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The Ring Road

Frozen glaciers meet volcanoes and fjords along Iceland’s Route 1.

By Chuck Graham

Photo by Chuck Graham

Whaling vessel Garðar BA 64 stands guard over Patreksfjörður in Iceland’s Westfjords, where it was rammed ashore after being taken out of service in 1981.

 

eandering on a lonely dirt road towards the daunting Látrabjarg cliffs in Iceland’s Westfjords, my wife, Lori, and I saw thermal plumes wafting out of the side of a cliff. They were on someone’s farm in a sweeping valley surrounded by Mordor-like crags. It was 6:30 a.m., but with sunup at 3:30 a.m., it felt like late morning.

We saw the typical blue sign with squiggly lines signifying a hot spring. The landowners had utilized the thermal by building an indoor pool nearby with an adjoining hot tub. There was a combination lock on the pool door. It was early and icy cold. Relaxing in a hot tub to start another day sounded good to us. All I had to do was knock on their door, even though the sun hadn’t risen above the ridgeline.

A disheveled woman of the house, still in her jammies, opened the front door, a pile of kids’ muddy shoes and work boots cluttering the dank entryway.

“If it’s possible I’d like to use your hot tub,” I asked a little embarrassed. “How much would it be?”

“Six hundred krona,” she said while rubbing her sleepy eyes.

That equated to just over $5, but we had been low on Icelandic currency throughout our two-week drive around Iceland. We came up dry. I think our host felt a little sorry for us, however: She gave us the combo anyway and we washed away two weeks’ worth of car camping way out on the epic Westfjords.

The Ring Road

Otherwise known as Route 1, the Ring Road is the main drag connecting distant travelers to most of Iceland’s main attractions, specifically the many natural wonders smothering the volcanic isle. It hugs a good chunk of the coast, with dirt tracks braiding into numerous deep fjords that were too many to count, yet difficult to drive away from.

At 828 miles long, the word was that the road could be completed in seven days — but that didn’t seem realistic considering what Iceland has to offer. In addition to guaranteed solitude there are countless heaving waterfalls, steaming thermals, calving blue glaciers and prolific seabirds reveling atop towering cliffs. Count on two weeks at least to round Iceland.

Heimaey Island

My wife is a prolific knitter, making friends all over the world via Instagram. Wherever we travel, like-minded folks want to visit with her. It has led to some extraordinary people and fantastic experiences in far-flung corners of the globe, memories made for a lifetime.

After spending the afternoon and a good part of the evening with a knitting friend and her family on Heimaey Island, part of the Vestmannaeyjar Islands, 7 miles off the coast of southern Iceland, I noticed the night was still very young. We thoroughly enjoyed the thinly sliced smoked lamb and stacks of Icelandic pancakes, but now I needed to hike off the scrumptious meal before my sleeping bag beckoned. 

It was 9 p.m. when I dropped my wife off at the campground situated inside a colossal extinct caldera. Tiny Heimaey had shut down for the night, but Iceland’s summers never see total darkness. Sunset was 12:30 a.m. and sunrise was at 3:30 a.m. There wasn’t a moment to lose.

That night I scrambled up the cliffs on the north side between the harbor and the frigid North Atlantic Ocean. It was like no other hike I’d ever been on, a series of secured ladders, chains and ropes to the apex of the island. The ladders were attached to sheer cliff faces. The chains and ropes swung out to exposed rock with epic views of Heimaey and the 17 other isles, all inaccessible, that make up the Vestmannaeyjar Archipelago.

There was only one other hiker on the windswept route and we lost each other on the narrow spine of the peninsula, where sheep lazily grazed. I had to duck out of the way of hovering kittiwakes and Atlantic puffins buzzing by like bumblebees, hardy seabirds filling their beaks with slippery baitfish. 

Soaking in the brisk sunset, I hunkered down in grass-covered boulders, southern Iceland and Heimaey already asleep amidst black, jagged lava and sweeping glacier-fed valleys. I was soon to follow.

Heinaberg Lagoon

After catching the ferry from Heimaey Island back to mainland Iceland, we drove around the bottom of the isle looking for a campsite. Constantly diverted by massive, high-volume waterfalls, we finally found a distant farm where three glaciers eventually converged, feeding the farm’s green pastures and gregarious Icelandic horses. Blessed with thick, impressive manes, they had no reservations about approaching us wherever we found them.

As midnight approached, the vast green meadow saw more campers trickling in from all over Europe. Icy winds blowing off the glaciers kept us bundled through the short night, but just like that the sun was up and we hit the serpentine Ring Road again.  

Vatnajökull is Europe’s largest ice cap and the third-largest in the world after the North and South Poles. Averaging over 1,200 feet thick, beneath it is a wonderland of peaks and valleys, live volcanoes and subglacial lakes. It’s also the namesake for Iceland’s largest national park.

We met our Austrian kayak guide Stephan at Guesthouse Skálafell in southeastern Iceland. The mountains just to the north of us were stacked with glaciers that appeared impenetrable. 

Glacial kayaking is the only option for exploring the girth of Vatnajökull. We paddled the Heinaberg Lagoon at the bottom of the glacier, where calving ice was the end of the road for the glacier. We wrestled into much-needed dry suits, the glacial runoff a frigid 38 degrees. At the lagoon there was utter silence until gargantuan shards of ice broke free, creating rolling chocolate-brown waves that lapped repeatedly on the cobbled shore.

We kayaked toward the back end of the lagoon and donned crampons and ice axes to step onto the glacier. The only signs of life were a delicate piping plover sounding the alarm. Fragile life existing in such harsh conditions is best experienced from a kayak.

Látrabjarg Cliffs

The bird cliffs of Látrabjarg are an 8-kilometer-long jagged, eroding cliff line loaded with thousands of seabirds, and they were something to behold. The cliffs ranged from 400 to 1,200 feet tall. This westernmost point in Iceland is a magnet for 10 species of seabirds, including the largest razorbill colony in the world.

During the day the cliffs were crowded with tourist buses dropping off visitors frothing to catch a glimpse of a puffin or razorbill, but by early evening they virtually vanished. With some patience as sunset approached, I found the cliffs to be ideal for bird watching and photographing. 

The lighthouse overlooking the turbulent Atlantic also watches over a graveyard of shipwrecks. Near midnight, seabirds swarmed the cliff edges, taking in the last rays of warmth before either huddling together on the lofty, guano-covered ledges or nestling into their dark burrows. 

Through binoculars I watched vast squadrons of seabirds leaving the water, frantically flying for the bird cliffs. Razorbills and puffins lined the edges. Farther down the cliff faces, northern fulmars and kittiwakes tended to their needy chicks. Even farther down, common guillemots awkwardly huddled on precarious perches. It was a virtual dorm of seabirds extending westward, few vacancies available overlooking the frigid North Atlantic Ocean.

Snaefellsjökull National Park

Continuing to explore the deep fjords of Iceland, we couldn’t pass up Snaefellsjökull National Park, which consumes much of the western tip of Snaefellsnes peninsula. Snaefell is a stratovolcano cloaked in a 700,000-year-old glacier. On a clear day, it can be seen from Reykjavík 74 miles to the south. When visible, it dominates the stunning landscape within the park.

It’s Iceland’s only national park that extends to the seashore. I picked a nondescript trail leading out to the coast between the sleepy villages of Hellnar and Arnarstapi. The trail followed a jagged shoreline through a nature reserve where rays of sunshine fought through wispy, swirling fog.

I was the only hiker out there by 10 p.m. The North Atlantic waters were pulsing with an incoming tide and a long interval swell engulfing the black lava rock along the craggy coast. The ocean appeared black and foreboding as I lava-hopped over tangled balls of kelp. Beautiful wildflowers were growing right out of deep cavities in the lava, and then Iceland’s largest land predator surprised me, emerging from a dark volcanic cavity.

An ashy-colored Arctic fox played peekaboo with me from a fortress of volcanic boulders. If it hadn’t stirred I would’ve missed it. I nearly lost it when it darted through a lush green meadow — but I saw the tallest blades waver as the sly little creature tried to ditch me, so I followed it toward the coast. Fleeing the meadow, it tried concealing itself again in the black rocks. The fox flattened itself as best as it could, but I was able to approach within 8 feet. This time it froze, and studied me until I left a few frames later.

On an island so rich in volatile and diverse natural wonders, the Arctic fox seemed like an oxymoron within the land of fire, ice and water. Once the Icelandic winter returns, however, that crafty little rascal’s dark fur will become snow white, adapting to the ever-changing landscapes for which Iceland will always be known.

The bird cliffs of Látrabjarg are so named for the multiple avian species that flock to its edges, including the Atlantic puffin.

The church at Hellnar, an ancient fishing village at the western tip of Snaefellsnes peninsula, is dwarfed by the magnificent landscape surrounding it.

A frigid glacial stream rushes through Snaefellsjökull National Park.

Glacial water feeds the pastures of Heimaey Island, providing ample sustenance for Icelandic horses.

Up close and personal with a razorbill on the bird cliffs of Látrabjarg.

Skógafoss Waterfall plunges over a 200-foot former sea cliff. Iceland’s interior highlands are separated from the coastal lowlands by these eroded cliffs, left behind when the coastline receded seaward.

05-01-2017

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