Travelling eastward along the south coast, it becomes increasingly difficult to ignore the ice-capped mountains that come to dominate the landscape. Through the centuries, their names – Hekla and Katla being two notorious examples – have struck a mixture of fear, dread, and awe amongst the Norsemen that made this unforgiving land their home.
Though these mountains may appear peaceful these days, underneath their glacial peaks lie sleeping volcanic giants preparing for their next eruption. When, exactly, that may be is somewhat hard to say, but it certainly does add to the mystery and excitement when approaching this part of the country. The recent devastation caused by Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 gave a glimpse of what can be wrought when these volcanic powers are unleashed, though this eruption was relatively small by Icelandic standards.
For those looking to get up close and personal to these volcanoes, Þórsmörk nature reserve makes a perfect setting. Read more about this incredible area in this article.
Entering Þór’s backyard
Nestled between two glaciers, Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull, and surrounded by active volcanoes, Þórsmörk can be thought of as Iceland in miniature; intersected by fresh glacial rivers, the area is home to rumbling waterfalls, lofty green mountains, and a rich array of birdlife. Translating roughly as the “land of Þór,” Þórsmörk was named in honour of the eponymous hammer-wielding god by Ásbjörn Reyrketilsson and his brother Steinfinnur. When they reached the coast of Iceland around the year 900 AD and set eyes on this valley surrounded by fiery ice-mountains, they believed the area was carved out by Þór himself. No doubt they were both overcome by the beauty yet humbled by the raw nature set out in front of them.
Forces of nature
Only recently have we attempted to explain geological phenomena with science yet often, the forces of nature are still beyond our control. After a series of earthquakes intensified on the mountain ridge beside Eyjafjallajökull glacier in early 2010, it wasn’t long until lava burst forth there, at Fimmvörðuháls. No one could have predicted that the eruption would take place there, away from the main volcanic craters, since there had not been an eruption in that area since the last Ice Age. Following a strong tradition of reverence to the gods, the newly-formed craters were named after Þór’s sons: Móði (Rage) and Magni (Strength).
Following the larger eruption that took place under the main Eyjafjallajökull volcano just a few weeks later, not only was ash infamously scattered across Europe, but a large and devastating flood (jökulhlaup in Icelandic) was unleashed from the rapidly melting glacial ice. When neighbouring Katla erupted in 1918, the ensuing flood was equivalent in magnitude to the outflow of the Amazon River Delta, but with building-sized blocks of ice floating along it.
Katla UNESCO Global Geopark
Today, the whole area, including Þórsmörk, has been incorporated into the Katla UNESCO Global Geopark, a designation that highlights its unique diversity of geological activity. But this celebration goes far beyond the volcanoes themselves. As you enter the valley, fording multiple glacial rivers, be sure to pay a visit to Stakkholtsgjá, one of Þórsmörk’s spectacular gorges, famed for its powerful waterfall hiding deep within. Continuing further into Þórsmörk, you’re faced with a choice: either to cross the mighty Krossá river to reach the huts of Langidalur or Húsadalur (a.k.a Volcano Huts), or to follow it upstream into Básar. No matter which path you end up taking, you will be greeted with more spectacular sights, befitting a geopark.
Restoring an ancient forest
Unlike other parts of Iceland there is a lush birch forest on both sides of the Krossá river, thanks to the efforts of the Icelandic Forestry Service. Following the exclusion of sheep, who love to nibble on the birch saplings, Þórsmörk has been transformed into a green oasis, resembling the land that Ásbjörn and Steinfinnur stumbled upon just over 1,000 years ago. There is an oft-cited joke about finding your way when lost in an Icelandic forest: just stand up. However, since the sheep have moved out, the trees have become very tall, making Þórsmörk one of the few forests in Iceland where it is, in fact, possible to get lost!
Read more about Þórsmörk nature reserve here!
Contact us at the What’s On booking centre if you want to book a tour to Þórsmörk.