Travels in Iceland: The Stunning Land of Fire, Ice, and Selfie-Taking Crowds
Iceland is everything you have heard… and more.
Is it an island of solitude? Yes.
Like many things, it just depends. Touring Iceland is akin to driving through the U.S. National Parks – there are markers on the main drag that directly point to places of interest where you will find a gaggle of tourists observing something spectacular. And like Zion or Yosemite, there are gems of even greater spectacle to be seen further off the popular routes, for those willing to go the extra distance.
The first two places we stopped on our first day encapsulated that contrast perfectly.
Immediately after we arrived in Reykjavík, my longtime partner, Tim, and I boarded our trusty little Volkswagen and set off for the storied Þjóðvegur, the Ring Road.
Our first stop, the Gjain Valley, was from a recommendation of like-minded friends. When we arrived at the access to this lesser-known landmark, we discovered the road was closed. Undeterred, we parked and set off on the 2.5 mile walk in. 45 muddy minutes later, after walking through flat, desolate tundra, the ground opened up; we dropped into an oasis of waterfalls, rock formations, and charming paths. We were the only ones there, and it seemed like we had stumbled upon a fairy land not meant for human eyes.
It was magic.
We spent hours exploring every corner, picnicking beside the rushing brook, and breathing in the crisp, fresh air. We felt very satisfied, having taken every advantage of this private slice of Iceland.
Realizing that we had been enjoying this hidden haven for far longer than we originally planned, we trudged back to our car, through some howling winds, and sped South hoping to hit some of Iceland’s magnificent waterfalls along the way. As luck would have it, we hit Gljúfrabúi and Seljalandsfoss right at sunset, and it was jaw-droppingly beautiful.
We immediately felt the contrast, though…
It seemed that every other tourist in Iceland had also hit these waterfalls right at sunset, clamoring to get their new social media profile picture.
That first day embodied what would become the rest of our time circling around Iceland: We alternated between extremely cool experiences where we felt like the last people on Earth and other extremely cool experiences.
“we were shoulder-to-shoulder with the masses, who were in search of the same kind of connection that we were.”
After taking in the geometric cliffs of Reynisfjara Beach, sharing a foggy morning with a colony of puffins in Vík, and spending hours watching the tide ebb and flow in the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, we headed East.
A VISUAL WONDERLAND
The topography of Iceland is staggering.
Around every corner it seemed a new ecosystem sprang forth. We careened through deep-green mountains akin to the highlands of Scotland, just to turn a corner into a great wetland area of clay and tall grass, followed by volcanic rubble and Mordor-esque monoliths (for those Lord of the Rings fans out there…). A few kilometers later, great bulbous moss-covered rocks covered the land, tricking my eyes into believing I almost saw a troll take cover as we passed by. The seemingly ever-present glacial rivers of ice that were miles away, to our left, kept me craning my head back and forth as we made our counterclockwise sojourn.
Never had a road trip been more exciting because of what awaited just out of view.
We pulled into our hotel outside Skaftafell Nature Reserve right after dusk and had another evening feast of ramen and jerky in our room. The next morning we rose early to hike the full loop of Skaftafell, part of Vatnajökull National Park. For half the hike, Svínafellsjökull, a prominent outcrop of the greater glacier, was off in the distance. Not seeing a soul that morning, we pushed forward through what looked like high alpine meadows of lichen and flowers. The snow-capped mountains and cooler air put me at ease. Making the turn back down the valley, we took a detour to check out Svartifoss, another of Iceland’s endless waterfalls.
Once again, in a departure from the solitude of the morning, we joined the masses at the dark lava columns of Svartifoss (literally “Black Falls”). It is a major sightseeing draw, attracting people in droves.
Eating our lunch in Svartifoss’ shadow, the past days’ observations of how our society has become a shoot-and-leave, selfie-and-run type of people reached a new high (or should I say low). Other than a handful of people, the vast majority of sightseers gave the falls a brief glance, posed for their Instagram-worthy pic, and left as quickly as they came.
This kept the crowd from growing too large, which was nice in its own way, but it also made me feel confused…
I take as many pictures as the next person, but I consciously make an effort to be present, at the same time. I felt too many were missing it.
Technology has advanced us greatly, giving people (myself included) a fantastic platform to share and connect. But there is the conundrum of honoring presence while creating impact. It is an evasive balance.
Watching people in that moment at the falls, I was disheartened that so many seemed more concerned with the angle of their chin than the glorious scene behind them.
On our descent we saw a track seemingly meander to the foot of Svínafellsjökull glacier. Naturally, we decided to go investigate.
GETTING HUMBLED BY NATURE
The road required some driving prowess, snaking through potholes and boulders, but we made it to a large lagoon with the glacier behind it and a mountain beside it. We set off on a path cut into the hillside and looked like it might bring us directly beside the blue ice. We quickly discovered that it was merely a ribbon of dirt on a sheer angle of shale and rock that climbed above the lagoon, eventually dead-ending.
Tim was resigned to taking some pics and setting up the drone for an evening flight. I was committed to touching that damn glacier.
I had just watched countless tourists “just get a picture” and I was hell bent on experiencing this area, not just superficially chronicling that I was there.
In retrospect, my irrational tunnel vision was in direct reaction to the touristy behavior I witnessed earlier that afternoon. Tim, being the ever-supportive partner that he is, reluctantly agreed to follow me. I estimated that if we kept traversing across the slope, in about 300 meters we would run into the spot where the glacier met the mountain.
I assumed wrong.
First off, there are countless signs and reminders to tourists in Iceland to stay on the paths and err on the side of caution, with a friendly reminder that tourists die every year ignoring these warnings.
In that moment, I thought to myself: “Yeah, but these tourists aren’t ME, though, with my mountain IQ and hours spent in the wilderness.”
(In my defense, I was not trudging off-path on the country’s protected moss, which is sadly desecrated all too often.)
I figured that since it was rock, we wouldn’t be disturbing the native flora and fauna. Does this make it less idiotic? No. Slightly more considerate? Maybe.
Every step forward was wobbly and unstable.
You would think that this would have been my first red flag and I would turn back. But no, I looked for bigger boulders as islands to scramble to across the sliding shale. The glacier looked so close, but as we traversed, the cliff down to the glacial lake below grew and the stakes became increasingly high. Looking back at my man, in a precarious position gripping for anything fixed, I realized there is something more stupid than another meaningless selfie in front of an Icelandic landmark: becoming an Icelandic statistic… of stupidity.
“with sharp rocks and ice 150 feet below, I looked at my best friend in the world, who was also barely holding on, and once again thought, ‘What have I gotten us into?’…”
Even with the best of motivations, suffering injury (or worse) to prove you are more “real” than the rest, is utterly foolish.
Finally seeing reason, if not admitting defeat, I turned around and we slowly backed out of our treacherous circumstance, painstakingly retracing our steps.
The rest of our trip around Iceland was a mix of venturing out into the less traveled areas and sidling up with the masses to see the marvelous. The dramatic mountains of the East Fjords, the mars-like geothermal pocket of Mývatn, and northern stretch of mountainous peninsulas did not disappoint. The Snæfellsnes Peninsula alone provided enough adventure for a lifetime!
Echoes of my ill-conceived glacial hike [refer to the paragraphs above…] were apparent as we trekked up the Rauðfelsdsgjá Gorge. As the snow stacked higher and the path steepened and narrowed, I badly wanted to continue, but it was clear that we needed to turn back.
It’s not that I am a slow learner, it’s just that the desire to make it to the end – to see the mystery through – is deeply etched into the fabric of who I am.
Toward the end of our stay, we soaked in a hidden geothermal pool for two, and I sat in awe of the otherworldly landscape.
Suddenly, I had an overwhelming desire to capture it in a picture.
And not just any picture…
I wanted to make sure that I looked good in my silly swimsuit and that my chin was dipped and my eyes were bright.
The hypocrisy was not lost on me…
Who can conclude that an urge to touch a glacier is any more noble or foolish than getting a collection of waterfall selfies?
Definitely not me.
They are simply different desires at different moments.
Next time I am tempted to judge someone, I will remind myself that it is just a momentary glimpse of their life, not the full picture. Had someone spotted me coaching my boyfriend on my shot in the diminutive hot spring, I would have looked just as superficial, if not more…
Whether you’re itching to push the boundaries of a landscape or you’re more driven to see it through the lens of a camera, feel free to post away and keep exploring. There is not one right way to experience nature – just make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into.
You can see more of what Kaylin is up to, over on Instagram: @kaylinrichardson
Video Credit: Tim Schaaf