Over the course of the 91 days we spent in Iceland, we saw more otherworldly nature than in the rest of our lives combined. This tiny country on the northern edge of the Atlantic Ocean is one of the most special places on Earth, filled not just with unforgettable outdoor adventures, but with wonderful little towns and some of the friendliest people we've ever encountered.
The daylight hours were growing shorter, but we took our leave of Iceland before the true onset of winter, when the country would be plunged into a period of almost unbroken darkness. For us, Iceland was all about the light. A light which powered long summer days. Which illuminated vistas of mountains, fjords and waterfalls. Which fought through clouds to reflect off a glacier and momentarily blind us. This light, shining on a country that didn't need anywhere near 91 days to work its way into our hearts.
Like an irritable old codger fed up with the neighbor kids trampling his flower bed, the Earth has posted "No Trespassing" signs all over Iceland. "Nothing says Stay Away better than a hissing pool of mud," reasons the Earth. "And what's more, I'll make it stink of sulfur!" Makes sense, but what do we humans do? We turn it into a tourist attraction! Man, are we annoying.
While we enjoyed our visit to the Blue Lagoon, we did have a few complaints. It was too expensive, too crowded and although the landscape of black lava was striking, it could have benefited from more variety. Iceland was apparently listening to us and taking notes, because we found all our complaints improved upon at the "Blue Lagoon of the North": the Jarðböðin Nature Baths.
Not far from the Viti Crater on the northeastern side of Mývatn, we encountered the lavafield of Leirhnjúkur, which is part of the Krafla volcanic region. Nearly thirty years after the last eruptions, the ground here is still smoking and hot to the touch.
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).
It was an early Monday morning when we visited the horseshoe-shaped canyon of Ásbyrgi. We were all alone in the park and during the two hours we spent there, we hardly spoke a word. It's the kind of place which robs your voice.
Most of Iceland's horses spend their time free in the highlands, instead of on farms. Like sheep, they roam at their whim, with neither supervision nor control, able to graze wherever they choose. But once a year, toward the end of summer, they're brought down from the mountains.
At the midway point of our journey along the Klöjur Road, we stayed overnight at Hveravellir. After hours of desolate lava fields and no signs of life (apart from the occasional shrub), we greeted this lonesome outpost like Bedouins stumbling upon an oasis in the desert.
For 60 kilometers between the Hvitá valley resort of Húsafell and the Þingvellir National Park, the bumpy Kaldidalur (Cold Road) cuts between glaciers and across lava fields. It takes about two hours to traverse and acts as a kind of beginner's course to the country's highlands.