Travelling in Iceland is a life changing experience. I’ll never forget the fabulous landscapes that I saw during the 12 days I spent there in September 2018, the stunning beauty of the wild nature and the recurrent feeling of being in a different world. The best way to enjoy your visit to Iceland would be going on a road trip, especially in summer when daylight is longer. This is the first of 4 articles describing you a 9-day itinerary around the country with some advice for cheap accommodation if camping doesn’t appeal to you.
In this article I’ll take you from Reykjavik to the South Coast of Iceland, with waterfalls, black sand beaches, glaciers and the fantastic lagoon of Jökulsarlon on your way. This could also be a return trip if you’re limited in time.
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Warning: I did this road trip in September 2018 with mostly good weather conditions, low wind and long daylight. Always check the weather forecast and the driving conditions before travelling in Iceland and adapt your itinerary if needed. Remember also that daylight is reduced to less than 5 hours in the middle of winter and that you won’t be able to do as much as in summer.
This itinerary begins as soon as you leave Reykjavik on Route 1 in the direction of the south. The Route 1 circles all around Iceland and is also called the Ring Road. Its total length is about 1,300 kms and it’s entirely asphalted; just be careful of the many one-way bridges.
Day 1: waterfall day (Reykjavik-Seljalandsfoss)
Could you ever get bored of seeing waterfalls? I seriously doubt it! You’ll find dozens of waterfalls in Iceland, all of them so beautiful that you’ll always be amazed to see them.
The first one on your way will be Seljalandsfoss, about 130 kms after Reykjavik. You’ll see it from far away while driving on Route 1. You have to pay to use the car park just next to it, but you can leave your vehicle for free at the information point at the crossing between Route 1 and the little road leading to the fall, and it’s only a 5-minute walk from there. This impressive waterfall drops from a 60m high cliff and it’s possible to walk to a little cave to have a great view from behind the water curtain. Really nice!
Just a few minutes’ walk further is Gljúfrabúi, another waterfall that requires some determination to be seen. Hidden by the cliff rock, Gljúfrabúi is invisible unless you enter the short and narrow canyon leading to it. There’s no proper path, you’ll have to step on wet rocks and hold on to the cliff on your side so be very careful especially if you have a bad sense of balance like me! Get ready to have your feet a little bit wet but trust me, the sight is worth the effort.
From Route 1, just before turning to Seljalandsfoss and Gljúfrabúi you can also see to the south the silhouette of Vestmannaeyjar (the Westman Islands), an archipelago of stunning islands where hundreds of puffins live. I didn’t visit them myself and you should add an extra day to your itinerary if you’re interested, but just seeing them from a distance made me really want to go – have a look at the picture below!
Further to the East on Route 1, you’ll drive past a view-point over the Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that disrupted the entire air traffic in Europe and caused hundreds of flight cancellations after its last eruption in 2010. On such a nice sunny day it was hard for me to imagine that a mountain that looked so peaceful and quiet could also be so threatening at the same time.
Next stop: the waterfall of Skógafoss, 30 kms after Seljalandsfoss. Both have the same height (60m), but Skógafoss is wider (25m) and looks much more powerful. There are some stairs on the right side of the fall: it’s the beginning of a 25-kilometer long hike called the Fimmvörðuháls hiking trail that is supposed to be one of the most beautiful of the country according to this website. But even if you don’t have time for such a long track, you should climb the stairs to get a different point of view from above Skógafoss and see the beautiful river upstream with another little waterfall.
Where to stay? I spent the night in Nicehostel Seljaland, close to Seljalandsfoss (which means you would have to drive back about 30 kms from Skógafoss if you’re following the itinerary that I’m suggesting for that first day). It’s a lovely and very clean hostel, relatively expensive (about 6000 crowns per person per night in a dorm – 45€/52$ – there are also individual rooms available) but still the cheapest option in the area. The price includes a delicious breakfast and the staff was super friendly so it’s a place that I highly recommend.
Day 2: plane wreck, black sand beach and glacier (Seljalandsfoss – Skaftafell)
There are a lot of things to see on that day, probably the busiest of the entire itinerary so I suggest starting as early as possible (which would be an advantage for the first place listed below) or dividing it in two days, especially if you’re travelling between the end of September and early April when day light is shorter.
10 kms after Skógafoss, you’ll find a much less conventional attraction: the wreck of a US army plane that crashed here in 1973, close to the shore, on the black ashes and sand of Sólheimasandur. It used to be a hidden and hard to find spot but there’s now a carpark on the side of Route 1 and from there it’s about 40 minutes to an hour’s walk to the wreck, in the middle of a vast desertic plain. I highly recommend going there either late on day 1 or early in the morning of day 2 to avoid the crowds as it’s a very touristic place; that’s where other people’s behaviour annoyed me most during my stay in Iceland. One example: there’s a sign at the carpark clearly specifying that it’s forbidden to climb on the plane, but almost everyone does it anyway… Please respect the rules, it will be better for everyone.
How did this plane “land” here? The real reason is still quite mysterious today but the most common theory is that the pilot accidentally switched the fuel supply to an empty tank, causing him to crash because of a lack of fuel. Another theory is that extremely harsh weather conditions with very strong wind hit the plane. One sure thing: luckily there were no victims of this accident.
There are 2 more beautiful places to see before arriving in Vík, the biggest village of this part of Iceland. The first one is called Dyrhólaey, a small peninsula with huge cliffs and a wide natural arch below them. At the end of the road from the car park, a little path brings you to a few lookouts with great views all around; the cliffs of Dyrhólaey to your right, the black sand beach of Reynisfjara with the “needles” of Reynisdrangar to your left (see below) and the glacier Mýrdasjökull behind you. Apart from Iceland, I don’t know if there are many other places in the world where you can stare at the ocean and face a glacier by simply turning around!
Because of a little sound in between, you can’t reach the black sand beach of Reynisfjara from Dyrhólaey; you’ll have to drive back to Route 1 and turn right a bit further. Shortly before the beach you can stop at Reyniskirkja, a lovely white and red church very typical of Iceland.
You can easily spend a few hours on Reynisfjara, one of the most beautiful beaches of Iceland. It was used to shoot a few scenes of Games of Thrones (for the action happening behind the Wall). It is also known to be one of the most dangerous beaches of the country. Sneaker waves are very common in the area and if you’re not paying enough attention or standing too close to the shore you might get caught and drown. Be careful!
Don’t be too afraid though; if you’re staying on the upper side of the beach there won’t be any issues and you’ll be able to fully enjoy the wonderful sight. On a sunny day, the contrast between the black sand and rocks and the blue ocean is gorgeous, as well as the view over the arch of Dyrhólaey to the right and the basalt columns at the bottom of the cliffs overhanging the beach.
To the left, the basalt sea stacks of Reynisdrangar look like needles of black rock coming out of the water.
After Reynisfjara, the next stop is Vík í Mýrdal (often shortened to Vík), the southernmost village of Iceland and the most populated place within 70 kms even if there are less than 300 people living there! Except for filling your tank or buying some groceries, I don’t think that Vík has so much interest compared to other villages in the country, but make sure to climb at least to the beautiful church and admire the great view from there.
After Vík, Route 1 stops following the coast for a little while and goes a bit deeper inland, with the constant silhouette of mountains and glaciers to your left. It’s a wonderful 70-kilometer drive to the gorgeous canyon of Fjaðrárgljúfur (“Fjadrargljufur” – be careful, the last few kilometers after turning left from Route 1 are on a very corrugated track with a lot of potholes). Take the short hike along this stunning canyon (about one hour return) to reach a few lookouts on the way and see a beautiful waterfall at the end. The water is incredibly clear!
After Fjaðrárgljúfur, it’s another 80 kms until the last spot of the day, the Skaftafell/Vatnajökull National Park. Depending on how much time you have, you can either do the two most popular walks of the park (see below) or spend another entire day to do longer hikes. Unfortunately I didn’t have enough time for that but all the different hiking options are described on the official website of the park here. During winter, you can also take a tour to explore ice caves deep down the glacier (never attempt to do such a thing by yourself!). Have a look to different tours available here.
The two most popular walks that I mentioned before lead respectively to the glacier of Skaftafellsjökull (count about 1 hour to 1 hour and a half from the visitor centre on flat ground, depending on how close to the glacier you want to go – pictures above) and to the waterfall of Svartifoss (45 minutes to an hour on a relatively steep path with another smaller waterfall on the way – picture below).
Where to stay? Apart from camping, there aren’t many cheap options around the Skaftafell/Vatnajökull National Park. But if you don’t want to sleep in a tent (I can totally see why!), the Svinafell Campground offers accommodation in heated cabins designed for 4 people (4500 crowns per night per person – 33€/38$). You’ll need your own sleeping bag though.
Day 3: glacier lagoons (Skaftafell-Höfn or back to Reykjavik)
After such a long day 2, there are relatively less things to see on day 3 which will give you enough time to drive back to Reykjavik in the afternoon (380 km from Jökulsárlón) if you only had time for a short South Coast trip and not for a longer road trip around the country. But less things don’t mean less amazement… The glacier lagoon of Jökulsárlón was my favourite place of Iceland and one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen in my entire life.
What’s a glacier lagoon? The glacier of Vatnajökull is still the largest of Europe, but it used to be a lot bigger. When it withdrew during the past century, a few lakes or lagoons were created at its extremities, including Jökulsárlón which only exists since the 1930’s! When massive bits of ice collapse from the glacier, they form icebergs floating on the lagoon, and eventually melt or reach the ocean. If temperatures keep on rising Jökulsárlón will probably turn into a deep fjord within a few decades.
There’s another smaller glacier lagoon called Fjallsárlón about 10 km before Jökulsárlón, overlooked by most of the tourists but worth a visit as they are both quite different. There is no direct access to the ocean from Fjallsárlón, so the icebergs floating on its surface end up beached on the shore; when you’re next to them it feels like you’re on the edge of the ice floe! Other advantage, you’re much closer to the limit of the glacier, making it easier to admire all its different hues and aspects: white, blue, grey… Amazing.
But as gorgeous as Fjallsárlón is, it can’t compete with the fantastic beauty of Jökulsárlón. This vast and deep (260m, the deepest lake of Iceland) lagoon is a place that you’ll never forget. The sight of the huge icebergs floating on the water is indescribable. It’s even better on a sunny day with low wind when the surface of the lagoon becomes a perfect mirror.
There are a lot of seals swimming around, hunting for fish or basking on the icebergs. At some point, I was standing still on the shore when I saw a seal swimming in my direction, obviously not aware of my presence. It’s only when he was about 2 meters away that he finally saw me; he was really scared, dived very quickly and swam away. A few seconds later I saw his head coming out of the water about 15 meters further, staring at me, trying to recover from this moment of fear. So cute!
There’s a little river connecting Jökulsárlón to the ocean. As it isn’t very deep, the biggest icebergs get stuck and it’s only after they break or melt that they can go through. The banks of the river or the bridge crossing it are great observation points to be as close as possible to these icebergs.
On the coast next to Jökulsárlón there’s a black sand beach called Diamond Beach. The name comes from the hundreds of little icebergs caught by the waves and stranded on the shore. The contrast between these white or transparent pieces of ice and the black sand is fabulous: they really look like diamonds.
Obviously Jökulsárlón and Diamond Beach are both very touristic. But as everywhere else in the world, if you walk just a little but further away from the parking lot, you’ll escape the biggest crowds and you’ll be able to find some peaceful spots. There are also different tours with boats or zodiacs but I’m not a big fan of these things: I believe that you can enjoy the sight perfectly from the shore without having to disturb the environment just to get closer to the icebergs.
Where to stay? The best place to stay next to Jökulsárlón is Höfn, a little village with a nice harbour about 80km further to the East. I spent the night at the Höfn Hostel, part of the Hostelling International network. Count about 5600 crowns/42€/48$ per person per night in a dorm – individual rooms are also available.
That’s where the first part of this road trip around Iceland ends. If you have to head back to Reykjavik already I hope you enjoyed your stay, and if you want to keep on exploring the country, click on the link below to read the second part of this article. Thank you!
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Next article: Road tripping around Iceland: part II, the East.