I recently had the opportunity to experience the best of Icelandic Nature and go on the Essential Iceland tour, in the west. It was a bright and sunny day (which was a nice surprise) when our guide, Stefán, picked us up in downtown Reykjavík in a super cool white jeep, specially modified for rough-road driving.
Þingvellir National Park
We started out in Þingvellir, the national park located on the tectonic plate boundary between the Eurasian and the American plates, which results in some pretty cool fissures as the country drifts apart. We took a short walk there, exploring the fissures on the way.
The water in those fissures originates in the glaciers but it has been seeping through the lava for decades when it finally reaches this area and as a result, the water is incredibly clear. That is why Silfra – one of these fissures – is such a popular and unique place for diving and snorkeling. We decided to make do with admiring it from a respectful distance this time, though I recently did dive in!
After a cup of coffee at the Þingvellir service station – our tour guide Stefán understands the deeply rooted need Icelanders have for coffee – it was time for adrenaline as we headed towards the glaciers. We drove up a mountain pass called Kaldidalur, meaning Cold Valley. When we got a little further into the highlands the road got pretty muddy. There was still enough snow for us to leave the road and drive on the ice though, which was even more fun!
On Top of Icelandic Nature - on an OK Mountain!
We drove all the way to the top of the mountain Ok. It’s an OK mountain. Just kidding. The name means “Yoke” and it used to be “Okjökull,” or “Yoke-glacier,” but now the glacier has melted away, leaving just the yoke, which is sad and more than a little frightening.
The mountain is about 1200 meters high and even though the glacier has disappeared, the whole mountain was covered in ice, probably because it was still early spring. Ok is a shield volcano, so at the top of the mountain there’s a huge crater.
Now like I said, this was a still and sunny day, so the view from Ok was absolutely amazing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a big part of Iceland at once. We saw the mountains around Þingvellir, the Snæfellsnes peninsula and all the way up north as well. And right next to us was the enormous ice cap of Langjökull, where we could see tiny little jeeps making their way to the Langjökull glacier tunnel.
Icelandic Nature Underground - in a Lava Cave
After having lunch in Húsafell, we carried on to one of Iceland’s largest lava caves, Víðgelmir. It’s located in Hallmundarhraun, which is a lava field dating back to the year 900 or so, just after the settlement of Iceland. Lava tubes like this one are formed when the magma starts to cool on the surface, but there’s still a hot “river” of magma flowing beneath it. Then the magma flow stops, leaving a hollow cave beneath the cool crust on the surface.
The opening of Víðgelmir is huge, but as soon as we got inside it got narrower and narrower until there was hardly space for me to stand upright! Where it’s at its narrowest, a gate has been installed to protect the lava formations that are further inside. From that point it stretches on through the lava for about 1,5 kilometers. There were some incredible ice formations across the lava walls and the cave floor. Some remains of human habitation from the settlement age have been found in the cave and are now kept at the National Museum in Reykjavík.
Hraunfossar and Barnafoss waterfalls
Our next stop was at the incredible waterfalls of Hraunfossar. The name means Lava Waterfalls, since you can see how the glacial water flows from underneath the lava field and into the river below. A short walk from there is an amazing waterfall called Barnafoss – Children’s Waterfall. Its name comes from a folk story that says there used to be a stone arch over the river. Ages ago, two children fell off the arch and drowned in the river, so their mother, distraught, had the arch destroyed. The river is extremely powerful at this point – I could have stayed there and watched it for hours.
The Powerful Icelandic Nature: Deildartunguhver Hot Spring
On the way back to the city we made one final stop at the hot spring Deildartunguhver, the most powerful hot spring in Europe, where we saw the boiling hot water come bubbling, gushing and steaming straight up from the ground!
There’s also a cute farmer’s market there, where you can buy locally grown vegetables from the nearby geothermal greenhouses by dropping some coins in a box.
After a whole day of Icelandic nature and adventures I was happy to nap in the jeep on the way home to Reykjavík, having experienced Iceland in yet another new way.