An Iceland Itinerary for Hot Springs Enthusiasts

My husband Ben and I had the best time in Iceland this July. If you, too, enjoy hot springs, camping, and puffins, or you’ve been wanting to see for yourself what the hype is all about, feel free to use our itinerary.

Day 1

Fly to Iceland with WOW airlines. Stretch out in XXL seats. Don’t get caught sleeping with your mouth open unless you really trust your seatmate.

Lonely Planet FTW!

Stock up on beer and Brennivín in duty free.

Get a brand new rental car–a white Hyundai hatchback will do nicely, but make sure you remember which white Hyundai hatchback is yours each time you try to get in. Make sure it has a navigation system since you’re directionally challenged. Frowning at that National Geographic Adventure map every few minutes isn’t fooling anyone.

Pick up miscellaneous camping gear at Iceland Camping Rental, find a cafe in Reykjavík, get some caffeine in your bloodstream, text everyone that you’re alive and well, and get groceries at Bonus.

Leave for Þingvellir National Park and marvel at how quickly your surroundings turn lush and magical. Set up camp and make dinner while trying not to inhale too many gnats.

Take a late evening stroll to Öxarárfoss, a beautiful little waterfall actually created by the Vikings back in the day.

Day 2

Fortify yourself for snorkeling in 2 degrees Celsius water in Silfra, where you will snorkel between the North Atlantic and Eurasian tectonic plates. (Can you observe signs of tectonic activity from dry land? Sure. But you’ll never know what it’s like to drink glacier water and swim in it at the same time.)

Ben goes for the extra credit!

Tour Þingvellir (aka Thingvellir), where Viking chieftains from around the country assembled and held the first parliament. If you’re lucky, your Icelandic tour guide will be moved to sing a few verses of a patriotic song.

The Icelandic flag (far in the background) is near the site of the country’s founding.

Þingvallakirkja

Continue your tour of the Golden Circle, stopping at the Geysir Hot Springs area, featuring mud pots, steaming pools of water, and of course a geyser that erupts every several minutes.

Hot springs at Geysir

You’re only 15 minutes away from the next marvel, Gullfoss–a very impressive two-tiered waterfall.

Gullfoss

Day 3

Spend a leisurely morning at Gamla Laugin (Secret Lagoon) in Flúðir, a naturally heated swimming pool built over a hundred years ago. It accommodates multiple buses of tourists and has a modern cafe without sacrificing good vibes and rustic charm.

Secret Lagoon in Flúðir

Hike around Kerið, a volcanic crater lake, where the legendary Björk performed on a raft while the audience sat on the slope.

Kerið

Stock up on groceries again at Bonus in Selfoss (we probably should have joined a member rewards program) and follow the Ring Road in a counter-clockwise direction. Set up camp at the site of the iconic waterfalls Seljalandsfoss and Gljúfrafoss. Both falls are unique in that they are impressive yet approachable–walk behind Seljalandsfoss, and work your way underneath and around the rock that obscures the bottom part of Gljúfrafoss (the “Hidden Waterfall”). Don’t worry about getting the perfect photo and enjoy the splendor.

Seljalandsfoss

Day 4

Visit the black sand beach called Reynisfjara near the seaside village Vík and check out Reynisdrangar, dramatic basalt columns that looks like The Devil’s Postpile in Mammoth, California. The crowd thins out as you continue walking down the shore, but beware of rogue waves if you choose to do any rock scrambling.

Reynisdrangar

Reynisfjara

On the way to Skaftafell, you’ll pass otherworldly lava fields covered in a uniform layer of dried lichens for as far as you can see. Don’t pass up a small but beautiful canyon called Fjaðrárgljúfur. It’s a short detour from Ring Road, and a trail takes you along the ledge of the canyon all the way to the waterfall at the end.

Fjaðrárgljúfur

 

Skaftafell

You might think you’ve seen all you can possibly see in one day but you’re just getting warmed up. This is summer in Iceland and the sun doesn’t go down for several hours.

Once you get to Skaftafell National Park, you have a plethora of hiking trails to choose from. A relatively ambitious activity that would take some advance planning is a guided glacier walk, or you could do what we did and hike a trail that takes you very close to a glacier, which is pretty neat.

End the day with a trip to Jökulsárlón, a peaceful lagoon filled with icebergs floating towards the sea. Some formations are Gatorade blue and others are streaked black with volcanic ash. Stay awhile and absorb the subtlety and the drama of the place. Keep an eye out for seals and for precariously stacked icebergs that are liable to crash down at any moment.

Day 5

Drive to Höfn, and you’re now in southeastern Iceland. The big ticket attractions are less concentrated once you’ve left the southern region, but the driving becomes even more scenic as the Ring Road follows the in-and-out curves of the fjords. In this small harbor village, fill up on some seafood and walk along the waterfront.

Enjoy the relatively long drive to Egilsstaðir, where you’ll find a popular campsite and hostel.

Day 6

If there’s one must-see town in the east, it’s Seyðisfjörður, situated on the water. With a rainbow colored path leading down the main “street” to an adorable sky blue church, it’s a highly photogenic locale. Burn off some road trip snacks with a steep hike above the town, passing a few waterfalls and checking out the interesting art installation Tvísöngur, which is essentially a cluster of echoing concrete domes. Pick out some hand knitted souvenirs in one of the craft shops before moving on.

The next destination is a fjord called Borgarfjörður eystri, which has one of the most laid-back and appealing campsites in Iceland. It’s also a five minute drive to a wonderful puffin colony called Hafnarhólmi. I suggest you visit at different times of day to experience the area in different lighting and because puffins might congregate in larger numbers at certain times. (We saw dozens in the evening and hundreds in the morning the next day.)

Day 7

After your second or third visit to the puffin colony, each visit more captivating than the last, get ready for another relatively long drive to Mývatn. Stop at the incredibly powerful Dettifoss, taking the route that leads to the protected side of the falls if tourists standing inches away from certain death makes you squeamish.

Dettifoss

Stop by a geothermal area called Hverir, where overpoweringly thick, sulfur-scented steam greets you at the parking lot. The bubbling mudpots and steaming fumaroles are delightful to see close up.

Hverir

 

The area’s major campsite, Bjarg, is situated on the shore of the volcanic lake Mývatn, boasting an idyllic background that admittedly is somewhat hard to enjoy in the rain. Fortunately, most campsites have indoor kitchen areas and this one is no exception.

After dinner, visit the Mývatn Nature Baths, known as the Blue Lagoon of the North, and in my humble opinion the best Blue Lagoon of them all. (Full disclosure: we skipped the most famous one, near Reykjavík). Relax in luxury, have a lifeguard bring you a beer, and gaze at the surrounding landscape until closing at midnight, when you’ll have the whole place almost to yourself for awhile.

The Mývatn Nature Baths at closing time

Day 8

The Nature Baths may be the ultimate highlight of Mývatn, depending on whether or not you’re a huge Game of Thrones fan, in which case another hot springs competes for #1. The water filled cave Grjótagjá used to be a popular bathing spot, but the hot spring itself is now off-limits to the public. Now, it is known for being the location of a steamy scene involving Jon Snow. (I’m not a GOT fan myself but it was pretty cool.) From there, hike on over to the humongous crater called Hverfjall, which measures over a kilometer across at the rim.

Hverfjall

Another sight worth seeing is Dimmuborgir, a lava field where jagged, towering rock formations and caves inspire stories about trolls.

A rare sighting of one of Dimmuborgir’s legendary Yule Lads emerging from his cave dwelling.

Continue one of the final legs of the Ring Road trip, stopping at Iceland’s second largest city, Akureyri. There is plenty of shopping, dining and drinking to do in town, not to mention an interesting church and botanical gardens to explore. However, we spent most of our time at Hamrar, another awesome campsite featuring a ropes course and other remnants of a kids’ sleep-away camp.

Day 9

One more fantastic hot springs experience awaits you. Set the GPS to Hveragerði, not far from Reykjavík, completing your circumnavigation of the island. From a convenient parking lot near the campsite, a trails leads up and along the springs river, with green rollings hills and steam rising up everywhere you look. After passing several boiling pools, you’ll come to the part of the river, marked with partitions to change into your bathing suit, where the water is just right for a soak.

Hveragerði

Day 10

Spend the day in the capital doing whatever your heart desires. The National Museum has a fascinating collection of artifacts from the Settlement Era as well as religious art and contemporary objects. You can even try on traditional women’s riding garb (it’s very cumbersome).

While going out is expensive anywhere in Iceland, there are happy hours to be found all over Reykjavík, and we even chanced upon some free live music. Find the locals’ favorite hot dog cart for a relatively cheap snack.

For dinner, definitely go to The Sea Baron restaurant in Old Harbor for lobster soup and salmon skewers. There were probably ten ingredients total in our meal and it was perfect.

Old Harbor, Reykjavík

Day 11

Squeeze in one more activity, or just find a good breakfast spot, and begin your journey home.

Art vs. an Oasis in the Sespe Wilderness

I’ll admit I find modern art kind of baffling. I doubt I’m alone in this, since there’s no objective way to label a thing art or not art. But a new installation piece called Social Pool has me more than confused. It’s a puny bathing pool in the middle of the Mojave Desert, made all but inaccessible (on purpose!), and its very existence has me inexplicably peeved.

The artist hopes that visitors will have an epiphany about their role in a society dominated by consumerism, or something like that…that is, if they can even find the pool. And if they fail, well, that also says something about consumerism and the pursuit of luxury, supposedly.

Social Pool

Social Pool

One LAist writer dubbed Social Pool “obnoxious,” while another LAist contributor went to the installation and didn’t have anything snarky to say at all. Without going for myself, I can’t say for sure whether it’s a waste of water or whether it’s a worthwhile experiment. Because I suspect the former, I’m going to offer up one of my favorite places to take a dip–the Bear Creek Campground swimming hole–as an alternative to Social Pool, so that you don’t have to get lost in the Mojave Desert and die.

In order to sit in Social Pool, the visitor must first visit a museum to pick up the key and the GPS points, because the pool has a locking cover and no signs or markings to find it from the highway. Plus, it’s a considerable walk over the hot sand from the road to the pool’s location. Here’s another idea: Google directions to the Piedra Blanca trail head, in the Los Padres National Forest’s Sespe Wilderness Area, and drive there. Park for free. There’s a large trail map there–no need for GPS points. Follow the well-worn trail about 4 miles to Bear Creek campground, where you will find the swimming hole.

Bear Creek swimming hole

Most accessible pool goes to: Bear Creek Swimming Hole. While there’s a fun scavenger-hunt aspect to Social Pool, I don’t have the patience or flexibility to go to a museum to pick up a key that may or may not be checked out already. If it’s a challenge you’re after, reaching Bear Creek requires enough effort to make the swim feel well-deserved.

Social Pool is the size of a small hot tub and the rules allow only four occupants at once. At Bear Creek there is sufficient water for actual swimming, even in summer during a drought. There is room for you, a few friends, other hikers and their friends, and so on. You can sun your pale skin on a wide, flat rock, dive in when you get too hot, and repeat.

Bear Creek Campground

Best pool for swimming: Bear Creek, obviously.

Enough logistics! Now, do you like being encouraged to over-think your entertainment and leisure choices? Do you believe that total mental relaxation and detachment from society are for those who lack culture? Then Social Pool could be for you. The difficulty of accessing the installation is meant to provide the visitor opportunity to reflect on why she is willing to go through such pains. On the way to Bear Creek, you’re allowed to think about how pretty the wildflowers are, or about how you wish you’d brought stuff to make s’mores. And then, once in the water, you’re free to let your mind enter a blissful, meditative state, punctuated by the croaking of bullfrogs.

Best pool for unapologetic hedonists: Bear Creek. (You didn’t expect me to let Social Pool win anything, did you?)

And just because we’re talking about art today…

toad and plate

An arroyo toad and his plate

 

Down a River in Utah

At certain points, the cliff walls that overhang the Green River seem to be on the verge of crumbling down at any moment, as if they’re carefully holding their breath and the dislodging of one particle of sand has the potential to send tons of boulders crashing down into the lethargic water below. I entertained this thought while paddling through Labyrinth Canyon in a canoe, even though the looser-looking chunks of sandstone above had been resting there for who knows how long, and would likely stay put for the duration of our journey, if not longer.

It wasn’t so much the fear of being squished by a rock that spurred my imagination but rather the wonder at how such a presently tame waterway could cut through the hard, compact earth in such a way as to create this:

canoeing

The stillness was suspenseful, until I got used to itUnless a flash flood happened while we were there, which would have been super inconvenient, I was unlikely to witness any change at all. I do wish someone could make a time-lapse video of a blind arch becoming (and becoming, and becoming, and becoming) an arch. I’ll check back in maybe five thousand years. 

I’m grateful, of course, that the Green River kept its cool while it transported us through the canyon for the forty-six miles from Ruby Ranch to Mineral Bottom. We had a few more things going for us: we were the last group (six people, three canoes) launched by Tex’s Riverways for the year, so there was no one else with whom to compete for places to camp or to contradict the notion that we were intrepid explorers of a unique sort. Also, since it was late October, we avoided exposure to heat during the day (this is desert, after all) and the night chill only made the campfire more enjoyable.

I’ve seen many herons but rarely one of the blue persuasion.

The boys–Ben, Mike and Dane–had a couple advantages being at the back of the canoe. For one, they could trail their fishing lines behind them and cast frequently without snagging their canoe-mates, in theory. No fish were caught; the murky-water dwellers turned up their noses to the Powerbait. I’m not saying that there’s no enjoyment to be derived from even fruitless fishing, but at some point you have to put up the pole and paddle, dammit. The other advantage was that they could simply stand, turn 180 degrees and relieve themselves into the river without interrupting our progress. Since the only permissible place to piss was in the river, this advantage must not be underestimated.

As for the ladies–Liana, Alexis and myself–getting the front seat is the advantage itself.

cloudy skies

We did spend a lot of time on the river but we would pull up to the bank for a leisurely lunch and stop for exploration by foot through some empty river beds whose crust was damp but cracked. After the first docking experience during which we discovered one can easily sink up to the navel in silt, we became more selective about where to land. We (i.e., Alexis) referred to a detailed waterproof map to keep track of our progress and to decide on which bottom, strategically speaking, would work as a camp site.

We explored the riverbed where the temptation to slather oneself with nutrient-rich clay is just too much for some people.

We explored the riverbed where the temptation to slather oneself with nutrient-rich clay is just too much for some people.

Since conventional means of entertainment were absent on this trip, we entertained ourselves with roasting marshmallows, campfire stories and hot chocolate with peppermint schnapps. We found that canned re-fried beans, when placed directly into the fire, behave like a jack-in-the-box. I won’t go into Ben’s display of “freestyle canoeing” here but suffice it to say it made quite a splash.

Here we saw the footprints of either a badger or large bird. Debate goes on.

Here we saw the footprints of either a badger or large bird. Debate goes on.

Within 24 hours of the last meal on the river, while Alexis and Mike went back to Colorado, the rest of us were checking into the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, with its anemic animal sanctuary and cigarette smoke, showering for the first time in five days and then dashing over to the Bellagio for buffet. I saw the big platters of shellfish and thought of Tom Hanks in Castaway, picking up a crab leg from a buffet table after being rescued. The lobby had a stunning fall-themed display with an Oz-like animatronic tree, giant pumpkins, and elaborate waterworks, but it had nothing on our riparian wonderland.

I think the author of The Wind in the Willows would agree:

`Believe me, my young friend, there is NOTHING–absolute nothing–half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing,’ he went on dreamily: `messing–about–in–boats; messing—-‘

`Look ahead, Rat!’ cried the Mole suddenly.

It was too late. The boat struck the bank full tilt. The dreamer, the joyous oarsman, lay on his back at the bottom of the boat, his heels in the air.

`–about in boats–or WITH boats,’ the Rat went on composedly, picking himself up with a pleasant laugh. `In or out of ’em, it doesn’t matter. Nothing seems really to matter, that’s the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don’t; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you’re always busy, and you never do anything in particular; and when you’ve done it there’s always something else to do, and you can do it if you like, but you’d much better not. Look here! If you’ve really nothing else on hand this morning, supposing we drop down the river together, and have a long day of it?’

A river’s a great place for reflection.

24 Hours in Point Mugu

Saturday, 7:01 am: Backpacks are expertly packed for optimum weight distribution. We have the equivalent of a 6-year-old in food and water but have a relatively short distance to carry the load.

Tent, backpacks, 4 gallons water, whole pack of tortillas, entire jar of peanut butter...you get the picture.

Tent, sleeping bags, 4 gallons water, whole pack of tortillas, entire jar of peanut butter…you get the picture.

8:27 am: Rendezvous with camping companions and stop at Coffee Bean to load up on egg sandwiches and 20 oz coffees for the road. Caravan to Point Mugu in Malibu.

9:07 am: Hoist on backpacks in comical fashion and begin eastward ascent.

9:28 am: Cross fingers that charred, ostensibly barren landscape will turn lush and green just around the bend.

switchbacks

10:50 am: Come to an unclear sign directing to our campsite; speculate as to the  intention of the person who scratched in an arrow. Punk-ass joker or benevolent do-gooder?

11:15 am: Reach campsite, already occupied by rowdy young gents. Breath sigh of relief when they pack up and leave so we have the whole place to ourselves. Situate and spread out.

The so-called Springs Fire may have transformed the landscape but there was an interesting color palette going on.

The so-called Springs Fire may have, shall we say, transformed the landscape but there was an interesting color palette going on, e.g. bright green sprouts emerging from the burned trees.

12:13 pm: Hammock. Flask. Snacks on snacks.

hammock-001

Princess Consuela Bananaflask, meet Juice in a Box.

Princess Consuela Bananaflask, meet Juice in a Box.

3:10 pm: Explore the area above the campsite and climb a ridge overlooking Ventura. Walk over crunchy scorched earth, breeze through the empty space left by the hundreds of burned down trees and tall grass. Only the sturdiest of succulents remain.

5:10 pm: Theo teaches us a funny Russian card game called Durak.

Durak

6:02 pm: Gather some kindling for fire. Chop up the charred remnants of a picnic table for wood.

Fire

7:19 pm: Try out brand new MSR stove and cooking set. Success!

Tea

8:45 pm: Ben searches in vain for the stick he’d painstakingly whittled into the perfect marshmallow roasting device. Mourns and moves on. S’mores ‘n’ s’mores ‘n’ s’mores. Linger by fire until out of fuel.

9:26 pm: Bed time.

1:42 am: Wake up to the noise of some animal walking near our tent. I imagine a raccoon, possum, or maybe one of those “alot” creatures from Hyperbole and a Half.

http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com/2010/04/alot-is-better-than-you-at-everything.html

Click on the alot to learn about this fascinating animal, invented as a mechanism to cope with the incessant urge to correct poor grammar.

Sunday, 7:13 am: Sun is an effective alarm clock. Find I am not sleepy at all but lay there for a while anyway since I’m in no hurry.

9:02 am: Pack up and stuff trash into a trashcan liner, which is surprisingly full. Begin trek back to civilization with its toilets, TV and Korean barbecue.

happy campers

Cheers to Yahaira’s first camping trip!