We spent the last of our time in Iceland visiting Þingvellir National Park, where the European and American tectonic plates meet and Reykjavik, Iceland’s Capital City. While most of our time in Iceland was spent in absolutely beautiful weather conditions, Þingvellir and Reykjavik saw us in rain most of the time. As such, there aren’t a lot of photos from Þingvellir, specifically, though I can say that it is a magical place. Today, we’ll focus mostly on Reykjavik. First up is one of the most recognizable landmarks in Iceland (man-made, at least): the Hallgrímskirkja.
One of Iceland’s tallest structures, and the largest church in Iceland, Hallgrímskirkja towers over Reykjavik.
Some of the most striking and beautiful parts of Reykjavik were the murals, which covered many of the walls in the city:
Toward the end of our visit, after taking pictures of murals in the rain, the clouds parted briefly and we were treated to some fantastic light at the Sun Voyager sculpture, created to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the city of Reykjavik:
Seven days in Iceland was just enough time to know that seven days in Iceland isn’t nearly enough. Over the course of the trip we took nearly 4,000 images, most of which I’ve not yet finished processing. The stunning landscape was matched only by the kindness of the people we met. It’s no wonder that 1.7 million people visited Iceland in 2016 (though the island is home to only 300,000).
I’ll leave off Iceland with two of my favorite memories. The first is a panorama from the Snæfellsnes peninsula. The last is a video Kira took from behind Seljalandsfoss while I was taking a photograph. It was the last sunset we saw while there and I can’t think of a better way to finish up these Iceland blogs. Thanks so much for reading. Happy to answer any questions in the comments.
Just above Skógafoss, one of the tallest waterfalls in Iceland, you’ll find the beginnings of the Fimmvörðuháls trail and a series of falls cutting through the mountains. Hike the trail long enough, and you’ll connect with the Laugavegur trail, leading into Landmannalauger and the rhyolite mountains. Alas, we only hiked for a few miles, eager to see as much of the south coast as possible.
If you look hard enough, you’ll see three white dots on the left of the frame in the header image. Just some of the many, many sheep along the trail.
Farther along the southern coast of Iceland, there is Dyrhólaey, the arch situated above the black sand beach, Reynisfjara. The waves there were intense, perfect for a triptych of long exposures. These weren’t converted to black and white, believe it or not. They were simply naturally occurring monochromatic images, thanks to Iceland’s unique geology.
The geological formations on the southern coast are amazing, from the basalt columns on the beach to the huge towers out to sea.
Finally, the light waning a bit, we made our way back west along the ring road, stopping for a quick look at Seljalandsfoss. The sun came out just as it was setting, casting some beautiful light on the waterfall.
14 hours is far too little time to spend on the southern coast of Iceland, of course. I can imagine spending a week there and not seeing everything. Still, happy to have seen as much as we did.
West, along the Snæfellsnes peninsula, we saw the finest scenery yet in Iceland, though if there’s anything our time in Iceland taught us, it’s that there is no bad scenery to see. It was a beautiful day, marked by blue skies and white puffy clouds, and, at the end, truly epic winds. Gusts at least to 60mph, coming down from the mountains, causing whitecaps on the small lakes inland.
But we’re here for the pictures:
On the northern edge of the peninsula we were treated to great inlets and beautiful mountains. The texture of the landscape was amazing:
Iceland is unique, in that sits at the joint of two tectonic plates. The west of the island sits on the North American plate; the east is on the European plate. There’s a rift through the island, especially visible at Þingvellir, where you can stand between the plates. The far eastern and western edges of the island represent the oldest formations of the otherwise (comparatively) young island. As we headed west on Snæfellsnes we were seeing the oldest sections of the island.
At the farthest edge of the peninsula, you’ll find Snæfellsjökull National Park, at times lush with tall grasses, at others a near moonscape of lava rock.
And, further south, Snæfellsjökull itself:
Snæfellsjökull is one of the oldest glaciers/volcanoes on the island. It’s said to be a powerful place, full of magic. It’s probably most famous as the location of Jules Verne’s entrance to the center of the Earth. From the south, the lava flows and glacier were clearly visible.
As we drove along the southern edge of the peninsula, we found the turnoff for a mountain track (F570) that lead over Snæfellsjökull and back to the northern edge Snæfellsnes. It climbed, very quickly, from sea level to just over 3,000 ft in elevation. The wind increased dramatically near the top, where clouds seemed to form from nothing and roll down the edge of the mountain. Perhaps the most amazing thing was the bright green moss covering the ground. Alas, we didn’t find the entrance to the center of the Earth that Jules Verne wrote about.
But it all paled in comparison to one of the first sights we saw that day: Kirkjufell. It’s one of the most iconic sights in Iceland, a place I had only seen in pictures. It was relatively crowded, for Iceland. Near Kirkjufell is Kirkjufellsfoss, waterfalls and hiking trails with beautiful views of the mountain. At the base of the falls there was a small patch of muddy turf, just large enough to plant a tripod and wait for the shot:
In Part 4: The south coast, black sand beaches, and conversations with sheep.
Or: the Vantsnes Peninsula, light, horses, rain, and the end of the rainbow.
The second day in Iceland began at 6:30, as we loaded up the Dacia and headed north, toward the Vantsnes Peninsula. The original goal was to find Hvítserkur, the rock formation that legend tells was a troll who returned too late to his cave and was frozen there by the morning sun.
But Vantsnes was so much more than the sad fate of a lonely troll. We watched from Illugastaðir as seals lounged on rocks. Farms and horses (and sheep! always sheep!) and churches dotted the roadside and the light was magnificent. It was alternately cloudy and stormy while we were there and it made for a dramatic countryside.
The first stop, though, was a quick color-check, as I was after Serious Photography, of course.
The jury remains out as to how helpful this was, but it made a decent place to begin in post-processing.
Our first real stop of the day came in the form of Borgarvirki, a large lava plug that was thought to be a fort of sorts, meant for the defense of the surrounding valley. The fortifications would have been around circa 900-1000 A.D., though according to the information at Borgarvirki, there was no record of there having been a battle or siege at the site. Of course, I think I know why:
Can you imagine walking up to that wall with hostile intent?
Further north, more farms and churches, horses and sheep. Here, a small church that was part of a farmstead, nestled at the edge of a mountain.
And the horses that called that farm home:
After the farm and horses, we made it to Hvítserkur, that poor devil of a troll:
I can perhaps see the trollish resemblance. Of course, the official explanation (that the formation is the remnants of a lava plug, long battered by the sea), is also acceptable. In fact, the sea had done such a good job of wearing away the rock that the Icelanders shored up the foundation with concrete, rather than lose the formation completely.
Hvítserkur sits at the top third of the peninsula, so we soon found ourselves rounding the corner and heading south again. Shortly after making the turn, a small herd of horses came trotting north. I have no idea where they were headed, but they seemed to be able to manage well enough on their own. Further up the road, another small group of them, simply hanging out by the side of the road. Happy to roam and graze. And, in the case of at least one, happy to pose for a photograph.
The clouds were beginning to roll in, however. At a promontory on the western edge of the peninsula we could see a storm coming in over the Westfjords. We stopped just long enough to catch a panorama of the sky and sea before the rain began on Vantsnes as well.
I had read, before coming to Iceland, that if you didn’t like the weather, to simply wait five minutes. Of course, I had heard that about South Dakota, too. And Montana. And Alberta and British Columbia. It proved more true for Iceland than for those other places. Within half an hour, we had returned to the ring road and a vibrant sunset with alternating storm clouds, blue skies, sheets of rain, and beautifully scattered sunlight.
Five minutes later, as promised, the weather changed:
The rainbow formed as we were headed south on the ring road, heading home for the evening. At times it was visible end to end, golden ground beneath it. It took several kilometers to find a pull off, though there was hardly any space. Tourists and Icelanders alike had all pulled off to watch the impromptu light show. Just like the horses, Iceland’s rainbows are kind enough to pause for a portrait, just before the sun set.
For part 3: Snæfellsnes, wild roads, glaciers, and taking pictures of places I’d only ever seen in pictures.
We booked our tickets nearly a year in advance, my wife and I. We rented a small apartment on a horse farm (there were sheep too…so many sheep) in West Iceland, booked a Dacia Duster 4×4 and waited patiently for the date to come.
Who am I kidding? There was very little patience involved. Iceland is one of the most beautiful places in the world, and I was itching to be there. I’d been watching all the amazingwork photographers I admire were doing in Iceland and I wanted try my hand.
We took a red-eye with WOW Air and arrived just after 5:00am, bleary eyed and hungry. By 5:30 we had picked up the Dacia, a relatively awful meal at the 24-hour Subway just south of Keflavik (only thing open) and were off to Valahnúkur tocatch the sunrise. While the sunrise was beautiful, Iceland leaves a photographer spoiled for choice:
And just to the left:
And just behind:
That is the lovely Reykjanes Lighthouse, built after the first lighthouse on Valahnúkur mountain suffered damage in a series of earthquakes leading up to 1905.
Back on the road, which is where we spent most of the first day. We put nearly 400 kilometers on the rental car in the first day and saw landscapes as varied as you can imagine. One minute, we felt as though we were on the surface of the moon. The next, it looked like New Mexico. Then Montana. Then back to the moon. In point of fact, we didn’t stop much for Serious Photography. I just wanted to see. To be in the place. Catch some of the more tourist-y sights:
And then, settle down and enjoy the light and the size of the sky. In the week we were there, the weather ranged from warm to brisk, sunny to rainy, but the light was always amazing. Just look at the play of light and shadow on some distant hills:
The view heading toward Þingvellir, before enjoying some of the finest dirt roads Iceland has to offer (F338, to be specific).
Next up: Some of the Serious Photography, sheep, horses, and, as is always the case in Iceland, more sheep.