“Hey we should take that turn,” I said as we flew past it at 60 mph. “It’s that ‘F’ canyon” I said incapable of pronouncing Fjaðrárgljúfur. The interminable length of Icelandic words was daunting enough without the additional challenge being their pronunciation having no resemblance to American phonetics. I had marked this turn on the map with yellow highlighter — though Fjaðrárgljúfur wasn’t shown there – at the recommendation of another traveler. The sign at the turn had a scenic landmark symbol on it and that unmistakable name. “Should I turn around?” I asked. Without waiting for an answer, I pulled off to the side and whipped a U-turn on the Ring Road – the one continuous two lane highway that circled the perimeter of Iceland. My travel mate, Brian, and I tended to agree on logistics – especially spontaneous detours.
The road to Fjaðrárgljúfur was a minefield of potholes and wash board. We carefully weaved between road hazards in our tiny economy rental while every few minutes a high clearance rental with more comprehensive insurance cruised past us on the left. We were surrounded by open green pasture occupied by small flocks of sheep and the occasional farmhouse. Sheep that had wandered close to the road trotted away, their woolly dreadlocks flopping about – a sight that never failed to make me giggle.
I started to wonder if we were on someone’s private driveway, but in less than two miles we arrived at a muddy little parking lot crammed with about a dozen cars and two buses. I eased into the edge of the lot and pulled up on the parking brake just as the rain started to pound our car.
“Now what?” we looked at each other, laughing in disbelief. We knew squalls in Iceland can pass through quickly so we decided to wait. Rummaging through our car load of camping and running gear we managed to find the groceries we had purchased for the week. Brian sliced apples using his pocket knife and we dipped the wedges into a jar of peanut butter for a mid-day snack. Through thickly fogged windows we watched soaking wet tourists frantically scurry down the trail and into their cars and buses. A steady stream of vehicles proceeded to leave the lot.
Within twenty minutes the rain ceased, the sun came out and most of the people were gone. We grabbed our rain jackets and began our hike on the 1.2-mile trail along the rim of Fjaðrárgljúfur – a name that loosely means “feather river canyon”. The canyon was narrow with a low stream of blue water gently flowing through it. The 300-foot walls of the canyon were convoluted like random doodle art creating soft ragged edges from rim to floor. Every surface was covered in emerald green moss.
The trail was a soggy mix of grass, moss, and mud reinforced by metal grids that had been sunken into the path to provide traction on the steeper sections. Ropes were placed to corral the damage of foot traffic and to keep visitors a safe distance from the slippery rim. Even so, there were worn paths leading outside of the ropes to the ends of knob shaped peninsulas that jutted over the canyon. Photos of people standing on the end of those knobs must be incredible.
We were grateful the storm chased off the other tourists; the effect for us was a personal immersion in a beautiful unique landscape — like we were attending a private showing at an art gallery. The only sounds we heard were the chirping of a few birds and the rippling of the water below us. When we reached the end of the canyon the trail petered out into an open swath of green pasture; from there we could see the meandering path of the river upstream. Reluctantly we turned around and walked down the hillside back to the car. The parking lot had already begun to refill.
Touring the Ring Road in Iceland we saw from our car an abundance of unique and beautiful sights including waterfalls, glaciers, and fields of lava rocks covered in moss. But the times we experienced the unspoiled natural surroundings by foot were far more gratifying. Fjaðrárgljúfur was one of those times. The next two days we would hike in Skaftafell National Park beside two glaciers: Skaftafellsjökull and Morsárjökull. The surprising thing about these long complicated Icelandic names is that they somehow morph into a single syllable when spoken by a native. I could never get it right.