Glaciers, Waterfalls, and Basalts, Oh My!

Shelby Hurst
Major: Geochemistry PhD Candidate
WMU Geology Club in Iceland, Summer I, 2018

Day 1: Reykjavik and adjustment

Visiting a new country is always challenging. Throw in 14 other people, wind and rain, strange addresses, and language barriers into the mix and it gets even harder. Thankfully, I had lots of support upon arrival and the locals were incredibly helpful. Locals in Iceland are some of the friendliest I have met out of any of the places I have visited.

After nearly a full day of travel, we made our way inland to the first campsite. There was a naturally heated pool nearby that many students decided to indulge in while others set up camp to take a nap. The campsite had a small awning that we took advantage of later in the evening and we even made friends with some of our camp neighbors from Northern Europe. For those of you who don’t like braving the wilderness type camping – wonderful news! Most sites you stay at have showers (for free), laundry, and a place to dry clothes in case you get wet.

I tried to call my boyfriend and parents a few times, but couldn’t figure out how. I made the mistake of not looking up how before I left, but it turns out it is as simple as dialing “001” before the phone number. Depending on how good the service is, your loved ones may need to call you. My phone calls didn’t always go through.

Image: Volcanic bomb seen through a hand lens.

Day 2: Þingvellir

Þingvellir National Park was our first real stop in this trip. For geologists, this is one of the most exciting stops as you can walk between the Eurasian and North American plates. We took a few small hikes throughout the park and got our first real taste of glaciers. One of the many beautiful waterfalls, Öxarárfoss, is located here. This was the first location where I realized that Iceland was accessible for visitors of all different abilities. We had a variety of students with different levels of hiking experience and I was overjoyed to see that all our students would be able to be involved throughout the trip. The walk up to the waterfall was lined with columnar basalt walls covered in lichen and moss. The waterfall had some of the bluest waters I had ever seen (even bluer than the waters in the straits of Mackinac!), which I would come to find out is a commonality in Iceland.

We camped in the park that night, surrounded by mountains covered in alpine glaciers. Pictures could not do it justice. I was up early the next morning as the sun came up around 5 AM. It was cold, but the glitter of the sunlight on the snowy ground as the sun rose over the mountains made it all worth it.

Image: Doing yoga, one of my favorite things, surrounded by some awesome geology in Þingvellir National Park.

Day 3: Geysir and Gullfoss

We woke up to snow and a blustery morning – one of many storms we experienced over the week. I am happy to say that we were blessed enough avoid rain for most of the week. Snow is manageable when camping, rain not so much. It was a short drive to our next location where I got to see my first geyser. You always see so many great pictures of geysers, but what many people don’t tell you is how difficult it is to get a picture of yourself as the geyser goes off. It took us three times to get a good photo!

The next location is possibly the largest waterfall I will ever see in my life, and it was the second location we found that was accessible for all our students. Many of the students who were able to hike this location came running up to me saying, “Shelby! There’s an overlook we can drive down to so everyone can see the falls!” I was pleasantly surprised over and over again of how eager everyone was to involve all those who went on this trip. For those of you who think that you are unable to visit Iceland because of any disability or inexperience in camping/hiking, I urge you to visit anyway! You will be able to do and see so much.

Image: Students walking down the boardwalk at the top of Gullfoss (photo credit: Raigen Blake)

Day 4: Miðfell and Flúðir – Secret Lagoon

Arguably one of the best days we had throughout the week in my opinion. The weather was perfect for a day of hiking and lounging around in a thermal pool in the afternoon. Woolly Fringe-moss covers large expanses of area in Iceland. Today was the first day we really got to see large amounts of it – and make sure we avoided it. This type of moss is protected and it is important not to walk on it!

We took a long hike to the top of Miðfell. The view was astounding – mossy hills, a reflective lake, and glacier covered mountains every way you looked. I kept asking myself and others, “Is this even real?” Iceland continued to provide incredible sights that took my breath away.

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Image: Rain fed lake found on top of Mount Miðfell, with students standing in the distance at the top of the ridge circling the lake.
Image: Raigen Blake across the moss on Mount Miðfell.

Later that afternoon after 2+ hours of hiking, we made our way to the Secret Lagoon in Flúðir to tend to our achy muscles. The natural hot spring stays at about 100°F all year round and was a glorious break from the chilly Iceland air. The locker rooms here were quite a culture shock to many of us, as Europeans are not quite as conservative as Americans. It is a requirement to shower before entering any of the hot springs in Iceland, and with communal showers it was very easy to discern those who were accustomed to this from those who were not.

All in all, between hiking to the top of a small mountain and lounging in a thermal pool all afternoon this was certainly one of my favorite days of the trip.

Day 5: Waterfalls, Glaciers and Wedding photos

Let’s just say today was a struggle for everyone. I woke up to one of my tentmates panicking at around 4 AM as it had snowed about a foot in the few hours we had been asleep. Note to self and others who plan to camp in a place where it can snow a lot in a short amount of time – tents WILL collapse and it is very scary. Thankfully no one was hurt and the tents came out relatively unscathed. It was certainly a new experience for us all, and one I hope I never have to experience again.

The rest of the day was rather uneventful weather wise, albeit wet. Between the rain and waterfalls we visited, ponchos were a definite necessity. Gljúfrafoss and Seljalandsfoss are two very picturesque waterfalls that you can walk around or behind. I did not get a chance to walk behind Seljalandsfoss. I did hop through a small stream into a cave to see Gljúfrafoss and got to see a couple taking their wedding photos in front of the falls.

We stopped by the giftshop near Seljalandsfoss on the way to our campsite and got a phonetics lesson from a local on how to say the name of a nearby glacier, Eyjafjallajökull. He joked with me saying that the Icelandic language was created by Vikings and Swedish folk drinking together and trying to speak to each other until íslenska was created.

Image: Myself (Shelby) pictured at Gljúfrafoss.

Day 6: Reynisfjara, Dyrhólaey, Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, and Skaftafell

The famous black sand beaches of Iceland made it on our list of things to see (obviously) and this was what I was most excited to see. The beaches did not disappoint. Reynisfjara and Dyrhólaey were surrounded by columnar basalts and basaltic sea stacks accompanying the black sands. The area, however, was just as dangerous as it was beautiful. We had read on multiple forums that the waves and tide are fast and deadly here. This is no understatement.

Unfortunately, we watched many tourists that were there at the same time get far too close to the water. One man had to run away quickly as he almost got knocked over by an incoming wave. I am thankful that we were prepared for this and none of our students put themselves at risk. When visiting the beaches in Iceland, make sure to keep a safe distance from the water and never turn your back to the water. It is an unpredictable environment.

Jökulsárlón was a quick and breathtaking stop. We took a short walk around the lagoon and got a little closer to the water as it is a glacially fed lake and the waters are calmer here. Every picture I took here could not convey the true blue of the water and icebergs. It is a must see if you ever visit Iceland.

Image: Myself pictured with Erin Huggett (left) and Stephanie Buglione (middle) at Jökulsárlón.

The last stop of the day was Skaftafell where we hiked about 2 km to see one of the more famous waterfalls in Iceland, Svartifoss. On the hike up there were multiple other falls that got their names from folklore of the area. One of the other students on the trip, Evangelia Murgia, told me about Þjófafoss, also known as thieves falls which got its name from thieves being thrown into the waterfall as a judicial sentence.

Day 7: Lava fields, basalt columns, and dwarves

            Our last full day in Iceland was mostly road side stops and driving back to Reykjavik. There were a few small hikes at Dverghamrar and Fjaðrárgljúfur. Dverghamrar was my favorite stop of the day, due to both the folklore and geology of the area. The columnar basalts in this area were easy to climb and a great spot to take pictures. According to folklore, the columns are home to dwarves and elves. I swear we saw a dwarf, but they are quick little fellows! If you ever visit, be sure to keep an eye out – you wouldn’t want to step on their homes.

Just beyond the dwarf homes were the lava fields. This area is the area to visit if you want to see a lot of moss. It is beautiful and a great place to see some cool geology and take pictures – just remember to stay off the moss!

Image: Students from the AIPG Student Chapter at WMU and WMU Geology Club pictured at Dverghamrar.
Image: Woolly Fringe-moss covering basaltic lava flow fields on the Southern Ring Road in Iceland.


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