Geothermal Pleasures in Myvatn- Day 1

 

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Around the midpoint of our Icelandic vacation, we hit Northern Iceland. That meant one day in Akureyri (the second largest town in Iceland- at about 18,000 inhabitants), but we elected to stay two days in the area of Myvatn. On my previous vacation, I had spent a couple days there, and it is a good base to explore some of the surrounding area. So for the first time in about a week, we were at a location where we stayed two nights, and not just the previous one.

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I have compared Iceland to New Zealand in the past, and Northern Iceland reinforces that view. This area would almost be like the Rotorua of New Zealand, because of the abundance of volcanic and geothermal activity.

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This area is centered around the lake of Myvatn, and surrounding the lake are some small villages with some restaurants and hotels. Apparently it gets crazy crowded in the summer time, which I can believe, but it was not overwhelmed with tourists when we visited (though we didn’t have the place to ourselves like we did in the Westfjords). The drive to Myvatn is about an easy 60-90 minutes with some nice stops along the way.

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Like most of Iceland, there is an abundance of beautiful nature in the area, and most of it is free, with only about one paid attraction (the Myvatn Nature Baths- think of it as the Blue Lagoon Junior). So really it is just a matter of deciding what you want to see and planning accordingly.

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Our first stop was at the lava field of Leirhnjukur. It is located in the Krafla area, which is a geothermal hot spot just off the Ring Road. To get to the lava field, you drive by the Krafla Power Station, which is just one of the many power stations in Iceland constructed to take advantage of the abundance of geothermal energy as a cheap, renewable energy source.

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On my first trip, I had tried to get to the lava fields, but the road was blocked past the power station, because it was full of snow. That proved to be a continual problem during my winter trip, because even though roads may be paved and not technically closed, they weren’t plowed for snow or deliberately kept open. So if it happened not to be snowing during your visit, you could probably see what you wanted to see with little difficulty. However, if it was snowing, you were out of luck. Granted that was in 2011, when Iceland wasn’t considered such a hotbed of winter travel activity, so maybe it has changed since then.

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After taking in the nice view overlooking the Krafla area, we figured we would get our daily walk in by an easy hike around Leirhnjukur. This field consists of a crater and lava field that house two major eruptions, one in 1727 and one in 1975, so the lava is still fresh and new and black.

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There is a parking lot and a flat, easy trail that will take you out to the field. As you walk through the field, you see the rolling piles of lava, most of which are from the older eruption, so there is moss and other vegetation growing on some of the lava. Off in the distance, we could see a colorful hill (perfects Leirhnjukur?- I never saw an exact label anywhere), and it looked like there were people at the top of this hill. I figured there is no way we would climb that hill, because it looked steep from our perspective, and I still had the exhausting memory of climbing Saxholl Crater fresh in my mind.

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The trail will take you to the base of the hill and around the back. The trail is easy and well maintained initially, where it is either flat and graded, or often times, a boardwalk. The first major site is the large, bubbling mud pit at the base of the hill, and then you are presented with a choice of trails. Neither trail is marked with a destination, but one seems to go off in the distance through the lava field to another crater, while another trail seems to wend its way around the back side of the hill.

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We elected to take the trail around the back side of the hill, and shortly afterwards, the boardwalk disappears, and we were making our way through the lava field. At this point, it ceased to be a flat trail, but it still was pretty easy to negotiate, and the trail was reasonably marked with yellow stakes, so you knew which way to go through the field. Even though we had been in lava fields before, it is still interesting to walk through another one. And it is always interesting to see Earth at its active, because in addition to the bubbling mud pits, there were also a plethora of small vents, expelling warm steam near the path.

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We kept going, curious to see where it would all lead, and soon enough we found ourselves very near the top of the hill we thought was so steep earlier. At this point, it was only a short push to the top, so we figured why not? Because the trail ascended so gradually, we really didn’t even feel the ascent, and once at the top, we were greeted with an expansive view of the lava field and the mountain ranges off in the distance. It was quite a beautiful site to behold, even if the weather was cloudy (though thankfully not rainy).

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At this point, we could have taken another trail that goes down the hill and makes a loop around the hill to meet up with the main trail. However, we chose to backtrack back to the mud pit and try the other trail. We walked out to the crater to get a better look at it, but didn’t stay too long, because it seemed like more of the same type of lava field. At this point, we had been at Leirhnjukur for a couple hours, and we still had plenty more sites to see before night fell.

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Reaching Leirhnjukur is super easy, as it accessed through a paved road (marked “Krafla”) off the Ring Road 1, and you just follow the road past the power station, up the hill and the parking lot is off to the left. If you have never walked through lava fields, it is an eye opening experience to see how the Earth can be made. But even if you have seen lava fields in other places, the Icelandic lava fields are still worth your time, if only for the beautiful nature views (without any sort of restrictions, beyond well marked paths and signs urging you to stay on the path), and the rash of wild colors.

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Exploring the Snaefellsnes Peninsula in Iceland

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Outside of the canned day trips/tour groups like the Golden Circle, one of the easiest day trips from Reykjavik is exploring the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. It is a beautiful peninsula, that really gives you a taste of all that Iceland has to offer. Even if you don’t have time to see the rest of Iceland (though I would HIGHLY recommend it), visiting the Snaefellsnes Peninsula kind of gives you an encapsulated look into many of Iceland’s natural treasures. It really only takes about a little more than an hour of driving to reach the peninsula, and you can easily do it on your own or with a tour group.

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Of course I would always recommend doing it on your own if you can swing it, in terms of time and rental car expenses. Sure, renting a car isn’t cheap in Iceland (though if you go for the smallest economy car like we did, it can be surprisingly affordable- even for a two week sojourn), but it gives you so much more freedom of maneuver in Iceland. You can see what you want, when you want it, and on your own terms. You don’t have to have your schedule dictated to you by a group of strangers, and you are never left waiting for people (or conversely, annoying people by making them wait for you). And to top it off, renting a car in Iceland is ridiculously easy, and driving around the country is pretty easy as well. Once you get outside of the Reykjavik metro area, there are only a limited number of roads, and they are all well numbered. So it is hard to get lost, plus most of the sights worth seeing have signs to them.

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I had visited Snaefellsnes Peninsula on my first Iceland trip, but my mother hadn’t, so I figured this would be a good place to start our vacation. This was our first full day in Iceland after our arrival (and that was basically a full day, since we both arrived around 0700 in the morning), and we got a head start on the day trippers by starting from the small town of Borgarnes. It is just a bit south of the peninsula, and it made a good stopover for us. There is a really nice museum to visit, the Settlement Centre, and their restaurant has an amazing three course dinner that just shows how well you can eat in Iceland (again for a price, because outside of the beautiful nature, everything you will love about Iceland can cost you a pretty penny).

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Even though I had visited the peninsula before, my trip was in the winter, so I was only able to see part of it. I wasn’t able to drive around the entire peninsula, because the road was covered in snow when I was there, and it wasn’t plowed (and I didn’t have chains for my small rental car). So this day was going to be a mixture of sights retreaded and new sights for me (and it was all new to my mother). All told, if you drive the entire peninsula, it is about 225 kilometers. Combine that with a plethora of stops to see and do things, it can make for a very long day. And that is presuming you are staying overnight, and not driving all the way back to Reykjavik. But either way still makes for a very worthwhile choice.

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Our first stop was an unplanned one, and it was at Bjarnarfoss, a very steep and narrow waterfall that is easily viewed from the road. If you drive around enough of Iceland, you will realize that there are way more waterfalls in this country than you can easily count. So at some point, you become inured to some of the less beautiful waterfalls. But you can be assured that if you see a road sign directing you to a waterfall, it is worth at least a brief stop to look at, and walk toward. So we figured, why not stop? There was a small parking lot and a short trail through some sheep grazing grass, before we found ourselves at the base of the falls. The falls are quite pretty and continue downward through a series of smaller waterfalls. The view from the base also provides a very nice view of the surrounding peninsula, and gives you a good understanding of the scope of the hills.

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After that brief detour, we stopped at our first planned stop, Budir, which is a former fishing village that now really only houses a hotel and a nice little church. One of the other things you will see in abundance in Iceland, outside of waterfalls, is little churches. Even most of the tiniest of villages will have one, and they are a testament to the long history of Christianity in the country (though I don’t know if many of them get much use these days).

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What makes this stop worthwhile, is a nice view of a lava infested beach, that is a short hike from the church. There is also a larger lava field surrounding the area called Budahraun. If you have the time and are so inclined, you can hike out to a large lava crater. I had stopped here on my first trip, but I wasn’t able to go to the beach or walk in the lava field trails, because they were covered in snow. And I mean, we are talking nearly knee deep in snow. The parking lot around the church was plowed, but certainly none of the trails.

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The only drawback to this stop is that we ran into our first tour bus of the day (though it certainly wouldn’t be the last). Hordes of tourists poured from the bus just before we got there, so we tried to let them get ahead of us. We knew that even if there were a lot of them, at least they would never stay in any one place too long, because they had a strict schedule to keep. So wait long enough, and you will have whatever sight you are visiting to yourself eventually (though for only a short time, until the NEXT tour bus shows up).

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Our next stop was Arnarstapi, which is a tiny village filled with summer cottages and some tourist hotels. We spent a fair amount of time in the area, both to dodge the continuous arrival of tour buses, but also because it is very pleasant to walk along the coast and easy to do.

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There is about a 2.5 kilometer coastal trail from Arnarstapi to the tiny village of Hellnar. The trail follows the coast for the most part, and even goes through a nature reserve (you will know you have hit it, once you are at the fence), and can walk through more lava flows. What I liked about the lava flows in Iceland, is that so many of them are hundreds of years old. So even though you can still see the black lava cooled into a a variety of shapes, there are also signs of life coming back, like ferns and moss.

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The trail provided an abundance of nice lava beach views, with a variety of stone shapes. And there is even a troll-like monument (trust me, there are depictions of trolls everywhere in this country) overlooking one of the best beach views.

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While we weren’t on a tight schedule or anything, we didn’t want to linger in any one place too long, because we knew there was still a lot we wanted to see and do, and we wanted to make it to our overnight at the town of Stykkisholmur before dark.

Soon after, the road took us to Snaefelljokull National Park, which houses one of the nicer glaciers in country. One of the things remarkable about Iceland national parks, is that they are easily accessible by all, and you sometimes only know you are in a national park, because you drive by one of the signs. We didn’t stop to see the glacier (that pretty much requires a guided tour to do so, and I knew we would be seeing an abundance of glaciers once we made our way to South Iceland at the end of our trip), but we did stop to see Saxholl Crater.

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While much of the surrounding countryside was flat or rolling a bit from the ancient lava flows, every so often a crater would just spring up, like Saxholl Crater. We nearly drove by it, but when we saw the parking lot full of people, we figured it was something we probably should see.

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The crater is easily viewable from the road, and there is a short track that leads to the parking lot at the base of the crater. Now the walk to the crater is only about 300 meters, BUT, it is a continuous slog of (well maintained) stairs to the top. And just when you start breathing hard and wondering if there is much more, you reach a small viewpoint. And only then you realize that there is still much more to go, and the stairs only get steeper. While you really only need to be of moderate fitness to climb the stairs, just know that you will likely feel it. But once you get to the top, you are rewarded with a nice view of the surrounding Neshraun lava flows, and can peer into the center of the crater, which is partly decayed from age.

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It had been a while since we had stopped at some waterfalls, so when we saw the sign directing us to Svodufoss, we figured why not. My guide book didn’t say too much about it, only that it is a dramatic waterfall, surrounded by basalt. It was funny that the 10 km road to the parking lot was rutted and not exceptionally well graded in places, but it leads to a very nice, smooth, new concrete parking lot. It just made for an interesting juxtaposition, especially since I don’t think Svodufoss is one of the major draws on the peninsula.

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The trail out to the viewing site is flat and easy. At first when we came to the site with numerous viewing benches, we figured it was just a place to see it comfortably from a distance. However, once we looked around, we realized that this was the terminus for the trail and you aren’t SUPPOSED to get any closer, because there were no trails leading to the waterfall. So my mother and I just took in the beautiful waterfall from a distance, all the while watching some tourists plow their way through the grass trying to find a path to the waterfall base. Again, if there isn’t a trail going somewhere, the Icelandic government doesn’t want you there, but that certainly didn’t stop a number of either very ignorant or very arrogant tourists.

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Of course, as nice as Svodufoss was, we still had one more waterfall to stop and see. That is Kirkjufellfoss, which is a nice little waterfall at the base of Kirkjufell mountain (appropriately named). It’s hard to miss this mountain, because it has a distinctive shape. It’s a narrow cone, that reminds me of a witch’s hat. Now, it is possible to miss the parking lot for the waterfall, because it is small. Surprisingly small for a stop that IS considered a big tourist draw on the peninsula. So small that there wasn’t a place for us to park initially, and we had to turn around and then wait for some cars (and a small tour bus) to finally depart so we could get a space.

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It started to rain fairly heavily when we first started on the trail to the waterfall, but we soldiered on since we had some nice rain gear. The view of the falls is very pretty, and the view from the other side of the falls is even better, because you can get Kirkjufell in the background to the waterfall (the leading picture of this post).

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By that point, it was early evening, and having seen pretty much all the sights we wanted to see on the peninsula, we high tailed it over to Stykkisholmur to check in to our hostel. When I booked our hostel, I was convinced that this was the town I had stayed in when I was here on my first visit, but I realized that I had actually stayed in the town of Grundarfjordur, so this was a new town for me as well. It is a very cute, small town right on the harbor. You can take a ferry from here to the Westfjords, and there is also a small hill you can climb that overlooks the town itself.

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Sure, we spent a fair amount of the day battling growing clouds and bouts of strong rain, but it still was a nice display of all the variety of beautiful nature, from countless waterfalls, a nice glacier, spectacular hills, nice beaches and a number of lava fields. Even if you can’t make it to the rest of the country, a day trip to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula can give you a nice taste of all that Iceland has to offer (and hopefully leave you with a hunger to see the rest of Iceland).

Driving in Iceland-Westfjords Day 3

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For our third and final day driving in the Westfjords, we had a relaxed start (for us anyway), because I knew that most of the driving would be on paved roads, and there weren’t many stops to make. So we were in no hurry to get going. It gave us the opportunity to enjoy a leisurely farm home breakfast and just take in our surroundings. Sure, we saw the beautiful fjords when we checked in, but there is always some hurrying around after you show up at your hostel after a long day of driving.

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Our first stop was just down the road and unplanned. We had been hoping to pet some Icelandic horses, and we finally got a good opportunity. Driving in Iceland took us past many horse farms, and some of the horses were even close to the fences by the road, so we would sometimes see tourists pulled over and taking pictures. We always debated stopping, because we wanted to pet some horses and get our pictures, but we always figured that there would be more opportunities down the road.

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When we saw this group of horses, we figured it was a great time, because we were on a gravel road, so we wouldn’t have to worry about traffic, and there was a nice, attractive group of horses with different colors. We didn’t know when we would get another opportunity. At first, the horses hung back, but were looking at us. It was almost like they were mocking us for our interest, and they were over it. But after a few minutes, a couple of them came to the fence, so we could get some closeup photos and pet them. I love Icelandic horses. They really are more like very large ponies, and are very fluffy in the winter. On our first trips to Iceland, we both went on horseback riding tours. I thought it was a lot of fun, but horses tend to make me nervous, because I never know what they will do. They can sense my nervousness, which makes them skittish, and that in turn makes me even more nervous. It really is a very negative feedback loop, so we decided not to go on any horseback riding tours for this vacation.

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After we got our fix petting horses, we headed out for the rest of the driving tour. Our hostel was about a 20 minute drive from Isafjordur, and to reach the town, we had to drive through a tunnel. There are parts of Iceland, where instead of traversing the fjord, we got to drive through the fjord, which saves so much time. However, this tunnel is a bit different than the other tunnels, because it is a one way tunnel. Yeah, presumably to save money, because there isn’t enough traffic to justify a two tunnel all the way through the fjord, part of the tunnel is only one way. However, there are plenty of pullouts, to prevent car pileups, but it was still a weird experience.

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But after we got through the tunnel, it was just a matter of driving the next few  hours through the northern parts of the Westfjords. The road traverses the fjord for the most part, so the view was very pleasant. Even in this part of the Westfjords, there wasn’t much traffic, so we had the road to ourselves for the most part.

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We hit our one major stop for the day by lunchtime, which was the Icelandic Museum of Sorcery and Witchcraft. This is probably the biggest, most famous, non-nature tourist attraction in the Westfjords, and is located in the small town of Holmavik. The museum is small, but it provides an interesting peek into the history of witchcraft in Iceland (all but one of the 21 persons burned for witchcraft in Iceland were men, for instance). The exhibits are a mixture of historical documents and presentations that show some of the weirder aspects of Icelandic witchcraft. Probably the most notorious exhibit is the “necro pants”. The exhibit isn’t ACTUAL necro pants, but you definitely have a solid impression of just how weird a concept it is.

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After lunch, we were pretty much on our own, because there wasn’t that much to do. So we decided to just go relax at our hostel. Our hostel was located in the tiny, post stamp of a village called Broddanes. Like there are probably more sheep than persons. One of things we grew to appreciate was just how many sheep there are in this country. It was one of the many reasons I thought of Iceland as the “New Zealand of the north”. Both of our previous trips to Iceland were in the winter, so we didn’t see all the sheep. But sheep are everywhere. In the more populated areas, they were confined safely within fences and gates. But in the less populated areas, they were basically free range. I mean, they roamed all over the countryside, and sometimes wandered into the road (we were always on high alert when were passing sheep near the road, because more than once they darted out in front of my car). We took great delight in seeing the sheep in different locations. My personal favorite were the sights of sheep on a beach. There was something so weird about sheep just hanging out on a beach, that we were always hoping to capture them on photo in odd places. That and the black sheep. There were always a few black sheep in most groups of sheep we encountered, but they always seemed so much shyer, so we had a hard time capturing them on camera.

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Since we were at the hostel at the end of the visiting season, we literally had the hostel to ourselves. It was a very nice, comfortable hostel, with large windows providing a nice view of the fjord. We were hoping for a clear night, because it would have been absolutely perfect to watch the Northern Lights in warm comfort. Alas, it was not to be, because the clouds were too thick to see anything.

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It was an easy and short day, but it was a very nice way to end our three day sojourn to the Westfjords. I am so glad we made the time to see them, because this is Iceland at its wildest, most isolated, and very beautiful. If you have the time, the relative patience and confidence needed to drive on the extensive gravel roads, I HIGHLY recommend a trip to the Westfjords. Again, it is not day trip material, but it certainly is worth a few days on any Icelandic vacation.

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Driving in Iceland- Westfjords Day 2

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Day two of our Westfjords side trip started early, because we wanted to take advantage of the nice, sunny weather. Iceland weather can be very turbulent and unpredictable, and rain and clouds are common year round. Our first day was really nice, and the early morning was looking like this would be another great day for nature gawking.

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Our first stop of the day was actually revisiting a stop from the previous day, Raudasandur. I was deeply frustrated with what happened the first day, and I figured we missed something critical somehow (though again, this was not specifically addressed in our guide books), and I really wanted to see this beach. So I went searching online for any sort of information that could clear up where we went wrong, and I finally found it in some blog posts.

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Apparently what visitors are supposed to do to access the beach is park at the parking spots by the church (which we had passed on more than once the previous day), and then walk about 1.5 km down a nature path to access the beach. It was all so simple, but not immediately intuitive if you didn’t already know, that I wonder why guide books didn’t add more specific information.

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In any case, it was early morning, so there was only one other car down by the church, and we started the easy, pleasant walk to the beach to get in our morning walk. The trail is through some beach grass and has a good view of the beach off in the distance, and the surrounding hills. We eventually reached where the beach is, though we weren’t really able to walk on the sand, because the tide was in. This is a beach that is really only walkable at low tide, because there are tidal inlets that prevent access to walking on the sand (unless you want to wade through ice cold water of unknown depth). So while we weren’t able to go out on the beach itself, we could see that the tide was going out, and the reddish sand was visible to us, and we could see how nice this beach would be to walk.

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By the time we left Raudasandur, there were more tourists walking about, so we picked the right time to visit. We made our way back up the steep, windy gravel road to head off on our new itinerary. Our first stop was at the small town of Bildudalur. I had been hoping to visit the Icelandic Sea Monster Museum, because it just sounded like a fun place to visit. Alas, the museum  is only open during the summer season, and the last day was literally the prior day. So no sea monsters for us, but we had plenty more beautiful nature to see.

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Shortly after this town, the road turned from paved to gravel and would remain so, for most of the rest of the day (until we hit the town of Pingeyri). Our second day was our longest stretch of gravel road in the Westfjords, and for the MOST part, the road was reasonably good. Sure, it is gravel, but most of the road was grated to an extent, though there were places that were annoyingly rutted and potholed. Again, there seems to be no rhyme or reason to why the road is the way it is. I would drive for long stretches on well-graded gravel and then a series of potholes would emerge, sometimes on only one side of the road. It’s can be frustrating, but it’s just the price of admission for visiting the Westfjords.

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The road in this part of the Westfjords generally snake along the topography of the fjords, with some occasional steep climbs to go over fjords and cut off driving time. My prior reading into self driving in the Westfjords talked about how the roads are often gravel, but also talked about the steep mountain roads you would have to climb. And that is true, FOR Iceland. The hills in the Westfjords are higher than many parts of the country (outside of the central Highlands), BUT “steep” is really grading on a curve. If you have any experience driving in any steep mountain ranges (e.g. the Rockies or Cascades), the roads aren’t THAT steep. We’re only talking a few thousand feet elevation. It was only annoying for me, because of that small car I chose didn’t have a lot of acceleration power, so I had to slowly make my way up the hills in low gear. But we got there nonetheless.

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The highlight of our visit was an extended stop at the waterfall called Dynjandi. It is the tallest waterfall in the Westfjords, and one of the most famous waterfalls in the country. Of course this waterfall isn’t visited as widely as others, such as Gulfoss, because this waterfall is found deep in the Westfjords where the roads surrounding it for kilometers on end are gravel. This is NOT a waterfall you can visit on a day trip from Reykjavik, and in fact, in our three days in the Westfjords, we only saw one tour bus, because it is not as popular of a place to visit, and we were heading into the off season.

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Dynjandi is also a waterfall that isn’t really accessible six-eight months of the year, because the road isn’t plowed in the winter, and snow tends to accumulate. But if you are in the area during the visiting season, I would consider this waterfall a “must do”, especially if you like waterfalls. It isn’t an exceptionally tall waterfall (only about 99 meters), but it has a pretty and unusual triangular shape, and is actually a series of several smaller waterfalls.

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Since this is the highlight in this part of the Westfjords, it’s no surprise that this is where we saw the most people. You can get a good view of the waterfall(s) directly from the parking lot, but you can also walk up a trail to get closer views. If you are so inclined, you can even do the short, but somewhat steep hike to the base of the main falls and stand directly in the spray of the waterfall. I was feeling the hike a little bit, but it felt good to get out and exercise after driving for several hours by this point.

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After this stop, we were basically through with touring for the day, and made our way to our hostel for the evening. This hostel, Korpuldaur HI Hostel, was on a farm tucked into a fjord. It was only a 20 minute drive from the “big city” of Isafjordur, but it was quiet and peaceful  in a beautiful setting. We hit the gravel road a short drive from our hostel, and I wanted to get out and kiss the ground. Sweet, sweet pavement was a welcome sight to behold after bumping around on gravel all day.

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Since the clouds were clearing up and there was little light pollution, I was hoping to see the Northern Lights. Auroras are visible in Iceland from approximately September- April (and even some other times during the year), so I was hopeful. Our hostel room had a window that directly overlooked the fjord, and I spent a fair amount of time looking out the window in the dark, and then standing outside, hoping to see some auroras. While I didn’t see any bright Northern Lights like you see in the pictures, I did see some fainter versions of the lights, so it fed my fix just a bit.

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Overall, this was a really good day of great weather, beautiful nature, and peaceful near isolation, from the few tourists we encountered  during the day. Our Westfjords trip was turning out to be a very pleasant success.

 

Driving in the Iceland Westfjords- Day 1

 

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On my first visit to Iceland, it was during the winter, so I didn’t have an opportunity to visit the Westfjords. Sure it is possible to visit parts of the Westfjords (though not all) in the winter, but everything I had read about the Westfjords made the driving sound horrendous, so I decided not to risk it at all.

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I knew I would want to go back to Iceland at some point, but ideally in May or September (the weather is still good, but the hordes of tourists aren’t present like they are during June-August). There were some things I wasn’t able to see on my first trip, because the winter weather prevented it, and I wanted to rectify that on my second trip. One of those things was the Westfjords.

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The Westfjords are considered to the “wild West” of Iceland. There aren’t a lot of people in the Westfjords (the biggest town, Isafjordur has only about 1200 inhabitants), so it isn’t as developed for tourists as other parts. The nature is a bit wild and untouched in parts, plus the road system is legendarily bad. This is a place that is not going to be a day trip from Reykjavik, because it takes way more effort to visit. Put that all together, and it isn’t surprising that only about 14% of tourists make their way to the Westfjords.

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I knew all of that, and still wanted to visit anyway. I had seen pictures of parts of the Westfjords, and it just looked so beautiful. I wasn’t put off by the isolation, but rather it was an attractant, because I don’t like to have to fight tourists for a nice picture. And the more I read about the Westfjords road system, the more I was confident enough that it wouldn’t pose a problem. Sure, a lot of what I read emphasized that the roads were really bumpy and you would have to go slow, but there was also more updated stuff that talked about how many of the roads were seriously improved in recent years, and even most of the road system was paved.

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So I figured, why not visit the Westfjords? My mom and I were going to be in country in two weeks, and since this was our second trip for both of us, we decided to skip Reykjavik altogether, and focus on seeing the rest of the country. All of my research emphasized that you have to take it slow in the Westfjords, so this is not a place to zoom through at high speed. Taking that all into consideration, I figured that spending three days driving through the Westfjords would give us enough time to see it in peace.

Westfjords Day 1-6Since the Westfjords aren’t as developed as the rest of Iceland, it was a matter of deciding where to break up each day. That was driven in large part where we could find a nice place to stay, and how much driving I wanted to do each day. The first day, I figured we would drive all through the southern Westfjords and finish up at the small town of Patreksfjordur for the night. That would give us several hours to see everything, and we wouldn’t feel rushed.

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For the first day, we weren’t coming from Reykjavik, but rather the town of Stykkisholmer from the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. That added a couple hours to our driving, because a fair amount of the roads weren’t going to be paved. This was our third day in country, and up to this point, I had only driven on paved roads.

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I was a bit leery of being on gravel roads at first. Sure I had rented a car, but I rented a small car, because the costs for larger cars went up exponentially. However, I did opt for gravel protection, because I knew we were going to spend a fair amount of time tooling around on gravel roads, and I would rather get screwed up front with the cost, rather than screwed on the back end, in case something happened to the car.

I hadn’t gotten comfortable yet  driving on Iceland’s gravel roads (though that would change dramatically as our trip progressed), so I was driving slow and careful the first day in the Westfjords. I cringed at most of the potholes I encountered, and was keeping my speed well below the limit. I was very glad when we finally hit other roads and they were paved.

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However, of course that wouldn’t last forever. I honestly don’t know the rhyme or reason why some of the roads are paved, and why some aren’t. It’s not even one road in particular is all gravel or all paved. You could be speeding along on a paved road, and then for some reason, it would revert to gravel, and I would have slow down and watch the road more. But all told, I was pleasantly surprised that even the gravel roads weren’t AS BAD as the horror stories I had read. Honestly, a good chunk of the MAIN gravel roads (as opposed to the smaller gravel roads, which are another story entirely) were fairly driveable. Sure I wasn’t driving as fast as I was on paved roads (though if I had been in a 4WD SUV, I would have), but I was making fairly good time nonetheless.

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The thing that takes the most time when driving, is stopping frequently for photo ops. The beautiful nature and isolation made itself known to us almost immediately, and around nearly every corner, there was a gorgeous vista we just wanted to stop and gawk.  A somewhat annoying thing in the Westfjord is the lack of road pullouts to pull off the road safely. However, the fact that there aren’t that many people in the Westfjords played into our favor. We could easily take a few minutes to stop on the road and quickly take pictures, because we ran into other cars only occasionally, and we could go a fair amount of time where it was just us on the road. That would be a bad thing if our car broke down, but it was a great thing when we just wanted to enjoy our vacation on our own.

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The road wound its way through the fjords, with most of the roads matching the topography. It made for a pleasant journey as the colorful landscape changed around us, and the topography lent itself to wild imagination.

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By the afternoon, we had reached the general area of our destination, Patreksfjordur (the name for the fjord in the area, and the town upon which it is located) and Latrabjarg Peninsula. There were a lot of different sites in the area, and reaching them meant driving along some really questionable roads. This is when all the talk about the horrid road talk in the Westfjords started to become more of a reality, though again, this is because we were in a small car with low clearance.

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One of the first sites we came upon was Gardar BA 64, which is an Icelandic whaling ship (the oldest steel ship in the country), but has been beached since 1981, so the ship is now steadily rusting on the beach. It is an interesting site to see, especially since  there aren’t THAT many manmade structures in the area.

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Our next stop was Raudasandur, which is called that because the sand is shades of red and pink. It is the only beach of its kind in Iceland, since most of the other beaches are golden or black sand. Reaching Raudasandur is reasonably easy. It’s a 10km drive down Route 614. The road is fairly bumpy and potholed, but it isn’t likely to do damage to your car if you drive carefully. Getting down to the beach meant driving down a pretty steep, curvy road. Looking at the road from the top of the fjord was a bit daunting, but it is more manageable once we actually got on the road. I had read some blog posts talking about how this is the most dangerous road they had ever encountered, but objectively speaking, it really isn’t. It all comes down to how much experience you have on steep and/or gravel roads. I had driven on some very steep roads in the past, so the road didn’t scare me too much. There are some very sharp turns in places, but the road is wide enough for two smaller cars to pass without much difficulty.

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However, things got frustrating once we got down to sea level. I was expecting a sign detailing where Raudasandur actually was. I figured there would be a clearly marked parking lot or something that made it clear where the beach actually was located. However, we saw signs to stuff, but nothing specifically to the beach itself. By this point, it was very late afternoon, so the sun was shining low on the horizon, and the tide was way out, so the red sand wasn’t very obvious. We drove up and down the roads, but didn’t see anything that made it clear where the beach was, and we just about gave up. None of our guide books gave specific directions about how to access the beach, so we decided to return up the fjord. We had been a bit concerned about getting our small car up the steep road, but it was a fairly easy process as long as the car was in low gear the entire way.

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Our last stop for the day was supposed to be the Latrabjarg Bird Cliffs, which are considered by many to be the westernmost point of Europe (minus the Azores), and in the summer time, they play host to thousands upon thousands of nesting birds, which is the biggest draw for tourists. When I started down Route 612, I fully intended to drive the 25 km (roughly 15 miles) to the cliffs. However, the road was so bumpy, and I had been driving for eight hours at this point, that I just couldn’t take it anymore. It would have been one thing if there would have been the birds to see, because that would have made the frustrating drive worthwhile. But knowing there were no birds there, diminished my tolerance for the ruts and bumps. We made it all the way to Breidavik, which is a huge golden sand beach, and then we decided to turn around and go to the town of Patreksfjordur, so we could check into our hotel and relax.

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All told, even though I was a bit frustrated toward the end of the day due to tiredness, most of the driving was fairly pleasant. A surprising amount of the road was paved, and the even the parts of Route 60 that were gravel were nice enough. It was a beautiful day, and the weather was absolutely gorgeous. We would have enjoyed ourselves even if it was raining, but the sun just made all of the natural landscape that much more attractive. It was a satisfying first day in the Westfjords.

Big Island and Kauai Exotic Beaches

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Hawaii is known for many things, and beautiful beaches are at the top of the list. There are too many beaches to count, and so many of them aren’t just the garden variety golden sand beaches, but rather green beaches, black beaches and others as well.

Mom and I aren’t dedicated beach goers in the sense that we will go to a beach and stay there all day. We simply like to do too much on vacation and don’t stay in any one place too long. As I always joke, you know you had a good vacation when you need another vacation to recover when it is all over.

Even though we had visited most of the best beaches on the Big Island and Kauai on our first trip, there were still some beaches to see on our second trip. The Big Island offers many different types of beaches, just because that island is younger than the other Hawaiian islands, so it is still transforming (and the ever erupting Kilauea ensures that the island is frequently changing landscapes).

I had visited Green Sand Beach on our first trip to the Big Island, but my mother elected not to go at the time, and regretted it later. Since I enjoyed the trip the last time, I had no problem doing it again.

This beach takes more effort to get to than most beaches, because there is no road near it, so you have to hike over two and a half miles from the parking lot to get there. To get to the parking lot, you take the turnoff for South Point Road between mile markers 69 and 70 on Hwy 11. You then drive down several miles, and follow the signs to Green Sands Beach. You can’t really miss the makeshift parking lot, and there should be plenty of cars already parked.

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From the parking lot, you have a decision to make. You can walk all the way to the beach if you desire. The walk isn’t difficult, but it can feel longer than it is at times, and it is exposed to sun and wind. If you choose to walk, most of the path is fairly easy to traverse, though there are sections where you have to negotiate rocks. There isn’t one path per say, but rather you just pick the best  of the available paths, which is usually the one that is flattest. Basically you just walk east and head toward Green Sands Beach. Eventually you will see the cliffs surrounding the beach, so you know you are almost there.

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Like I said, it isn’t HARD, but the walk can feel long and if the sun is beating down on you or the wind is strong, you will feel it. So make sure you take a lot of water and sun protection with you if you decide to walk the way.

However, you don’t have to walk out there if you don’t want. There is a cottage industry of locals and their 4WD vehicles who will gladly take you out to the beach and back, for a fee of course (roughly $10 per person for a round trip). Mom and I decided to walk out there, to get the full experience and some exercise, but we decided to take a truck back to save time and energy.

Once we got to the cliffs overlooking the beach, we just spent some time marveling at the beauty. The cliffs are rather magnificent in and of themselves, and the green sand of the beach just makes it all the better. The green sand comes from olivine, and its really only found in Hawaii on this beach. It’s not a bright green, but the sand definitely has a greenish tint.

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It’s fairly easy to make your way down to the actual beach, because of the steps and ladders. It is possible to swim in the ocean, though you need to be careful not to swim too far out, because there can be strong currents in the area.

If you like beautiful nature and unique beaches, you’ll probably like Green Sands Beach. It’s not a stop you can just spend a little time at, just because of the time it takes to get there (even if you take a truck). So if you plan to go, definitely allot enough time to get there, enjoy the beach for as long as you want, and get back. But it really is worth your time.

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About a 30 minute drive from the turnout to Green Sands Beach is the turnout for Punalu’u Beach, or Black Sand Beach. This beach is much easier to reach, because the parking lot is only a short walk from the beach itself. It’s located between mile markers 56 and 57 on Hwy 11 off Alanui Road. The road to the beach is well marked and easy to follow.

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Punalu’u Beach is a nice contrast with Green Sands Beach, both in the ease of access and the color of the sand. At the time we visited, the weather was a bit overcast and it was windy, so the waves were a bit too strong for me to want to swim. But it was pleasant to walk along the beach, admire the view and even take in the sight of a turtle.

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The beaches of Kauai are very beautiful, but almost uniformly a golden sand. However, there is one beach that takes more of an effort to reach. At least a beach that is not off the Na Pali Coast, because those beaches are much, much harder to reach.

Mom and I debated visiting Waimea Canyon on this trip, even though we visited it at length  during our first trip. However, we got a late start on our designated travel day, and we could see the dark clouds rolling in, so we figured it would not be worth our time to make the long drive up, only to have the surrounding views obscured.

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Instead, we decided to visit Polihale State Park, which we had not visited before. Polihale State Park is on the west side of the island, and it is about as far west as the road goes before it peters out, just before it reaches the Na Pali Coast. It’s not exactly EASY to get to Polihale, but it is worth your time if you have the time. Getting to the turnoff is easy, because you follow Hwy 50 all the way down the road, until you see the turnoff for the park. However, this is when the trip becomes more of an adventure. The access road to the beach is approximately five miles over an unimproved dirt road. I honestly don’t know why money isn’t spent to improve the road, but for whatever reason, the road is decidedly unimproved, though I read there is periodic maintenance to make it somewhat driveable.

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Generally speaking it is recommended that you take a 4WD vehicle to the park, though it isn’t absolutely required. You can take a 2WD vehicle like we did (though I wouldn’t recommend one if it is wet outside, because I can just see how the road would turn into mud when the rain falls). The road is deeply rutted in places, so you have to drive carefully, but eventually you will get there. Even though the road goes further up for camping access, it is easier to park at the spaces for the Queen’s Pond. There isn’t a parking lot per say, but rather you just pull your car off the road into the sand. Just make sure that the sand isn’t too loose, so you won’t get stuck trying to leave.

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From where you park, you just follow the road until you hit the beach. Once you arrive, it is pretty much up to you. Polihale State Park makes up several miles of golden sand, and if you come during the week, you are liable to have the park to yourself. We visited on the weekend, and there were plenty of locals camped out, but it was definitely not crowded.

If you want to swim on the beach, the safest place is within the reef of Queen’s Pond. Outside of it, the waves and current are a bit stronger. There really isn’t much else to do on the beach, but relax, swim if you want, and walk up and down taking in the views. We saw the dark clouds were getting closer and the rain was threatening to come down, so we left before the road was too difficult to traverse.

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If you choose to go to Polihale State Park, just know that it is out of the way for most other sites (though you could combine it with a day trip to Waimea Canyon), and the road is somewhat difficult to traverse. But you aren’t likely to find many more isolated places on Kauai (though some of the most isolated Na Pali Coast beaches would give it a run for its money).

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Hawaii Waterfall Fun- Big Island and Kauai

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I have always been drawn to running water, such as rivers, streams and the ocean. I just found something so fascinating and peaceful about running water. I could listen to it for hours. But my favorite natural water will forever and always be waterfalls. The best waterfalls never cease to amaze me, and they are one of my favorite places to visit when I hike or go on vacation.

Luckily for me, Hawaii is rife with waterfalls that will astound you with their beauty, and a good chunk of them are easily accessible from the road. We had visited most of the waterfalls on our first visit to Big Island, but of course we wanted to see them again.

Since the Hilo side of the Big Island is much greener and wetter than the Kona side of the island, because of all the rain, it stands to reason that the Hilo side of the island has the best waterfalls. And a few of the best ones are all within short driving distance of each other.

One of the best ones is Akaka Falls. This waterfall is 422 ft and set within a lush, green park. The trailhead to the waterfall is close to the road with pay parking within the parking lot, though if you don’t want to pay, there is plenty of parking on the road as well. Usually, there are a couple ways to access the viewpoint, because there is a trail that goes down and around and affords multiple views and obstructed views of another waterfall. However, at the time we visited, part of the lower trail was blocked off, due to trail maintenance, so only the most direct trail was available to the viewpoint. It’s less than .5 mile from the trailhead to the viewpoint, and the path is paved and pretty easy to traverse. You can’t miss the wide viewpoint that looks at the waterfall from the distance. The most challenging thing is jockeying for the best view among the throngs of tourists and their cameras.

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Another readily accessible waterfall is Rainbow Falls. How powerful this waterfall is, depends on the time of year, since after plenty of rain, the waterfall with naturally have more water than during drier periods. This one is also very popular, so there is a large parking lot and the walk is short to the viewpoint. A farther away view of the falls is right off the parking lot, whereas there is a short hike that takes you to the overlook of the top of the falls. I saw some people walking out on the rocks to the top of the falls, but my fear of slipping and falling off the cliff prevented me from doing the same.

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Since we were already in the area, we decided to drive the short way up the road to view Wai’ale Falls. They aren’t heavily advertised, and I wouldn’t consider them a “must do.” However, if you like waterfalls and are in the area, the falls are worth the minutes it takes to drive there on Waianuenue Avenue, past the junction to Hwy 200 (Saddle Road), and then just past the Wailuku River Bridge.

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The view of the falls are located right off the road, with parking available just off the road. There is supposed to be  a faint trail to get closer to the falls, and apparently the locals like to swim in the falls pool.

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Even though it isn’t a waterfall, the last stop of the day before heading back to our hotel was a local lava cave, easily accessible off the road. The lava cave is called Kaumana Caves, with a well marked parking lot located between mile markers 4 and 5 off Hwy 200. If you like lave caves, it is worth your time, and the visit doesn’t take too long.

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Even though the parking lot is across the street from the caves, we didn’t see too much traffic on Hwy 200, so it is pretty safe to make your way across. Once across the street, the sign for the cave is well marked, and there is no admission to the caves. Stairs lead down into the cave. There are actually two parts of the cave.

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The left side of the cave is more like a small ampitheater and the opening has plenty of green plants.

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The right side of the cave affords the opportunity to walk a bit ways into the cave before the way becomes too small. If you do want to make your way into the cave, make sure you have a light source, because there is no light in the cave.

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Over on Kauai, a good chunk of the most beautiful waterfalls are easy to visit, though there are plenty of waterfalls that aren’t readily accessible to the viewing public.

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Wailua Falls are probably the most beautiful waterfalls on Kauai, and there is a well marked road (Hwy 583) that literally ends at the parking lot for Wailua Falls. There isn’t a ton of parking spots considering how popular the falls are, but there are parking off the road, and turnover is usually pretty quick. However, if you are visiting Kauai during high tourist season, it might be worth your while to go earlier in the morning or later in the afternoon.

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We had the opportunity to see a couple other Kauai waterfalls during a half day kayak and waterfall adventure. Mom and I enjoy kayaking, and there are opportunities for both sea and river kayaking on Kauai. We decided against sea kayaking, just because of some of the strong ocean currents in places, and river kayaking sounded very pleasant.

Even though you can do guided or unguided river kayaks on different rivers, we elected for a guided tour, the Kayak Waterfall Adventure offered at Island Adventures tour company, just because in many ways it was easier, and it also afforded an opportunity to view a couple of pretty waterfalls that are located on private property, so they aren’t accessible to the public.

After kayaking a few miles up the Huleia River (a generally easy and peaceful trip among a lush green setting), we were transported to the overlook site and hiked down to the waterfalls. The first waterfall was the 30 foot Bamboo Falls. We only had a side view of the falls, but they were pretty nonetheless.

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After hiking a short time past that, we came to our destination, the 60 foot Papakolea Falls. We were able to sit and relax by the falls, swim in the pool, or climb up partway for pictures on a ledge behind the falls. The company also offers another tour that involves rappelling down the falls. I thought about doing the rappel tour, but since I figured my mom wouldn’t be into rappelling down the waterfall (I was right), we went with the gentler trip instead.

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The last waterfall I visited on Kauai was Ho’opi’i Falls. These falls were a bit harder to find, and aren’t really considered a “must do”. However, I was looking for an easy hike, and this one fit the bill and was a short drive from our hotel. The falls are located just up the road from the town of Kapa’a. I initially had a hard time finding the trailhead. It is located on Kapahi Road in a residential area. However, the trailhead isn’t really well marked, and my guide book gave some confusing directions. Just when I was about to give up and go back to my hotel, I looked on other hiking sites for better directions, and realized where I went wrong. The trailhead might not be marked, but you can see the yellow gate on the side of the road, that is overgrown with vegetation, and a short way before the road ends. Just past that is the parking area on the side of the road. You aren’t supposed to park on private property, because your car will be towed, but there are enough spaces for several cars off the side of the road.

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From the trailhead, it was an easy walk down to the river. Once you hit the river, take the trail to the right and a short ways after that, you will come to a turnoff that will lead you down to the upper Ho’opi’i Falls. These falls are nice and the viewing area affords some nice views and places to sit on the rocks. My guide book talked about lower falls, so I continued to follow the directions from my book, but I never did find the falls. At some point, I came to a fence blocking the trail and marked private property. I tried walking down to the river, but the trail along the river was hard to follow and eventually petered out. I tried walking around the blocked path, but never did find the lower falls. Eventually I turned back, because I was afraid of getting cited if I was caught on private property. Even though I didn’t see the lower falls, the hike was still pleasant enough.

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So if you like waterfalls, the whole state of Hawaii affords so many gorgeous views, and Kauai and the Big Island have some of the best waterfalls. Don’t miss them if you are on the island.