11 Mar Iceland: The Irresistible Adventure Destination
Rain pitter-pattered down as my friends and I exited the car dealership outside of Reykjavik and tossed our backpacks in the trunk of a Jeep Cherokee. The air in Iceland smelled different than the evergreen forests of my youth in Ohio. It was more elemental, more volcanic—like wet dirt and ash. I had read that this tiny island in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean was, for the most part, devoid of forests, and I thought that the smell must be the earth at its purest, without an abundance of trees and plants to act as an air freshener.
The four of us were off to drive the Ring Road, which on my map was a red line that traced the edges of the island in a wide circle. We had a rigorous, 17-page itinerary, which only had one major deviation from Iceland’s main thoroughfare. We had set a day aside to visit Landmannalaugar, an area in the heart of Iceland that is famous for its soaking pools and hiking trails. After seeing photos of the mustard- and rust-marbled mountains, it became my top sightseeing pick, and it was also the reason we shelled out extra cash to rent a 4×4 vehicle. In a compact car, we wouldn’t be able to traverse the gravel roads that would take us into the highlands.
Over the course of our 10-day trip, I couldn’t stop thinking about how Iceland is the perfect adventure destination. When I came home, these are the reasons I urged my friends to book plane tickets of their own.
The landscapes are otherworldly.
Sitting shotgun in the Cherokee was a treat because it offered a panoramic view of the horizon. In the backseat, you had to swivel your head to take in the details on either side of the road. Iceland is famous for its dramatic scenery, but I hadn’t realized how ever-changing the landscape would be. In addition to being mostly treeless, no billboards or power lines obstructed the view, which seemed to change around each bend. One moment we’d be driving in the shadow of a hulking mountain, and the next we’d be zooming through lush farmlands as twin lambs ran side by side, their strides matching each other step for step.
In our first 24 hours, we hit all the stops on the Golden Circle, a well-trodden day trip from the capital with three main stops. First was Þingvellir National Park, where we walked in a ridge between two tectonic plates. Next was the Strokkur Geysir, which shoots scalding water 100 feet into the air every 10 minutes or so. Finally, we took in Gullfoss Waterfall, a thundering, tiered waterfall that zigzags across the landscape. The island felt energetic and alive—as if great forces were at work around and underneath you. Glaciers still carved the earth, and active volcanoes loomed, seeming only to be silent for now.
It’s just touristy enough.
The Ring Road was well marked, and signs at all the major landmarks were printed in several different languages, including English. Though there were many other tourists in hiking boots and parkas, there was always enough room to take in the surroundings. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if a day would come when the two-lane Ring Road might turn into a highway with Holiday Inns and golden arches alongside it. For now, the black asphalt was like a line of ink running through the vast landscape. It had a noticeable lack of guardrails—only the hairiest hairpin curves required them—and I imagined, too, that that might someday change.
There was also a noticeable lack of crowd-controlling barriers. Besides a rope strung around some of the bubbling mud pools that could reach temperatures of more than 200 degrees Fahrenheit, tourists had free reign to hike and climb wherever their curiosity took them. One of my friends ventured out onto slippery rocks near waterfalls and climbed down jagged cliffs, clicking his camera along the way. Not trusting my sense of balance, I made a point to remain at least 10 feet from any edge.
English is widely spoken.
After a few wrong turns, we pulled up to a white farmhouse with a high-pitched black roof that would be the first place we rested our head along the Ring Road. No animals roamed about, and no crops were planted, making it clear that the family now relied on hosting guests for income. A woman with thinning blond hair asked us to remove our shoes and then showed us around. She only spoke a few words, which made me think that she might not know much English; but the further we traveled, the more we realized that English is spoken by virtually everyone throughout the country. Learning the language is compulsory in school.
To be polite, my travel companions and I had memorized a few useful Icelandic words—hello, good day, and thank you. I was elated when a grocery store clerk addressed me in Icelandic, and I was able to complete my transaction without switching the conversation to English. We soon learned some common word endings, which were useful for understanding all the turn offs on the Ring Road. A word that ended in -laug was a pool, -jokull was a glacier, and -foss was a waterfall. We made a game out of shouting “foss!” every time we saw a waterfall spilling down the side of a mountain—which in many places seemed to be every few minutes.
If you plan right, you’ll have plenty of daylight.
The next day we hit the road to Landmannalaugar and filled up the gas-guzzling Cherokee. The further we got away from the capital, the fewer gas stations we passed. We worried about getting low on fuel, and at about $7.50 a gallon, we also worried that we’d burn through a lot of money.
The scenery around us had turned from rolling, pastoral farmlands to a vast, post-apocalyptic moonscape. All of the colors were drained from view, leaving only shades of gray, including the overcast sky. It was like driving through a black and white photo. Occasionally we’d pass a house, but like everywhere else in Iceland, there was something about this place that made man’s constructions seem fragile and temporary.
As we got closer to our next turn—the road that would take us into Landmannalaugar—a triangular, bright-yellow sign stuck out against the gray landscape. When we came up to it, we could see there was a yellow cable suspended across the road. The sign explained—in Icelandic and English—that the road was impassable. We had read that the road should be open by then, but we must have arrived a few days too early.
We studied our map and saw another route, but it would add hours to our trip. Though the daylight wasn’t the problem—we were in Iceland during the time of year when it never gets dark, and you can see the subtle changes in light as dusk turns directly into dawn—we weren’t sure we could risk the gas.
There are no entrance fees for landmarks.
Disappointed, we set our GPS for the cabin we had booked for the night and headed back toward the Ring Road. As we drove through the weather-stripped landscape, I sunk back in my seat, blaming myself for a mistake that would cause us to lose valuable hours on our road trip. Then I spotted a blue sign: Þjófafoss 4.
“Guys, there’s a foss that way!” I told the group. “Only four kilometers!”
We hadn’t heard of the waterfall in our research, but we all agreed to check it out. The one-lane road made a few twists, the Cherokee kicking up rocks the entire way. We came to a small clearing with room enough for two cars—but we were the only ones there, and we hadn’t passed another soul on the way. We parked and walked toward the sound of rushing water. We couldn’t see anything until we were near the edge of a cliff, when a turquoise waterfall cutting through black and purple rocks came into view. Behind it, a mountain jutted out of the flat landscape like a shark’s fin cutting through water.
There are unique photo opportunities around every turn.
I had accidentally led us down a road with a dead end, but in doing so we had come to a place of incredible power and beauty. I snapped a few photos, but mostly looked out at the panorama in front of me in awe. Every other landmark we had visited was something I had already seen photos of on the internet. This one was new for me, and stumbling upon it felt like a true discovery.
As our mud-splattered Cherokee made its way along the Ring Road and its arteries over the next week, we stuck to our itinerary less. Of course we had to make it to the hostels and farm stays we booked each night, but we allowed ourselves as many diversions as we felt like taking. We meandered through a lumpy lava field covered in green moss, stopped at a glacial lake where we touched the tips of icebergs, and hiked to a rusty shell of a boat off the northeast coast of the island.
On the last day of the trip, the road became more congested as we approached Reykjavik. Traffic lights reappeared. I asked my travel companions what their favorite part of the trip was, and everyone agreed it was those few unexpected moments we had alone at the waterfall.