Iceland

Exploring Iceland’s South Coast

Exploring Iceland’s South Coast is a must for any visitor to Iceland! It was something that we thoroughly enjoyed both times we visited this amazing country, and it’s one of the most beautiful and unique areas we’ve ever seen. Waterfalls, glaciers, and black sandy beaches await you as you drive the Ring Road away from the “big city” of Reykjavik.

After a very early landing in Keflavik we got our car and hit the road old school with no GPS and only a map at our disposal. The roads are so easy to navigate (there aren’t too many!) and the signage is pretty well posted. We passed through lava fields surrounded by not so distant mountains speckled with tiny waterfalls. At times it felt like we were alone on the road in a vast sea of lava. Iceland looks like a completely different planet. Simply spectacular!

Lava fields

Waterfalls

The first stop on the drive was to a beautiful waterfall called Seljalandsfoss. The Icelandic term for waterfall is “foss” and this waterfall did not disappoint. We were able to get up close and personal since we could climb up and walk behind the waterfall. The mist of the water sprayed on us as we walked around, looking at it from all directions. A very cool sight indeed!

We walked about 1/3 mile to another waterfall called Gljufrabui, which means “Dweller of the Gorge”. We were able to get very close with this one! It’s about 40 meters high and because there’s a big rock in front of it (and a little bit of a walk from the more popular waterfall) not many people notice it. You can wade through the gorge and jump on the rocks on the river or walk up the rock to see the top.

More Exploring

During our second time in Iceland we decided to explore a little more. We drove up and up and up, and then around, hoping to see the Seljalandsfoss from a high angle. However, we couldn’t find what we were supposed to be looking for, which was the view from the top of the waterfall. Nevertheless, we saw some great views and it gave me a chance to practice my bathroom skills next to the car!

We continued on and drove to the impressive Skogafoss waterfall, which stands about 60 meters tall and is about 25 meters wide. The waterfall has a lot of power to it and you can hear the thundering at the bottom of it from afar. We were surprised that we were able to get so close to the base given how forceful it is. We walked up to about as far as we could get without getting soaking wet. Stairs and a path next to the waterfall led us all the way to the top to some precarious views down below. These stairs also mark the start of one of the most popular hiking trails in Iceland, taking you 55 kilometers to Landmannalaugaur.

Sólheimajökull Glacier

Next we drove about 20 minutes to Sólheimajökull glacier. This glacier snout is part of the much bigger Mýrdalsjökull glacier. They say that Sólheimajökull is shrinking and retreating, and has retreated about a kilometer in the last decade. As you walk towards the glacier you can even see where it used to be since it is either covered by water or rough stony ground. It was pretty cool looking at a glacier that has probably been there since the Ice Age.

An Interesting Find

Our next stop is a really interesting and random find. On November 24, 1973, a U.S. Navy plane was forced to land on the black sand beach of Solheimasandur in Southern Iceland. The crew survived, but the plane was abandoned, rather than recovered, and it rests there still. Extreme weather (and looters?) has taken its toll on the plane, but the shell and half of both wings still remain.

The plane was somewhat of a challenge to get to. At the time, this site wasn’t in your Lonely Planet or Rick Steves’ books – we just happened to find it on a blog a few days before we arrived in Iceland and it gave very detailed instructions on how to find it. There are no signs from the main road and when you do come to the subtle turn off the road, there is a teeny tiny sign pointing that the site is about 5 km away.

Plane - Iceland's South Coast

The “road” to the site (packed gravel and rocks) is bumpy and full of potholes! Rocks were kicking up into the tires and metal and I was afraid that we were going to puncture something as we drove very slowly towards the south. It took a good 15-20 minutes to get down towards the water, but when we came around a small corner you couldn’t miss this incredible site. FYI, you cannot drive to this site anymore! There is a small parking area at the beginning of the gravel road and then you must walk about 45-60 min to the site.

Black Sand Beach

Continuing on we went to Reynisfjara Beach, about five minutes from the tiny town of Vik. Reynisfjara Beach was voted as one of the most ten beautiful non-tropical beaches on Earth. It was easy to see why! There’s a lot to see at this fascinating and eerie beach. In the distance off-shore you can see the Reynisdrangar rock formations, which look like spooky spindles of rock sticking out of the ocean. Legend has it that three trolls were pulling a three masted ship to shore, but were caught at dawn by the sunlight and were turned into rocks.

On the beach there are stunning basalt columns. They were created when magma cooled slowly and then cracked into columns as the surface area decreased. These were just spectacular to look at!

Also in the area of Vik is Dyrholaey. Here we saw views of the empty black sand beach. The Arctic waters crashing on them was a gorgeous sight. We spent some time just taking in the scenery and relaxing.

Exploring Iceland’s South Coast was a wonderful experience.. so much so that we did it twice! It’s a must for any visitor to Iceland. You could spend a few days in the area or make a day trip out of it from Reykjavik. Combine your trip with The Golden Circle and The Westman Islands for a great stay in this gorgeous country.

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Exploring the Westman Islands

The day we arrived in Iceland, our first day, we drove 2.5 hours to the ferry terminal in Landeyjahöfn to head to The Westman Islands, known as Vestmannaeyjar. My cousin, who lived in Iceland, highly recommended that we make a stop there as part of our trip. So off we went, bleary eyed and tired, but full of excitement and adrenaline! Exploring the Westman Islands turned out to be a great decision as we learned so much about this island that we never would have otherwise.

What to See While Waiting for the Ferry

We arrived about two hours before the ferry was due to leave, but knowing this beforehand we had planned to go to the nearby waterfalls of Seljalandsfoss and Gljufrabui. The Icelandic term for waterfall is “foss” and these particular waterfalls did not disappoint. We were able to get up close and personal as we were allowed to climb up and walk behind Seljalandsfoss. The mist of the water sprayed on us as we walked around looking at it from all directions. About 1/3 mile down the path is Gljufrabui, which means “Dweller of the Gorge”. It’s about 40 meters high and because there’s a big rock in front of it, not many people notice it. You can wade through the gorge and jump on the rocks on the river or walk up to the rock and see the top.

Onward to the Island

We drove about 15 minutes to the ferry, parked the car, and walked on. The weather wasn’t the best so we decided to stay in and chill, where we ended up passing out for just about the whole 30 minute trip. The rest of the day is a little bit of a blur. We went right to the hotel, checked in, and had a delicious lunch at a local favorite restaurant. We were so tired we went back to the hotel for a little nap to catch up on some sleep before we had a spectacular dinner.

After getting about 10 hours of sleep (!) we awoke to a gorgeous, sunny, and warm day. Luckily we were able to sleep through the daylight the night before since we brought our eye masks – the hotel (or any other place we stayed for that matter) didn’t have blackout curtains. At this time of year (July 2) the sun doesn’t set until almost midnight and then rises again around 2:45am. During those few hours the sky doesn’t even come close to being black!

A Brief History on the Westman Islands

The Westman Islands are a series of islands south of the mainland formed by eruptions about 10,000 years ago. Only one island, Heimaey, is inhabitable, and it came to international attention with the eruption of Eldfell volcano in 1973. The eruption last about 6.5 months and destroyed about a fourth of the island, while increasing the size about 20%. Luckily, everyone was evacuated quickly so no one was killed. Families came back to the island to rebuild, and now climbing the volcano and visiting the museum is a pretty big attraction there, along with puffin watching.

Exploring the Westman Islands View

Eldfell Hike

After breakfast we set out on a clearly marked path towards the volcano Eldfell. They call this area the “Pompeii of the North” due to so many houses and other structures being buried (and most likely preserved) in mounds of lava. We walked past those memorials of houses and schools that were buried 16 meters below where we stood. We continued to get nice views of the town as we walked through 40 year old lava on either side of us along the way to Eldfell. On our walk we learned that heat from the volcano provided the town of Heimaey with geothermal energy from 1976-1985!

We started the somewhat steep climb on the collapsed northern end of the volcano taking breaks to snap pictures of the gorgeous view.

We made it to the top and wow, what a view! Once we got up there the wind hit us and all we could do was stand out facing the ocean with our arms stretched way out. We could basically see the entire island, including the teeny tiny airport. We were also able to see the other small islands that make up Vestmannaeyjar. This was such an incredible view and a great way to start out week in Iceland.

Eldheimer Museum

We made our way to the town and walked to Eldheimer. This is a museum detailing the 1973 eruption, and life on the island before and after it. The museum incorporates one house that was excavated and is still intact, including toppled household items left behind. The museum is beautifully done and we learned so much about the island.

Before we knew it we had to board the ferry again so we could continue our journey (but not before stopping at a delicious restaurant for some lunch)!

We’re so glad we spent some time exploring the Westman Islands. Plus, we got to learn some history about it that we otherwise wouldn’t have known about! After we disembarked we continued eastward on our Iceland journey. Starting our week with this beautiful island was just what we needed!

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Driving the Golden Circle in Iceland

The Golden Circle is by far Iceland’s most famous attraction. It’s conveniently situated near Reykjavik and stretches for around 186 miles hitting top sights such as Gulfoss Waterfall, Thingvellir National Park, and the Geysir geothermal area. Along the way one can also see the colorful Kerid Crater Lake, Bruarfoss Waterfall, and the Laugarvatn hot springs. Since the Golden Circle is so popular it can get pretty crowded with buses and tourists. But driving the Golden Circle in Iceland doesn’t have to be a crowded mess! When we drove it we did run into crowds in one area, but because of timing and our direction we were able to peacefully enjoy a lot of it!

Kerid Crater

Since we were coming from the east, Kerid Crater was our first stop. Kerid Crater is a volcanic crater lake that has milky blue water and red volcanic rock surrounding it. The pictures don’t do it justice! The singer Bjork actually held a concert in the middle of the lake about 10 years ago. We walked around the rim at the top to get the best views of it, but you can also take stairs down and walk around that way too.

Gulfoss Waterfall

We drove a little bit north and went to Gulfoss Waterfall. The waterfall is on the Hvita River, which is fed by Iceland’s second biggest glacier, Langjokull. It was pretty crowded when we arrived here and we could see why. The falls are very powerful and were rampaging over the sides.

We went out to different view points, all in an attempt to get away from the mobs of people, but it was hard to do. It’s a great stop to have on a tour bus route. but we much prefer the quieter bus-free areas. We did very much enjoy looking at the intense waterfall though!

Geysir Geothermal Park

The next stop was only five minutes away, the Geysir Hot Spring Area. Because we went to the waterfall first (we had passed the hot spring area on the way) we were able to park in a small empty parking lot away from the tour bus area. The hot spring area is a large open area that has more than a dozen hot water blow holes and has been active for more than 1,000 years. Geysir is the original hot water spout after which all other geysers are named. Unfortunately, the original geyser no longer spews water into the air, but Strokkur is a very reliable geyser within the same area that shoots water 50-100 feet every 5-10 minutes. We watched Strokkur blast some hot water into the air a few times!

Laugarvatn Hot Springs

We continued counter clockwise on the Golden Circle and made a planned stop in Laugarvatn. The small town of Laugarvatn is known for its geothermal baths (Fontana) and we wanted to experience them! We stopped for a quick bite to eat and then headed to the baths. The Fontana is a small and intimate area consisting of several choices of shallow and deeper baths, each marked with a temperature rating. You can also go into the lake (with a sign that says “Dangerous Nature”)! And if you’ve had enough of the baths you can go into the sauna that’s fed by a naturally occurring geyser-like vent below.

This was a really nice place to go and unwind after a long day of driving the Golden Circle and sightseeing. The temperature outside was in the 50s and it was nice to sit outside in the hot water and check out the scenery. We also ventured into the lake a little bit, but didn’t go in that far since the bottom was rocky and it was a bit cold!

Driving the Golden Circle - Laugvartn

Thingvellir National Park

Moving on from Laugarvatn, we drove to our last stop of the day, Thingvellir National Park. Because we arrived later in the day, in addition to its large size, we were able to avoid the masses and explore this park in peace. The park has a lot of historical significance as the Vikings established the world’s first democratic parliament here in 930 (Thingvellir means “Parliament Plains”). Now it is a protected national shrine. The national park is also located on two tectonic plates of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and it’s possible to stand (and snorkel) in between the two plates.

There is so much beauty in this park! There were a lot of trails, paths, and other walkable areas for us to explore, as well as a beautiful lookout spot that had a stunning view of the park and surrounding area.

Tips

The Golden Circle is a really popular area to visit in Iceland, and that brings a ton of people. Here are some tips to best enjoy driving the Golden Circle in Iceland:

  • Almost all of the tour buses and large groups drive the Golden Circle in a clockwise direction. If you are driving yourself then drive the circle in a counter clockwise direction. You will avoid a lot of the congestion and large buses!
  • If you go in the summer you have the sunlight for almost the entire day. You can visit these places at 8pm when the tour buses are gone, but there is still plenty of sunlight!
  • Like with any major tourist area, go early in the morning or late in the afternoon.
  • Definitely take time to do some off the beaten path stuff like the Laugarvatn baths we found. It won’t be crowded and it will recharge you for the next part of your Golden Circle trip.

Driving the Golden Circle in Iceland is a quick and efficient way to see the top spots. Even though the sights can get extremely crowded, knowing when and where to go can greatly diminish the amount of people you come into contact with. There are plenty of off the beaten path stops in between the “must sees” and this can all be done in one day. It’s a great thing to add to any Iceland itinerary!

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