Iceland fulfills most of the promises it makes to visitors. Called the Land of Fire and Ice, you can find both in ample quantities almost any time of year. It’s also known for a sort of rugged beauty that’s hard to find anywhere else in the world, which is probably why I’ve been back so many times. Additionally, Iceland is a country that offers tourists any number of fun and adventurous activities, no matter your skill level or even interest. From trekking out to the Westman Islands to boating along the Insta-famous Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, there’s enough to fill many trips, as I’ve learned over the years. On my most recent foray to the country of elves and dark winter days, I had the opportunity to try several new-to-me experiences, including two around the Husafell region that were a lot more fun than I could have imagined. Close to Reykjavik and an easy drive, visiting West Iceland is a good way for travelers to get out of the capital city and explore some of the country’s rugged terrain.
West Iceland and the Hotel Husafell
If you really want to explore the beauty of Iceland, several trips are needed but one of those first adventures should include easy to reach West Iceland. Home to many spectacular wonders emblazoned on thousands of Instagram accounts, it really is one of the most visually appealing parts of the country. As such, it was not my first time in West Iceland, but I was eager to return and explore even more of the region around Husafell itself. The Hotel Husafell is located in an area of the country well known to visitors and locals alike. The terrain and mountains figure prominently in Icelandic folklore and what I think are two of the country’s best waterfalls sit right next door to the hotel itself. That’s probably why the hotel’s owners decided to create this rural retreat here amongst the rolling and rocky fields of the countryside, for its proximity to some of the best adventures that Iceland has to offer, including two very unique cave experiences.
Lava Fields Forever
I’m not a big fan of visiting normal caves. They’re dark, it’s humid inside and everything is slippery. The tours always follow the same story arc with well-placed lights and formations that look like something; except that they never do. Although visiting caves was one of the first tourist experiences offered in modern times, I’d be ok if I never visited another one again. But the lava tube caves of Víðgelmir are not your normal caves. Located an easy 10-minute drive from Husafell, although the countryside was snow-covered when I visited, during the summer the entire landscape is an ebony lava field, a reminder of the seismic events that still shape Iceland in the 21st century. But it was one of those events, a volcano that erupted 1,000 years ago that created the beautiful caves found there today. Led by an able guide, we descended into the dark cave, formed when the volcano last erupted. While not a huge fan of caves, this one is unlike any other I’ve visited. Formed by molten lava streams, the resulting formations are unique to this sort of geological event. Add in the beauty of the lava fields and surrounding mountains and this is a fun and not to be missed excursion.
Above the Clouds and Into the Glacier
The star attraction of the region though is also one I’ve waited years to experience for myself, the now-famous Into the Glacier tour. A few years ago, a group of intrepid folks designed and dug out the first and largest man-made ice cap glacier ice cave at the massive Langjökull glacier. Since then they’ve been taking folks from Husafell to the very top of the massive glacier for a once in a lifetime walk through glacial caves. Climbing onto the specially designed trucks at Husafell, we made the hour-long trek to the glacier on what was a surprisingly beautiful day. With clear skies we could see for miles, admiring the pinks and reds bouncing off of the snow-capped mountains. Making a pit stop at a small convenience shack on the glacier, it was also the perfect opportunity to admire the stunning views from the top of the glacier itself. Not many people talk about this aspect of the trip, but for me it was one of the most special parts of the day.
Glaciers are funny things and building a tunnel system in the heart of one is no easy feat. Constantly moving, albeit slowly, the engineering aspect of the glacier tour alone is enough to impress. But of course, thousands of people travel to this remote outpost every year for one thing; to descend into the ice caves themselves. Securing cleats to our shoes, our affable guide was as excited as we were to spend some time in the massive Langjökull glacier, the second largest in Iceland. Other members of my group were busy taking selfies for Instagram in front of the icy walls lit by eerie blue lights. Being in the caves reminded me of my experience sleeping in an ice hotel a few years ago; deadly silent and not nearly as cold as one would ordinarily think. There’s more to the cave experience though than just selfies and cool ice formations. The company uses the opportunity to educate visitors about the receding glaciers not only in Iceland, but globally and the tremendous impact that global climate change is having on the world. Charts and maps outline the problem in a way that can only be called humbling. Sure, they’ve tamed the Icelandic glaciers, but in a few short decades there may not be any glaciers left to subdue.
Leaving that afternoon I was lucky enough to catch the last rays of sunlight as they disappeared behind the icy mountains. It was shockingly beautiful and unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced. The closest I can think of is my time spent in Antarctica. I felt a sense of profound solitude and peace that can only be created by the enormity of nature at its best. I felt as if I was standing on top of the world with no one around for hundreds of miles. On the ride back down the glacier no one said much, mollified from a long day and the sudden nightfall. It gave me time to think, to reflect on an action packed day of exploring two very unique caves in Iceland, experiences that demonstrate the brutal beauty of the country. It was also as content as I’ve felt in a long time, a sense of accomplishment rising up and placing a sly smile on my exhausted face. Yes, that was a good day and one I won’t soon forget.