Beyond Skógafoss

Beyond Skógafoss

A misty breeze blew into our faces as we approached the base of Skógafoss. The thundering waterfall in Iceland pours a huge volume of water off a cliff as high as an 18 story building and can be seen from the main highway a kilometer away. Tourists traveling the Ring Road find it an irresistible stop. For my friend and me, it marked the beginning of our run on the Skógar trail.

We hiked up the stairs to the top of the falls weaving through throngs of people wielding selfie sticks and tripods. A short distance beyond the upper viewpoint of the falls we clambered over an A-frame step-ladder through a fence and found ourselves in the company of a few sheep in the quiet realm of the Skógar trail.

Our plan was to run 20-25 kilometers toward Þórsmörk and turn around to come back before the afternoon rain. Rapid fluctuations in the weather conditions of Iceland make even the two-day forecast marginally reliable. Since the route is devoid of trees and subject to sudden onset of freezing winds blasting across the nearby glaciers, we carried layers and rain gear along with our food and water. We navigated using a maps application on our phones and a paper map and compass for backup.

We had camped the previous night in the town of Vik instead of at the base of Skógafoss where tents were crowded into an open grassy area. In the evening, the campground shelter was a hive of activity as people sought refuge from the wind and rain. Tables were crowded with open laptops, lit backpacker stoves, and small stacks of dishes; strips of electrical outlets sprouted a variety of plugs and wires that led to phones and tablets. People were sitting, sipping hot drinks, cooking, reading or waiting patiently their turn at the sink or microwave. A multitude of languages mixed together in a common hum.

The vibe in the company of other campers was uplifting; on the trails, though, we preferred solitude soaked in the tranquil energy of earth. Though the Skógar trail is a popular hike in Iceland, people were few and far between and the soothing sound of water rippling, crashing, streaming, and splashing in ever-changing rhythms dominated our senses as we ran and hiked the rolling terrain on the ridge above the Skógá River.

The sheep were a source of amusement; they were loaded with unkempt wool, fat and sedate, yet bleated across the river like a loud bossy playground teacher.

The Skógá river could be an art exhibit specializing in cascading water; there were tall narrow shooting falls, short wide stepped falls, thin blanketing streams, and low tumbling rapids. Emerald green towers stood as islands forcing the stream to flow around them; narrow winding canyons hid the water in their depths.

At about eight kilometers we crossed the river on a narrow footbridge. A sign was posted near the bridge that showed an alternate “rough” route to the left, indicated in red, and the main trail to the right, marked blue. The map showed the two trails rejoining in the vicinity of where we intended to turn around; this gave us the option to make a lollipop shape out of our course instead of backtracking the entire route. We almost always prefer loops to out and back routes.

The main trail veered away from the river and became a wide rocky road over a barren landscape.  It was “ankle breaking” terrain. The few trekkers we passed seemed absorbed in their thoughts, barely responding to our greeting. As we climbed in elevation, we needed to add layers and gloves to stay warm. August in Iceland can feel like December in the pacific northwest.

The trail crossed an icy packed snowfield that was infused with volcanic sand; it looked like a giant slab of Oreo cookie ice cream. I was surprised to find decent traction as we walked across it but the incline on the other side was steep and slippery. We encountered a group of mountain bikers descending the black sand and ice; their faces showed adrenaline-crazed expressions ranging from pure joy to sheer terror depending on the skill level of each rider.

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We reached the trail intersection for the alternate return route but before heading back we decided to climb Magni, a cone-shaped mountain of red sand. Magni and its twin crater, Móði, formed during the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull. They are named after the sons of Thor, the god of thunder in Norse mythology. From the rim of Magni we could see volcanos and glaciers across a barren landscape. Clouds limited our visibility but held their own as a sight to see; they surrounded us layered shades of gray, some of them connected to the ground by streaks of moisture.

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The alternate trail was well-marked by painted trail posts and weather-beaten signs. It took us through far more interesting terrain than the road we ran in on. We picked our way through icy stream crossings, hiked up snow-packed hills, and glided down volcanic sand dunes using monster strides. After rejoining the main trail at the footbridge we followed the river back to Skógafoss.

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Waterfalls, glaciers, volcanoes, sheep and black sand define the Skógar Trail. Curiously, the word skógar means forests and I don’t think we saw a single tree. Multi-day trekkers can go 55 kilometers beyond our turnaround point, camp or stay at huts along the way, and wind up at the hot springs of Landmannalaugar.

Driving the full perimeter of Iceland on the 1,323 kilometer (828 mile) Ring Road is a popular way for tourists to see “all” of Iceland. Indeed there are an abundance of spectacular sights close to the highway. Skógafoss is one. For us, leaving the car behind and traveling by foot offers a more intimate experience of the landscape. Running the Skógar trail was one of the highlights of our trip.

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Iceland’s Diamond Beach

Iceland’s Diamond Beach

In Iceland there is a black sand beach that is littered with diamonds – or so it appears. It is near Jökulsárlón which was thirty-seven miles down the road from where my travel mate and I had just set up camp in Skaftafell National Park. At 6:00 pm, after securely anchoring our tents, we sat in the car and contemplated how to spend the remaining four hours of daylight. The sky was a solid mass of heavy black clouds. It was windy, raining, and 45 degrees. Of course we decided to go to the beach.

Since it rained all day in Skaftafell we were lucky to find a tent site that wasn’t under two inches of standing water. In spite of the weather our car camping experience in Iceland fit the definition of “glamping”. Bathrooms were heated, showers were hot, and the internet signal was surprisingly strong. At one campground we had full access to an adjacent rec center, complete with spa and pool. It felt like we were cheating. Especially since we referred to this excursion as our “dirt-bag camping and running trip”.

As we headed toward Jökulsárlón the clouds became so dark we needed headlights. Rain came down in sheets causing us to slow down and set our wipers to hyper-mode. Thankfully our little rental car gripped the road through standing water and we arrived at the parking lot next to Jökulsárlón – translated as “glacial river lagoon”. Inland by less than a mile Jökulsárlón consists of a mix of salt water from the Atlantic Ocean and glacial water fed by Breiðamerkurjökull glacier, a tongue of the largest ice cap in Iceland, Vatnajökull. Due to glacial melt, this lagoon has grown four-fold since the 1970’s.

Teal blue and milky white icebergs, shaded and lined with volcanic ash, were either floating or anchored in Jökulsárlón. They had calved from Breiðamerkurjökull glacier. The sight was mesmerizing. Lucky for us the evening sunlight briefly broke through the clouds to allow us a view of the glacier across the lagoon.

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Jökulsárlón

The icebergs of Jökulsárlón break into smaller pieces from the influence of weather and tides. These pieces float down a channel to the ocean where they roll around in the currents and get tossed by the surf up onto the shore. The result is a display of naturally formed ice sculptures, no two alike, scattered along the shoreline. It looks like diamonds on the beach.

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Diamond Beach

Diamond Beach describes this unique setting perfectly, but I was curious to learn why it didn’t have an interminably long weirdly accented Icelandic name like the rest of the places we encountered in Iceland. Moreover, the beach was not labeled on our map. Perhaps its recent appearance, some time after Jökulsárlón showed up in 1935, gave tourists a chance to name it first.

Jökulsárlón is constantly growing from glacial melt and is predicted to eventually submerge Diamond Beach. How ironic that the climate conditions that caused the appearance of this unique and beautiful phenomenon are the same ones that will ultimately cause it to vanish.

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Jökulsárlón

 

 

Fjaðrárgljúfur

Fjaðrárgljúfur

“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.

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