Europe, Iceland, Waterfalls

Finding Myself at 65°N – The Solo Icelandic Winter Adventure Day 1: Reykjanes & Golden Circle

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December 26th – The day was here.  Suitcases had been packed and repacked with care, in hopes that Iceland would soon be near…

The 9:30am departure from Laramie was smooth sailing under sunny Wyoming skies (and then polluted Colorado skies) and a blanket of snow.  Apart from crushing a fairly new pair of sunglasses with my butt as I rushed back to my car at a rest stop, the trip was uneventful.  I even managed to get through security quickly in a very insanely busy airport, aside from a TSA dude yelling at me for using a plastic bin marked “Do Not Use” and asking if I could read (yes, I can… chill dude.  Gosh.  Why so angry?).  I explored Terminal A, which I’m rarely at when at DIA, found the part where the “little planes” leave from, and finally settled on some Mexican food for lunch.

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Iceland… I’m coming back for ya!

My first trip to Iceland was kinda wonky and ran on “Icelandic Time,” so I had lowered expectations for timeliness and things going smooth on this trip.  Nonetheless, here came my beautiful 757 named Öræfajökull to the gate early, and boarding began on time.  Whaaaaa?  Multiple flight attendants fawned over my lopapeysa, reaching out to touch it and compliment me as I tried to speak Icelandic to them.  Then the middle seat stayed opened, which I told the lady in the aisle to thank me for.  “Been there honey, and trust me, you’re better off going on the trip solo.”  (Thank you, random lady flying to Paris, for the encouragement.)  Food service started promptly, but I had brought along a sandwich from Snarf’s.  This was not my first trip to Iceland on repeat, it was a whole new adventure, and going quite well if I must say!  Then for hours upon hours I watched the aurora dance outside my window, giving me quite the spectacular show for a mere KP2 forecast over northern Quebec.  The only thing missing was “A Star Is Born” as a movie option, because some Bradley Cooper would’ve been the icing on the cake.  But I really can’t complain, not at all, as I had The Office and Big Bang Theory to watch!

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The aurora danced for hours as we flew over northern Quebec and the Labrador Sea. Blurriness because… well, we were going a couple hundred miles per hour or so.  And this photo is the reason why the rest of my Iceland trip photos were taken at ISO 2000… I was tired enough I forgot to change my camera back to ISO 100.  Sigh.

When the plane touched down on Icelandic soil I teared up.  I can’t explain why, because I am not sure it was entirely because I was overjoyed to be back in Iceland.  Maybe there was some melancholy, and the fact that I was about to really face this trip alone.  Then the nervous energy began where I just wanted to bust out of the plane and breathe the air.  It took awhile, but finally I was headed off the plane into into the cold, dark 6am morning.  I breathed in deeply.  Utter disappointed.  The air didn’t have the crispness I had dreamed about since September 2018.  I breathed in some more, and some more, realizing I was going to start hyperventilating trying to recall the memories of the air of my previous trip.  I shook my head, and got on the shuttle to the terminal, chatting it up with another solo female traveler, until we separated at the passport control line.  I wasn’t expecting the airport to be so empty, so I didn’t have my passport ready.  I squeaked out a Takk to the border patrol gave as he handed my passport back, and he responded back with Takk.  I did it, I spoke Icelandic to an Icelandic person!  Ha!

I am not sure where I was rushing to, but I walked stupidly fast all the way out to baggage claim, and immediately spotted my bag going around the belt.  And then just like that.  I was done with the airport.  Maybe 15 minutes total.  I was confused.  My last visit had been so chaotic in the airport and luggage took forever to arrive.  Hmm.  I found an ATM, and withdrew my cash for my horse riding later in the week (proof cash is still used occasionally in Iceland), and then found my way outside again to walk to Blue Car Rental.  First I paused to inhale more air, and just got a big inhale of cigarette smoke.  Did I just imagine the crisp air my last trip?!

I dragged my two roller bags through the black sand  and slush covered sidewalks towards Blue Car Rental, sweating up a storm under my two wool sweaters and winter coat (Keflavík was, of course, nearly twenty degrees warmer than Laramie).  I busted through the doors to find myself first in line, and waiting for my turn as the sweat continued to pour off me and I frantically ripped off the layers, while apologizing to the rental car girl about being so sweaty.  I had checked in online, so there wasn’t much to do except hand me my keys, and a safety brochure, and send me on my way.  (Good thing I had already visited Iceland, so knew all their traffic laws…)

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My partner in crime for the next 8 days. I dubbed him “Darri,” though I rarely used his name.  He was one of like 5000 other white Dusters I’d see this week.

I busted out the backdoor to find a Dacia Duster in a sea of other Dusters, and another employee gave me the hint to press the lock button and look for the car.  It was right in front of me, more giggling ensued about how good this trip was going.  I quickly examined it, focusing on the windshield, and loaded up my bags, and digging out a few items.  It didn’t take me longer than three seconds of driving to realize I didn’t know where reverse was on the shifter, so I had to stop and look at the shifter and figure it out.  Why was I rushing?!

By now it was 7am and SO FREAKING DARK.  I’m not sure I quite understood how dark it would be until the sunrise at 11:30am or so.  Apparently I had thought in my mind it wouldn’t be truly dark.  Hrm.  Nonetheless, I dialed up Bylgjan on the radio, and set my GPS towards the Bridge Between Continents, in my first attempt to check out some places I missed on Reykjanes during my first trip.  After several roundabouts, and only nearly dying once in them, I found myself as at the only car on Road 44.  The darkness freaked me out, along with how narrow the road was.  I believe I drove about 70kph in a 90kph.  I just knew I had to get comfortable.

The Bridge Between Continents is a footbridge that spans a major fissure in the Mid Atlantic Ridge… meaning the bridge connects the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.  I pulled up into the parking lot, feeling like the last human alive on the planet.  I’m actually kind of afraid of the dark, and I hesitated about getting out of the car, but then reminded myself that there are no mammals of real threat in Iceland, and I was honestly safe.  Sure, maybe a freak earthquake would happen and I’d be swallowed up by the Mid Atlantic Ridge, but seemed like a good risk!  I dug out my headlamp, and jumped out and walked into the darkness.

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Ready for the darkness

OK, so I’m sure this whole activity is better in the daylight, but I had fun running back and forth between North America and Europe, and then walking a little bit under the bridge (until my irrational thoughts of freak earthquake overtook me and I got out of the fissure with haste, ha!).  Clearly, I need to revisit Reykjanes in the daylight… so cue up trip #3 to plan…

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Bridge Between Continents.  Did I mention how utterly completely dark it was?!

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Next stop was just down the road at the Gunnuhver geothermal area.  Iceland’s largest boiling mud pool is located here, and I enjoy some good ol’ boiling mud!  Nonetheless, it was still SO FREAKING DARK as I followed the small dirt road out to the parking lot.  Headlamp donned again, I took off on the boardwalks, listening to the ground boiling around me in the darkness, and inhaling whiffs of sulphur.  I followed the boardwalks all around, not seeing much as it was misty and that combined with my headlamp just made a mess of things, but enjoyed being out in this dark, and mysterious setting.  I looked longingly at Reykjanesviti, the lighthouse nearby, wishing I could see it in the daylight, and also Valahnúkamöl.  But alas, I knew it was still hours before the sun would make an appearance so I just kept moving.

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Good thing there was a sign to warn me the ground was on fire all around me in the darkness
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Gunnuhver
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Gunnuhver

I was getting a bit hungry, and also sleepy, so I looked up a bakery in Grindavík.  Sadly, it was closed.  I dug out an Untapped waffle I stashed in my backpack just for this occasion, and decided to head on Road 427 towards Hveragerði, where I would grocery shop and visit a bakery for some items.

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Before coming into Grindavík I came across a large cemetery called Kirkjugarðurinn Aðstað. It is tradition to place light up crosses at the gravestones during the holidays. It was eery, but also so pretty to see this scene when cresting a hill!

I had traveled Road 427 on my first trip, so I recalled bends and hills in the road.  It had starting raining a bit heavier, but I noticed Strandarkirkja lit up in the distance.  This was the first small Icelandic church I had visited, so I couldn’t resist another visit.  As I’m driving through Selvogur I felt so bad as it was so dark that I felt like an annoying visitor driving at 2am through the small village… but it was really after 9am.  I jumped out and snapped some photos as the rain pelted me.

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Strandarkirkja
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Strandarkirkja

Ever so slightly the darkness was giving away, and I could begin to make up the shapes of the mountains as I headed north to Hveragerði.  I squealed in delight when one of my favorite towns in Iceland finally appeared, with it’s festive holiday lights, and the ever welcoming pig-on-crack logo of Bónus.  Since it was just almost right at 10am, Bónus was open so I opted to get my shopping out of the way first.

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Krónan is actually my favorite Iceland grocery store chain, but Bónus is awesome as well!

I felt confident this time around in Bónus.  My months of studying Icelandic made shopping a lot easier, and I knew what meat I was holding in my hand.  I wasn’t shocked at people pushing me out of the way, and I secretly giggled as I picked out who the tourists were.  I confidently strutted to the check out line, where I was greeted with a Daginn from the clerk, which I responded to with a solid Daginn, hoping to do the rest of the transaction in Icelandic.  Probably based on the weird combination of food I was buying, and an American accent, the clerk sadly gave me my total in English.  Hopes and dreams dashed, just like that!  I scrunched up my face, and gave a solid Takk  in protest of the English as I gathered my bags and headed towards the car.

I quickly stashed my bags in the car, and headed into Almar Bakari.  This bakery sells rye bread that is baked in the ground using geothermal heat, and I wanted to buy a loaf to bring home.  I fetched a loaf from the table, and then requested a latte to go.  The bakery and Bónus is part of a shopping center that was built over a fissure of the tectonic plates, so I walked to the area where they have put plexiglass in the floor so you can see the fissure, and amuse yourself by standing in two continents at the same time (sorry Four Corners of the American southwest, this is much cooler!).  Science nerd in my satisfied temporarily, I visited the post office for some post cards, and then trudged back to the car.  By now civil twilight was in full force, and I could actually see Iceland.  Hello there, Iceland!

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Go grocery shopping, stand in two different continents.

After getting lost in someone’s driveway in Hveragerði trying to turn around to take photos of the holiday lights, I joined the Ring Road, not stalling in the roundabout (joke from the first trip).  Weeee, I’m driving on the Ring Road!  I laughed as I saw tourists blow past the speed camera, apparently angry that I was driving 90kph, and savored seeing familiar sights out of my windshield.

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Christmas lights in Hveragerði

Rain and snow alternated from the sky as I turned north on Road 35 to head towards the two Golden Circle sights I had skipped my first trip – Gullfoss and Geysir.  Clouds and fog obscured most of the mountains, and I was acutely aware that it probably wasn’t going to get any brighter outside than it already was, which felt like the “before sunrise driving to work at 7:20am” level of darkness I experience in Wyoming this time of year.  I briefly stopped at Kerið, but was horrified at the crowds of people (way more than when I visited in September!), and realized it wasn’t worth the entry fee and that I already had stunning photos of the crater in much better lighting and weather conditions.  So I kept on north.

In Reykholt I drove through town and a couple miles further down the road before I decided to do a U-turn and go back and take photos of some of the greenhouses they grow produce in.  The lighting just looked awesome in the low daylight, and dammit, this is my trip and I should take photos whenever I please!

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Greenhouses for strawberries in Reykholt

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I’m forever chasing waterfalls, and had not visited Faxi yet, so that was next on my list.  A booth charging 700ISK (~$5.70 USD) had been installed, but I decided it was worth it (plus the lady taking money was a friendly sweetheart!).  I donned my rain gear, dodged tourists with umbrellas, and grabbed some photos as my fingers quickly turned to icicles.  Faxi is also known as Vatnsleysufoss.

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Faxi waterfall on the Tungufljót river
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Salmon ladder next to Faxi waterfall.

Continuing on, I passed Geysir, and kept trucking towards Gullfoss.  Then the most spectacular realization occurred – I was driving a four wheel drive.  Road 35 turns into “was an F-road, but isn’t now, but is still considered a highland F-road” F35 Kjölur route (Kjalvegur).  Four wheel drives can go on F-roads.  I AM GOING ON AN F-ROAD!!  HELLO HIGHLANDS!

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F35

Now, I had brains about this, as I knew I was still in a humble Dacia Duster rental car, so I figure I’d drive until I was no longer comfortable.  I soon found myself away from the hoards of Gullfoss, with the desolate beauty of Iceland stretched out before me.  Though the road stay paved, I still felt like I was in the middle of nowhere on some epic adventure.  I stopped for photos, videos, goofiness.  This is the Iceland I adore!

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My heart was so happy!
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F338’s Ófært sign
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F338 (Skjaldbreiðarvegur) links F35 and F550.

After about 8.5 miles, I hit the gravel of F35, and saw a Super Jeep airing up their tires.  Noting all the mud, I turned around to head back to Gullfoss, heart temporarily satisfied for my little paved-road adventure into the highlands, giving me a taste of what hopefully will be my third trip in 2021.  I stopped for even more photos, and gawking at the scenery, before pulling into the parking lot at Gullfoss.

As I walked towards Gullfoss, the first moment I saw of the whole falls I gasped a little bit.  Though I like to shun the big tourist places of Iceland, some of them are just downright amazing (which is probably why they’re so popular).  Gullfoss is one of these places – if you can get through all the umbrellas and selfie sticks first.  I hustled down the stairs to the lower view point, taking in the thunderous falls (not being able to get to the lowest viewpoint as it was closed for safety reasons).  I then wandered to the upper view points for another vantage point.  My second waterfall chase of the day was a success!

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Gullfoss on the Hvítá river (which originates from Langjökull glacier).
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Another view of Gullfoss from the upper viewing area
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Hvítá river
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No hat in the rain, no cares – at Gullfoss

Next up was exploring the impressive gift shop at Gullfoss, where I scoped out some things to buy.  But first (after a bathroom trip), was a bowl of the Icelandic meat soup from the cafeteria.  The cashier joked with me, asking if I also needed some hot chocolate and rum, noting my hair that was completely drenched.  I was literally the only person at Gullfoss who didn’t have a hat or hood or umbrella, so my head as soaked, but since I found the weather to be decently warm, I reveled in it.  I laughed, and told him the soup was all I needed.  The soup is good, but I’m not a fan of lamb so I’m not sure I would eat it again (but am happy I tried it).  The bread that comes with the soup is to die for, I could’ve eaten the whole basket!  Tummy satisfied, I headed back to the gift shop for some items before turning the car back towards Geysir.

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Icelandic meat soup and bread at Gullfoss

So “Geysir” really describes the geothermal area of Haukadalur.  Geysir proper is a geyser that rarely erupts (like years in between eruptions rare!), but Haukadalur is also home to Strokkur, which erupts every five minutes or so, and many other geothermal features.  Though I get a bit “oh Wyoming has all of this” about geothermal areas, I actually do quite like them a lot (I just wouldn’t fly seven hours to solely come to one).  Strokkur erupted shortly after I left my car, so I knew I had time to get to a good viewing spot for the next eruption.  When it did erupt, I jumped, which made me laugh.  I think walked around a little bit more, taking some photos, but noting how cold my hands were getting and how it seemed to be getting darker outside.

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The ground is a bit hot at Haukadalur
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The many shades of Iceland all in one photo at Haukadalur
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A still from the video I took of Strokkur erupting

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Pretty colors of Haukadalur
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The namesake of this place, lying and waiting…

I didn’t even make it past Haukadalur in the car before I noticed baby geysers bubbling up, so I parked in the parking lot by the gift shop and jumped out to the visit the baby geysers, and play with a spot on the ground that was steaming and bubbling up.

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My “baby geysers” I had to stop the car for.

My accommodation for the night was at the Farmhouse Hotel at Efstidalur II, the famous ice cream stop along the Golden Circle.  Before arriving I quickly pulled into the parking lot for Brúarfoss, cursing the setting sun as I would’ve loved to see this waterfall again (and apparently the new hiking path to get there – funny how much can change in one year!).  I snapped some photos of the views of the mountains, and then headed to the farm.

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Check in at Efstidalur was quick, and the gal was super friendly and excited that I was actually back for a repeat trip (I thought the ice cream was that good!).  Because I was traveling solo, she added breakfast onto my room for free, which was a very lovely gesture.  I promised I’d be back for dinner, and set out for my room, which was in a building just down from the reception/restaurant/ice cream.

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My cozy room for the night at Efstidalur II

Shoes off at the door, I found my small, but comfortable, room at the end of the hallway, and settled in after a few trips to my car for bags.  Because this is considered more of a hotel, there are not cooking facilities available.  My room had two twin beds, wardrobe, and a sink.  There was a shared bathroom and shower in the hall.  I was exhausted, totally ready for bed, but it was only a little after 4pm, so I called my parents to fill them in on the day’s activities.  Shortly after 5pm or so I wandered up to the restaurant.

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My table at the restaurant overlooked the cow shed.  Nothing like joining these ladies for dinner!

Hamburgers in Iceland and I have a bad history.  But that is what appealed to most on the menu (appetite and budget), so I stressed to the server that I wanted it well done, burnt if possible.  She laughed, and noted it.

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The “farmer’s hamburger,” salad, and “elf” potatoes

Low and behold… I received my first well done hamburger in Iceland (and remained free of foodborne illness for this trip)!  Happy dance!  A delicious salad from locally grown veggies accompanied it, and I also had a side order of the baby potatoes.  My table looked down over the cowshed, so I strangely looked some cows in the eye as I ate a burger.  I like to live dangerously, what else do I say?  After dinner I treated myself to a vanilla ice cream cone.

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Efstidalur has the best ice cream ever, though their flavor selection was much smaller than when I was here in the summer months. The vanilla was unlike any vanilla I had before!

I still had to drag out my bedtime a little bit longer, but I finally managed to get to sleep, only to wake up, wide awake, in a few hours.  I got up, filled out some postcards, popped some Ambien, and finally slept until my alarm at 6:30am (I’d struggle with sleeping this whole trip unfortunately).

Day 1 done and dusted – thanks for the warm welcome back, Iceland!  Not sure why your air smells different this time, but I’ll get over it!

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