Nautagil - The Real NASA Training Ground

Everywhere you go in Iceland you are told it is where they prepared for the Apollo moon landings. It seems to be a more prevalent story on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and Golden Circle. However it isn’t until you get to Dreki in the Highlands that the story becomes reality.

Each summer a camp is set up at Dreki on the lower slopes of Askja volcano. However this isn’t a normal camp for pleasure. These campers are scientists from NASA who are still utilising the landscape to prepare for space exploration. This time it is to prepare a robotic space explorer for the 2020 trip to Mars.

Our arrival at Askja coincided with the national holiday and more importantly the annual sunset walk lead by NASA to show where, how and why Dreki, Askja, Lambahraun lava field and Nautagil is still used for their training. This is an annual event run by the rangers from the centre at Dreki. It is totally free and hard work taking over three hours of walking across rough ground before a final walk along the river as the sun skims the horizon back to the camp.

Early on in the planning for the space expeditions it was realised that if any valid geological research material was to come back to earth the astronauts needed to know what they were looking at and what would be useful to scientists back on earth. So, as part of their training they were taken to Dreki to work in a hostile, unknown environment for a geology crash course. The landscape in Dreki was believed to be the closest to the moon providing invaluable experiences for the astronauts.

The sunset walk explores the lava and rocks ejected from Askja in 1875 as well as other eruptions in the area, shares all the types of craters that can be seen, how the eruptions shaped the landscape as well as exploring the aptly name Bull Canyon at Nautagil.


Photography Notes

The walk from Dreki to Nautagil provides spectacular landscape views across the Lambahraun lava field. The small volcanoes that are dotted around can be identified although the flat landscape makes it difficult to provide a focal point.

Bull Canyon is deep with sheer sides coated in white pumice stones. This makes exposure quiet difficult and shooting with a negative exposure compensation setting will assist in getting the pumice as well as the canyon walls properly exposed. The canyon faces north east and catches sunlight in the morning, but by the evening is in total shade.

As always the details are worth exploring. The rocks are not just white but every shade of grey in the canyon and on the path from Dreki there is deep red as well as black lava and pumice. There are also fantastic layers of ash which show each explosion as a compression layer within the rocks.


Getting to Nautagil

Nautagil is located a short distance from Dreki in the Icelandic Highlands. It is reached from Route 1 along F910 or F905 (F88 should be avoided whatever the sat nav says!) and then a walk along the marked trail that initially follows the far side of the small river away from Drekagil. The circular walk takes about 3 hours with the final stretch either following the river or the road back to Dreki. If time is limited road F910 continues from Dreki and there is a small parking area directly across the river from Nautagil.