Vatnajökull glacier is the largest icecap in Iceland, spanning nearly eight percent of the entire island. While driving southeast along the ring road you simply cannot miss the sightings of the huge glacier fingers, called outlet glaciers, of which there are more than 30. They are slowly carving out the mountains all around you and each time you see one, you’re aware of the truly breathtaking expanse that is Iceland.
After leaving Vík at the southern tip of the country, we stopped at an epic gorge called Fjadrargljufur Canyon (trying saying that one correctly!) with a cascading waterfall and a sapphire river winding its way through the rock. With a break in the snowfall, we donned our crampons and headed up the rope-lined gorge.
It was not easy. I’m not a total schlub, but heavy boots with spikes, combined with a steep uphill hike, had me winded. Not to mention that the same photo tour we saw at Dyrhólaey pulled up soon after us, so Jon had us practically running to the top to get a shot without any other photographers. But other than that, it was a nice hike. The crampons relieved any worries of slipping and the way was straightforward and well-marked.
The canyon has recently been fitted with a lookout, which to Jon’s dismay, changed his ability to get the shot he was looking for. I, however, am terrified of heights, so the see-through nature of the lookout left me frozen and unable to reach the end of the railing. That didn’t stop Jon, who despite the warning signs, went over the rail and out on a ledge. I could barely pass him his things! The whole thing left me with a few gray hairs!
But it was worth it for the view, of course!
After my pulse came down, we drove back to the main road and stopped so I could bring you my best impression of this “do not poop here” sign.
I guess it’s a thing in this spot? It seemed so random!
Nearby was a beautiful, snowy wonderland of evergreens and a black river, so we wondered around off the side of the road to explore.
A few hours later, we pulled up to the ultra modern Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon in the middle of a snowstorm. The concrete building stood out against the snowy plain like a bunker calling us to safety. When we got out of the car, Jon’s door nearly blew off the hinges and my hat went flying off my head and across the parking lot. The gusts must have been 40 mph and we held down all our things, grabbing our bags from the trunk and hurrying inside.
To go from the whipping wind to the interior of the hotel was a funny shock. Our hair was windblown, our faces were red from the cold and as we passed through the automatic doors suddenly all was calm. The lobby was nearly silent, playing soft Icelandic music, impeccably decorated, and completely isolated from the roaring wind outside. There, at the desk were two perfectly calm Icelanders, hair and clothes in perfect place. “Hello,” one of them says in that peaceful Icelandic accent. I wanted to say, “do you even know what it’s like out there?!” but I realized they did know, which was why they were inside and not out in the freezing wind with the crazy Americans!
The Fosshotel was another, under-sold hotel on our trip. The photos online did it no justice, making it look more clinical and much less cozy. The high ceilings and clean design contrasted perfectly with the snowy exterior, and our upgraded suite was well worth it. I just wish we could have stayed there longer!
The next morning we slept late, took advantage of the breakfast buffet and headed out for an easy afternoon hike, which turned out to be a little more grueling than originally anticipated. Most visitors hike directly toward the Skaftafell glacier, or up toward Svartifoss (a pretty waterfall), but we opted for an outlook, which was an hour hike up through a very muddy trail. The weather was strangely incredible and unexpectedly hot for the day, at least 60 degrees after what had been freezing temperatures the day before, so I was a tad overdressed, particularly in the foot region.
The views of the glacier were worth it though…
And here’s how Jon got this photo…
Just another couple of gray hairs for me! Then we headed to the glacier lagoon for a few practice shots at the beach before dark.
The next morning, we met our guides early and headed out to the glacier in their giant retrofitted vehicles. I planned ahead and took a dramamine the night before to take the edge off any possibly motion sickness – it undoubtedly saved me. The gravel road was potholed and rocky, so every van had comically giant wheels that were deflated before heading out on the rocky terrain.
We visited three caves, two dark and smokey caverns full of ash, and one blue cave which was teaming with tourists.
I loved our guide, a handsome Icelandic man who joked frankly about his challenges with depression and the glacier as a remedy for sadness. He told us stories the whole journey and his enthusiasm was infectious. I wish I could remember his name, but it was so Icelandic I couldn’t even pronounce it!
When getting out of the vehicles, we were handed helmets and Jon and I used our own crampons, while everyone else was given them. The guide told us that if we didn’t see footprints, to not go there, and not wander off. There were a few wooden stakes around the site and he pointed to one of them. “You see that marker?” he said, “there’s a hole there 150 meters down – we’d never find you.” I guess I won’t be going over there!
The caves were beautiful and wondrous.
The guides all talked of the rain that was headed for the region the next day, and said it was likely that we had caught the last day of the season. They watch the weather carefully, as any additional rain or warmth brings instability to the caves, which can fill up with water in less than 3 minutes. The caves are literally gushing rivers in the summer.
After the rough ride back, we headed straight for Jökulsárlón, the glacier lagoon. Jökulsárlón is a large lake formed by the melting glacier, and it’s full of floating icebergs that have broken off the ice. The lake leads out into the ocean where the jagged ice is slowly broken down and washed back to shore.
Jon and I split ways, I went to the lagoon, and he went across the road to the ocean to photograph.
As the sun was setting, I could see photographers all along the hillside that overlooks the lake, photographing from above. I tried, but I couldn’t see a shot and after hesitating a little, I finally decided to go down to the water to see what I could find.
Off I went, photographing anything that spoke to me. I was gone so long that Jon came looking for me!
After an incredible sunset, we headed back to the hotel for a meal. There’s really no food nearby, so you’re stuck eating at the hotel restaurant or at the bar. The main restaurant was seriously delicious but deathly expensive, so the second night we took our chances on two chicken club sandwiches with fries from the bar. It was exactly the kind of thing I craved after a full day in freezing weather. But just as we were settling in, waiting for the meal, we realized the night was not yet over…
More stories and photos from Iceland will be coming next week on She’s So Bright, so stay tuned! To read about the other parts of our Iceland trip, check out day 1 and day 2. And be sure to share your own story from Iceland in the comments below!