Iceland is a place of incredible history, incomparable beauty, and geological turmoil. It is a place where fire and ice battle for supremacy in a rapidly changing landscape. Here, lava flows and volcanic eruptions sculpt the land. Ancient glaciers carve deep fjords as they crawl toward the sea. And the volatile climate of the North Atlantic drives a dynamic weather system, always changing from one minute to the next. For this year’s Backcountry Journeys Best of Iceland – Autumn tour, we would spend eleven days exploring this incredible landscape, seeking out dramatic black mountains, gargantuan waterfalls, and seascapes adorned with knife-life rock formations jutting into the sky.
The weather would pose challenges along the way, as we were met with the remnants of Hurricane Larry as it made its northeasterly march from Canada and out into the North Atlantic. But, we would be met with some idyllic conditions as well, as dramatic cloud formations and rainbows were spawned by the passing storm.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of traveling in Iceland is the amazing people that reside here. Their warmth to visitors and the amazing food and hospitality we were served up along the way were absolutely remarkable. Our path would begin in the capital city of Reykjavik, but before embarking into the remote countryside of Iceland, we first had a date with history.
Back in March of this year (2021), the volcano at Fagradalsfjall (pronounced: Fog-Ara-Dalsh-Fyack) burst back into life after lying dormant for nearly 800 years. Dramatic footage flooded the internet and news waves as lava fountains erupted out of the long-dormant volcano. Lying only 40 miles or so from the capital of Reykjavik, where we would be commencing our tour, it was all but obviously, we had to go see this natural wonder.
An extension was arranged that would allow us to visit the volcano by helicopter the day before our trip was to begin. But, as the date of our trip approached, the volcano went quiet. For nine days, the volcano was dormant, which was especially disappointing for me, as I had arrived several days early to see and photograph the volcano via the hike up to the primary lava vent. But, after making the hike up to the volcano on my first night in Iceland, it was clear the volcano was devoid of lava, only venting hot gasses and smoke. For three days I waited, watching the seismometers and webcams, hoping against hope that she would wake.
As I sat waiting and watching, the day of our helicopter tour arrived. A couple of days prior, I had sent out an email alerting our clients that the volcano may not be active for our tour, and I felt in my heart that it would not be. But, everyone agreed to take the flight anyway, out of hopes that it would awaken for us in time. And awaken it did! Just a couple of hours before we were to take off, the seismographs began to twitch. And on the webcams, the amount of smoke had more than doubled. Fagradalsfjall was waking up just in the nick of time.
After a short drive out to the pickup area, our young but expert pilot whisked us off into the sky to see the lava flows of Fagradalsfjall. He confirmed that the lava had reappeared only hours prior. As we made our approach, we could see three distinct lava vents, spurting glowing hot lava into the air. The helicopter circled the crater several times before touching down on a flat section of the mountain just to the west of the primary larva field. From here, we were able to disembark and explore the scene on foot. It was amazing to behold, as the lava flooded the crater area, rapidly changing and growing as we watched. It was an unforgettable experience and one that couldn’t have been timed better. After 45 minutes or so on the ground, we mounted back up, took off, and after a few more circles around the crater, landed gently back at our point of origin.
The following day, our tour began in earnest as we drove out to the loop road that encircles the island nation. Iceland is about the same size geographically as my home state of Tennessee (109,000 square kilometers). And the loop road would take us through its variety of landscapes and ecosystems.
One thing that is interesting to note about Iceland, is that it is devoid of wild mammals. There is a reindeer population, but these animals were introduced here in the 18th century by the Dutch king. The only native mammal in Iceland is the arctic fox, which is notoriously shy and difficult to see. What you do see are sheep. Lots and lots of sheep. There are more sheep in Iceland than there are people, and they adorn just about every landscape you come across. Free-ranging and agile climbers, they are often spotted grazing atop the most unlikely of peaks.
The other most noticeable domestic animal is the beautiful Icelandic horse. This breed of horse comes in a wide array of color patterns and has a shorter, stockier build than most American breeds. There is a great plethora of birdlife in Iceland, notably puffins, swans, and even eagles, but as for wild mammals, there are precious few.
But, what Iceland lacks in wildlife, it more than makes up for in stunning scenery. First, we visited the coastline to the southeast. Some of Iceland’s most iconic landscapes can be found here, and photographically, this was my favorite part of the country we saw. Black sand beaches adorned with golden dune grasses and backdropped by jagged peaks like Vestrahorn, Brunnhorn, and Eystrahorn. Here, we encountered the worst of our weather days, but this also led to the best sunrise we witnessed, which occurred at the foot of Eystrahorn. That morning, the clouds wrapped around the peak like layers of scarves, and the sunburst onto the scene created a beautiful rainbow. I find that sunrise rainbows are exceptionally rare, and this one was nothing short of magic.
Another magical moment was the sunrise on Diamond Beach. Here, on this black sand beach, icebergs break up in the surf and are deposited on the beach by the rising and falling of the tide. The contrast of crystal clear ice, black sand, and a dramatic sunrise made for some of my favorite photos of the trip. Though it is a wet and somewhat difficult scene to capture, the drama of it is undeniable.
Over the next several days, we worked east, then north, and then back west, seeing the lunar landscape of the Icelandic highlands, some of the biggest waterfalls I’ve ever encountered, and bizarre thermal features, products of the magma writhing just below the surface.
It was a trip of extraordinary landscapes and excellent company. Our local guide Chris was an absolute joy to work with, and we had some amazingly fun and adaptable clients. Though the weather would not cooperate all the time, it did not dampen our spirits.
We found beauty and wonder everywhere we looked, and it is a trip I truly hope to run again. I can say for sure that I will certainly be visiting Iceland again soon.
Ben Blankenship was born in Nashville, Tennessee. As a young man, he studied ceramics and fine arts. In college, he pursued filmmaking, writing, and photography. After graduation, he worked for nearly a decade in broadcast television as a video editor, photographer, and cinematographer. Over the last several years, he has transitioned into working full-time as a photojournalist and travel photographer. He has worked abroad in Costa Rica, Belize, and Uganda. His photographic passions include wildlife, conservation, travel, events, and documenting social and political events around the world. His work has been published in the New York Times, The Oregonian Newspaper, and by Photographers Without Borders. He currently splits his time between living in Costa Rica and Tennessee. See Ben’s most recent work on his website here: www.ben-blankenship.com