Three Days in a Camper Van Exploring Southeast Iceland

Halló from Iceland! I’ve been pretty excited ever since I found out Ice911 Research would have a big presence at Arctic Circle Assembly this year and being lucky enough to attend, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to arrive a few days early and explore.

I packed my bag with a few warm clothes and all of my camera gear and brought my girlfriend, Julia, along for a short anniversary trip by camper van through Southeast Iceland.

Julia and me at Bruarfoss

Julia and me at Bruarfoss

Coming from California, one of the most striking things about Iceland is just how few trees there are. It turns out this isn’t because they can’t grow here, but because early settlers cut them down for homes, boats, and most importantly charcoal.

Since then, efforts have been underway to engineer Iceland’s forests. So far only about 0.4% of the land area has been planted, down from 35% of land area covered by forests centuries ago. The exposed rugged landscape that’s left behind is what many people picture when they think of Iceland, and for those willing to brave the wind and cold its beauty is not to be missed.

Treeless valley near þórufoss, on the way to Hvalfjör∂ur.

Treeless valley near þórufoss, on the way to Hvalfjör∂ur.

We began our 3-day journey by picking up our “home” near the Keflavík airport before turning south for the first waterfalls of the trip, Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss.

On the way, we stopped briefly at Strandarkirkja to see the 12th-century church (several times rebuilt) and to watch the rapidly building seas of an incoming storm that would follow us for the next couple of days.

From there it was off to the falls. About 30 minutes apart and falling from the same cliff both were dramatic, but Seljalandsfoss has a cave behind it, while Skógafoss is much more powerful. According to legend, Skógafoss is also the home of a giant’s treasure, but despite a thorough look we left with only pictures and wet clothes. 

Clockwise from top left: The base of Seljalandsfoss and some wet hikers, Skógafoss from the top, and a small waterfall between Seljalandsfoss and the nearby Gljúfrafoss with just a bit of sun peeking out.

Clockwise from top left: The base of Seljalandsfoss and some wet hikers, Skógafoss from the top, and a small waterfall between Seljalandsfoss and the nearby Gljúfrafoss with just a bit of sun peeking out.

From there it was a long, meandering path inland to the Þjórsárdalur valley and its eponymous campground where we spent our first night huddled up trying to avoid the now cold, and blustery east winds. No aurora tonight, after our redeye and a modestly active day it was lights out at 19:00 (or 7:00 p.m. for my friends back home).

After a later start and modest jet lag recovery, we found our first hot springs in a secret location between Þjórsárdalur valley and Friðheimar where we had a date with some tomatoes.

 
Julia in the first of several tubs around the old viking house.

Julia in the first of several tubs around the old viking house.

 
On the way we stopped at Bruarfoss, Iceland’s bluest waterfall. The sky blue water characteristic of these falls is from fine glacial silt suspended in the water.

On the way we stopped at Bruarfoss, Iceland’s bluest waterfall. The sky blue water characteristic of these falls is from fine glacial silt suspended in the water.

If you’ve ever found yourself wondering where a place like Iceland gets all of their fresh vegetables with such a short growing season, well wonder no more. They use greenhouses. We visited one in Friðheimar where they grow 18% of Iceland’s tomatoes, heated with hot water from a nearby geothermal source and pollinated by imported Dutch bees.

It was a warm and welcome respite from the wind and rain outside, and the tomato soup and fresh bread was delicious. From there we camped at Þingvellir Park and prepared ourselves for an earlier start the next day. Aurora: none, still overcast.

Me enjoying some tomato schapps after some tomato soup surrounded by tomato plants.

Me enjoying some tomato schapps after some tomato soup surrounded by tomato plants.

The next morning we awoke early to try to see as much of the Snæfellsnes peninsula as we could before heading back to return our vehicle and meet up with the incoming Ice911 Research team. I’d say we did pretty well:

The sun finally caught up with us in time to spend a few minutes on the side of the road admiring this beautiful mountain a little ways north of Borgarnes on Road 54.

The sun finally caught up with us in time to spend a few minutes on the side of the road admiring this beautiful mountain a little ways north of Borgarnes on Road 54.

View from the pass on Road 56 on the way to Stykkishólmur.

View from the pass on Road 56 on the way to Stykkishólmur.

Rays of sun passing through the clouds on the mountains south of Stykkishólmur.

Rays of sun passing through the clouds on the mountains south of Stykkishólmur.

The port of Stykkishólmur.

The port of Stykkishólmur.

On the way to the Bjarnarhöfn shark museum (very worthwhile).

On the way to the Bjarnarhöfn shark museum (very worthwhile).

A little north of Grundarfjörður looking East on the North side of the Snæfellsnes peninsula.

A little north of Grundarfjörður looking East on the North side of the Snæfellsnes peninsula.

A few abandoned things near the town of Ólafsvík.

A few abandoned things near the town of Ólafsvík.

Basalt formations near Fjöruhúsið café where we had some hot tea and a warm waffle with traditional Skyrcake.

Basalt formations near Fjöruhúsið café where we had some hot tea and a warm waffle with traditional Skyrcake.

Búðakirkja (black church) dating from the 19th century in the town of Búðir.

Búðakirkja (black church) dating from the 19th century in the town of Búðir.

Aurora: Got ‘em! Kirkjufell with the town of Grundarfjörður in the foreground and the Aurora Borealis behind.

Aurora: Got ‘em! Kirkjufell with the town of Grundarfjörður in the foreground and the Aurora Borealis behind.

The next day we hightailed back to Keflavík to return our van on time, and met up with the rest of the Ice911 Research crew. Even though the weather didn’t always cooperate I’m so thankful for the time we got to spend here in this amazing country. 

Looking down at a map of Iceland with names like Vik, Baldur, Skógafoss and others then looking up at jutting cliffs, and frozen lava fields I really did have to remind myself sometimes that this *isn’t* a fantasy land. It is in fact very real and unlike the printed pages of a book, it might not be forever.

Iceland is one small, yet important, piece of a big Arctic, which we could lose if we don’t act. The climate in Iceland is changing, along with the Arctic in general, faster than anywhere else on Earth, and we need to act now to preserve what we still have left, giving the world time to move away from carbon and toward a more sustainable future.

In Reykjavík, Iceland. Thanks for reading!

In Reykjavík, Iceland. Thanks for reading!

~ Written by Alexander Sholtz