East of Kirkjubæjarklaustur, the Ring Road enters a long, townless stretch in the shadow of Vatnajökull, the largest icecap between the Arctic and Antarctic circles. South of Vatnajökull is a stupendously bleak glacial flood plain called Skeiðarársandur, or just "The Sandur." The main regional attraction is Skaftafell National Park, a popular hiking area bordering Vatnajökull. Most of Skaftafell's day hikes are on scrubby grassland, amid a panoramic theater of spiky mountains and glistening ice.

The Glacier Mystique -- Those who have never seen a jökull (glacier) can find it hard to understand why these huge, dirty sheets of ice arouse so much interest. Part of the appeal is sheer magnitude, but the destructive power of glaciers also inspires respect. Only 10% of Iceland's land mass is covered in glaciers, but 60% of its volcanic eruptions occur beneath them, often causing catastrophic floods. In Icelandic folklore, someone traveling over a glacier might plunge into a hidden crevasse, only to be heard singing hymns from the same spot for decades. But size and might are only part of the glacier mystique. Like an organism, its bodily matter replaces itself over time. Vatnajökull's oldest ice was formed around 1200, but rock, sediment, and human victims also churn through its messy digestive system. Stray airplane parts or ski poles from decades or centuries past often pop out from the glacier's edge. Glaciers also provide endless aesthetic variety. The same glacier can appear pink or white at a distance, brown- and black-streaked on nearer inspection, and a more translucent blue up close. Evidence suggests that glaciers aren't losing their hold on the Icelandic imagination: over 150 living Icelandic men are named Jökull.