Monday, September 05, 2016

Thoughts on Iceland



I'm at the point of my life where travel to a new location frequently has me thinking, "Why am I here? What does this offer that my favorite places in the world don't?" Most frequently the answer is unsatisfying. For instance, traveling by RV in the summer to Yellowstone & the Tetons feels like one traffic jam after another. Last year's trip to Desolation Sound was pretty, but left me with no desire to repeat the trip.

Iceland, however, has proven to be gorgeous. It's pretty, very different from the Alps, but offers the strong and dedicated hiker the potential for many challenging walks that would leave you not just breathless from the effort, but also from the scenery.

The challenges to getting the most out of a trip there, however, rests on two things;
  1. The weather is frequently uncooperative. If you get low clouds with rain or fog, you'll see nothing. Seeing nothing sucks when you hike. The presence of multiple waterfalls (such as Skogafoss) does help, as frequently even if you get no scenery you can at least see a waterfall and feel it. Hence, most hikes in Iceland have a destination that's a waterfall, or include a waterfall en route.
  2. The ability to get into relatively rugged terrain. That leaves out many families with young children. Even with a baby backpack, there was little chance I was going to rappel down a chain link into a ravine to hike behind a waterfall. Because the terrain is challenging, don't expect to be able to travel faster than the stated times on the hiking map or brochure provided by the villages.
In hind-sight, what would I recommend for the dedicated hiker who has enough time to overcome (1) and is mobile enough to deal with (2)?
  • Get out of Reykjavik as quickly as you can. The Golden Circle is worth one day. The rest of it (Blue Lagoon, etc) can be viewed essentially one big huge tourist trap. Mt. Esja is nice, but not worth staying for.
  • Spend extra time in Eglistadir & Seydisfjordur. You need sufficient time so you can out wait poor weather and still get your hikes in. A week would be sufficient.
  • You probably want to arrange transportation if you plan to do any of the one-way hikes. This is a conundrum, since the rest of the time, having your own vehicle is a big help. That suggests that you want to place your one-way hikes at the start or end of the trip, so you're not stuck returning a rental car in the middle of the trip only to have to pick it up again.
  • Speaking of rental cars: Iceland is one of the few places where an AWD vehicle is not over-kill. There are many trailheads that require off-road driving to get to. Even the main ring road has plenty of dirt roads, though if you're planning to stick to the ring road you don't need AWD. The cost is significantly higher, and it might be that the few times you do need to access an off-road trail head it's cheaper to hire a taxi for the day than to put up with AWD the rest of the time.
  • Bring warm clothing and plenty of rain gear. Enough said.
All in all, Iceland seems like a great stopover on the way to Europe, both to ditch the jet-lag and to see the gorgeous country, and if you're a strong/avid hiker, I can recommend it highly.

What would I do different on this trip?
  • Plan the Westman Islands visit better. Pre-book the ferry for the car, spend one night there.
  • Spend less time in the Reykjavik area. 3 days was plenty, there was no need to spend 2 nights at the end there.
  • More time in Seydisfjordur and Eglistadir. See above.
  • Skip Dettifoss. The long off-road drive was a pain and it wasn't that great.
  • See the Westfjiords.
Well, I guess that means I have good reason to go back to Iceland, unlike many other destinations I've visited over the years.
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