Craters, mazes, and steaming baths

We woke up to snow this morning. The ground was white and the wind whipped the banner outside the window as we had breakfast in the cozy dining room at the hotel. Poor Chandler has a full fledged cold now and wasn’t feeling great having not slept well last night. After breakfast Matt and Riley set out to find a pharmacy. Drugs are not sold in any other stores and the pharmacy in the last town was closed on Sunday. Fortunately the one in Mývatn is just a short drive from the hotel, attached to the local doctors office. Hours on the internet said it opens at 9 AM. It turned out that winter hours are 10-noon and 2-5 but they agreed to open early for us. They returned with Benadryl, ibuprofen and an expectorant. Matt consulted with the hotel desk clerk to make sure he was properly interpreting the dosage since all the packaging was Icelandic.

The meds seemed to do the trick and soon Chandler felt good enough for a hike rather than catching up on missed sleep. We stopped by the Visitors Center to get recommendations and decided to start the day with a hike to top of Vindbelgjarfjall, a pointed mountain 529 meters high that offers great views of the surrounding area. We played around with the drone at the start, knowing that it would be too windy once we started the climb.

The first part of the hike is a long mostly flat path that leads from the parking to the base of the mountain. From there, it’s a continuous climb to the top. The temperature was -1°C but the windchill was at the top was probably -100° (this might be a slight exaggeration).

The view from the top is spectacular. Photographs just can’t capture the depth or scope. It started to snow while we were on the summit and as we started down we realized it was actually snowing up! The wind was so strong the snow stung our eyes. I seriously considered whether frostbite might be possible and decided to cover my face with my mittens. That doesn’t work so well when you’re hiking downhill on an icy trail. Fortunately the icy wind subsided as we got lower and we had a nice walk back to the car.

Dimmubogir was the next stop. It was formed by a massive lava tube created by a lava lake from a volcanic eruption 2300 years ago. The literal translation is Dark Cities. In Icelandic folklore, Dimmuborgir is said to connect earth with the infernal regions. In Nordic Christian lore, it’s said to be the place where Satan went when cast out of the heavens and where he created the Catacombs of Hell. In modern Icelandic legend, this is where the Yule Lads go when they come down from the mountains in December.

The ice covered trails seem to crisscross in a maze among the huge crags and towers. We discovered the Yule Lads’ cave and went inside to see all kinds of odd furnishings including bones, fur pelts, sheep horns and, inexplicably, a Mona Lisa print.

Scenes from the Game of Thrones were filmed here too. During Season 3, Mance Rayder and the Free Folk set up camp on the Dimmuborgir lava field, and the area was also used to film a sequence where Samwell Tarly and Lord Commander Mormont were attacked by White Walkers.

Yaktrax are a lifesaver, or more accurately “butt saver”, on these icy trails. Matt bought an inexpensive pair at the gas station this morning that turned out to be not very durable but they definitely helped when going up both the steep and smooth parts of the trails. There’s more ice than snow. The locals say the winter temps have been about 10° warmer than normal this year. Today is definitely one of the colder days though.

We could see the Hverfjall volcano, now a huge crater, not far from Dimmuborgir. There is a hiking trail that connects the two areas but with the limited daylight we decided to drive over instead. The volcano erupted in 500 B.C. and now resembles an enormous black ash cone.

The sun had set but there was plenty of residual light with the clear skies. We grabbed our headlamps just in case, and started up the trail. The hike up to the top was a steady climb but not difficult. The cone is almost 400 meters tall and 1km in diameter. The view of the entire Mývatn area and Dimmuborgir lava fields is awesome. We hiked about a quarter way around or so until our stomachs were insisting on dinner. It was almost dark by then, 4:30 PM.

Since last night’s dinner fail, we decided to try the only other restaurant in town that’s open this time of year at the Hotel Mývatn. The lobby is decorated with photographs and prints of the many varieties of ducks that live on the lake. This must be a great place, haha! Inside the dining room were huge photographs printed on glass of a volcano eruption near Lake Mývatn in 2014. The host said the photographer was staying at the hotel at the time and that the eruption was visible from the hotel. The photographs were very impressive but we couldn’t verify the date so I’m not 100% sure about the facts.

Dinner was pretty good if not fancy. All that hiking worked up appetites so we ordered “nachos” that were actually a bowl of cool ranch Doritos with a side of sour cream and salsa (most likely from a jar). They were delicious! Cheese burgers and veggie risotto rounded out the meal and we left full and happy.

We stopped by our hotel to get bathing suits and towels and headed to the Mývatn Nature Baths for a soak in the geothermal waters. It took a couple deep breaths to prepare to walk outside in bare feet and only bathing suits, but we did it. The pool was just a few yards away so it wasn’t too bad. The handrail leading into the pool was icy (literally) and the warm water felt great on my cold feet. The pools themselves are manmade but the hot water is supplied with steam from a deep fissure in the Earth that is condensed and fed through pipes into the pools. The water was very warm, hot in places and we had nearly the entire place to ourselves. We met a fellow traveler from Los Angeles who plays the mandolin and chatted with an Icelandic life guard (dressed appropriately in a reflective snowsuit) who is studying to be a paramedic.

All in all, it’s been a great day.

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