Iceland has never been celebrated for its forests: The North Atlantic island is just 2 percent wooded. But the land in the Husafell area of West Iceland is exceptionally lush and verdant, covered in green grass and low shrubbery, an unexpected oasis of vegetation in the shadow of a glacier.
But the bumpy seasonal road that leads straight up from Husafell to the Langjokull glacier offers views that are extraterrestrial even for Iceland, with rocky fields of black volcanic lava intercut by frothy white rivers, all set against a backdrop of low, ice-capped mountains. The landscape looks startlingly lunar.
Since the launch two summers ago of the Into the Glacier tour — a daylong excursion that, as the name suggests, takes visitors, via man-made ice tunnels, directly inside the Langjokull glacier — the formerly off-the-tourist-radar Husafell has begun to attract more foreigners, a perhaps inevitable consequence of the overall boom in tourism Iceland has seen in recent years. In 2003, Iceland welcomed 308,000 foreign adventure-seekers; by 2016, that figure had hit 1.8 million, an increase of nearly 40 percent from the previous year.
Evidence of this tourist boom is everywhere, from the fluorescent waterproof parkas blanketing the streets of downtown Reykjavik to the inexperienced drivers swerving all over the rural roads en route to the increasingly crowded tourist sites. “More than once this summer, I felt like I, as an Icelander, was a minority in my own city,” said Hulda Thorisdottir, an associate professor of political science at the University of Iceland. “No matter where I went, I was surrounded by tourists — and almost no Icelanders.”
More tourism necessitates more tourist destinations, and since so much of Iceland is hard to reach or downright uninhabitable, new attractions are quickly emerging in those parts of the country that are both accessible and hospitable to humans. That’s where Husafell comes in. If, as the saying goes, Husafell didn’t exist, it would have been necessary to invent it.
Husafell, an area dating to the Viking era that encompasses a family farm turned boutique hotel, an adjacent campground, clusters of summer cottages and a swimming hole in the valley of Iceland’s second-largest glacier — feels off the beaten track, at least in comparison to the Icelandic tourist juggernauts that are the Golden Circle and the Blue Lagoon. But, thanks to a tunnel that runs underneath a fjord, Husafell is only a 90-minute drive from the capital of Reykjavik, and the surrounding area offers convenient access to a greatest-hits list of Iceland’s vast geological variety. Within half an hour of Husafell, there’s the Hraunfossar “lava waterfalls,” and the more sinisterly named Barnafoss, “children’s waterfalls” (a tribute to the long-ago minors who fell to their deaths crossing it), Iceland’s largest lava cave and one of the biggest thermal springs in Europe. In May, Husafell opened new hiking and mountain biking trails.
And, of course, the biggest draw of the moment, the glacier tour. After gathering at a “base camp” that recalls a Wi-Fi-equipped nouveau Antarctica-style shed high above Husafell, visitors pile into massive eight-wheel-drive military trucks that could double as “Star Wars” weaponry and roll across the snow before descending, crampon-shod, into the ice tunnels that cost $4.5 million to engineer. In 2016, 50,000 people have ventured inside Langjokull; the ice tunnels inside the glacier have also hosted weddings, corporate parties and music festivals. But these tours won’t be around forever: Like so much of Iceland, Langjokull is melting at an alarming speed — scientists estimate that the glacier will be gone in as little as 80 years — the tours have a sobering, limited-time-only quality.
Back down in Husafell, other changes are afoot, namely Hotel Husafell, a luxe two-year-old hotel that is all glass and light. It has a restaurant serving both exotic specialties, à la slow-cooked reindeer, and more pedestrian fare, like hamburgers. There’s a municipal swimming complex — even the smallest Icelandic town has one — with four different pools, each of which is a different temperature, and a waterslide. Within two years, Husafell will also open a large outdoor geothermal spa on par with the Blue Lagoon, Iceland’s top tourist attraction.
Many locals are wary of all the new developments aimed at tourists, but Kolbeinn Elí Petursson, a fitness trainer in downtown Reykjavik, is not one of them. “I don’t see why it’s only the tourists who get to see all these new things being built in our country,” he said, adding that he had surprised his girlfriend with a glacier tour for her birthday. “Why shouldn’t Icelanders enjoy them, too?”