Iceland Unraveled: Heading East
Welcome back to my Iceland travel journal - on the next day of our trip, we drove East to the town of Vik, and ended up making a dozen or so stops along the way. I will say, even though this may have been our most adventure-filled day, by the end of the my Dad and I were exhausted, and our legs had never been so sore.
A small price to pay to get to see waterfalls and a lit up sky, though.
We left our apartment fairly early after a quick breakfast and heavy sleep. Our first planned stop wasn't for about two and a half hours, but my Dad and I found quite a few places to stop and stretch. I'd like to include a pretty gigantic shout out to my Dad for driving over 20 hours total on this whole trip - and thanks to the rental company for our faithful four wheel drive. We certainly used it a lot during the trip, as there are endless gravel roads to travel down and numerous dirt roads that lead you out to the sea. I highly recommend that, no matter what country you're traveling to, you explore old trails and roads - as long as you make sure you're not trespassing, the adventure is always worth it.
My expectations for Iceland were easily exceeded just by making this drive through the southern pass of the country. Where I had been expecting farmland maybe, or perhaps just barren hills meeting ocean, we instead found nearly constant looming mountains that peered down at us through the sun roof - so tall that, upon driving over a small section of mountain, the mist was so thick we could barely see five feet in front of us. (Again, Dad... thanks for driving. You have no idea how much I appreciate it.)
Watching the mountains pass by on both sides of the car was nothing short of a delight. I can't speak for my Dad here but the time seemed to fly as we approached the area around Vik. We were, in fact, searching for a very specific waterfall to visit when we happened upon three different waterfalls out of the blue. Mist and gallons of water spilled over the upper ridge of the mountain before us - quite by accident we had arrived at Seljalandsfoss, and its two smaller, accompanying falls.
Admittedly, the area was quite touristy, but because there were three different waterfalls, the crowded parking lot only gave the impression of crowds; in actuality, our fellow explorers were thinned out along the base of the mountain.
Each waterfall at Seljalandsfoss was completely its own; some flew over the mountain edge, and some trickled down the hill into a fresh cascade. I'd never seen waterfalls like this before, and even though I may try, my photos can't even begin to imitate the feeling of standing at the feet of the falls.
After exploring the area for nearly an hour - almost losing complete sight of my Dad in the process, I might add - we climbed back in our car and left to continue our adventure. We had almost arrived at the destination that we actually planned, when we stumbled upon one of our favorite sights from the entire trip.
At several points along our drive, we saw signs that pointed to roads that acted as a sort of half circle. Most of them were small and cut right up against the mountainside, and held houses, an occasional church, and green pastures. With a beautiful concoction of curiosity and leftover time, my Dad and I took a left off of Route 1 and drove out onto one of these half circles, and ended up finding an unnamed waterfall - the only other soul in sight being a grinning woman on horseback, and her two loyal dogs.
My Dad and I clambered out of the car and hiked from the small lot we found out to the waterfall. There was a small section of moss-covered rock that covered the area where the water hit the ground, but I'm sure with the right pair of shoes and a more waterproof camera, walking to the base of the falls wouldn't be a problem.
I found a boulder to stand on and ended up sitting at one of the most picturesque spots of our entire trip. It's locations like this that serve as a reminder that it's off the beaten path, hidden places that make the trip what it is. I can so vividly remember smiling down at my Dad, so wide my mouth hurt. When I finally -and reluctantly - stepped down, he smiled at me, and said, "We'll call it Juliafoss."
Obviously, Juliafoss probably has an actual name out there somewhere, especially to all the people who find home in the little half-circle. But to me, it's Juliafoss, and it's definitely my favorite memory from the trip.
But the afternoon was beginning to fade and we still had at least four more destinations to find - our next one was just as unexpected as Juliafoss, and our curiosity was so strong that, even though we passed it at first, my Dad and I found the first possible space to turn around in order to give the Steinahellir Cave our utmost attention.
This - admittedly, incredibly creepy - cave was the first chapter of our apparent haunted Iceland tour. They just seem to love ghost stories! A small sign outside read that the cave was haunted, and that anyone who took one of the ferns hanging from the cave walls would be cursed for the rest of time. But not to worry! Neither I nor my Dad touched any of the ferns. I was half expecting to look through my photos coming home and see some sort of ghostly figure - but if I'm being honest, I found nothing. Quite disappointing! But the cave was really interesting, and there was no one there but my Dad and I.
Finally, though, we were arriving at a sight that was actually on our itinerary - Skogafoss! This famous waterfall definitely lived up to everything I had read about it, but so did the crowds. Parking was free, and there was plenty to explore, but I wouldn't go here expecting a quiet experience. You have to find those ones yourself!
Skogafoss can be described simply as immense. I'm sure in the summer, when all the snow and ice is finally melting, the waterfall is completely thunderous; but even in March the water was overwhelming. There were families and fellow photographers all around the rocky riverbed beside us, and plenty of space to take the shots I'd been dreaming about for months. A winding, jagged staircase wound up the ridge next to the falls, and led to an overlook stationed right over the break of the waterfall.
Unfortunately, the journey up looked quite a bit easier than what reality had in store. My legs were ablaze by the time we reached the vista, but I can say, without a doubt, that the view was worth the climb.
Hiking down was far easier than staggering up; my Dad and I enjoyed a late lunch of popcorn, Skyr, and water back in the car, then journeyed out to our next destination.
I have to admit, our next stop was likely our least favorite, but I fear I may be to blame for the agonizing walk we embarked on. The Solheimasandur airplane is a famous site that holds a crashed, dismembered, and deteriorating airplane in the middle of barren, black rock fields. Seeing the airplane itself was absolutely fascinating, and quite eerie, as tourists climbed in, on, and over it for the perfect shot. Thankfully everyone survived the original 1970's crash, but it's still a rather ominous sight to see.
Even more terrifying, though, was the walk to and from the parking lot - just about an hour each way. I know now to put in some more research before embarking on hikes such as this one, especially having just climbed up and down the stairs at Skogafoss. Nonetheless, the plane and desolate surrounding was a cool sight, even though my Dad and I were quite happy to be back in the car.
Our last true 'stop' for the evening was Vik, a seaside town nestled snugly in the roots of towering mountains and a constantly crashing beach. Technically, it was the famous Black Sand Beach that we came to visit, however on my next trip to Iceland I'll most certainly be staying in Vik! The beach was famous for its soft, dark sand, and towering rock formations that rose out of the ocean like giants. We arrived at the tail-end of twilight, and blue hour enveloped the town as its night lights slowly turned on, and the clouds overpowered the sky.
Although the sky in Vik was overcast and dark, my Dad had been keeping a sharp eye on both the cloud and aurora forecasts all day, and he predicted that about halfway between Vik and Reykjavik, in a town called Hella, the sky would split and we could search for the aurora borealis. We drove earnestly, flicking our eyes from the road to the sky as twilight quickly vanished and the night arrived. When everything outside turned black and blue, we used the sight of stars - bright and twinkling - to indicate clear sky. Soon enough, we found an opening, and the aurora found us. My Dad and I found a couple places to stop, spilling out of the car with excitement, but moving often to keep up with the constantly changing sky. The aurora is one of the most dazzling and impressive feats of nature to ever lay eyes upon.
Now that I'm back at home, and I've had time to really process the light-show we saw, I've completely convinced myself that the aurora has as much personality as any other person you'd meet on the street. It danced, dazzled, and played hide and seek; shining, shimmering, and striking wonder into every eye that watched it. My Dad and I agree that it far exceeded all the expectation and hope we had; and it provided the perfect end to a fantastic day.
I hope you've enjoyed this edition of my Icelandic Unraveled story! If you haven't check our first adventure through the Reykjanes peninsula, click here! Thanks so much for reading, and stay tuned for more soon!
Facebook: Julia Bruns Photography