Hike Destinations: Landmannalaugar Versus Tongariro

hike destinations
Unearthly and unbelievable – a few miles away from Landmannalaugar in Iceland.

Bacon or chocolate? A pint of craft beer or a wedge of aged gouda? The family dog or cat?

Picking my favorite hike destination is just as hard. I can narrow it down to two:

The stretch of the Laugavegur trail (which the Best Muffin Blog calls the “oh wow” hike) that goes from Landmannalaugar to Hrafntinnusker in the remote highlands of Iceland. I once described the hike as a rip in the space-time continuum, especially in the perpetual gray of summer. The Technicolor mountains, volcanic fumaroles, lava plus and ash-dusted snow just adds to it.

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing. If I overhear any so-called “traveler” blather about how everything worth seeing in New Zealand is in the South Island, I stop listening. Tongariro is why. From a barren, blasted volcanic hellscape to verdant rain forests, you’ll see some incredible stuff. Oh, and my ratings are for those who take the side trip up Mount Ngauruhoe. It’s just an incredible hike destination.

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IcelandAir – Random Travel Photo

Now boarding in Bergen – the daily flight to Keflavik, Iceland.

IcelandAir has a cool practice: It names its aircraft after Icelandic volcanoes. I took two flights on Hekla, to and from JFK airport in New York. While I was waiting for a Norwegian Air Shuttle flight in Bergen, Norway, guess who showed up?

Well, it was the IcelandAir 757 Grimsvötn. I always thought the 757 is a particularly good-looking airplane. Something about the IcelandAir colors – and naming them after volcanoes – makes them even more sleek and slick. So I snapped a photo … and got jealous that I wasn’t going to Reykjavik anytime soon. Still, I guess a flight to Helsinki isn’t such a bad thing.

You can check out a complete list of the names of IcelandAir planes. Just be sure to scroll down to Fleet List.

Vanuatu – Upcoming South Pacific Destination

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Mount Yasur in Vanuatu shows the contrast of lush rain forest and volcanic landscape. (photo by Stefan Heinrich via Wikimedia Commons)
Vanuatu wasn’t a destination I’d ever thought about until I read the Cash Peters book Naked in Dangerous Places. The author paints a very self-deprecating portrait of himself as a non-adventurous sort of character dragged deep into world travel by his heels. One chapter revolves around the South Pacific volcano called Mount Yasur.

Right then, Vanuatu forced its way onto my travel list. It’s one of many destinations in the South Pacific that offer cheap holiday deals. But its famous resident volcano set it apart. The chance to see volcanic landscapes was a huge part of the reason for my trips to New Zealand and Iceland – and neither disappointed. And its just one of many Vanuatu holiday ideas for adventurous travelers.

Vanuatu shares the volcanic allure, but with a few other interesting bits I cadged from Peters’ book. He depicts it as having just that right amount of development: Western travelers will have the basic amenities, but they won’t drown in touristy kitsch. At the moment, it seems like travel bloggers are overlooking it. So if you get there before I do, tell some good travel stories and watch curious volcano-and-tropics seekers roll right in.

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Mount Yasur shows its frisky side to appeal to adventurous travelers. (photo by Rolf Cosar via Wikimedia Commons)
As for Mount Yasur, I discovered a few tidbits that set it apart from any garden-variety volcano:

  • The glow from one of its eruptions brought it to the attention of Captain James Cook, who was the first European to visit.
  • Mount Yasur is central to the beliefs of the John Frum cargo cult. Never heard of a cargo cult? Imagine a pre-industrial civilization meeting an industrial civilization for the first time, the influx of manufactured goods and the deification who brought all this wonderful new stuff. There are at least three other cargo cults scattered across Vanuatu, and many others throughout the South Pacific.
  • Mount Yasur is easily accessible. But heed the local warning system, which ranges from 1-4 (the most dangerous).

What you have is a South Pacific holiday destination that’s cheap, interesting and adventurous. And since it’s still an up-and-coming destination, the odds are good that you’ll be one of the few people at any gathering telling travel stories about Vanuatu.

This post contains links to WanderingJustin.com supporters that can help you create your own South Pacific adventure. 

 

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Inside the Volcano: Thrihnukagigur Tour

The Thrihnukagigur volcano in Iceland just gave me another reason to visit again: a tour company that takes people down a 400-foot descent into a volcano’s intact magma chamber.

The Thrihnukagigur volcano is 20 minutes from Reykjavik. It last erupted 4,000 years ago, one of the staggering number of volcanoes you can see in Iceland. But this one is just a bit different: A company called 3H Travel is set to begin tours into the magma chamber of Thrihnukagigur.

Inside the Volcano: One of a Kind Experience

Into the magma chamber -- this is incredibly rare. No other volcano I’ve seen has an intact magma chamber. Instead, they just have a bowl-like crater; I imagine the magma chamber’s remains are below, buried after a collapse of the lava above. To see this wonder, visitors hike the volcano; at the vent, a mechanical lift brings handfuls of people in at a time. (See the video at the bottom.)

The Inside the Volcano tour group claims Thrihnukagigur is unique in every sense of the word. I’m inclined to believe them since I’ve never seen or heard of any other volcano like this – much less one with a tour into the magma chamber.

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Inside the magma chamber

The season for this tour is short: June 15-July 31. Future plans call for 3H Travel to bore a hole in the side of Thrihnukagigur; that will spare the squeamish a ride in a lift, and the less fit a trip up the volcano’s slopes.

Go See it and Tell Me About It!

I can’t emphasize this enough: The Thrihnukagigur Inside the Volcano tour is the most amazing opportunity I’ve ever heard about, and I am completely deflated that I missed out on it. I was just too quick to get to Iceland, I guess!

And now that Denver has seasonal service from IcelandAir, it’s an even better time to get out there. The Denver flights are great for the Southwest and Rockies – no more slog to JFK or Boston, nor a backtrack to Seattle.

So there you have it: a one-of-a-kind attraction and an easy way to get there. Could you ask for a better time to go to Iceland and go inside the volcano? Nope. You can also borrow some other ideas from my Quick Iceland Travel Guide.

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The Iceland Epic – Hverir, Viti, Krafla

Viti Iceland crater
Viti explosion crater - and its bright water.

Glowing magma from horizon to horizon. A never-ending blanket of fire. I’m captivated just thinking about what this area looked like as recently as 1984.

If I’d been standing here back then -- well, I don’t even want to think about it. Even now, the ground still spews fumes. I can smell the beanie, farty, rotten-egg stench nearly everywhere.

Blackened slabs of sharp-edged lava. A grey sky. Bleak desolation. I know it doesn’t sound appealing … unless you’ve wondered what the world was like when humans were billions of years into the future.

For me, that’s the wonder of my ninth day in Iceland, exploring the Krafla fissure area.

Hverir Iceland geothermal
Hverir is a contrast from the surrounding lavascape.

A Day in the North

ReykjahliÄ‘ is a town of about 300 people. You might think that means there’s not much to do. Yet I plan on a day packed with activity. Just like yesterday.

Sarah and I start off at Hverir. It’s not just another geothermal area: It’s a single slab of mountain that is many shades lighter than the surrounding area. When we approached Myvatn yesterday, I thought the sun was shining through a hole in the clouds. But now, that’s just the brightness of the rocks.

The flatulent stink is at its strongest here. It’s the smell of the earth reconstituting itself. There’s something I love about the odor. It tell me the world is alive, not just lifeless rock and concrete. It’s awesome.

The Krafla fissure Iceland lava
The lifeless and barren Krafla fissure.

There are plenty of trails. Obey the signs – the ground is soft in many places. And you don’t want to get scalded in a mud pit. You can summit some of the large hills in the area for spectacular views.

The Road to Hell

There are two craters in Iceland called Viti. That’s Icelandic for hell. One of them is up the road from Hverir. The crater is filled with electric green water. The wind is absolutely howling, making me reluctant to get near the edge. I wonder if anyone has ever fallen in. The water must be freezing, and scrambling out and back to safety would be a real test. Best not to find out.

Krafla Iceland
Sarah, with Krafla in the background.

Nearby, there’s some machinery from the power station. It’s harnessing heat from a nearby fumarole. The power is astounding: The roar from the fumarole is loud as any jet engine.

This was about 45 minutes of walking.

To the Fissure

This is not the Caribbean. It is not warm, inviting, relaxing. Harsh, barren, stark – at best. And a reminder of your own insignificance to this planet. A signal that you are nothing.

The Krafla Fissure has tried hard to drive people away. It’s nearly destroyed ReykjahliÄ‘ more than once. As implacable as the lava can be, it isn’t sufficient.

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Sarah walks past a little fumarole.

I picture the lava fountains, the winter sky contrasting with the orange radiance of the magma. I wonder how many lava tubes lie under the wasteland, just waiting to be found.

I could spend weeks here walking the lava flow.  As it is, a few hours is all I have.

This is an amazing place among amazing places.

One the way out, we made a quick stop for the presentation Krafla Power Station. You can check out parts of the inside, and watch a movie about the fissure, the eruptions and the station itself. It’s more fascinating than it sounds.

Myvatn Nature Bath
Myvatn Nature Bath (Photo by Petr Brož)

Time to Kick Back

Currents of murky blue water swirl around me. The water temperature changes every few steps. One moment, I feel like a live Maine lobster getting cooked. Seconds later, I’m scrambling to find a warm spot.

This is the Jarðböðin við Mývatn (Myvatn Nature Baths). If you’ve heard anything about Iceland, you’ve probably heard of the Blue Lagoon. It’s only one of Iceland’s main attractions. This is its more remote, more scenic, more laid-back relative.

It’s smaller, but still filled with amenities like saunas and steam rooms in addition to the naturally heated, silicate-rich water.

And the most important amenity of them all: ice cream bars. Sarah and I have noticed the Icelandic tradition – families will hit the local pools together. They’ll swim some laps, lounge in the hot tubs, then top it off with an ice cream bar. Sounds sensible to me!

That’s most of our day, minus a repeat visit to the Cowshed and a decent pizza at Papi’s. It’s another nice night at Vogar. It wasn’t our busiest day. But I loved every second of it.

hverir iceland
Don't we look happy in this stinky place?
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Stinky earth vapors escaping the cracks of Krafla.
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Looking from the top of Hverir

Hiking Destination: Iceland’s Landmannalaugar

Windy, steep, bleak. Things are starting to get rough.

Landmannalaugar isn’t so much a place. It’s more of a rip in the space-time continuum.

Consider its summer: It’s hard to tell 3 a.m. from 3 p.m. It can wrap you in the warmth of geothermal vents, chill you with wind, hose you down with rain – all in the span of 30 minutes. You can hike for hours without seeing a solitary living creature. It can even dispatch a lethal blizzard – yes, even in June.

Night doesn’t fall. The often-overcast skies will keep you in a permanent state of twilight. The terrain and scenery changes drastically from mile to mile. The colors of the rhyolite mountains will make you want to get your eyes checked.

In June of 2010, I arrived at Landmannalaugar with my wife. We read about it in guidebooks and blogs. Nothing even remotely prepared us for this place. Oh, we had the equipment we needed. But the scenery! You can look at these photos all you want, and you will still not believe your eyes when you get off the bus from Reykjavik.

There just is no other place like this.

Here’s what to expect on this amazing, one-of-a-kind, 12-kilometer trip from Landmannalauger to the Hrafntinnusker camp site.
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S.P. Crater – Cool Arizona Destination (With Video)

It’s easy to forget or to never even realize it – but much of northern Arizona’s landscape was shaped by fire. Or by lava, if you prefer a more precise word.

Volcanoes disgorged magma onto the surface, forming everything from towering giants like the San Francisco Peaks to the loaf-like dome of Mount Elden to the mysterious hoodoos of Red Mountain. But trees have covered the landscape, often concealing the area’s volcanic origins.

S.P. Crater
SP Crater cuts quite a figure on the prairie.

 

S.P. Crater – Way Off the Radar

S.P. Crater, however, will resist any attempts to whitewash its furious history. This beautifully shaped cinder cone had the foresight to belch a four-mile long lava flow onto the flat prairie lands. Today, nearly 71,000 years after its birth, S.P. Crater stands out among a multitude of lesser cinder cones in the area, beckoning visitors to peer into the crater that once spewed ash and blobs of lava.

Few hear its call, though – that’s likely because of the nearby Sunset Crater National Monument. The park might be slightly more picturesque, with its pine forest and an equally haunting lava flow.

But for me, S.P. Crater has an effect that its just-slightly Disney-fied neighbor doesn’t: a sense of solitude that practically takes me back in time. I can picture the lava glowing red as it churns across the landscape like so much hell-flavored soft-serve ice cream. I can smell the sulfur in the air as another family of bombs rockets out of the crater, borne aloft by super-hot gases.  I can imagine fumaroles venting steam into the air.

Also, I can climb directly to the top, and even descend into the crater. This is forbidden at Sunset Crater, for concern of erosion. Park officials closed the slopes in the 1970s, propelled by fears that, one day, Sunset Crater would be nothing. I don’t know if there is any hard science to back that notion – if there is, I’d like to see it.

 

S.P. Crater
Walking the lava flow.

Not as Touristy as Sunset Crater

On a Memorial Day weekend exploration, I encountered not a single hiker. A few pickup trucks passed within a few miles, but our only company was the cattle (S.P. Crater is on land belonging to the Babbitt family, and I applaud them for granting access to those who want to visit the craters). When the wind died down, we could hear them lowing even from nearly 900 feet above them.

Engine noise from the highway is nonexistent, and you can catch glimpses of the brilliant colors from the Painted Desert; it looks just a few miles away, but is closer to 100 miles distant. You can watch small cloudbursts roll in, drop rain and disappear. Be careful, though, because some will contain lightning. Use your head.

If you’re in northern Arizona, I’d recommend visiting both of these iconic volcanoes. Each will give you a distinct experience that will be hard to forget.

How to Get to S.P. Crater

Just head north from Flagstaff on Highway 89. Go past the turnoff to Sunset Crater. SP Crater will soon be in view.

Look for a dirt road headed west. If you see Easy Joe’s Saloon, turn around and head back. The dirt road will branch off more than a few times. I’ve found my way to S.P. Crater more than a few different ways. Don’t worry about getting lost. It’s easy to get back to 89 one way or another.

Make Time for the Lava Flow

The lava flow north of the crater is worth checking out up close. It’s about 5 miles long and extremely rough – you’re not going to be able to see all of it. But who knows what’s waiting to be found in it? Lava flows are always a good place to find a lava tube.

 

 

Going to Flagstaff? Don’t Miss Sunset Crater & Wupatki

A few years ago, Sarah and I were riding in the Taylor House Century bike ride in the 60-mile group. I didn’t know much about the route, but it took us through Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, which has a road that also goes to the Wupatki Ruins.

We’d already had plenty of excitement – I survived someone crashing right in front of me and falling right into my front wheel, but we’ll save that story for another time. Let’s just say I pulled off some sort of move straight out of The Matrix to keep the rubber side down. (Actually, the moment was pretty rife with cinematic parallel, now that I think of it. For instance, the protagonist in Shaolin Soccer would insist that I must’ve studied kung fu all my life. Darth Vader would say that the Force was strong with this one. Commander Data would chalk it up to a rift in the space-time continuum, and Dante from Clerks would tell me I’m not even supposed to be here today.)

About 15 miles after that craziness, Sarah and I were between a bunch of packs of riders. We were pedaling up the road that leads to Sunset Crater, and we still didn’t have a clear view of the crater.

But then we came around a corner and saw a blackened vista of dry lava stretching before us … and it was absolutely amazing. We could barely keep our eyes on the road as we passed the lava field and splatter cones. I was dumbstruck that I’d lived in Arizona since I was six, and had never been here. Don’t be like me: Make this a priority stop.

We loved it so much that we came the next day. We also went further down the road to the Wupatki Ruins, which are awesome. You can check out three different sets of ruins at various points. The largest one has this little blow hole … during some parts of the year, this hole sucks air in; in the summer, it blows cool air out! Perfect for those hot days … Sarah was surprised the ruling class didn’t build their pad right on top of it! In a future post, I’ll give you the lowdown on the Taylor House Century.

This is the crater itself … awesome, eh?                                                                                                                     From crater
Another View             From crater
One of the bigger ruins                              From crater
This is a blow hole!                  From crater
Jagged cooled lava                 From crater
A red splatter cone                       From crater