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Hljóðaklettar and Rauðhólar

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After visiting the cliffs of Ásbyrgi, we hopped in the car and drove a few minutes south to the Vesturdalur campsite and the start of an extraordinary five-kilometer trail which would bring us through the Hljóðaklettar (Echo Rocks) to the foot of the Rauðhólar (Red Hills).

Hljóðaklettar and Rauðhólar

The Hljóðaklettar rocks are a wild array of basaltic columns, twisted and angled in every conceivable direction. The bizarre bending of the rocks results in caves, towers and other unclassifiable geometrical shapes. It’s like being on another world, and the area has an alien and almost menacing sort of beauty. Formed when the powerful Jökulsá River washed away chunks of volcanic craters, the rocks at Hljóðaklettar have strange acoustical properties which reflect, enhance or mute the river’s roar, depending on where you’re standing. Hence the name “Echo Rocks”.

After leaving Hljóðaklettar behind us, we approached the Rauðhólar (Red Hills), volcanic cinder cones made of pure red scoria. Capped with white snow, the hills add a shocking splash of color to the otherwise black and gray landscape of lava, mountain and river. You’re no longer allowed to ascend the Rauðhólar, as over-hiking had started to degrade their quality, but that’s not a big deal. They actually look better from a distance.

Location of Vesturdalur on our Map

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Hljóðaklettar and Rauðhólar
Hljóðaklettar and Rauðhólar
Hljóðaklettar and Rauðhólar
Hljóðaklettar and Rauðhólar
Hljóðaklettar and Rauðhólar
Hljóðaklettar and Rauðhólar
Hljóðaklettar and Rauðhólar
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Hljóðaklettar and Rauðhólar
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Hljóðaklettar and Rauðhólar
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Hljóðaklettar and Rauðhólar
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October 22, 2013 at 2:33 pm Comments (3)

Over Vatnajökull and the Westman Islands

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It was a beautiful morning when we arrived at the Reyjavík city airport for our third flight into the skies above Iceland. Our trips over the Golden Circle and the Westfjords had been outstanding, and today we’d be soaring over Iceland’s four biggest glaciers, the Þórsmörk Valley and the Westman Islands.

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Near the Langisjór Lake, Southwest of Vatnajökull

Soon after settling into our four-seat Cessna, we were climbing above a sleepy Reykjavík still shaking off its morning mist. We headed east over the Hengill Mountains and Þingvallavatn Lake on our way to Langjökull, the second-biggest glacier in Iceland. Langjökull is shrinking rapidly and climatologists believe that it may disappear entirely within a couple centuries. Thanks to global warming, all of Iceland’s glaciers are losing mass, with the sole exception of Drangajökull in the Westfjords.

Leaving Langjökull behind, we soared over the highlands, passing the Klöjur Road which we would soon be driving across, and skirting the southern end of Hofsjökull. Soon enough, we were approaching the big boy: Vatnajökull. With an area of 8300 km², this enormous chunk of ice is about the size of Puerto Rico. We only saw the southwestern corner of it, but even this was enough to boggle the mind.

Now we turned around, following the Mid-Atlantic Ridge southwest. This was an area we had hiked across on the Fimmvörðuháls Trail, but from above it took on whole new dimensions. In a single, spectacular panorama, we could see craters, the valley, rivers, lava fields and volcanoes. I couldn’t help but be amazed that we choose voluntarily to walk across this murderous landscape.

From here, it was a short hop across the water to the Westman Islands, which we had recently spent a couple days visiting. From the air, the damage wrought by the Eldfell explosion was much more apparent than it had been on the ground. It was shocking to see the size of the area which had so swiftly been covered by lava in 1976. We moved on to some of the other islands in the archipelago, including Surtsey, which was formed in 1963 during a four-year-long eruption. The island was immediately declared off-limits to humans and is now being used to monitor how life develops on a brand new patch of land.

An amazing flight, and one we were very lucky to experience. If you’d like to hire a pilot for a similar flight, get in touch and we can put you in touch with our contact. You truly haven’t seen Iceland, until you’ve seen it from the air.

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September 30, 2013 at 9:20 am Comments (4)

Fimmvörðuháls – Fimmvörðuskáli to Þórsmörk

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The first half of our 25-kilometer hike from Skógar to Þórsmörk had been dominated by waterfalls, barren mountain vistas, and an unending uphill climb. But after passing between the two glaciers of Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull, our path would start its descent, and the clouds which had been plaguing us all day would clear up, revealing the valley of Þórsmörk below us: one of the most stunning landscapes we’ve ever seen.

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After passing the Fimmvörðuskáli hut, we emerged into serious glacier land, and were forced to trudge across huge banks of snow. The terrain was surreal. Between the snowbanks were fields of lava, strange tiny cones of ash and sinister black craters. At one point, we noticed that the land was smoking. The ground here was still super-heated from the 2010 explosion of Eyjafjallajökull. I reached down to touch the soil, digging down before yanking my fingers back. It was a little much for my mind to process… was I supposed to freezing here, or burning?

Once we had the smoking landscape of snow and lava behind us, the sky cleared up and Þórsmörk came into view. This valley is one of the most beautiful areas in Iceland. In fact, when we asked locals about their favorite places, Þórsmörk was the most common answer. And I can see why. Having it laid out before us from the mountain heights was absolutely magical.

With the valley visible below, we figured the final few hours of our hike would be easy. Nope… nothing like it. This was by far the most challenging stretch of the day, requiring extremely steep descents on tricky terrain, at a point when we were already physically and mentally fatigued. Some sections even forced us into scooching along the ground on our butts, terrified about kicking loose a stone and tumbling down.

But slowly, slowly we made it. Our tent was waiting for us at the campsite of Básar, and we had just enough energy left to set it up before collapsing into our sleeping bags. It had been quite a day… we’ve done a lot of hiking in different places around the world, but I don’t think for sheer, majestic nature, anything holds a candle to the Fimmvórðuhals.

Locations on our Map: Fimmvörðuskáli Hut | Básar

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September 17, 2013 at 8:32 am Comments (8)

Inside the Volcano

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After hiking through a field of lava, donning a helmet and harness, and climbing to the top of a perfectly conical volcanic crater, we gathered our courage and stepped onto a cable lift… the kind normally used to wash the windows of skyscrapers. Then we were lowered four hundred feet underground into the magma chamber of a long dormant volcano. A little scary, but visiting Þrihnúkagígur was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity we couldn’t resist.

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The Þrihnúkagígur (“Three Peaks”) volcano southeast of Reykjavík has lain dormant for over 4000 years, but it wasn’t until 1974 that a team of local adventurers led by Árni Stefánsson discovered the cavern which is accessible through the mouth of one of the craters. Here was a perfect magma chamber, without any of the magma. Immediately recognizing it as a place unique in the world, Árni labored for years to open the volcano to tourism, finally succeeding in 2012.

Tours inside the volcano are run exclusively by 3H Travel. A bus picked us up in Reykjavík and brought us to the Blafjoll Mountain Ski Resort. From here it was an hour-long hike over a lava field to the camp at the foot of Þrihnúkagígur, where we met the team, examined diagrams of the magma chamber and played with an injured arctic fox cub that had taken refuge there.

Although it doesn’t look like much from the base camp, the underground dimensions of Þrihnúkagígur are impressive. It’s spacious enough to comfortably fit the Statue of Liberty and taller than Reykjavík’s Hallgrímskirkja. But these are just facts and figures; we weren’t able to truly comprehend the volcano’s size until being lowered into it.

Þrihnúkagígur is unique in that it has managed to retain its conical shape even after the release of its magma. Scientists believe this is because the magma drained out the bottom, instead of exploding out the top… “It’s like somebody came and pulled the plug,” said Haraldur Sigurdsson, the volcanologist who founded Stykkishólmur’s volcano museum. The lift takes about seven minutes to reach the floor, and the tour allows a half-hour to explore, before the ride back up.

It’s an amazing feeling, crawling around the jagged rock, peering up at the tiny crater now 400 feet overhead, feeling the walls which have been either scorched black by the lava’s heat, or are still vividly colored by the earth’s minerals… yellow, red, orange. It’s exactly how you always thought the interior of a volcano might look, and the experience of simply being there is unforgettable.

There’s no denying that at 37,000kr ($310) apiece, the tour is prohibitively expensive. But turning people off is partially the point, since this is the kind of operation that simply can’t support large numbers. Still, after you’ve paid $310, driven an hour out of Reykjavík, hiked an hour, and then waited at camp for your turn, it’s a little frustrating to have only 30 minutes inside the chamber.

But this is a petty gripe. In the grand scheme of things, these were probably the only 30 minutes I’ll ever spend inside an actual volcano. Overall, it’s an experience we can’t recommend enough.

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September 16, 2013 at 1:47 pm Comment (1)

Underground, Underwater: Lava Caves and Hot Springs

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Driving around Iceland with a guidebook and a map can be rewarding, but even the most astute tourist won’t find everything on their own. To reach certain places, you’ll have to enlist the help of experts. That’s what we did, in order to explore a secret lava cave and an amazing hot spring.

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Our trip was run by Icelandic Mountain Guides, a tour company operating out of the capital. Shortly after our pick-up, we had helmets affixed to our heads, and were entering a tunnel found in a lava field just outside Reykjavík. I’ve been in caves before, but none formed by a flowing river of lava. The experience was different. At 4000 years in age, this cave is relatively young and fairly shallow.

At times, the tunnel narrowed precariously. In order to complete the tour, we had to get down on our hands and knees and wedge through a couple small openings. Not a huge problem for me, but a considerable one for 6’6″ Jürgen (who, it turns out, does a very clumsy crab walk). We saw some stalagmites and the bones of a poor lamb which had become lost in the cave, and learned a lot about the unique geology of Iceland.

Next up, the part of the journey I had most been looking forward to: hot springs. We drove out to the Hengill Mountains, where we’d recently completed a fun walk lovingly nicknamed Hengill Death Hike. But today would be less dangerous. After a 30-minute hike past steaming vents shooting out of the over-heated earth, we arrived at a river in which people were bathing.

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The river here combines both cold water streaming down off the glacier and hot water bubbling up from the earth, mixing to create the ideal temperature for a bath. Despite the difficulty of reaching it, the location is no real secret — a lot of other people were present when we arrived. But no matter. The river is long, as rivers tend to be, and we were able to find a nice quiet spot to soak our bones.

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August 24, 2013 at 1:58 pm Comment (1)

Hiking around the Western Snæfellsness, Part 1

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We set out early from Hellissandur for a big day of hiking around the western end of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. This was our first extended hike in Iceland, and we had planned a promising route through lava fields, to the rims of craters, past waterfalls and across glacial rivers. Well, “crossing glacial rivers” wasn’t actually on the itinerary; it was more like a last-minute surprise at the day’s end.

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Saxhóll Crater

We had stayed the night at the Hotel Hellissandur, which was large and comfortable, with a helpful staff happy to provide tips on our upcoming hike. We gorged ourselves on the hotel’s excellent breakfast buffet before setting out, providing us extra energy that turned out to be vital. Our hike was a lot longer and more difficult than we expected.

But the path started easy, following the coast southwest of Hellissandur past the remains of Viking-era fishing huts and to the Írskrabrunnur (Irish Well), a dried-up underground cistern guarded by a massive whale bone. Very cool. You can descend the stairs into the well, though there isn’t much reason unless you’re an aficionado of puddles and dirt walls.

Next we crossed the Neshraun Lava Field on our way to the Saxhóll Crater. Marked by red-tipped stakes, the trail was easy to follow, though not so easy to traverse. The dried lava was craggy and sharp, keeping our pace slow and clumsy until we reached the foot of the crater. Saxhóll erupted around 3000 years ago, forming the amazing landscape we’d just crossed. The climb to the crater’s rim was surprisingly easy, and the view down into the bowl was spectacular.

Saxhóll was just the first crater we saw on our long day out. As our journey continued, we would come ever nearer the Snæfellsjökull Glacier, and encounter waterfalls, snow, sheep, and absolutely no other people. Oh, and we would run into some rivers. Plenty of rivers.

Locations on our map: Hellissandur | Írskrabrunnur | Saxhóll
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August 8, 2013 at 4:49 pm Comments (2)
Hljaklettar and Rauhlar After visiting the cliffs of Ásbyrgi, we hopped in the car and drove a few minutes south to the Vesturdalur campsite and the start of an extraordinary five-kilometer trail which would bring us through the Hljóðaklettar (Echo Rocks) to the foot of the Rauðhólar (Red Hills).
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