Iceland, Days 5 & 6: Jökulsárlón, Höfn, and Stokksnes

On Sunday morning during my trip to Iceland, I said good-bye to Reynisfjara and Vik and headed east again. That day the skies were much clearer– no wind, no fog, and just a little rain. Because of this, I could actually see the landscape around me: the ocean to the south and the highlands with their waterfalls, glaciers, and volcanic peaks to the north. The volcanic plains did not look as desolate as they had the day before.

There are a few places along Route 1 where you can stop and walk along some short trails through the lava formations. These trails can quickly become crowded, as they are often narrow, where I stopped, at least, they were very short. This allows tourists to experience the strange formations without causing damage to them.

 

I drove on after that, declining to stop again at places I had stopped the previous couple of days, pushing on toward Jökulsárlón, the glacier lagoon I had been hearing about for years. I did pause at one point, though. Once I made it through the sand flats and passed Vatnajokull National Park, the desolate reaches of the southern coast were behind me. There were grassy hills and fields with grazing horses and sheep. Apparently, there are reindeer there too, given the ‘animal crossing’ signs I saw, but I didn’t see a single reindeer.  

I paused once before reaching Jökulsárlón, as the landscape was too incredible to simply drive past.

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From there, it wasn’t long before I started seeing signs for parking areas. I was a little baffled at first, given that there were low hills above the road that blocked the view of the mountains and glaciers beyond. Then the hills dropped away and I could see a stretch of water dotted by icebergs to the north, and a stretch of black sand beach to the south. I cautiously crossed a one-lane bridge and pulled into the north parking lot. Before I knew it, I was on the shores of Jökulsárlón, a giant lagoon at the head of the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier. The water is a beautifully deep blue and has a maximum depth of 814′ (248m). Icebergs float around the lake, eventually reaching the channel that leads to the ocean. Some of them will float out to sea, while others will be pushed back onto the black sand beach where the ice will eventually melt, leaving small bits of blue, white, or crystal clear ice. This beach is known as the Diamond Beach.

From the shores of Jökulsárlón, you can walk under the bridge to the Diamond Beach. It’s a short walk, though it gets noisy when traffic crosses the bridge. The beach itself is amazing, with a long stretch of sand and gravel-covered by chunks of brilliantly colored ice. Though there are often a lot of people there, there is plenty of room for people to take all sorts of photographs without getting in each other’s way. The primary thing to watch out for are the waves. It’s not as dangerous of a beach as Reynisfjara, but the waves can get high, and with tiny to gigantic chunks of ice everywhere, the footing can be treacherous. But it is a beautiful place to wander around, and the colors of the ice are unreal– deeper blues and brighter whites than you would expect, though I saw a quite a few black stripes, thanks to the dark basalt the glaciers had picked up on their long crawl from the highlands. I had to wonder how old the ice was and how much stone it had picked up over the eons. They made me feel very small.

By some strange chance, I ran into the English photographer I’d met back at Búðakirkja. What were the odds? We chatted again for a bit, complained about the wind we’d encountered around Vik the night before (he and his wife had stayed in Vik, where I’d been on the other side of Reynisdrangar). We chatted about the ice and our respective journeys for a while, and then he and his wife decided to head farther down the beach, where I had just come from. We bid each other farewell, and I lingered by a particular iceberg for a time until it started to rain in earnest. Then I headed back to the parking lot and made a quick detour to the food truck for some fish and chips, as it was well past lunchtime.

Once I’d finished my food, I left Jökulsárlón and drove eastward toward the little harbor town of Höfn.

Höfn is a fishing community on the southeastern coast. A series of barrier islands protect it from the larger waves of the Atlantic and ensure that its harbor is relatively quiet. The population is around 2,100, so it is a quiet community that is easy to walk through. There are a few restaurants, and if they don’t serve what you’re interested in, a grocery store is a five-minute walk from the harbor. There is a walking trail on the southern edge of town that takes you past homes, toward a memorial, and then out onto a little marshy peninsula. At any point on the trail, there are views of mountains and the Vatnajökull glacier to the west, and Vestrahorn to the east.

I stayed at the Guesthouse Hvammur, which is across the street from the harbor and just a few steps from Hafnarbuðin, a diner that serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I managed to have all three meals there during the two days I was in Höfn and was quite happy to do so, thanks to its cheerful decor, reasonable prices, and friendly staff. The food was great, too. For dessert after lunch, I bought a vanilla ice cream cone, wandered across the street, and sat down at a picnic table by the harbor. In spite of the 40ºF temperatures and the stiff breeze, that oddly ranks as one of my favorite memories of this trip. I also had dinner at Pakkhús, which was once a warehouse and has a lot of the original wood walls and markings from before it was a restaurant. The skyr volcano I ordered ranks among the best desserts I have ever had– don’t let its childlike name fool you.

On Monday, I headed east again toward Vestrahorn, a mountain on the opposite side of the harbor from Höfn. It’s about a fifteen-minute drive, and I ran into a bit of a problem early on, thanks to the GPS unit. After I’d been driving for about twenty minutes, the GPS directed me to turn onto an unmarked gravel road. Driving on the gravel didn’t bother me, but I soon realized that the road led to a farm. I got turned around and back onto the highway, but the GPS kept directing me back to the road. So I drove east until I found a little hotel where I could pull off the road, park, and start up Google Maps, which directed me back to where I wanted to go. You can take that little gravel road to view Vestrahorn, but it is private property with a fee to park and view the mountains. It also wasn’t where I wanted to actually go.

Where I actually wanted to be turned out to be Stokksnes. There used to be a military base there, which you can visit for a fee. There is also a horseback riding outfit, and a little cafe.


Next Up:  A long drive back to Reykjavik with a quick stop at Seljalandsfoss

14 thoughts on “Iceland, Days 5 & 6: Jökulsárlón, Höfn, and Stokksnes

  1. I always plan my own trips. I know there are some local travel agencies, but I’ve never tried them. Anymore, it seems like as much effort to tell someone what I’m looking for in flights or hotels as it takes to just do it myself.

  2. I think it might be, but given that I’ve never book a trip with a travel agent, I don’t know for sure. That said, I was talking to an acquaintance who recently returned from a trip to Ireland. She spent waaay more than I did on a group tour, and she didn’t get to spend very much time in one location because they had a strict itinerary. Sure, she stayed in some fantastic hotels, but that wasn’t what she was there for, so she was disappointed with the whole experience. I prefer to stay at cheaper accomodations (I’m just there to sleep, after all), and then go where I want and stay as long as I want.

  3. Oh yea, that’s another drawback with the travelling companies depending on the one you go with. Sometimes they try to visit a certain number of spots in a day so there might not be enough time to fully take in the sights/experience.

  4. Exactly. I would have missed out on my favorite experiences if I had gone with a package deal. I didn’t know about the Fimmvörðuháls Trail until I stumbled onto it, and it was one of the best experiences of the trip! A package deal would have taken me to the waterfall at the end of the trail, but not the trail itself. I prefer to be able to explore on my own terms.

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