A 50-mile run across the wilds of The Bob

Sunrise on Headquarters Pass during the 53-mile Run Across The Bob

On the last weekend in July, I joined a group of Missoula friends for the Run Across The Bob, or RATBOB.

The annual run – this was the third year – is loosely organized, covers 50-some miles and crosses the Bob Marshall Wilderness from east to west. The 1 million-acre wilderness area was designated with the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act.

We left Missoula on a Friday afternoon and camped at the Mill Falls Campground on the Rocky Mountain Front west of Choteau, stopping in Augusta for dinner at the Buckhorn Bar and last-minute supplies at the grocery store next door.

Early the next morning, we packed up camp and got our gear together for the day, then drove to the South Fork Teton trailhead a mile up the road to the southwest.

Sunrise on Headquarters Pass during the 53-mile Run Across The Bob

About 5 a.m., we started up the trail southwest to Headquarters Pass by headlamp. The first 4 miles were some of the more scenic parts of the day, as we passed a tall, streaming waterfall, took in sunrise on the talus slopes below Rocky Mountain, and were greeted at the 7,755 pass by a group of mountain goats.

At the pass, we said goodbye to our shuttle drivers, who ran back down to the trailhead then spent the day on the road and setting up camp near the end of our route on the west side of the wilderness. At that point, there was to turning back.

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For the next 8 miles, we descended west along Headquarters Creek to the North Fork of the Sun River. After a stop to eat some food, we crossed a pack bridge over the river and headed for the Gates Park Guard Station.

With several trails meeting at the guard station, the scene of our group stopped at a junction consulting multiple maps made for a moment of humor – especially when we found the cabins and backcountry airstrip just beyond the stand of trees in front of us, at about 13 miles.

From the guard station, we continued west up Red Shale Creek on the Continental Divide Trail, splitting into several smaller groups. The area burned in a 2013 wildfire, making for a sunny, warm run, and many of us made our first stop to refill water bottles and bladders here. While I was among those who carried a filter, this was the only place I used it – several people who went on previous years’ runs found the water safe when left untreated, and I joined them out of convenience.

Along the North Wall during the 53-mile Run Across The Bob

After entering thick forest for a couple of miles, we reached a meadow at the base of the North Wall near 21 miles and stopped to wait for others to rejoin the group. The North Wall is an extension of The Bob’s famed Chinese Wall, a 22-mile-long escarpment that averages 1,000 feet in height.

Up Switchback Pass during the 53-mile Run Across The Bob

For the next 13 miles, we followed the trail north along the base of the wall, splitting into smaller groups again as we crossed several small passes and burn areas that offered views up and down the cliff line. Eventually, we turned west and climbed steeply up the wall for a mile to Switchback Pass near Kevan Mountain. From the pass we could see back south along the wall and east to where we started.

Up Switchback Pass during the 53-mile Run Across The Bob

The 7,767-foot Switchback Pass got its name from the trail on its west side – in less than 4 miles, we dropped about 3,000 feet to the southwest and rounded more than 40 switchbacks. Back in the forest at the bottom, the trail became level as we waded across Pentagon Creek and reached Pentagon Cabin at nearly 40.5 miles.

From the cabin, we followed the Spotted Bear River northwest, meeting a couple of our shuttle drivers after about 2 miles. After spending the day on the road and setting up camp, they were gracious enough to run a pack full of snacks in and offer support.

Our groups split up even more in the final miles and I ended up on my own for much of it. After wading across Dean Creek and passing the silty, turquoise waters of the Blue Lakes, I reached the other shuttle drivers and first runners gathered at the Silvertip trailhead – about 50 miles and 15 hours after we started.

After a short recovery period, the first of us back piled into an SUV and drove down to the Spotted Bear Campground, where another shuttle driver was tending a buffet of hot food and cooler of beer. After a quick rinse-off in the river as the sun set, we ate, awaited the return of the rest of our group and recounted the day for the drivers before finally falling asleep in our tents.

The next morning, we packed up camp and drove home, crowding a small cafe in Hungry Horse for breakfast.

Here are more photos from the RATBOB.

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Back to day hiking in Glacier National Park

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After several years of point-to-point backpacking in Glacier National Park, we returned to day hiking last summer, largely due to the forecast.

While a rainy day isn’t out of the ordinary for our late-July trips to the park, the forecast this year was for much more precipitation. And it delivered – a couple of our hikes were the wettest we’ve been on outside of Olympic National Park, Scotland or Iceland. Fortunately, we’ve learned that good rain gear – jacket, pants, pack cover – is worth the expense.

This year, we also visited parts of the park that we don’t usually get to – the North Fork of the Flathead, the less crowded Poia and Cracker lakes in the busy Many Glacier area, and Firebrand Pass outside East Glacier.

It was the first time I’d been to the North Fork, where we camped at Bowman Lake and made the obligatory stop at the Polebridge Mercantile for baked treats. On the east side of the park, we camped at Rising Sun, which along with the St. Mary campground we’ve always found to be good staging areas for getting out.

Numa Ridge Lookout

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The morning after arriving at the Bowman Lake campground, we hiked to the Numa Ridge Lookout, which provided good views over the North Fork despite gray clouds overhead.

From the boat launch, the we followed the trail northeast along the shore of the lake for a relatively flat three-quarters of a mile, then turned north at the Numa Ridge junction. From there, the trail rose to a small, forested lake – which we didn’t see until we were above it – at about 3.5 miles.

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After the lake, the trail climbed the ridge in earnest, on increasingly shorter switchbacks. As we approached the lookout, the trees grew smaller and the views opened up.

At 5.7 miles, we arrived at the lookout, on a grassy, 9,960-foot high point that offered views of the North Fork Valley below, the Whitefish Range to the west and, eventually, the Livingston Range above the top of Bowman Lake.

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Light rain began as we ate and took photos, so we turned back downhill. At the small, forested lake, the rain began to fall harder and thunder boomed overhead, so we picked up our pace back to camp.

Here are more photos from Bowman Lake and the Numa Ridge Lookout.

Distance: 11.4 miles round trip.

Trailhead: The trailhead is at the boat launch at Bowman Lake. From Apgar, the lake is about 11.5 miles northwest on the Camas Road, 13 miles northwest on the North Fork Road, about two miles west then north on Polebridge Loop and Glacier Drive, one-quarter mile north on the Inside North Fork Road, then 5.5 miles northeast on Bowman Lake Road.

Poia Lake

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After a second night at Bowman Lake and a day crossing the park and setting up camp at Rising Sun, we decided to hike to Poia Lake from the Many Glacier area.

From the road into Many Glacier, two trails lead to Poia Lake, connecting near Swiftcurrent Ridge Lake. Since we were starting in hard rain, we chose the shorter cutoff trail that begins next to the Many Glacier entrance station.

From the entrance station, we climbed steeply and straight to the northwest for about 1.1 miles, through aspen stands and wildflower meadows, then met the longer trail from the Apikuni Falls area. At the junction, we turned northeast, passing Swiftcurrent Ridge Lake and crossing the ridge itself about three-quarters of a mile farther.

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From the forested ridge, we switchbacked north down the muddy trail to Kennedy Creek, where we crossed paths with a couple of hikers from the East Coast and came upon a relatively fresh set of bear tracks at about 2.75 miles. As they had never encountered a bear before and were planning to hike farther than us, we advised them to be noisy.

At the creek, we turned west and climbed again, through a boulder field and back into the trees above a bend in the creek to the outlet of Poia Lake at about 4.5 miles.

We stopped for a few photos, but didn’t stay long because of the the rain – and there’s something about hiking with your hood up after just seeing bear tracks …

Here are more photos from Poia Lake.

Distance: 9 miles round trip.

Trailhead: We started from the Many Glacier entrance station, about 7.5 miles southwest of Babb on Many Glacier Road. Another trailhead, which also provides access to Apikuni Falls, is about 3 miles farther into the park.

Cracker Lake

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Mostly sunny weather the next day was the best of our trip, so we chose the longer hike to Cracker Lake, one of the most well-known lakes in the park because of its striking turquoise water.

While the fairly popular trail wasn’t as crowded as the High Line or Grinnell Glacier, the dozen or so hikers we encountered were the most we saw on any outing during our trip.

We started west from the Many Glacier Hotel parking lot, passing a turn to Piegan Pass shortly after leaving and dropping to the junction with the Cracker Flat loop at about 1.5 miles. This first section was well-trod by horses, so watching where we walked was necessary, but it also provided views across Lake Sherburne to Altyn Peak and Apikuni Mountain.

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Past the Cracker Flat junction, we switchbacked south up into the forest, with occasional openings in the trees offering glimpses of Swiftcurrent Lake and Mount Wilbur. At the top of the switchbacks, we continued climbing above Canyon Creek, eventually reaching a crossing at about 3.5 miles.

After the crossing to the east side of the creek, we continued up the valley as the forest thinned and the trees grew shorter. At about 5 miles, we came out of the trees and got our first real view of the lake, Siyeh Glacier and Mount Siyeh above it and Allen Mountain on the west bank of the creek.

Out in the open, the wind picked up, so we stopped briefly for Jen to fly a kite, then continued along the bluffs above the east shore of the lake.

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At about 6 miles, a rocky outcrop above the campground offered a place to stop and eat, and views all around. A trail down from the camp allowed us to explore the shore at the top of the lake and see the milky turquoise water – created by suspended silt from Siyeh Glacier – up close.

After backtracking to the trailhead, we took advantage of Many Glacier Hotel’s Swiss Lounge, stopping for beer and an appetizer before driving back to camp.

Here are more photos from Cracker Lake.

Distance: 12.5 miles round trip.

Trailhead: The trail starts at the southwest corner of the parking lot at Many Glacier Hotel, about 12 miles southwest of Babb on Many Glacier Road.

Firebrand Pass

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On our way home the next day we drove around the southern border of the park, stopping along U.S. Highway 2 and the train tracks of the Hi-Line west of East Glacier to hike to Firebrand Pass.

Aside from a handful of train whistles and the whipping of the wind at the pass, the hike was the quietest of our trip. We saw nobody along the trail, but later learned one of the two other vehicles at the trailhead belonged to friends.

After crossing the tracks, we passed through a fence marking the park border and hiked steadily uphill to the northwest through grassy fields and aspen stands.

In the forest at about 1.75 miles, we turned north onto the Autumn Creek Trail. Half a mile later – out of the forest and in tall, thick vegetation – we turned northwest again and climbed the Firebrand Pass trail.

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As we rounded the north flank of Calf Robe Mountain, we left the thick vegetation behind, crossed a small snowfield and continued up the trail into a subalpine basin above the Railroad Creek drainage. Ghostly white snags – remnants of the 1910 fires that gave the pass its name – stand where the final switchbacks begin.

After traversing talus and a longer snowfield, we reached the 6,951-foot pass between Calf Robe and Red Crow mountains at about 4.7 miles. Just over the pass, the Ole Creek drainage opened up with views of the Barrier Buttes and beyond.

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A long drive back to Missoula ahead of us, we turned back here rather than continuing on.

Here are more photos from Firebrand Pass.

Distance: About 9.5 miles round trip.

Trailhead: The trail to Firebrand Pass begins at a small, unmarked pullout along U.S. Highway 2 about 6.5 miles west of East Glacier or 5.2 miles east of Marias Pass.

A walk to Wahclella Falls in the Columbia Gorge

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Visiting relatives in Portland, Oregon, always means driving through the Columbia River Gorge, which offers the perfect opportunity to go for a hike before arriving in the city.

Over the years, the national scenic area east of Portland has become our go-to spot for getting out, with its numerous creeks and waterfalls. I don’t think we’ve ever been to the same place twice, though I’m sure we’ll eventually exhaust the options.

During a June trip, we chose the trail to Wahclella Falls.

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The hike began as an easy walk along the mossy east bank of Tanner Creek, among shade trees and wildflowers. After a small dam, the trail narrowed, passed a small cascade, then climbed the canyon wall. At a junction, we continued above the east side of the creek, then dropped to a viewpoint at nearly 1 mile, with Wahclella Falls spilling from the basalt into a large pool.

After a little looking around, we crossed a bridge over the creek and continued down the west side of the canyon. A short distance down the trail, a bridge returning to the east bank provided a view of the cascading creek below. Once across, the trail climbed a couple of switchbacks to the junction and we continued back to the start the way we came.

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Here are more photos from Wahclella Falls.

Distance: About 1.8 miles round trip.

Trailhead: About 37.2 miles east of Portland on Interstate 84, take exit 40 and turn south. After 0.1 mile, turn southwest into the parking loop.

Spring sights on the way to Camas Lakes

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A short May hike to Camas Lakes, southwest of Hamilton in the Bitterroot Mountains, highlighted the changing of the seasons: spring runoff and wildflowers, and the last of winter’s snow.

For the first mile, the trail climbed steadily to the north, crossing Hayes Creek at about a quarter mile then turning northwest at 1 mile and entering thicker forest. Along the way, purple and yellow violets dotted the edge of the path.

Nearly 2 miles up, the trail crossed an open outcrop that provided a brief view of the surrounding drainage and eastern ridge of Ward Mountain. Here, tufts of phlox could be found among the rocks.

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About another third of a mile up, a broken log bridge crossed Camas Creek as it cascaded down through the forest. While our younger dog Josey followed us across, our older dog Belle forded the creek.

Across the water, the trail climbed two-thirds of a mile of switchbacks as the forest thinned, then the final half mile past patches of snow to the lowest of the three Camas Lakes.

While it’s possible to round the lake and continue up the creek to the next two, we ate lunch on the shore then retreated to the trailhead when rain arrived.

Here are more photos from Camas Lakes.

Distance: About 7 miles round trip.

Trailhead: About 9.4 miles south of Hamilton on U.S. Highway 93, turn west on Lost Horse Road. Continue 2.4 miles, then turn northwest and follow Forest Road 496 about 6.1 miles to the trailhead.

A Hells Canyon trail run to start spring

Views from the trail at the 25-mile Hells Canyon Adventure Run

As it did last year, my trail running season opened in late March with a trip to western Idaho for the Hells Canyon Adventure Run.

The event isn’t an organized race – jet boats ferry runners up the Snake River about to drop-offs at 15 and 25 miles, and they return unsupported along the national recreation trail, ascending and descending the eastern side of Hells Canyon. The “organizers” send out an email with the date in advance and request replies in order to arrange for the boats. The only payment is made to your boat driver.

This year, Jen and the dogs came along and hiked out and back on part of the trail while I ran. We spent Friday and Saturday nights camping at Pittsburg Landing, southwest of White Bird in the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, with a group of Missoula friends.

Early Saturday morning – the second day of spring – we made our way to the trailhead at Upper Pittsburg and warmed ourselves by a fire while waiting for the boat. Due to the timing of the daylight saving change, dawn arrived before we departed upriver; last year, most of the boat ride was by moonlight.

Views from the trail at the 25-mile Hells Canyon Adventure Run

After being dropped off downstream from Granite Creek, several of us from Missoula set out as a group. A light rain fell as we ran, keeping it cool, and we stopped several times to eat and take in the view. The first 10 miles of trail rose and fell along grassy slopes and through occasional stands of trees, crossing creeks and passing a couple of historic homesteads.

Views from the trail at the 25-mile Hells Canyon Adventure Run

About 15 miles in, we passed the drop-off for the shorter run at Sheep Creek, and our group soon began to spread out. After taking in the view of the winding Snake below and the sun breaking through the clouds above from a high point at about 17.5 miles, I ended up on my own for the next few miles.

The historic Kirkwood Ranch in Halls Canyon

With about 5 miles to go, I arrived at the historic Kirkwood Ranch, and just as I was departing Jen and the dogs hiked in. After spending some time with them, other Missoula runners caught up and we left as a small group, our younger dog Josey coming with me. The climb out of Kirkwood was the single largest ascent of the day, rising more than 400 feet in about a third of a mile to a steep traverse looking down on the river.

After dropping closer to river level, Josey and I got ahead of our group again and finished the last couple of miles on our own, taking a break at a creek to cool her paws in the water then running along a shaded cliff and back to the trailhead. In the end, I logged about 25.5 miles and 4.300 feet of elevation gain.

We cooled off in the river there as we waited for the other Missoula runners, Jen and our older dog Belle to return, and that night we shared food and stories around the campfire before bed. On Sunday morning, we woke, packed up camp and drove back to Missoula, stopping for a hearty breakfast along the way.

Here are more photos from Hells Canyon.

Volcanic remnants in Iceland’s west

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The last stop on our Icelandic itinerary was the Snæfellsness Peninsula, jutting west into the Atlantic Ocean and ending at a glacier-capped volcano.

About three hours after leaving Akureyri, we turned off the Ring Road, following smaller, snow-covered highways most of the way out the north side of the peninsula. Over the next couple of hours, we first passed through farmland blanketed in white then along the mountainous coastline, which had a fresh layer of powder that at one point was about floorboard deep on our vehicle. Before turning onto a better maintained highway near Stykkishólmur, we had passed maybe five houses and only a few other vehicles.

An hour later, we arrived in Grundarfjörður, where we stayed for the next two nights.

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Search the Internet for “Iceland” and you’re likely to find photos of a pointed peak next to a cascading waterfall with the northern lights overhead – that’s Kirkjufell and Kirkjufellsfoss just outside town.

After checking in at our guesthouse – an old post office that had been renovated – we used the rest of the late-afternoon light to hike the short trail to the waterfall and drive farther west, toward Snæfellsjökull National Park.

Heavy snow fell as we returned to town, and as it continued into the night we became hopeful we would finally get to go cross-country skiing. We’d had noticed a wide, flat path paralleling the highway from town to Kirkjufellsfoss and a trail around Kirkjufell, and with the amount of snow on the ground by the time we went to bed we had the next day planned.

Unfortunately, the night air warmed, the snow turned to rain and by sunrise everything was soggy.

The rain continued to varying degrees – from light sprinkles to downpours – throughout the day, so we drove the road through Snæfellsjökull and around the peninsula, stopping for a few short hikes.

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At Saxhóll, we climbed to the rim of the small crater, which provided a view of the surrounding lava field and the park’s namesake mountain and glacier, rising into the clouds. The rugged landscape served as the staring point for Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth.”

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A short drive off the main road through the park, we followed a trail down to the black sand beach at Djúpalónssandur. At the bottom, a series of stones that once provided fishermen a test of strength remained. On one side of the beach, waves rushed ashore on the sand; on the other, they crashed into sea stacks.

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After leaving the park on the south side of the peninsula, we turned back and stopped at the Vatnshellir lava tube. We don’t usually go on organized tours, but that was the only way to access the tube – and despite dripping water, it ended up being one of our direr activities that day.

Through a passageway dug from the snow and down a spiral staircase, we descended into two sections of tube 32 meters beneath the surface. Along the way, we learned about the geological formations within and the lava’s path to the sea.

The next day – our final day in Iceland – we drove back through Snæfellsjökull on the way from Grundarfjörður to Reykjavík. Despite having been through the park the previous day, the four-hour trip wasn’t uneventful.

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After stopping to watch some horses in a pasture just outside town, the wind picked up as we rounded the peninsula. Soon, snow was blowing across the road, at times completely eliminating visibility beyond the windshield. With two sets of faint headlights behind us, we continued until reaching an area where the topography disrupted the wind and whiteout conditions.

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Letting the other vehicles pass, we stopped and went on a short walk to view the Lóndrangar basalt plugs. The rocky pillars remaining from volcanic activity rose from rough seas near a lighthouse.

Back on the highway, conditions deteriorated further. After passing a line of stopped vehicles outside the park on the south side of the peninsula, we, too, pulled over as the wind gusted to more than 30 meters per second, or 67 miles per hour, and the road disappeared.

After waiting about 10 minutes, we pressed ahead, and once off the peninsula the wind died, visibility returned and we continued to the capital.

The next day, we departed from Iceland after a stop at the Blue Lagoon, having neither skied nor seen the northern lights, but satisfied with our winter vacation.

Here are more photos of Grundarfjörður and Snæfellsjökull National Park.

Our farthest north in Iceland

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After visiting the Mývatn area, we turned back west to Iceland’s second largest city, Akureyri, on the western shore of Eyjafjörður.

Five kilometers above town, Hlídarfjall Ski Center is one of the country’s best ski areas, we read, with 20 kilometers of cross-country routes in addition to downhill runs. And February was known for having some of the best conditions.

Again, however, we couldn’t ski. The slopes looked awfully brown the day we arrived, and a Reykjavíkur staying at our guesthouse told us he had just come down from the ski center because it had closed due to high wind. We drove up to Hlídarfjall to take a look for ourselves, and from what we could tell only 5 kilometers of cross-country routes would be available if it opened the next day.

We decided to look for alternatives – possibly another place to ski, but more than likely somewhere to hike.

We drove north to Dalvík, where there was ferry service to Hrísey. Nature trails out of the island’s small village offered an option. Continuing northwest from Dalvík to Ólafsfjörður or Siglufjörður, on the Tröllaskagi Peninsula was another possibility. There were also trails leading up a valley above Akureyri, although we didn’t know how well they would be marked in winter.

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Late that afternoon, we explored the shops, restaurants and bars of Akureyri’s small, pedestrian friendly downtown, just a block from our guesthouse. (Akureyri Backpackers, a hostel, had a restaurant and bar on the main level with a good beer selection and the best food options for vegetarians, so we ended up eating there both nights of our stay.)

The next day, we decided to continue north out the fjord and around the peninsula, which proved worthwhile.

The drive to Siglufjörður itself is a scenic adventure. Near the north end of Eyjafjörður, the cliffside road turns west abruptly into a 4-kilometer tunnel through the mountains to Ólafsfjörður. On the other side of the town, the road travels through two more tunnels – 7 kilometers to a small fjord, then 4 kilometers more – to Siglufjörður. Exiting the tunnel, we found a much snowier landscape and a picturesque village. At 46 kilometers south of the Arctic Circle, this would be the farthest north we traveled on our trip.

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Stopping at Sigló’s library, we learned of a network of trails up the side of the fjord on the town’s avalanche defense barriers and into a small valley above. While this seems counterintuitive, the avalanche “dams” were constructed with recreation in mind.

From the north end of town, we walked uphill south then turned back, eventually rising west into the valley above. During a brief but heavy snow flurry, we considered turning around. After waiting a short while, however, the conditions improved and we continued up the slope.

In the valley, we followed trail markers that were sticking out of the snow a short distance, then turned around and took in the town and fjord from above. At that point, the sun had broken through the clouds and revealed the peaks above the fjord. When we got back to our vehicle, we had covered about 7.5 kilometers – a good day out.

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The next morning, after coffee and pastries at a downtown bakery, we made our second-longest and most remote drive of the trip, to Grundarfjörður on the Snæfellsness Peninsula.

Here are more photos from Akureyri and Siglufjörður.