It’s difficult to imagine a place with a wider range of environments to challenge every design element, material choice, and feature of just about every type of gear than Iceland. So, we packed up a few large duffel bags, tossed our 3-month-old, Danjo, into a slightly smaller duffel bag so he’d fit in the overhead bin, and headed off to Iceland to check the place out.
Iceland in December isn’t what you might expect. Reykjavik experiences normal high temperatures of about 37°F (about 3°C) despite being at 64°N latitude – about as far north as Fairbanks, Alaska. The average high temperature in Fairbanks in December is 2°F (about -17°C). Why is Iceland so much warmer? Two reasons: one, the North Atlantic Current, a warm ocean current, wraps Iceland in a coat of warm water; and two, pretty much the entire island is sitting on a volcano. There is so much thermal activity under Iceland that 90% of households are heated with geothermal power.
During the course of the 20th century, Iceland transitioned from a poor country dependent upon incinerating imported coal and peat for power to one of the most progressive energy economies in Europe. Iceland uses a combination of hydro and geothermal generators to pump out about 85% of the country’s electricity needs via indigenous, renewable resources. Of that, about 75% is hydro and 25% is geothermal.
The nice part of having all that hot water under the country is that most homes are heated directly with geothermal. Hot water is piped directly into radiators in homes.
Of the natively generated electricity, about 70% is used in the Icelandic aluminum industry, processing bauxite into usable alloy. Less than 5% of electricity is used in homes.
Apparently, storms are rare in Iceland. So, lucky us, we arrived just after a storm dropped 18” of snow on Reykjavik and just before the worst storm in 25 years with maximum winds clocked at 160 mph. That made driving around Iceland a bit more of a challenge than it would have been otherwise. We picked up a Toyota Land Cruiser with studded snow tires to get us around. We only got it stuck once.
Reykjavik is the capital and largest city. About 60% of all Icelanders live in the city and greater Capital Region. That leaves a lot of empty space in the rest of the country. We spent a week in Reykjavik, including a drive around the Golden Circle (not a circle) and a trip to the Blue Lagoon. Then we packed up and drove three hours down to the small, seaside town of Vik and based in a small cabin right on a black sand beach for the rest of the trip.
Cities are generally cities. Reykjavik wouldn’t feel out of place in the Pacific Northwest. We found a raw food chain restaurant, the Lebowski Bar (yes, that Lebowski, dude), seafood that had just been pulled out of the water that morning, and brennivin, so much brennivin. Also, as is wise in a country with only 325,000 people in it, everyone learns English in school. It’s much easier to communicate with words rather than our usual method of finding words in a phrase book and pointing. The snow storm – and the ice left over – gave me an opportunity to try out some ice spikes. They kept me on my feet on slick ice where everyone else was slip-sliding down the sidewalk.
Reykjavik is a great base for exploring the surrounding area. The Golden Circle is a drive that stops in at some pretty spectacular waterfalls and geysers and at UNESCO World Heritage site Þingvellir National Park, interesting both geologically and historically.
Þingvellir sits directly on top of the rift between the North American and European plates and you can actually see the rift. Various companies offer scuba and snorkeling tours in Lake Silfra, though we did not partake. But, beyond the geological marvel, we were pretty stoked to learn that the Vikings held their first parliament there, called the Alþingi, in 930 C.E. The park was created in 1930 to commemorate the 1000th anniversary of that first meeting. A millennium of parliament..
After Þingvellir, we drove to Geysir, namesake of every geyser in the world, linguistically speaking. Geysir is full of steam vents and actual geysers and has been active for over 10,000 years. The original Geysir (the O.G., if you will) rarely erupts anymore. This is a gif of its smaller brother Strokkur:
Next, we stopped at Gullfoss, which translates to Golden Falls. Even a quarter mile from the falls themselves, spray kicked up and covered the camera lens. Thankfully, the shell fabric on my Patagonia Down Sweater Hoody kept the down dry and a TREW Gear NuYarn 1/4-zip base layer kept me warm and dry. It’s a spectacular waterfall.
We did get to stop by the famous Blue Lagoon. The lagoon itself is amazing, with thermal springs feeding it enough water that it completely refreshes itself every 48 hours. What you don’t generally find out is that there’s a huge geothermal power plant right next door and, currently, a ton of construction going on. Somehow, the plant and the construction took absolutely nothing away from the experience of the lagoon. It was magical.
No trip to Iceland in the winter would be complete without a view of the Aurora Borealis. The sky cooperated on our second to last night in Reykjavik and gave us a show.
It takes about three hours to drive from Reykjavik down to the small, seaside town of Vík, the southernmost village in Iceland. While it only has a permanent population of about 300 people, there aren’t really any other towns nearby, so it acts as a bit of a central staging point for further exploration into the south coast of Iceland. (As an interesting side note, Vík sits directly below the volcano Katla, which is overdue for an eruption. When it erupts, it may melt enough of the glacier sitting on top of it to cause an enormous flash flood that may wipe out the entire town.) Vík has a gorgeous black sand beach, at the end of which sit basalt pillars which are rumored to be the remains of trolls that got caught out in the sun. We also caught the Northern Lights over Vik, though the good pictures were of a faint glow and the good lights came out all blurry.
From Vík, we first backtracked to check out the Sólheimajökull Glacier. The ice there is an amazing blue.
We next stopped at a few waterfalls, including Skógafoss. At Skógafoss, the spray was so strong that I pulled out a Stio Snotel jacket to add some waterproof protection over my down layer.
Our next stop was something that somehow didn’t make it into the guidebooks. On November 24, 1973, a US Navy DC-3 was forced to land on the black sand beach at Sólheimasandur after it experienced severed icing. Everyone survived and the Navy picked the plane apart for spares, leaving only the fuselage. It still sits there, over forty years later, waiting to be photographed. While we were able to drive all the way out to the plane, the landowner has since closed access. Tourists, being tourists, were ignoring the posts placed to guide people to the plane and were driving every which-way, damaging the property. While you can still access it, you’ll now have to park on the road and hike 4km in to see it.
The next day had us leaving before sunrise to get all the way out to Jökulsárlón, a large lagoon left since the Breiðamerkurjökull receded from the highway. The lake didn’t really exist until about 80 years ago and has increased in size fourfold since the 1970s. A View to a Kill, Die Another Day, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and Batman Begins all filmed scenes at Jökulsárlón. It’s just that magical.
The lake is filled with fish, which end up as meals for the seals that lounge on the ice.
Icebergs calve from the glacier and mingle in the lagoon before being swept out into the Atlantic.
Some manage to get themselves stalled on the beach.
Danjo stayed warm throughout the trip with his Patagonia Capilene onesie and pants, Patagonia fleece booties and Smartwool Bootie beanie.
An amazing ten days in Iceland. Go visit.