Fimmvörðuháls is a high pass between Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull and the place where the first of the spring 2010 eruptions occurred that were identified with the Eyjafjallajökull volcano. You may remember all the air flights between Europe and the US and the rest of the world that were canceled that spring. Well, it all started on top of a very popular hiking route that starts (or ends) near Highway 1 at Skógarfoss.
The trail has been rerouted and this was the day I planned to hike as much of the trail to Fimmvörðuháls as we could. We were not planning to be back on the south coast again during the trip, so this was the only day available. I think I had been told it would be 14 or 15 miles roundtrip, and I was sure that some of the knees in the party would not be up for that distance, but I hoped we could do most of it.
As soon as we were in the car Bragi pointed out that we would drive right past Reynisfjara the black sand beach with columnar basalt cliffs and cave, beautiful sea stacks just offshore, and the strong possibility of sighting puffins. There was no way I could ignore the opportunity for Susan to visit this classic site. My hopes of spending a full day hiking toward Fimmvörðuháls were dashed, but I had a responsibility to introduce Iceland′s highlights to my companion, too.
I made an effort to be the gracious host, rather than the disappointed friend. And there were some features of Reynisfjara that day I have to admit were special. There were many more puffins flying to and from the tops of the beach′s dark basalt cliffs that day than I have ever seen before. These little birds are very colorful, diligent fisher-birds and energetic flappers of their short wide wings. They dig burrows in the cliff-top soil, lay eggs and tend their chicks in the little tunnels. They seem to make constant flights from the nests to the sea, returning with mouthfuls of little fish for their offspring.
I did not remember having seen the graceful cave formed in the cliff with basalt column walls during previous visits. It has apparently become a popular spot for wedding ceremonies, which is easy to understand. It not only provides shelter from rain and wind, it has great views of the sea and the sea stacks just down the beach.
When we arrived we noticed a new modern building beside the parking lot and the cliffs. Its big windows revealed an attractive café, but it did not open until late in the morning. Considering the big summer crowd, we thought they were missing a good bet. A nice cup of coffee would have been great about then, too. We returned to the café after our visit to the beach and discovered that the business had been funded by the local economic development group, called Katla Geopark, and by the European Union. We thought the latter investment interesting, as Iceland has not decided yet whether to join the Union.
We finally reached Skógarfoss in the early afternoon and hiked for several hours. Skógarfoss is one of the beautiful waterfalls visible from Highway 1, and a popular tourist attraction in its own right. For us the draw was the long set of metal and wooden steps that climb the 201-foot cliff beside the waterfall. The trail starts just east of the top of the falls, and follows the Skóga River upstream for most of the distance to Fimmvörðuháls.
From the top of the big falls we could easily see out to the ocean, as well as onto the glaciers in the distance. In our immediate vicinity was an open landscape of gentle hills and a rushing river. The trail led us gently uphill beside the river. It was not steep, but we kept passing waterfalls and cascades rushing toward the cliff and the vertical descent to the coastal plain.
The three of us agreed on a turn-around time and I left my companions behind as I tried to make the most distance in the little time we had. I finally stopped beside a beautiful stretch of riverbank with a large patch of cotton grass blossoms nodding in the breeze. I had hoped to reach the next ridge, but it was clearly farther than I anticipated. At that point Bragi shared that there is a landmark bridge that is a good destination on this trail. ‟Beyond that,” he said, ‟you reach the highlands and the views are not as interesting.” Maybe I will try to get here again and camp at the foot of Skógarfoss to assure a full day reserved for hiking to Fimmvörðuháls —or at least to the bridge.
We stopped at the small but interesting Eyjafjallajökull Visitor Center on our way south. I had previously enjoyed their 20-minute film about the nearby farm family’s experience with the 2010 eruption, and thought Susan would appreciate it too. I was surprised to see that the film I had admired had been replaced with one that may be considered a more polished production, but doesn’t seem as intimate an experience of the volcanic eruption. I was also irritated that Eyjafjallajökull was repeatedly referred to as “the glacier,” as if it were a glacier that had erupted, and not the volcano that has no other name.
From there we drove to our lodging for the next two nights, Ljosafoss Skoli Hostel. I had read for years that public boarding schools were used for tourist lodgings before there were many rural hotels in Iceland, but I had not stayed in one before. We had a reservation for a room with bunkbeds, shared bathroom and breakfast. What we found was a well-maintained, airy, three-story building with a large dining room and self-service kitchen at one end and a wide variety of sleeping rooms and lounges at the other end. Each floor had at least a lavatory, some restrooms also had showers and there was also a large shower room near the dining/kitchen area. The school buildings are now owned by a religious broadcasting company, which uses the hostel revenues to help fund their programs.
The room, building layout, staff and breakfast buffet all contributed to a comfortable stay. The kitchen seemed designed for a small staff, rather than several couples or pairs of people wandering around trying to figure out how to prepare their meals with unfamiliar appliances. Everyone seemed to recognize that this was part of the hostel experience; we all shared the space and information on how to make the kitchen work, and no one went away hungry.
It being day four in Iceland, it was time for me to do a little laundry. Out came my tightly capped small bottle of liquid laundry detergent and my bag of dirty quick-dry clothes. The clothes were swished in a shower room sink for a few minutes, rinsed in clean water, and rolled in a dry abandoned bath towel. (Bath towels are used after the shower, so they can’t be dirty, right?) Lay the clean wet clothes in the towel, roll up the towel, twist, unroll and remove your virtually spun-dry clothes. Return them to your room and hang them on a plastic line with tiny clothes pins, hang them on clothes hangers if available, or drape your clothes wherever they don’t irritate your roommate. By morning they should be mostly dry. Heavy hiking socks are the reliable exception, of course.