The Northern Highlands
Day 4 started out like a dream as we drove throughout the northern highlands. It’s a section of the country where you feel like you have to stop every mile or so to take another picture. The scenery is breathtaking. We were able to see where several of the scenes from “beyond the wall” in Game of Thrones were filmed.
We took a quick detour to Jökulsárgljúfur National Park (this is a fragment of Vatnajökull National Park, for those of you looking on the map) to see Dettifoss and Selfoss. These waterfalls are much more beautiful in the summer months but just as majestic in winter and shoulder season. As the ice freezes around the falls it leaves intricate, beautiful patterns that, in my opinion, were more beautiful than the falls themselves. The pathway to Dettifoss was blocked by snow and ice so park rangers had used small flags to demarcate the safest trail to follow to the falls. Even in shoulder season, this area was extremely congested and due to the high volume of ice we would often have to walk single file behind tour groups to get in or out. No bathrooms here- just port-a-johns.
We continued our northern trek with a stop by Hverir, Krafla Volcano and Viti Crater. The hot springs and mud pits in this area have a distinct sulfurous smell that is much more potent than any I’ve ever experienced before. If you are easily nauseated by the smell of sulfur, this is not the place for you. We stopped by the Hverir Mud Pits which are fascinating in their strength and heat, but could not stay nearly as long as we wanted because the area was so…malodorous. New mud pits continue to form in the region, so step carefully if you spend time exploring here.
We decided to give Viti Crater a try, since our time in Hverir was cut short. As we hiked past Viti, the wind started to pick up. As I’ve mentioned before, the wind in Iceland has a bit of a demonic flare and is constantly changing. Near Viti Crater, there are several regions of boiling mud pits that are a rainbow mix of colors. They are beautiful to see but are unmarked and scattered intermittently throughout the region. We were halfway above the Crater on our ill-fated hike when wind gusts of 80 + mph began to rip through the valley. At one point, it physically picked us up off of the ground and we realized we no longer had control over where we went. It is extremely disconcerting to feel yourself moving in the wrong direction when you’re within 30 feet of a boiling mud pit that has no walls around it. Needless to say, we left after this.
To salvage our day, we went to the Myvatn Nature Baths. This was wonderful. It’s substantially less expensive (and less crowded) than the Blue Lagoon and is a small piece of heaven. You can change the temperature you experience based on where you swim, and there is a cold pool as well for those who want it. We spent the majority of our day there. Don’t forget to take off your jewelry- the minerals in the water will destroy the natural color of your jewelry. Our third restaurant meal of the trip came from Daddi’s Pizza in Lake Myvatn where you can score a plain 12” cheese pizza for 1900 Kr ($16.50 in U.S. currency-see the full menu here). ). The wind continued to rage through Myvatn, and we cautiously attempted to explore the nearby region, spending time at the underground hot spring of Grjótagjá. It was difficult to find, but well worth the trek. You end up driving through farmland to reach the spring & it feels very much like you are driving the wrong direction. It was a cold day and the punishing winds had not abated at all, so climbing down into the warmth of the underground cavern of Grjótagjá was a welcome relief. As we headed back to our cars, we saw a car full of Icelandic teens park beside us and go flying towards the cavern in nothing but flip-flops and robes, shedding their limited clothing as they ran. This is clearly a local’s paradise.
We headed south for a hike through Dimmuborgir which translates literally into “The Dark Fortress” and lives up to its name. It looks like a land pulled straight out of Grimm’s fairy tales, and has a truly eerie feel to it. Icelandic people have a strong belief in the supernatural, and it’s here in Dimmuborgir where you start to think they may be on to something. This entire area was formed when a volcano in town erupted, leaving bizarre patterns of lava rock distributed throughout the region, with multitudinous caverns, arches, and formations left in its wake. After a quick visit to the gift shop, we headed on our way.
As we looked for a place to spend the night, we decided to take a quick breather and see the famous Godafoss in Fosshol. There is a beautiful guesthouse right beside the waterfall, but we decided to drive on due to cost and ended up at a campground on the river. I haven’t been able to find it on any of the official Icelandic camping sites since we stayed there and I am not sure it is open for business any longer, so I won’t add in prices. This day was definitely our toughest, but even the toughest day in Iceland is a dream come true. Take it as you will.