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September 2017

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On Monday, our final tour began with an early pick up at our hotel. It would be a long day, driving to Vík and back, and the day's itinerary included two waterfalls, a glacier, and a beach. The first part of the tour retraced the end of our tour the day before, as we backtracked past the power plant and the town of Hveragerði. The first stop for the day was the impressive waterfall, Skógafoss. Visible from the highway, once the bus was parked and we were able to get out, we discovered that we could walk right to the water's edge at the base of the waterfall (as long as you didn't mind getting a bit wet...we decided that the temperature was a bit cool to risk getting too wet). The angle of the sun produced very low rainbows in the waterfall's mist. It was really strange to be looking at the ground to see rainbows!


Just a few miles further down the highway, after crossing a one-lane bridge, our bus turned off onto a side road that wound its way to the parking area for Sólheimajökull. Thirty years ago, this parking area was right at the face of the glacier, and no further effort was required to view the glacier.  However, the glacier has since retreated up the valley and now it requires a fifteen minute walk over some slightly challenging terrain to get a glimpse of the base of the glacier. There is also a lake in front of the glacier that wasn't there just seven years ago. Sólheimajökull is an outlet glacier for the much larger Mýrdalsjökull ice cap, which covers an active volcano. A major eruption here would create significant flooding for this section of the southern coast, and the town of Vìk maintains and active evacuation plan against this eventuality.


After stopping for lunch in Vìk, our bus turned around to begin our return journey.  The first stop after lunch was a visit to the black sand beach at Reynisfjara. Here the coastal erosion of the volcanic rocks had carved shallow caves and arches in the cliffs, leaving a wide expanse of black sand beach.  However, the same forces that created this spectacular vista sometimes makes this a dangerous place to visit. While the surf was light while we were here, we were repeatedly reminded not to turn our backs to the water, as big waves can crash onto the beach with very little warning. Apparently two tourists have died here in the last seven months because they did not heed these warnings.



The final stop on our tour was just a few miles from our first. Seljalandsfoss is also visible from the highway, falling from the same coastal cliff as Skógafoss. However, this waterfall looks very different, with its narrower stream. Seljalandsfoss also has carved a small cave behind it, so that we could walk all the way around behind it. This time, in spite of the cool temperatures, we risked getting a bit damp so that we could enjoy the views from behind the waterfall.


The view from behind Seljalandsfoss

From here it was back to the city and our hotel. Iceland had treated us to some spectacular scenery, but we know that we've barely scratched the surface here. We may just have to return to see more.
 We had decided to spend two full days in Iceland on the way home from our cruise, and ended up booking day-long tours for each day. On Sunday, we were picked up at our hotel just after 8:00 am to begin the Golden Circle tour, which is possibly the best known of the tour options in Iceland.  As we headed east out of Reykjavík, our tour guide began what would prove to be an almost non-stop narrative, describing the history, geography, and geology of Iceland, among other topics. It was a warm (by Icelandic our tour guide kept reminding us), sunny day, and along the way we were able to drink in the stark beauty of this volcanic landscape.

Our first destination was the Þingvellir National Park (the "Þ" seems to be equivalent to "th"). This location is significant for a couple of reasons. Historically, this is the location where the island's original parliament met, when the tribal chieftains gathered here annually in the tenth century to discuss the law and resolve conflicts. This is also a site of significant geological interest, as it is a rift valley, formed by the movement of the North American tectonic plate away from the Eurasian tectonic plate. The opposite sides of this valley are moving away from each other at a rate of about an inch (2.5 cm) per year. This is a starkly visible reminder of the powerful forces that are at work inside the Earth.


From here, we continued to visit one of the most impressive waterfalls I've ever seen.  Gullfoss (Golden Waterfall) is a two tiered waterfall that drops into a narrow canyon with steep sides.  From the publicly accessible platforms, it is difficult to see the bottom of the waterfall, but it is dramatic and beautiful, set in the stark, empty Icelandic countryside.  After gawking at the waterfall for a bit, and taking plenty of photos, we headed into the visitor's center for a quick lunch of traditional Icelandic lamb soup. Yum!


On our way to our final scheduled stop of the tour we made a brief, unscheduled stop to visit with a small paddock of Icelandic horses near the road. We grabbed handfuls of grass from the edge of the parking area, and when the horses saw that we had food to offer, they eagerly came over to visit with us.  Icelandic horses are a small breed, with wild manes and spirited dispositions. They are beautiful to watch, and it was only with reluctance that we said farewell and reboarded our bus.

Our final official stop of the tour was at Geysir, an area of geothermal hot springs.  The star attraction here is the Strokkur geyser, which erupts every 5-6 minutes, with varying magnitude.  We lingered long enough to witness a couple of truly impressive eruptions. The walkways got surprisingly close to the geyser, so we got a really good look at the surface of the water as it prepared to erupt.  It is hard to describe the way the water moves in advance of the eruption, but it was clear that significant amounts of energy were at work.


When we reboarded our bus for our return trip to Reykjavík, our tour guide applauded our promptness at all of our stops so far and indicated that we had time for one more "surprise" stop. This turned out to be one final waterfall, at Faxi. While not as tall or as powerful as Gullfoss, it was quite pretty, set all by itself in the middle of the empty countryside.  After we took some pictures, we boarded the bus one final time. Our tour guide continued his narration as we returned to the city.  Along the way, we took detours through the village of Hveragerði, which has dozens of hot springs scattered throughout the town, and past one of the newest geothermal power plants in the country (90% of the electricity here is generated geothermally, the rest comes from hydroelectric plants).

Faxi waterfall

Along the tour, our guide noted that Iceland has a significant earthquake every 8 years or so and that one of the significant volcanoes erupts every 70-80 years.  Both are now due or overdue. My wife looked at me, clearly thinking about all the emergency response we'd already witnessed on this trip, and started to say "Wouldn't it be funny if..."  I quickly interrupted her with a definitive "NO". It's one thing to see the relatively small responses we'd already seen, but a major event in Iceland would have been something else altogether.



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