Iceland: Fire and Ice

Mommy, how close will we be to the top of the world? That was Claire’s question when we were packing for Iceland.

Reykjavik is not actually in the Artic Circle, but it’s close. At 64.9 degrees north, Iceland’s capital is about 1 1/2 degrees further south. Its northerly latitude and location on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge give the country some stunning landscapes.

I always think of the Rockies as being fairly young in a geological sense. But the drive from the airport into Reykjavik gives you a sense of just how new a landscape can be. The road cuts through lava flows only a few thousand years old with the odd crater popping up every so often.

Icelandic horses

Icelandic horses

We spent our first evening in the country exploring the harbour and getting a look at the escarpment across the bay that springs out of the ocean. We were also reminded of how dangerous travel to the country was before airplanes from signage that detailed  shipwrecks over the centuries.

The next day we rode Icelandic horses through ancient lava flows. The trail ride was rather boring as we didn’t even get a chance to trot, but it was a cool way to look at the landscape.

We rented a car and drove around Iceland’s famous Golden Circle. Our first stop was at Althingi, the site of Iceland’s first parliament established more than 1,000 years ago.

Althingi sits on the ridge that separates the North American and Eurasian geotectonic plates. We walked through a trench between the two plates that is growing at a rate of 3 mm per year.

(I was crossing my fingers and muttering “no earthquakes” the whole time.)

Strokkur geyser

Strokkur geyser

We also visited Gullfoss Falls as well as the Strokkur geyser. Even though we were in the height of tourist season, there were barely enough people to circle the geyser. We didn’t have to wait long to see it erupt, as the geyser seemed to go off every five minutes. We climbed up a nearby hill to see it from above, and got a sense of how high the water goes.

Our last stop was at the Kerio Crater, formed over 6,500 years ago. Scientists figure the volcano that formed it collapsed in on itself, leaving us with the red walls and green water far below. Today the crater has such good acoustics that concerts have been held at the bottom.

It was amazing to walk around the rim of Kerio and hike down to the water. There were maybe 10 other people in the area, so we sat at the bottom looking out on the water in relative silence.

Sophie stands on the rim of the Kerio Crater

Sophie stands on the rim of the Kerio Crater

Probably our favourite day in Iceland was touring the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, where I snapped the cover photo of Claire. We explored basalt rock formations that look like columns, passed by massive water falls jutting over cliffs, and walked on beaches covered in black sand. The landscape was unreal.

Djúpalónssandur black sand beach

Djúpalónssandur black sand beach

We also spent an afternoon at the Blue Lagoon, but it was a little boring compared to Iceland’s natural wonders. The lagoon is a manmade pool built beside one of the many geothermal power plants in Iceland, which is what I actually found to be much more interesting.

We visited a power plant on our way to the airport and learned that 99 per cent of Reykjavik is powered by geothermal energy. The system also includes hot water delivery. Because of this technology, heating costs are significantly lower compared to Norway, Sweden and Finland. I suppose that’s one of the benefits of living on an island with over 30 active volcano systems!

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