Waterfalls, geysers, hot springs, volcanos, and black sand beaches. The land of fire, ice, and fascinating geology. An island at the edge of the arctic. Iceland is equal parts fascinating, extreme, and breathtakingly beautiful.
The first time I drove down the Ring Road, I was instantly captivated by Iceland’s ever-changing landscape and fairy tale appeal. The whimsical waterfall landscapes and long stretches of empty road carved through formidable mountain passes were the subject of my daydreams long after I returned home; and I promised myself that Iceland was a place I would visit over and over again. And as promised, this was my second visit to this rugged paradise.
My first visit in 2016 was spent at length, exploring the entirety of the country via the Ring Road. This trip – at 4 days – was far shorter, easily justified by the price of a cheap plane ticket and limited to an itinerary encompassing the best of Iceland’s most famed and extraordinarily diverse southern coast.
Day 1: Chasing Waterfalls
We landed in Keflavik just in time to spend the entire day exploring the ins and outs of the waterfall wonderland that is the south coast. With a map in hand and a general direction in mind, we picked up our car at the airport and headed 2 hours down route 1.
The south coast is popular. And its not hard to see why. Everywhere you look, vibrant green moss blankets volcanically crafted mountains. Glacial meltwater softens the ridges of serrated hillsides. It tumbles over the edges, creating fantastical waterfalls that cast rainbows as the sun bounces off the mist at their base. Icelandic sheep graze in the meadows and pepper the highlands. Their farmer’s homes line the countryside, completely dwarfed by the size of the mountains in their own backyard. Every twist and turn in the winding roads reveal jaw-dropping scenery that appeal to travelers, adventurers, and photographers alike.
Our first stop was the hot pool of Seljavallalaug. Seljavallalaug is the oldest – and definitely one of the prettiest – swimming pools in Iceland. Although the pool is manmade, its filled with natural hot spring water that trickles down the mountains from the ice-capped Eyjafjallajökull volcano.
As a disclaimer: This pool used to be one of Iceland’s best kept secrets, but is now a well known spot thanks to an increase in Iceland tourism. Its pretty common to find crowds of people on any given day during peak season – and unfortunately the crowds have taken their toll on the facilities.
The water? Well, it’s most accurately described as luke-warm (at best). It’s also full of black macro algae as a result of frequent runoff from the volcano.
But we didn’t let the lackluster appeal of the water or the facilities deter us because they don’t distract from how breathtaking the location is. So we went swimming all the same, spending several minutes relaxing in the warmest spots and soaking in the visual feast of the surrounding valley.
The trailhead is located just off Route 1. You’ll turn onto road 242, where you’ll see signs for Seljavellir. Drive down the dirt road until you reach a parking lot. From here, the hike to the pool takes about 15-20 minutes along the rocky valley.
Continuing south, we found our way to Skógafoss, one of Iceland’s biggest and most impressive waterfalls. Clearly visible from Route 1, the waterfall paints a majestic picture of overwhelming power and beauty as it cascades 200 feet into the Skógar River.
The approach to the falls is flat. So flat, in fact, that you can walk right up to it – if you’re willing to get completely soaked. Its a humbling experience to stand so close to a thundering wall of water, so I highly recommend it. Otherwise, you can hike 500 stairs up the side of the falls to an observation deck and hiking trails along the river.
Legend has it that one of the first viking settlers, named Þrasi Þórólfsson, burned a chest full of gold in a cave behind Skogafoss. According to folklore, locals managed to find the chest years later. They grabbed a hold of one of the rings on the side of the chest and forcefully yanked it in an attempt to pull the chest from the cave. But the ring broke off and the treasure was lost forever. The golden ring is now on display in the nearby Skógar Museum.
Almost entirely overshadowed by its well-known neighbor, Seljalandsfoss, Gljúfrabúi is equal parts mysterious and enchanting. Living up to its name – which loosely translates to “Canyon Dweller” – the falls are located in a ravine, partially obscured by the surrounding cliffs.
We followed the small wooden signs from Seljalandsfoss pointing us in the right direction until we arrived at the opening of the cave. Thankful for our waterproof boots, we followed the river into the ravine, half expecting to come face to face with elves or dragons. But instead – and possibly even better – we were faced with this incredible waterfall spilling over the edge of the ravine into a varnish clear pool at our feet.
Day 2: Black Sand and Diamonds
As we continued to make our way east on day 2, we watched as the landscape faded from the lush green mountainside of the southern coast to the windswept volcanic sand plains of the southeast. Our goal this day was to make it all the way up to the base of the east fjords … but the funny thing about Iceland is that it makes it really hard to stick to your plan. You quickly find that every stop takes just a little (or a lot) longer than you anticipated; that you stop (a little too) often to snap pictures from the side of the road; and that you end up making just as many memories during the in-betweens as you do at your actual destination.
But that’s something that I really love about this country. As one dramatic landscape fades seamlessly into the next, you start to realize that sometimes the journey is just as amazing as the destination. So my biggest piece of advice for you is that it’s best to arrive here with just a rough itinerary. Don’t be attached to any outcome, because you’ll want the time to craft your own adventure and you never know what magic you’ll find along the way.
After a few hours of driving and a handful of aforementioned stops along the way, we arrived at Diamond Beach a bit before sunset.
Diamond Beach is arguably one of the most beautiful places in Iceland. As icebergs break off the nearby Breiðamerkurjökull glacier, they make their way into the ocean, where they are then shaped, polished, and artfully arranged by the frigid North Atlantic tides along the shore of the black sand beach. The result is a seemingly-curated and ever-changing collection of extraordinary glacial ice sculptures that glisten like diamonds in the black velvet sand.
And I’d be lying if I said that the beach didn’t live up to the elegance of its namesake. As day turned to dusk, rays of late evening sun traced their way along the shore, casting a soft evening glow over the coastline. Icebergs dazzled and glistened while arctic seals danced in the icy Atlantic tides.
Diamond beach truly is a stunning display of natural art and one that definitely shouldn’t be missed.
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
Jökulsárlón Glacier lagoon is located directly across from Diamond Beach, and a stop you can’t miss if you’re already in the area. It sits beneath Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest glacier, within the boundaries of Vatnajökull National Park, Iceland’s largest national park.
Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon has become one of Iceland’s most visited attractions, due to its captivating beauty and humbling testament to the effects of climate change in the arctic. As the glacier melts and shrinks, icy cold runoff and blocks of ice continue to add to the ever-expanding glacial lagoon. The icebergs in the lagoon eventually make their way out to the Atlantic Ocean, where they are further shaped by the tides and washed ashore Diamond Beach.
Despite our plans to make it further east this day, Greg and I decided to end our day here so we could slow down and enjoy the last hours of daylight. In a bid to avoid the crowds in the main parking lot, we sought out our own little spot at a pull off area down the road, where we strolled down the coast watching the icebergs sway and the tides ripple softly with the wind.
But as the sun dipped below the mountains, we suddenly found ourselves braving howling, gale force winds (think standing in a hurricane while shards of ice hit your skin) as the sky exploded into a sea of fiery sunset hues. We were frozen numb as the wind tried to knock us off our feet; but we were so enthralled by the colors above us that we forgot we were even cold. Vibrant pinks, purples, and yellows painted the sky, clouds swirling over the top of the snow capped mountains in the distance. A moment so surreal that we stopped and stared until the sky went dark.
Day 3: The Golden Circle
I’d be lying if I said this day was anything short of miserable. Intense wind and a late start to the day sabotaged our plans our hike to the hot spring river, Reykjadalur, before continuing west to explore Reykjavik.
But having to make our way back west anyway, we drove toward the Golden Circle. And I’ll preface this with brutal honesty. The first time I visited the Golden Circle, I didn’t love it. I just didn’t understand the absolute mass appeal of it, aside from of its historical significance and the fact that you can scuba dive between continental plates (which is really cool). The majority of the area is flat, bleak, and in my opinion, pales in comparison to the dramatic landscapes of the rest of Iceland.
Nonetheless, our decision to check it out was swayed by this being Greg’s first visit. Because how do you visit a country for the first time without at least stopping by to experience the hype of the area’s most famed points of interest?
Gullfoss is one of the most popular stops along the Golden Circle and considered among the most beautiful waterfalls in Iceland. Cascading through a crevice formed during the Ice Age, it’s volume exceeds 140 cubic meters, making it the largest waterfall by volume in all of Europe.
Enjoy the view from the top of the falls at the visitors center, or walk down the staircase and traverse the path that winds along the banks of the falls to get an up close view.
A 15 minute drive from Gullfoss will transport you from a windy waterfall landscape to a geothermal expanse smelling of sulphur and silica. If I had to choose a favorite spot along the Golden Circle, this would be it.
The Geysir geothermal area has been active for over 10,000 years. Most people come to see Strokkur, the largest geysir. As water seeps down into fissures in the earth’s crust, it’s superheated through its close proximity to magma. The pressure of the superheated water then forces it to the surface, causing Strokkur to erupt over 100ft in the air, reliably every few minutes.
I’ll admit it’s a bit exhilarating to stand in anticipation with the rest of the crowd, eyes glued to the bright blue bubbling hole in the ground. Everyone waits in silence that’s only interrupted by the occasional nervous giggle and quiet chatter. Until finally, the geyser erupts with an incredible whoosh in a massive tower of boiling hot water.
Day 4: The Blue Lagoon
We ended our adventure with a much needed soak in the milky waters of the Blue Lagoon. The steaming lagoon can be seen from miles away. Its ultra-modern architecture stands in striking contrast to the surrounding basalt lava fields of the Reykjanes Peninsula, offering other-worldly views of the breathtaking volcanic landscape.
The Blue Lagoon is expensive and touristy, but definitely worth it. With perfectly opaque water the color of robin eggs, the lagoon is a phenomenon at the interface of science and medicine. Not to mention its arguably one of the most insta-worthy locations in Iceland – and that’s definitely saying something.
But unlike many of the other hot springs in Iceland, the Blue Lagoon is not natural. It’s actually a man-made phenomenon. It’s mineral rich water a biproduct of the geothermal plant next door. There are claims that the water has medicinal properties and provides topical relief of certain skin conditions. Whether its true or not, I don’t really know. But we were more than happy to spend 3 hours soaking in the hot water, drinking at the swim up bar, and slathering on complimentary silica mud masks.
Oh yeah, and we decided to stick around for one last lunch at LAVA Restaurant…because look at it.
The Blue Lagoon is open almost every day of the year, but it attracts so many visitors that you need to book online in advance. I’d recommend booking at least 1 week in advance, regardless of the season. While there is no time limit on your stay once you’re there, we found that about 3 hours in the lagoon was sufficient.
The Blue Lagoon is only a short drive from the airport, so some people prefer to visit as soon as they arrive. However, I’d say to visit right before you head home, for a relaxing and perfect ending to a trip that’s sure to be out of this world.
Where to stay
For southern coast travel
If you plan to travel the the south coast, there are options for hostels, hotels, and AirBnBs in the small towns of Hella, Vik, and Höfn.
For quick stays, days before/after flights, and stopovers
On our last day in Iceland we wanted to stay closer to the airport, so we were incredibly fortunate to have discovered Marijana’s cabin: an ultra-trendy-meets-super-quaint little cabin right next to the Atlantic Ocean on the Reykjanes Peninsula.
Location: 40 minutes to Reykjavik, 10 minutes to the airport, 10 minutes to the Blue Lagoon, and approximately 30 seconds to the ocean
Check in was a breeze and we were warmly greeted by Marijana upon arrival. She invited us into her home where she offered coffee, conversation and her list of favorite restaurants in Reykjavik.
We wished we could have stay to to chat a bit longer, as we learned that Marijana and her husband’s favorite part of hosting on AirBnB is meeting people from all over the world who all have different stories to tell. She says, “…we particularly like to see our country via our guest’s eyes, as they often see things and beauty that we do not notice“.
She told us that the cabin was hand-built by her husband, originally for friends and family, but they decided to share it with outside guests as an a cozy place to relax near the airport….And it really was the first time we got to really relax the entire trip. Snuggled in oversized robes, sipping morning coffee on a cloud bed. Completely warm and cozy while we listened to the wind howl outside and watched the sun rise over the North Atlantic.
As for the inside, the cabin is perfectly detailed, right down to the heated towel rack, eco-friendly hand soap, and the mini travel station full of Iceland travel advice and points of interest. Marijana hasn’t left a single thing out. She and her husband also offer local advice on what to do and places to see. They can also help on planning your itinerary, and tips only locals can offer you.
My Packing List
There’s a saying in Iceland that says, “If you don’t like the weather, just wait 5 minutes”. And, damn, is it true. One time we had rain, snow, sun, gale force winds, golf ball sized hail, and a sky full of rainbows…all within about 5 minutes. So, in short – when asked what to pack – my answer is always: LAYERS.
Still need help? Here’s what I brought with me:
- Red packable down jacket (the color looks great in photos!)
- Rain jacket!
- Waterproof boots
- Smartwool base layers (pants and shirt)
- A down vest
- Two button up shirts
- Tank tops to layer
- Water-resistant hiking pants
- 1 pair of jeans
- My Icelandic wool sweater (that I bought at Litla Lopasjoppan two years ago!)
- A big scarf – doubles as a blanket in the car
- Power converter
- First aid kit
- Packable towel
- Day pack with waterproof cover
- all associated gear accessories/chargers/personal items