Iceland’s Rift, Parliament, and a Drive to the Fjords

This is part of a set of posts on a trip to Iceland by our family of 5.

Our third day in Iceland was going to take us further north.  We had traveled our furthest east the day before, to see Jokulsarlon, glaciers, and the Black Waterfall, Svartifoss.  Today we were packing our bags, leaving our comfortable farm cottage and heading north to Grundarfjordur.  We were going to stop in at the Haifoss (high + waterfall) and catch the last of the Golden Circle attractions, Thingvellir.

We made another early-ish start, as we didn’t know how long it would take to get to Haifoss.  It is a bit off the beaten track and we were learning that, with so many smaller roads, it often meant that not only were you going at slower-than-North American highway speeds, but you inevitably weren’t going 80 or 90 kilometers an hour at the best of times.

Almost as soon as we’d left Stora-Mork, we stopped at a waterfall that we’d passed nearly every day.  Seljalandsfoss is about 100 yards from Highway 1 at the turn in to Markarsvegur, just south of the Markarfljot.  There are two waterfalls nearly side by side here, Seljalandsfoss and Gljufurarfoss.  There is a big parking lot for the first and we were early enough that there was no-one else there.

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The cold weather and the shade due to being on a north-facing wall meant that the waterfall and surrounding area were covered in ice.  A stair that is supposed to take you behind the waterfall was absolutely caked in ice but everywhere had a solid coating.  It was not slippery in most places, although I’m sure a tumble wouldn’t have been a good start to the day.  We had a good nose around and then headed north.

The High Foss – or Not

We drove north into increasingly rural areas after having skirted some of the bigger towns – Selfoss, Hvollsvollur – on the west coast.  As we headed inland, there were houses, what appeared to be ranches, and not much else.  This wasn’t too surprising, since we knew this was off the beaten track.

In fact, we never saw Haifoss.  It is so far off the beaten track that we couldn’t get close enough.  The guide books discuss a service road that will take you close to the top of the falls, within a half kilometer of the waterfall.  But when we found the service road, it was a terrifically rutted gravel road even though it started off quite smooth.  By the time we had gone about a half mile and passed a pair of small huts, the road became very rutted and pitted and we decided to turn back.  This entailed reversing about 200 yards back down the incline to the huts, and turning around in the space in front of them.

A convenience store had all the fundamentals for transportation in Iceland: horse shoes and motor oil

A convenience store had all the fundamentals for transportation in Iceland: horse shoes and motor oil

Our first major setback, we headed on to Thingvellir, which promised to be easier to access even if it was mad with tourists.  As one of the most important sites in Iceland – home of the Law Rock and the site of the oldest parliament, let alone the geologic rift – we knew there would be plenty to see.

Parliament and the Law Rock

The drive to Thingvellir took us back over land we’d already traversed and is part of the most commonly discussed tourist activity, the Golden Circle.  At one point we thought the Golden Circle meant driving around the whole country.  In fact, it’s a hasty swing through the area about an hour east of Reykjavik and takes in three major sites:  Gullfoss, Geysir, and Thingvellir.  I realize the appeal of something simple, particularly if you don’t have access to a car.  But the ease of driving in Iceland, never mind their bus service, makes me think that most people would see more if they took their transportation into their own hands.

Thingvellir has a nice information centre where we oriented ourselves.  It is at the northern end of a plain that leads out to the Thingvallavatn (vatn=lake, also water on sauce and noodle packets).  You can walk or drive south from the visitor centre less than a mile to walk into the Almannagja fault, one of the few places on Earth where a tectonic rift appears above the ocean.

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We had hoped to visit Reykholt, the home of Snorri Sturluson, but time got away from us.  There are two Reykholt’s in Iceland – the one south of Thingvellir is not the one you want to visit to learn about Snorri, believed to be the author of one of the most important books in Icelandic history, the Prose Edda.  In order to get to our cottage for the evening, we would need to drive straight north and try to visit Reykholt on our return south.

Pining for the Fjords

We selected Grundarfjordur because of its northerly location, although still not as far north as you can go in Iceland.  The goal was to get ourselves as close to Snaefellsjokull and the National Park so that we could visit it and go for a hike.  Our route took us north through the remarkable tunnel that goes under the “Whale Fjord”, Hvalfjordur.  It is worth the money to go through the tunnel, which saves you nearly an hour in driving around the fjord.

Borganes is a good sized town at the junction of Highway 1 and Highway 54, which is the main highway around the peninsula we were driving to.  It is the home of the Settlement Center, which looks at the Viking settlements of Iceland.  We were not able to visit this museum – and hadn’t planned to – but learned about it from Icelanders who thought very highly of it.  If we had planned for more time in the Borganes area, this would probably have been worth seeing.

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Our route took us further north and again into rather sparse, pastoral areas.  We saw large herds of the famous Icelandic horses and took some photos.  One walked up that had a dark coat and very blond hair and we dubbed her “Lady Gaga” because the mane fell very dramatically over her head, and she appeared to toss it for effect!

There were also some small volcanic craters that we passed, but not close enough to clamber over.  The fields were green as we drove north but as soon as you reached the mountains, there was snow.  We started over the pass on Highway 56, which connects Vegamot (which became Vegemite for us) to Highway 54 on the north side of the peninsula.  There was supposed to be a gas station at Vegamot, but it was either closed for the season or permanently.  It was a good reminder that, although we were well off for fuel having filled up in Borganes, you should grab it when you see it in case the fuel sources on the map are wrong.

Eldborg crater with Hafursfell in distance behind.

Eldborg crater with Hafursfell in distance behind.

The snow had blown heavily up here and although it wasn’t currently falling, the road was very difficult to see.  There were few guardrails to help you see the twists and turns of the road so it meant slowing down to a crawl as we headed up and over.  It was clear the road crews had been across but it was still a bit hairy for the end of the day.

Berserkerhraun, the Berserker lava field

Berserkerhraun, the Berserker lava field.  It’s on the northern edge of the peninsula, on your left as you turn east towards Grundarfjordur.

We turned west towards Grundarfjordur towards the end of daylight and were getting a bit concerned about finding our cottage.  We drove along through town looking for the street name and number and didn’t find it.  Grundarfjordur is not that large and once we’d been through all the way one way and all the way back the other, I asked directions.  The woman walking her dog spoke excellent English, naturally, and pointed to our cottages were further out the northwest side of town, on a rise called Cathedral mountain.

But it wouldn’t be that easy.  We arrived at the cottages – there were two – and parked in front of the one we had reserved on Bungalo, a site that makes hiring self-catering cottages very easy.  The door was locked and there was no-one about.  We looked about a bit for a key and then drove back into town.  It was a bit disconcerting since our phones weren’t connecting to the number we had and we couldn’t find a pay phone.  In the end, we found a hotel that had a phone and called our cottage owner.  She had unlocked the other cottage and left the key in the lock for us!  So we drove back to the cottages, went to the second one, and sure enough, we were able to walk right in.

halsabol-cottage-grundarfjordur-in-shadow-of-cathedral-mountain-snow-winter-iceland We would have a well-earned rest after another weary day of driving and our last day before returning to Reykjavik tomorrow night.  The cottage had all the creature comforts, including a hot tub or “hot pot” as it was labeled, although we mostly just relaxed and watched the setting sun over the fjord.  It was a lovely, remote spot and you can understand why this part of Iceland is a big draw for birders.  Everywhere we looked we saw crowds of birds and could hear them above us on the mountains around the cottages.  In some cases, they were so high we needed binoculars to see the hundreds that were in constant motion against the sheer cliffs.

sunset-cloudy-night-grandharfjordur-halsabol-cottage-view-of-fjord-mountains

Sunset over the hills north of Grundarfjordur, Iceland.  Our road for tomorrow is that strip of black that disappears off into the distance.

Previous:  Day 2:  Basalt Desert, the Black Waterfall, and Jokulsarlon  |  Next:  Day 4: Snorrastofa and Snaefellsjokull 

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