Me and Mike with the glacier in the background

Our stay in El Calafate was especially short the second time around. We arrived at about 10:30PM, went to sleep at 3:30AM because we apparently love to self-sabotage, and caught a bus to El Chaltén at 8AM. The morning started off extra rough. Any morning after 4 hours of sleep is not going to be pleasant, but we also got a surprise at 7:30 when the lady from the hostel told us that she was confused when she said that the bus would come to pick us up, and we actually had to be at the bus station at 8. EEEEEE!

Thankfully, we were going back to the same hostel in a few days, and they let us leave some of the things we didn’t need (like our tent) which meant packing was infinitely easier. We ran around like maniacs trying to pull ourselves together and were out around 7:45… and we then powerwalked to the bus station because I do NOT like to cut those things close.

We made it there a few minutes before 8, and then the bus also left a little late. Buses always seem to run a few minutes behind schedule until the one time when you need a cushion… and then they leave exactly on time.

The bus ride was uneventful: the scenery was beautiful, Mike slept the whole time, some obnoxious person played music without using headphones. The usual. When we arrived in El Chaltén, the bus went straight to the ranger station so that we could get an introduction to the park and the hikes.

Flat landscape with mountains in the distance
The road to El Chalten

El Chaltén is a village in the northern part of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, the same park that we visited on our first day when we trekked on Perito Moreno Glacier. The town is inside the park. This is super weird to me because we don’t have people living in national parks in the States. I found myself frequently confused by the “national park” concept during our trip. Like there are portions of some parks that are privately owned. In Torres del Paine in Chile, some portions of the actual W Trek are on private land, some of the campsites are privately owned, etc. You literally can’t do the trek without crossing between private and national land. Very confusing while you’re hiking and get to a sign that says, “Welcome to Torres del Paine National Park,” and you didn’t think you’d ever left.

View of El Chalten from above
El Chaltén

I did some research before we went and thought it would be a good idea for us to take it easy on our first day considering we were coming off of four long days of trekking. There are some short hikes around town, so I had those on the schedule for the first day and had the two major long hikes on the following two.

At the ranger station, the guy who did our orientation said that the weather was really nice, so it would be a good idea to go on a hike in the afternoon if possible because no one knows what weather tomorrow will bring. I said, “We’re doing that already!” Mike said, “We should go on a longer hike just in case.” Ugh. So much for a rest day. His plan was to do the “short” 6-hour hike on the first day, the most popular 8-hour hike on the second day, and this one that’s literally 4 hours up and then 4 hours down on the way back on the last day. He’s a loon. He told me that I could skip the last day if I wanted to rest, but who rests on the LAST day of a hiking trip? That defeats the whole purpose of a rest day!

 

Mike and me along the way
Trail selfie!
The trail with blue, clear skies
Okay, so the weather was pretty perfect…

So, Mike decided that we should do the Laguna Torre hike because the trailhead was literally across the street from our hostel, and it was ONLY 6 hours, unlike the other two hikes he wanted to do. By the time we checked in and got settled and ready to go, it was about 1:15PM aka the hottest part of the day and definitely the ideal time to start a 6-hour hike (sarcasm, in case you didn’t catch that).

The hike itself really wasn’t that bad, but my feet were still killing me, and it was HOT. Even the woman who checked us in at the hostel said that it was abnormally hot, and she was ready for it to cool down again. Yeah, same. The beginning of the hike had some uphill that wasn’t too bad… except for the fact that there was no shade. I learned my lesson after the unfortunate arm-burn incident of the Torres del Paine trek day 3 and covered myself in sunscreen. Mike seems to think he’s superhuman and is fine with a little sunscreen on his face and nothing more. What is it that they say about doctors being the worst patients? I believe it.

Me climbing up a rocky hill
Almost at the lake… just a few more steps! Up, up, and up! (That’s me. Hi, Lara!)
A gorge along the trail
I make the “gorge”ous joke literally every time I come across a gorge, so here it is again. Ain’t this just GORGEOUS?
Green landscape with mountains and a glacier in the distance
First glimpse of the glacier!

After the start, it got much flatter and much shadier for the entire middle stretch of the hike. That was a welcome break! And then, after a tiny uphill, we made it to the lake! Laguna Torre, with its breathtaking waters the color of very milked-down coffee. Yeah, it was kind of gross looking. If that was the main attraction of the hike, I would have said, “NOPE not worth it.” But, you’re really there for the glacier at the far end of the lake.

Tree-shaded trail
There’s nothing better than a tree-covered path
Glacier in the distance with a nice, shaded trail in the foreground
We were definitely thankful for that shade along the trail!
The brown, murky lake
Check out that crystal clear water… yum…
Panoramic picture of the lake and surrounding mountains
It’s still pretty awesome, though.
Laguna Torre with the glacier in the background
Spot the glacier!

We did this extension of the hike to a viewpoint closer to the glacier, and as well-marked as the beginning part of the hike was, this part had exactly ZERO trail markers… unless it was actually so unclear that we were not even near the actual trail. I think we were, though, because part of the hike was along a ridge where there weren’t many other options, so I’m thinking it was actually just terribly marked. The extension was completely exposed to the sun, very rocky, and all uphill. And we spent the whole time going, “Hmm, these rocks look like they’re a little more trampled down, maybe the path is over here,” crossing our fingers, and walking that way.

Me walking along a ridge
This part of the trail was pretty easy to follow, but it wasn’t all this clear.
Mike way up ahead on the trail
Pleaseee don’t make me climb up anymore. (Bye, Mike.)
The glacier!
Glacier glacier glacier!

I don’t even know if we made it to the actual viewpoint because we never reached a sign that said we did. We got to a place that looked like it COULD be the end and then Mike decided that if it wasn’t, it was better than the actual thing anyway (based on nothing but his intuition). That was fine with me. I was ready to turn around. We ate a snack in the shade of some rocks before turning around.

Mike with the glacier
Mike’s classic thumbs up
Another glacier pic
As usual, it looks like we’re on another planet

On the way back, my body was so over walking. Mike was laughing at me because I spent considerable energy ranting about how they have some nerve putting up signs that tell you what kilometer you’re on. How rude, right? You may be thinking, “Oh, that sounds great! Then you know exactly where you are and how far you have to go.” Yes, but no. Yes, I knew exactly how far we still had to go, but no, it wasn’t great. It ruins any chance you have of deluding yourself into believing that there’s only a little bit left. I spent the rest of the time yelling at him (kindly, of course) to tell entertaining stories to distract me from my misery.

Me and Mike with the glacier in the background
Us with a glacier. No big deal. No matter how many glaciers we visit, I’m still totally awed.
The path headed down the mountain
On the way back down! Much better than the way up, though we still had no idea where we were supposed to be walking.
Little waterfall along the trail
Pretty!

When I’m hiking, I go through these phases. At the beginning, my feet hurt and it’s awful, but soon enough, they go numb, I feel fine, and I’m cruising. Later, my feet inevitably remember how unhappy they are and start screaming at me, and I hobble along in agony. Eventually, I get like a 4th wind and can crank out a few more kilometers until I crash and burn again and hobble the rest of the way home. The good thing about this hike was that the trailhead was maybe 20 steps from our hostel, so I really could just collapse at the finish line.

As grumpy as I was at the end, I was happy that we had just done it and had one less day to worry about getting good weather. We spent the rest of the night hanging out with some people we met at the hostel, draining our fresh blisters (that was only me), and crying over the sad state of our feet (also only me). And eating mass quantities of ravioli, the official hiking food of Mike and Lara. All in all, it was a good (and exhausting) day.

Our first full day started out bright and early with a 7AM bus pickup from our hostel. In writing that, I realize that 7AM isn’t actually that early, but on vacation after a day of travelling… just give me this, okay? This was our only day with an actual organized tour, and it was nice to not have to think for ourselves on our first day. We were headed to nearby Glaciers National Park for a glacier trekking (aka WALKING ON A GLACIER HOW COOL IS THAT) tour on Perito Moreno Glacier.

Perito Moreno Glacier from afar
Perito Moreno Glacier

The bus ride from El Calafate to the park entrance took about an hour and a half, and we were thinking that we got lucky with the weather because it was a beautiful day. NOPE. Almost as soon as we entered the park, it started to rain and the bus windows fogged up, making it seem even more dreary and impossible to see outside. The tour guide explained that it rains VERY often in the park. Even though it’s not too far from El Calafate, it gets an average of 900mm (35”) of rain annually, and El Calafate gets around 200mm (8”). So yeah… minor difference.

Entrance ticket for Parque Nacional Los Glaciares
I took this picture of my ticket like a real nerd… but the reason I’m including this is so you can check out the nice blue sky in the background and appreciate the fact that this is the only picture where that’s the case.
The world's sturdiest wheelchair
Mike got a kick out of this wheelchair inside the visitors’ center.

At our first stop, we got to see the glacier from afar. There are a bunch of metal walkways where you check out the glacier from different viewpoints. Of course, Mike wanted to walk on as many of them as possible, so we added a couple of little offshoots onto the route that the guide recommended. She also stressed that since it was raining, we should be extra careful because the walkways get slippery in the rain. I’m sure you know where I’m going with this… I ate it. Hard. I slipped down a flight of maybe 6 stairs and stayed on my butt at the bottom for a second to figure out how I was feeling. I could tell my legs were a little banged up, but I felt okay until Mike said, “Your thumb!” and I looked down to find a huge gash in my finger. Perfect. Fingertips love to bleed, too. Thankfully, we were nearly finished with our wandering at that point (and the views were beautiful, by the way, even with the rain and the freezing cold and my bleeding finger), so I didn’t have much more to endure before we got back to the bus and the guide hunted down a band-aid for me.

Walkways at Perito Moreno Glacier
My nemesis (the walkways, not Mike). I’m pretty sure this was taken pre-fall
View of Perito Moreno Glacier
If you happen to be there at the right moment, you might be lucky enough to see part of the glacier fall off into the lake below. We weren’t lucky… but it’s supposed to be very cool, and every time we heard a loud noise, everyone would quickly turn to look at the glacier in the hopes that something was happening.
Me thumbs-upping our cold and rainy walk
Looking happy and dry, right? (Ha! I wish)
Glacier pieces in the water
How tall do you think the glacier is above the water? One of the signs said that the edge is about 70m above the water level… which means there’s even more below the water level. I don’t know how tall I would have guessed (and I’m also the world’s worst estimator), but it would not have been 70m. That’s crazy!
Sightseeing walkways at platforms at the glacier
I did think that the walkways were super cool… up until my (literal) downfall
Cool view from one of the viewing platforms
Some walkway views
Another Perito Moreno Glacier view
How many times can I post basically the same picture? I don’t know, but at least one more!
Mike and me with the prettiest glacier backdrop
I’m hiding my bleeding finger behind Mike’s back. Also, we are so wet.

The next part of the tour was the main event: glacier trekking. The bus dropped us at a boat where we all loaded up to get closer to the glacier. It dropped us off across the lake, and we started our land trek to get to the starting point of the glacier trek. Along the way, we made a few stops to get suited up in our gear. First, we stopped in these little cabins where you could leave your stuff, and there, the guides outfitted people with the things that they absolutely should have brought with them… things like waterproof shoes (because walking on a block of frozen water in sneakers seemed like a good idea??), waterproof jackets (they tell you to expect rain), backpacks, etc. I was baffled by these people. Some were wearing jeans aka not what I would choose for physical activity and also the worst thing to wear when it’s wet and rainy. Did they get on the wrong bus? Come on people, pull it together.

Glacier boat view
On the boat ride. Quite the color palette, huh? Light grey, blue-grey, grey.

Once the group was appropriately dressed, we headed back out into the rain (much to everyone’s dismay) and walked maybe 15 minutes to the first basecamp where we were outfitted with harnesses and helmets (which we didn’t use at all, but they said it’s protocol so you have to wear them). Then, we walked another 40 minutes or so to the second basecamp. This walk was through the woods, mostly uphill, and I was ready to collapse by the time we got there. Good, right? Considering we hadn’t even started the walking-on-ice portion of the day.

The view on our way to the glacier trekking start point
Walking to basecamp #1
Closer view of the glacier
Getting closer!
Wooden walkways on our way to Perito Moreno Glacier trekking
These people in front of us got some last-minute ponchos, and good thing because it rained basically all day.
The first basecamp on the way to the trekking start point
Basecamp #1 dome huts in the distance

At basecamp #2, we were fitted with crampons. Prior to this trip, the crampons I was familiar with are those little metal claws that you wear to walk on icy sidewalks. These… these were not like that. It’s more like having the tips of six spears coming out of each foot. The guides told us to be careful not to spike ourselves or get our feet hooked on each other. Eek.

With our crampons in hand, we walked the last 10 minutes to the glacier where the guides helped us put them on. First though, we had to walk like 20 feet onto the ice without them, and it was terrifying. After that, you don’t question why they’re necessary!

Close-up view of the glacier edge
My brain can’t even comprehend the volume of this thing. Imagine how many cold beverages you could make with this much ice.
The group getting their crampons put on
The crampon installation area
Mike's crampons
Mike, showing off his foot spears.

First thought, “My gosh, did they just strap anvils to my feet? SO HEAVY.” Step, step, step. Second thought, “Thank goodness I have these anvils on my feet!” We divided up into smaller groups and headed out into the icy expanse. From afar, a glacier really looks like it’s covered in snow. It’s not. It’s ice. All ice. (I mean, there’s snow in the places where it’s snowing… but where we were, no snow.)

Near the edge especially, the ice was in these huge waves, and looking at it, I had no idea how we were going to go anywhere. We started walking up and down and up and down them, and the crampons are like magic. I felt like I had superpowers! (Possibly the world’s lamest superhero.)

The glacial wilderness
Up and down and up and down

The glacier has two main areas to it: the accumulation zone and the ablation zone. The accumulation zone is the upper part where it snows a lot, adding volume to the glacier. The guide said that it snows there around 300 days a year! We were in the ablation zone where the ice is melting and moving, so you can find rivers and lakes on the surface. Since the ice isn’t all moving at the same speed, sometimes it splits apart and forms these crazy deep cracks filled with the bluest water I’ve ever seen.

Mike with some very blue water
Mike and an ice crack
Glacier crack
Have you ever seen water so blue?
Awesome glacier crack
I want to dive in… I want to not freeze to death. But it’s just so pretty that I want to stare at it all day and also swim in it. But it’s cold. BUT SO PRETTY.
Mike filling my water bottle with glacier water
Mike filling up my water bottle because no way was I trying to end up with ice cube fingers. The water tasted good but was a little too cold for my liking (hehehe)

The whole experience was awesome! Being on a glacier is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. It’s like walking on a giant, abstract ice sculpture, and it’s a big mashup of white and blue and black (which is the dirt, but somehow even that is pretty). Also, just the concept of a glacier is insane. It’s a huge, dynamic piece of ice. They said that the deepest point from top to bottom is about 700 meters. The deepest point we stood on was about 500 meters. Looking down and trying to comprehend 500m of ice underneath my feet was impossible.

Looking down at my feet on the glacier
You’re looking at 500m-deep ice right now
Glacier waves
We walked on that. Doesn’t it seem like there’s no good place for a path? Well, that’s pretty much what I thought every time I looked ahead, and somehow, we always found a way (sometimes with the support of an ice ax….)
Me with a glacier lake
Contemplating going for a swim. KIDDING I’m not trying to turn into a human popsicle!
Endless glacier view, looking towards the accumulation zone
Ice and more ice, as far as the eyes can see. This is looking in the direction of the accumulation zone.

We walked around for about 3 hours, and it rained for about 2 hours and 55 minutes. There was one 5-minute period when the SUN even came out! And then it was gone again, and we were back to the grey and the dreary. The time flew by until maybe the last half hour when we were walking back to land. That’s when I realized how tired my legs were, and every anvil-laden step was a struggle. When we finally got to take our crampons off, my feel practically floated off the ground.

Me and Mike on the glacier
Me and Mike in a winter wonderland
A glacier river
Try to tell me that we haven’t left the planet. Those glowing blue spots on the mound? Spacey.
The largest glacier lake we saw
Glacier lake. This was the coolest. Like in temperature… HAHA I know I’m not funny. But ignore me and just enjoy the awesomeness of this lake like wut.
The glacier in the sun
Enjoying our 5 seconds of sun!
Glacier river in the distance
Glacier river with tiny speck people for scale (can you even see them? Kind of near the middle of the picture)
Waterfall near the glacier
Waterfall on the way back to basecamp #2

Of course, we still weren’t completely finished. We had to trek back to basecamp #2 and then basecamp #1 and finally to the cabins at the beginning where we got to sit inside and wait for the rest of the group to get back. I was thrilled to have a chance to sit indoors, take off my winter jacket, and eat some snacks. We barely ate all day because we were supposed to have lunch on the glacier, but the weather was so bad that no one wanted to stop.

The highlight of the day? Eating the chocolate cake that I brought for lunch dessert (the best way to end a day of hiking!). The second highlight of the day? Walking on a glacier. Kidding. Reverse those, but the cake comes in a VERY close second.

When we got back to town, we went straight to the grocery store to finish shopping for the upcoming leg of our trip. We were headed to Chile the next morning for a 4-day trek, so we needed to buy all of our food for the next 4 days. If it was just me, I would have taken 4 days’ worth of cake, but Mike eats too much. We’d never have been able to fit enough cake in our bags to feed him.

HOW ARE YOU REAL, MR. GLACIER???

At the beginning of our trip, if you’d asked Tony what one thing he was most excited to see, he would have said, without a moment of hesitation, Diamond Beach. The interesting thing about his obsession was the fact that he didn’t seem to know much about it. Mike and I asked why it’s called Diamond Beach, and his response was “because it’s beautiful. Like a diamond.” Thanks, Tony. So, off we went to Diamond Beach, knowing nothing more about it than its name… which Tony insisted on repeating over and over and over until I was ready to throw him out of the car, and Mike banned him from mentioning it again until we got there (under the threat that if he heard the words “Diamond Beach” one more time, we were turning around and going back to Reykjavik. Tony wisely kept his mouth shut after that).

We had some good driving views…
It doesn’t even look real.

We got on the road after a brief stop at a waterfall near our campsite, Systrafoss, located in the forest of Kirkjubæjarklaustur. It wasn’t much more than a trickle when we were there, and I probably could have skipped telling you about it, but then I wouldn’t have gotten to type Kirkjubæjarklaustur and given you another opportunity to appreciate the names of Iceland.

Okay, so maybe “trickle” was a bit of a down-sell, but compared to most of the other waterfalls we saw, this IS a trickle!

Next stop, DIAMOND BEACH! The mystery of the name was solved pretty quickly once we got there. It’s a black sand beach, and thanks to the nearby glacier lake, it’s covered with glacier pieces that wash up on the beach after drifting out to sea. There are pieces of all different sizes, and many of them form into abstract ice sculptures that sparkle in the sunlight as they melt. We had fun imagining what the different pieces looked like (it’s like cloud animals, glacier edition) and taking ridiculous pictures with them.

Diamonds! And you can see the other side of the beach across the outlet from the glacier lake
Tony, thrilled to be at Diamond Beach
Ice sculpture! I think this one looks like a baby ice dragon.
Mike pulling Tony on an ice sleigh
So cool!
Can you find me?
Ice hat. There was a hole all the way through.
I have to give Mike the credit for this picture… He was so committed that he practically lay down on the ground for it. This one looks like maybe a dragon or maybe a pegasus.
Adventures in self-timer
I couldn’t get enough.
Getting his tan on

When Tony was satisfied with his Diamond Beach experience, we walked upstream to the glacier lake, Jökulsárlón. It was very pretty. I’m not sure what else to say about it, but it’s a lake… full of ice. And there’s a part that runs out to the sea, giving the future beach diamonds a way out. When we were finished staring at the lake, we paused to watch some little ice pieces that were trying to make a run for the freedom of the sea but were blocked by larger ones. We were completely sucked in by the action and cheered for one little ice as it struggled to break free. I imagine this is what Icelanders did in their free time pre-television. Maybe it’s also like the Icelandic equivalent of horseraces (but MUCH slower). You can put your money on an ice chunk, and whichever one successfully reaches the ocean first, wins. I’m a genius.

The glacier escape route (looking towards the glacier lake)
Walking up to the lake. This was the location of the big roadblock that the little ice pieces had to make it past in order to reach the ocean.
Craziness.
The classic Mike-drinks-freezing-cold-water picture
So pretty!
Whoa!
It looks like a partly melted slushie

Before we got back on the road, we decided to check out the other side of Diamond Beach too (on the other side of the outlet coming from the lake) because, despite Tony having no idea what he was talking about, he was right about it being beautiful.

My expression for basically the entire Diamond Beach adventure
Mike on ice
I love that you can see the waves crashing into the ice
Seriously… can you believe this is real? It’s like a precious gemstone… a MASSIVE precious gemstone
Boots, rocks, and little ice pieces
Crash!
So many diamonds!
Turned our backs on the ocean…

Diamond Beach was as far east as we were going, so when we finished there, we started back in the direction of Reykjavik. There were a few places we wanted to stop at on the way back, but we were also scouring google maps as we drove to see if there were other things nearby that might be worth checking out. One such discovery was Svínafellsjökull, another stick-out part of a much bigger glacier. The glacier that it’s a part of is called Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Iceland. I quickly decided that visiting Svínafellsjökull was worth the detour x100000. We hiked up a ridge along the side, and it was breathtaking. I would have been happy to hike way farther than we did, but Mike and Tony were keen to keep moving. We walked until we were past all of the other people, at least, before turning around. Even with just that quick stop, it’s probably one of my favorite things we saw.

The road to Svínafellsjökull
Svínafellsjökull! Pretty sure the first words out of my mouth were, “You have GOT to be kidding me.”
Little speck Lara and speck Tony with ginormous Svínafellsjökull
Lara and the majestic glacier
Mike being Mike
Tony!
Sibling pic 🙂
I know, you’ve seen enough… but come on. This is crazy!!!
This picture is pretty funny. Can you find Mike? Can you find me?
Just one more! Hehe

Our next planned stop was Vatnajökulsþjóðgarður, or Vatnajökull National Park. Mike and Tony were hoping to do some of the hikes there, but unfortunately, our visit wasn’t timed very well for hiking season. Most of the trails were closed for the season with an opening date of May 1, and we were there in mid-April (now you can see how far behind I am… oops). That was a bummer, but at least we could still hike to Svartifoss, another famous waterfall. This one has hexagonal troll rocks like the ones we saw at Reynisfjara beach, but at Svartifoss, they’re mostly hanging down instead of coming up from the ground.

Our classic Iceland lunch – PB (&J for Mike) with the most hideous backdrop
First peek of Svartifoss
Smiling because the weather was warn enough (for about 5 minutes) to wear short sleeves.
Check out those troll rocks! Maybe they’re hanging here because they’re troll bats that forgot to retreat into their caves before the sun came up.
It was actually (kind of) hot out, so I took off my top layer of pants and was left with these leggings. Mike made fun of me because he said my outfit was ridiculous. I think I look fantastic. Check out that color coordination!

We made one more unplanned stop on our way to the campground for the night. This was another “there are lots of people over there so maybe we should see what they’re looking at” moment. Well, it was clear what they were looking at: a couple of massive, mangled steel girders. What wasn’t immediately clear was why they were there and what was so interesting about them.

Remember how I talked about how there are volcanoes under the glaciers? There are also some sub-glacial lakes that are maintained by the volcanic heat. One such lake, Grímsvötn, is beneath the glacier Vatnajökull. It cycles between slowly filling and eventually releasing the water in a mega-flood. In 1996, there was a volcanic eruption that accelerated the fill cycle, melting 0.75 mi3 (3 km3) of ice in just 13 days. The lake was filled higher than ever before in recorded history, and the resulting mega-flood was incredibly destructive. The flood waters carried glacier pieces along with them, some weighing as much as 1000-2000 tons. TONS!

The mangled steel girders that we were looking at used to be part of a bridge that clearly didn’t fare so well, despite being designed to withstand mega-floods. It had deep foundations and allowed about 6m clearance for glacier pieces to pass underneath, but in this instance, it would have needed more than twice that height to be safe. The result? Well, the beams speak for themselves…

That is NOT a small or weak beam. Imagine the force that was needed to do this! And it was all natural! Crazy, amazing, and a little terrifying

We made our way to that night’s campground, set up the tent, and played card games before falling asleep. Mike and Tony were hoping to do a long, waterfall-filled hike the next day, so we needed all the sleep we could get!

Campsite for the night

Continued from the previous post

Our next stop was to see a glacier! I was excited because it was our first one of the trip. We weren’t sure if it was worth stopping just to take a look, but we figured why not? The glacier is called Mýrdalsjökull (jökull = glacier), and we went to this one part that sticks out a bit called Sólheimajökull. At least that’s what I think the situation is with the names, but honestly it’s a little hard to keep track, especially with all of the crazy Icelandic names. Mýrdalsjökull is on top of Iceland’s largest volcano, Katla, which is due for an eruption anytime. The big eruption in 2010 that sent ash all over Europe was from a smaller volcano nearby… and usually, the eruption of one leads to the eruption of the other within a decade. Katla is very closely monitored because even minor eruptions can result in major flooding from the glacier melt.

Me with Sólheimajökull! Mýrdalsjökull, the full glacier, is the 4th largest in Iceland.

I thought the glacier was awesome, but we were pretty far away so we didn’t get the full effect. It would have been cool to do some glacier hiking or whatever it’s called. I’ll have to add that to my list of things to do when I go back to Iceland one day!

Mike, me, and Tony
Sibling pic on some petrified trolls. Mike said I could go on a higher one so that I could be taller for once. Thanks, Mike.

This is where the craziness of Iceland’s landscape diversity comes in… We were at a glacier, and then 30 minutes later, we were on the beach. Reynisfjara is a black sand beach, but the really cool thing is the rock formations there. They look like a bunch of pencils bundled together and sticking up at different heights. There are two options for how they were formed:

  1. The columns are trolls that were turned to stone when they were caught outside at dawn.
  2. They’re basalt columns (basalt is one of the rocks formed by lava). They’re formed when lava cools and contracts, making hexagonal rocks.

Guess which option I prefer.

It was more of a pebble beach than a sand beach. The ground looks super cool!
Mike holding up the entire cave with his super strength

There’s also a cave at the beach which, of course, has a name of its own: Hálsanefshellir. The rock formations in there are similar to the petrified trolls, but since it’s a cave, they’re coming in from all directions instead of being just straight up and down. I think we got lucky because we were there at low-ish tide, so we could get into the cave. It was still a bit of an adventure because we had to run towards the ocean as the water retreated to get to the other side of the troll rocks and then run away as the waves came back in, re-separating the two parts of the beach. And, we had to watch out for sneaker waves…

I love all the shades of blue and grey in the water and the sky
Inside the cave
Tony and Mike messing around
Full view looking out from the cave

Sneaker waves are basically waves that are much bigger and come much farther into shore than the others, hence the “sneaker” part of the name because they can sneak up on you. The concept of sneaker waves is not at all funny… people have died from getting swept out to sea by the strange and unpredictable tides. We were quite entertained by the signs though, and the fact that they’re called sneaker waves never fails to make me giggle.

The sign says:
DANGER
– Very dangerous sea currents
– Deadly sneaker waves
– Never turn your back on the ocean
– Supervise children
The graphic in the middle shows the danger zone close to the waves that you should avoid, the light blue ones are “ordinary waves” and the dark blue ones above are “deadly sneaker waves”.
To the right, it gives information about a tourist death due to the waves.

I kept imagining someone standing on the beach with a big cartoon wave behind them, tapping them on the shoulder… Surprise! The signs tell you to “never turn your back on the ocean!” We had a lot of fun yelling that at each other. And then we turned our backs on the ocean a couple times (unintentionally!) and found ourselves sprinting up the beach to avoid getting soaked by surprise waves. So that’s what we get for not listening. (Strongly recommend that you heed the signs.)

Standing at the edge of a foamy wave, definitely keeping one eye out for sneaker waves…
Mike doing some earthbending
I found the perfect spot to protect me from the sneaker waves!
Cool rocks near the cave
There are also some rock formations out in the water, Reynisdrangar. In typical Iceland fashion, each of the three rocks also has its own name because why not. They are the remains of two trolls who went to help tow in a large ship… and then the dawn came and petrified the trolls AND the ship. Trolls must be extinct considering how many rock formations are attributed to their failure to keep track of time.
Hooray for black sand beaches!

We had a little more driving to do before we got to our campsite for the night, but we still had plenty of daylight (thank you, super long days). We’d hit all the major destinations for the day, so we consulted Aunt Judy’s list of notes to give us some ideas for a few more stops to make along our route.

On our way to see a cave from her list, we passed a sign marking the start of a hike on Hjörleifshöfði mountain. I have no idea what convinced us to do it, but we had some time and why not? Okay, I’ll take the blame. I didn’t think it seemed that long. In the end, I’d say that at least 50% of it was underwhelming mostly because the entire world was brown (it’s probably fab in the summer), but in terms of Icelandic history significance, it wasn’t a complete bust! We trekked across the treeless mountain, through mud and snow and little ground plants, until we finally reached the top of the mountain where there’s supposed to be an amazing view of the surroundings… and guess what? A heavy fog set as we were approaching the top, so we couldn’t see anything except the faint outline of some strange stone structure.

Looking back at the path as we climbed up
Mike surfing a dirt wave on a dirt surfboard
Multicolored mud
So. Weird.
Ground plants!
Mike paying his respects

It turned out to be a Viking graveyard! This is one of those situations where we wouldn’t have been surprised if we had done ANY research or had even just read the signs before starting the hike because it’s kind of a big deal. Oops. Hjörleifur Hróðmarsson is buried there, the “second settler of Iceland”. His brother was Ingólfur Arnarson, the first settler. Hjörleifur only survived one year on Iceland before he was killed by his slaves. He was avenged by his brother, and apparently, the mountain is now haunted by him… add that to the list of things we didn’t know. Maybe that explains the fog.

The graveyard itself was very confusing. There was this big cylinder/cone thing that was next to the plot of land where the graves were. I thought maybe it was some weird Viking burial thing since it didn’t seem to serve any obvious purpose, but turns out it’s a marker built by Danish surveyors.
Hjörleifur’s grave
Family plot from some more recent inhabitants of the mountain with Hjörleifur’s grave mound in the background

Finally, as we started to walk down from the gravesite, the fog cleared and we had a view of the seemingly endless lava fields stretching in every direction. The mountain we were on must have dropped out of the sky because it’s the only one in the area, and around it is flat, flat, flat.

Going down
Mike and Tony, thrilled to be here
The top of the mountain was weird
Lava fields stretching to forever

On the way back to the car, we passed some ruins/old foundations of two farms. The former farm inhabitants are buried on a plot next to Hjörleifur. I thought the whole thing was kind of cool. Mike and Tony were probably just trying to figure out why they’d listened to me about the hike. Sorryyy.

Farmhouse ruins
Walking back down into the valley
Hjörleifshöfði cave

Since we were already so close, we did stop by our original target (2 hours later…) Hjörleifshöfði cave. It was probably worth a quick stop, but at that point, I think we were all tired and hungry and slightly grumpy. After a brief poke around, we headed to the campsite for another much-needed sleep on the cold, hard ground. This night was extra cold. Ugh.

Little caves along the base of Hjörleifshöfði mountain
Our car outside of the cave. Doesn’t this look like a car ad?