Walking and trekking
Big things are afoot in Iceland. The country has steadily grown in recent years into one of the most charismatic outdoor destinations in Europe. The biggest outdoor attraction here is Skaftafell National Park, which is Europe’s largest. That record is set to get even more pronounced when it joins with neighbouring, stressfully-accented JökulsárgljúfurNational Park to form one 15,000 square-kilometre megapark, which in its entireity will cover 40% of Iceland. Within the current borders of Skaftafell National Park lies a wilderness of wild rivers, scooped mountains and something called the Vatnajökull glacier, which is the world’s biggest icecap outside the poles at 3000 Billion tonnes and is therefore difficult to miss. Geographically, Iceland covers a little less than half the land area of the UK and is a juxtaposition of the very hot and the frigid, located as it is on the mid-Atlantic ridge, causing one of the world’s most spectacular volcanic lightshows. The Vatnajokull Icecap occupies almost the entire south-east of the island, with the country’s highest point – Hvannadalshnukur, at 2,110m – at its southern extremity. Pronounced ‘kwanna-dalsh-nyooker,’ the mountain is the highest point on the rim of a volcano, Oræfajökull, which erupts fairly frequently and very spectacularly, given the amount of water hearabouts to incinerate. The climb isn’t particularly taxing technically, but as you have to climb up a glacier there are many crevasse problems to overcome. Both normal routes start from the west, with the more technical Hryggjaleið route closed off from about mid-July, and the Sandfellsleið route open for much of the year. Starting from the Skaftafell National Park visitor centre off Highway 1, the walk up takes you through a high, weird wilderness of snow-encrusted, twisted horns of volcanic rock. As expected, the views from the top are dominated by ice and ocean, and utterly unique. There’s a great campsite at the bottom and facilites to hire a guide.
Elsewhere in the park, the volcanic Laki area offers many walking trails around (and through) one of Iceland’s most famous and dangerous features: the Laki fissure. The last significant eruption here was in 1783, which had Europe-wide consequences and killed about a quarter of Iceland, though fissures, vents and spatter cones throw out incendiary sheets of lava in local eruptions now and again. Walking in this area is tough, sharp and dusty, but well worth it as it is a very unique landscape of great natural interest: seeing the glaciers and the fissures in action hereabouts is a rare chance to see the Earth being re-worked before your very eyes. There are many other walks to volcanoes all over Iceland, but if you prefer something a little different, you could stick to the east of the island, which is home to some truly outstanding areas to walk, quite despite the . The Heradsfloi valley is a great wilderness of moorland which is one of Europe’s great blanks. Here you can trek to Door Mountain (1136m), which earns its name from the 200m gap that splits the crags of Dyfjoll towers. Also in the east is the area Icelandics call the ‘trails of the coastal inlets’ - a massive walking region between the fjords of Seydisfjordur and Borgarfjordur Viknaslodir, and there are many marked hiking trails and good infrastructure for walkers here. Another peak worth climbing is the Table Mountain-alike Herdubreid, which at 1677m high dominates the surrounding area, and is commonly referred to as the ‘queen of the Icelandic mountains’. Probably one of the most spectacular and interesting places on the eastern part of Iceland is the area around Borgarfjordu Eystri, a small village surrounded by bleak, mountainous landscapes and thickly-crafted myths, usually involving trolls and elves. You can also find an area in the east called The Woodlands, which offers great walking through pristine birch forests.
Elsewhere in Iceland, you can visit any of the three other national parks in the country. Jökulsárgljúfur National Park in the north, is worth a look because of its odd canyons and volcanic mountains, relics of a volcanic eruption directly underneath a river here. This mix of lava, gas and water caused powerful explosions, destroying the mountains around the river to leave only husks today. Snæfellsjökull National Park in west Iceland has as its centrepiece a huge 1,446m volcano made famous by Jules Verne in Journey to the Centre of the Earth, and has a glacier bunging its vent. Climbing the mountain is spellbinding. The park is easily accessible from Rekyavik. Þingvellir National Park, in South Iceland, which aside from some interesting walking over volcanic erratics, has the cache of being an important historical area: weirdly, one of the oldest parliamentary institutions in the world was formed here in AD 930. Gullfoss is another fine area to walk, which is accessible by bus from Reykjavik. The centrepiece is a 32m waterfall which plunges into a canyon.
Iceland is a land of legendary expense, so what you get up to will have to depend on what you’re willing to pay for it. An essential experience here is the goethermal pools of which there are many. At Lake Myvatn, the water of the springs which well up in crevasses around the northern shore is too hot to bear in summer, but in winter drops to a level that humans can just about bear. The most famous spring is the Blue Lagoon, between Rekyavik and the airport. Here, the blue water, clouds of steam and stainless steel towers of the nearby geothermal plant make for a surreal atmosphere and a revitalising physical experience. Ski-touring is popular in the north and west of the island, and if you like waterfalls, there is a great experience to be had at Seljalandsfoss near Rekyavik. Here you can have the arresting experience of standing behind a sixty-five metre waterfall as it plunges into its ravine. Then of course there is always drinking: Rekyavik has developed something of a reputation for being one of Europe’s most hedonistic cities, and due to near continuous sunlight in the summer and the reverse in the winter, alcohol is never far away, and many of the petite city’s nightclubs stay open until 4am. Oliver, Sirkus and Hverfisbarinn are popular choices in this area. There is also something of a culinary freakshow here, too: fish is a feature on virtually every menu, some of it buried for several months and allowed to rot before it arrives on your plate. Whale watching is also very popular here, though only in summer.
There are no trees in Iceland: FALSE. Eastern Iceland has some scattered birch forests, and though the volcanic soil is fragile and does not encourage growth, there are projects in place to plant trees in the island.
Must see and do
- Try Hakari This is a platter of rotting shark meat which is buried in sand for six months, and has been described as tasting like a combination of ‘dodgy fish and strong French cheese with a hint of ammonia.’ Don’t try it at home, you might end up killing yourself.
- Visit the Blue Lagoon geothermal pools See links, below.
- See the Vatnajökull ice cap
- Walk through the Laki fissure
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