Destination: Southern Iceland

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Before I get into specifics about this southern route road trip, it’s important to note that in order to properly experience Iceland, I recommend driving the entire ring road. Driving the ring road non-stop would take around 12-14 hours, however this is virtually impossible given the amount of things you’ll want to stop and see on the way. Trust me, I sat there with my planning hat on, trying to figure out how to squeeze 1,332 kilometers of road into a four day period (three days, if you count the full day I wanted to spend in Reykjavik). Nope.

ALSO before you read this (and I can’t stress this enough), irresponsible tourists are really hurting Iceland’s natural wonders. Please adventure responsibly, respect the rules (if it says no drones that means NO DRONES), don’t risk your safety for a selfie, and do not take pictures in the middle of the road.

{TL;DR} Scroll to the bottom for my four-day itinerary. Based on a handful of things I earmarked on Google Maps and the rest were cool sights along the way. I can’t stress enough how you’ll be driving along and then !!BAM!! a stunning AF waterfall, or flock of sheep that goes on for miles, or terrain that switches from grass to ice to black sand in under a minute.

{TL;DR Part II} Iceland is E-X-P-E-N-S-I-V-E! If you live in New York City, or another expensive city, you’ll probably find the price difference less shocking. That being said, eating a plate of fish & chips from a little diner and paying $35 for it still jarred me. I totally understand why (importing everything is pricey!) but it’s just something to financially prepare for.

And now, the details:

Blue Lagoon

Blue Lagoon

{DAY 1}

You’ll probably arrive at Keflavik International Airport at an ungodly, early hour due to the amount of red eye flights coming into Iceland. This is pretty excellent for a multitude of reasons but my favorite reason is that I can take my tired butt straight over to the Blue Lagoon to relax. If you’re hungry or need caffeine (like me!) the airport has a bunch of little cafés and restaurants that you can pick up a bite or a drink at, like Joe & the Juice.

After a triple espresso and an iced coffee to go, it was time to pick up the rental car. I chose Northern Lights (not sponsored!) as they had the most competitive rates at the time, had the car I wanted (a Suzuki Jimmy), and were easy to book with online. I wrote a post on some tips for renting a car in Iceland that you can read here.

First stop: the Blue Lagoon. This is a pretty divisive stop. Half the people that have been will tell you to avoid it at all costs and the other half will tell you it’s incredible. I’m here to tell you that if you understand what it is (a pool/spa experience) you will definitely appreciate it. If you think it’s some natural phenomenon or whatever, you’ll probably be disappointed.

It’s important to book your time slot/ticket online ahead of time, as things can get busy there. Based on the type of ticket you get, you’ll maybe get a mud mask, some food and drink, or spa treatments. Treat yourself in line with your budget! I recommend starting or ending your Iceland road trip here as a nice, relaxing break from driving/camping/hiking/climbing/etc.

Next stop, a grocery run. (I know you’re sitting there thinking…this chick has just told me to go to the spa and a supermarket. I’m out.) STAY WITH ME ! Like I said , Iceland is pricey. If you’re on that kind of budget where you ball out breakfast, lunch, and dinner, then YEAH, go for it! I am not living that life. If you are in the same boat as me, you’ll appreciate this tip: go grocery shopping to pick up snacks and road trip food, as well as maybe some bread for quick PB&Js. You’ll save a lot on food costs that you can then spend on adventures (like the spur of the moment $350 ice cave adventure we booked). Based on our route, we navigated to a supermarket in Selfoss.

Now that the boring stuff is out of the way, it’s time for some waterfalls.

Seljalandsfoss

Seljalandsfoss

Gljúfrabúi

Gljúfrabúi

Skógafoss

Skógafoss

We first stopped at Seljalandsfoss. Foss equates to waterfall so I just pinned anything on the map with ‘foss’ in it. These falls are easily accessible off the road and you’ll spot it from afar. You can walk behind it (though if it’s even slightly windy, expect to get wet). [Footwear Sidebar: I wore my Doc Martens everywhere and was totally comfortable hiking, climbing, and jumping around everywhere.] Then, when you keep walking past this waterfall, you’ll have to look a little closer to find Gljúfrabúi, a more hidden waterfall. The pictures you see are of everyone climbing up the big slippery rock (be careful). I don’t know what the rules are around the falls now but it’s safe to say that caution should be exercised.

Then, a short drive down the road is Skógafoss, a gigantic waterfall over a rocky cliff. You can walk up to it if conditions are right, or walk up a ton of stairs to see it from the top.

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Next up on our road trip was the DC-3 plane wreck (Sólheimasandur), made famous by Justin Bieber (thanks!!!!!). We were lucky that the site wasn’t overrun. I guess the video came out in 2015 and it’s taken some time to really get the tourists out there… Anyhow, I took a picture sitting on the wing. In hindsight I probably shouldn’t have been putting my body weight on it, considering how fragile the plane is. [Fun Fact: One of our tour guides told us he used to come to the plane wreck as a little kid and shoot bbs at it— later on he’d use it as target practice with a real gun. The bullet holes aren’t from “spies” or anyone shooting the plane down, no matter what people say.]

The planet is super cool to see, though lately I’ve heard there’s been some graffiti and other damage. That being said, prepare for a WALK from where you park your car. It is a long, long walk.

We headed to our hostel in Vik for the night and had dinner in one of a handful of restaurants in town. We got lucky and didn’t have to wait too long for a table at Sudor. Then, after a glass/bottle of wine (thank you, La Guardia Airport, for the duty-free wine deal!) we booked a last minute tour of the ice caves in the area. Off to bed as we now had a 5 AM wake up call. [Tip: While it wasn’t quite the midnight sun just yet (we went at the end of May/beginning of April) it was still bright out at night, so sleep masks were pretty clutch for bedtime.]

The timing of our trip wasn’t ideal for summer weather, and we were at the tail end of Winter/Spring so most of the ice and snow had melted. No tours were running with “ice cave” in the name. Finally after a ton of searching, we found the perfect tour. We read reviews of Katlatrack, and we immediately trusted them completely. This wasn’t a cheap excursion, but if you’re thinking of your safety with melting ice caves…it’s like discount botox. Best avoided. The guides trek out every morning to see what the status is of the caves in the area. As a result, they’re one of the only tour companies that operate year-round ice cave tours.

{DAY 2}

We met our guide, Guðjón (a.k.a. Thor), and set off on our adventure in a modified Land Rover Defender (hello, dream car). He took us out to Myrdalsjökul Glacier, where there was an ice cave that was juuuust big enough for us to walk through.

We donned crampons and followed Thor’s exact footsteps to the ice cave (there’s quicksand and other dangers so following his exact steps is ideal). Iceland’s scenery is unique (and mind blowing) in that it changes every few minutes while you’re driving. We were in an area with pitch black volcanic sand and walking around made it feel like the surface of the moon.

Since the weather was warming up, the gigantic ice caves of Pinterest fame had already melted for the season, so Thor scouted some smaller ones that we could explore. There was a tiny bit of crawling and squeezing through small spaces. I have to say, they did warn that it’s not really an ideal tour for anyone that’s claustrophobic or afraid of the dark (I am afraid of both, lol). With some calming breaths, I was able to appreciate how cool my surroundings were instead of focusing on my anxiety.

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The “road” to Myrdalsjökul Glacier

The “road” to Myrdalsjökul Glacier

The wildly blue and green-toned ice is just as unbelievable in person as it is in the photos you prepare yourself with. It’s vivid and feels like it’s glowing and pulsating around you. Why is the ice blue? Let me allow Glacier Guides to explain it to you:

“The weight of the glacier has compressed the ice over many, many centuries, pushing the air bubbles out. When this happens the ice crystals become larger and very beautiful blue ice is formed, this can resemble deep blue quartz crystal, with the penetrating through, remarkably deep jewel blues and turquoise can show up. Very beautiful blue ice can also be opaque. Algae within the ice will deepen the colors and occasionally produce aquamarine or blue/violet hues. Glacier caves are not solely white and blue, grey, deep anthracite and black ice can appear.” (GlacierGuides.is)

If you’re up for a bit more ice during your Iceland adventure, I suggest going in the depths of winter to experience its frozen majesty. You’ll have bigger glaciers to play on, larger ice caves to walk (not crawl) through, and snowy vistas everywhere you turn.

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After the caves we drove down to the famous Black Sand Beach of Vik, which has been featured in so many movies. Since we took our time with the tour, we quickly grabbed light bites at the gas station (yes, gas station eating in Iceland is a thing and you will appreciate it for its convenience and price point). We had to make it to Höfn by nightfall so we drove with fewer stops.

We did manage to stop at Laufskálavarða, which is the only legal place in Iceland to stack rocks/build cairns.

[SIDEBAR ON CAIRNS & ROCK PILES] Why is stacking a few rocks considered bad? Where is this dislike for cairns coming from? First, it is considered an eyesore. Manipulating nature into a shape you desire is a form of graffiti. It is unnatural and spoils the original landscape that people have traveled to see. Second, it interferes with the immediate flora and fauna of the area. Small organisms, creatures, and plants use rocks for shelter, as something to grow on, etc. Leave the rocks alone, please.

Thank you for coming to my TED Talk on cairns.

Finally, we happened upon a sensible detour via an open F-road. Iceland is famous for its F-roads, which are the names of the roads that go through the mountains and highlands. They are rugged, weather-ravaged, and dangerous at times. They are also closed at times, so please make sure you check ahead of time if you’re planning on driving one. You also MUST be driving a 4x4 vehicle (they are impossible to navigate otherwise, no matter how great of a driver you think you are). Some F-roads have rivers that run through them, which you must drive across slowly and cautiously (especially if you’re in a rental car). Be smart!

The view from one of Iceland’s many F-roads

The view from one of Iceland’s many F-roads

{DAY 3}

We wanted to catch sunrise at Vestrahorn, on the Stokksnes peninsula. This is generally a less-touristy area but we were still hoping to catch the beach and mountain landscape sans people (hence the 5 AM wake up call). When we got there it was pin-drop quiet— the waves were quietly rolling in, birds kept their early morning rowdiness to a minimum, and there wasn’t a single soul out there besides us. It was perfection. We sat and watched the sunrise and hoped the clouds would let us see Vestrahorn in its full glory but unfortunately nature wasn’t on our side.

Vestrahorn

Vestrahorn

Next we took a little, impromptu hike on Hjallanes, one of Iceland’s outlet glaciers. If you visit in the Fall/Winter, you might be able to see herds of reindeer roaming.

One of the reasons I love driving in Iceland is the sheer amount of stuff you see as you’re navigating the ring road. Depending on how much time you have (and who you’re traveling with) you can stop as many or as few times as you’d like. So when we passed Hestgerði Farm we had to stop to see the horses and sheep that were right off the highway. You can pretty much count me in for anything involving horses.

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And now, the pièce de résistance, Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. I had been waiting for this moment ever since I learned anything about Iceland. We got a sneak peek the night before when we drove by but I wanted to see it in full daylight. Thousands of people flock here to see the unique lagoon, which is filled with floating glacier and ice chunks. The nearby beach is affectionately known as Diamond Beach (Breiðamerkursandur), as bits of ice wash ashore and sparkle in the sun much like the beloved jewel.

Unfortunately, when taking in the beauty of Jökulsárlón you have to also acknowledge the role global warming and climate change play. As global temperatures rise, the glacier continues to shrink, causing more ice to fall off into the lagoon, and the lagoon itself increases in size. It has grown at least 4X in size since the ‘70s!

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Black Sand Beach, Vik

Black Sand Beach, Vik

Foss á Síðu marked the halfway point between our drive from Vik to Höfn and it’s not to be missed. This (relatively) smaller waterfall is surrounded by lush, green moss. Because it’s on the smaller side, windy days blow the water upwards and it looks as though the water is flowing backwards! Opposite the falls are Dverghamrar, or “dwarf rocks”. These ominous looking basalt columns are supposedly home to Iceland’s “hidden folk”. We didn’t see any dwarves while we explored but instead almost stepped on one of many, many earthworms that had come out to enjoy the rain. At one point I felt like I was being watched from the shadows and so now there’s a series of photos of me running away from the rocks in fear.

Höfn

Höfn

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Jökulsárlón

Jökulsárlón

After taking in the beauty of the lagoon and watching seals swim playfully around the tour boats, I reluctantly got back in the car to drive on to the next stop: Vatnajökull National Park. We decided to hike through the park to reach Svartifoss, which is in Skaftafell. I believe the leisurely hike took about 90 minutes (just under 3 hours in total to get back to the car), though we stopped to take in the view a few times. The scenery from the hike is incredible and breathtaking— but so is the elevation at times. There are also lots of other trails that lead to less popular parts of the park. If you have the time, I encourage you to explore!

Loftsalahellir

Loftsalahellir

Speaking of exploring, the last stop of the day was an unexpected detour to Loftsalahellir, a large cave that doesn’t really have much of a tourist draw (no people!). I love climbing, running, and jumping around so as soon as I saw the cave on top of the hill, I sprinted up the steep incline to check out the interior. It was filled with bats and birds but the view from the top was worth the very steep climb.

Since it was May, the midnight sun was sticking around. The nice thing about visiting in the Spring/Summer is that you get longer days to explore.

{DAY 4}

When I first decided to go to Iceland, one of the first activities I saw there was snorkeling. Snorkeling? Yup, snorkeling in glacier run-off water between tectonic plates. So we woke up early to drive to Þingvellir National Park and give icy cold snorkeling in Silfra a shot. Spoiler alert: it was everything I imagined and more. The park kicked off our drive around Iceland’s famous Golden Circle.

We saved the Golden Circle for last, mostly due to a lack of interest. Don’t get me wrong— people travel the world to come see the Golden Circle and only the Golden Circle. I have nothing against that— I just know Iceland has so much more to offer.

We knew we were getting close when we saw parking lots full of mega busses. We were there during the “off season” and the parking lots were still overflowing with visitors and tours.

The first stop on our tour de Golden Circle was the Geysir Hot Spring Area to see Strokkur, a geyser that erupts every 15-30 minutes or so.

Our next stop was Gullfoss, one of Iceland’s most recognizable, iconic, and massive waterfalls. The waterfall is viewable all year though some of the viewpoints are closed at certain times. You walk around above the waterfall with some spots getting quite close to the water (you will get wet) and then you can make your way to the lower viewing points.

We then stopped at Skáholt Church and Kerið Crater, a massive, volcanic crater that is also a small lake. Please be aware there is a small entrance fee to see the crater, as it’s on private land and the fee helps cover the maintenance of the attraction.

And then just like that, our road trip through Southern Iceland was over! We made our way to Reykjavik for one last night in the land of Ice & Fire.

Svartifoss

Svartifoss

Snorkeling Silfra

Snorkeling Silfra

 

{ TL;DR? }

ICELAND ITINERARY

Day 1: Thursday

Arrive Keflavik International Airport (KEF)
Pick up rental car (via Northern Lights)
Blue Lagoon <Bláa Lóni>
Kronan Supermarket, Selfoss
[Lunch] Kaffe Krus, Selfoss
Seljalandsfoss
Gljúfrabúi
Skógafoss
DC-3 Plane Wreck, Sólheimasandur
Check in: Puffin Hostel, Vik
[Dinner] Sudor Restaurant

Day 2: Friday

Check out: Puffin Hostel, Vik
Black Sand Beach
Katla Ice Cave Tour
> Myrdalsjökul Glacier
> Black Sand Beach
[Lunch] N1 Gas Station
Laufskálavarða
F206 Road to Laki
Foss á Síðu
Dverghamrar
Jökulsárlon
Check in: HI Hostel, Höfn
[Dinner] Pakkhus, Höfn

Day 3: Saturday

Check out: HI Hostel, Höfn
[Breakfast] Viking Café
Stokksnes
Vestrahorn
Hjallanes / Jon Eriksson Monolith
Hestgerði Farm
Jökulsárlón
Vatnajökull National Park
> Hike to Svartifoss
[Lunch] Vatnajökull Cafeteria
Dyrhólaós Archway (Closed)
Loftsalahellir Cave
Check in: Borealis Hotel
[Dinner] Borealis Hotel

Day 4: Sunday

Check out: Borealis Hotel
[Breakfast] Borealis Hotel Restaurant
Þingvellir National Park
> Snorkeling Silfra
Golden Circle Drive
> Geysir
> Gullfoss
> Skáholt Church
> Kerid Crater
Drive to Reykjavik

For more on Reykjavik, check out my Reykjavik guide.