The damp cold of Iceland’s highlands bore down upon our small group of hikers with Viking-like intensity. It seeped into our bones until the marrow itself ached.
Our daughters clung tight to my husband and me as we pressed forward. Their small boots stepped in time with ours, stamping tiny prints upon the snowy expanse. The barren landscape kissed an eternity of grey horizon. Its starkness left me simultaneously stunned by its simple beauty and anxiously aware that forging on was our only option.
We’d petitioned a day earlier for our eight and ten-year-old daughters to join us on this tour to Thrihnukagigur volcano, assuring the guides that although the girls did not meet the age requirement, they could handle it. Strong and fearless, we were certain they’d easily maneuver the 3km hike to and from basecamp as well as the 700ft (213m) descent into the dormant volcano.
What we did not anticipate was a quick shift in the May weather, blanketing much of the typically accessible trail with ice and snow overnight.
We’d spent the past week exploring the southern Ring Road, falling in love with Iceland’s welcoming culture and otherworldly landscape. But this unexpectedly difficult hike tested our mettle and prodded at my deepest parental insecurities.
While most families we knew enjoyed vacations at amusement parks or beach towns, we’d chosen instead to share our lifelong love of off-the-beaten-path travel with our daughters. We hoped that these adventures would expand their worldview and strengthen us as a team. As the blurred oasis of basecamp loomed far in the distance, and blustery squalls whipped circles around us, I feared that this challenge might overshadow the experience.
Relief struck when we finally reached basecamp. Strapping on helmets, we climbed to the crater's entrance where we tethered ourselves to a small, open elevator. Slowly we lowered deep through time—past tight, dripping layers of dark rock that gave way to an expansive, stunning chamber.
Thrihnukagigur sits in the center of the Mid-Atlantic ridge where the North American and Eurasian plates continue to separate, causing Iceland’s volatile geology. Although dormant for 4,000 years, I sensed a lingering life force within its rocky base. The blistering hot magma that molded this awe-inspiring space left its legacy in stunning, kaleidoscopic rock walls stained gold, blue and magenta.
Like the intense history etched upon the surrounding rock, I wondered what this experience would imprint upon my daughters. When time has retreated, what will our adventures have forged in us?
My energetic eight-year-old pulled me out of my thoughts, urging all of us to climb and explore. She took my hand and we walked together among what felt like the world’s beginnings.
As the elevator lifted us back to basecamp, our guide asked my youngest daughter her age.
“I’m eight,” she replied with her freckled smile.
The guide’s eyes widened. “You may be the youngest person ever to descend into this volcano!”
“Yes,” I sheepishly interjected, “Her parents are a little crazy.”
“Or awesome!” the guide responded without hesitation. My little girl beamed.
I wasn’t certain what kind of parents this experience made us, but I knew then what kind of family we were.
Rather than depleted, my daughters were flushed with the excitement of adventure as they giggled together over our unexpected, but memorable, trek. Buoyed by the incredible volcanic descent, they were ready and excited to tackle the return journey.
We ended the expedition as we began, but with renewed vigor and perspective. My family linked together, pressing forward toward the milky horizon, our tiny footprints marking their place in the wide world.
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With hikes for all abilities, from easy day hikes to multi-day expeditions, Iceland has something for everybody. Here are five of the best.