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Fire & Ice: Exploring Iceland's Majestic Nature

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Fire & Ice: Exploring Iceland's Majestic Nature
Frequently referred to as the Land of Fire and Ice, Iceland features landscapes that range from fiery volcanoes and bubbling geothermal pools to icy glaciers and lunaresque lava fields.
By Paul Sullivan, AFAR Local Expert
Photo by Jens Ferchland/age fotostock
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    Iceland’s Finest Waterfalls
    Iceland is peppered with an assortment of glorious waterfalls—some high and forceful, some multilayered and elegant. Among the most jaw-dropping are the mighty Gullfoss ("Golden Falls"), which lies in a canyon on the Hvítá river not far from Reykjavík, and Dynjandi, located in the remote Westfjords, with multiple cascades that tumble some 328 feet and create a photogenic bridal veil. Others worth seeking out include Seljalandsfoss, which you can walk behind; Svartifoss, located in the Vatnajökull National Park and surrounded by lava columns; and Dettifoss, one of the most powerful waterfalls in the whole of Europe.
    Photo by Jens Ferchland/age fotostock
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    Iceland’s Most Scenic Lakes
    While Iceland’s glaciers and waterfalls tend to get most of the attention, the country can also lay claim to some ultrascenic lakes. The best known within the Reykjavík area is Tjörnin, which has a charm and atmosphere all its own. Farther north is the much more dramatic Lake Mývatn, which is surrounded by a jaw-dropping landscape of extinct volcanic cinder cones and otherworldly lava formations; nearby are the Jarðböðin Nature Baths, the area’s answer to the Blue Lagoon. Another lake not to miss is Jökulsárlón, along the south coast. Filled with giant, translucent chunks of iceberg, it’s one of Iceland’s most distinctive and photogenic sights, featured in James Bond and Batman movies, among others. Other lakes worth seeking out are Víti, a warm volcanic crater-lake located in the picturesque Highlands (summer only), and the more accessible Kerið, a 45-minute drive from Reykjavík.
    Photo by Sami Sarkis/age fotostock
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    Iceland’s Best Beaches
    Although beaches might not be the first thing that leaps to mind when visiting Iceland, the island’s sinuous coastline boasts some quite remarkable ones—even though they’re inevitably a far cry from what you might find in the Caribbean. The most local one is the wonderfully warm Nauthólsvík Geothermal Beach, which was created from geothermal waters engineered to flow into the bay. The beach at Jökulsárlón has the added delight of photogenic chunks of iceberg decorating the black sands, and also on the southern coast you’ll find the seaside town of Vík, which has a distinctive black-sand beach. In the Westfjords, the golden beach of Breiðavík, close to the Látrabjarg bird cliffs, is worth seeking out, as is Rauðasandur, a rust-colored beach whose sand is created from pulverized scallop shells accumulated over the ages.
    Photo by Michele Falzone/age fotostock
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    Iceland’s Best Hikes
    Thanks to a wealth of fjords, mountains, hot springs, and waterfalls, Iceland’s hiking terrain is varied and scenic—and convenient for novices as well as hard-core trampers. One of the easiest if you’re in Reykjavík is Mount Esja, which has great views back onto the city. The valley of Reykjadalur is also quite close to Reykjavík and offers a good two-hour hike that can be combined with a visit to the hot springs. Fimmvörðuháls, between the glaciers Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull in southern Iceland, is a 17-mile trail with versatile landscapes. Even more challenging is the 37-mile Landmannalaugar Trail, which traverses pastel-colored rhyolite mountains, unforgettable black-stone deserts, rocky lava fields, and glacial river valleys. For something more remote, Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, in the stunning Westfjords, is all pure coastal and meadows scenery.
    Photo by Dirk Bleyer/age fotostock
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    The Remote Westfjords
    With a highly scenic, fjord-dotted coastline filled with pretty fishing villages and remote farms, the Westfjords is an ideal remote getaway. The best base is the regional capital, Ísafjörður, home to 4,000 inhabitants and a great place to strike out for some of the area’s sights. Close to the town, in the nearby village of Súðavík, is the Arctic Fox Center. Directly north you can lose yourself in the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, which hosts around 260 plant and flower species as well as wildlife such as foxes, seals, and birds. Along the west coast you can visit the striking Látrabjarg Bird Cliffs, home to millions of seabirds that return here to breed during the summer months, while the east coast offers the unusual and entertaining Museum of Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft.
    Photo by Franz Christoph Robiller/age fotostock
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    Iceland’s Mountains and Glaciers
    Iceland’s interior is dotted with mountains and glaciers that visitors can access for anything from snowmobiling and husky rides to hiking, climbing, and ice-cave exploring. Part of the largest national park in the country (and in Europe), Vatnajökull glacier is located in the southeast of Iceland and features the highest peak in Iceland (Hvannadalshnjúkur). Glacier hiking tours, often heading up the popular glacier tongue Svínafellsjökull, can be arranged at Skaftafell Nature Reserve, while a popular spot for snowmobiling is Langjökull glacier, situated in the west of the Icelandic highlands. The Snæfellsnes Peninsula contains the Snæfellsjökull glacier, a two-hour or so trip from Reykjavík.
    Photo by age fotostock