Europe, Hiking, Hot Springs, Iceland, Waterfalls

Heidi and Kubo Do Iceland – Day 1: Arrival, Reykjanes, Reykjadalur, & More!

Iceland Day 1 – August 31, 2018/September 1, 2018

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Day 1 Map: ~95km of driving

The four years of planning, the countless hours spent planning, packing, and dreaming were all becoming reality.  I literally ran out of work on Thursday, August 30th, bouncing off the walls in anticipation that in 24 mere hours I would be aboard a 757 taking me to Iceland.  *insert high pitching excited screeeeeeing sound here*

The drive to the airport, lunch with our parents, and airport security were a breeze.  I should’ve taken note that things were going a bit too well on that Friday afternoon.  First off, our plane was brought to the gate at what was suppose to be our departure time.  This was my first lesson in “Icelandic time,” which is not the “if you’re not 15 minutes early, you’re late” time I live my life by.  Another traveler snickered and told me, “Icelandair is a bit janky.  You’ll learn it soon enough.”  *cue concerned face*

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Ominous storm clouds above Denver International Airport while we impatiently await boarding!  We flew aboard Bláfjall.  Each Icelandair plane is named after a mountain or feature in Iceland.  We would see the real Bláfjall later in our trip!

But no worries, with time we were boarded and settled into our seats and began taxiing away.  Then we came to a complete stop.  A lightning storm had grounded air traffic at DIA.  ARGHHHHH!  We then painstakingly proceeded to take what was an eternity to slowly taxi to the runaway for takeoff, and much to my horror, I watched the other Icelandair flight that leaves Denver 30 minutes after the one I booked take off.  I think Kubo and the guy in the seat next to him were having a good laugh at the expense of my anxiety.  I’m sorry, but no one else on that plane needed to get to Iceland more than me!

About an hour and half after we were suppose to depart, it was finally wheels up.  That’s it, I was going to Iceland!

The flight was pretty non-eventful, except they didn’t start meal service until we were over northern Canada and over halfway through the flight.  We didn’t anticipate this (I normally fly Southwest and they’re very timely with snacks and drinks… once again, “Icelandic time” was coming into play), and didn’t bring any snacks.  This also meant I wasn’t getting any needed sleep.  When I finally saw that chicken caesar sandwich and Ísey skyr, I was over the moon, but concluded I wouldn’t be getting any sleep…. BECAUSE NORTHERN LIGHTS!

I purposely booked our seats on the left side of the plane (the side facing north) in case there was a chance at the lights.  I got this weird gut feeling that I needed to look out my window, and there were the pale gray horizontal lines in the sky.  Another excited squeal, and I yanked my Nikon D500 out of my backpack and attempted to capture some blurry photos of one of my life’s dreams.

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Bucket list check! The Northern Lights saying hello above the Labrador Sea (and dang it’s hard to take a good photo hand holding a DSLR on an airplane going hundreds of miles per hour!)

I couldn’t stop staring at the gray waves dancing outside my window as we flew above the Labrador Sea.  So mesmerizing!

I did manage to catch maybe 30-45 minutes of sleep before we began our descent.  I nervously looked at the icebergs in the ocean below – I have a gigantic fear of water, impatiently anticipating the moment when the coast of Iceland would appear out from under the wing.  Butterflies filled my belly, both of the excited and nervous kind.  Though I’ve driven all over the United States by my self, my international travel experience consisted of walking over to a border town in Mexico with family.  I’ve never been somewhere where everything was different, right down to the gas pumps and washing machines (more on those in future posts!).  I was so thankful I had Kubo along, who is much more worldly than me, and the Type B calm to my Type A hurricane.  What if Iceland turned out not to be as cool as I had hyped it up to be in my head?  What if the van breaks down?  What if, what if what if… what if I had the trip of a lifetime?!

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Greeted by a golf course! I like your style, Iceland!

Keflavík International Airport is a very small airport underprepared to handle dozens of North American flights all landing around that 6:00am time frame.  A very long line formed for the passport check, and naturally, I began fretting about making our 8am camper van pick up time.  Turns out passport check was quite a breeze.  I’d never been in an airport where most of the places are for departing flights only, and went into the wrong duty free store.  Luckily a great employee pointed us the right away.  We then came to the baggage claim, which was the longest wait ever, with a lot of nervous looking people wondering if their bags would show up.  I left Kubo to scour the snaking baggage belts while I hit up duty free to stock up on alcohol for our trip.  Alcohol in duty free is significantly cheaper than in the rest of Iceland, even though it was still pretty expensive.  I picked up a couple of 6 packs of Einstök beer and a couple bottles of our go to back home, Yellow Tail wine.  I made it out of duty free to discover we still didn’t have our two checked bags.  Kubo went on another search of the baggage claim area, and to my relief, my brightly colored EVOC bag popped out, soon followed by Kubo’s boring black bag.  Yesssss… let’s get out of here!

Wellllll… Icelandic Time.  As 8am came and went, and my hangry levels increased, we sat in the pick up area awaiting our Kukucampers shuttle.  I paced, I swore, and dreamed of a big plate of breakfast food.  Naturally, as soon as Kubo went to the little airport convenience store, the driver for Kuku showed up!  We grabbed our bags and stepped out in the cool, insanely fresh Iceland air.  Finally!

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Kukucampers is a bit kooky. Good thing Kubo and I are, too! This is the airport shuttle van that came to pick us up.  We shared the van with a family from Utah.  It’s a small world, after all!
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Carl van Elf. Our home and BFF for the next 19 days!

Aside from my travel Visa declining at Kuku, we had a smooth, sleep deprived rental process.  We went with the “B” sized Renault Trafic.  We wanted the extra room due to the length of our trip and all the stuff we brought along.  The van had a nice, roomy sleeping area, and a small indoor kitchen with a small sink, electric cooler, and camp stove.  I promise I write a whole post on just the van with the nitty gritty.  We christened the van Carl van Elf, and headed out to the nearest Bónus grocery store to stock up.

And stock up we did in our sleep deprived state!  Though it was easy to figure out what most things were, things got interesting in the meat department.  I used the handy trick of just treating 100 krona as $1 to roughly convert prices.  It was quite easy for us to fill up an entire grocery cart.  I did get my first feeling of being really out of place as all around me a completely foreign language rang out and people bustled around the store in a familiar manner while I squinted packages in the meat department trying to figure out if it was really ham.  I was actually thankful when I overheard some American girls who were also shopping.  Luckily, in all our shopping experiences, the employees were quick to switch to English when we just stared at them after an Icelandic greeting.  Big “takk” to all those in Iceland that put up with us tourists!

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Our first day grocery haul. Look, you can buy cactus at Bónus!

OK, let’s get this road trip on the road!

We hit Road 42 leaving Hafnarfjörður, the suburb of Reykjavík that Kukucampers is located in.  The plan for our first day was a short jaunt around the Reykjanes peninsula before heading up to stay in Hveragerði for the night.  I sat in the passenger seat, camera ready, and was soon clicking off photos as Kubo drove (and this is how we ended up with 10,000 photos during the trip).

The beauty of Iceland declared itself very fast.  Moss covered lava fields spread out before us, with hills and mountains in the backdrop.  Everything was neon green and moist.  Iceland should really be called the Land of Fire, Ice, and Water.  It wasn’t soon before we made our first pit stop to take some photos, and so I could run over and put my face on the soft moss growing all over the seemingly inhospitable hardened lava.  #lifegoals

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I about peed my pants in excitement when we came up to this scenery. I spent years anticipating seeing this in real life, and honestly it all felt like a dream! Road 42 going to Kleifarvatn on the Reykjanes Peninsula

Kubo and I are both car nuts and driving enthusiasts, and we immediately fell in love with Iceland’s roads.  Steep, twisty, rugged, and narrow, and just begging to be driven!  Definitely would’ve been more fun in something like a Subaru rally car, but we quickly learned that Carl didn’t mind the roads, either.  I realized we were going to have a really good time with our trusty Renault van!

Iceland was quick in moving us through the orientation process.  Beauty and roads aside,  we quickly learned that every 90 seconds the weather can completely change.  In the few kilometers from Hafnarfjörður to our first stop, Kleifarvatn, we saw gorgeous sunshine, gray clouds, rain, and insane wind.  Luckily we put our rain gear in our carry ons so it was quick to get out and into so we could see what the biggest lake on Reykjanes was all about.

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Iceland is a harsh country, and I tip my hat to any cyclist that tours on its roads! On the shores of Kleifarvatn on the Reykjanes Peninsula.

It was all about being INSANELY windy!  Living in Wyoming, I am quite use to wind.  In fact as I write this post from the comfort of my couch, we are having 65 mph wind gusts. A day of sustained 35 mph winds is nothing unusual to me.  So for me to actually note that the wind is windy, is something.  And it was WINDY at Kleifarvatn!  Rain pelted me at speeds I had felt before as I struggled to photograph the white caps on the lake.  The lake resembled more like an angry ocean than the serene views I had seen in photos.  And there were actually 3 cyclists riding INTO this wind!!! Bravo, fellow travelers!  As die hard of a cyclist that I am, I would not have been anywhere near a bicycle in winds like this.

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So it was a wee bit windy at Kleifarvatn. I clearly brought the Wyoming wind with me!

Kleifarvatn was still a beautiful sight.  It sits on the Mid Atlantic Ridge fissure zone, and all the water comes and goes out of the lake underground (meaning there’s no rivers or streams that flow in or out of it).  Strangely enough, after an earthquake in 2000, it has lost about 20% of its area (thank you internet).  Also, a serpent monster also reportedly lives in the lake – sadly, we did not see it.  Road 42 winds around the western side of the lake, so we got to enjoy it from a few different angles, and a few different types of weather.

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Driving around Kleifarvatn.
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Kleifarvatn from the southern end.
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Sometimes, it appears we’ve landed on the Moon or Mars. Reykjanes Peninsula.

The next orientation lesson Iceland presented was that “the scenery shall change around every corner.”  One minute you’re in a green scene, the next you’ve landed on the Moon.  Every kilometer, or less, the scene could dramatically change.  Keeps you on your toes!

Next up on our itinerary was the Krýsuvík geothermal area, and specifically the Seltún field.  This area also sits on the fissure of the Mid Atlantic Ridge.  This is a small area with a parking lot, toilets, and wooden boardwalks and hiking trails.  Instantly I was reminded of the geothermal area that surrounds Thermopolis back home in Wyoming, which I had visit just weeks earlier.  I personally love watching mud boil, so I giggled in delight watching the ground boil.  Naturally, the sun turned into a downpour of rain (we learned to just leave rain gear on by this point… only a handful of hours in Iceland and we were learning fast!).  We explored the wooden boardwalks, but opted not to scramble up the muddy hiking trail that went straight up the side of the hill.

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Krýsuvík geothermal area. This reminded me a lot of Thermopolis, WY… reminded of home halfway around the world!
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The ground is boiling, no biggie! Seltún field at Krýsuvík

Pretty much just across Road 42 from Seltún is Grænavatn, which I only can imagine means “green lake.”  It literally is green, thanks to thermal algae.  The beautiful hue of the water contrasted nicely with the dark lava soil and bright neons of the flora on the land surrounding the lake.  This lake formed in a maar, which is a crater formed by an explosion of overheated ground water (sorry, I’m a science nerd!).  Several hiking trails were marked and branched off around this area.

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Grænavatn… indeed very green!

After taking some photos of an abandoned farm and surrounding area, we continued, turning off on a small road that was marked for the non-existent Krísuvíkurkirkja, a small church which had burned down a few years prior.  However, it was not without something exciting – our first Icelandic sheep!!!  These little fluffy beasts run wild and amok all over Iceland, and are a combination of creepy, suicidal, and shady.  They’ll run out in front of cars without a second though, and it’s the driver that will have to pay the farmer for killing one (which luckily never happened to us… the hitting and killing part, that is).  They also tend to charge your van and chase you down the road if you pull over and start talking crap to them out of the window.  No, that wasn’t a personal lesson at all.  Happened to a friend…

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It didn’t take long to encounter our first Icelandic sheep!
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A sheep looks out over Reykjanes.

Road 42 soon hit a deadends at Road 427, which travels along the southern coast of Reykjanes.  I soon learned that Iceland pretty much does not have stop signs!!  Kubo, an experienced Europe, already knew this.  I’m still blown away by it, because it makes so much sense to have them be yields instead.  But that’s really a discussion for another time. No stop sign, treat them like a yield.  Got it!

We turned east so we could continue slithering around the coast before heading inland to Hveragerði.  Mossy lava fields separated us from the raging north Atlantic Ocean, which was still being churned up from the storm system that pounded the area mere days before we arrived.  The steep cliffs of Herdísarvíkurfjall bordered us to the north.  There was little to no traffic on the road, and it felt like we were the lone explorers of a curious, and amazing, new land.

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Heading east on Road 427 on the south coast of the Reykjanes Peninsula. I cannot get enough of the stunning scenery and roads of Iceland!

The ocean was putting on quite the angry show, and Kubo wanted to get closer to the action, so we turned off on a tiny dirt road that led us to Herdísarvík. According to the legend, a woman, Herdís, lived in Herdísarvík in the past and her sister, Krýsa, in Krýsuvík.  They did not see eye to eye and were constantly at each other’s throat.  Both sisters practiced witchcraft and constantly played tricks on each other.  Einar Benediktsoon, a poet and entrepreneur, lived in this house.  He donated it in 1935 to the University of Iceland.  We walked around some, soaking in the roar of the Atlantic Ocean.

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The abandoned estate of Herdísarvík on the shore of the southern Reykjanes Peninsula.

One thing that has always fascinated me are old churches, and luckily Iceland is filled to the brim with them!  I couldn’t wait to get up close and personal with my first Icelandic church, so we turned off to see Strandarkirkja.  A wedding was just wrapping up, so we climbed some stairs that went to the beach and soaked in more ocean awesomeness (hey, I’m from a landlocked state with no water so I love me some ocean!).  Once the wedding party was cleared out we went to check out the church.  Strandarkirkja is a Lutheran church that was founded in the 12th century, and the current building was completed in 1888.  It serves the parish of Selvogur, which has a mighty 14 residents per the last census.

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Strandarkirkja, built in 1888, serves the small parish of Selvogur.

On site is the statute, Landsýn, and some restrooms which were open (yay!).  Also… ELF HOUSES!  Belief in elves and huldufólk (hidden folk) is very much alive and well in Iceland.  Both live outdoors, so Icelanders will build them houses, leave them food, light candles, etc, to take care of these small people, as they can enact revenge and muck up life if angry!  Trust me, I spent plenty of time while in Iceland making sure I was appeasing the elves.

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Elf houses at Strandarkirkja. Icelandic culture blends pagan beliefs with Christianity. I became smitten with elf houses while in Iceland, so much so I’m going to build some for my own lawn!

Back in Carl, we continued on to Þorlákshöfn, where we turned north and inland on Road 38 to our final town of the day.  As we left the ocean behind, grass and farmlands came into view, with curious buildings billowing steam (I’m guessing these have to do with geothermal heating or something something), along with the dramatic mountainous scenery of southern Iceland.

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Arriving in Hveragerði, a highly geothermic area that is part of the Hengill volcanic system. Crazy to see the landscape steaming!

After stalling the van in the roundabout coming into Hveragerði (hey, it was like 24 hours without sleep, but still made us both laugh!), we headed straight to Kjöt og Kúnst for a proper meal. Kjöt og Kúnst uses geothermic heat to cook their food, especially breads.  I selected the soup buffet, while Kubo opted for the full course.  The food was wonderful, very “homey” feeling to me with it’s homemade soups and breads.  The geothermic bread was delicious, so moist and dense and like nothing I had before.

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Our first proper meal in Iceland – Kjöt & Kúnst geothermal restaurant in Hveragerði

Bellies full, it was time for our last big adventure of the day, the hike to the infamous “Hot River” of the Reykjadalur valley.  Because who doesn’t want to cap off a 3500 mile flight, day filled with road tripping than a nice, long soak, amIright?!  Hiking boots and rain gear donned, we set out into the neon green, steamy landscape.

Iceland lesson #something:  All hiking trails will go straight up.  Fall line?  Hell yeah!  I was thankful we did several “14er” hikes (14ers are mountain peaks over 14,000 feet in elevation and a Colorado trendy thing to do) over the summer, and came from high altitude, so the hiking in Iceland seemed easy even if you were climbing vertical surfaces at times.  But their hiking trails are just silly.  Switchbacks are a legit trail building method, Iceland!

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The beginning of the hiking trail to Reykjadalur, or “Steam Valley” aka “the hot river.” The hike was 5.28 miles round trip, and has 1,075 feet of elevation gain according to my Garmin file.
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Big boiling mud pool on the hike to Reykjadalur

During the 2.65 mile hike to the bathing area we hiked along a canyon called Djúpagil and Djúpagilsfoss, one of our first Icelandic waterfalls.  Kubo and I both love waterfalls, so this was exciting!  Such an unreal landscape, which is going to become a very overused term in my journaling.  But really I can’t think of other adjectives aside from unreal, amazing, beautiful, and awesome when describing Iceland.  Adjectives almost doesn’t do the country justice!

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Djúpagilsfoss
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Hætta! The ground is literally boiling as you walk on the trail to Reykjadalur! Also smells of rotten eggs, yum!

Of course, it starting pouring rain, and even some hail, as we hiked, and we commented on how lucky we were to have picked excellent rain gear – Kubo with an REI combo for his jacket and pants, and me with my North Face jacket and pants.  Our Salomon hiking boots were perfect as well, being waterproof and tough to stand up to mud and everything else.

After gaining elevation, we dropped into a very geothermal active area, complete with more boiling water and mud, and one large and stinky steam cloud. A little more hiking, and there appeared Reykjadalur!

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Finally, a nice hot river to soak our weary bodies that had traveled thousands of miles!

The bathing area has been built up with wooden boardwalks to protect from the soil from erosion, and some barriers to change behind.  The river gets hotter the further up you go.  It took us awhile to get changed into our swimsuits and settle on a place to soak.  Once we were in though… pure heaven!  We cracked open some Einstöks and relaxed!

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Got our toes in the air, butts in the hot water, cold beer in our hands.. life is good today!
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Naturally, there were sheep at Reyjadular. The sheep are everywhere.

I think we soaked for an hour or so, and after harassing some sheep set out back down the trail.  A big, full rainbow greeted us on the hike down, followed by some more rain.  Oh Iceland!

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A rainbow to cap off our first day in Iceland!

We settled into the Hveragerði campground for the night.  It is law that camper vans must use developed campgrounds in Iceland, for good reason  (aka people are disgusting).  I was so eager for a warm shower to freshen up after being up who knows how many hours.  Just as soon as I thought I was comfortable in this foreign land, I was confronted with using a shower.  Sooooo… the shower controls were nothing like I had seen before, and I couldn’t figure out how to get the shower head part to turn on.  I was getting so desperate I almost considered putting all my clothes back on and asking the German girl brushing her teeth for help…. and then I managed to twist a knob just right to get boiling hot water pouring down on me.  Oh man!  A sign of adventures to come!  After getting dressed again, I gave the funny looking electrical outlet a sideways glance before deciding blow drying my hair was not a necessity.  I was tired.  I didn’t want to explore electricity at this moment in time.

After arranging Carl just so with all our belongings, we spread out our Kelty double person sleeping bag, dug out our pillows, and feel fast asleep.

Iceland, I think we’re going to get along just fine!

Follow along on our entire 19 day Iceland road trip adventure!  Click here for a comprehensive itinerary, with links to each day’s adventure.

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