By Alex Downing, Communications Intern
One of the most mesmerizing things about nature is that no matter where you come from or where you have been, there is always somewhere more exotic, somewhere wilder for you to explore. You hiked the Amazon and summitted Everest? Congrats, but what about the Outback or Kilimanjaro? There is so much natural beauty in so many forms that even the most well-traveled of us can always find some location more amazing than the last.
Growing up in the comforts of suburban Pittsburgh with a few acres of woods surrounding my house, my most exotic journeys were family gatherings in a somewhat remote cabin in the Poconos. The bird calls and howling wind echoing louder than any people, cars or homes always felt like the pinnacle of solitude and natural beauty.
Then I went to Iceland.
It was almost impossible to anticipate the sheer volume of beautiful sights present in every corner of this island nation. Even traveling between my family’s Airbnb and the next destination felt like a trek through a screensaver, surrounded by untouched mountains or desolate magma fields, disrupted only by the occasional sheep farm or small church.
I had never been far enough west to see the Rockies or Sierra Nevada mountains, so the sprawling monoliths of snowcapped earth towering from coast to coast alone were enough to blow me away. The countless picturesque waterfalls and pockets of hot springs littering the ridges and valleys add even more artistry to these geologic monuments. Many of these waterfalls are visible from the main highways, and some of our detours to explore these unmarked gems resulted in even more memorable sights than the main attractions.
For instance, we found Bruarfoss Waterfall after only a 20-minute hike from the road. I nicknamed it the Black and Blue Falls because of the gorgeous contrast between the dark volcanic rock of the riverbed and the cerulean glacial waters flowing over it.
Another hidden beauty is called the Secret Lagoon. It is a hot spring that draws in much smaller crowds than the famous Blue Lagoon; as a result, there are fewer tourists and commercial buildings to disrupt the calming natural spa.
While these more intimate locations offer less crowded views of Iceland’s many beauties, that’s not to say that the more famous locations don’t deserve praise as well. One of the country’s most famous waterfalls, Seljalandsfoss, is a massive cascade pouring from the cliffs over 200 feet with a cave behind it allowing it to be seen from all angles. However, the best view came from hiking up the steep hillside next to it, where the surging water blasting toward the ground stood out in stark contrast to the peaceful landscape around it.
Another waterfall, Gullfoss, is known as the “Niagara Falls of Iceland.” While not nearly as large, it displays as much natural power and splendor as its North American rival without nearly as much distraction from Niagara’s commercialized surroundings.
But perhaps my favorite spot on this weeklong tour of the country was where water from the same sources that created many of the roaring falls sits stunningly still and silent. Jökulsárlón consists of two parts—Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach. The kaleidoscopic lagoon lies at the base of one of the largest glaciers in Iceland, where the snow and ice of the mountainous sheet above gives way to the deep blue of the still liquid below before reflecting on the placid mirror of water. When some of these large ice chunks escape the lagoon, they usually break and wash up on the black sand beach nearby, scattered like jeweled gravestones on the shore, unmoving but for the occasional Atlantic wave that churns them.
There were so many more fantastic views around Iceland, like the harbor and lighthouse of Stykkishólmur and the iconic architecture of Reykjavik. However, these manmade attractions were dwarfed by the endless canvas of Mother Nature’s design. A week, though, was just enough to scratch the surface of Iceland’s’ beauty; there is so much more to explore and I hope I get the chance to do that someday.