8 September 2016
Posted by Jessica Ball
Flying from the West Coast to Iceland doesn’t leave you a lot of time for sleeping, and neither does the prospect of standing on the on-land expression of a mid-ocean rift. On the first day of my Iceland trip, we left the airport and immediately drove to Þingvellir National Park, the site of the country’s original national parliament (the Alþingi) and a rift valley over the Mid-Atlantic ridge. This turned out to be a fantastic decision, because the area is both deserted and beautiful at 7:30 in the morning:
Þingvellir is a pretty awesome park. It’s a part of the North Atlantic Rift System that sits in a graben between the Almannagjá and Heiðargjá faults, and encompasses both the canyons that you can walk through (and scuba-dive in!) and Lake Þingvallavatn, which was formed by glacial meltwater around 12,000 years ago. The lava flows that cover the area were erupted by shield volcanoes about 10,000 years ago, although eruptions have occurred in the graben as recently as 2,000 years ago. The Almannagjá rift (which is what you get to hike through) started forming soon after, and has now accounted for 70 meters of spreading (at something like 7 cm/year).
The rift gives you a marvelous cross-section through a series of lava flows. (In many places you can not only see them side-on but look down into cavities between the flows, although this became a problem when part of the old trail collapsed into one and the park was forced to rebuild it.)
And, this being Iceland, there are waterfalls. Here’s the Öxarárfoss:
And the Öxará River, which runs through part of the Almannagjá after it goes over the waterfall:
The river runs out into a beautiful floodplain, where you can see the modern (relatively, it’s from 1859) Þingvallakirkja and the Icelandic prime minister’s summer residence.
The river is a prime spot to catch sight of greylag geese, which make really funny scratchy noises instead of honking.
And the river and lake are full of fish, including this grizzled specimen which might have been some sort of trout:
But one of the more interesting things you can do is go snorkeling or scuba diving in one of the two submerged rifts, Silfra and Davíðsgjá. We didn’t spring for a diving trip (it’s expensive and the water is pretty darn cold), but we did wander down to Silfra to see the divers in action.
Silfra is an amazing spot even if you’re not diving; the water is so clear you can see details all the way to the bottom.
By the time we were done walking around Þingvellir there were about a thousand more people than there had been when we arrived, and after grabbing coffee at the gift shop we decided to work our way around the lake and have lunch somewhere without people. In Iceland, this turns out to be easy:
Of course, the jet lag eventually catches up with everyone, and our crash happened at around 3 in the afternoon, when we were wandering around the town of Hveragerði. Fortunately, we found another lovely waterfall to collapse next to.
Hveragerði has some fabulous geothermal features (and a hot river) that we visited later on, but I’ll save that for a different post!