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July 19, 2013 / Jim Fenton

Iceland Day 5: Sands and Icebergs

July 5, 2013

Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon

Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon

Following breakfast at our hotel, we backtracked a short distance on the Ring Road to the Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon, which had been recommended by the Iceland Unlimited people as one of the hidden treasures of Iceland. We went a few km up a narrow gravel road and came to a parking lot with a number of cars and vans. We walked up the trail a short distance, and found a beautiful narrow canyon that had been cut by a stream over the centuries. We took a few pictures and continued on.

We stopped in Kirkjubæjarklaustur for groceries (a picnic lunch) and it was time to fill the car’s gas tank for the first time. As with many of the local stations, this one was self-service, so we tried Kenna’s new chip-equipped Visa card.  However, US credit cards aren’t issued PINs, so we weren’t able to use the card.  We went inside, used the same credit card to buy a debit card with 10,000 Icelandic Krona (ISK) on it, and used that in the pump. We’ll keep trying to see if the chip in the new credit card is usable anywhere.



We continued on to another waterfall, Svartifoss, for which we have heard multiple recommendations. Svartifoss is notable for the attractive basalt behind the falls, but it requires about a 1.4 km hike from the parking lot. We ate the lunch we purchased earlier (in the car, due to the weather) and quickly made the hike, in order to keep us on time for the tour we had booked later in the afternoon.  It was, as promised, an extremely attractive waterfall, and well worth the trek.

This is probably a good time to talk about the Ring Road (Hringvegur) that circles Iceland. The Ring Road, Route 1, was completed only relatively recently, in 1974. Even now, most of the Ring Road is a single lane in each direction. Many bridges in more rural areas, like the portion we drove today, have single lane bridges, which is not generally a problem because traffic is very light.  I haven’t run into a conflict yet, but I’m a bit concerned that I don’t fully understand the etiquette (protocol) for handling a simultaneous arrival with a car in the other direction.

One-way bridge on Ring Road

One-way bridge on Ring Road

Iceland undergoes geological change at a rate much faster than I have seen anywhere else. Volcanoes erupt every several years, in some cases causing flash floods of melted glacier water and icebergs. That was evident at one point where there was on display some twisted girders from a bridge that had been destroyed several years ago and had to be replaced. As a result, they have standardized their bridge span lengths so that spare parts can be ready when this happens in the future.

Much of the countryside we passed through today was desolate, although from time to time there would be a grassy farm area. It reminded me of portions of the Mojave Desert, although the area gets a great deal of rain (it rained considerably today, in fact). Portions were black lava, devoid of vegetation (reminiscent of parts of the Big Island of Hawaii), and portions had scant vegetation. We were going through one of the areas of scant vegetation, and came up over a hill, when…




In the middle of all this we came upon Jökulsárlón, a glacial lagoon filled with water and icebergs, that was our tour for the afternoon: a Zodiac Boat ride to the glacier.

It had gotten rather rainy, but we were issued “waterproof” suits to wear over our clothes as well as life vests. There were 10 of us, plus the guide, on our boat. We took 15 minutes or so to get close to the glacier’s face, then proceeded at a more leisurely pace back to our starting point, looking at many floating icebergs on the way.

The guide told us that the lagoon is quite recent: it started forming only about 100 years ago, and only connected to the ocean about 23 years ago. Since that time, the lagoon has become partially salty, accelerating the melting of the glacier face.  He also mentioned that he hadn’t seen the glacier actually “calve” an iceberg, which surprised us because we had seen that happen on our trip to Alaska two years ago.

The rain increased during our boat ride, and despite the “waterproof” suits our clothes got quite wet. So we made our way directly to our night’s accommodations, the Hali Country Hotel. After changing into dry clothes, we had dinner at the hotel (which was fine, although there were not many other choices available anyway). After dinner, we toured their small museum honoring an Icelandic writer, Þórbergur Þórðarson, who grew up in that local area.

This article is part of a series about our recent vacation in Iceland. To see the introductory article in the series, click here.

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