Iceland (Part 5): Eastern Region


Detail Map of Area near Jokulsarlon

After four consecutive days in a different hotel every night, we slowed the pace a bit and signed up for two days at the Hali Country Hotel, just up the road from the famous Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon and the black sand “Ice Beach.”  Our guide, Haukur, had also arranged for an early morning visit to a puffin colony at Cape Ingolfshofdi.

View from the “Trail” leading down from Cape Ingolfshofdi  as we return to the SUV

Puffins spend most of their lives living in the open ocean but in the spring many of them flock to coastal colonies in Iceland.    But it takes some effort to get close to them as the image above suggests.  There was no road and no visible trail to the base of the promontory where the puffin colony was located.  The several kilometers of splashing through marshes and undulating fields of soft lava ash makes one imagine they are testing a prototype for a new carnival thrill ride.  Then comes the hard part, trudging with a pack of camera gear up a steep slope of lava ash and sand, something akin to climbing a sand dune.

But at the top, one finds a field of lush green grass which stretches out invitingly….to a sudden drop off a vertical cliff high above the ocean.  The puffins nest in burrows they have found or excavated themselves, bringing in grass and feathers as lining for the chicks.

The puffin’s diet consists almost entirely of fish, which it captures by swimming under water using its semi-extended wings as paddles and its feet as a rudder. We couldn’t stay too long in any one spot because the puffins would wait until we were a safe distance before entering their nests and feeding their young.

As cute as the puffins are, their neighborhood has a bad element…a large thug of a bird known as the great skua.  The skuas build their nests on the ground out in the open, almost as bait for naïve trespassers whom they attack with with fiendish glee .

When a bird this large (4-foot wing span) is heading directly at your face…….

The Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon is not far from Cape Ingolfshofdi and is a favorite stop for most visitors because of its dramatic scenery, easy access, and its full range of services (café, souvenirs, boat rides, etc.)  Icebergs breaking off the Vatnajökull glacier float in the lagoon eventually working their way out a narrow channel into the ocean.  Once in the ocean, many will be pushed up by the tide onto a black sand beach, the famous Ice Beach, providing numerous opportunities for photographers.

Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon

At the back of the parking lot away from the tourists, a flock of Arctic Terns had taken possession of a field  for a nesting colony.  The tern is famous for its incredibly long migration route, the longest-distance migration of any bird, moving between its Arctic breeding grounds in Iceland and Greenland and its non-breeding territory in the Antarctic, a distance that approaches 25,000 miles. And they share one characteristic with the skua: the ferocity of their attacks on trespassers.  Although they are much smaller, they use a team approach, overwhelming the target with their numbers.

(Nikon D810 & 24-70mm f/2.8 lens @ 70mm; 1/5,000th sec @ f/7.1, ISO 400)

There is a second glacial lagoon, Fjallsarlon,  just a few miles down the road from the far more popular Jokulsarlon.

Rick and Michele setting up their shots at Fjallsarlon

The lagoon is smaller than Jokulsarlon; there are no tourist services and the water is not as blue.  But the solitude was a nice contrast.  When it was time to leave, Haukur suggested a short hike to some nearby ponds where we might find some geese.

Barnacle geese with goslings

One of the most magical experiences on any Iceland tour is a visit to the Ice Beach.  It is here that the last remnants of a dying glacier wash up on a black sand beach and complete their thousand-year life cycle.  These stranded crystal sculptures seemed almost alive as the surf swirls around them, refracting and reflecting the dim light of the late evening.

Last Vestiges of a Glacier



Next:  Lupines and More…….

Iceland (Part 4): Lake Myvatn Region

Map of Day 4 Merged (JPEG)

The Lake Myvatn Region derives its name from the large lake of that name and is characterized by a violent landscape created by numerous volcanic eruptions over the past 3,000 years.  We were reminded throughout the day that there still is considerable power and heat below the surface on which we walked.

On this morning, we awakened to find that the snow had continued overnight long enough to change the character of the scenery. It was hard to believe this was early June.

D-17-06-07-3862_64-Pano (Volcano)Volcanic Crater, Early Morning after a Snowfall

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Namafjall Geothermal Field

An early start enabled us to arrive at the popular Namafjall geothermal field before the crowds and we had the place to ourselves.  It reminds one of Yellowstone with the many mud pots, fumaroles, and venting hydrogen sulfide gas.

D-17-06-067-3822 (Iceland)Namafjall Geothermal Field


D-17-06-07-3872_74-Pano (Iceland)Unnamed Lagoon, Somewhere on Highway 1, Lake Myvatn Region

D-17-06-07-3984 Crop (sheep)Lamb with its Mother, Somewhere on Highway 1, Lake Myvatn Region

D-17-06-07-3989_94-Pano (Iceland)Snow on Mountains, Somewhere on Highway 1, Lake Myvatn Region

As we drove we west on Highway 1, we were repeatedly confronted with scenic opportunities and they were coming so fast that we failed to record the locations of the above three images.

The afternoon was spent hiking around the Leirhnjukur area, a name which means “clay hill” and refers to a porous hill of rhyolite rising 150 feet above a surrounding lava field.   Steam is venting  through the rhyolite and in some places it has turned to clay.  The hike takes one up the hill, through some rugged lava formations, thermal pools, and numerous  steam vents.  One can’t help remembering that Kafla, a nearby volcano responsible for much of what we were seeing, last erupted in 1984 which really wasn’t that long ago.

D-17-06-07-4054_55-Pano (Iceland)Leirhnjukur, View from the Trail (note hikers on top of the hill)

D-17-06-07 SONY 1456 (Iceland)View from the Overlook, Leirhnjukur (Trail is along near edge of black lava field)

D-17-06--07-4178_80-Pano (Iceland)View from Leirhnjukur (Taken just before we began the descent back down to the car)

The name Dettifoss could be loosely translated as ‘The Collapsing Waterfall’. Considered to be the most powerful waterfall in Europe, it plummets into a gorge which is 330 feet across and about 144 feet straight down. The water comes from the nearby Vatnajökull glacier, the largest glacier in Europe, whose sediment-rich runoff colors the water a greyish white.

D-17-06-07-4240_41-Pano clone (Dettifoss)Dettifoss, View from East Side

(For scale, note small black hiker at edge of falls on opposite side)

D-17-06-07-4262 (rdy2size)Dettifoss, View from East Side (Taken from the edge of cliff about 50 feet above the river)

Selfoss, a smaller waterfall is an easy 1-mile hike upstream from Dettifoss.  Not as high, but its horseshoe shape is rather elegant.  When the water is running higher than when we were there, it would have been even more impressive with numerous cascades falling off the edges of the canyon walls for several hundred meters on both sides.

D-17-06-07-4312 (upper falls)Selfoss, View from East Side

(The pools of standing water in the foreground are often part of the cascade)


Next….the Famous “Ice Beach”

Iceland 2017, Part 3:  The Northern Tier


Iceland 2017 Day 2 Map JPEG (Final)

Map of Day 2

Over the next two days we crossed the northern section of Iceland, checking out a few of the well-known stops and making occasional forays into less-traveled areas.  The area is a starkly beautiful landscape of geothermal features, bizarre lava formations,  steaming fumaroles and volcanic craters. We also experienced a full range of Iceland’s notoriously fickle weather patterns: sunshine, overcast skies, rain, sleet, snow, high winds, no wind and even sub-freezing temperatures.  It made for some interesting photographic challenges.

The north is less frequented by tourists due to the distance from Reykjavik, but has much to offer, ranging from historical and cultural sites, unique landscapes, and unexpected roadside photo ops.

Day 2 started with a turn off the main Ring Highway (Route 1) onto Route 715, a dirt road that leads to  Kolugljufur Canyon and a pair of waterfalls on either side of a short bridge.

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Kolugljufur Canyon, Photographed from the Bridge

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Kolugljufur Canyon, about 100 Meters Downstream from the Bridge


We had several opportunities to stop whenever we saw an interesting roadside scene.  One example is an abandoned house alongside a cascading stream shown in the image below.

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Abandoned House, Skagi Peninsula, Somewhere along Route 744.


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Icelandic Turf House with Connecting Rooms


The turf farmhouse in Glaumbaer is a great place to learn about Icelandic history.  A farm has  been on this site since the 9th Century.  Turf houses date from those earliest days but the buildings here are more recent, constructed in the 18th Century.  There is also a small museum and a Tea House which serves light fare featuring Icelandic dishes.

Back on the road our guide, Haukur Snorrason, demonstrated once again his ability to sense when an unplanned opportunity might arise.  As we approached a large pasture containiing about 20 Icelandic horses, he chose to pull over saying that it looked like something was about to happen. Little did we know.

D-17-06-06-3509 Crop (Horseplay)

Icelandic Horseplay

D-17-06-06-3404 Crop (horses)

No animals were harmed during the filming of these pictures

It seemed that as soon as one pair became bored with their game, another pair would start up.  We didn’t want to leave them, but our primary goal for the day was Godafoss, the Waterfall of the Gods.

D-17-06-06-3588 (Godafoss) copy

Godafoss, in a Light Rain

The waterfall derives its name from the year 1000, when Iceland converted to Christianity.  The head of the island’s legislature, known as the law-speaker,  dispensed his pagan gods by throwing them into this waterfall as a symbolic act of the conversion.

For us, the chief problem was the deteriorating weather.  As the rain became heavier and temperatures began to fall, we cut our visit short.   As we headed east, the rain turned to sleet and then to snow and shortly afterwards, we spotted a pair of fly fishermen standing in the middle of a river, oblivious to the weather.

D-17-06-06-3661 (Fishermen)

Fly Fishermen in Snowstorm

Next…the Myvatn Region


Iceland 2017, Part 2:  The Road Trip Begins


Day 1, 8:00 AM:   Right on time our guide, Haukur Snorrason, arrived at our hotel and soon we were heading west out of Reykjavik. Also with us was Hadda Gisladottir. She and Haukur are the joint owners/operators of Phototours and the Hrífunes Guest House where we would be spending the penultimate night of the trip.

Day 01 Map Merged

Route on Day 1

In the months prior to our arrival, our email exchanges with Haukur provided a wealth of options for consideration.  His extensive experience as an Icelandic  photographer and guide helped us develop an ambitious plan. It included several well-known and frequently photographed locations, a generous number of lesser known spots that he suggested, and some built-in time to take advantage of a few unexpected opportunities that might arise.  And now we were finally underway, eager to experience whatever lay ahead of us.

D-17-06-05-2603 (Iceland)

Overview of Hraunfossar

Within a few hours we were overlooking Hraunfossar (Lava Falls), a 900-meter wide lava field that originated long ago from a volcanic eruption beneath the Langjökull glacier.  The 40-mile long field is porous, enabling  glacial meltwater and rainwater to move  through it until reaching the terminus at the Hvítá River where it emerges as countless waterfalls cascading into the river.

Next up, an arranged stop at a nearby working farm where we could fraternize with some of the famous Icelandic horses (For more on this delightful animal, check my 2015 post here.   

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With socialable and curious personalities, Icelandic horses love to engage visitors

D-17-06-04-2846 Crop (Iceland)

So friendly you need a super-wide (e.g., 14-24mm) to capture the entire animal.


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The sheep on this farm know where to position themselves for a picture

Iceland’s landscape is a magnet for tourists and has made the tourist industry an important economic sector.  But the landscape also provides an even more significant economic benefit: renewable energy.   One such source is geothermal energy and so we made a brief stop at Deildartunguhver, Europe’s most powerful hot spring.  The water emerges at 207°F and is moved via pipelines to provide hot water and central heating for towns as far as 40 miles way.   Overall, Iceland satisfies 87% of its demand for hot water and heat with geothermal energy, a key aspect of its energy strategy.

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The Hot Water Pumping Station at Deildartunguhver


A hidden waterfall is always a special treat and our first one was a short hike from a highway in Snaefellsnes, a peninsula in Western Iceland.  Other than a vague sign at the pull-over stop, there was no hint that this 30-foot cascade was less than 200 yards away.  Perhaps six other people came by while we were there.


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Roadside Waterfall (1/800th sec. @ f/10)

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Detail of Cascade (0.4 sec @ f/16 with ND Filter)

The Kirkjufellfoss waterfall, however, with Kirkjufell Mountain as a dramatic backdrop, is one of the country’s major attractions and a good number of people were here when we arrived.  Still, with careful timing, a bit of patience, and use of the photomerge technique, one can get an image containing no tourists.

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Kirkjufellfoss waterfall

(Two images photomerged; 24 mm lens, 0.8 sec. @ f/20 with ND Filter)


D-17-06-05-3018_20-Pano (Iceland)

Lupines bloom in June, usually peaking around the 2nd and 3rd weeks of the month and are a common sight at this time of year. This field was well off in the distance and probably would have been unnoticed by most travelers.  But Haukur suggested we take a detour off the main highway onto a dirt road to check it out.


D-17-06-05-3090 Crop & Clone (Iceland)

Icelandic Horses, Afternoon Light

Another unexpected opportunity appeared about 40 minutes after the field of lupines, so we stopped again, grabbed our telephotos, and fired away.  And again, this was a scene we had to ourselves.

After checking into the Gauksmyri hotel, we departed immediately for another well-known location, the site of Hvitsekur Troll Rock, a sea stack just off the shore of Vatnsnes peninsula.  We arrived at the perfect time; it was low tide and the sun was about to set.  On the downside, it was quite cold (around freezing) and very windy.  But perhaps because of those factors, along with the late hour (about 11:00 PM), only a couple of other people ventured down to the beach.

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Hvitsekur Troll Rock at Sunset

Next: Across the Northern Tier……..