Trip Report III: Iceland

I actually know a lot of people who’ve been to Iceland and yet not one of them has ever told me how incredibly weird Iceland is. Like, you walk around this island and you’ll think “is that smoke?” and the answer will be “no, it’s steam pouring out of the earth from a vent in some person’s back yard.”


We stayed in Hveragerði, which is about an hour from the airport and has a whole lot of hot springs, making it possibly even weirder than the rest of Iceland.

Our first day in Iceland we drove (most of) the Golden Circle, which is a set of particularly memorable sights not too far from Reykjavik. We started with Thingvellir (Þingvellir), the valley where they held the Althing, the first parliament. We walked along a trail that took us to something called the Law Rock, which Ed joked was the parliamentary equivalent of the Church of the Nativity, since it’s not an actual rock but a flag with a sign saying “we think it might have been more or less here.”

A sign saying "You are here at your own risk" and listing a number of rules for safely being near a hot spring, including a final note, "The nearest hospital is 62 km away."

Our next stop was at Geysir. You’ve heard of geysers; turns out they are all named after Geysir, which was the first geyser described in a printed source. Geysir is pretty quiescent these days except after earthquakes; we were actually there to see Strokkur, which erupts every 5-10 minutes.

I visited Yellowstone with my family back in high school and I remember two things about Old Faithful: (1) it’s very impressive when it finally goes off and (2) the name is a LIE. Old Faithful can take hours between eruptions and you just have to kind of stand there, staring at it and waiting. Strokkur is a shorter eruption than Old Faithful but we hung out for less than a half hour and watched it erupt three times. Strokkur is so frequent you can say “hey, let’s see what it looks like from over there?” and discover that on that side, you can watch the hot spring burble and also see this giant bubble rise up right before it erupts.

Done at Geysir, we went to see Gulfoss, a really spectacular waterfall nearby:

A waterfall, seen from the side, with mossy green land surrounding it and a river in the distance.Gulfoss may have been our overall favorite spot on the Golden Circle. It really is a spectacular waterfall, and there are paths along the side so you can see it from a number of different angles. “Gulfoss” means “Golden Waterfall,” and on sunnier days you can see a rainbow in the mist rising up from it — we saw it on a cloudier day, so no rainbows, but it was still spectacular.

After Gulfoss we went to see Kerið, a crater lake in an extinct volcano:

A small, very reflective and very round lake at the bottom of a steep, colorful valley.

There’s a path around the top; there’s stairs down; there’s another path around the lake at the bottom. My favorite part was walking around the top; it’s not as impressive from the bottom.

Then we drove down to the coast and had dinner at a restaurant right next to a black sand beach:


If you saw the trailer for Frozen II, it starts on an Icelandic black sand beach — specifically Reynisfjara (probably). We considered going to Reynisfjara but decided it was a little further than we wanted to drive. Our guidebook warned that Reynisfjara (and a number of other Icelandic beaches) are a lot more dangerous than you might expect, with “sneaker waves” that’ll roll in and potentially knock you down and drag you out, like this has happened to tourists often enough that they have signs saying “NEVER TURN YOUR BACK ON THE OCEAN.”

Having walked barefoot down to the edge of the dry sand and then had a wave wash up almost to my knees — I absolutely believe it. The water is every bit as cold as you’d expect and the waves were high even on a placid summer afternoon. I’m really glad we got to see it and I’m glad we weren’t there with the four-year-old version of Molly who would promise to just dip her toes in the water and then “accidentally fall in” at any opportunity.

To the left, there's sort of a pothole in the earth with steam pouring out of it from the boiling water within; next to this are two sheep, grazing on the grass that's nice and green thanks to the moisture from the hot spring. Hot springs are literally boiling water (which is just astounding to see, frankly) so obviously you can’t get in them unless you wish to be boiled like a lobster. Near Hveragerði, however, there’s the Reykjadalur hot spring and its “thermal river” — hot water from the hot spring flows into a cold river and produces water that’s the perfect temperature to soak in. You can even pick your temperature — upstream for hotter, downstream for cooler.

You hike about three kilometers in (mostly uphill) to get to the thermal river. There are hot springs along the way (and signage telling you to please not boil yourself to death) and this brings me to something nobody tells you about Iceland: there are large portions of the country that smell like sulfur, particularly if you’re near a hot spring. I only found it bothersome when I had to walk through a very thick cloud of hot spring steam, but by the time we got most of the way to the thermal river, it was really getting to Kiera and she turned around and walked back down to the car. (There was some really intense steam, but even if she’d made it through — the river itself also smelled a bit of sulfur.)

(Since your brain will learn to tune out anything it smells all the time, Icelanders do not notice this smell. In the US, natural gas gets a slight sulfurous smell added to it so that we’ll know if there’s a gas leak, and one question I had is whether natural gas in Iceland gets some other scent, so they’ll be able to smell it? Turns out the answer is that they don’t use natural gas there, which I suppose makes sense in a country where a lot of residents could go off-grid by setting up a home geothermal plant some afternoon.)

The rest of us greatly enjoyed soaking in the hot river. Post-river, we went back to our AirB&B to change (I also showered, quickly) and then we drove along the south coast to the Sólheimajökull glacier. One of the smaller Icelandic glaciers has a little glacial finger that reaches down most of the way to the highway. When they built the parking lot, it was right by the edge of the glacier. Now it’s a 15-minute walk to get to it. (You do not run into a whole lot of climate change deniers in Iceland.) The drive itself was really interesting; we saw two more huge waterfalls from the highway, as well as various flat-topped mountains that were probably volcanoes. (One was the volcano that erupted in 2010 and grounded all European air traffic for weeks.)

A very large single-drop waterfall.

Post-glacier we went looking for somewhere to have dinner and wound up next to Skógafoss, one of the waterfalls we’d seen from the road. We had dinner, then walked over for a look up close.

This one was also somewhat impressive for having a campground right next to it with a neat row of little tents. We speculated that the restaurant owned the land and let people camp for free because that way, they’d have a steady stream of customers at breakfast? (There is in fact a charge for camping, I checked on our way out.)

One of the advantages of visiting Iceland in the summer is that the days are long. Even in August, the sun didn’t set until 9:30 p.m., which meant we could see a lot of stuff, have dinner, and then see one last thing (the beach, the waterfall) before it was dark.

On our last day in Iceland, we visited a volcanic cave (“The Lava Tube”) for a tour, then went back to the airport to fly home.

I highly recommend Iceland as a place to visit, especially for science fiction writers, because when you’re thinking about strange alien landscapes you should realize just how seriously weird things can get on our own planet. I don’t know how long you have to spend in Iceland before “that is steam coming out of the ground” stops being startling. Also, I kept wondering, what on earth did medieval non-Icelanders who visited Iceland make of it? Did they think there were literal gates to hell in the ground here, between the heat and the sulfur?



2 thoughts on “Trip Report III: Iceland

  1. I was about to say, if there are hot springs but no way to lounge in hot water, it feels like a rip off. Tho I don’t think Iceland has the onsen culture that Japan does.

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