all you have to do is make the mental shift from miles to kilometers and you’re all set. Cars are generally smaller. You’ll see the occasional campervan or RV, of course, and maybe a Land Rover, but very few full-size SUV’s, no pickups, etc. It’s very European, with exotic brands to match. We drove a Romanian-built, French-owned, 4WD mini-crossover SUV (a Renault/Dacia Duster), with manual 5-speed transmission.
The geology is a testament to fire and ice. The entire island is volcanic, of course, considering that it is literally a high point on the mid-Atlantic ridge, forged as magma erupts from between the North American and European plates. The rift is evident at places like Þingvellir National Park, but also in the ongoing volcanic activity – Hekla, Eyjafjallajökull, the newly-erupting Geldingadalir (began erupting in early 2021) and dozens of others. At the same time, the land is marked by glaciers that currently flow across the island, and evidence left by those that covered the island during the last ice age. Volcanic highlands are carved into abrupt sheer cliffs that leave hanging valleys and numerous waterfalls behind, attracting tourists and numerous sea birds that nest, protected by the height of the cliff walls.
Speaking of wildlife, it’s surprisingly plentiful. Birds are everywhere, of course, though we were partial to puffins, but also seals along the beaches, whales offshore, and we even saw an Arctic fox. During our visit, wildflowers bloomed everywhere, dotting the green grasslands with bursts of yellow and purple.
Icelanders are extremely friendly. Everywhere we went, we were able to strike up a conversation – even if it were just to prompt a laugh at my attempts to pronounce Icelandic words. (I got MUCH better!!) One of the common conversation topics was summer vs. winter. Apparently you almost have to have two different personalities to stay here year-round. The summers are beautiful, but they are also the time to get everything done as quickly as possible, fighting the clock. Winters are not extremely harsh, but they are cold, dark, and long. It’s a time to hunker down and wait for the sun – or to leave for warmer climes, as many Icelanders do.
This was my first experience with the (near) midnight sun, and the geometry of the Earth-Sun relationship this far north fascinated me. I will admit that the perpetual light affected me more than I expected it to. We would keep going well beyond “bedtime”, and get 5 hours of sleep, max. Then the next day, we’d crash and be in bed for 12 hours. Then 5. Then 12. We had dark blackout curtains everywhere we stayed – but what we failed to do was to pull them at an hour that aligned with our local circadian rhythms. We should have darkened up around 7:30, 8pm, and let our bodies start to wind down toward a normal bedtime – but we never really did learn this lesson. I can imagine any truly outdoor exploration here (like camping) would make this even harder. Some good eyeshades are a worthwhile investment here. I was surprised at how hard this adjustment was.
The island is extremely well-connected, digital, and almost entirely cashless – we were able to run credit cards through a wireless credit card machine in even the remotest locations, and never had to handle Icelandic money at all.
It is fairly expensive. You just have to expect that it will be. Conversion rates during our visit were roughly 72 krona to one US dollar (slightly higher now – rate roughly follows the Euro), so the math wasn’t terrible. Divide the price in krona by 100, and then reduce by about 20%. (3000 Krona was about $24.50). After conversions, gas at the time cost about the same it does at home in the Eastern US, only this was the same price PER LITER that we normally pay PER GALLON. It is very easy to spend over $100 topping off a tank on even a small car, so plan wisely.
We were able to stretch our budgets a bit by shopping local grocery stores. Both Bonus and Krónan stores were easy to find and relatively inexpensive. We planned shopping trips that let us eat breakfast “at home” (in our cabin, the hostel, etc), lunch on the road, and then typically find a nice place to eat for dinner. By eating out only once per day, we didn’t feel squeezed on food budget. Food, by the way, was excellent. A lot of seafood, and lamb, and a surprising availability of burgers and Iceland’s famous hot dogs – we never had anything disappointing, even if we paid a little more than we would have at home.
A Few Disappointments
Our primary frustration was with other tourists. We, unfortunately, saw people doing their best to tear up the place. Stepping over ropes and off trail to get a better picture, flying drones where they weren’t allowed (and distrubing not just people, but nesting birds), and generally destroying the things they were there to see. I think I told the tale of how Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon had been overrun after Justin Bieber made it popular, and how Icelandic authorities have gone to great lengths to manage impact. Even so, we saw several people scheming on the best way to get off a steel platform in the gorge, how to get over the railing and out to that spot there, so they could get a better Instagram shot. This kind of behavior turned us off, particularly since it was all the guests in this country doing it.
The other thing that saddened us was the recognition that climate change is having a real, noticeable impact here. The glaciers are receding quickly, and the locals are quick to point out how things have changed. It’s easy to sit in a climate controlled office in more temperate latitudes and not see climate change in action, but here, it’s obvious. For this reason alone, it’s worth the trip – there’s value in recognizing and seeing the direct impact of a warming planet that is evident here.
What We’d Do Over Again
There’s no question that we’ll try to come back, but I’m torn as to what that trip will look like.
On one hand, we’d love to do the entire ring road. We saw maybe the southern third of the country, but with the exception of our drive into the interior around Landmannalaugar, even that was mostly coastal. We’d like to see the Fjordlands, get up into the northern part of the island, which I understand is even MORE dramatic. Plus, there’s something to be said for short-term van-life. There are certainly things we didn’t see, including the newly-erupting Geldingadalir volcano.
On the other, I’d love to get into the interior and get completely immersed by backpacking for a week. The Laugavegur might be a little crowded for my tastes, but I still want to do it. And there are some more remote cross-country treks in the northern part of the country.
We all decided we’d like to come back in, or near winter. We want to get out onto the glaciers, to explore ice caves, to experience the Arctic nights and see the northern lights.
We understand that Iceland Air runs a promotion where if you buy a ticket from the US to continental Europe (like, Paris), you can do a long-term stopover in Iceland, and then pick up your connecting flight days later with no additional charge to the flight. This is DEFINITELY worth doing, in my opinion. And if I have an excuse to go visit friends there (when COVID precautions allow), a four-day stop to get some backpacking in Iceland would be perfect. Although our entire trip was almost blown up by the dissolution of WOW Airlines, it appears another budget carrier is standing up to take its place, so that might present additional options.
Bottom line – this was one of the best, most enjoyable trips we’ve taken as a family, and it involved almost NONE of the classic tourist trap attractions. Yes, there were popular things to see and do, but it was all outdoors, all at our own pace, and beautiful enough to be enjoyed for what it was, with zero hype and hassle.
I can’t recommend it enough!
Get Out There