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.

Big Santa Anita Canyon: A post I started and forgot about back in March

It’s mostly true that nobody walks in L.A., but I dare you to try and find an Angeleno who is not all about hiking. This has been the case since the city’s real estate boom in the 1880’s, kicking off L.A.’s “Great Hiking Era” during which the San Gabriel Mountains served as a rugged frontierland for nostalgic urbanites.

High-altitude leisure-seekers could even ride a quaint little funicular, on the Mount Lowe Railway, up a 62% incline (they were a little nutso in 1893) to a glamorous mountaintop hotel. Survivors were rewarded with unbeatable panoramic views, hiking, zoo-visiting, couples massage, hopefully some bottomless mimosas…

Resorts popped up like wild flowers over the years. Alas, due to fires, extra-dangerous road conditions and other hazards, these “Hotels in the Sky” and supporting infrastructure have long been abandoned or torn down, the remains attracting modern-day hikers. But I salute those visionaries who sought to civilize the mountains above Los Angeles. They saw potential for development and profit where we now see potential for the preservation and enjoyment of nature.

But I do sometimes long to be one of those early 20th century ladies, trying to ride a burro up a gnarly trail whilst dressed in a long wool skirt. (I mean, they knew how to picnic.) Now that nearly every corner of the globe and select bits of outer space bear the markings of human civilization, the frontier exists not so much as potential real estate but as a virtual place where new ideas sparkle like the lights of Los Angeles seen from the Mount Wilson observatory. In lieu of true, utter wilderness, all I can ask for is the illusion of isolation, the chance to demonstrate my enviable survival skills (I must be part Australian) some endangered bird-sighting, and as a bonus: hot springs.

There were no hot springs on this San Gabriels trip, where we explored Chantry Flat in Big Santa Anita Canyon, but a creek and waterfalls more than made up for that.

There are 81 cabins in Chantry Flat in Big Santa Anita Canyon (we passed about a dozen on the trail). Needless to say there's no electricity or internet; residents get propane and supplies carried in by pack animals and can make calls on a crank phone.

There are 81 cabins in Chantry Flat in Big Santa Anita Canyon (we passed about a dozen on the trail). Needless to say there’s no electricity or internet; residents get propane and supplies carried in by pack animals and can make calls on a crank phone.

 

Four miles from the trail head we came to Sturtevant Falls, had breakfast (it was still only about 8:30 am) and picked up some trash before taking a photo.

 

The trail continues up above the fall where the creek gathers into pools full of WHAT DO YOU MEAN THERE'S NO TROUT?

The trail continues up above the fall where the creek gathers into pools full of WHAT DO YOU MEAN NO TROUT?

 

We still had the whole day ahead of us upon arriving at the campsite, so we hiked to the top of Mount Wilson. The trail  occasionally opens up to these views. Also I thought I heard a mountain lion but it was Ben's stomach.

We still had the whole day ahead of us upon arriving at the campsite, so we hiked to the top of Mount Wilson. The trail occasionally opens up to these views. Also I thought I heard a mountain lion but it was Ben’s stomach.

 

Ben examines river water for tadpoles before purifying.

Ben examines river water for tadpoles before purifying.

You could do this long hike in one day, but we can’t pass up a campsite without pitching a tent and sleeping next to a river. Try it out and thank me later. And if you go here, keep in mind the parking lot fills as soon as it opens at 6:30. We witnessed an awkward parking spot duel on the way home.

From the Press Room of the L.A. Travel & Adventure Show

Last weekend I met Andrew Zimmern and Samantha Brown, which, taken together, is basically the equivalent of meeting Anthony Bourdain. Who am I kidding—it’s not. But the other Travel Channel sweethearts are actually very nice, intelligent people who might deserve a bit more credit and less snark from me and other snarky people like Anthony Bourdain.

Andrew Zimmern, from "Bizarre Foods"...so freakin' bizarre!

These encounters took place at the L.A. Travel & Adventure Show, produced at the Long Beach Convention Center. I worked on the publicity side of the event, organizing interviews and such, so I was working in the press room for the most part but did get to explore the expo during opportune moments, like when they were doling out samples of tequila-lime prawns.

Samantha Brown and Andrew Zimmern seemed chummy when they relaxed in the press room with their entourages. Peter Greenberg, on the other hand, is a very serious travel journalist affiliated with CBS. Not to gossip, but as he relaxed with his assistants in the press room, he commented on Samantha’s lack of journalistic integrity (to paraphrase) while conceding her ability to tell a story. Let’s examine the validity of this claim.

Exhibit A: Samantha discusses her hotel room in Vegas, and to convey just how ridiculously extravagant the room is, a photo of the “shower” displays behind her. The shower is so big, there’s a seat in it, and Samantha presumes that the seat’s purpose is to allow the guest to relax while walking from one end of the shower to the other. Many chuckles from the audience.

Exhibit B: Peter Greenberg discusses the tragic closed-mindedness of most

Peter Greenberg wants you to go to Egypt! Now!

Americans, especially when it comes to venturing to countries undergoing natural or social instability. “How many people have been to Egypt in the last five months?” he asks. Not enough people raise their hands. Go to Egypt, is Peters advice. The people will love to see you there because you’re the only visitors. You’ll be supporting an economy that could greatly benefit from your spending money there. You’ll come back with unbelievable memories. And so on.

The verdict is that I don’t really care who the real journalist is, but both of them made me want to go travel.

While the idea behind a travel show is to encourage people to go out and use their passports, domestic destinations were heavily represented, namely California and the Southwest. I picked up some pamphlets from desert cities, including some information on a wildflower festival in April and a flyer for the 10th Annual Joshua Tree Music Festival in May. So you’ll find my camping out in the desert for about a month. Come join me in the Magical Mojave!

Aside from a newfound urge to start planning a trip, something I literally took away from the L.A. Travel & Adventure Show: a recipe book from the Louisiana booth subtitled “Experience our Culture” including a recipe for Squirrelly Rice, which I’ll produce here for you in anticipation that you’ll ask for it anyway:

4 tough cat squirrels
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon Black Pepper
1 ½ – 2 cups rice

Cut squirrels up and put in large crock pot with plenty of hot water. Add salt and pepper. Cook on high until meat falls off bones easily (about 6-8 hours). Remove squirrels from water but save the liquid in the crock pot. Remove all the meat off the bones and shred. Put the liquid from the crock pot in a 1 gallon pot. Add 1 teaspoon salt and ½ teaspoon pepper. Bring to a cloil and add rice and squirrel meat. Cook until rice in done. Add water if needed. Should be almost soupy. This works with squirrels, wild turkey legs and thighs, duck, venison or for a mixed flavor dish. I often cook 2 or 3 of the above in the same pot.

I have so many questions. What is a cat squirrel? If you don’t shoot them yourself in Union Parish, LA, where the recipe was sourced, will it still be authentic? Can I get them in Los Angeles? What sort of moonshine goes best with this dish?

Also, what is the best time of year to visit Union Parish? I’m afraid I left the L.A. Travel & Adventure Show with more questions than answers.

Conversations With People Who Have Sweet Jobs, Part One

The first installment in my investigation into the perks, pitfalls, and methods of entry into various coveted occupations.

Job: Freelance Travel Writer
Pro: Ken McAlpine

Honestly, who wouldn’t want to get paid to travel around the country, perhaps even the world, and write about it?

Here’s the rub: the travel writing industry has taken a huge wallop in post 9/11 years, as magazines have folded, made cuts to staff, or gone web-only, making it rather tricky for writers to land a full-time gig and a reliable paycheck. Which isn’t to say someone with enough drive and talent can’t make money, and one of the ways to do so is through good old-fashioned freelancing. (The avenue of New Media demands its own story.)

I called up an acquaintance I met through work, Mr. Ken McAlpine, for his perspective on the risky yet rewarding occupation. Ken graciously agreed to help me out, and offered some wonderful insight. A dedicated family man with over twenty years of freelance experience, he’s a seasoned pro who contributes regularly to pubs such as Sunset Magazine and takes the kids surfing whenever the waves beckon. A sweet perk of the job, no?

Since I don’t have a transcript of the interview, which loosely started out as one and melted into a more natural conversation, I’ll recreate and condense some of the highlights from memory and shoddy note taking. Hey, I never said I was a qualified journalist.

On his life before chasing assignments: “I was working at a small paper called the Ventura County Reporter. I always tell people it’s not a good idea to quit your day job and start freelancing because assignments won’t come streaming in right away. [Editor’s note: Oops…] I did stay at the Reporter, although it wasn’t too chancy to up and leave since the pay wasn’t that great anyway.”

On his first published stories: “I started sending stories in unsolicited, and my first piece to be published was a story on winter surfing in Surfer Magazine. [Editor’s note: not too shabby!] Then I wrote a first-person story that Sports Illustrated invited readers to submit, so I sent in a piece about trail running and rattle snakes, and that was how I first got in Sports Illustrated. Since then I’ve had about 25 pieces published there, but that first one was great to have under my belt while pitching editors elsewhere. I’ve written for Outside Magazine and other outdoor magazines; I tend to write about things I’m interested in, so yes, it’s often outdoor activity related.”

On the burden (or blessing?) placed on freelancers at the time: “Freelancers were usually given assignments that involved weird, quirky aspects; I once did a story on a one-legged climber…stuff like that.”

On the evolution of freelancing: “The biggest change actually is how short articles have gotten. [Editor’s note: You mean, not how the Internet has taken over? Interesting.] Before, you had space to craft a story, but now I think what magazines want, or what they think readers want, is quick information. Assignments seem to get shorter and shorter: 125 words on ‘eat here, stay here, drink here,’ and something’s being lost. You can’t really do a place justice in 125 words.”

On his other work: “I’ve had the chance to write a couple books, which gave me room to really tell the story I wanted, and the freedom to have a sense of humor, and to use language you can’t use in most magazines.” [Editor’s note: I think the dirtiest word Kevin in our interview was “heck,” so I’ll be on a close lookout for usage of questionable vernacular in his books.]

On PR professionals…and PR “professionals:” “Some PR people are good friends and send great ideas, and they don’t send too many. There’s one person who sends about four pitches a day, and it’s the kind of thing where, if I was Borat I’d be interested, but seriously, what the heck? … When a firm pays for a trip it can be a difficult and uncomfortable situation, especially when the experience isn’t a positive one. And I can’t lie about it. It’s not always rosy. But there are only a handful of negative reviews I’ve given. PR is actually a great function in that it brings to attention things you wouldn’t have been aware of otherwise.”

On the biggest perks and challenges: “My biggest perk is that I get to enjoy a great family life and have personal time. I was freelancing and working from home before both my kids were born, so I got to walk them to school each day, coach their soccer teams, take them surfing…Financial uncertainty is a drawback, and after 9/11 it was a struggle, but I’m very lucky. With my wife’s income as a schoolteacher, we were able to make it work. I’ve had the chance to travel the world, meet some amazing people, and I wouldn’t have done anything differently.”

On haters: “I would never discourage anyone from writing if they want to do it. Just follow your dreams.”

Progress

The last few attempts with my poor battered board have been rather encouraging. It’s been a while since I’ve tried something new and crossed that threshold from complete incompetency to the emergence of confidence, however fragile it might be. Hopefully the sense of relief and surprise when I catch and briefly ride a wave will soon turn into one of familiarity, but I expect the happy part will remain.

Mammoth in July

Another post that is not only quite late but also nothing to do with surfing, unless you generously compare snowboarding to surfing; and I did of course foolishly hope that a proficiency in the former facilitated the learning process of the latter.

I’ve never had a white Christmas, but I have had a white Third of July. I could make this nice and tidy by saying it was July 4th, but alas I was back to sea level for fireworks by then. Besides, we celebrated our much cherished and yet taken-for-granted freedom all weekend long by doing exactly what we wished, which was to frolic around Mammoth Lakes and shred up the slopes with what snow remained at the resort that is so dear to my heart.

Ben and I arrived at the decided-upon camp site late at night and met up with other half of the party to arrive, backcountry extraordinaries Jesse and Serena. I love pitching a tent at night when it’s pitch black (there was no moon at the time) so that the landscape is a complete surprise come morning. We were in the high desert, so the ground is covered in snow in winter but covered in green shrubs and grass by spring. In the not-so-far distance, the mountains rose up dramatically. Being camped near some grazing land, a herd of braying cows woke us up and peered at us warily from time to time as we set up a fire for breakfast.

Nearby our campground, which was really just a clearing without amenities or national park fees, there was a smattering of hot springs, and I was intrigued because I’d never set foot in one before. Fortunately the springs weren’t highly publicized and Jesse knew about them from a previous stint camping in the area, so we were the only ones there. Brilliant!

Mammoth Mountain, the ski resort I am now referring to (keep up!) had been pushing this “We’re open for the 4th of July!” concept pretty hard, because that’s just kind of a ridiculous feat in California, so naturally I had high expectations. I barely recognized the resort at all, what with all the brownness showing through the snow, oh, and a zip line for the kids… And yet I was still overcome by a nostalgic familiarity with the gondola tracing steadily up to the top of the slopes and the graceful(ish) curves of snowboarders and skiiers harmoniously intertwining like ribbons on a maypole.

At first I lamented the fact that we couldn’t access Dave’s Run or take Chair 23 among other favorites, but there was still a lot to do and plenty of groomed terrain to cover. And instead of getting overwhelmed with the multitude of runs to take and fighting over which side of the mountain is best, which might happen during peak season, we calmly found a hiding/chilling place in the snow for some PBRs and returned to this spot now and again for relief from the blazing 3rd of July sun.

A reminder regarding apparel: while a bathing suit top makes sense in exceedingly warm temperatures on the slopes, it offers the arms and torso no protection from the sun or from gritty snow preserved with salt. So, wear a gallon of SPF, and don’t fall. Violá, you’re golden.

All photos courtesy of Serena Butler. Stupid cations courtesy me.

Hey cows, the roosters called. They want their jobs back.

This says carpe diem all over it. After my bacon though.

Off to see the Wizard.

...and it was just right.

Mammoth in July. A little dirt never hurt anyone.

Why yes, that is an eight person tent for the two of us. That's how we roll.

Why I need to become a native.

If I could travel to any time and place it would have to be Hawaii in 1866, to watch Mark Twain try and fail to surf with the locals. Even if I’m overestimating the potential for amusement here, at least I’d be in Hawaii.

While on assignment for the Sacramento Union in Hawaii, a job which launched his career as a writer, the 31-year old reporter “came upon a large company of naked natives, of both sexes and all ages, amusing themselves with the national pastime of surf-bathing. Each heathen would paddle three or four hundred yards out to sea (taking a short board with him), then face the shore and wait for a particularly prodigious billow to come along; at the right moment he would fling his board upon its foamy crest and himself upon the board, and here he would come whizzing by like a bombshell! It did not seem that a lightning express-train could shoot along at a more hair-lifting speed. I tried surf-bathing once, subsequently, but made a failure of it. I got the board placed right, and at the right moment, too; but missed the connection myself. The board struck the shore in three-quarters of a second, without any cargo, and I struck the bottom at about the same time, with a couple barrels of water in me. None but natives ever master the art of surf-bathing completely.”

He wrote this in Roughing It. I think it might be my favorite bit of Twain’s prose and I’m inspired to start exaggerating like he did on a more regular basis.