Rick Steves’ Europe: Experience Iceland’s raw beauty
The main reason to visit Þórsmörk is the glorious hike to the top of Valahnúkur mountain. Starting from the visitors complex in Húsadalur Valley, the hike to the summit is less than a mile, but it’s staircase-steep in stretches and gains 900 feet in elevation.
On top, your sweat earns you a commanding view of three glacier-topped volcanoes, including the notorious Eyjafjallajökull, whose 2010 eruptions choked European air travel. Far below, the wide Markárfljót river valley sprawls to your north and the Krossá river valley to the south, their glacier-fed torrents rushing toward the sea.
For those who prefer that someone else do the hiking, horseback riding in Iceland is a special experience. The descendants of ponies brought here by Viking settlers, Icelandic horses are small, strong and docile. They’re renowned for their five gaits: Along with walk, trot and gallop, they have two extra “gears” — the tölt, which is fast and extremely smooth, and the skeið, a high-speed “flying pace.”
A whale-watching cruise offers a more leisurely experience and a chance to spy the elusive whales of the North Atlantic. You can expect to see dolphins, porpoises and midsize minke whales (seen on local menus) rather than big humpback or blue whales. Several tours depart from Reykjavík, but locals say the best whale-watching is in North Iceland, from the towns of Húsavík and Akureyri.
For all its ruggedness, Iceland also has its comforts — an abundance of thermal baths heated by the island’s geothermal energy. From touristy “premium” baths such as the Blue Lagoon to municipal pools favored by locals, a thermal bath is only a short drive. Imagine wrapping up a vigorous day of exploring Iceland’s magnificent outdoors with a soothing soak in 100-degree water. Aaaaahhh!
From volcano chamber explorations to geothermal pool plunges, Iceland offers adventures and activities that you can’t easily do anywhere else.