Iceland (to hike or not to hike - that is the question)


For us, Iceland was one of those places of mystery that you never think you will visit. Nonetheless, when I looked at a map to plan our trip in Europe, there it was - only three hours away by plane. Opportunities must be seized, so we used our European trip as a springboard to Iceland and the chance to do the most northerly trekking we have done. From the moment we locked in the time and flights, I regularly checked the Icelandic weather reports - bad idea. It was then that I realised the tourist brochures give a slightly coloured view of the country as for the three months prior to our arrival the little app that I had on on my i-touch, showed a string of rain symbols with only the occasional sunny interlude. It was all a bit disconcerting.

These pages are probably more about what we didn't do than what we did. Our time in Iceland was dominated by what could euphemistically be called "intemperate weather" and several of our attempted walks remained just that - attempted. The planned day-walk at Skaftafell was shortened due to fog and no visibility, the attempt to climb the Snaefellsjökull Glacier was abandoned due to high wind and rain, and the walk up to the recently erupted volcanoes near Þórsmörk* was prevented by heavy rain and an Arctic gale. Still, we were fortunate to complete the 4-day Laugarvegur Trek across some incredible volcanic landscapes.

These pages can be viewed as a counterfoil to the tourist brochures - giving a more realistic idea of the weather the trekker may encounter. That is not to say that one shouldn't come here to trek. Even in bleak weather the landscapes are fantastic and the experience is unique.

* Þ is pronounced "th"

Getting There

Iceland - sunny one minute, storms the next

Thermal pool in a lava landscape

- The jewel in the crown of Reykjavik

We left Hamburg airport at midnight and arrived in Reykjavik three hours later at 6am - needless to say we hadn't had much sleep and a dip in the thermal waters of the famous Blue Lagoon seemed the tonic for this. The weather was as bleak as We picked our hire car up at the airport and headed off into the greyness - as we left the urbanisation of the apirport, we were greeted by a strong, cold wind whipping mist and cloud across the plain of jagged lava. It was as alien a landscape as I have visited, but soon we reached the Blue Lagoon complex. Yes, it was expensive and hyper-commercialised, but the warm, pale-blue and mineral-rich water, steaming in the frigid air was the tonic we needed. Once we got in, we didn't want to get out again.

The fair Nello "takes the waters" of the Blue Lagoon

Three hours later, we left the Blue Lagoon, wrinkle-skinned and revived, to head in to Reykjavik, find our hostel and check out this most northerly of capital cities. We even took in the local culture, visiting first the museum and next the mall. For the first few days, we were going to be normal tourists - trekking the wilder parts would come later.

Reykjavik skyline

The older houses added a dash of colour to a grey day


The Golden Circle

The Golden Circle is the name given to a circuit of three of the top tourist attractions in Iceland. As we had a hire car for a couple of days, the fair Nello and I decided to become more traditional tourists and visit these places, Þingvellir National Park, Geysir and the Gullfoss waterfall.

A curious light on the hills north of Reykjavik

An empty landscape on the road to Þingvellir

The weather was decidedly better than yesterday, with temperatures a warmish 14, a gentler wind and even the odd patch of blue sky, as we drove out of Reykjavik and across the treeless green landscape, dotted with red and white farmhouses to Thingvellir, our first port of call.

Where tectonic plates pull apart

A fissure in the lava

Lake Þingvallavatn and the rift valley between the North American and European plates

This site has two claims to fame, one geological and one historical. It is here that the North American and European tectonic plates are slowly being pushed apart creating a rift through the middle of Iceland. The floor of the rift valley has slowly subsided, leaving the Oxana River to plunge over the black lava cliffs and flow on down to Lake Þingvallavatn - an amazing landscape.

Site of the AlÞingi - Iceland's first parliament established in 930AD

In 930AD this valley was 4m higher than today. This date is significant as it was here that the AlÞingi, the parliament of Icelandic chieftains was first assembled to create and discuss the laws of the country. This continued until the 18th century in various guises and thus played a critical role in the development of Icelandic society and traditions. It was fascinating to picture all this in the context of this amazing landscape.

The Oxana River Falls plunge into the rift

We left the North American plate and drove across the rift to Europe - amazing! Once on the European plate, we continued on to Geysir, where an eruptive cauldron lent its name to all such geothermal features the world over. Geysir is a bit tired these days, but its neighbouring geyser, Strokkur, set amongst an assortment of smaller steamers and bubblers, spouts up to 30m high jets of boiling water and steam only minutes apart.

Not regular in activity, it teases the assembled crowds with varying numbers of false starts, where water is sucked down into or rises up in the vent, before finally a large dome of water swells up and is blown skywards by the pressure below to the delight of the onlookers. We watched a number of eruptions from both up close and from the lookout point high above the geothermal field - even under bleak skies it was impressive.

The landscape of Geysir

A small geyser at Geysir

Thermal pool with a bit of colour

The water in the circular pool begins to stir ...

... and then Strokkur blows

Thermal pool the colour of the surrounding soil

View of Strokkur erupting from the hill

Moving on from the thermal fields of Geysir, we continued our traverse of this wide and empty plain. The flat greenness of the landscape was broken in the north by a dark blue line of hills, holding back the enormous whiteness of Langjökull at 953 km2, Iceland's second largest ice-cap. It was impressive, even on a bleak grey day.

The south-eastern rim of the Langjökull - second largest ice-cap in Iceland

The raging waters of Gullfoss pour into the fissure

Finally, we moved on a few kilometres to where the Hvítá River has carved itself a rugged little canyon between the basalt blocks and, in so doing created the incredibly powerful, if not very high, waterfalls known as Gullfoss. A massive volume of water thunders over two broad drops, 11m and 20m. The second drops into a narrow rift from which clouds of spray rise up - a demonstration of the power of water.

The upper falls of Gullfoss

Mists rise above the rocky gorge beneath Gullfoss

A panorama of the Hvítá River pouring over the Gullfoss

So ended our little circuit, but instead of returning to Reykjavik, we headed south and west for over 300 kilometres - our destination the Skaftafell National Park.


The South Coast

The weather in the interior was cloudy with a bit of drizzle and also a bit of sunshine - good enough for the drive-by tourism that we had indulged in. However, by the time we followed the back roads across the rich hay-fields of south-west Iceland, with their sheep, cattle and Iceland ponies, the weather had decidedly deteriorated.

Seljalandsfoss from beneath

These cliffs once formed part of the south coast

We reached the south coast, to be greeted by rain. Still, it did not detract from the spectacle of the Seljalandsfoss, a 60m waterfall tumbling over the old coastal cliffs to the flat green plain below.

The 60m drop of Seljalandsfoss

Crossing the black sands of the south coast in the fog and rain

For the next 200km, we drove around the southern coast of Iceland in sleeting rain, 60kph winds and low cloud or fog. It was hard work, driving across the featureless lava plains and ash flats in this weather, crossing the swollen south-flowing rivers on one-lane bridges.

The cliffs and slopes of the volcanic ridges appeared and disappeared like ghosts in the mist, water pouring off their tops in a long array of waterfalls. It looked like it would have been a magnificently wild landscape, were we able to see it.

A glimpse of the mountains backing the black sand plain

Finally we reached our accommodation in Hof, near the Skaftatell National Park. A few shafts of sunlight lit up the tongue of ice flowing down from the mighty Vatnajökull, Iceland's biggest ice-cap, as we passed. Lets hope that it is an omen for better weather tomorrow.

A rare shaft of sunshine lights up the mountains of Skaftafell and the Svinafell Glacier

The moss bound church of Hof

The elves were clearly playing tricks - the sunlight on Skaftafell was but a cruel hoax, as we woke to be greeted by low fog and drizzle. Still, this promontory on the south coast where the mighty Vatnajökull pushes its icy fingers out towards the sea is the wettest part of a wet island. Given that the favourite topic of conversation is the weather on the next farm, we decided to push on - who knows what we might find in a few kilometres, especially when we get to the eastern side of these mountains.

Glaciers flowing down from the hidden heights of Vatnajökull, Icelands largest ice-cap

We were glad that we did as to the east, the fog was lifting to reveal the broad rivers of glacial ice flowing down from Vatnajökull. We drove as far as Jökulsárlón, the famous glacial lagoon, where the Breiðamerkurjökull at its rear has calved hundreds of icebergs. these drift down, clogging the narrow outlet to the sea.

Icebergs drifting in the still water of Jökulsárlón

The colour and pattern of icebergs

Every now and then and iceberg is caught by the current and tumbles its way spectacularly out through the channel, where the waves of the North Atlantic grind and break it up. The glass-like remants are then scattered by the surf onto the black sand beach like a myriad of sparkling jewels. The ocean, that great sculptor, had worked its magic and we lingered long amongst the exquisite beauty of this wild Icelandic beach.

Nello adds the only splash of colour ...

... to the ice covered black sand of Jökulsárlón Beach

A massive pale blue ice crystal

Glistening shards of ice


The North Atlantic waves pounding a beached iceberg


Beauty in black and white

A big berg glows electric blue in the grey ocean waters

A scattering of light

Sadly, we needed to get back to Reykjavik that night and also wanted to do a walk in Skaftafell - perhaps the cloud had lifted back there as well. We hopped in the car and headed back to the west, stopping briefly to do a short walk up to the Fjallsárlón, a smaller glacial lagoon, but one from where you could sit and look across to the face of Fallsjökull, a Vatnajökull glacial tongue - beautiful.

The face of Fallsjökull calving icebergs into the glacial lagoon

Remnants of an old road bridge swept
away by glacier floods

The coastal mountains break through the foggy veil

Then it was back to Skaftafell ... and the rain. Our plan had been to do a 4-hour walk up the rocky spine between Skaftafellsjökull and Svinafellsjökull, the the two outflow glaciers that swept down from the mighty Vatnajökull ice-cap to viewpoints where we could look down on these rivers of ice. Howver, even when the rain lifted, the fog did not.

Nello contemplates the icebergs
in Fjallsárlón

The fog lifts to reveal the houses of Hof (where we had spent the night)

The rich vegetation of the Skaftafell

However, even when the rain lifted, the fog did not. The cloud was high enough for us to climb up to the Svartifoss, a waterfall flowing over black basalt columns. It was great to be out and walking in Iceland and, here in Skaftafell, we even walked through remants of the low Icelandic forest. This valley was a haven for tree and shrub, and there was even a scattering of wildflowers. With vegetation comes wildlife and occasionally a thrush flashed thorugh the vegetation alongside the path.

Svartifoss tumbles over the basalt columns

Leaving the waterfall, we climbed to a point where we were able to look back over the immense black wasteland of the Skeiðarársandur, the wide band of lava sand and ash formed by glacial outwash and criss-crossed by braided rivulets running down from the glacier's faces. The greyness of the sky seemed to complement the desolation of this landscape. However, the cloud cover was just above our heads - there was no point continuing. We descended to the car and headed - back across the black sand plains. At least this time we could see them.

Nello - between the clouds and coastal plain

Crossing the black sand plain of Skeiðarársandur

A trio of Icelandic sheep

It was a long drive back to Reykjavik, but at times we even had a bit of sunshine which lit up the green clad cliffs and made the landscape glow. When it appears, the light here is brilliant. Finally, after seeing 600m cliffs, dimpled moss-covered lava fields, black sand beaches and thundering waterfalls, we left the south coast and arrived back in Reykjavik .... and back into the rain.

The 600m high cliffs of Lómagnúpur shrouded in the mist

A farm tucked into the sheltered face of the old sea cliffs

South Coast farmhouse

Moss-covered lava field

Once were sea cliffs

Reynisfjara Beach at Vik (once voted one of the 10 most beautiful in the world)

The church at Vik - southernmost town in Iceland

The 60m drop of Skógafoss

As close as you get without a horizontal drenching

The window of fine weather had whet our appetite for further exploration and tomorrow the plan was to climb the Snaefellsjökull volcano, an isolated ice-cap on a peninsula to the west of Reykjavik and a place of mystery and legend. It was here that Jules Verne imagined the entry point to the bowels of the earth in his famous novel "Journey to the Centre of the Earth".



We were picked up by our guide, Simmi, and with five other intrepid glacier-climbers set out for the almost 3 hour trip from Reykjavik to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula and the start of the walk. Intrepid but somewhat despondent, for the Icelandic weather was holding true to form and low grey cloud hung close to the ground, the moisture settling out as a fine drizzle. Our adventure looked somewhat hopeless, as we drove around the shores of Flaxafoi Bay, through the impressive tunnel beneath the deep fiord Hvalfjordur and across the bridge over Borgarfjordur. The pattern of landscapes was starting to be recognisable - sea, coastal plain, steep basalt cliffs to the plateau beyond - if barely visible due to the thick low cloud.

However, once over the second fiord, the cloud layer began to lift slightly and the feet of the mountains of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula were clearly visible - perhaps we would get to do the climb after all. By the time we reached the turn-off for the rough scoria road that climbed up into the moss-covered lavascape of the peninsula range, there were white clouds drifting around the tops and even a patch or two of blue sky - the mission was on.

After instructions from Simmi on glacier walking and the danger of crevasses, we received our crampons and harnesses, stowed them in our packs and set off. Simmi led us over the rubbly lava surface, softened by the bright green mosses, crossing a muddy stream that had carved a path for itself through the layers black scoria and ash to begin a climb over the barren jumble of volcanic rocks.

A brief bit of blue sky above the slopes of Snaefellsjökull volcano

After a while we picked up an old scoria track that eased the climb. Wisps of cloud drifted by, as the scene change from ethereal mist to panoramic lavascape of the ridge-line and back. At one point, the glacier itself appeared in a gap in the mist and our hopes lifted.

The mists return

Heading off to climb the volcano

The route ahead - looking promising (briefly)

The barren lava fields of the Snaefell mountains

A small pondage in the lave field

Finally we reach the ice of Snaefellsjökull ....

We stopped briefly at the ruins of an old ski field, no longer used, and then began a steeper climb over larger basalt rocks and boulders and the occasional bit of polished obsidian. We were heading towards a tongue of the glacier and slowly worked our way up to it, not the impressive vertical face like the big glaciers of the south coast, but a flattish sheet of ice, snow, and mud. Still, we were at the coal face.

... as bad weather sets in

Wet and windy descent from Snaefellsjökull

Gale-driven sleet on high, but .....

However, as we were admiring it, the cloud descended quickly and the wind that had been slowly building up turned into a 60-80 kph tempest, blasting down from the heights over the glacier to buffet us with ice-chilled air.

Worse, the clouds were now being driven horizontally down the slope in a fine but drenching mist. Our climb was over - Simmi didn't get any objections when he sounded the retreat. To continue onto the glacier in a white out and freezing gale was not an option.

.... sunshine below. Drying wet gear in the sun at Arnastapi

Our disappointment was softened a bit by the fact that Simmi told us it had been several weeks since anyone had made it to the top of the glacier. I guess at least we touched it. By the time we reached the vehicle, we were all feeling varying degrees of wet and cold - even with wet weather gear, the wind-driven mists found a way through. Simmi drove us all down to the campground near the shore to have a hot coffee and warm up. Would you believe it - here the sun was shining - no more than a few kilometres away.

It was good to be warm again and, once our gear had dried in the wind and sun, we took a few minutes to check out the impressive basalt columns of the sea cliffs near Arnastapi looking out over the water of Flaxafoi Bay. On the way out, we stopped to explore an Raudfeldsgja, an extremely narrow ravine that cuts into the basalt cliffs of the peninsula range.

Inside the Raudfeldsgja Ravine

The cliffs of Arnastapi


Grey seal

The entry to Raudfeldsgja Ravine

View across Flaxafoi Bay from the Snaefellsnes Peninsula

Then it was time for the long drive home - time to reflect yet again on the power and unpredictability of the Icelandic weather. However, at least this time we could see the scenery. We could see why the weather is a favourite topic of conversation in Iceland. For us it was becoming more important - twice we had set out on a hike and were forced back. However, tomorrow we were heading out on a 4-day hike across the wild regions of Iceland's interior and this time there would be no turning back.