… with the screams of my leg muscles.
I am so out of shape. After five different heavy hiking and climbing attractions in less than 24 hours, that was my main take-away. Actually, to be honest and a little more positive about my fitness level, my main obstacle in all of these treks was my breathing rather than my tight calf muscles. I need to get back into yoga…
Thankfully, a quiet day at home with my host family away camping for the weekend meant sleeping in and plenty of time to write about this latest adventure with my feet propped up! (I’m skipping over a few days of exploration that happened while my laptop was away, but don’t worry – I’ll come back to them.)
This adventure began when I and my new friend Marie (a fellow workaway volunteer currently staying on a farm down the road – more on our first meeting to come) started planning a weekend away. We had intended to go camping at a park called Skaftafell about two hours down the Ring Road, but a forecast of wind and rain put those plans off for another day. Instead, we decided to use what was supposed to be a sunny morning to see a few places closer to home.
Since it would have been back-tracking to come pick me up in the morning (she has use of a car at her host home), Marie picked me up Friday night while getting her host’s daughter from work. They graciously allowed me to spend the night in their guest room, which meant we could head straight off to the Southwest for exploring in the morning. The farm where Marie is staying is right next to a rather small mountain (or a rather large rock depending on your opinion of the glass-half-full/glass-half-empty conundrum, I suppose) which is called Stóri-Dímon, translated “Greater Demon” but typically referred to as Devil’s Rock in English.
While this isn’t a huge tourist attraction, it is easily spotted from the Ring Road, and you can park right at the base and explore the steep, grassy hillsides and small cave. Just don’t try to climb the side where hundreds of birds are nesting! The view from the top was spectacular, especially since we were there around midnight – right in time for that Icelandic sunset. This was actually the first time I had been out to see a sunset, since I’m usually holed up in my room by that time of night, and I was not disappointed.
I didn’t filter any of the pictures above, and they were taken at the same time, so you can see how bright it is at night here. While the sun sets on one side of you, the other side looks like a typical cloudy day. From the peak of Stóri-Dímon, we could see the mountains laced with small waterfalls along the horizon, the giant fields of wild lupine, the glacier rivers (where large chunks of ice would be lazily floating along in the winter), and even the Atlantic Ocean. It was a little foggy in that direction this night, but Marie said on a clear evening, you can see the lights of Vestmannaeyjar (a small island we visited early this week) in the distance.
Best part of this exploration: sliding down the side of the mountain on my butt. I just so happened to be wearing pretty slippery pants, which I think is the only reason this worked as well as it did, but there are no rocks and the grass grows very long and soft on these steep hillsides. After trying to take tiny steps downward like a poorly-designed mountain goat, I just sat down and started scooting forward on my rear. It was a hilariously delightful ride, especially as I started picking up speed. You can see the track I created in the grass in this picture:
So step one: Devil’s Rock. It’s not going to be top on a list of tourist attractions you find online, but seriously – if you can get out there in time for a sunset hike, you will not regret it. Wear slippery pants or bring a piece of cardboard for a thrilling ride down!
The next morning, we set out for step two of our adventure: Paradise Cave. Rather than bore you with the geography and history of this fun and somewhat hard-to-find spot, I’ll just give you a photo I snapped of the sign at the base of the cliff. It’s interesting information, but no one wants to be forced to learn…
In case you didn’t read it, it says the climb to the cave is not for the fainthearted. This may be the reason that there were absolutely no tourists there (or perhaps that is due to the fact that there is only one small sign in Icelandic noting the turn from the Ring Road). After trekking across fields of tall grass rippling in the wind – did I mention that it was extremely windy this day? – we picked our way up the steep hillside leading to the sheer cliffs that appear with little warning. When you reach the cave, which is a good twenty feet or more above your head (I failed to take a picture from the outside, so trust me on this one), there is a single chain hanging down the vertical climb to its mouth. If you’ve ever been rappelling in the wind, you know that it’s not exactly easy. I supplied some tension from the base while Marie climbed up, bracing her feet against the stone wall, and then I scaled it myself. Now that was an adventure.
Inside, the cave is tiny – just tall enough to stand up straight in the middle – and covered with beautiful green moss and fascinating runes and inscriptions. Some of the rock had markings resembling Egyptian heiroglypics that had somehow melted over the centuries, and there were dates like “1955” and “1907” plainly carved into the stone floor. After enjoying the view and the relief from the wind for a while, we had to climb back down. In that moment of hanging off the side of a cliff, gripping a chain with all my strength while the wind buffeted against me, I was very grateful for every aerial silks class I have ever taken. If you come to Iceland, don’t skip this cave – it doesn’t take long, and the climb alone is a delightful experience.
Step three of our day: Skogafoss! This is one of the larger waterfalls in the south, and the main point of the “town” of Skogar (if you can even call a few farms and hotels a town). This is a big tourist spot, so of course, it’s surrounded by the bright colors of many varied raincoats. It makes me think of a large group of tropical birds alighting on the countryside.
You can’t get too close to the base of this one, but you can definitely get close enough to be thoroughly dampened by the mist. Then it’s time to work out those leg muscles going up hundreds of stairs to the top of the cascade, where a landing allows you to look down into the plummeting water. Along the way, there are plenty of little side paths for tourists to take at their own risk, giving you many different views of the fall and the cliffs around it, where birds have burrowed in to create their nests (those barely visible white dots in the pictures).
I would just like to note that I didn’t use any filters or alter the pictures above in any way besides cropping – and as they are photographs, they still aren’t showing the reality of how extremely green the landscape is here. Apparently, a constant light mist of natural water and bright sunshine is ideal for healthy greenery. The result is stunning.
Once you get to the top, you can turn right around and go back down like the boring tourist you should never be, or you can cross a precarious ladder over a fence and continue down a fairly easy trail that follows the river. We hiked down this path for a pretty long time before we realized that it just keeps going, seemingly forever. The scenery along the way is simply gorgeous, and I’m still curious about how far it goes, but practicality made us turn around after a while, not before taking many pictures of the various rock sculptures and waterfalls along the way.
In the panorama, you can see a pile of rocks on the left side – we probably passed about three of these, and Marie said that hikers and backpackers add a stone to the pile as they pass, marking their progress in a sort of “I was here!” way. The piles definitely shrunk in size as we got further from Skogafoss. It would be amazing to pack up a proper supply of food and water and actually see how far this trail goes, but I’ll leave that to more professional hikers.
Once we had returned to sea level, we stopped in the tourist shop for a bit of lunch. As we sat in the car, avoiding the wind and munching on cheese, crackers, and Skyr, we watched tourists go by and noticed a group returning to their vehicle only ten minutes or so after leaving it. Marie noted that if you come on the tourist buses that stop off at places along the Golden Circle or Ring Road, you only have about three minutes to actually see the thing of beauty before it’s time to pack up again. It’s so sad to me that anyone tours a new place in this way! I repeat my mantra: don’t just follow the well-traveled path!
Our next stop was only a few minutes away, on the other side of the “town.” We parked at the Skogar Museum, but instead of going in, we walked around to the back of it and took a barely visible path through a field of lupine to a little known canyon off to the right.
There were no tourists here, which made it a wonderfully peaceful place to explore. We followed a trail to the end of the canyon, where a waterfall was forcefully plummeting over the edge and bursting upon some rocks below it. (Starting to notice that there are a ton of waterfalls in Iceland? Yeah, me too.) Again, the quality of green surrounding you is unfathomable. You can walk all the way behind this waterfall, much like Seljalandsfoss, although you can’t complete the circle to come out on the other side. We stood against the stone walls behind the cascade, where the wind couldn’t get to us much, and just enjoyed the tourist-less view for a while. On the hike back out, we saw sheep grazing right across the river, and I had to resist the urge to run through the freezing water to go cuddle that fluffy lamb.
There was just one stop left on our agenda (quite luckily, since it was starting to sprinkle). If you look up pictures of Iceland, you will see a lot from this popular tourist attraction: Seljavallalaug.
This natural hot spring, made into a good sized pool on the side of a cliff, is on almost every list of things to do in Iceland, though oddly enough, there were no signs telling you how to get there from the Ring Road. Once you park, there is about a ten-minute hike across the rocks to reach the rectangular pool, which you can’t even see from the lot.
If I’m being honest, I don’t know why so many people suggest this place. There is sort of the fascination of swimming in water that is naturally warm on the side of a cliff with beautiful views of the mountains all around you, but it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. There are a few rooms to change in that are not gender-specific or at all private and are coated in mud everywhere. The water is barely warm unless you are sitting right beside one of the places where it is filtered in from the spring, and on this particular day, it literally smelled like feces. So while it was kind of cool to say, “Yeah, I’ve been there,” I would not highly suggest this place if you are strapped for time or are looking for a natural way to get clean. I’m glad we did it last, so that I could go straight home and shower.
So five steps in one day: what can we take away? Two of the five were filled with tourists, while the other three we had entirely to ourselves. And let me tell you, the three empty ones were definitely the best experiences. I feel like I’m saying the same thing in every post here, but it’s the constant stand-out: don’t just hit the places that some list on the internet says are the best. Talk to the local people, read more personal travel blogs, find the little known and completely unknown sites. They will provide the adventures of a lifetime.
[If you are visiting Iceland and would like specific instructions on how to reach any of these places, please feel free to comment – I’d love for you to see them!]