Today we arrived in Iceland’s charming capital city of Reykjavík. We spent the afternoon walking around the heart of downtown, which is quite pedestrian-friendly. We visited the famous Hallgrímskirkja church in the center of town, admired its funky architecture and great acoustics.
We enjoyed exploring more of the city on foot today. The striking modern architecture of the Harpa concert hall drew us in, with its prismatic glass façade creating beautiful shafts of light inside. Nearby, we found the Sun Voyager public artwork, a boat-like sculpture conveying the promise of undiscovered territory. We continued through the shopping district, and back to the church, where we went up the tower for a good view of the city.
The two of us have known for a long time that Iceland is geologically active — the island nation is known for hot springs, geysers, geothermal power, and the infamous Eyjafjallajökull eruption that resulted in more than 100,000 flight cancellations over an eight-day period in 2010. But it never occurred to us to worry about volcanoes while we were planning our trip to Iceland… at least, not until two weeks before the trip, when a caring family member sent a news article pointing out some important facts.
Iceland is located right at the boundary between the American and Eurasian tectonic plates. The two plates are slowly moving apart, creating a geological hot spot that formed the island and its 130 volcanic mountains — 30 of which are active.
Over the years, many eruptions have caused massive destruction in Iceland. But none was as catastrophic as the eruption of the Laki fissure in 1783 and 1784, which killed a quarter of Iceland’s population and more than half the country’s livestock. A haze of poisonous sulfur dioxide emissions resulted in deaths across Europe, and weather patterns were disrupted around the world.
But it’s a possible eruption of the Katla volcano that was the subject of the most recent news article. Lately, scientists have been monitoring the area closely because of increased seismic activity. Katla, one of the largest volcanoes in Iceland, hasn’t had a major eruption in 99 years, despite eruptions spaced 13 to 95 years apart throughout all its previous recorded history. And except in 2010, the last several eruptions of nearby Eyjafjallajökull have all been followed within months by a Katla eruption.
Despite concerns about Katla, we decided to stay positive. We learned a lot about volcanoes before our trip, and while in Iceland, rather than worry about potential eruptions, we focused on the amazing landscapes that volcanoes have already created. We’ll certainly hope for continued volcanic stability for the foreseeable future.
Time to explore further afield! Today we picked up a rugged four-wheel-drive vehicle so we can explore some unpaved roads in the countryside. We headed north out of the city just as it started snowing lightly, and took a right when we got to the inlet known as Hvalfjörður. We drove around the perimeter of this fjord, enjoying the views of snow-covered farms and across the water to the hills opposite. We found plenty of dirt roads to explore and had fun splashing through icy streams. We watched the sunset across the fjord, then headed through the tunnel and back into Reykjavík.
Today we drove to Laugarvatn, not to visit the geothermal pools that it is known for, but to see the lesser-known yet amazing Brúarfoss waterfall. A short, easy hike from the parking area led us to a wooden bridge over the river, offering the perfect vantage point to view this astoundingly clear blue cascade. The color of the water was intense, and still stood out as big fat snowflakes started falling. We took photos until our fingers were too cold to operate the camera any more.
Next up: a brief stop at the Haukadalur geothermal area, the home of the massive Geysir that gives its name to all other geysers. That one wasn’t active during our visit, but we saw several impressive eruptions of Strokkur, which goes off every 5 to 10 minutes.
Iceland is known for its amazing waterfalls, and today did not disappoint. We visited two well-known falls in this area: Öxarárfoss and Gullfoss. They’re even more gorgeous because of the snow-covered landscape surrounding them.
This was a driving day. We spent a lot of time on the road to reach the easternmost point on our itinerary: Hornafjörður. Along the way, we passed plenty of beautiful landscapes, and lots of farms with Icelandic horses. We pulled over several times to visit these cute and friendly creatures.
It’s impossible for us to resist the Icelandic horses that we see while driving around Iceland. As soon as we stop the car and start walking in their direction, they gather by the fence, hoping for some friendly interaction. They quickly became one of our favorite subjects to photograph.
We wondered why there are so many horses in Iceland (about 80,000, compared to 317,000 people). It turns out that they still play a big role in everyday life in Iceland: some farmers still use them to herd sheep and to help with farm work; but most of all, they’re used in leisure riding.
To protect the purity and health of the breed, Icelandic law prohibits any horses from being imported into the country, whether they’re a different breed or a previously exported Icelandic horse. As a result, Icelandic horses remain the only breed of horse in Iceland, and diseases in these horses are practically unheard of.
They’re also a popular breed internationally, and for good reasons. They look absolutely stunning: they are compact and muscular, with long shaggy manes and coats in a wide range of colors. They’re extremely hardy, and capable of surviving the harsh Icelandic climate. And they have friendly, easy-going, and enthusiastic personalities, making them great companions for people.
If only we had space for a horse in our garden…
Today we visited Jökulsárlón Lagoon and nearby Diamond Beach. The lagoon has grown in the last 80 years or so as the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier retreats, leaving a lake full of icebergs that float out to the ocean. Smaller chunks of crystal-clear ice (the “diamonds”) wash up on the black sandy beach, making for a dramatic sight.
We liked Diamond Beach so much that we returned this morning to take some more photos. The ice is always moving and changing shape, so each visit is different. In the afternoon, we drove to Vestrahorn, a spiky ridge of mountains that’s dramatically reflected in the tide flats along the shore.
On our way to Vík, we stopped for a short hike to Svartifoss. This waterfall is hidden from view until the end of the hike, when suddenly you see a plume of water dropping down the face of hexagonal basalt columns. It’s a unique and awesome sight! We waded into the frigid water to get just the right angle for a photo (so you don’t have to).
We arrived in the cute little town of Vík in time to have a look around by daylight. Then we headed for Skógafoss in the evening, hoping to see northern lights — and we were rewarded with a great light show!
We admit that one big reason why we went to Iceland in the winter was the possibility of seeing the Aurora Borealis — one of our favorite natural phenomena to experience. Thankfully, we lucked out: for three nights in a row, the northern lights were very active and we had clear weather! We chased the northern lights as long as they kept dancing, deep into the night, completely forgetting about being sleepy or cold. All we could think about was the incredible show of delicate shapes slowly morphing in front of our eyes.
According to old Icelandic legends, the northern lights relieved the pain of delivering a child. But the same superstitions warned that a mother-to-be shouldn’t look at the aurora while giving birth, or the child would be born cross-eyed.
These days, we know that auroras are caused by collisions between charged particles released from the sun and gases in the earth’s atmosphere. Occasionally, the sun’s atmosphere develops a coronal hole, allowing extra electrons and protons to escape. They are thrown out of the sun’s atmosphere, and some reach our planet. Most of these particles are deflected by Earth’s magnetic field, but some enter the atmosphere near the magnetic poles (which is why auroras are most visible near the poles).
As the charged particles descend into our atmosphere, they collide with gas molecules and produce a beautiful display of color in the sky. The auroras we saw were predominantly green, which is the result of electrons colliding with oxygen, and purple, which is the result of collisions with nitrogen. It’s a pretty amazing light show!
The area around Vík has some fascinating landscapes, including black sand beaches, cliffs of basalt columns, and towering rock formations standing in the Atlantic waters. There’s a great story about the Reynisdrangar, three rock pillars that protrude from the ocean just off shore. These were once trolls, according to legend, and they were turned to stone when they stayed out too late one night and were caught by the rays of the rising sun.
We briefly visited Seljalandsfoss, another waterfall that offers the opportunity to walk behind the rushing falls in a sort of cave. The spray from the falls was turning to ice as it reached us (and the camera), making it challenging to take photos. Better to visit this one in spring or summer.
At night, we were treated to awesome northern lights again!
Today we took it easy, recovering a bit from late nights spent photographing the northern lights. We got to see a bit more of the area around Vík, then drove further west to Hvolsvöllur.
This was a long driving day, as we made our way past Reykjavík and into the western peninsula of Snæfellsnes. We got to see a lot along the way, including rustic cabins, majestic mountains, desolate barren landscapes, and ancient churches. We arrived at the famous Kirkjufell mountain and nearby Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall just in time for a beautiful sunset.
We wrapped up our stay in Iceland with a visit to the Blue Lagoon — a group of stunningly colored geothermal pools that serves as both a spa and an energy source. It’s awesome to see so much renewable energy (and beauty) coming from the volcanic activity of this island country! We had a wonderful time exploring Iceland, and visiting in the winter was definitely the right decision for us.