progress — By ben checketts
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
Iceland has been on my radar for years, watching what seems like countless Instagram stories where influencers parade around in off-road vehicles, dip into hot springs, and watch the Northern Lights. When an opportunity to line up a winter shoot in Iceland came about, I jumped in feet first. We planned our itinerary with the help of our friend and Iceland expert, Aaron Colussi, and tried to sprinkle in as much variety as possible with as little travel time between locations, given the tight timeline.
We spent all of our time in the Southern part of the island, about a 1.5-hour drive from Reykjavik and were very happy with the variety of scenery and experiences we were able to see in a matter of days. We also booked off-road vehicles from Isak 4x4, which were definitely costly but also operated as one of our favorite experiences of the entire trip. Making river crossings is essential to being able to see everything that we saw and these vehicles gave us only a couple of scares as we navigated the backcountry.
Another piece of insider information for this particular itinerary is to pack light, using layers to stay warm, and I cannot stress this enough, but bring a waterproof jacket. In Iceland, it’s more of a matter of when not if, it will rain. We enjoyed amazing weather. The locals told us how lucky we were to get as many warm, sunny days as we had and yet, we still experienced our fair share of downpours. I would also stress that you bring lots of socks and good hiking shoes, as river crossings can get up to your knees on a regular basis. If you want to really take in Iceland, you should expect to hike in non-ideal weather.
Flying into Reykjavik, be sure to catch a glimpse of the coast. The lush green landscape littered with black rock is amazing, but this is only just the beginning. The airport has several locations where you can get a quick bite to eat. Joe and the Juice is a favorite of mine. This is essential because you are going to get right after it, scaling a glacier on day one. Take a taxi to Isak 4x4 and get your ride and set the course for Sólheimajökull Glacier. Take in the sights as you pass the city of Reykavik and head South on the Pjooguver, a scenic highway that wraps around the island. On the southern side its surrounded by beautiful mossy green mountains and waterfalls. You can expect about a 2-hour drive, depending on traffic, and it may be a good idea to stop in Midgard for gas and some groceries for lunch. The bread and cheese are predictably top-notch as you are in Europe, and definitely try some of the local products like the berries, Skyr (a delicious Icelandic yogurt), and fish--all of the fish. I would avoid shopping for food/snacks at the gas stations. It’s quite expensive and the pre-made food is universally not very good.
Arriving at the glacier, you have two options depending on your budget and ability to plan ahead. Option 1: Hike from the parking lot to the base of the glacier; it’s about a half-mile to the base. You can still get an amazing sense for the sheer size of the glacier but will not be able to go very far and see it’s massive expanse into the valley. Option 2: Hire a glacier guide that can outfit you with crampons, ice ax, and helmet so that you can see the glacier in its entirety. We had good luck with a guide from Asgard Beyond (ask for Svarvar) but there are several companies in the area that do these expeditions. As you make your way up the glacier, you’ll be amazed and possibly saddened to learn how quickly it’s disappearing. But make your way up and over to “The Grand Canyon”, a large canyon formed into the glacier itself. This was a perfect spot to pull up for some lunch and try our hand at some belayed ice climbing! This is where the guide came in very handy. We saw and experienced a lot with our guy Svarvar. All in all this tour took us 4 hours.
Once back at the cars, you will likely want some warm food and if you took the red-eye, as we did, a good place to sleep. Set your course for Midgard Basecamp, a 30-minute drive back towards Reykavik. The basecamp is more or less of a hostel but with options for a two or four-person room if you’d like something a little less shared. The restaurant is also quite famous for its selection of delicious eats, including the adventure burger, a locally sourced beef burger with cheese, pickles and get this, BACON JAM. It hit the spot. As did the barrel sauna, hot tub and a comfortable bed with access to power ports for charging your devices. In the morning, they have a good spread of Icelandic breakfast foods and options for a take-away lunch so you can get on your way.
The next morning, get back on the Pjooguver and set a course for Thorsmörk, which literally translated means “Thor’s Land.” This route will take you past some heavy tourist destinations, like the Skógafoss Waterfalls, which are fun to stop at and grab a few pictures. Once you get past the waterfalls, you’ll be out on a rough road with frequent river crossings that get increasingly challenging as you go. Be sure to check with the crew at Isak and review the conditions to ensure you know where to go and which crossings may just be too deep for you. Another option, if you are not confident in your ability to cross the rivers, is to book a guided tour of this territory with an experienced driver. This rugged route will take you past the Eyjafjallajökull Volcano and glacier and into the heart of Thorsmörk. If you can make it to Básar Hut & campsite, this is a great place to park your car, grab your belongings and make the 3.6 mile (5.8 km) hike to the Volcano Huts. It’s a moderate and beautiful hike but you’ll soon understand why I recommended that you pack light.
Upon check-in at the Volcano Huts, we opted for the cottage option for our group of six, but the glamping tents also looked amazing. The restaurant here is very sufficient and is included with your stay, so take advantage. Rest up and take in the beautiful surroundings. The camp is equipped with showers, bathrooms and a barrel sauna (yeah, they are everywhere). If you’re up for it, the Valahnjúkur walk is a short, steep hike that provides the best view of the Thorsmörk, bar none. It’s a great hike to do in the evening as the sun sets. The valley absolutely lights up and reflects softly off the rivers. In a word, it’s majestic.
Spend the night near the fire and chat it up with locals or travelers. Everyone had a very interesting story as to how they got here, where they were going, etc. It’s a great place to pick up some advice on things you’d like to do.
With one more day left, hike on back to the car and get on your way. There are a few slot canyons along the road that are definitely worth checking out on your way back towards Midgard. Set your course for Reykjadular Hot Springs. It’s on the way back to Reykavik and isn’t the Blue Lagoon (which if you have time for is also amazing) but this is a very local experience. Be warned, there is a moderate 2.3-mile hike up with 500 ft elevation gain, but so worth it! The hot springs get up to 105 with some cooler options downstream.
After the springs, jump back in the car and make your way towards Reykavik. I would recommend (time and budget permitting) staying in the city for a night. There are some great food options like Ramen Mono and Flatey’s Pizza, an incredible pizza place with a local Icelandic flair. More than anything else, it’s a beautiful city with some clean Scandinavian designs (a personal favorite), friendly people, and beautiful views of the water.
And there you have it. Three days in the land of fire and ice. Hope you get the opportunity to go; it’s truly an amazing place.