Rick Steves’ Europe: Experience Iceland’s raw beauty
Although we’ve had to postpone European trips because of the pandemic, I believe a weekly dose of travel dreaming can be good medicine. Here’s one of the places that’s waiting for you at the other end of this crisis.
Iceland, with cinematic scenery showcasing nature in its rawest form, thrills outdoorsy travelers. Known for the midnight sun and northern lights, this fascinating island is equally famous for its magnificent glaciers and volcanoes.
Among the country’s unforgettable experiences is a tour into a dormant volcano. The Þríhnúkagígur volcano, a half-hour drive from Iceland’s capital city Reykjavík, last erupted about 4,000 years ago. When its magma drained out, a cavity big enough to hold the Statue of Liberty remained.
Today, via a pricey six-hour “Inside the Volcano” tour (which includes 2-mile hikes to and from the volcano), you can ride a lift through a squeezy opening at the volcano’s top, then 400 feet down into its vast chamber. Inside, lamps bring out the chamber’s pastel colors, and water, seeping through its ceiling, rains down lightly as you explore the bouldery floor.
For a shorter (one-hour) and much cheaper volcanic experience, you can visit Raufarhólshellir, billed as “The Lava Tunnel” — a 40-minute drive from Reykjavík. This 5,000-year-old lava tube was carved by a river of molten rock that was forced to burrow deeper after its surface had hardened. When the lava drained out, it left behind an extensive tunnel covered in colorful formations.
After passing beneath a few “skylights” where the ceiling had collapsed, you enter the intact lava tube — as big as a railroad tunnel in places. Subtle lighting brings out the tube’s soft colors and fanciful features. At the turnaround point you can experience a few minutes of utter darkness when the guide shuts off the lights.
Above ground, glacier hiking is a quintessential Icelandic experience. About 10% of Iceland is covered by glaciers, and the Sólheimajökull glacier on the South Coast is one of the most accessible.
There, several companies offer excursions of varying lengths and difficulty. A half-day outing with Icelandic Mountain Guides starts with a walk past an iceberg-filled lagoon to the foot of the glacier. Then the guide helps attach spiky crampons to your boots for the climb up spooky-looking canyons of ice and black ash.
Once on top, Sólheimajökull is smoother and whiter. As you crunch across the ice, the guide explains how the glacier moves, where those mysterious cones of black ash come from, how gaping sinkholes appear, and how climate change is melting the ice so rapidly that Sólheimajökull could disappear within a century.
Even on regular land, Iceland is a wonderland for hikers. Þórsmörk — “Thor’s Woods” — is a top destination, with well-marked trails leading to thrilling views over volcanoes, glaciers, and valleys. Accessible only on gravel roads that require fording rushing rivers and streams, most visitors get there aboard specially equipped, jacked-up buses.