Astute readers may notice that, so far, I haven’t said anything about the entire northern 2/3 of the country. For reference, it was snowing in the north while we were there, and although I originally wanted to fly up to Akureyri, the timing of our trip just wouldn’t work for getting that far north. I didn’t want to miss the “ice” part of Iceland completely, though, so we decided to do one of the canned tours of Langjökull.
First, though, we had some business to conduct in town: a COVID-19 test, as required to return to the US. There are private test providers, but the easiest way to get a test is to register on travel.covid.is. Pick the city you’re in and a time, pay the fee (EUR 50 for a PCR test or EUR 30 for a rapid-antigen test, either of which are accepted in the US), and show up at the appointed time– that’s it.
The test location in Reykjavik is at a government health clinic not far from downtown. We had a 915a appointment (the first time slot available on a Saturday) and showed up at about 855a to find a line of 100 or so people. That was a little offputting but, once they started testing, we were in and out within another 15 minutes. I’d wanted to leave the city by 10am to make our 1230p tour time, and we were on the way by about 930a. The emails with our test results arrived within 90 minutes; unlike all the fooling around with the Rakning C19 app, it just worked.
To get to Húsafell, our route went mostly along highway 1, but northbound this time. Just before Borgarnes (where there’s a very cool-looking bridge across the water), we turned onto highway 50, which took us further north. Along the way we went through the Fáskrúðsfjarðargöng tunnel, which was unexpectedly cool. The real star, though, was the view. On the left, ocean and mountains. On the right, plains and mountains. Ahead, mountains, fields with horses and sheep, the occasional road-crossing sheep, and a continually variable cloud deck. It was a gloriously scenic drive, but fairly slow; between the occasional rain, the continual wind, and the 90kph speed limit, it took us just under 2 hours to get there. Just before we got to the Hotel Húsafell itself, we passed a golf course (surprise #1) that was right next to a lava-stone runway (surprise #2).
The Húsafell park complex, in addition to the hotel and golf course, has a ton of campsites and trails. It has a well-known thermal spa (the Canyon Baths), fishing, golf, and winter-focused activities like snowmobiling. I didn’t know about its extensive trail network or I’d’ve planned some extra time just to hike around the area… maybe next time. Anyway, When we got to the hotel, we found that nothing opened for another 20 minutes or so (surprise #3) so we walked around a bit. Once it opened, we had a quick lunch (pizza, nothing remarkable) to kill some time until the tour was to meet. We’d booked this tour with Arctic Adventures, mostly because we got to drive around in the bad boy pictured below, but that first required us to get on a boringly regular tour bus to drive to the base camp. The drive was interesting because it was mostly on unimproved roads that I wasn’t too sure the bus could handle. We made it to base camp without incident, though.
At base camp, we left the bus and queued up to get onto the ice truck that would carry us up above the snow line. Now, I should mention at this point that the truck can carry up to 46 people, and I think we had 40– so this was the most crowded-tourist-like activity of the entire trip. (Plus the driver’s dog, who rode in the cab the whole way!) The tour operator recommended dressing for cold, dry conditions, which makes sense given that you’re going to be on a glacier. “Dry” is relative though; it started lightly snowing as we loaded into the truck and snowed more and more as we climbed.
The cave entrance is at about 4200′ elevation. Surprisingly, it felt warmer there than it had at base camp or at the hotel, partly because the air was dry, partly because there was minimal wind, and partly because the sun had come out. After a short safety briefing, our guide took us into the cave complex. “Cave” is a little bit of a misnomer because the whole thing is really a man-made tunnel, not a natural cave, but “cave” is easier to type so that’s what I’ll call it.
The cave system forms a big loop; you enter, walk through what looks like a big sewer pipe, and come out into an anteroom with benches, where you add crampons to your boots. You’ll need them, as the floor of the cave is… ice. In some low-lying spots, there’s accumulated meltwater. If your boots are waterproof, you’ll have no trouble; if not, well, you probably should’ve worn some (but the guide will give you giant waterproof overshoes at base camp if you need them).
The cave system is lit with LED lights, some of which are inside the ice and give a sort of surreal glow to the scene. You can clearly see the seasonal ice rings, and the horizontal striations in the ice show where the seasonal snow-thaw-melt-freeze cycle has taken place really clearly. The ice is surprisingly textured, too.
Along the way through the cave, there are several hollowed-out chambers, one of which is a “wedding chapel”. Funnily enough, it contained nothing other than a tarp-covered digging machine; no alter, ceiling lights, etc. Our guide said the digger was stored there pending repair. One of the chambers is festooned with lights, and one is basically an echo chamber. My favorite was the one shown below; it’s basically a horizontal crevasse in the ice that shows all the different colors and textures to great advantage.
When we exited the cave, it was snowing steadily and visibility was no more than a few hundred yards. It wasn’t quite a whiteout, but it was pretty close. On one hand, it’s a glacier, so of course it was snowing. On the other hand, it was June. On the drive back down the glacier, which was pretty slow due to the snow, we saw a rented Land Rover that had gone off-road and was stuck, flipped at about a 30-degree angle. Our driver stopped and picked them up and dropped them at base camp with the rest of us; after that, it was an easy drive in the big bus back to our starting point.
Pro tip: there are lots of places in Iceland that have roads. Just because there’s a road, don’t assume that you can actually drive there. Check safetravel.is (especially for “F roads”, which aren’t paved and/or have very steep terrain) before you go anywhere.
Pro tip: as I mentioned before, you’ll never go wrong in Iceland by buying the maximum rental-car insurance that you can get. Note that these policies almost always have an exception for “door damage due to winds”– the winds are strong enough to snatch the car door out of your hand and break the mechanism, especially on small cars.
We skipped past the falls at Hraunfossar and Barnafoss (which are right next to each other) on the drive up, but stopped on the way back. I have to say that this complex was my favorite overall of all the waterfalls. “Hraun” is Icelandic for “lava,” which is why these falls have their name; instead of the typical gravity-fed water-falling-down falls, the complex here is made of falls where water that’s permeated the lava falls down. The rocks and colors are just spectacular.
As with several of our other stops, there’s almost no actual hiking involved here– you park (it’s free), walk about 100 yards, and boom, there are the falls. There’s a trail overlooking Hraunfossar that you can use to walk downriver; we saw (and heard) several sheep on the falls side. If you then walk back to the Hraunfossar trailhead, there’s a complex of trails that leads you around Barnafoss, including a bridge that lets you cross the river to get a different set of views.
We had a bit of light drizzle while exploring the falls, but the skies cleared nicely as we drove back to the south. As on the drive up, the landscape unrolled before us with plenty of horses, farms, sheep, mountains, and meadows to look at, and the coastal views were amazing once we turned southeast. After we got back to the city, we headed out for our planned dinner: Icelandic hot dogs.
Yes, that’s right: hot dogs, that American staple, are a bit of a delicacy in Iceland. They’re made using a lamb/beef/pork mix, and they’re reputed to be delicious. We walked over to BBP first, because it was closest to our hotel, and found the stand below.
It’s exactly what the picture shows: hot dogs and Coke-brand drinks. No side items (fries, chips, etc); no beer or wine; no desserts. Just… hot dogs. We each had one. As expected, they were delicious, but not really dinner by themselves. We decided to walk over to the Reykjavik Sausage Company, which gave us a chance to walk along the waterfront in the (chilly, windy) sunshine. When we got there, guess what: hot dogs, Coke-brand drinks, and… ice cream. Still not a real dinner, but we made do with an additional hot dog (BBP’s were way better) and some ice cream, then headed back to make an early night of it.