9 April 2018 – Northern Iceland – Godafoss, Husavik, Asbyrgi Canyon to Lake Mývatn [Iceland]
We were in the North of Iceland and it was another impressive day of Icelandic scenery with the mighty Godafoss falls, the port-town of Husavik – the whale-watching capital of Iceland, and a visit to the magical Asbyrgi Canyon. We didn’t get through a day of driving in Iceland without some drama with road closures and back-tracking, but did eventually make it to Lake Mývatn in time to commune with some Icelandic horses and see the sun dip over a volcanic crater from our camp site. Just your average day motor homing in Iceland!
The itinerary for the day had us skirting the North of the country and then heading slightly inland. At over 260km and 4 hours of driving it was already a reasonable day of driving but as usual we were thrown a few curve balls. Here is our planned route for the day…..
We had spent the night camping in Akureyri, with the luxury of a (partially) open camp site and power. We were all awake by around 6.45am again. Even with the dark curtains and blinds in the motor home, the sun is sneaking in by 4.30am most mornings. After 3 nights we had gotten fairly used to the small beds and the cosy environment and all had a relatively good nights sleep, although we all complained about getting a bit warm. This was rather ironic as the outside temp was minus 10 degrees when we awoke. That explained why we hadn’t heard the heater turn off all night!
We had our standard Icelandic breakfast of freshly made porridge with treacle, and some coffee for the adults. Finally having water in the camp office (the main bathrooms were still closed for Winter) we had a quick wash in the bathrooms but skipped showers as there was a line up with the other campers and we’d managed to shower the day before at the pool, so felt relatively fresh by our camping standards.
As was our usual morning ritual we chucked the kids in their snow suits and let them loose outside while we did the dishes. For once we weren’t worried about water, as although we hadn’t gotten a hose connected at the campground, we had filled up our tank the night before at the service station and were planning to return and top up on the way out-of-town.
The campsite was on the hill overlooking Akureyri and had a whole playground area. The kids had a ball playing in a snow-covered playground!
They were the only kids at the camp site and had it to themselves. There was so much snow that we were sinking almost to our knees in many spots. The snow gear was coming in handy!
So far we’d been blessed with good Spring weather and again it was another lovely day – blue skies and only moderate winds, despite the freezing temperatures. With the motor home readied for the days driving, we managed to get away just before 9am, still significantly after most of the other campers who didn’t have to wrangle 2 small children.
Our first stop was the service station we’d found water the night before. Of course this morning we were out of luck. They’d removed the taps as the pipes freeze overnight. We should have realised this, so we were rather annoyed with ourselves. We still had most of our water tank but hadn’t refilled all our emergency supply as our hands had frozen when filling the night before. Nonetheless, our water supply was now off critical levels so it was time to get moving.
We were continuing to head clockwise around Iceland, today skirting the North of the country and heading East. We headed out of Akureyri in the opposite direction to what we had come in, crossing the bridge that spans the fjord Akureyri is on the edge of. On such a clear day there was a rather picturesque view back towards Akureyri and of the fjord.
Our first planned stop of the day was Godafoss the “waterfall of the Gods”, just off route 1. The waterfall was named when Iceland converted to Christianity in 1000. The legend says that when Þorgeir Þorkelsson, local chieftain and law speaker, made the tough decision to convert the country from the old Nordic gods to Christianity (in order to prevent war) he threw the old gods into the falls to symbolise the change to the new era.
It was around 45 minutes of driving before we reached Godafoss. Having mostly observed the weather from the comfort of the motor home, it didn’t look too cold, so we didn’t put gloves and beanies on to check out the waterfall as it was a short walk from the car park. This is the problem with the lack of trees, it’s often impossible to tell how strong the wind is, and it was both incredibly strong and freezing. With the spray billowing off the waterfall in a rather ferocious manner we just about all froze to death!
It was bitterly cold but the falls were impressive. There was still a lot of ice and snow around. The kids were somewhat freaked out by the fact that the top of the falls was not fenced off and was directly accessible. We’d done a good job in ensuring they were suitably scared about plunging to their death in a frozen waterfall, and they were happy to hold our hands and stand well back.
We’d originally planned to do a short hike back to the main road and across the bridge to the other side of falls, but the bitterly cold temperatures changed our minds and we headed to the warmth of the motor home and headed off for our next stop. We had another day with lots ofl sight-seeing stops and several hundred kilometres of driving to knock over, so it was best to keep moving before we froze to the spot.
Our next drive was around 50 minutes, with a planned stop in Húsavík. It was now day 4 on the road and the kids had been tired, and Astrid rather argumentative all morning. Luckily both kids fell asleep pretty promptly, enjoying some sunny nap time on the trek into Húsavík.
We were driving the Northern coast of Iceland, on the edge of the Arctic circle. We’d concluded that this was most definitely the furthest North on the globe any of us had been!
Húsavík is nestled on the edge of Skjálfandi Bay, the town of around 2,000 people is globally recognised as one of the best locations in the world from which to watch whales. In fact, there is a higher chance of seeing whales in Húsavík than any other place in Iceland. The reason for such a high percentage of whales in this area is the thriving ecosystem in the bay. Melting snow and rivers bring nutrients from mineral-rich locations which, leads to masses of plankton, the main source of food for baleen whales.
We’d been quite keen to take a whale watching tour with one of the multiple companies running tours from Húsavík, but our internet research the night before indicated that the off-season times were probably not going to work very well with our itinerary for the day. Sure enough when we arrived, there were no tours at a time that would allow us to get anywhere near the day’s itinerary completed. It was a bit of a shame since it was a freezing but rather beautiful day. Soren was also devastated that it was also a fraction early for the Puffin tours (the Puffins were due in for nesting within a week of our stay in Iceland). No puffins and no whales made for unhappy kids.
Luckily, Húsavík was a very pretty town and we took a walk through to stretch our legs and grab a coffee. We discovered a bakery that was selling all sorts of Icelandic baked treats and the kids scored a large cinnamon scroll like donut laden with caramel. It had a rather unpronounceable Icelandic name, but along with some coffees made for a good sugar hit as we wandered back down to the wharf.
This far North, and in off-tourist season, we pretty much had the place to ourselves. It was still below zero but we were obviously becoming acclimatised, wandering about the snow-covered streets relatively unphased by the arctic temperatures. There were plenty of boats for the kids to check out, but again no water available at any of the supermarkets or petrol stations.
You can see there is plenty of ice still in the water!
Back in the motor home and we were heading off along the North coast of Iceland. Again the scenery was spectacular. Today we managed to see plenty of spots the ocean was still frozen, not something you see all that often!
The roads had been fairly good today but there was again a lack of traffic and plenty of snow and ice. After another hour of driving we reached Ásbyrgi Canyon. It was now after 1pm so we decided to stop in the visitor centre car park and make some lunch before heading into the Canyon for some hikes.
Our lunch was hot dogs and cuppa-soups while we felt the horrendous winds rocking the motor home. The wind making the whole van vibrate was not making us feel all that inspired about our hike but some warm food did help. The kids had become big fans of Icelandic hot dogs!
We made the short drive from the visitor centre down to the Canyon. The Ásbyrgi Canyon, a gigantic, anomalous, horseshoe-shaped rock formation. Ásbyrgi stands guard next to the northern entrance to the 35km long Jokulsa Canyon. According to Norse mythology, the rock formation of Ásbyrgi was formed by the hoofprint of Slippy (Sleipnir), Odin´s eight-legged horse. Slippy must have been a fairly large horse, as the ‘hoofprint’ of Ásbyrgi is about 3.5km in length and 1.1km wide. Odin was pretty much the main God in Norse mythology, so it makes sense he’d have an impressive steed, but the towering 100m vertical cliffs look like something to ward off the White Walkers in Game of Thrones, with the footprint so large you need a helicopter to photograph it. So, perhaps imagining this area in terms of horses doesn’t really do the place justice. Other legends say Ásbyrgi is the capital of the hidden people or Huldufólk, Iceland´s answer to elves. Psychics claim to be able to see their cities and they are said to inhabit the cracks here.
As we drove through the snow-covered road, there were no other people to be seen and no other vehicles parked in the Canyon car park.
Unlike in the visitor centre car park there was barely any wind inside Ásbyrgi, and although cold and full of snow it was beautiful walking around. There are plenty of marked trails with short loops from just 30 minutes, to tougher 7 hour hikes. We decided to follow some of the signs and trudged through the snow, checking out the information signs along the trail, indicating different fauna and flora throughout the canyon. The canyon is home to nesting ravens and ptarmigan, as well as rare species such as the Arctic Fox and Gyrfalcon. We could hear plenty of birds calling and saw falcons circling above the canyon edge.
You’ll notice there are trees! The woodlands surrounding this area are one of the few examples of how Icelandic ‘forests’ once were, with expansive shrubberies composed of various types of willow and birch.
Sadly, it’s not only common sense which contests the idea of Slippy the giant horse, as geologists also hypothesise a slightly different idea. It’s a little less mysterious, but they claim it’s the result of massive glacial flooding, which occurred when a volcano erupted underneath the Vatnajökull ice cap, thousands of years ago. When looking at the bizarre shape, this can be a little difficult to believe as well. But, the water didn’t carve the rocks into the current shape, it merely washed the soil away that surrounded them. Further evidence lies in the flat plain that stretches out toward the bay, which is similar to those found in the south of Iceland, formed by the same activity.
As we explored the canyon we came across a frozen waterfall, not as impressive as this mornings visit to Godafoss, but still interesting! In the giant canyon we felt like tiny lego people……
There was a viewing platform for the waterfall and it appeared that underneath was a lake, still frozen over but we decided not to wander off the trail and test exactly how frozen it was!
We all thoroughly enjoyed our hike through the canyon, it was a little different to anything else we’d experienced in Iceland to date. Our plan was to head inland in a loop from Ásbyrgi towards Lake Mývatn via the giant waterfalls of Detifoss and Selfoss. This was supposed to be a 50 minute drive before we hit the falls and did another hike.
Our research before the trip indicated that there are 2 roads into the falls, one running either side of the gorge and the falls. There is no way across without a lot of driving back to the main road and back in another 30-40km the other way. After our experience of unsealed roads earlier in the week we’d decided to go with the road that was mostly sealed and then a slightly shorter drive from the falls to Lake Mývatn. Of course we got to the turn-off and the road was still closed for Winter, and had been thoroughly blocked off. This had not been noted in any of the trip research we’d done. I then consulted the paper maps and they did indeed indicate that the road was often only accessible during the Summer months, although the exact dates varied depending on weather. If the mostly sealed road was closed, we knew the unsealed one was also going to be blocked (as was confirmed by the map).
Our plans were now in disarray. I’d been looking forward to the falls and we still had to figure out how to get to Lake Mývatn, our overnight stop and the location for our next days activities. Some cross-checking between the Garmin, google maps and the paper maps showed that the only way was back up around the coast, through Húsavík and then turn inland, approaching Lake Mývatn from the other side. A total of 1.5 hours driving and at least 100km of back-tracking. There was absolutely no other option as looking at the paper maps there weren’t even F-roads in the area and the terrain was full of large canyons, gorges, mountains and snow. Back around the coast it was!
On the upside the scenic drive around the coast was pretty heading in the other directio,n and we got to spend the time looking at the blue water, dotted with ice and surrounded by icy cliffs. There were a number of geothermal power stations in the area and silicon plants. The coast is easily accessed by sea and the silicon plants supply most of Europe.
Some googling while driving (despite the fact we were in the middle of nowhere, we generally had at least 3G if not 4G coverage on our phones at most times, Australia take note) and consulting of the paper maps indicated we could still get to the falls from the Lake Mývatn side, on mostly sealed roads. It would also only add a small amount of driving to the itinerary but could be fitted into day 5 of our Iceland adventure on the way to the East coast.
Unfortunately this way into Lake Mývatn also involved some unsealed road (although thankfully it was open). The now familiar, but unwelcome sight, of single-lane, pot-hole laden road stretched out for kilometres ahead of us…….
The area surrounding Lake Mývatn, a 37 square kilometre lake in the North of Iceland, has the highest concentration of volcanic and geothermal sights in Iceland. As we approached Lake Mývatn, we could clearly see the Hverfjall Cinder Cone appearing on the horizon. Most definitely still covered in snow…….
The landscape in the Lake Mývatn area is very different to what we’d seen in the West and North so far. Like the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, there are a lot of sights in a relatively small geographic area. We had most of the following day to explore the Lake Mývatn area, but were keen to do a little more sight-seeing that afternoon to free up time to fit the missed waterfalls the following day
We managed to reach our campsite for the night by 4.15pm and not only were they open but they had water! We booked into the camp and decided to do a little more sightseeing in the surrounding area.
Our first stop was to the be the Hverfjall Cinder Cone around, 2km away. It is hard to miss from anywhere in the area and was clearly visible from our campsite. We drove down and found some very friendly Icelandic horses right near the turn off to the crater, so of course we decided to stop for a pat. The horses were right near the fence, and happy to give us a lick. The kids were rather excited……….
Hverfjall Cinder Cone is thought to be around 2800 years old and is a bare and symmetrical crater. It is about 140 meters deep and 1km in diameter which makes it one of the largest of its kind in the world. In Summer you can drive on the access road to the crater parking lot and it’s around a 60 minute hike up and around the crater. Of course we discovered the road was closed due to snow melt and the hike was 1.5 hours return to the parking lot, and then the crater walk on top. There were a few other hikers returning and judging from the look on their faces and the late hour, we figured it was a bad idea to even attempt it today, especially with the kids in tow.
Instead we admired the cinder cone from our parking spot and figured we’d head off to the next activity.
Our next stop was just down the road at the Skutustadir Pseudocraters. These pseudocraters were formed by when hot lava flowed over the wet marsh area causing steam explosions. The pseudocraters are on the shores of Lake Mývatn and you can do some hikes through the craters and around the lake.
As we drove through the area it was rather spectacular. The views from the road were fabulous, but we couldn’t find anywhere to stop!
We eventually found a small parking area and headed off on a bit of a snow hike. The sign-posting was pretty non-existent so we had no idea whether we were on one of the short or long trails. It was pretty chilly out and there was quite a bit of wind coming off the lake and Soren was starting to get rather cold….
After awhile we decided to turn around and head back as Soren had reached his limit. We jumped back in the motor home and drove to the next viewing area for great shots of the sun starting to dip in the sky over the lake and pseudocraters.
We were only a few minutes drive from the campsite, so headed back and found a park. There were actually other campers, although we weren’t exactly fighting for space. Again we were the only motor home, but there were several camper vans. The camp site was adjacent to a pizza restaurant but at $50 AUD for a pizza that wouldn’t have fed 2 of us, we opted to cook ourselves eggs, toast, sausages and mushrooms for dinner. The camp being open meant showers for the night, which was exciting, until the kids realised the geothermally heated water stunk of sulphur so we were all smellier than when we got in!
With water available we refilled our tank and our emergency bottles. In no doubt about it being cold out, our boot laces froze while we were trying to fill water!
Still, power, water, showers and views like this from our motor home, made for another pleasant end to another scenic day in Iceland……
We had parked facing the crater, hoping for an awesome location to shoot some Northern Lights (the aurora forecast was reasonable for the night). Again though we managed to get an amazing sunset but no aurora. We couldn’t complain too much though!
Daily statistics for Monday the 9th of April in the North of Iceland – The temperature range in Akureyri was a chilly start of minus 10 degrees. Húsavík was a brisk minus 6 to 6 degrees (and about 1 degree while we were there). The Ásbyrgi Canyon was between 0 and 2 degrees during our visit and Lake Mývatn was 4 degrees by the time we reached it and dropped to minus 9 that night!
The total walking for the day was 8.3km, a better days effort despite the driving. Speaking of driving, we’d planned around 260km, but with the back-tracking due to closed roads and driving around Lake Mývatn the total driving for the day was over 330km or around 5.5 hours.
Up next – exploring the geothermal sights of Lake Mývatn, with mud pits, steam vents and volcanic craters. Plus the amazing waterfalls of Dettifoss and Selfoss before heading East and finally catching that aurora!