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The Spectacular Landscapes of East Iceland

Posted by on June 30, 2014

Heading northward from Vik, there are numerous options for how to spend 2 days in East Iceland. We focused on experiencing the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon and then exploring the East Fjords.

Little did we realize that we would pass a multitude of landscapes along our journey.

Leaving from the black sand beaches of Vik, the dreary weather added to the oft-otherworldly looking landscapes we encountered. But, of course, before we encountered the Mars-like landscapes, we passed this rural normalcy to provide context for the contrast.

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Not long thereafter, the landscape began changing inexplicably.

The nobby protrusions just before Kirkjubæjarklaustur were particularly interesting (as was the fact that they couldn’t fit the town name on the sign!) This town name is often shortened to Klaustur (wonder why?!?!?!) and is Icelandic for cloister. Historically, Irish monks lived there, as have an abbey of nuns.

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These nobs then flattened out and took on greener coverings…

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…before leading to an ashy, volcanic wasteland of black sand covered with thin green grass.

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As on many signs in Iceland, this clover-type symbol means “place of interest.” I later learned that Gigjukvisl is the remains of a steel bridge that crossed extensive sand fields, before being mangled by a glacial flood in 1996. Notably, it’s not always obvious from these symbols what is of interest, or who it’s of interest to. So don’t plan to try to see them all, it would take years!

And what do you expect to see after a volcanic wasteland? Why glaciers, of course! The road down the center of this picture literally separates the volcanic earth from the green grasses, with mammoth glaciers in the background abutting it all. Crazy man, crazy.

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All I can say about this stretch of road is be careful! It’s easy to gawk at the changing scenery and lose track of the fact that the road shoulders fall sharply on both sides. There are very few places to pull over and take pictures, so we often came across cars practically parked in the center of the road. For the safety of all involved, don’t do that!

This is when we began to cross into Vatnajökull National Park, the largest national park in Europe, which contains the largest icecap outside of the Arctic Circle–Vatnajökull. The first part that we came upon was Skaftafell National Park, which became part of Vatnajökull National Park in 2008.

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In Skaftafell, we stopped for a (hopefully quick) hike up to see Svartifoss, the black waterfall, so named for the its black basalt backdrop. Jeff and Nathan hightailed it up the trail to see the falls, while me and my bum feet chilled out in the car.

They hurried back at the 1-hour mark, not having gotten all the way to the falls, but at least being able to see them.

And where exactly does that water come from?!??! It looks like it’s just sprouted out of the earth. Unreal.

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And finally, we were on our way to see the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon — talk about delayed gratification! By this time it was 4:30 in the afternoon and I was itching to see the much famed lagoon.

Trust me when I say that it did not disappoint. In fact, it delivered in spades. Twice.

Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon

The Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon is a body of water fed by the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier. Ice from the glacier breaks off into the lagoon and slowly makes its way out to sea. This leads to a myriad of places for photographic opportunities. We were like kids in a candy shop. I don’t even know what to show you first!

When we arrived at the lagoon, the day was still overcast, which meant we could barely see the glaciers, but we could see the ice in the lagoon. This pic is of the north side of the lagoon–see the space to the right? This is where larger amphibious boats can launch into the water and take tours among the ice.

There were no more tours that day, but we vowed to come back the next day (hoping the weather would improve).

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We had tried to schedule a smaller zodiac boat tour of the lagoon, to be able to get up close and personal with the ice. Zodiac launches weren’t taking place, though, because the south side of the lagoon was too densely packed (as seen below) to maneuver the boats.

The zodiac boat company was kind enough to share this info when we called. Too bad they didn’t share the same info with people who had booked months in advance. We had read similar tales on TripAdvisor, so moral of the story, always double check your boat tour reservations. Their trips are weather dependent and they don’t always communicate their cancellations!

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If you visit when the skies are overcast, don’t despair! We quickly learned that overcast skies actually provide the best viewing of the blue ice, and especially the ice on the black sand beach across the road. When the sun is out, it’s easier to see the glaciers, but the ice gets too white and blown out.

Here you can see the large ice chunks floating out to sea under overcast skies. (The bridge is the Ring Road.)

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And here, across the road from the lagoon, you can see the chunks of glacial ice scattered along the black sand beach. Do NOT miss this ocean side.

This is one of the most striking scenes I have ever witnessed and is arguably more gorgeous than the lagoon itself. Simply stunning. (Don’t miss the big blue piece in the back left floating out to sea. Amazing!)

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And when you look in the other direction, ice chunks are scattered for as far as the eye can see.

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I still haven’t picked my jaw up off the floor…Have you? Ok, I’ll show just one more and then I promise I’ll stop. You know we have a million pix!

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And amongst this glory was a playful seal adding whimsy and fun to this gorgeous moment. He frolicked to and fro, providing endless amusement…

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Finally, we decided we should head on to Höfn to our next night’s accommodation. For those of you planning to visit, learn from our tactical error. Stay closer to Jökulsárlón lagoon than Höfn (an hour’s drive away). You’ll definitely want to stay overnight so that you’ll get two chances to see the lagoon.

Not that we minded the gorgeous 1 hour drive, mind you, but when time is of the essence, staying closer is more practical.

The next morning we got to back to the lagoon by 9am and were rewarded with not only a gorgeous day but also tickets on the second amphibious boat trip of the morning.

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Riding in the boat allowed us to get a closer glimpse of the massive glacier…

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…as well as to the gorgeous blue ice that Nathan had so been craving.

In case you’re curious, the “blue” in glacial ice is due to the absorption of red and yellow light, leaving the blue light to be scattered (ie, what we see). Glacial ice is densely compacted, as bubbles in the ice get compressed over time, causing crystal structures that form and strongly scatter the blue light.

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Interesting sights included the myriad of birds who called the ice home…

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…as well as the black stripes in the ice. Each stripe represents a volcanic eruption over the years. The ash compresses into the ice, providing a visual history of Icelandic eruptions over time. So cool!

After seeing the magnificent Jökulsárlón lagoon, we backtracked a bit to see the smaller and lesser known Fjallsárlón lagoon. Equally dense with glacial ice, we chose to view this one from afar rather than take a boat tour. [See the girl walking along the path in the center of the picture, for perspective.]

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When we finally dragged ourselves away from the gorgeous lagoons, we then started back on our way through Höfn to the East Fjords. Along the route, we saw our first and only reindeer (just milling on the side of the Ring Road).

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As well as these gorgeous horses surrounding an abandoned farmhouse. Does it get any more idyllic?

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And last but not least, did we take a wrong turn and end up in Peru? Where did this come from?

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Nope, phew, still in Iceland. Onward and upward through Höfn and then the East Fjords.

Stokksnes

Following a tip from an exceptionally helpful woman at the Höfn information center, we took about a half an hour side trip down a gravel road to Stokksnes on our way out of town. Boy are we glad we did!

Stokksnes is the last right-hand turn before the tunnel leading to Egilsstadir on the Ring Road (about 15km from Höfn).  The views were exceptional, and a must see in this area.

Located on a spit, Stokksnes allowed views northward across the black sand beaches…

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…and in the other direction were the black sand dunes with the glaciers in the background.

And a little closer to the Ring Road, the scene becomes pastoral again, with some incredible glacial backdrops, of course!

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From here we were able to see the fog literally spill over the mountains and into Stokksnes.

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We took that as a cue to head out of Stokksnes via the tunnel that leads to the East Fjords.

The East Fjords

Ok, don’t shoot us, but after the overwhelmingly beautiful scenes at Stokksnes and the lagoon, the East Fjords seemed a bit underwhelming. (I know, we’re spoiled!)

We couldn’t help but make comparisons to the fjords of New Zealand where the mountains plunge into the sea. In Iceland, everything is so expansive that it loses the “plunging” effect, or at least for the fjords we saw (see the map in the original post for our route, because we didn’t see all of the East Fjords).

That said, we saw some gorgeous views along our route, of which this black farmhouse was one.

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Fishing is still the major industry in the East Fjords, so we weren’t surprised to see fish farms along the route.

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And of course, there were more waterfalls! This one, apparently, didn’t even warrant being named (sacrilege). That yellow speck in the center is our friend Nathan as he clambers out onto the point to get the best photo.

In this case, we did not see any “no standing/walking signs,” but be careful to keep an eye out, because sometimes these signs are small and subtle. And it’s important to stay on paths, not only to protect the flora, but also since going off path in some geothermal areas gets you scalded!

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Below, the small fishing village of Stöðvarfjörður (population: 200) was picturesque. We stopped here for a cup of tea, and the only notable feature was that this was the only village where anyone was less than utterly friendly.

I had read about how Icelanders (historically) had been hard to get to know and not open with strangers. We experienced the exact opposite in every other place we visited–where people were overly friendly and helpful. Here, they served us tea and that was that.

Perhaps the isolated location means they don’t get as many visitors and hence aren’t as open. Or maybe she was just having a bad day. No harm no foul.

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Seyðisfjörður

The most iconic of the small fishing villages, and hands down my favorite, was Seyðisfjörður. While our gut reaction was to call it “quaint”, it was more than that. Quaint suggests a softness or ease.  There was nothing soft about Seyðisfjörður. It embodied the unique combination of a working man’s character and an independent artisan spirit.

A fishing village, as well as the ferry port for the Smyril line ferry that runs between Iceland and Denmark, this town’s primary industry is based in the sea. This port reeked of character and charm. Nathan met a 77-year-old fisherman living in one of these boats. He used to fish for a living, but now he just fishes for fun. Lovely.

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This boat was particularly colorful against the mountainous backdrop.

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And if you turn around 180 degrees you see this incredibly gorgeous and altogether different view of the area. Not a bad view from a boat…(oh, and some foss, punch, punch!)

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But in addition to the port, there were many local artisans who sold wares out of their houses. The below view of the town is from one of the artisans homes, in which she had converted one room for her shop. What a charming town amidst a stunning backdrop.

We spoke to this artisan for awhile–she summers here and winters in Reykjavik, as do many others in this area. She said approximately 800 people live here in the summer, 500 in the winter.

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Of note, remember when shopping in this area [or any area with small businesses] that it’s best to bring cash, as not all places take credit cards and many places don’t take American Express. And you’ll want to support the locals. I bought a scarf to forever remind me of our several wonderful hours here.

We all left this place completely enamored with its charms.  For not only were the fisherman and artisans intriguing, but the smiley face on the speed limit sign when you entered the town (only if you were doing the right speed!) and the Hollywood-esque Seyðisfjörður sign on the hill provided glimpses into the whimsical personality of this town.

I’d love to come back here and work for a summer (as one of the Danish girls who served us breakfast at Hotel Aldan was doing). I bet that would be entertaining.

On our way out of Seyðisfjörður, it only took about 10 minutes of driving before we were up among the ice. The blue ice in this scene made me wonder whether this was a frozen lake. Indeed, we confirmed on google maps that this is lake Heiðarvatn, still frozen in June. Brrrr!

This is another reason to be extra careful when driving and to be aware of where you’re walking. You never know what’s underfoot!

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A quick jaunt over the pass and we were heading back down into the skiing town of Egilsstaðir. With its plethora of evergreen trees, it reminded me of our recent trip to Whistler. It also reminded me that I just really don’t understand the tree situation in Iceland. Why there are some in some places and none in most others is bewildering to me.

But I’ll leave those deep thoughts for later days. For now, I’ll sign off and tell you that I hope you enjoyed this photographic tour of East Iceland. This region is an absolute must see during any Icelandic trip. There is certainly something for everyone!

6 Responses to The Spectacular Landscapes of East Iceland

  1. Julie

    I’ve enjoyed your tales and gorgeous pictorial of Iceland! Our stepson Brandon’s girlfriend was born in Iceland and most of her family still lives there…so there’s a good chance we will get there some day! I will know what not to miss!

    Julie and Jason

    • Jen

      Oh yeah, baby!!! Definitely go visit before they break up ;)!!! It is a gorgeous country, with such lovely people. Hope you had fun in Vancouver too!!!

  2. DSG

    Some nice, icy-cold reading on a sweltering 95F summer day in NC.

    • Jen

      Ha, no kidding! Hard to believe it was only a couple of weeks ago!

  3. Linda Koloda

    You are in the wrong profession – you should become a tour guide!!!!!

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