Crystal icebergs, erupting geysers, glacier-carved valleys, exploding greenery, towering waterfalls, emerald rivers and neon lights, dancing in the starry night sky; if I were to name just a few of Iceland’s natural sites, these would be my favorite.
Yet, when shelter-in-place orders limit travelers to the confines of their homes, sites like these become only viewable to the traveler via the internet. That’s why I explored Iceland, virtually, hoping to get just a glimpse into a country that draws a growing number of tourists to its breathtaking natural sites each year.
What I discovered, however, was an alarming glimpse into a possible future for travelers. As climate change ravages the world’s natural ecosystems, especially its glaciers, which cover 11% of Iceland’s land area, I was left with the question: Will future generations be limited to seeing places like these virtually?
In quarantine, we’re reminded that we can no longer take the Earth’s natural wonders for granted. If you’ve forgotten, come remind yourself of how beautiful the world can be on our virtual tour of Iceland.
Landing in the capital city of Reykjavik
Basing my internet-adventure off of Iceland’s Ring Road, a 821-mile route that circles the entirety of the country, I explored the country’s natural sites through Google Earth, Google Maps and YouTube. Although I knew a virtual tour would never come close to touring the country in-person, I embarked on my day-long journey, hoping to feel a temporary escape from quarantine.
Although I wanted to focus the majority of my virtual time in Iceland’s remote, natural places, I first spent some time in Reykjavik, the world’s northernmost capital city. When I landed into Street View, via Google Earth, I stood underneath the Hallgrímskirkja Church, a major landmark in Reykjavik, visible from multiple spots around the city. A light layer of snow blanketed the streets, making me thankful it was spring where I sat. Kudos to virtual traveling for letting me avoid feeling chilly!
Farther south, on Iceland’s Southern Peninsula, is the Grótta Island Lighthouse. Protected from the water by a small rock wall, the sea-aged lighthouse stands at the peninsula’s edge, looking out on a calm, dark blue water. Already blown away by the serenity of a simple spot like this one, I looked forward to traveling to more of Iceland’s popular spots.
The Golden Circle
Heading out of the capital city, I traveled a little east to Iceland’s most popular road trip route: the Golden Circle, famous for its top destinations Thingvellir National Park, the Geysir Geothermal Area and Gullfoss waterfall.
Thingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is located at the split of two tectonic plates, which forms its unique rugged landscape. At the site, one can view the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which separates the Eurasian and North American Plates. Wide-open landscapes, raging waterfalls and a natural lake were just some of the sites visible as I toured the park, sometimes finding myself enclosed by tall rock walls, a view that could’ve easily inspired sets for “Game of Thrones.”
Next, I traveled to the Geysir Geothermal Area, a geothermal field just east of a mountain called Laugafell. On Google Maps, I traveled across an almost extra-terrestrial landscape. Nearby is Kleifarvatn Lake, the largest lake in the Reykjanes Peninsula. Among the star-filled night sky was a lime-green, turquoise streak running down the sky like a skunk’s back, turning the lake below it into a mirror that reflected the colors back. Now, more than ever, I wished I was standing here in person.
Having traveled all the way to the Geysir Geothermal Area, I knew I couldn’t leave without watching at least one geyser, so I landed at the Strokkur geyser. Google Street View showed crowds of people huddled around, waiting for the steaming hole to burst. I then watched an aerial tour of the geysers, where I moved slowly over explosions of boiling water, erupting from the brown and orange volcanic floor.
Next, I went to the Gullfoss waterfall, the third and final must-see of the Golden Circle. The name “Gullfoss” translates as “Golden Falls” and describes the color of the water when the sun hits it just right. As I stood atop the fall on Google Earth, slippery rocks and mist covered my view.
Traveling southeast down Iceland’s Route 1, I visited Reynisfjara, Iceland’s famous black sand beach. Crashing Atlantic waves, nearby sea stacks and a blanket of black sand that was once volcanic rock are just some of the sites of this beach. As I stood on the beach via Google Maps, a towering, rugged cliff hung above me, while a dark sky loomed even higher. Although I wasn’t physically there, I could feel as if I was truly at the end of the world, squeezed between two of earth’s most powerful forces: rock and water.
Vatnajökull National Park
I slowly made my way northeast, on Iceland’s Route 1, stopping at Vatnajökull National Park, famous for its mountains, glaciers and ice caves. I traveled to the base of the Skaftafellsjökull glacier, where crystal ice walls and rising mountain peaks surround the view. Looking for a view from above, I stood atop the rocky mountain peak that had been carved from the glacier tongue, all of which stem from Europe’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull.
I traveled eastward into a remote coastal stretch of about 75 miles, home to only 3% of Iceland’s total population. I followed the single-lane road through isolated mountain valleys as pockets of sunlight highlighted the crevices and corners of small villages and mountain peaks in front of me. As I headed north, I took a detour down Route 92, where I found fjords protruding in and out of quiet villages, all of which lined a reflective sea outlet, mirroring the dark blue sky above.
The Diamond Circle
I soon neared the northern tip of the island-country, which has spots like the Goðafos waterfall and Lake Mývatn.
Fed by the Skjálfandafljót river, the Goðafoss waterfall is about 40 feet tall, and is shaped like a horseshoe. In order to feel the impact of this powerful waterfall, I watched this video, which gives multiple angles of the waterfall’s power and rage.
Next, I stopped at Lake Mývatn, a volcanic lake that covers 14 square miles. Once a barren glacial landscape, years of volcanic activity revealed a vast landscape decorated with greenery and rolling hills. In this video, the northern lights cover the surrounding area over the lake, revealing that just as much of Iceland’s natural wonders exist above, as they become eye-level.
Rounding its northern corner, I found myself on Iceland’s western coast at the town of Stykkishólmur. Here is Breiðafjörður, a nature reserve surrounded by mountain regions, the volcano Snæfellsjökull and the Westfjords. The bay is home to 3,000 islands and a diverse set of native bird species.
Ending a day of travel with an aurora
After circling the entirety of the country in one day, I couldn’t think of a better way to end my virtual exploration of the country than with the northern lights. This video gives aerial views, covering some of Iceland’s most impressive landscapes, while multiple colors weave in and out of one another above them. Sites like these seem to only be possible through computerization, yet they exist near the Earth’s poles.
A possible future for travelers?
Although virtually visiting a country as beautiful as Iceland was never my ideal way of seeing it, enjoying its natural sites online offered just a glimpse into the spectaculars of the country. And although virtually traveling, via Google Earth and Google Maps, may offer a unique look into a country, I also found myself feeling uneasy throughout my trip. During my virtual tour, I wondered: Would this become the unfortunate reality of travel, as climate change continues to threaten ecosystems as naturally unique as the ones in Iceland? And would future generations be limited to seeing some of the world’s most beautiful places through the means of Google Earth and Google Maps if these places are eventually degraded?
Either way, I was blown away by the natural diversity and endless views Iceland grants. And if that was my opinion of it, all through the screen of my laptop, I can only imagine what it’s like to be there in person.