Grjotagja

ICELAND: Our Journey Around Ring Road pt2 // Black Sand Beaches, Glaciers, Cliffs, Peaks, and Geothermal Springs

The second leg of our journey takes us through the Southern half of Iceland - another well-traveled region of the country filled with both long stretches of barren volcanic mud as well as brazen white frozen glacier-filled rivers.

Heavily equipped tour trucks zoomed past us as we drove cautiously down the roads with winds howling along beside our little 4x4 as we scurried along from Vík to Höfn, and then through the East Fjords and onwards to Mývatn.

After waiting out storms, we braved winds and rain atop cliffs to achieve the perfect view of the famed black sand beaches before making our way out towards the East Fjords, but not before making a pit stop to ponder the washed up glaciers that glistened like diamonds scattered along the sand. Then once our journey took a turn towards Northern Iceland, the skies finally began to clear and we got our first glimpse of a clear Icelandic sunset and sunrise, and what an absolute beauty she was!

We spent a night in the city known as the "Northern Light Capital of Iceland", but even when blessed with a clear night, were not fortunate enough to be granted with nature's rendition of a light show. We dirtied our boots and crampons frolicking amidst geothermal springs and half frozen mud pits, jumped the line between the European and North American tectonic plates, decided against crawling into dark and precarious looking holes in the ground filled with steaming water, and drove hours upon hours through miles of mountains and valleys of snow, moss, and volcanic rock... and that's wasn't even the end of it.

Here's part two!

 

 

Day 5 // Basalt Columns and Black Sand Beaches

We were no longer staying in Reykjavík, and had already made it to our new home the night before, located right outside the city Vík. Luckily for us, getting here wasn't an issue at the time - which would've been a whole different story had we left a day later. We were even greeted by the friendliest black lab ever! ♥︎ I believe his name was Chester, and he smelled like wet dog :P

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We were stormed in for the larger part of our 5th day, and everyone else in the country was mostly in the same situation as us due to an orange alert which closed even the main roads leading out of Reykjavík. Around 1pm, however, we were anticipating the storm to lighten up, so we got ready to head out. Gore-tex pants in tow, we were ready for some crazy wind and rain this time. And luckily for us, our AirBnB was also right at the edge of the road to Dyrhólaey, so we didn't have to drive vicariously through any mountain passes in the already very sketchy weather.

 

Reynisfjara (Basalt Columns along the Black Sand Beach)

Timing was everything, and we were going to use the break in the storm to our advantage - we didn't want to get swept away in any sneaker waves on the beaches so we wanted to visit Reynisfjara and the basalt columns along the black sand beaches first.

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It was definitely raining the entire time we were there, so filming was difficult but I have to say, the weather didn't stop the crowds! The columns themselves were just as you'd expect - towering over the water, as birds circled above and wind and rain poured down upon us... pretty ominous.

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Dyrhólaey + Reyniskirkja

Next up, we were bound for the teeny tiny cliffs hidden in the haze of the second picture in the gallery above. Yup, up there. Dyrhólaey. Reyniskirkja is a church that can be seen on the way to Dyrhólaey, so why not. Here it is, it all of its foggy beautiful glory!

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Then, we were definitely not prepared for what came next. But luckily, our car was, and hopefully if you ever come to Iceland, your car is not only AWD, but comes with studded tires like ours did as well because I don't know how we would've managed to get up the slippery muddy, icy, steep, one-way hill without it! The view from there was admittedly fantastic, however, and you could see the rocks down on the black beach below where we just were.

Now that we'd made it up higher and the winds had picked up again, it was becoming even more difficult to get clear shots with rain spraying at us from the coastline... but we tried! It was too late to turn back now and there was no way we were leaving Vík the next day without seeing it all. The drone was definitely out of the question since I could barely stand straight without planting my foot on the metal chains along the cliff's edges. That, unfortunately, was some of the footage we'd wish we were able to get.

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Day 6 // Canyons and Glaciers

Our journey takes us now from Vík to the fishing town of Höfn, with pit stops at the famed glacier lagoon along the way. The storm left a fresh white blanket of snow, but we weren't entirely out of the woods yet since heavy rains during our drive forced us to cross a 45-minute waterfall hike off our itinerary. Bummer, but I didn't need much convincing aside from the pouring rain our windshield wipers were battling off. This now left more time in our schedule for the day and since the weather was bearable by the time we reached the glacier lagoons on our drive to Höfn, we decided to visit them while passing instead of the following day as initially planned. And since the weather was expected (again) to worsen again the following day, time was on our side and we decided to make the best of it while we still could.

Keep your itineraries flexible when in Iceland, guys! You gotta adapt to the weather because it certainly will not make any exceptions for you.

 

Fjaðrárgljúfur

Our first stop of the day was Fjaðrárgljúfur, a well-known massive canyon that stands nearly 330 feet tall. If you've seen any footage of Iceland, you've probably seen footage of this canyon before. Heck, it was even in the IcelandAir safety video so I'm pretty sure you've seen it somewhere before. But this thing is so surreal during Winter - stark white and blue, nearly monochromatic. It tricks the eyes and makes it look as though you're in a virtual reality game, like a vector sketched on a computer. Not to mention, so difficult to photograph and color in photos and video! It looks fake! In the summer though, its beautiful green hillsides and blue water look absolutely stunning, I'm sure those of you lucky enough to see it in both seasons can only attest to its true beauty. Anywho, the bedrock in this canyon is thought to be 2 MILLION YEARS OLD. So now, this becomes the oldest thing I've ever seen. Sorry Kerið.

Also, note the no pooping sign below. No words.

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Vatnajökull National Park

What's a road trip without some pit stops by the road, right? Iceland's great for directing tourists to some great landmarks, well-known or not, and when the road and weather conditions were right for us, we opted to stop whenever we could. When nearing the Vatnajökull National Park, which is home to the largest and most voluminous ice cap in all of Iceland (and one of the largest glaciers in Europe), there was a small pull-off on the side of the road where we hastily snapped some photos and deployed the drone. The rain quickly began to come down on us, however, and off we were once again.

The nice thing about these random landmarks, is that they're typically empty! You'll have nice barren scenery with not a person in sight... until they notice that you've pulled off and when curiosity gets the better of other tourists, then they begin to join you and that's when we usually bounce out of there.

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Jökulsárlón (Glacier Lagoon)

Perhaps the most disappointing sight of our entire trip is unfortunately the famed and popular "glacier lagoon", Jökulsárlón. It was packed with tourists, yes, but it looked nothing like we'd hoped. Where were all the glaciers?

We were both so. sad. We walked up the hill, into the face of some pretty strong winds, and what did we see? A few glaciers, several hundred meters away... so many we could count them on our hands. What?! Why?!?! We'd seen pictures and videos. So many pictures and videos! They were supposed to be floating everywhere! And because it was winter, there weren't even any glacier tours we could book to take us on a motorized boat to get a closer look - we were SOL. Was it a good sign there weren't little glaciers breaking off in the lagoon? Was it a bad sign? What did it mean?! I have no idea. If someone could enlighten me, that'd be great.

I snapped a few pictures as best I could, but because the winds were crazy and there were essentially no glaciers nearby, we also couldn't deploy the drone here either - and this was yet another shot we really wish we could've gotten footage of. Then the rain started to fall. 

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Diamond Beach

We crossed the street to what's known as Diamond Beach, which little to no expectations at this point - after all, if there were no glaciers in the lagoon, why would there be glaciers on the beach?! But we were very pleasantly surprised... what we found were little crystals of ice scattered everywhere! The ice sparkled in stark contrast against the black sand - it was such a spectacular sight to see.

The beach was littered with tourists running left and right, selfie sticks waving high with pride. I found it particularly annoying how some people were nonchalantly laying down on the glaciers and posing for pictures on them - is it just me, or does that seem rude? I don't know, but I just don't like touching nature... it was already raining and you could see that the glaciers were melting. I know they're supposed to melt, but I don't think laying on them and rubbing them is a particularly nice thing to do, just for a photo op. Meh.

Regardless, they were stunning and something you will probably never find anywhere else... unless you're a jeweler and pour diamonds on black velvet cloth per usual. There were big glaciers, small ones, clear ones, cloudy ones - you name it. So pretty.

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So back on the road we went to our next guest house just outside of the city Höfn. The weather was closing in on us again, but the views never get any less beautiful.

Our next guest house offered us unparalleled, unobstructed views of a mountainside, and we were hopeful we'd be able to spot some aurora action over the course of the 2 nights we'd be staying there. The private patio and wide open windows were perfect for aurora spotting, but alas, we just weren't lucky enough again. Clouds came and went, the sleet flew by, the rain definitely came, and we even saw the sun set on the mountaintops, but still no northern lights! We drove by a cute yellow house on the hill a few times though, and I just couldn't resist taking a picture. I'm sure they've had their fair share of northern light action here.

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Day 7 // Mountain Peaks and Local Eats

Because we were ahead of schedule, having already visited the glacier lagoon and diamond beach the day prior, we had lots of time on our hands on our 7th day to do with what we wished. Unfortunately for us, another rainstorm was looming for the Southeastern portion of Iceland, and whatever we were planning to do, needed to be done with haste.

Initially, we planned to photograph Vestrahorn on the Stokksnes Peninsula, not too far away from Höfn. However, after doing a bit of research, we'd come to find that because the mountain itself was on private property, that the property owners had taken it upon themselves to begin charging tourists an entrance fee — which on its own was perfectly reasonable. But after going through pages and pages of reviews from not only tourists but local guides and residents, we came to the conclusion that it was the way they were going about it that was just too shady for us and it didn't feel like something we felt we should support. It didn't sound like a legitimate business, or money that was being utilized to legitimately preserve the mountain or the resources in their natural habitat... rather, just to make a very quick dime. There were many references to the owners "chasing guests around with point of sale machines" and other references to the entire thing feeling like a "scam" so we just weren't getting good vibes. Capturing the beauty of Iceland hadn't costed us anything thus far, and there were plenty of other things we could document in the immediate region so we chose to forego the tourist-trap tactics of this one particular location. It's up to you to decide whether or not you would've made the same decision - after all, you're "already there" right? Well - we decided to just drive AROUND the mountain and took pictures of the other side of it, because well, it's freaking free... 

And sometimes, it's the journey, guys, not the destination.

 

Hvalnes Nature Reserve Beach

So where are you, technically, if you drive around The Stokksnes Peninsula? You eventually arrive at the Hvalnes Nature Reserve Beach with some pretty epic views nonetheless, if I must say so myself. All 100% free.

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Local Lobster at Hafnarbuðin

With the storm picking up, our drive out to the Hvalnes Nature Reserve and back took a little longer than expected since we were being a little extra cautious. Upon our return, we were itching for some warm food since (up until now), we'd been living off either PB&J, ramen, or Icelandic hot dogs. We decided to treat ourselves and indulge in some local Icelandic eats, and because Höfn was known for their lobster, we chose to visit a little cafe called Hafnarbuðin.

It was a cute little cafe situated right at the coast (you could see the boats out in the dock from your seat inside), which also happened to have a drive through - something which is actually unheard of in Iceland. I don't think you realize - they don't have fast food drive-thru's in Iceland, and this drive thru serves up lobster rolls in a drive thru. We had to come here (but we weren't going to go through the drive thru).

Jason was craving a cheeseburger, and I opted for their lobster roll. De-lish. And also - super affordable relative to other Icelandic food! My lobster roll was only $25 USD (where in other Icelandic restaurants, lobster would run you easily twice that much). The lobster roll tasted fresh, it was lightly battered and fried, and the mayo based sauce was just perfect. I gobbled it up in minutes. Jason's burger gained his approval and satisfied his craving, and for reference was about $20 USD, which was also inexpensive relative to other Icelandic restaurants, where you'd likely pay $5-$10 more than that for the same thing. Remember: food in Iceland is super expensive!

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Vínbúðin and Buying Alcohol in Iceland

If you know us, you know we can't go too long without having a drink. Since the rain was already coming down pretty hard during dinner already, we decided to stop by Iceland's state-owned alcohol store, Vínbúðin, to grab some bottles of Icelandic beer to bring back to our room to enjoy for a cozy night in. The thing with Iceland is, if you want to purchase any bottles of beer with greater than 2.25% alcohol, you can only do so at these state-owned stores called Vínbúðin. Otherwise, any beer sold in grocery stores are only so-called "light" beers.

We grabbed a couple varieties of Einstök, a Viking Pils Organic, and an Úlfur IPA Nr. 3 by Borg Brugghús. To our surprise, the Viking Pils was actually pretty good for a Pils - much better than our domestic light beers, and I'd actually drink that over our US light lagers and pilsners any day! Super solid Pils. The IPA from Borg was also an amazing taste of home - solid selection of hops that brought us right back to the old Green Flash days. We couldn't have been happier with our random bottle picks. The Einstök bottles were just okay - we saw Einstök taps frequently when we were out and about in Iceland, but we didn't care much for them unfortunately.

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Check out the crazy floors in our room!

 

 

Day 8 // Driving the East Fjords, Smelly Geothermal Springs, and Jumping Tectonic Plates

This was a long day, with a lot of driving. It started out early and very cautiously, following the tail of a storm through some seaside cliffs. We couldn't go too quickly, or else we'd catch up with the wind and rain, and mudslide warning for Eastern Iceland had us on high alert since we were driving through the mountain passes that morning... but everything went well. Rain and wind aside, we made good time, and even saw some wild caribou during our 5+ hour drive through the East Fjords!

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The rest of the drive took us around the coast, up in down hillsides, and in and out of cloud cover as the sun came and went. There was snow, there was ice, there was grass, mudd, volcanic rock, and everything in between. The countryside was full of variety, and when we finally neared our destination of Mývatn, the sun stayed out, and we even caught glimpse of a rainbow!

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Spot the rainbow!

Spot the rainbow!

 

Hverir (Geothermal Springs)

Once near Mývatn, we stopped by Hverir, which is a collection of geothermal springs. The area surrounding Mývatn is actually filled with geothermal activity, thanks to a few volcanoes dispersed throughout the area - crazy! The winds had a sulfuric odor to them, but it didn't bother us too much. The steam gave off the coolest effect, but definitely muddied up our shoes! Luckily melted snow found in puddles throughout the parking area was perfect for washing the mud off!

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Grjótagjá and The Eurasian /  North American Tectonic Plate

Keeping with the geothermal theme of the region and only a short distance away lies a little duo of underground caves named Grjótagjá. Guests are able to climb into the darkness (if you dare) to view the hot spring water, but bathing is definitely prohibited. I was initially ready to step down into the dark abyss, but because Jason wasn't equipped with crampons and wasn't prepared to pull out his light, tripod, or neck strap (and because bringing all of that down a steep little icy embankment in the dark seemed like a precarious situation), all logic told us to explore the huge fissure that ran beside the caves which outlined the divide between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates instead.

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Mývatn - The Northern Light Capital of Iceland

Once finally done hopping over holes and cracks, we were finally on our way to our home for the night - a trendy little cube in what looked like the middle of nowhere, but had a claim to its name: the Northern Light Capital of Iceland, Mývatn.

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After dropping off our bags, we were itching to unwind our legs. Luckily enough, our hotel had an amazing happy hour. *Ding ding* That's a word we know well! And when you find a good deal on food or drinks in Iceland, you better take full advantage of it! We pulled up some seats in their cozy lounge and sipped on some more Viking beer as we watched the very slow Icelandic sunset disappear behind the hillside. 

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With wide open skies and a huge window in our room, we were hoping see some northern lights - no such luck, however. We had an amazing view of the stars, though, and with bellies full of beer, we still had a great night's sleep nonetheless.

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And there ends our first full week in Iceland! It looks and feels like we've seen so much more in a week's time, but that's only half the time we'd spent in Iceland. By now, we'd traveled halfway around the entire country, and we still had the other half to go - I only planned to post 2 blogs about our trip in this Iceland series (and 1 additional post featuring our travel tips+tricks), but it looks like it'll have to be 3 blogs! So expect the next one to highlight the last and final leg of our trip where we explore more waterfalls, sea cliffs, geothermal springs, and the famed Blue Lagoon! This 4-part series will then end with our Iceland travel guide which will hopefully help those of you who plan on visiting this magnificent country. Thanks for following along 

 

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