A different kind of road trip: Iceland's Ring Road

New York Times

Friday 28 July 2006, 1:49 pm

By Mark Sundeen

We lived for many years in a remote nook of the Utah desert where we developed a taste for isolated places and geological oddities. So Iceland was the perfect place for us.

Speeding across the black rock desert in our rented Corolla, we would occasionally pull to the shoulder, running fingers across the bulbous lava figurines or testing the sponginess of the mossy tundra. Iceland's Highway 1 the roughly 830-mile Ring Road is the only route that circles the island, and it feels like someone put the American West in a blender: California's poetic central coast, the Nevada desert's barren expanses, Alaska's glaciers and Yellowstone's geysers. They're all crammed onto this island, and if you don't like one natural phenomenon you're just a few hours from the next.

Driving in Iceland is not for the efficient. Highway 1 is a narrow affair that doubles back into the fiords, like driving up and down each tooth of a comb. Most bridges have just one lane, and many stretches are unpaved.

We wound toward Lake Myvatn in the northeast, finally approaching a landscape straight from Middle Earth: a volcanic crater ringed in moss; outcroppings of lava dotted across the hills. Here we were even closer to the Arctic Circle, and the sun shone an extra hour. At a guesthouse in the tiny village of Vogar, we encountered the same sorts of pilgrims I've met in the American Southwest, drawn to a bizarre and inhospitable landscape.

A short walk from the house is Grotagia, a giant fissure splitting the shelf of volcanic rock. I scrambled down into the chasm and found a clear pool steaming at about 120 degrees, then followed a footpath for a mile across a field of tundra and lava. The trail leads up one flank of a symmetrical volcanic crater called Hverfell before dropping off the other side into Dimmuborgir, a hobbit's paradise of towering lava castles, natural arches and countless unexplored grottos. Next we hurried to the gurgling purple and yellow sulfur cauldrons at Namafjall and to the steaming lava heap at Leirhnjukur, an active volcano itching to blow at any minute.