THE NORTH - SOUTH TOUR through central Iceland
This tour starts at the most northern island off the main land of Iceland called Grimsey. The polar circle runs over this island. A small community (about 120 people) of fishing folks resides the island. For tourists: there is one guesthouse present The western part of the island is the inhabited part. Towards the east a hill slope rises, plunging into the ocean by steep cliffs on the eastern coast line. Here are breeding colonies of auks, guillemots and fulmars. Puffins are common too. Arctic terns breed in the grassy fields of the western area. There are two ways to get there. One can take a plane from Akureyri or one can take a ferry. If one takes the ferry in spring (may) one can admire the snowy mountain ridges defining the fjord (Eyafjörður) running north from Akureyri.
Next stop is Ásbyrgi. This is a strange hoof-shaped form of cliffs in northern (north-eastern) Iceland - east of Húsavik. Unlike most other landscape features on Iceland, this has not been directly shaped by volcanic activity. An incredible huge flood from the Jökulsá á fjöllum river following a volcanic explosion under the Vatnajökull ice cap melting large masses of ice and snow led to the washing off of all rocks downstream of the hoof-shaped rim. The rim itself is the remain of a waterfall. According to Viking mythology, Ásbyrgi was formed by the Sleipnir, the horse of the god Óòinn. In the basin a longitudal "island" remained in the middle of the basin. The basin holds favorable conditions for the development of vegetation due to the protective rims. Birch forests with rowan trees are well established. Also plots of pine trees have been planted.
The next major stop is Mývatn. But first let's make an in-between stop-over at one of the waterfalls of the Jökulsá á fjöllum river. This river originates from Vatnajökull ice cap flowing northward and passes the Mývatn lake about 25 km east east of the lake. In the section between "Mývatn" and the sea are several waterfalls while the river runs through a long canyon. The canyon was formed both by volcanic activity and water erosion. Dettifoss is the best known waterfall as this waterfall is the largest of Iceland (with respect to the amount of water passing through). In the canyon weird rock formations of basalt can be found. Basalt-column formations can be observed here.
Now we get to Mývatn. The name refers to a lake (vatn is Icelandic for lake). Due to the sediments of the lake, midgets (Mý) thrive here. They in return, form the ecological basis for a rich bird life ( see the background page on birdlife). The Mývatn region is not only an interesting place for ornithologists. For geologists it is also extremely interesting. The landscape is littered with volcanoes, earth fissures, recent lava flows, thermal hot springs, etc. There are two settlements where tourists can find accommodation, being Skútustadir and Reykjahliò. Skútustadir lies along the southern shore. Here one can see many pseudo-craters. Elsewhere along the lake one can find pseudo craters too but at Skútustadir they are easily accessible. Pseudo craters resemble small volcanoes but they are not. They were formed by lava's flowing into the lake and the explosion following the contact of liquid stone and water. At Skútustadir the research station is housed. Reykjahliò, however is a more interesting starting point for excursions. Reykjahliò lies along the north-eastern shore. Near by is the explosion crater Hverfjall. Many lava flows can be seen here, some relatively very young (like the lava's along the north-eastern shore) others older - very spectacular is Dimmuborgir just south of the Hverfjall crater. On the other side of the hills behind Reykjahliò lies the famous hot spring area Námafjall. Here lies a field littered with fumaroles and mud pots. While hiking along the eastern side of the lake one can observe many fissures, some of them containing hot water wells, and volcanic crater rows. But there is also the gentle landscape around the lake. Except for the northern shore where recent lava flows (mainly Pahoehoe type) run all the way to the lake, the regions around the shores of the lake consist of birch bush land, green marshes, agricultural lands and meadows. Especially the the region in the south-western part - where the Laxá river flows from the lake - is a gentle landscape.
The central highlands are the regions between the major ice caps Langjökull, Hoffsjökull and Vatnajökull. Also, inland areas north of and around these ice caps are regarded as parts of the central highlands. These regions generally consist of rugged desert-like landscapes with scattered volcanoes. The soils are often made up of volcanic ash sometimes with a layer of pebble stones on top. Scattered around are lava boulders and pumice. Much of this country seems void of vegetation. If one cares to inspect the ground in detail one can notice that many dwarf plants grow here. All in all it is all to apparent that the physical conditions are very unfavorable for plant growth. Reasons are the poorly developed soils, the wind erosion (dust storms are common) and the cool summer temperatures. Nevertheless a few valleys with interesting plant growth exist ( Nýidalúr along the Sprengisandur track is a good example). The melting glacials lead to swamps in some places. South of the Hoffsjökull lies Þjórsarver swamps. This swampland houses a the world's largest breeding colony of the Pink-footed Goose. A geological interesting place lies along the northern rim of the mighty Vatnajökull ice cap. This is the Kverkfjöll region. Here, warm water from hot springs under the ice cap run out of ice caves into the barren lands north of the ice cap. Climbing the glacials to the ice cap one can suddenly find solfatera's on a slope surrounded by glacial's and likewise a lake of thermally warmed water within the ice cap. Kverkfjöll is thus rightly called the land of ice and fire.
The Veðivötn lakes region lies between the Sprengisandur highland route and the Landmannalaugar region. It consists of many natural lakes, popular to Icelandic sports fishers. Observing fissures and smaller craters in the region, one becomes aware that this is still the rift zone of Iceland.
Landmannalaugar is one of the most fascinating regions of Iceland. It is characterized by rhyolite mountains (an acid lava type) and hot springs. Rhyolite mountains are very colorful: yellow and cobalt-green are common colors of the mountains. One can take a popular hiking trip from here to Thorsmörk (3 to 4 days trip). The mountain scenery at Landmannalaugar is truly stunning.
The Hekla volcano is sometimes called the Queen of the Icelandic volcanoes. It lies on the western edge of Iceland's eastern volcanic zone. It is a very active volcano (Icelands third-most active volcano) having erupted some 18 times since the arival of the vikings. It is a strato volcano, but unlike most other strato volcanoes does'nt erupt from a central vent but rather from a SW-NE fissure. Due to its active nature the countryside around the Hekla is one huge wilderness of lava's, volcanic ashes, etc.
Thorsmörk is in southern Iceland, roughly speaking between Landmannalaugar and the south coast. However, between Thorsmörk and the coastal region lie two ice-caps (Mýrdalsjökull and Eyafjallajökull. Two river systems characterize the area: the Markarfljöt and the tributary Krossá. The valley of the Krossá is narrow. The western (downstream) part of the Markarfljöt is a wide valley in which the riverbed consists of stony (large pebbles) sediments. The river itself has many branches and side streams. Although here the Markarfljöt is quite close to the sea it is truly a mountain river system with fast flowing currents in spring. East of Húsadalur Markarfljöt valley narrows into a canyon. The area is difficult to reach: only sturdy 4-wheel drive cars can drive to Thorsmörk. A bus driver on a special bus complained to me that he was suffering the "shaken bus-driver syndrome";-). The valleys offer protection against the harsh climate for plant life. Thus one can find many well developed birch stands on the slopes along the river valleys.
Skaftafell is a national park in southern Iceland. The area is known both by the relative mild climate (spring development of the vegeation is early by Icelandic standards) and by the glacials flowing down from the mighty Vatnajökull ice cap. Form the hills of Skaftafell one look out over the Skeiðarársandur - a large coastal flat land where glacial rivers deposit sediments. A special geological feature has a large effect on these coastal being Volcanic eruptions under the Ice caps of southern Iceland. This leads to huge amounts of water melting very fast under the ice caps. It can surface from the glacials with incredible volumes of water and force. Rocks the size of a house can easily be tranported by these floods. In Icelandic these floods are called Jökullhaups. In recent years one narrowly passed by Skaftafell smashing the main road nr 1. These floods largely form wash plains like the Skeiðarársandur end the more western Mýrdallssandur (the Katla volcano under the Mýrdallsjökul - ice cap - is the driving force for Jökullhaups here). Jökulsarlón is a famous lagoon east of Skaftafell. Here the Breiðamerkurjökull glacial from the Vatnajökull ice cap drops large chunks of ice into the lagoon. The view on the floating ice in the lake is special.