Iceland is one of those places I can’t shut up about.
I’m sorry I’m not sorry.
In my defense, every single person I’ve met who has been to Iceland or heard of Iceland says the same thing. That kind of collective love is worth something, right?
By the time we reached northern Iceland on our #IcelandChallenge trip with Tiny Iceland on a 7 day stopover with Icelandair, I was head over heels for this polar little nation. Since it only took 5 days, I guess you could call me easy.
In a seemingly illogical way, the further north we headed in Iceland, the nicer the weather got, so by the time we were making our way to Akureyri, we were pulling off layers and our pale skin finally got to see some sunshine, in which it promptly burn since Iceland has no ozone layer.
Oh the joys of a being of northern European heritage.
If I had to sum up our journey north in Iceland it would be both epic and magical. Northern Iceland is where the crooked, jurassic mountains fall away into sweeping, vast landscapes that never end, peppered with (occasionally terrifying) geothermal activity.
Game of Thrones-style, the north is the land with summer snows and otherworldly natural wonders, and shouldn’t be missed on a trip to Iceland.
Here are my 5 most epic, magical moments from northern Iceland.
1. Survive the crazy drive from the east to the north
Forever in search of adventure and quite literally get off the beaten path, leaving the east we veered off Highway 1 aka the Ring Road in favor of a dirt mountain road somewhere between Jökulsárhlíð and Vopnafjörður.
Try saying that out loud, go on, I dare you.
Hellisheiði Eystri climbs high above the clouds in the fiords below, and bit by bit we creeped closer to snow fields twinkling under the hot blue skies.
Which is when, of course, our SUV overheated.
Oh happy days!
Eventually we got the car moving enough to get back down the mountain on the other side in search of our next adventure. Thank heaven for Inga and our endless supply of sponsored water from Icelandic Glacial.
2. Chase some big-ass waterfalls
Iceland has no shortage of spectacular waterfalls. In fact, I’m surprised it’s not nicknamed the land of endlessly impressive waterfalls.
Come on vikings!
By the time you reach northern Iceland, you might actually be sick of seeing waterfalls. Sometimes we’d pass a sign indicating a waterfall nearby, look at each other, and say “nah, pass,” and keep driving, that’s how many waterfalls there are in Iceland.
However, if there are two waterfalls to be visited in Iceland, especially in the north, they’re Dettifoss and Goðafoss, both of which will knock your socks off.
Neither puny nor pretty, Dettifoss is a monstrosity of a waterfall that will guaranteed drop your jaw open and also might make you pee your pants a little in fear. I’m not speaking from experience or anything…
The most powerful waterfall in Europe, and star of the movie Prometheus, Dettifoss is gray massive titon that rips the flat rocky land in two in northeastern Iceland. Don’t be deceived by the ever-present glittering rainbow that floats in its mists; Dettifoss is ferocious, and I was even too scared to even peek over the edge of the
security fence midget rope keeping tourists from tumbling over.
And if you’re incredibly adventurous, the other side of the waterfall has no ropes to speak of so you can sit on the edge if you want for photos. Though the way Iceland’s tourism is booming unchecked, I doubt it’ll be long before someone tumbles overboard.
Goðafoss, or the Waterfall of the Gods nearby, is much prettier and less frightening. Also unmonitored, you pretty much have free reign to crawl around the pools and peer down below, just don’t slip!
3. Hunt down some geothermal activity
Near Mývatn as you head further west you start to get into the geothermal area of Iceland, where the ground occasionally rumbles with earthquakes and the air smells like rotten eggs.
Krafla, one of the most active volcanoes in the area is now mildly quiet and open to visitors. Gazing down into the bright blue waters of the crater still surrounded by a bit of snow, you can’t help but wonder at how geologically diverse Iceland is!
From waterfalls to volcanoes in a day! Iceland really does have it all!
Nearby is Hverir with bubbling mud pools and steam rising from the ground. Under the hot perpetual sun, it feels like you’ve stepped foot into another world, wandering around these geothermal areas.
We certainly don’t have mudpots back home in Virginia like that!
4. Step back in time at the Icelandair Hotel Akureyri
After a long day of driving and exploring the north, we were more than thrilled to arrive at Icelandair Hotel Akureyri. Though traveling in Iceland in summer means the midnight sun and a day that never ends, something I can definitely get behind!
After tucking into a fabulous dinner at the hotel’s restaurant, Aurora, with former mayor of Akureyri and current hotel manager Sigrún (I LOVE this about Iceland!) we finally got to chat with a local about life in Akureyri and about tourism in Iceland, something I’m very interested in.
Since I have been pretty much living in hotels since April, anytime my home-away-from-home has some character, I’m charmed. In spite of being part of a larger chain of hotels, each of the Icelandair hotels has its own theme and is unique.
Almost as soon as we walked in the lobby, what caught my eye was the giant black and white photo of old time Icelanders sipping champagne on top of a snowy mountain, in suits and dresses!
The story behind the photo was the celebration of finishing a project tracking the Northern Lights over Akureyri, the same studies that inspired paintings of the famous Aurora that we would see later on.
Curious, we chatted about it over dinner and it turns out that Sigrún and friends were planning to recreate the photo right after we left, hiking for hours up to Súlur to take the same shot, even dressed like they used to.
It’s these kinds of stories and moments that endear me to a place, and it might actually be one of my favorite memories from Akureyri! I’m just sad I didn’t get to hike up there in a full dress and heels too!
5. Exploring the capital of northern Iceland – Akureyri
Iceland’s second biggest city (population 17,000 on a good day) Akureyri is a beautiful fishing town in the north. After a week of rushing from one crazy outdoor activity to another, I was grateful for the chance to get in some culture and learn a little more about Iceland’s history.
From walking along the harbor and getting to see the famous Queen Elizabeth cruise ship to exploring the quaint town, our last day in the north was a pleasant one.
Coming full circle, in the town’s main museum we got to see an exhibit about the paintings inspired by the men in the photo in the hotel. While I’ve seen plenty of photographs of the Northern Lights, it was pretty cool to see paintings of them from a century ago.
Northern Iceland is special and it didn’t disappoint. Looking back I’m glad we came full circle and ended our trip there and that we had the chance to experience such profound natural wonders combined with local history and culture.
All I wonder now is when I can go back.
Have you ever been to Iceland? Northern Iceland? Would you like to go one day?