Iceland: Þórsmörk (Thorsmork) Glacier Valley

Today officially started when I opened my eyes around 5:30 to find a beautiful, pink and orange sunrise spread out over the sea outside our ginormous apartment window.  I quickly jumped up and took a couple of pictures, then climbed back in bed and woke K to see it.  He didn’t seem nearly as mesmerized as I and opened his eyes for all of about 4 seconds before he was back to comatose sleep.  (My crappy point-and-shoot photo definitely doesn’t do it any justice.)

ReykjavikSunrise

Eventually, long past sunrise, we both dragged ourselves out of the cozy, warm bed and excitedly got ready for a day of exploring.  With only one of our suitcases, we had limited clothing and ended up having to explore in sandals and dress shoes.  Awesome.

Iceland Rovers Þórsmörk Glacier Valley Tour:

At 8:30, our Iceland Rovers guide, Steiner, picked us up from the hotel in his enormous Land Rover 4×4 to start our day of fun in Þórsmörk (Thorsmork) Glacier Valley. Þórsmörk is the area just underneath the infamous volcano Eyjafjallajökull which erupted earlier this year and wreaked havoc on European flight travel.  We found out today that in addition to the air traffic distress caused by the volcano, there was also a great deal of damage done by the rushing water from the melting glacier ice cap on top of Eyjafjallajökull.  Some of the roads had to be dug up and re-routed, dams of mud were built in certain areas to avoid washing the roads out, and houses were evacuated to deal with the melt water flooding the already existing rivers.  It was interesting to see pictures at the trail head showing what the road had looked like prior to the eruption and what it looks like now in the aftermath.

The first stop on our trip was at Urriðafoss – a beautiful rocky waterfall that only drops about 6 meters (somewhat unimpressive), but the width and volume of water passing over is impressive.  We drove back off the main road (Route 1) to a small look out point with a couple of hiking trails.  We got out briefly to explore the area and take a couple of photos.  Looking at the falls, we could see a bridge spanning the river a short distance upstream with huge mountains looming in the far distance.  This was the road we had just come from.  There was barely any traffic on it, and when a car did pass, it was so far off you couldn’t even hear it.

It was beautiful and peaceful and isolated.  The only sound was the roar of water pouring over the ledge.  It was also cold as shite with the wind blowing mist on us.  I was glad I’d bought a headband to keep my ears warm in Reykjavik last night – especially since my warmer clothes and socks and shoes were stuck somewhere between here and Boston.

Urridafoss

RUrridafoss

The dirt and gravel trail into Þórsmörk starts at Seljalandsfoss – a 60 meter fall cascading over a cliff above.  The way the cliff is situated allows for you to walk up to and behind the falls.  There is a nice – though fairly steep and slippery – trail built up and behind the falls and down the other side.

BehindWaterfall

We got out and hiked up and around the falls, getting good 360 views and photos of the cascade.

Waterfall1

Waterfall2

Waterfall3

Though it was a very beautiful spot, we were disappointed at how touristy it was.  There were people and tour buses EVERYWHERE.  When I pictured Iceland, I always pictured remote isolation everywhere, and that certainly wasn’t the case at Seljalandsfoss.

Near Seljalandsfoss is where the trail into Þórsmörk begins and where there are signs and photo displays showing how the area looked just a few short months ago with the volcano erupting.  At that time, the spot where we were standing was covered in glacial water, cold and full of silt, destroying most everything in its path.  It’s crazy to see how destructive the water flow was, as well as how drastically the area has changed in the short time since then.

PhotoMap

After the brief hike around the fall, we climbed back into the Land Rover while Steiner let some air out of the tires and we were off into the isolated wilderness we’d been waiting for.  As we first started out on the trail, it was scenery much like what we found on the road we drove yesterday from Reykjavik to Akranes – very green and lush landscape leading up to large mountains, dotted with wild sheep roaming around.  Steiner told us that in the spring everyone tags their sheep and then they are allowed to roam free for the entire summer.  In the fall, it’s a HUGE event in Iceland to round up all of the sheep to “process” them.  Apparently it is a big drinking event where sheep are wrangled, wrestled and sometimes ridden.  I was a little disappointed we didn’t get to witness some of this craziness.

As we continued to drive, it rained off and on, even with the sun shining in the distance, and at a couple of points we got views of some amazing, vibrant rainbows.  In fact, I think this may be the first time I’ve ever actually seen the violet hue so distinctly in a rainbow.  And the first time I’ve seen both ends of a rainbow at once.

Rainbow

The scenery gradually changed from lush, green mountains to a rocky river bed with large rocky cliffs.  The further we got in, the less distinct the driving trail became.  It seemed that you were able to drive wherever you wanted, though most chose to follow the tire tracks already there.  Steiner told us the river path changes so frequently that establishing a road would be pointless.  At several points we forded rivers.  It was really exhilarating when we went nose-first down a bank and into the first river.  The river wasn’t too deep, but was moving fairly swiftly and reached about 3-4″ above the bottom of the door.

FordingRiver1

As we kept driving, the scenery changed even more dramatically into a gray, ash-covered abyss.  It was very easy to see how deeply the area was impacted by the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull.  It was again like being on the moon.  All around us was gray ash and small rocks.  Steiner stopped to let us out to explore and take photos around the glacier.  However, he warned us to be very, very careful walking around as some of the areas where glacial ice was still present under the ash had formed spots of quicksand (like the hole in the photo below).

VolcanoQuicksand

Looking up and seeing only a glacier, but knowing that underneath lies a volcano that could easily destroy and completely reshape the area in which we stood – and really, already had done that – was a very surreal feeling.  It was a very eerie calm and desolation that surrounded us.  The wind was whipping, stirring up ash all around us and burning our eyes.  I was unbelievably happy to see the area, but I felt sad for what the area had been and the beauty that had been taken away with the volcanic activity just a few short months before.  I was overcome at that moment with a sense, again, of just how powerful the forces of nature can be, especially the force of water, which absolutely terrifies me, but leaves me with such a commanding sense of awe at its powers at the same time.  It was peaceful and a bit unsettling all at once.  I was completely immersed in a feeling of reverence for my surroundings and a feeling of gratitude for being able to experience this place at this point in time.  The closest I’ve ever been to an event and place like this before is in front of my TV watching the Discovery Channel.

RKVolcano

LandRoverAsh

We climbed back into the Land Rover to continue the trip into Þórsmörk and drove along the river looking for a place to cross.  At this point, the river was split into two narrow channels with a very small sandbar in the middle, and the current was moving very swiftly.  Steiner inched the Land Rover down toward the river, then reversed and headed up-river a bit.  As we started looking for a new route to cross, another Land Rover appeared behind us.  As we circled back to our original starting point, the other Land Rover started to ford the river.

As I watched the giant vehicle drop into the river, submerged up to the hood, I couldn’t believe as it slowly and steadily crossed the first channel, burst out of the water onto the small sandbar, and slowly, with the same precision, made its way across the second channel and then tore out of the water and up the steep bank on the other side of the river.  It was all kind of in slow motion.  And then it was our turn.

As we inched down toward the river, Steiner took his seatbelt off and asked the rest of us to do the same in case we needed to exit the vehicle.  Anyone who knows me and my gripping fear of water would know that this should have scared the crap out of me, but for some reason I was calmly sitting in the backseat, seatbelt off, taking pictures out the window as we crossed, while K sat next to me calmly chowing down on his chicken, bacon and cheese sandwich he’d brought for lunch.

FordingRiver2

Though we were sitting there calmly trusting our guide to get us across the river and safely up the other side, my first instinct was to imagine my mom’s response if she had known we were in a 4×4, fording a river, being asked to remove our seatbelts in case we needed to exit our vehicle in a glacial river in the middle of Nowhere, Iceland.  It was slightly nerve wracking and totally thrilling and seemed to happen in slow motion as we steadily made it up onto the sandbar and then onto the opposite bank.  As we flew up the opposite bank, I had the feeling that the bank was so steep it may have been more dangerous than the river itself.

Once we were safely across, Steiner told us that had the other Land Rover not been there, it was likely neither of us would have crossed.  There is safety in numbers and if either of us had been stuck in the river, the other would have immediately needed to pull the other out to avoid the tires getting washed into the sediment at the bottom of the river and trapping and tipping the vehicle.  Awesome.

After we came out of the river, we had another fun little episode where we flew forward and in reverse repeatedly, slamming on the brakes trying to dislodge river stones from the brakes of the Land Rover.  That part was pretty fun – especially when the wheels caught and we fishtailed all over the place.  It made me giggle, the way K’s eyes lit up for all of this.

As we kept going, we were in ash-covered gray for a while longer before the scenery started to slowly regain some of its greenery.  As we drove, the sun played in and out of clouds throwing a lot of dramatic light beams onto the landscape.  If only I had a nice DSLR camera, I would have some amazing photos of what we saw.  Instead, my crappy point-and-shoot photos will have to do.  They’re beautiful, yet still disappointingly ugly compared to what our eyes really saw.

DriveScenery1

DriveScenery2

I was so amazed and in awe of the untouched, unexploited beautiful wilderness around us.  Þórsmörk is a well-known, heavily traveled vacation destination for Icelanders, yet the natural landscape hasn’t been ruined and exploited the way all of the beautiful nature spots in the US have been.  It was so wonderful to see a place where the citizens respect the nature and its balance and place without ruining it for their own gain.

Once we finally arrived in Þórsmörk, we got out and did a very brief hike that wrapped along the river bed, then climbed up to a ridge overlooking the valley.  I geeked out a little at the rudimentary solar panel strapped to a rock on top of the ridge, using what looked to be a belt.  The panel was used to power the restroom and picnic facilities down below.

SolarPanelRock

At the very top of the ridge was a small cave – Icelandic legends say that trolls live in these caves.  While we didn’t see any this time around, Steiner is sure it’s because we weren’t smoking weed on our trip.  (Did I already mention how much I love Icelanders?  They’re so mellow and nature-centric.)

Cave

From the ridge, we could see our Land Rover and a few others down below, so small from there they looked like Micro Machines.

MicroMachines

There were also great views of the valley floor, glaciers in the distance and mountains bursting out of the ground in front of us.  There was green at the tops of the mountains, but most of the really lush green I longed to see was far in the distance, while a large part of the land was covered in the grim, gray reminder of Eyjafjallajökull’s eruption.  The off-and-on rain produced another brilliant rainbow that I interpreted as a promise that, despite the current dire conditions, life and vitality will eventually return to this amazing landscape.

Rainbow2

I also found a swingset with an awesome view and had some good old childish fun!

Swingset

On the way back out of Þórsmörk, we took a different route.  We stopped to explore a couple of beautiful, hidden gems for mini hikes and many photos.  The first spot was a very small, narrow canyon visible from the “road” and when we got out and hiked around the first curve, the canyon opened up into a huge, wide(r), long, gorgeous rocky gap with a shallow stream spread out into many narrow fingers and lazily meandering through.  It was serene and silent except for the occasional splashing or calling of birds in the canyon and the bubbling of the water.

Canyon1

Canyon2

The further we got into the opening, the wider and deeper the water got until we eventually had to decide between wading and turning back.  With 2-3°C water and no dry socks or shoes, we chose to turn back.

Canyon3

There were several rock formations protruding from the canyon walls that Steiner swore were trolls.  Like this one (very top of the cliff).

CanyonTroll

As we approached the second stop, we were surrounded by terrain that I imagined to be more characteristic of Ireland then Iceland.  The landscape was widespread, vibrant green meadows with sheep grazing again and a small stream cheerfully bubbling out of a canyon in the near distance, tumbling over rocks as it poured down toward us.

Canyon4

Canyon5

As we approached the canyon opening, the stream turned and took us into a deeper, steep, dark canyon where the stream widened a bit, still flowing over rocks, which we hopped across to get ourselves up the river, until we reached a small waterfall and could go no further.

Canyon6

Canyon7

As we stood on the right bank of the stream, we saw along the left side a long rope, secured with cams into the wall of the canyon, leading up and over top of the waterfall.  We quickly – and not so gracefully in our sandals and dress shoes – made our way across the stream, hugged closely to the wall and used the ropes to inch ourselves up and over the small waterfall.

CanyonClimb2

CanyonClimb1

At the top, the stream opened up again, leading us to another beautiful, very tall freshwater waterfall hidden between the steep canyon walls, spilling down powerfully into the cove beneath it.  This place was so secluded and wonderful.  I could see it being an awesome place to swim (skinny dipping, anyone?!) if not for the freezing cold water.

CanyonWaterfall

Steiner encouraged us to drink some (Icelanders are strangely proud of the drinkability (Is that a word?) of their water sources) and I happily obliged, drinking handful after handful of delicious water – though my inner science nerd was screaming warnings of the repercussions of drinking water in nature without a filter or iodine.

After several minutes of enjoying the isolated waterfall, we headed back out, retracing our steps, hopping and clinging to the wall to get back out of the cold canyon.  When we emerged out of the canyon, the sun felt good, warming my fingers and toes.

CanyonExit

As we drove out from this spot, we forded the final river.  It was wide, fast-moving and fairly deep, almost reaching my passenger window on the Land Rover.

RiverFord

Just on the other side of the river, we passed a tiny little rental car – probably a Ford Fiesta or something similar – with three guys inside.  Steiner stopped, rolled down the window and waved them down.  He knew they weren’t Icelanders because 1 – Iceland does this nifty little thing where they tag their rental cars with huge stickers for the rental company it belongs to, and 2 – no local in their right mind would ever attempt to drive into this area without a 4×4.

Anyway, as they pulled up, the guy in the backseat stuck a beer out the window with a giant, ridiculous grin on his face like he was “cheers”-ing Steiner.  The driver, with a map spread across his lap, asked, “Hey, how far to the volcano, dude?”  Steiner had to explain to these guys that 1 – the road up to the volcano is restricted and travel is forbidden, all they could reach is the same valley floor below the volcano where we had just been, and 2 – there’s no way in HELL that tiny little car was going to ford the rivers in this place.  The looks on these guys’ faces were priceless.  I’m about 102% certain these fools thought they would just set off in their tiny-ass car with a 12 pack of beer and cruise right up to the rim of an active volcano with no issues.  Really, guys?!  C’mon…  Way to represent America, dudes.

Side Note:  We had some good conversation with Steiner throughout our tour today about the culture and history of Iceland.  One of the points he brought up was eating whale.  I have to admit that before today I was pretty disturbed by the fact that such nature conscious people could kill and eat whales.  I mean, I’m not about to sic the “Whale Wars” crazies on them or anything, but I just didn’t understand the concept.  Perhaps I allowed myself to be slightly brainwashed this afternoon, but after listening to the rationale, I find it less outrageous and appalling.  According to Steiner, the Icelanders practice conservation principles to maintain a healthy population of whales and a healthy balance of whales, fish and other species in the waters.  They harvest whales to keep an adequate fish population, but when they reach a critical number of whales left, they stop.  I’m not sure that I’m 100% on board, but it seems like they have a system in place that is responsible and fairly humane.  (Especially when you also consider that cows, chickens, sheep, fish, etc., etc. are killed for food in other places every day.  And often not as humanely as this.)  I still didn’t want to eat whale myself, but I’m also not on the bandwagon of condemning these people for their practices.  I learned something new, and I appreciate the new and different perspective.  [This is my experience in a culture that is not my own.  I do not wish to debate whaling with you.  If you feel the need to speak your mind, please find another outlet.]

We ended up back in Reykjavik around 6:30, absolutely exhausted.  We were still completely worn out from the lack of sleep leading up to the wedding, taking a red eye flight and losing 6 hours on the way to Iceland, then waking up early for a full day of nature lovers’ bliss today.  We went upstairs, laid down on the bed “for a few minutes” and ended up sleeping until I woke with a start at 8:45.  I realized my stomach was growling and hoped we weren’t too late to grab food before places started to close.  We got dressed and headed out with the intention of eating at Icelandic Fish & Chips, but we walked in juuuust as they were closing the kitchen and they wouldn’t serve us.  I pouted a little bit, and then we moved along to find somewhere else to eat.  We tried several other places with no luck before we found a tapas place that was still open.

Tapas Barinn:

When we first walked in I wasn’t thrilled about this place – it was loud, crowded and cave-like.  And I really wanted food of substance, not tiny appetizers.  But I realized when we read the menu that it was a good opportunity to try out some of the Icelandic delicacies we wouldn’t have otherwise tried if not for the small portions.  Despite the small portions and the explanation of responsible harvesting and population conservation of whales, I still couldn’t bring myself to try that one, but it was on the menu.  We did have puffin, though – those sweet, colorful birds.  I figured this may be the only opportunity I have to eat puffin, so… When in Iceland… I wasn’t a fan and pawned most of it off on K.  It was a very dark, gamey meat served with blueberry sauce.  I much preferred my white meat chicken, but at least I can say I tried something new.

After dinner, we wandered a bit around the city, enjoying the brisk night air.  We stopped at the 24-hour market again to pick up sandwiches and some snacks for tomorrow’s tours.  We were entertained by the fact that the only cookies we could read the packaging on were “Maryland” cookies.  Not sure what that meant, but we felt like we were at home.

Snacks

We stopped at a pub off the main street near our hotel to grab a couple of drinks.  We were the only people in the place, which I thought was strange considering how much we’ve heard that Icelanders like to drink and party.  We sat at the bar and played brain teaser games and chatted with the bartender until we could barely keep our eyes open.  Gotta drink up the Viking while we’re here!

Day 2 in Iceland was awesome – all we were expecting and more!  We are SO looking forward to tomorrow’s snorkeling adventure!

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