Mývatn Region – Volcanoes, Hot Springs and Turf Houses
Northeast Iceland sits on top of really active land. The Mývatn region is a fissure swarm – if you don’t know what it is, you can probably guess. It’s when the land cracks due to tectonic activity, allowing for magma to erupt to the surface.
There are some really interesting landforms here due to the temperamental land, including the Hverfjall volcano and the Dimmuborgir lava fields not too far from the volcano. There are also many colourful hot pools filled with steaming sulphuric water.
From distance, the Hverfjall volcano looks like a massive sand dune. That’s because it’s made from volcanic ash, or tephra, the result of groundwater coming into contact with molten lava, forming the sort of rough shaped rocks and stones that make up the volcano.
The Hverfjall volcano has one of the most stunning profiles. I was immediately captivated by the thin edge that curved in on itself and the concave and convex slopes on either side. When we drove past the volcano, it was already late afternoon, which meant the sunlight lit the volcano quite dramatically on its inner face.
Dimmuborgir Lava Fields
We didn’t manage to climb up the Hverfjall volcano, but did find some time to walk through the Dimmuborgir lava fields. I think the trek up to Hverfjall isn’t for everyone, but the Dimmuborgir lava fields can be easily visited by anyone.
Dimmuborgir means dark city in Icelandic (how goth!), and it was formed 2300 years ago when magma flowed over a lake. As the lake started to boil, the water interacting with the magma formed the pillars we see today. Eventually, all the water boiled off and everything cooled, leaving a chamber of hardened magma “supported” by the pillars. In time the roof collapsed, and this is what you see today when you visit Dimmuborgir.
Mývatn Nature Baths
If you plan to pay a visit to a hot spring you can bath in, we hightly recommend the Mývatn nature baths. When planning the trip, we were at a loss of which hot baths to pick, since there are many in Iceland, and we only had so many days. In the end, we decided against any bath that was around the Golden Circle as these would be usually quite packed with tourist on short tours.
We chose the Mývatn nature baths in the end. These baths are truly lovely. The bath complex grew naturally out of hot pools that were pre-existing in the area and look very natural.
You can rent everything you need here, including a swimsuit – although I find that a little odd, so do try to bring you own. Towels and bathrobe, you can get at the counter. I recommend bringing some flipflops as walking on the cold wet stone floor isn’t the most pleasant, as I found out!
If you can stand the cold, I recommend walking towards the edge of the very last pool overlooking the artic desert landscape. Here at the very corner of the comple, the water is a little cooler and quite shallow, only coming up to my knees. There almost isn’t anyone here, so you can have it to yourself. It was wonderful, standing at the edge, looking out into the horizon. I could almost believe I was stranded alone on an beautiful alien planet.
Grenjaðarstaður Turf Houses
When Phil told me he wanted to visit the turf houses in Grenjaðarstaður, I had no idea what they were. We’re in Iceland, I thought, shouldn’t we be seeing massive waterfalls, epic volcanoes and more stuff in the same vein? Turf houses sounded rather underwhelming… I thought.
I was wrong, of course. There is nothing on this island that will not charm you. You can find this sort of turf architecture all over Scandanavia, but Iceland is particularly known for them.
Due to the difficult climate, Iceland has limited resources. Wood is one of the most important building materials, and Icelanders had to make what birch trees were available to them go a long way. In Norway, the wood most often used is oak, but in Iceland, all they had was birch, so that had to suffice. Wood was key in any building project before the use of cement and metal – you can make the walls out of anything (mud, bricks – which were also made out of mud – and stone) but the roof always needed a frame and for this, you need wood.
To make what little wood was available go a long way, and to ensure good insulation, the roofing material was made of turf, an architectural idea that was brought over from Norway. These turf houses are often low and are mostly roof so that the wind blows over them, reducing the amount of heat lost through conduction.
I enjoyed walking along the pathway in front of the houses. We were the only ones there, and it felt as if we were in a world where everyone else suddenly disappeared, leaving behind their perfect little homes in the state we found them in. It was beautifully eerie.
Phil also took us to the Möðrudalur farm, the highest farm in all of Iceland. Although, to be honest, during the time of visiting I had no idea it was a farm. I’m not sure it’s still even a farm – I think the name is something that has simply stuck even though the site is now more of an eco-tourist stopover point more than anything else. There are little turf houses you can rent for lodging and also a campsite you can spend the night in if you have a tent.
The main attractions are the restaurant which serves homemade comfort food (the only type of food one would even consider when you are in a country that is cold all year round). We tried the “ástarpungar”, which is a type of heavy doughnut – it’s quite like the Dutch “oliebollen” – and the Icelandic moss soup. Both were homemade and great.
Outside, there is a cute little church built by Jón A. Stefánsson. He was one of the farmers who lived on the farm who also obviously had a knack for architecture and carpentry.
Someone told us that there was a den of an Arctic fox on the ground, but unfortunately we didn’t see any artic foxes.
Driving through Iceland is absolutely spectacular, but nowhere more so than the Kisilvegur plateau. The Ring Road cuts through the plateau, which is several miles of flat highlands stretching out in all directions. When we were there, the plateau was covered in purple nootka, also know as the Alaskan lupine. From the car window, they looked like lavender bushes to me.
They look as if they have been in Iceland for centuries but were actually introduced in 1945 in the lowlands, for nitrogen fixing. Like the Himalayan honeysuckle in the Azores, the nootka is beautiful, but invasive. Introduced in the 1940s to add nitrogen to the lowlands and to help with soil erosion, the nootka has now grown all over the place, overtaking spaces that would normally be filled by lichens, mosses and low shrubs.
An amazing plateau somewhere in Iceland 1 – Spherical Image – RICOH THETA
Nevertheless, it has many benefits – one of which is the prevention of soil erosion and the revegation of barren areas, which has resulted in a drop in dust storms. There have been suggestions to control the spread of the plant by cross breeding it with a similar species with sweeter leaves so that sheep can be led to graze on them. In any case, the situation is a delicate balance between biodiversity and land fertility.
Nevertheless, the stretch of road across the plateau feels like a road into the heavens. Here, the clouds come down really low, and for some stretches the roof of our car would brush the ceiling of the clouds, which was such a peculiar and wonderful experience – as if we were a trip to Asgard. It was the north of Iceland though, so it could as well have been.