Diamond Beach and Glaciers Galore

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

Swimming Pools and More Waterfalls

Where’s the best place to start off your day after sleeping on the cold, hard ground? In a HOT TUB! Thanks to Iceland’s abundance of geothermal heat, there are naturally heated swimming pools all over the place. One of the reasons Mike picked our particular campsite for our first camping night was because it’s in a town (Hveragerði) with a naturally heated pool (Laugaskarð Swimming Pool), and you can pay ~US$9 (not super cheap but very reasonable comparatively) to go in and use the pool and hot tubs. The pool was built in 1938, is Olympic length (50m), and most importantly, used to be the practice location of the Icelandic national swim team.

The pool. The hot tubs are out of view, hidden behind the building to the left. See the steam rising from the water? The lap pool was definitely cooler than the hot tubs, but personally I thought it was a little warm to swim in for more than a few laps.

Anyone who’s been to a swimming pool in Iceland will tell you that there are very specific locker room procedures. They totally have it down to a science. First, we had to leave our shoes upstairs to keep from tracking dirt/water into the locker rooms. Second, they don’t use chlorine in the pools, so you have to take, as the guy working there informed us, “a proper naked shower” before you go in. There are VERY aggressive signs in the locker room telling you 1. that you can’t take pictures while in the locker rooms and 2. what areas of the body to focus on while you’re taking your proper naked shower (privates, armpits, feet, and head). Third, you’re supposed to plan ahead somewhat because the only part of the locker room that should get wet is the shower area/space immediately outside the shower. I did NOT do this and had to run into the dry part of the locker room after showering to get my suit. Whoops. If anyone asks, I’m not the one who got water all over the floor.

Then, after you get out of the pool, you’re supposed to go back into the shower where you’ve thought ahead and stored your towel/shampoo/conditioner/soap in the little cubbies nearby so that you can shower and dry off before going into the dry changing area. Yeah, I also didn’t do that. In summary, I messed up the whole system, the entire locker room floor was dripped on by the time I left, and I was just happy that there weren’t other people present during my mess-up moments to judge me for my ignorance. (Mike and Tony weren’t so lucky and said that they were getting looks from their fellow locker roomers as they failed to follow proper procedures.) A woman came in as I was leaving, and I pretended that I wasn’t the reason why the entire floor was wet. The system is actually kind of genius… once you know what you’re supposed to do. Oops.

At the pool, Mike and Tony and I had very different ideas of what we wanted to spend our time doing. Tony and I were very pro-“sit in the hot tub and bake”. Mike wanted to swim laps so that he could pretend to be an Icelandic Olympian. Weirdo. There were a few different hot tubs, each marked with the water temperature. There was also a place where you could plunge into frigid water, and Tony and I watched in horror as some guy submerged his entire body. Please note that the air was NOT warm, and the only reason we were okay walking around in swimsuits was because our bodies were warmed up by the water. I think I would have turned into an ice sculpture if I got into the cold water and then tried to walk to the locker room.

Seljalandsfoss. I took this picture on our way out when the sky decided to clear up for about 5 minutes. It’s 197′ (60m) tall.

We all had a nice bake in the hot tubs, and after we were fully roasted, we took showers and headed out to start our adventure! That was the warmest I would feel for the rest of our trip… kidding. But seriously. Our first stop was Seljalandsfoss which is, that’s right, a waterfall. This one is cool because you can walk behind it. Remember when I said that waterproof clothing is a must? Yeah, this is why. We got completely soaked, but my top half was totally dry underneath my jacket (shout out to Andrea for lending me a waterproof jacket, without which I would have been completely miserable, no exaggeration).

The cave wall behind Seljalandsfoss. So many colors!

Seljalandsfoss with little speck Lara getting soaked behind it

Mike, me, and Tony after our drenching voyage behind the waterfall

It’s not very easy to see much of the waterfall without doing a little work…

A little farther into the park is another waterfall, Gljúfrafoss (or Gljúfrabúi). It’s mostly hidden behind a cliff, and there are two ways to see it. You can hike up to the top of the cliff to see it from above, or you can walk through a slot canyon/river and see it from below. We went to check it out from above first, but the best part was definitely going in to see it through the canyon. At first, I didn’t want to go because I thought that you had to wade through the water to make it there, and I still wasn’t completely confident in the waterproof-ness of my boots (I bought them in Armenia for $18, so despite the salesgirl’s assurances, I’m sure you can understand the reason for my doubts). Mike and Tony went ahead, and they said that there was a path of stones that you could walk on and make it most of the way, if not all, without even really getting your feet wet. Okay. Sure enough, it was no problem (though it did require some minor contortions), and I also started thinking that maybe my boots really were waterproof… talk about a bargain!

Standing in some very slippery mud… eek

View from the cliff

We hiked up to the top of the cliff first

Tony and Mike both crawled up to this crazy spot. I was happy to stick with mildly terrifying cliff #1

Mike with the falls

Another top-of-cliff view

You can’t get much more than a glimpse without doing some fancy footwork through the river

Not a great picture, but here’s me getting soaked by Gljufrafoss

Looking up from the rock. This was during the approximately 5 minutes of blue skies!

Looking out from the waterfall

Crossing the river on the way to Seljavallalaug

From there, we drove to another pool, Seljavallalaug, that’s also naturally heated, smells strongly of sulfur, and is one of the oldest pools in the country, built in 1923. It was built as a place to teach kids how to swim, obviously an important skill in a country surrounded by water and originally occupied by mainly fisherman. Today, swimming is a required subject in public schools.

Road views

Spooky, right?

Mike, making sure he doesn’t slip on the muddy path

We thought we might go in, but the water was all green with algae and it was more lukewarm than hot… so instead, we just looked at it and then hiked around the area a bit. It’s in a valley with another one of those crystal-clear rivers running through, aka it was hideous and I couldn’t stand looking at it. JUST KIDDING I WANTED TO LIVE IN IT. But it was NOT warm.

The valley

The pool… looking a little green

It looks like that pool just dropped out of the sky

Crystal clear waters! And me and Tony

The crew

Spot the Lara, doing her best not to totally eat it on the hike

Tony and I decided to take a page from Mike’s book for once and drink straight from the river. Great in theory, tricky in execution.

Tony taking his freezing sip of water

Mike successfully executing the push-up-style river drink. My upper body strength wasn’t interested in supporting this technique.

Spooky rocks

There were a bunch of people in the pool when we came back past on our way to the car, but I was VERY happy with our decision to skip it. I actually felt clean after the morning swim/shower. I didn’t want to mess that up so soon. We still had a long day ahead!

Your finger is probably ready to fall off from scrolling through so many pictures, so we’ll take a pause here so you can recover. There are just too many pictures to choose from!

To be continued…

The Golden “Circle”

One of the big tourist circuits in Iceland is called the “Golden Circle”. It primarily includes three sights to the east of Reykjavik, and it’s doable in a day trip which makes it popular for bus tours and people on long layovers. Now, don’t ask me why it’s called the Golden Circle because I certainly can’t explain that to you. I would assume that the “golden” part has something to do with the fact that these are major sightseeing destinations and one of them is called “Golden Falls”. Okay, I can get behind that. It’s really the “circle” part that I have an issue with. Please refer to the map below and tell me what shape you would use to describe the route.

This. Is. Not. A. Circle.

If you said “circle”, get out. I know it’s been a long time since I took geometry, but that is a LINE(ish). Some versions of the route include some other sights a little further south, but when the essentials are all in a line and the optional extras are what makes it a circle(ish), I think calling it a circle is a stretch. So, the conclusion of that completely necessary rant is that I will be unapologetically referring to our route as the Golden Line.

Mike and I planned to hit the Golden Line sights on our second day. I want to take this opportunity to give a HUGE shout out to my Aunt Judy because she was the MVP of our trip. The amount of planning that we put into this trip was far from ideal… it was close to zero. Anytime I tried to research, I was completely overwhelmed by information and quickly put off further efforts until “later” (a later that never came). Aunt Judy sent us her research notes from their trip to Iceland a few years ago, and those notes became our guidebook. We didn’t follow them completely, but at least we had a starting point to make sure we didn’t miss anything major.

Our day started later than planned. Mike wanted to leave at 8:30, and considering what time we went to bed the night before (we ate dinner at 10PM, so you can extrapolate from there), I had no confidence in that actually happening. Sure enough, we ended up leaving at closer to 9:30. The first stop on the tour was Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park.

Thingvellir, as I explained in the Iceland History post, is considered the founding location of Iceland. This is where the first parliament (the Althing) met back in the days of the chieftains, making laws and settling disputes. So historically, it’s a very important place for the Icelandic nation. We, of course, knew none of this when we arrived and had no idea what we were supposed to do there, so we parked the car (and paid for parking, so we were hoping it was worth it), pep-talked ourselves out of the car (it sounded like we were in the middle of a world-ending rainstorm), realized the weather wasn’t nearly as bad as it sounded from in the car, and went to do some exploring.

Our first glimpse of Thingvellir

I’m doing a great job of pretending that I’m not cold or getting rained on, right?

There was a nice view of the valley near our parking lot, and after reading the signs, we realized that another thing on Aunt Judy’s list, Öxarárfoss (waterfall… “foss” is the ending that they put on the name of a waterfall in Icelandic), was inside the park. Also, it’s another place situated between the two tectonic plates. We walked beneath the cliffs at the edge of the North American plate on our way to the waterfall. I guess that kind of means that we were on no-man’s land, floating between two continents. Weird. There are some places in the park where you can scuba dive between the plates. That would be crazy!

The land on the left is the edge of the North American plate

Walking through no-man’s land

Mike and me with Oxararfoss

We eventually made it to Öxarárfoss, our first of many waterfalls. Unlike most of the others we saw, Öxarárfoss is man-made! The Öxará River was re-routed hundreds of years ago to bring water closer to the meeting point of the Althing, and it flows over the edge of the North American plate. It’s basically a waterfall off the end of the earth! I thought it was pretty, and Mike liked it because he likes waterfalls that “have some substance”. None of those little trickle waterfalls for Mike!

On our way out of Thingvellir, we drove by the largest natural lake in Iceland, Þingvallavatn (Thingvallavatn. “vatn” is the usual ending on a name of a lake). It’s about 32mi2 (84km2) in area and is known for its crystal-clear water and monstrous fish. I don’t know much about fishing, but they say that it’s not uncommon to find trout over 20lbs (9kg)! The lake is in the valley between the two tectonic plates, and it sounds like a good place to explore if you want to feel like you’re swimming on another planet and enjoy being cold.

Thingvallavatn in the distance

If you prefer warm/scalding water, then you might be better suited to our next stop, Geysir. I bet you’ll never guess what that is. Yup, it’s a geyser! It might seem like the people who named Geysir aren’t very creative, but it’s actually the other way around. The English word “geyser” comes from its name and the Icelandic verb meaning “to gush”. Geysir is just one geyser in a much larger geothermal area, Haukadalur, but it is the oldest and most powerful, capable of sending 480oF (250oC) water over 230ft (70m) into the air. It is currently inactive, last erupting from 2000-2003 after it was temporarily reactivated by an earthquake. The big crowd-pleaser now is Strokkur, erupting every 8-10 minutes and shooting water about 100ft (30m) into the air.

First glimpses of the geothermal area

Before we checked out Strokkur, we admired the sleeping beast that is Geysir and a few other pools in the area. The water was beautiful. It’s so clear and so blue… and then you get a whiff of it, and the sulfur smell is overwhelmingly gross. But I was cold and in a constant internal conflict of whether I should stand in the steam to feel warm or if I should stay away from it because it reeked.

Konungshver hot spring. It started boiling vigorously – as in, water flying up to 1m high – after the earthquake that reawakened Geysir. There are boulders blocking its vent, so there’s a chance it could be a geyser if those were removed. Check out that water! So blue!

Don’t be fooled by this calm-looking pool. Here we have The Great Geysir (I didn’t just make that name up, that’s a real thing), just biding its time until another earthquake shakes it into action again.

We joined the crowds to watch Strokkur erupt a few times. The eruption is super cool, and while that’s not happening, it’s entertaining to just watch the people… everyone’s standing around staring at this steaming, bubbling pool, and anytime there’s the slightest change in movement, you can hear people bracing for the eruption. Then, when it’s finally time, it looks like a massive water orb is coming out of the pool, water shoots into the air, and you hear it raining down. When you really think about it, it’s baffling. No wonder people used to believe in all sorts of monsters and stuff because if you told me there was a whale-dragon hybrid living in the earth and superheating/spitting out water at that spot, I’d probably say that sounds like a reasonable explanation.

I spent equal time watching the people at Strokkur and watching the geyser. Everyone had their phones at-the-ready for an eruption at any second. I imagine there were a lot of 10-minute videos waiting for the 5-second eruption.

Strokkur!

Mike had fun touching all of the water… well, not all of it because some of it probably would have burned his hand off… but a lot of the water in various places and guessing whether it was going to be hot or cold. It was usually disappointingly cold, but we did touch the water runoff from right after the geyser erupted, and that was definitely hot.

Mike confirming the warmth of Strokkur’s runoff water. By the time it got to this point, it had plenty of time to cool down, so it wasn’t boiling hot anymore (lucky for Mike’s fingertips).

More hot springs in the area

The last big stop of the day was Gullfoss, another waterfall, as you can see by the name. Again, we knew nothing about it until we got there, but it’s “the Niagara Falls of Iceland”. There are signs determined to convince you that it’s even better than Niagara, but I’m going to say that they are both cool and there’s no need to choose a winner. Gullfoss is interesting because it has two tiers of waterfalls. The volume of water flowing is incredible, and it’s the same, beautiful, clear blue as the lakes. So darn pretty!

Gullfoss! When it’s not so icy, you can walk along a path that runs next to the waterfall. I guess that means we need to plan another trip (oh, darn), this time in the summer!

There were actually plans to build Iceland’s first hydroelectric power plant at Gullfoss, but the owner’s daughter, Sigríður, loved the waterfall and was determined to preserve it. She frequently walked to Reykjavic to gather support (75 miles or 120km) for her cause, and when it seemed that all hope was lost, she threatened to throw herself into the falls. Thanks to her efforts, Gullfoss was saved and eventually declared a national park, protected against any future development.

The second layer of the waterfall crashes down into this ravine.

I can’t get enough of that blue water!

So pretty so pretty so pretty!

One more Gullfoss story – there’s a sign that tells a 17th-century love story about a boy and girl who kept watch over sheep on opposite sides of the river above the falls. They also “kept a keen eye on each other”, and the girl asked the boy to cross over to her. Despite the strong currents, the boy made it across. The sign concludes the story by saying that “little is known about how the girl responded, except that they married and had many well-respected descendants”. Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m just happy that none of their descendants turned out to be disreputable. Phew.

Unlike the love story characters, we were more than happy to have a waterfall separating us 😆 hehe

The water that lover boy supposedly waded across.

The only stop left was our campsite for the night. It was still kind of early, but that was good because Mike got a new tent before the trip, and it was our first time setting it up outside (we did a test run in Tony and Alex’s apartment the night before). We spent our first hour at the campsite sitting in the car because we were cold and it was raining and we didn’t want to get out. Productive. Finally, we convinced ourselves that it would be best to get the tent up before dark. Of course, it was crazy windy and raining, and our attempts to be strategic and use the rain fly to keep the tent from getting wet while we were putting it up completely failed. Live and learn! We successfully assembled it (a task that included driving about 18 stakes into the ground) and then fled to the safety of the car again until Tony showed up. He was joining us for the next phase of the adventure, and we wanted to be able to leave straight from the campsite in the morning.

Mike and I grudgingly got out of the car again, and we piled into the tent and played card games until we were ready to fall asleep. Oh yeah, and it was dry inside, so despite our struggles, tent set-up attempt #1 was a success!

We did make ONE other stop – to see some Icelandic horses! I gave this one a little pat on the head. The Icelandic breed was developed to withstand the harsh Icelandic winters, and there are very few horse diseases on the island. That means the horses have basically no immunity to disease, so foreign horses aren’t allowed on Icelandic soil, and if an Icelandic horse leaves, it’s not allowed to come back. Even horse equipment is required to be new or thoroughly disinfected!

Our beautiful and spacious home.