Earth, Wind, and Fire: A Journey to the Planet’s Beginnings in Iceland
By Michael Lanza
The land is on fire.
Actually, the land appears to be smoldering, stoked by some persistent furnace just beneath the surface. Which is essentially true.
Steam from hot springs and other geothermal features issues from scores of points from here to the horizon. Mud pots bubble and burp, and the color of volcanic activity is everywhere—paint-can spills of ochre, pink, gold, plum, brown, rust, and honey against a backdrop of purple pumice and electric-lime moss. An old, hardened lava flow pours down one mountainside in a jumbled train wreck of razor-sharp black rhyolite. Barren peaks extend ridges like the arms of starfish. Chattering streams carry the runoff from July snowfields smeared across the highlands. Scudding clouds stampede overhead, constantly rearranging the dappled sunlight splashing over the landscape.
It’s a mind-boggling kaleidoscope, and with nothing taller than a clump of moss growing anywhere, I can see for miles in every direction. It looks like Yellowstone’s Upper Geyser Basin, but multiplied exponentially, and with color-enhancing done by a designer of Grateful Dead album covers.
I’m in Landmannalaugar, a park of sorts with a ragtag end-of-the-road campground in the remote Fjallabak (“Behind the mountains”) Nature Reserve of Iceland’s Central Highlands, one of the most active geothermal areas on Earth. Landmannalaugar is famous here both for the hot springs—the name means “bath of the countrymen”—and for the trail I’m hiking. Called the Laugarvegurinn (“Hot Spring Road”), or Laugavegur, it’s a three- to four-day, 33.5-mile, hut-to-hut trek from Landmannalaugar south to Thorsmork. Iceland’s most popular hike, it has earned a place beside the Inca Trail, Nepal’s Annapurna Circuit, and New Zealand’s Milford Track as one of the world’s most beautiful paths.
In my first hours on the trail, I pass other hikers, mainly Icelanders and other northern Europeans, but mostly I’m alone with the Arctic wind and occasional whistling steam vent or gurgling hot spring. I think that this is how the Earth must have sounded right after its birth, when the ground still constantly trembled and belched and disgorged its surplus of heat and water, and there were no plants rustling in the wind or animal noises to amplify and add complexity to the nascent planet’s soundtrack.
At a spot along the path called Storihver, where numerous vents emit steam and hot water, I wander off-trail over a small rise and come upon a steaming pool about 20 feet across. It sits against a hillside with a hole like a gaping maw. A spring spills from the hole into the pool’s milky aqua waters, which overflow the opposite bank, sending a stream of bright blue water meandering down a gentle valley of impossibly green moss and dark dirt. The startling contrast gives the scene a prehistoric look. I start down toward the pool for a better photo angle, but the waterlogged pumice collapses underfoot like slushy snow, and I frantically scrabble back up the steep slope, afraid I’ll slide into the water and get boiled alive.
As a kid, before I knew that hot springs could stew meat from bone, I might have taken that plunge. I was enthralled by Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, in which a teenage boy, his uncle, and a guide descend into an Iceland volcano. They explore a vast cavern illuminated by electrically charged gas, discover a subterranean ocean, dodge prehistoric creatures, and generally have the sort of exotic adventure that enchants 12-year-olds from geothermally benign factory towns like Leominster, Massachusetts.
But Verne’s vision of the Earth’s restless plumbing never left me. Now, 30 years later, I’m finally making my own journey to this land of fire and ice. Besides the Laugevegur trail, I’ll squeeze in a whirlwind 4WD tour of the island’s remote interior, plus dayhikes of a snowy peak and more obscure places pointed out by our guides and Reykjavik photographer Thorsten Henn.
At every turn, I’m transfixed by the primeval terrain, and reminded that elemental forces are ever at work shaping it. It’s so raw that I imagine a mighty hand peeling back the planet’s crust to show what’s going on underneath. Verne’s tale may be wild science fiction, but he was right on in choosing this island as its setting; it would scarcely surprise me to see a pterodactyl swoop out of the sky. More than anyplace I’ve been—from Yellowstone’s geysers to the rim of Mt. St. Helen’s smoking crater—this land is defined by upheaval.
That upheaval is a sign of tempestuous youth. Iceland formed only three million years ago—a geologic eye blink—from volcanic eruptions that built its mountains while the island remained buried beneath the Arctic ice cap. It emerged only 12,000 years ago, after the ice cap receded. Smaller than Kentucky, the country has about 150 volcanoes, the greatest concentration in the world. They’re so violently active it’s a wonder humans can live here (never mind the challenges of existence on a tiny, isolated island in the far North Atlantic).
The volcanoes add four-tenths of an inch to the island’s width every year; to a geologist, that’s a serious growth spurt that keeps spurting. Eighteen have erupted since Norse people settled here in the early 9th century. Over the past 500 years, Iceland’s volcanoes have produced one-third of the total global lava output. Some volcanoes, like the country’s most famous smokestack, Mt. Hekla, have blown repeatedly.
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The Laki eruption of 934 spawned the largest lava flow ever recorded worldwide: 4.7 cubic miles of flood basalt that covered more than 300 square miles; the eruption’s release of 219 million tons of sulfur dioxide was also the largest in history. When Laki blew again in 1783, it threw out 3.4 cubic miles of basalt lava in fountains estimated to reach nearly a mile into the air. Legend has it that a pastor named Jon Steingrimsson, in the tiny southeastern village of Kirkjubæjarklaustur, gathered his congregation in the church for a fire-and-brimstone sermon as a lava flow bore down on them. When finally he finished, the people exited the church to find the lava had stopped just beyond the town’s outskirts, at a spot now called “Eldmessutangi,” or “Fire Sermon Point.” They credited their pastor with saving the village.
The 1783 eruption also coughed up 120 million tons of sulfur dioxide that killed more than half the country’s livestock and a quarter of Icelanders. The gas spread a poisonous haze across Western Europe so thick that ships couldn’t leave ports, and killed roughly 23,000 people in Britain and thousands more across the continent. In fact, Laki’s environmental impacts on Europe lasted several years, causing famine and poverty believed to have helped instigate the French Revolution in 1789. Chalk one up for environmental determinism.
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Iceland sits astride the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a chain of peaks taller than the Alps and more than six times the length of the Rockies, mostly submerged beneath the ocean. That ridge acts like a wedge forcing apart four plates of the Earth’s crust—the Eurasian, African, and North and South American plates—constantly widening the Atlantic basin.
That phenomenal volcanic and tectonic activity has as its locus a “plume,” or hot vent, at the northern end of the Vatnajokull ice cap, Europe’s largest glacier. Boring 1,000 miles into Earth’s mantle, the plume continually spews liquid rock, a process that gradually alters the shape and position of continents. Author Katharine Scherman, in her fascinating natural and human history, Daughter of Fire—A Portrait of Iceland, describes this area as “a collection of ice-shrouded peaks and craters deformed by glacial action, surrounded by a freakish complex of hot springs, seething mud pots and simmering lakes, with steam shooting through holes in old ice and cauldrons of boiling water under a frozen cover.”
On Iceland, the clock of geologic time has been speeded up; its metaphorical arms spin wildly. Processes that drag out over millennia elsewhere seem to accelerate here, unwinding as if shot with a time-lapsed camera. It doesn’t require much imagination to picture it as the center of the Earth. Long before Jules Verne’s day, explorers considered Hekla the gateway to hell. Hiking the Laugavegur, I’m thinking the exact opposite.
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An hour’s walk from the Hrafntinnusker hut on the Laugavegur, our group descends a crumbling slope into a scene of simultaneous destruction and creation. At the head of a valley shrouded with steam clouds from hundreds of thermal features, the crack-riddled, 100-foot-high snout of a glacier splits apart. Two ice caves, 50 to 75 feet tall and twice as wide, open like giant windows on the underworld, their floors littered with refrigerator-size ice blocks that have crashed down from overhead. Water drips cold from the ice caves and erupts hot from myriad vents in the ground. It flows in braids so numerous that our boots splash in one every second or third step.
In the days that follow, we’ll enjoy a dozen similar scenes, leaving me with the impression that Iceland is like a first crush, or a mountain cabin, or Alaska: easy to fall in love with, hard to leave. Much of the island remains pristine. Driving into the interior, we fill up at the last gas station for at least 200 miles, then follow rough jeep roads where driving across unbridged rivers becomes routine. In a pocket valley called Stong (misleadingly pronounced “Stunk”), a short walk off a gravel road, we stroll through a lush Shangri-la of leafy green shrubs and moss, where streams pour over 50-foot basalt cliffs and drop through smooth rock flumes in a chaotic tangle of waterfalls.
Their island’s raw beauty has clearly shaped the values of Icelanders. This is a country that routes new highways around rock formations that local mythology identifies as the abode of elves or trolls—and the people are proud of that policy, shrugging off as irrelevant my questions about whether they believe the legends. Their passion for the land makes me appreciate a culture that prioritizes a good story over making a commute minutely more convenient.
Like the landscape that encourages belief in elves and trolls, the brief “night” of high summer just below the Arctic Circle—it never gets darker than a cloudy day—reinforces the sense of having stumbled upon a place ruled by magic. And Icelanders seem driven to celebrate every minute of the endless days of summer. Because winter is the dismal opposite, residents burn the candle hard from May through August—fishing, hiking, kayaking, camping, eating, and drinking as if sleep won’t be necessary again for some months. And with just 300,000 people, the country exudes a small-town charm where everyone seems to know everyone else.
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We camp two nights with guides from the outfitter Ultima Thule and their large group of friends and family, who warmly invite us to an enormous lamb dinner. They also introduce us to a traditional Icelandic dish: rotten shark meat. Fast enamored of these people and their culture, I decide to partake. It’s clearly an acquired taste that even many of the natives with me haven’t yet acquired—though a few folks are tossing back shark cubes like M&Ms. The rancid, chewy meat—fermented for weeks—tastes like very strong cheese with a disconcerting ammonia aftertaste. We chase it with shots of Brennevin “Black Death” schnapps, a searing, sickly sweet liquor that nevertheless seems like an act of mercy after the shark. Guitars come out and we sit around a fire singing.
At one point under that sky that never darkens, I glance at my watch to see, with surprise, that it’s 2 a.m. Around me, kids race among the tents and my new friends betray no hint of having any plans to turn in.
But the next morning, our bleary-eyed group somehow rallies to hike up a peak named Snaekollur, near Kerlingarfjoll in the Central Highlands. Zipped into winter layers on the windblown, snowy summit, we look out over a 360-degree panorama of mountains, snowfields, and four of Iceland’s six major glaciers. By that afternoon, we’re hiking in T-shirts across a nearby geothermal area that some Icelanders refer to by the name Hveradalur, though that simply translates as “hot spring valley.”
The springs, furiously hissing steam vents, and bubbling mud pots cluster so densely that the place resembles some busy outdoor kitchen of the gods, with a boiling pot on every stove burner. Climbing onto a ridge—past two more burping mud pots, several feet across and deep, that look like living pools of blue-green paint—we gain a view of the steaming valleys and the snowy peaks beyond. The landscape seems as big and turbulent as the cloud-ravaged sky.
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On our final day in Iceland, there’s one last place I want to see.
We drive to Thingvellir, the “parliament fields,” a national park 14 miles east of the modern capital of Reykjavik. For centuries after Iceland established the world’s first parliament in 930, thousands of citizens would travel to the fields from all over the country for the annual governmental gathering. The history is interesting, but I’ve come to witness something bigger than that: the collision of continents.
A few minutes up a wide, gravel tourist trail, I scramble up a break in a 40-foot cliff. Below me sprawls a field of mottled, ropey black lava. The Atlantic Fault slices through here: Two plates of the Earth’s crust are pulling the valley apart like taffy, widening it by several millimeters a year. Here on the North American side, the ground creeps westward. Across the valley, on the Eurasian side, the brown hills slowly retreat eastward.
It’s not quite as magical as what Jules Verne described, but I figure it’s as close as I’ll ever get to the center of the Earth. My journey complete, I down-climb the cliff and watch a couple of preschool boys playing below a waterfall, blissfully oblivious to the geological cataclysm taking place beneath their feet.
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THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR any reasonably fit hikers prepared for traveling in very remote areas. Major challenges include the Alaska-like wet, windy, cool weather even at the height of summer; the possibility of having to navigate through fog-shrouded wilderness with few terrain cues and the trail obscured by snow; and driving rough back roads where self-sufficiency with problems like flat tires, and the ability to drive safely across a river, are absolutely necessary.
Make It Happen
Season July to September is peak hiking season; temperatures range from freezing to—occasionally—the 70s. September sees far fewer trekkers on the Laugarvegurinn Trail, where huts operate from late June to early September. Be prepared for sustained wet, cool weather. Check the Public Roads Administration website Vegagerdin, at road.is, to find out which roads are open.
The Itinerary The very popular Laugavegur Trail, or Laugarvegurinn, is a three- to four-day, 33.5-mile/55k, hut-to-hut trek usually done from Landmannalaugar south to Thorsmork. There is a hut and campground at Landmannalaugar; plan to spend at least one day there to dayhike the peak Blahnukur and the spectacular lava fields, and soak afterward in the hot springs. Reserve hut space on the trek several months in advance through Ferðafélag Íslands (member prices are cheaper); fi.is. Other areas described in the story are in the Central Highlands; the Island (Iceland) map (see below) is useful for finding your way around.
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Getting There Icelandair has flights from several major U.S. airports, including Boston, Minneapolis, New York, Orlando, Seattle, and Toronto; icelandair.com. Rent a high-clearance 4WD vehicle with tires made for rough roads in the Central Highlands and other parts of the interior, or take a bus to and from Landmannalaugar and Thorsmork with Reykjavik Excursions, +354 580 5400, re.is.
Maps Get the “Island” (Iceland) map of roads and natural features and the “Thorsmork Landmannalaugar” trekking map from The National Land Survey of Iceland; 011 354 430 9000, lmi.is.
Concerns The hot springs are dangerously hot, but the springs at the campground at Landmannalaugar pour into a stream, warming its waters enough to make a wide pool in the stream a very popular soak.
Guide Ultima Thule Expeditions, ultimathule.is.
Contact Inspired by Iceland official national tourism agency, inspiredbyiceland.com.
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