Return to Iceland, Pt. 9

Around Mývatn

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Breakfast at the guesthouse included cereal, hard-boiled eggs and small, flat, almost crepe-like pancakes that had an almond flavor. There were two options for coffee: a machine that would noisily grind the beans for you and make a pretty good – if small – cup, or a typical dispenser with pre-brewed coffee in it, which was faster, but tasted far, far worse. I’m not that picky when it comes to coffee, but that tasted genuinely bad.

The ground outside was covered in frost that crunched underfoot and we found the car coated in a thin layer of ice. The defroster on the front windshield had seemed like overkill until now – the glass was clear in a matter of minutes. Despite the chilly temperature and developing clouds, the sun was shining, and it looked like we would be treated to another day with relatively stable weather. We hopped on the Ring Road toward Mývatn and reached Vindbelgjarfjall by 10am.

Vindbelgjarfjall is a hyaloclastite ridge formed in the last Ice Age.

I chose to start the day – while we had plenty of energy – with a hike to the top of Vindbelgjarfjall due to its reasonable length and the promise of great views. As we started out, I had to admit the mountain did look a little bit intimidating. The trail was steep and icy in parts but featured plenty of switchbacks. Taking our time with frequent breaks got us all the way to the summit 1,736 feet above sea level.

The view over Mývatn was as good as advertised. Not only that, but we had it all to ourselves. Cold wind whipped around us as we surveyed our surroundings. There were pseudo-craters, islands, and puffs of steam scattered around the landscape. I could see the roads looping around Lake Mývatn and the small community of Reykjahlíð in the distance, along with the large, sloping crater rim of Hverfjall. Big, dynamic clouds rolled through the area. It was totally different from anywhere else we’d been.

lake myvatn panorama

Mývatn means “midge lake” and is known for hatching huge numbers of midges in the summer.

After taking it all in, we found shelter from the wind at the top of the trail behind a large cairn. “Just a couple of field mice,” I said, as we hunkered down and shared an energy bar. The way down was a lot easier, if still a little cold – we pulled our jacket hoods tight around our faces. We paused partway down so I could set up the tripod and take a picture of the both of us.

We’d worked up an appetite that we hoped to satiate at Vogafjós Cowshed Café, but they were too busy to seat us, thanks to a tour group reservation. Daddi’s Pizza – just down the road – came to our rescue. The lady at the counter goodnaturedly tried to talk us into a large pie, but we were happy to share a medium. I thought it was the best pizza we’d had on the trip. The walls inside were painted with a representation of the nearby Dimmuborgir lava formations.

The Yule Lads are said to live deep in a cave in Dimmuborgir.

Next up, Grjótagjá cave, which has gained some notoriety from an appearance in Game of Thrones. It was much cooler than I thought it would be. We crouched down inside and observed the still, blue, steaming water as a light beam entered the cave from above. The landscape topside was very cool-looking with a dramatic fissure reaching into the distance.

geothermal spring inside a cave
geological fissure

The water temperature at Grjótagjá rose above 50 °C during nearby eruptions from 1975 to 1984.

The road took us up and around Namafjall to Hverir geothermal area. This seemed to be a very popular spot. Even so, it was a very atmospheric and otherworldly landscape. I wondered if the cool air made it seem steamier than usual. Orange clay stuck to our boots as we walked around. We were surrounded by interesting colors, smells, and the sounds of bubbling mud pots and hissing steam vents.

colorful iceland geothermal landscape
geothermal area boardwalk

Ready to relax a bit, we headed for Mývatn Nature Baths, known as the “Blue Lagoon of the north.” After paying admission, we were provided with tokens that could be used to claim lockers in the changing rooms. You drop the token in the slot which allows you to take the key with a handy elastic cord you could wrap around your wrist).

Outside, a digital sign gave the temperature as 5.6 °C. That made for a chilly scramble from the changing rooms to the warmth of the pools! There were a lot more people than we expected in the pale blue waters, but we still enjoyed it. The main pool was pleasantly warm. We dashed over a walkway to a less crowded (but cooler) one, but it wasn’t long before we returned. Our surroundings, and the view over Myvatn, certainly felt more authentic and natural than the Blue Lagoon, though both spas only exist thanks to the mineral-rich discharge of geothermal power plants. At any rate, it was a good excuse to slow down and hang out.

myvatn ring road

Rain clouds had finally started to move in. I decided to backtrack out toward Laugar so that we could see Goðafoss before the weather took a turn. The photogenic waterfall was visible from the roadway. With a guesthouse, an ample parking lot, and a gas station, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that the waterfall was receiving a constant stream of visitors.

Lawspeaker Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði threw his pagan idols into the churning waters of Goðafoss after Iceland adopted Christianity as the national religion.

We wandered around for awhile and I found a spot a little farther from the action to set up my tripod. While we could have gone round to the other side and even gotten down to the water, we were both starting to feel fatigued. We bid farewell to Goðafoss and returned to the guesthouse.

godafoss waterfall

Dalakofinn provided another delicious meal – fish ‘n’ chips for me, a burger for Katelyn. I spent the rest of the evening checking photos from the day and updating my daily journal notes. We thought about jumping in the hot tub, but felt we’d had our fill from the Nature Baths, and ended up dozing off early.

Both of us were just falling asleep when there was some commotion outside. Figuring it was either people returning from the hot tub in the frigid night air, or the northern lights, I finally got up and peered out the window. I didn’t see anything, though I noticed some people gathering around the corner, so I went to that side and looked out the little window in the top of our door. I could hardly believe it – the sky was clearing and a patch of light green color was visible. I woke up Katelyn and we somehow managed to dress ourselves in the dark.

At first I was just happy to see the aurora, and I thought, “this is nice, it’ll disappear soon and we’ll go back inside.” But when it became clear that it was going to stick around for awhile, I rushed inside and gathered my camera equipment. I didn’t turn on any lights so as not to ruin my night vision. I snatched up my neoprene camera case at the last minute.

We went about a hundred feet from our room and I started taking test shots. The moon was rising in the east, casting its light on the landscape, and there was some light coming off nearby buildings. The aurora was brightening as well and I found that using too long a shutter speed would result in lost detail. The following settings seemed to work well:

  • ISO 1600
  • 8s – 13s shutter
  • f/4.0
aurora above guesthouse storu-laugar
northeast iceland aurora

At some point an employee of the guesthouse knocked on the doors of other guests and turned off the exterior lights. That really helped us see the color, shape and movement of the aurora. We didn’t move around much ourselves; it occurs to me now that, had we been less tired and cold, I might have thought to return to Goðafoss where I’m sure the scene was quite amazing. Hindsight is 20/20 and I was grateful to be seeing the aurora at all – at this point in the trip we’d just about given up on it!

After a while, I packed everything up. The camera went into a neoprene case which I then zipped up in my jacket to start warming it up. I hoped this would result in less of a shock when returning to our room. We stayed outside for another 15 minutes or so just appreciating the show without being behind the camera. It flowed like a river, or like fog, separating into bands only to combine again. Colors and shapes ebbed and strengthened. All I could say was “Wow!” over and over. The camera captured it well enough in its own way, but I hope I never forget how we saw it with our own eyes.