I've been dreaming of visiting Iceland for years; drooling over photos of massive waterfalls and expansive black sand beaches, wondering what it would feel like to set foot on the largest glacier in Europe or sit in a geothermal pool under the Northern Lights. I was lucky enough to take a trip there recently, and this magical little country exceeded my expectations in every way. If there was ever a place to be reminded of how majestic and extreme Mother Nature can be, Iceland is it. It may be known as the Land of Fire and Ice, but for me it became the land of so many other spectacular things as well.
The Land of Texture and Contrast
In Southeast Iceland, Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon sits between a tongue of Vatnajökull Glacier and the North Atlantic Ocean. This glacial lake hosts hundreds of icebergs in all shapes, sizes and shades of clear blue, broken off from the base of the glacier and bobbing around, slowing making their way to sea. Adjacent to the lagoon is Diamond Beach, where hundreds more of these huge ice chunks can be found, washed ashore and sitting like giant crystals on the black sand. I was completely mesmerized by the way the light refracted through the ice, revealing different reptile-like patterns as the waves crashed and swirled around the bases of the car-sized icebergs. The contrast of the illuminated ice and the black sand was striking, and I could have spent days photographing this one spot alone!
The Land of Big Views and the Open Road
To say that Iceland is abounding with beautiful scenery is an understatement. Around every turn is a view more breathtaking than the last; dramatic vistas of glaciers spilling out between snowy peaks next to lava fields that carry on for miles, followed by rock arches jutting out into the ocean and towering over endless black sand beaches. The landscape is ever-changing, and driving five minutes down the road makes you feel like you're on an entirely new planet. The Ring Road in Iceland is a continuous loop around the perimeter of the country, and driving a little less than half of it during the trip opened my eyes to Iceland's bountiful diversity... significantly more than I've found in any one place before.
The Land of Volcanic Influence
You can't go far in Iceland without seeing an indication of the incredible amount of past and present volcanic activity there. Lava fields, beaches of black cobble, and cliffs of basalt rock columns are abundant. Dormant volcanoes rest under glaciers, with signs of their existence miles away in the form of underground lava tubes, formed by cooling magma hundreds of thousands of years ago. Vatnshellir is a multi-chamber lave tube cave created by the Snæfellsjökull volcano, which inspired Jules Verne's novel Journey to the Center of the Earth. Taking a spiral staircase 30 meters into the earth, learning about the cave's formation, and experiencing complete darkness (literally) while listening to the water dripping onto the cave floor from the porous lava field above was certainly a once in a lifetime experience.
The Land of Climate Change
Iceland may still be home to lots of ice and snow, cold temperatures and Europe's largest glacier, but that may not be the case forever if climate trends continue as they have. The Blue Diamond ice cave within the Vatnajökull Glacier will not exist next season, because the glacier is receding approximately 200 meters per year. It was surreal to hike twenty or thirty minutes up from the foot of the glacier, then step down inside something so extraordinary, knowing that next year that whole expanse of ice will be gone and no one else will ever get to experience that cave again. It was a stunning reminder of our immense impact on this planet, and the necessity of making a change to save these unique and irreplaceable places disappearing before our eyes.
The Land of Adaptation and Earthen Architecture
Iceland can be a harsh, unforgiving place in the winter, and at first glance it's unbelievable to imagine people and animals surviving in that kind of environment. Upon a closer look though, it's easy to see the ways that the population there has adapted to life in those *chilly* conditions. Icelandic sheep are the wooliest I've seen, and the horses are stout with thick coats, allowing them to stand out in the snow with freezing winds blowing 50-60 miles per hour. Churches are topped with turf roofs for insulation, and modest houses and barns with simple architecture are tucked into hillsides, earth bermed and disguised, shielded from the elements. Steaming geothermal springs have been tapped into to build an abundance of public baths with temperatures akin to hot tubs, so there's always a nearby opportunity to strip down and warm up!
The Land of Waterfalls
The concentration, variety and quantity of waterfalls in Iceland is mind-blowing. I must have seen more waterfalls in one week there than I had seen in the rest of my life leading up to the trip. Having a waterfall in your backyard there is not uncommon; every little farm house seemed to be perfectly situated at the base of a mountain, with multi-tiered falls cascading down the rock face above. Some of the more well-known waterfalls were so large and powerful that I found myself disregarding the less-magnificent ones, which is crazy considering how rare waterfalls are back home on the Central Coast of California. Share a little water with us, won't you?!
The Land of Renewable Energy
Iceland is powered 100% by renewable energy, which the country has made possible by developing an extensive system for harnessing and utilizing their unique resources of geothermal and hydrological activity. During a visit to a geothermal power plant I learned that 85% of the homes in Iceland are warmed with geothermal heat, which is also used in greenhouses, fish farming, snow melting, hot water distribution, and the list goes on. I was so impressed by the complexity, breadth and efficiency of their energy network, and it gave me an even deeper appreciation for this remarkable country and the people who live there.
The Land of Letting it Be
When snow and hail, below-freezing temps and howling winds are the norm, there are bound to be a few things that don't go quite right. If you explore Iceland enough, you'll find evidence of that here and there. Two and a half miles out on a straight and seemingly endless trail of crushed black volcanic rock, sits the carcass of a US Navy DC-3 airplane that crashed on Sólheimasandur Beach in 1973 after experiencing severe icing. It's an eerie feeling to see the body of the plane, mangled but mostly intact, all by itself with nothing but ocean and black sand surrounding it as far as the eye can see. On the Snæfellsness Peninsula is another instance where wreckage has been left alone to be manipulated by nature; pieces of rusty iron from a British ship circa 1948 can be found scattered over the black beach cobble, and the contrast is utterly eye-catching.
The Land of Symmetry and Reflection
I can't count the number of photos I took of perfect reflections in Iceland. The calm water of lagoons, bays and fjords created mirror images of snowy mountains at sunset, glaciers and waterfalls, even the Northern Lights. This time of year days are short and the sun is so low in the sky, that the six hours of sunlight feels like a long sunrise blending seamlessly into a long sunset, and the result is continuous ideal lighting for countless photographs like the ones below. Standing in the stillness and encompassed by a pristine landscape definitely allowed me to do some reflecting of my own as well.
The Land of the Northern Lights
Besides fewer tourists and cheaper accommodations, one main reason for visiting Iceland in winter is the chance of seeing the Northern Lights, a common item on many bucket lists including mine. Although I'd caught a glimpse of the Aurora out of the airplane window on the flight over, it wasn't until the last night of the trip that I got to see the Northern Lights dancing in the skies over Iceland. It was just as enchanting as I had imagined, waves of green and purple illuminating the dark night sky, constantly shape-shifting and showing off. It made for a fantastic ending to an unforgettable adventure, and I hope everyone gets to experience that same phenomenon at least once in their life!
I could go on and on about this wondrous place that I fell in love with, although it's left an impression on me that I can't quite put into words. Until next time, Iceland!