After my unexpected near-death experience on a snow-covered Icelandic mountain, I really didn’t know what to expect from the second half of the “Essential Iceland” tour I had booked with Iceland Rovers.
In fact, for quite some time after our nose-dive off a cliff, we weren’t sure there would even BE a second half of the tour, as the fall had severely damaged the steering of our driver’s Land Rover. Lucky for us, however, Christian knew a thing or two about fixing cars (and Icelandic farmers are very friendly about you calling them up to use their tools), and our small group was able to continue onward, albeit a few hours behind schedule.
After giving up on the glacier altogether, we headed for the next portion of the tour — waterfalls, a lava tuba cave, and the largest hot spring in Europe. Fire and ice, both at once.
Perhaps it was thanks to my earlier brush with death, or perhaps it was just because Iceland is freaking amazing, but I found this part of the country to be especially beautiful in a very raw, rugged way.
Our first stop was at Hraunfossar, a series of small waterfalls that stretch over half a mile in western Iceland. The waterfalls flow out of Hallmundarhraun, a gigantic lava field formed during an ancient volcanic eruption beneath the glacier Langjökull (hraun comes from the Icelandic word for “lava”). Again, fire and ice.
This group of waterfalls, which fall into the turquoise Hvítá river, is not particularly high, nor do they flow particularly fast. But they are exceptionally beautiful.
Even though it was raining when we stopped here, I couldn’t help but take photo after photo.
Just upstream from Hraunfossar sits Barnafoss, “waterfall of the children.” The story here goes that there used to be a natural bridge over the waterfall that local families used to use as a short cut to cross the river. Until one night when some local children fell off the bridge to their deaths in the river below. After that, their mother reportedly had the bridge destroyed (or put a curse on it, depending on who’s telling the story).
From the waterfalls, we headed onto the Hallmundarhraun lava field, where we’d be going underground into the Viðgelmir lave tube cave. The lava field itself was amazing, as you could see how the lava had oozed and hardened over 1,000 years ago as it flowed out from under the glacier.
The cave itself is fascinating. Lava tube caves like this are formed when flowing lava develops a hard crust on top, while the molten lava continues to flow beneath it. Once the volcanic eruption ends and the lava stops flowing, tube caves like this are formed. Viðgelmir, at nearly a mile long, is one of the largest known lava tube caves in Iceland, and is only accessible because part of its roof is collapsed at one end, allowing entry.
We donned helmets and head lamps, and followed Christian down into the cave. The climb down was actually quite treacherous, as the ground inside the cave was ice-covered and slick. But by climbing and crawling, we made our way into the dark cave.
You can’t go really far into the cave any longer (an iron gate prevents going in too far), but historians speculate that people lived inside here at one point. Signs of human habitation point to the likelihood that Viking settlers used caves like this as shelter — probably due to the fact that, because of how the cave was formed, it would have stayed warm for decades after the lava flowed through. Talk about geothermal heating!
The sun even came out for a bit once we came out of the cave, making the vibrant colors of Iceland even more unreal.
After slipping and sliding our way back out of the cave, we made our way to the last stop of the afternoon – Deildartunguhver hot spring near Reykholt. This hot spring is the highest-flow hot spring in Europe, producing 212-degree (F) water at a rate of 47.5 gallons (180 liters) per second.
I have seen hot springs before, but NEVER a hot spring where the scalding water boils 2 or 3 feet up into the air! Icelanders harness the power of this hot spring, pumping the water to nearby towns to use for heating.
More than any other day in Iceland, this one especially helped me to understand why Iceland is known as the Land of Fire and Ice.
Which of these natural attractions would YOU most want to visit in western Iceland?