All Over the Place: Europe's Yellowstone
Issue 16: Iceland
A stereotypical European vacation might involve trips to an opulent palace, a church with a maximalist Baroque design, and a museum chock full of Renaissance greats.
A trip to Iceland generally does not involve these things. In fact, visiting Iceland reminded me more of Yellowstone National Park and Wyoming than it did of the other parts of Europe I’ve visited, so in this issue I’ll be comparing the two places.
I’ll note that this comparison will probably be much more accurate regarding Wyoming (where I have spent several months working, volunteering and traveling) than Iceland (where I spent a couple of days on the way back to the United States).
That being said, from what I saw, Iceland has a surprising amount in common with Yellowstone and its surrounding region.
Geothermal activity is frequent and a major attraction.
Most land is marginal for farming.
The main landforms are mountains and plains.
The vast majority of the area is unpopulated.
Both have distinctive traditional clothing (one cowboy hats, the other wool sweaters).
Small local populations mean that residents can sometimes be outnumbered by tourists from far away.
Both have iconic traditional figures (Cowboys vs. Vikings, which you can see this year on November 20 at 3:25pm).
But they are also significant differences. High elevations in Wyoming (like Yellowstone) are green with forests, but head down from the mountains and the terrain becomes dusty sage steppe. Iceland, on the other hand, seems to be carpeted in black rocks and green moss.
Weather is another big difference. Wyoming’s weather varies a lot by the season. In Thermopolis, Wyoming, the average July high is 54°F higher than the average December high (93°F vs. 39°F). But in Reykjavík, the average July high is only 20°F higher than the average December high (58°F vs. 33°F).
The oft remarked saying about Greenland being icy and Iceland being green is true, but it hardly means that Iceland is nice and balmy. My walk to the Reykjavík Botanic Garden had me wearing a long sleeved shirt and my winter jacket while struggling with an umbrella against a drizzle with strong gusts. I was there in July. (I wasn’t sweating, but…)
What Iceland lacks in seasonal temperature changes it makes up for in seasonal daylight changes. Since I was there in July, I got to see its fabled midnight sun, and it is a strange delight. There is a difference between day and night, but it’s not much, and it’s always light enough to go for a walk.
Wyoming’s landscapes are a big part of its appeal, but at times they play second fiddle to its diverse wildlife. Bison, elk, moose, wolves, black bears, grizzly bears, mule deer, pronghorns, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and more all roam the Cowboy State.
But Iceland doesn’t really have much in the way of large animals, with polar bears rare visitors to the island. This, plus a general lack of trees and the surprisingly lush greenery on the black rocks (and the perpetual daylight in the summer), makes for beautiful and unusual scenery with a strange emptiness.
But that emptiness and otherworldliness makes it a curious place to visit.
“Europeans face a heat wave conundrum.”