East Iceland: A Lesson in Geology and Tourism

One of the many things that makes Iceland’s scenery so spectacular is its unique geology. Exaggerated textures, shapes and definition can suddenly open up from an ordinary landscape into something ghostly, foreboding, or even “other worldly.” Due to these geological formations and years of erosion of the volcanic soil, canyons appear a little more dramatic, mountains a little more colorful, and mossy hillsides are reminiscent of hobbit holes.

Of all the unique geology I have seen throughout my time in Iceland, I am most fascinated by the basalt columns. Yes, I have seen these before, but never in abundance like in Iceland. They are in canyons, alongside waterfalls, and even beach cliff sides, reminding me of sticks glued together like the old game of “Magic Wood” that we played with as kids back in the fifties.

I am fascinated by what gives these basalt columns their hexagonal shape. Most answers are oversimplified, like “It’s how the lava cools.” But seriously, how does lava cooling make six sided columns that butt up to each other perfectly, often times cleaving off like string cheese? I understand as the rock cools, it pulls toward center, causing cracks to form. But how those cracks make such uniform hexagonal shapes continues to baffle me.

Stuðlagil Canyon

One of the best examples of a basalt colonnade in Iceland is the stunning Stuðlagil Canyon in east Iceland. It’s considered to have one of the largest collections of basalt columns in Iceland. But it’s a bit off the beaten path. Of all the places I have visited, directions on how to reach this canyon were the most vague. Landmarks are names of individual’s farms, for example, “Take a sharp left turn just past the Skjöldólfsstaðir farm.” Riiight…)

There are two ways to approach the canyon. If you go to the west side, you end up at a steep staircase leading down to a viewing platform where you can go no further. It’s not possible to descend into the canyon. Even worse, you are facing the least spectacular, shorter side. The most interesting massive colonnade is just out of sight beneath the cantilevered platform. To view the most scenic east side, one must cross the river and hike 10km (6 miles) to reach the canyon. (There is a new parking lot across the bridge, further down the road that cuts the hike down to 3 miles. But the road is pretty marginal, and I didn’t see any other camper vans on it.)

After a couple of wrong turns, I finally landed on the 14km gravel road leading to the canyon. But just before I got there, the road split. I went straight when I should have turned left. Once I saw the staircase, I realized I had missed my turn, and backtracked to the turn in the road that leads to the east side. This would mean a 6 mile RT hike to reach the canyon. My lucky streak with the weather having run out, I had two choices. Stick with the viewing platform. Or pull on my rain pants, my rain jacket, and slosh Onward! Through the bog!

It’s a 14km (8.7mi) drive down a washboard gravel road to reach Stuðlagil Canyon.

I realized as soon as I pulled into the parking lot that I had missed my turn to the hike. On this side, the only views are from this steep and deep staircase.

There are a few facilities on this side, though. A coffee truck, toilets, and handicrafts for sale. You won’t find any of these on the hike side of the canyon.

In the upper part of the photo is a look at the long staircase down to the edge of the canyon. You can see why it’s not the preferable approach, as you don’t see the best part…the tall walls of the basalt columns, because they are beneath the viewing platform.

If you do the 6 mile hike (on the left,) the tallest part of the canyon walls are right in view.

In spite of the rain, I couldn’t get enough of this place!

If you look at the very top of this photo, you will see the viewing platform, and another example of why the hike is the better view, as the viewing platform overlooks the shorter side of the canyon, with the basalt formations out of view.

I did make it down to the river’s edge, but honestly my photos were better from the hiking trail. Or maybe I just had “perceptual narrowing” down there because the rocks were so slick, so I was a bit limited by fear of not getting out!

The stunning aquamarine color of the water only occurs at certain times of the year when there is glacial melt.

Hengifoss and Litlanesfoss

Another magnificent geological marvel is Hengifoss. At 118m (387ft,) it is one of the highest waterfalls in Iceland. What makes Hengifoss so spectacular are the symmetrically spaced layers of red clay sandwiched between the layers of black basalt.

On the path to Hengifoss, one passes a lesser known but equally beautiful waterfall, Litlanes. While at 98 ft it is not as high as Hengifoss, being flanked on both sides by an amphitheater of basalt columns makes it no less spectacular.

It’s less than a 3 mile hike to reach Hengifoss, so I foolishly expected a “cake walk.” But not only is it a steady climb the entire way, but the morning I hiked it, the sun was beating down on my back on the warmest, most humid day during my time in Iceland.. I was wearing black from head to toe, which caused me to swelter in sweat all the way up, and freeze all the way down. Still, it was worth every sweaty step.

Never my favorite way to start out a hike….with what looks like a Stairway to Heaven.

The sun came out on my way up the hill, and it was suddenly “short pants weather” in Iceland!

Before you reach Hengifoss, about halfway up you come to Litlanesfoss. A smaller waterfall, but no less spectacular due to the surrounding basalt “theater.”

Both Hengifoss and Litlanesfoss are located within Vatnajökull National Park, Europe’s largest national park which encompasses 13% of Iceland.


At 387ft, Hengifoss is Iceland’s third highest waterfall.

The bands of reddish sandy clay, or interbasaltic strata are formed from volcanic ash. When the next layer of lava flows over the acidic soil, the iron reacts with oxygen, resulting in the reddish coloring.

The Hengifoss trail was closed recently due to a rock slide. I was happy they got it reopened so quickly.

Another gorgeous spot that I didn’t want to leave.

Svartifoss

Within Iceland’s largest national park, Vatnajökull National Park, is the Skaftafell nature reserve, best known for another waterfall that stands out because of its “columnar jointing.”   Svartifoss is one of Iceland’s most popular waterfalls, not because of its size (only 66 ft) but because of the beautiful black basalt columns that give Svartifoss its name in Icelandic, “Black Falls.”

This national park has a fee (about $7) for entry. Here’s how Iceland collects these fees….your license plate is photographed upon entry, and you have 3 days after entry to go onto the PARKA App and pay the fee. (There are also vending machines in the parking lot.)

The Skaftafell Visitor Center located within Vatnajökull National Park which was inducted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2019.

Stolen from Wikipedia, “The unique qualities of Vatnajökull National Park are primarily its great variety of landscape features, created by the combined forces of rivers, glacial ice, and volcanic and geothermal activity.”

There are warning signs around the falls that due to potential for falling basalt columns, getting off the designated path or viewpoint will lead to expulsion from the park.

Fjadrarglufur Canyon

Next along this stretch is the Fjadrarglufur Canyon, another geological masterpiece known to be one of the most picturesque places in Iceland. It was believed to have formed at the end of the ice age when the glacier retreated, leaving a glacial river to carve a massive canyon 300 feet down. The verdant green moss growing on the hillsides is the kind of stuff movies are made of. Or in this case, music videos.

In 2015, Justin Bieber filmed a youtube music video, “I’ll show you” in then little known Fjadrarglufur Canyon. That video went viral, now having over 487 million views. In the following years, over two million tourists visited this area, many no doubt to reenact Bieber’s slow motion twirls and airy leaps, but hopefully not the part where he swims in the glacial river in his underwear.

What was once a place to frolic wild and free now must be viewed from a roped off path no more than 3 ft wide. It was closed off altogether back in April 2018 by the Icelandic Environment Agency due to damage from overtourism. After being closed for some time, it’s thankfully now reopened after construction of a roped off path connecting three viewing platforms.

Visiting here made me ponder my own tourism footprint, feeling a bit of shame for following the “influencers.” Hitting all the “instagramable” stops is not typically my style of travel. But then I also don’t typically follow a Ring Road dotted with so many geographical wonders all lined up in a row.

Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon is just off the Ring Road.

Note the channel worn into the ridge where “the Biebs” stood on the overlook, proclaiming, “I’ll show you.”

Those trails are all closed off now, with new access being via three viewing platforms.

The views from the three platforms are stunning, and a good compromise to having the entire canyon closed down.

Smithsonian magazine writes, “Still footprints in the spring mud show that every time the Ranger takes a break or has to leave their post to perform another duty, people hop the fences to dance on the canyon edge.”

View “up canyon” from the bridge.

Campgrounds on this section: Atlavik in the national forest, and Camping Höfn in the town of Höfn.

While a forest is not a “geological wonder,” in Iceland, it might almost be considered as such. But chronologically, it fits in this section. I have not included many photos of my campgrounds, because most of them have been nothing more than grassy parking lots. But the exception to that was my favorite campsite, Atlavik, located inside Hallormsstaðarskógur National Forest on the shores of Lögurinn Lake.

Iceland is mostly a treeless, volcanic barren landscape, so this 286 sq mile national forest is quite an anomaly.

This was my favorite campsite. Nice to be surrounded by trees for a change rather than other camper vans.

The campground is very basic, but has running hot and cold water, and a sink for dish washing. On the left are the toilets.

The campground was right on the shores of Lögurinn Lake, a long and narrow lake formed by the Lagarfljót River.

In spite of all the geographic wonders that make Iceland so unique, it’s just nice to see some flora for a change.

Chasing Waterfalls around the Diamond Circle

Continuing clockwise around the “clock face” traced by Route 1, Iceland’s Ring Road, Akureri is just a little past midnight. This post follows the Ring Road only briefly as I veer off headed north again along the fjord to Husavik, then zig-zag back across headed south of the Ring Road toward the Lake Myvatn area, then back north again to Ásbyrgi Canyon.

I did more bouncing around in this stretch than the others because I stayed two nights in the same campground, so there was backtracking involved. Basing myself in the Continue reading

The Northwest: Borgarnes to Akureyri

Driving Iceland’s Ring Road, aka Route 1, is every bit as beautiful as I anticipated, though I must say not as isolated as I anticipated. Yes, there are long stretches where I have the road to myself, but it’s rarely more than 10 minutes until I meet another car, or one is overtaking. While Iceland appears to be having quite the tourism boom, sources say it’s still significantly less than what it was back in 2017 and 2018, peak years. Tough to imagine. Continue reading

The Snæfellsnes Peninsula

Whenever you see the letters “a and e” butted up next to each other like “æ,” that is pronounced as “eye.” So the peninsula is pronounced “SNEYE-fells-ness.” It translates, to “Snow Mountain.”

My goal during the two weeks in my camper van rental is to drive the Ring Road. Most complete it in 8-10 days, but I am already wondering how I am going to complete it in two weeks. I have a day by day itinerary mapped out into a an excel spreadsheet so I stay on track to see all I hope to see. But what initially seemed like a reasonable pace Continue reading

No Lovah from the Lava

Back on the 19th March of this year, a new volcano arrived on the scene in Iceland. A recommended video popped up on my youtube home page announcing the birth of a brand new volcano, complete with a live webcam feed from the eruption site. I’m still unclear of the name. I often see it referred to as Geldingadalir. Other times, they call it Fagradalsfjall. Doesn’t really matter, as I cannot pronounce or spell either one. So I’ll just refer to it as “the eruption site.”

Continue reading

A Tale of Two Lagoons

I have heard of Iceland’s famous Blue Lagoon since I first heard about Iceland as a travel destination. It’s likely Iceland’s most famous attraction. As someone who has joked before about needing a bumper sticker to say “I Brake for Hot Springs,” it’s a place that has long intrigued me, and high on my “must visit” list.

But there’s a “new kid in town,” the Sky Lagoon, just opened in May of this year. It’s getting a lot of press as being a leading attraction of its own. Neither of them are cheap, Continue reading

The Camper Van

Whenever I have thought about travel to Iceland in the past, I couldn’t imagine a better way of exploring than to do so in a camper van. My desire is to complete the Ring Road, a 1,332 kilometer, 828 mile circumnavigation of the island. Doing this trip in a camper van will allow me to “gunk hole” it, similar to how I did in the Winnie back in 2017 around Newfoundland. Drive until I get tired, then stop for the night, picking back up where I left off the following morning. Anything else would necessitate backtracking Continue reading

Valhalla, I am Coming!

To some, “Valhalla” in that subject line might refer to the Norse mythology, a realm of the afterlife that Vikings aspired to enter upon their death. A form of heaven, if you will.

However, if you are like me, a musically influenced child of the 60’s and 70’s, you will instead recognize it as part of the lyrics of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” written during Led Zeppelin’s tour of Iceland in the summer of 1970 which opened in Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital city. The song was written by Robert Plant while a guest of the Icelandic Government touring Iceland on a cultural mission. This visit inspired the lyrics, Continue reading

My Pandemic Paradigm

I often see articles written asking, “What would you would say if you could write a letter from the present you to your younger self?” I have lots of things I would tell myself such as “Learn as many foreign languages as you can, as early as you can, because the older you get, the harder it gets.”

Also, I would encourage my younger self to take more risks and embark on more strenuous adventures while the body is young, resilient, and flexible. “Move, you must! If you stop, you’ll rust!”

But the one thing I wish I could go back and tell my younger self, something I have tried Continue reading

Unprecedented!

It’s been an unprecedented amount of time since I last updated this blog. In fact, it took a couple of minutes for the WordPress process to come back to me. As always, thanks to those friends and family who have touched base via email and messaging.

Here we are with well over half of the summer gone…well over half the year gone. And I’ve got nothing to show for it. After having lost almost a year in 2020 with no goals achieved, I didn’t anticipate being halfway through 2021 in the same boat. In future years, I am going to look back on this time and wonder, “Why don’t I have something to show for the entire half of the year?” It was understandable in 2020. However, 2021 takes a bit of explaining. Or at least rationalizing. Continue reading