Grafarkirkja, a turf church near Hofsós on the Tröllaskagi peninsula.

Driving the Ring Road Around Iceland

Exploring Tröllaskagi Around Sauðárkrókur

Ð/ð is voiced,
as in this;
Þ/þ is unvoiced,
as in thick.
Guesthouses at

All of the regions of Iceland had come under a Yellow Alert for winter storms, except for the region that was under an even worse Orange Alert. I had traveled a half a day earlier than planned from Siglufjörður to Sauðárkrókur.

I hunkered down at the Grand-Inn Bar and Bed in Sauðárkrókur over New Year's Eve. In Iceland that involves a lot of fireworks, regardless of the weather. Fireworks can be launched into near-blizzard conditions. I've seen it.

The weather cleared up on the second day of the new year, allowing me to visit some excellent sites recommended by my innkeeper. I would return on Road 76 as far as Hofsós and then make my way back south, visiting a wonderful turf church at Grafarkirkja and the academic center at Hólar.


The land here was claimed by a Viking named Sæmundr Suðureyski who then lost it in a technicality to another Viking who effectively stole his claim. Neither of them built anything here. The initial settlement didn't happen until about a millennium later.

Homes and guesthouses in Sauðárkrókur.

The first real settlement of Sauðárkrókur started in 1871 when a blacksmith set up a shop here. He soon began offering drinks and overnight accommodations. A shopkeeper arrived in 1873. By 1900 there were 400 inhabitants with a church, a school, and a hospital.

A home and the church in Sauðárkrókur.

Now 2,600 people live in Sauðárkrókur, making it the second largest town in Northern Iceland.

View over Sauðárkrókur.

I had arrived early evening on New Year's Eve. The weather was worsening, but the fireworks were still launched.

Empty Roman candles launching box after New Year's Eve in Iceland.

A fishing fleet is based in Sauðárkrókur. Fisk as in fish.

Fishing ships at Sauðárkrókur's port.

Later on that first full day of my stay the weather had turned worse. Or, as I saw it, more interesting. I had gone for a short drive. Here was the view through my windshield when I returned.

Cold winds blow powdery snow through Sauðárkrókur.

New snow was falling as high winds blew.

Cold winds blow powdery snow through Sauðárkrókur.

Kp, the planetary K index of geomagnetic activity, was at 2 to 3. So, there was aurora. But there were clouds, and the aurora was only visible in dim patches through gaps in the lower clouds and then filtered through thinner clouds at medium height.

Aurora dimly seen through clouds from outside Sauðárkrókur.
Icelandic Road Conditions

I drove out of town past the airport to where Road 75 crosses the delta at the head of the fjord. That gave me a taste of what classifies as "Slippery" road surface, which I had been on before, combined with "Blowing snow", which was an interesting new detail.

Their definitions are that "Slippery" means a road surface covered with hard ice or snow on more than 20% of the road surface. I had already driven on that, it's not too bad with studded tires and plenty of caution. "Extremely slippery" means a transparent ice glaze covered with wet ice or packed snow. I have made a point of staying off of those roads. Then even worse are roads marked as "Difficult driving" with 10–20 cm of snow, and "Difficult road conditions" with over 20 cm of snow and occasional drifts.

Then the added "Blowing snow" weather condition means loose snow and wind above 11 m/sec (or 18 knots), with blowing snow partially obstructing road view.

Where I had gone, and of course needed to come back from, was more than enough for me. That's fine, I would see much better aurora the following night.

Aurora dimly seen through clouds from outside Sauðárkrókur.

Back in town, pulled in at the curb across from the guesthouse, the blowing snow was still a visibility issue.

Cold winds blow powdery snow through Sauðárkrókur.

Just three and a half weeks later, 21–27 January 2022, the strongest storm ever recorded in the Arctic formed in East Greenland and traveled northeast over the Barents and Kara seas with record low pressure, wind speed, and wave height.

The Weather Breaks

I prepared to drive up the hill to the supermarket late the next morning. A strange glowing orb burned in the southeastern sky.

Sun rising in Sauðárkrókur.
Sun rising in Sauðárkrókur.

Conditions soon returned to normal.

Snow blowing in Sauðárkrókur.

The wind died down, and small patches of blue sky appeared from time to time. I set out for Hofsós.

Road outside Horsós.

Hofsós has 161 inhabitants.

Church in Horsós.

Hofsós has a good natural port. Trading began here in the 16th century, making this one of the oldest trading centers in Iceland.

Port in Horsós.
Basalt columns in in Horsós, looking across Skagafjörður fjord.


From Horsós I returned a short distance to Grafarkirkja. It's tagged in Google Maps as "the oldest church in Iceland", and various web sites qualify that as the oldest turf church in Iceland. It's actually a fairly recent reconstruction of an old turf church, but it's very nice and you should visit it anyway. Especially if the weather is at least half as atmospheric as it was when I visited.

Grafarkirkja, purportedly the oldest turf church in Iceland.

Grafarkirkja was mentioned in the Sturlunga Saga, a collection of sagas by various authors in the 12th and 13th centuries. It's available for reading online in a two-volume set published in 1878, in the collection of the Bavarian State Library and scanned by Google Books.

Grafarkirkja, purportedly the oldest turf church in Iceland.

Grafarkirkja is Iceland's only surviving church with a circular turf-wall around the graveyard and the church. This was an ancient design in Iceland.

Grafarkirkja, purportedly the oldest turf church in Iceland.

Gisli Þorláksson (1631–1684) owned the land here, and he was the Bishop of Hólar. It's believed that he had a new church built here late in his life.

Grafarkirkja, purportedly the oldest turf church in Iceland.
Grafarkirkja, purportedly the oldest turf church in Iceland.

Yes, Grafarkirkja has been rebuilt, but I'm just fine with that.

Turf structures are rather ephemeral. It goes far beyond repair, they need frequent rebuilding. Of course turf will dry out, crumble, fall apart, blow away.

"The church Grafarkirkja" was first built before its mention in the Sturlunga Saga, which compiled sagas by various authors in the 12th and 13th centuries. The church exists today. For much, but not all, of the intervening time there has been a serviceable structure here.

Consider the Shintō shrines in Japan. The many shrines at the Grand Shrine complex at Ise are replaced every 20 years. A new shrine is constructed next to the existing one, the enshrined deity is relocated to the new facility, and the old shrine is disassembled. It's always both eternal and of recent construction.

Also see the Ship of Theseus philosophical argument, which Heraclitus and Plato discussed back in 500–400 BCE, or the Buddhist concept of anattā.

Grafarkirkja, purportedly the oldest turf church in Iceland.
Grafarkirkja, purportedly the oldest turf church in Iceland.
Grafarkirkja, purportedly the oldest turf church in Iceland.

A turf church or house is built with layers of turf.

Grafarkirkja, purportedly the oldest turf church in Iceland.
Grafarkirkja, purportedly the oldest turf church in Iceland.
Grafarkirkja, purportedly the oldest turf church in Iceland.

Grafarkirkja was most likely built by Guðmundur Guðmundsson from BjarnastaðahlĂ­ð. He was one of the best-known wood-workers in Iceland in the 17th century.

Grafarkirkja, purportedly the oldest turf church in Iceland.


Then I continued south to Hólar.

Hólar was established by people from the nearby settlement of Hof. Hof was described in the sagas as being settled by Hjalti Þórðarson, whose sons were celebrated for their generosity and gallantry. When Hjalti died, his sons gave the largest known burial feast in pre-Christian times. Twelve hundred guests were invited. All men of distinction were sent home with valuable gifts.

That goes back to descriptions in Beowulf of highly esteemed kings as "ring-givers" and "gold-givers".

Approaching Hólar.

Iceland was settled by the Norse around 874 CE. Most of the initial settlers followed the old Norse religion, Goðatrú or "Truth of the Gods." They worshiped the Æsir and the Vanir, two groups of deities. However, the Norse people were highly syncretic and some included Jesus as an additional god among the Norse deities.

The Norse settlers came from a society in which the monarch was an essential figure for religious life. However, they established the Alþing, an annual assembly of free men. Instead of being loyal to a divinely sanctioned king, the Alþing decided on loyalty to a law code.

Landowners were organized into goðorð or "god-words", each a group with both religious and political roles under the leadership of a goði or "god-man". Each goði was a part-time priest who led ritual sacrifices at the local temple. He also organized local þings or assemblies and represented them at the annual national Alþing.

In the late 900s King Olaf I of Norway forced prominent Norwegians to convert to Christianity, destroyed Norse temples, and had those he labeled as "sorcerers" killed. He then sent Christian missionaries to Iceland starting in 980, but they weren't successful.

One was Stefnir Þorgilsson, originally from Iceland. He violently destroyed sanctuaries and images of the Norse deities, and was declared an outlaw.

The next one was Þangbrandr, who was in Iceland in 997–999. He converted some prominent chieftains while killing several popular poets who composed verses criticizing the violent missionary. The people declared him an outlaw and sent him back to Norway.

Þangbrandr reported his very limited success to King Olaf. The king decided that a much more aggressive and much less Christian approach was in order. He banned Icelandic traders from Norwegian ports, then seized several Icelanders living in Norway and held them as hostages. Some were the sons of prominent Icelandic chieftains. King Olaf sent word to Iceland that he would kill all the hostages if the country didn't convert to Christianity.

During the next summer's Alþing the country was headed toward civil war between the factions for and against Christianization. Þorgeir Þorkelsson, the Law Speaker who stood at the Rock of the Law at the Alþing and recited the law, was asked to make the decision. He was a moderate, trusted by those on both sides of the argument.

Þorgeir rested under a fur blanket for a day and a night thinking it over. Then he announced that Iceland should adopt Christianity. But with the conditions that eating horse meat, killing unwanted infants, and private worship of the Norse deities would remain legal.

And so, in the summer of 1000 CE, the national parliament of Iceland decided that the country would become Christian.

Oxi Hjaltason built a large church here at Hólar in the mid 1000s.

A bishopric was established here in 1106. Hólar became the seat of power and culture in northern Iceland from the early 1100s through the early 1800s.

Approaching Hólar, cathedral and cemetery.

By the time of the Reformation, the bishop of Hólar owned about a quarter of all land in in northern Iceland. The bishop also owned trading ships based at the nearby port of Kolkuós. That level of wealth and power, and the corruption and arbitrariness that often accompanied it, had to do with why the Reformation happened.

Hólar was the last stronghold of Roman Catholicism during the Reformation. That finally ended in 1550 when the last Catholic bishop, Jón Arason, was taken to Skáholt, the other ecclesiastical center in southern Iceland, and beheaded.

The first printing press in Iceland had been installed here in 1530. The Reformation ended the requirement that everything had to be in Latin. The first complete edition of the Bible in Icelandic, the Guðbrandsbiblía, was published here in 1584. Its printing helped to preserve the Icelandic language. And, the people now had a Bible that they could read.

The large stone church was finished in 1763. It's the oldest stone church in Iceland.

Hólar cathedral.

The diocese merged with another, and an organization bought the land in 1881. They established the Hólar Agricultural College here in 1882.

It became Hólar University in 2003, and now offers undergraduate and graduate programs in tourism, equine science, and aquaculture.

Hólar University.

Nýji Bær is a turf home at Hólar.

Nýji Bær turf home at Hólar.
Nýji Bær turf home at Hólar.
Nýji Bær turf home at Hólar.
Nýji Bær turf home at Hólar.
Nýji Bær turf home at Hólar.

The Department of Aquaculture and Fish Biology at Hólar is partnered with Fisk Seafood, the fishing company I saw at the port back in Sauðárkrókur. The department does both teaching and research. The research includes biodiversity and an Arctic char breeding program.

Nýji Bær turf home at Hólar.

The Faculty of Equine Studies works with the unique Icelandic horse. The AlÞing passed laws in 982 CE banning the importation of horses. The Icelandic horse has been bred pure for over 1,000 years. Natural selection over the past millennia has led to horses well adapted to the rugged landscape and harsh climate.

Nýji Bær turf home at Hólar.

The Department of Tourism trains both undergraduate and graduate students in the development of a sustainable tourism industry. It addresses infrastructure, management and business skills, and service and event production. The Hólar beer center, seen here, provides practical experience. Or at least it does in summer, when there are many visitors.

Hólar beer center.

Student housing is nearby. This is also used as accommodations for visitors.

Student housing at Hólar.
Student housing at Hólar.


One of the two supermarkets opened on January 2nd. But that was a Sunday and everything else in Sauðárkrókur would remain closed until Monday, the 3rd.

The herring, once supporting much of Iceland's economy, have left Icelandic water. But the mackerel have recently taken their place. I hadn't had any mackerel yet, it was time to correct that oversight!

Tin of Stabburet brand mackerel.

Full disclosure: All they had was Norwegian mackerel. But it was the only grocery store open during the prolonged New Year's holiday.

Tin of Stabburet brand mackerel.
Tin of Stabburet brand mackerel.
Tin of Stabburet brand mackerel.
Can of humarsúpa.

I had also picked up a can of humarsúpa. I would have no dollop of sour cream, or dill or chives or sprouts to top it. But it was humarsúpa.

Bowl of humarsúpa.

Iceland was settled by people from cultures where beer and mead were common. They may have had difficulty producing beer, given the difficulty of growing barley in Iceland, but they worked at it.


Illustration of two drunken Icelanders in the 15th century, from AM 147 to, a medieval illuminated manuscript at the Institute of Árni Magnússon.

Prohibition went into effect in Iceland in 1915, originally prohibiting all alcohol. In 1922 wine was legalized. Then in 1935 all alcoholic beverages were legalized except for beer with more than 2.25% alcohol content. Beer was strongly associated with Denmark, which had ruled over Iceland for centuries, and so it wasn't seen as a patriotic Icelandic drink. Normal strength beer wasn't legalized until 1989.

It's still the law that all alcohol much be purchased at the state-owned Vinbúðin chain of stores, except for 2.25% near-beer which can be sold in supermarkets. This is from the Einstök brewery in Akureyri, a 2.25% extreme session form of their Arctic Pale Ale, which is 5.6% in full strength.

Einstök Arctic Pale Ale in a 2.25% low alcohol extreme session form.


I was nearing the end of my trip. I would drive from Sauðárkrókur to Reykjavík for three nights there, and then fly back to Chicago.

The solar wind interacts with the Earth's magnetosphere, accelerating charged particles. The most common green color is caused by oxygen atoms being excited by the charged particle stream, then emitting photons as they return to a ground state.

I had experienced just one good night of aurora so far. Then the geomagnetic activity and the weather cooperated and my last night in Sauðárkrókur had a very nice display. The planetary K index Kp was from 3 to 4, where 1 is calm and 5 indicates a geomagnetic storm, and the sky was mostly clear. Kp is defined as an integer, derived from a weighted average of 13 geomagnetic observatories at middle latitudes around the world. They don't report their data in real time. Some organizations make their own estimate based on the latest reports from closer observatories. I was seeing 3.7 reported for Iceland.

The aurora was mostly in a band overhead from west to east. In these pictures I have crossed the street from the guesthouse and walked about a block. I'm looking to the west in these first pictures.

Aurora over Sauðárkrókur.
Aurora over Sauðárkrókur.
Aurora over Sauðárkrókur.
Aurora over Sauðárkrókur.

In the pictures above and below I have moved a little further down the street and am looking east.

Most of the light is produced from 90 to 150 kilometers above the ground, in the E layer of the ionosphere. The green color is the 557.7 nm emission of atomic oxygen. The concentration of atomic oxygen drops rapidly below 100 km, transitioning to molecular O2 and making for a fairly sharp bottom edge to an auroral curtain.

Aurora over Sauðárkrókur.
Aurora over Sauðárkrókur.

The solar wind is magnetized hot plasma flowing out in all directions from the Sun's two-million-degree corona, its outermost layer.

The solar wind reaches Earth as a plasma of positive ions and free electrons, typically moving at about 400 kilometers per second. During a magnetic storm, the flow can be much faster.

Chinese records going back to 2000 BCE describe visible aurora. The Greek explorer Pythias described it in the 4th century BCE. A Japanese diary from Kyōto described an unusually strong magnetic storm and accompanying aurora in 1770.

The biggest auroral event in recent history was the Carrington Event of 1–2 September 1859. It was thought to have been caused by a large CME or coronal mass ejection from the Sun hitting the Earth's magnetosphere. It caused aurora that could be seen as close to the equator as the Caribbean, south-central Mexico, and southern China. It also caused fires in several telegraph systems. An event like that today would cause widespread catastrophic damage to the electrical grid. CMEs of that size happen from time to time, we're lucky that they generally miss us. Carbon-14 in tree rings and beryllium-10 in ice cores, both of which can be dated to a specific year or at least within a few years, show that large events happened in 774–775 CE and 993–994 CE

Aurora over Sauðárkrókur.
Aurora over Sauðárkrókur.

Can you see the aurora move? Definitely.

The next two pictures were taken just 44 seconds apart.

Aurora over Sauðárkrókur.
Aurora over Sauðárkrókur.

Looking to the east, the next two pictures were taken just 53 seconds apart. The low clouds had moved, while the aurora had also shifted. Given the much greater distance to the aurora, the aurora is moving much further and faster than the clouds.

Aurora over Sauðárkrókur.
Aurora over Sauðárkrókur.
Aurora over Sauðárkrókur.

Onward to Reykjavík

Next: On to Reykjavík Skipping ahead: The Golden Circle

From here it would a long haul from Sauðárkrókur to Reykjavík. I would start by going south to rejoin Highway 1, the Ring Road, and then continue west to Blönduós. Then south by southwest to the capital.

Once in Reykjavík I would backtrack to visit the Settlement Center in Borgarnes, and do side trips to the Golden Circle of Þingvellir, Geysir, and Gullfoss.

The next step is the trip to Reykjavík.

If you want to jump ahead to Reykjavík and the Golden Circle, you can.