We rested comfortably until 9 or 10 in the morning at our campsite near Skogafoss. There is a truly epic hike up the side of the waterfall here- it is a bit treacherous by American standards (but isn’t everything treacherous by those standards)? so wear good shoes and use common sense. At the top of the waterfall there is a small fence that’s easy to cross. If you follow this trail, you can go two different places. If you’re in for a long backpacking trip, this route eventually takes you into Landmannalaugar (the valley of rhyolite hills). If you’re in for more of a short hike, this is where the trail to Þórsmörk en Stakkholtsgjá starts. We heard varied reports about the state of the trail farther on, so be prepped for less than ideal trekking conditions, and bring adequate food and water.
True to our travel form, we decided next to head into Thórsmörk (fun fact: it was named after the Norse god Thor) having only a vague idea of what was there or how to get there. Our travel books said the Mýrdalsjökull glacier was in the region of Thórsmörk, but didn’t specify where. The valley is surrounded by two glaciers: Tindfjallajökull and the infamous Eyjafjallajökull.
We promptly got lost. We accidentally drove into a back pasture of a sheep farm and realized we had left the correct road about half a mile back. Although seeing hundreds of sheep and baby lambs was pretty amazing, we most certainly took the long (and rough) way in. For the record, taking F Road 249 is the only good way in and out. This is a place I would encourage everyone to place on their bucket list. If I were to go to Iceland again, I would make this my first stop. It’s a hikers paradise and has over 5 day treks, as well as another trail into Landmannalaugar. Friendly word of advice- the road crosses through the glacier run-off river Krossá that can be a small trickle or a raging torrent. There are no bridges, and the road crosses the water at least 7 or 8 times prior to reaching Mýrdalsjökull. There were several treacherous areas that I didn’t think our car would make it through, and during the drive we had the unsettling sensation that the valley was ready to flood out at any moment. But the views… every second was golden. Any trials we experienced getting there were far outweighed by what we were able to see. Our goal was a visitor’s center far into the park that we never reached, and by our estimation we were probably still several hours out when we were forced to turn around. YOU MUST HAVE A FOUR WHEEL DRIVE TO VENTURE INTO THIS AREA.
There were very few road signs and we honestly didn’t know if we were heading in the right direction, but as there was only one visible road, we figured we’d just keep driving. We almost drove past the glacier- we would have completely missed it, except we wanted to stretch our legs and realized that several four-wheel-drive vehicles were heading down a small pass towards a clearing in the ground. We followed them on foot, and stumbled right into Mýrdalsjökull.
Thórsmörk is where we first started to experience the treachery of Icelandic winds. I know it must seem like an exaggeration when I say this, but we very literally almost lost the passenger’s side door of our car when I unwittingly opened it without first securing a vicegrip on the door handle. We experienced this same wind again in the northern region of the country. Here are our first views of Thórsmörk.
We made sandwiches and ate lunch while we headed on to Sólheimajökull Glacier. The glacier is dark, but magnificent. There is a short, 10-minute walk from the parking lot to the glacier and wonderful, hot coffee at the shop near the lot. This shop also has bathrooms but at the time we were there they were in pretty rough shape. As we had no desire to complete a glacier tour, we moved on to Dryholaey Beach.
I was on a mission to see a puffin. For whatever reason, it’s been on my bucket list ever since I saw a picture in National Geographic when I was a little girl. Dyrhólaey was a bird watchers paradise. You can see Guillemots, Razorbills, Puffins, Kittiwake, and much more. All of the birds were pretty magnificent, especially in such large flocks, and being able to watch them fly to their nests in the evening was definitely an experience worth having. Each type of bird nestled into a section of the cliff as the light started to fade, and at the last breath of true sunlight you could see that most of the cliff was covered in birds. Also, we saw puffins! Many puffins. They were floating in the ocean below, flying around the cliffs, and diving for food. And yes- it was as magical as my 7-year old self had believed it would be. This is the one part of Iceland where I regretted not investing in more than just an iPhone camera prior to coming out. The black sand beaches, the clouds of arctic tern, the waves splashing against ancient rock formations- none of that beauty was adequately captured on my phone. The sheer size of the “hill island with the door hole” (it makes sense when you see it) that makes Dryholaey famous was lost in perspective on film. This is a place to bundle up, grab a good camera, and wait for nature to do its thing. It won’t disappoint.
* Dyrhólaey shuts down to protect nesting in part of May and part of June- double check before you head out!
We were feeling pretty pumped after seeing the puffins at Dyrhólaey and so we decided to keep driving. We shortly reached the small and charming town of Vik, where we ate at the Strondin Bistro and Bar. It was delicious, but very busy as options are limited in Vik. We drove to Kirkjubaejarklausteur to get gas, and then decided to try and hit Skaftafell National Park by midnight. We made it at around 11:40 p.m. and set up our tent, but were unable to rest. The evening was bright and beautiful, and the mountains surrounding the campsite were shining in a perfect hue – the scenery was epic, and sleep felt like a waste, so we attempted to hike into the park to a hot spring (night isn’t very dark at the end of May here). This was a mistake. We got lost and returned battered and beaten sometime after 2 a.m., showered, and went straight to sleep. We never did find that hot spring… (Campsite was $25.00 U.S. (2831 Kr) per night, hot showers $4.50 U.S. (500 Kr), totally worth it).