Iceland has skyrocketed in popularity as a tourist destination in recent years, with numbers more than quadrupling since 2010. Most visitors are drawn to the country’s striking natural wonders as we were for our recent five-day South Iceland road trip. The words “pretty” and “amazing” stopped having meaning we used them so often during our visit. With so much stunning scenery waiting around every turn, I must say it is one of the few places in the world that has truly taken my breath away.
When to Travel to Iceland
Summer is peak season for visitors to Iceland with around 30% also now touching down in Winter. We decided to visit in Autumn (late September) which meant there was a greater chance we would see the Northern lights and while all the sights were still accessible, avoiding peak season meant we also avoided the biggest tourist swell. From October, several areas and roads are closed due to bad weather conditions.
South Iceland Road Trip
I travelled to Iceland with a good friend of mine from Los Angeles. With only five full days on the road to explore Iceland we wouldn’t have made to all the sights we wanted to see without a lot of careful planning. Following this itinerary means you will spend a lot of time driving and eating lunch in the car or at a scenic rest stop but you will cover a lot of spectacular sites.
Thingvellir National Park | Bruarfoss | Geysir & Strokkur | Gullfoss | The Secret Lagoon
Landmannalaugar – In the Iceland Highlands
Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon | Hike on Svínafellsjökull glacier in Vatnajökull National Park
Jökulsárlón | Svartifoss in Skaftafell
Hjörleifshöfði Cave | Skogafoss | Seljalandsfoss | Gljufurarfoss
How to Get to Iceland
We landed in Reykjavik international airport late in the evening. From there we took a Gray line transit bus to Reykjavik city (40 minute drive) and checked in to a hotel, excited to start our Iceland adventure.
Day 1 – The Golden Circle and the Northern Lights
We got up early, excited to get started and picked up our rental car; a regular 4×4. If you want to drive into the highlands of Iceland you will need a 4×4. Book one with high suspension as you might be crossing small unbridged rivers.
After picking up our rental car, we went grocery shopping so we would have something to eat on the road. There are not many shops on this road trip, so make sure you carry enough food and water with you and ensure you fill up with gas when you pass through a village.
We chose the road from Reykjavik towards The Golden Circle, which is a sightseeing route near Reykjavik where you’ll find several sites very close to each other.
Thingvellir National Park
The first stop on The Golden Circle route is Thingvellir National Park. Here, the two tectonic plates; ”the North American” and the ”Eurasian” plates have created a massive crack in the landscape. You can take a guided dive in between the plates, the Silfra fissure, but this will take about three hours of your time and you’ll need more than a day to cover The Golden Circle as well.
Our next stop was Bruarfoss. Getting there was a bit tricky as Bruarfoss isn’t well-known, just yet. But, we had seen pictures of this beautiful waterfall and had to see it in person.
From Reykjavik, driving towards the Geysir on route 37, take a left on a road, which leads up to a summerhouse area. The turn is just after route 355 connects to route 37. When driving up towards the cottage area, there is a small parking area. Park there and walk further up the road, keeping to the left. You will come to an open area with bushes. Keep walking straight on the small path between the bushes. Then, you will arrive at this sign by a bridge. Cross the bridge and stay on the path. You will find several paths between the bushes, which are higher than yourself. Ignore them and just keep going, but stay to the left. Keep going left. Then, you’ll suddenly hear the noise of a cascading waterfall. The walk takes about 10 to 15 minutes.
The icy blue colours of the river running through a deep cut in the landscape was so mesmerising that we spent far more time at Bruarfoss than we had planned. The waterfall in itself wasn’t spectacular, but it was that blue melting water and rough stream that was so fascinating. We went down to take a sip of the water and more pictures before leaving. As this waterfall is not well-known yet you will likely only be enjoying this scenery with a handful of tourists.
Geysir and Strokkur
Geysir (where all geysers get their name) isn’t a very active geyser these days, but Strokkur, which is right next to it, goes off every 5-10 minutes so you are guaranteed a show. I had never seen a geyser before, so this was the first time experiencing this phenomenon. I have to say that after two-three “explosions” I was ready to move on. Though it was definitely fun to watch and I wouldn’t have been without it. I also stood in the steam of another inactive geyser hole, and kept warm while looking at the geyser which I would recommend too.
Gullfoss was the third stop on our Golden Circle trip. A massive waterfall, Gullfoss is a very popular stop, so expect to come across a lot of tourists and photographers there. You can get very close to the waterfall, but make sure you have a rain jacket, rain pants and rain boots to wear as you will get wet. We were not fully dressed for that occasion so we stopped as soon as we could feel the wet mist coming at us. I wished we had known this, cause I think it would have been a fun experience.
The Secret Lagoon
The Secret Lagoon was our final stop on Day one. We could not wait to take a dip in the hot water and relax after a long and wonderful day on the road. Situated just off route 30 going south towards Selfoss, a native Icelander recommended we go here instead of the very popular Blue Lagoon. It was pitch dark when we went into the hot lagoon. After a long day, it is just what our bodies and minds needed. Suddenly we heard a gasp from some of the other guests in the lagoon. We looked around, and then mirrored everyone else and looked up. The Northern Lights were dancing above our heads! My friend and I looked at each other and couldn’t believe out luck. Above us was a long stretch of green lights dancing before our eyes. This was a perfect end to an amazing first day in Iceland. We spent the night in Selfoss.
Day 2 – The Iceland Highlands
Landmannalaugar is situated in the highlands of Iceland. There are two roads leading into Landmannalaugar area, one will get you there faster but it’s also rougher. The other is a bit longer, but better maintained and that’s the one we chose, entering Landmannalaugar from the north. The road is predominantly dirt and gravel, so expect lots of bumps on the way. The area resembles what I imagine a newly discovered planet would be like; No trees or bushes, only grass and moss. The dirt is black from the ashes and some places it can be hard to see the road markings. So, I would highly recommend only driving in this area in the daylight, or you might get lost. There are almost no signs.
The landscape in the highlands is breathtaking. You will feel like stopping at every corner. There are several places where you can stop and enjoy the scenery, but don’t drive off-road, as you will destroy the fauna. Stick to the designated viewpoints. The drive in took about 3 hours because we stopped so many times. The return route took about two hours.
Our final destination in Landmannalaugar was a campground. If you have enough time, you can camp in your car or tent and spend several days hiking around the area. We only had time for a short hour-long hike up a mountain so we could get back on the road before dark. Even if you are short on time, try to spend at least a day in this area. It’s the most unusual piece of nature I have ever seen.
We drove back towards Selfoss and further down the route 1 to a small town called Vik where we spent the night. We settled in with a beer before bed to help bring us back to Earth, after feeling like we had spent the day on Mars.
Day 3 – Up On the Ice
Our first stop on day three was the Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon, a 100 meters deep canyon that stretches two kilometres long. It is narrow and sheer and there is a beautiful waterfall at the end flowing into a deep blue pool. There is a light layer of green fauna on the rocks, as if it had snowed, only with green moss. We spent about an hour here, before heading towards out next stop; a hike on a glacier.
Svínafellsjökull Glacier Hike
We drove towards Skaftafell, which is an area in Vatnajökull National Park to hike the Svínafellsjökull glacier. A guided tour with Mountain Guides cost about 33.800ISK (about $AUD42) for two people for a four hour glacier hike.
As we approached the Skaftafell Visitors Centre the weather wasn’t great. It was foggy and raining. We thought the hike might be cancelled but the guide at the visitor centre said it was going to clear up. We got our gear on, went on a bus towards the glacier and as we stepped onto the glacier with our cramp-ons strapped to our feet, the sun started to shine on us. Again, we couldn’t believe our luck.
Our guide was pleased with the whole group and our speed, so he said he was going to take us on the longer tour. We got to see where the glacier had once been, only a few years back. Now, there were only pools of brown water and massive rocks carried by the glacier ice. The guide for our group had been hiking this glacier for many years, and he said the melting speed was only increasing. We were seeing physical evidence that climate change is real. We came across a “Moulin” or a well-like shaft that forms within a glacier. Moulins can be small or large and melt away within weeks. Luckily, we were fortunate enough to see one and walk through it. It was a breathtaking moment. The clear blue ice, which surrounded us, was truly amazing.
After a fantastic experience on the Svínafellsjökull glacier, we drove to Hotel Laki. There aren’t many places to stay around Vatnajökull National Park. The hotel was fine, but some of the rooms were clearly put together very fast to keep up with the demand for accommodation for tourists. We paid about 18.000ISK for a twin bed room. Normally, you would expect more of the room for a price like this, but in Iceland, those are the prices you should expect for a standard hotel room.
Day 4 – Glacier Lagoon and Waterfalls
We had a slow start on day four. We were tired after the first few days of fun experiences and lots of walking. We slept in and had a nice big breakfast at the hotel. The breakfast buffet at Hotel Laki was very good. There were many healthy options, they even had freshly made fruit smoothies.
Our first stop on day four was Jökulsárlón, the glacier lagoon. This is a popular spot, so expect lots of tourist buses when you arrive. Here you’ll see pieces of the glacier, waiting to be carried out into the sea. Some of the ice blocks are lying on the black sand beach, looking like diamonds; a photographers dream. Unfortunately, the weather was really bad during our visit so our view was impeded by fog and rain. Nonetheless, the glacier ice in the lagoon was very pretty and absolutely picture-worthy.
This waterfall is situated in the same area as where we went on our glacier hike: Skaftafell, Vatnajökull National Park. Svartifoss is only half an hour hike into the national park from the Visitors Centre. You walk through lush fauna which in looks amazing in Autumn.
The waterfall is surrounded by columnar hexagonal formations, which are made when lava cools down slowly which then allows the rocks to crystalise. That’s the theory, but looking at the results was something else. Laws of nature are hard to understand sometimes and this was one of those moments. It was incredible. Walk down to the visitor centre by taking the alternate route on the other side of the river as you will pass the viewing platform.
We settled back into the car, wet and cold, but happy to have made the journey up to Svartifoss and back. The day was over and we hurried to Kirkjubæjarklaustur for the night.
Day 5 – The Most Amazing View
On the final day of our South Iceland road trip we planned to see three waterfalls (Skogafoss, Seljalandsfoss and Gljufurarfoss, which were all on our way back to Reykjavik but we found enough time to visit Hjörleifshöfði Cave last-minute too which became one of the highlights of our trip.
Hjörleifshöfði Cave is essentially a 221-metre high rock, lying on the edge of the black sand beach. The directions on a board told us to walk up one way and down another way, clockwise. The path is clearly marked, so don’t worry, you won’t get lost. On top of this rock is the resting place of Iceland second settler, Hjörleifur Hróðmarsson. He was the brother of Ingólfur Arnarson who was the first Viking who settled there around 874 AD.
As you hike up the rock, you get to enjoy the view of Mýrdalsjökull glacier, and Katla volcano. When reaching the top, you’ll see the sign next to the stone burial mound of Hjörleifur Hróðmarsson. Surrounding it, is the most breathtaking 360 degree view featuring the glacier on one side and the black sand beach and ocean on the other. The landscape stretches as far as the eye can see. It was breathtaking and well worth the 40-minute climb up the rock.
Walking down, we followed the narrow animal trails until we reached the remains of an old farmstead. The setting was noticeably peaceful. There wasn’t any wind, birds singing or cars. Only absolute stillness. This is something, which we almost never experience these days, and it honestly felt a little strange at first. We decided to take advantage and settled into the grass gazing at the view of the ocean, while listening to complete silence. It was en experience which I wish I could go back to, when the noise of the world is too much.
When we arrived at the bottom we were at the edge of the rock facing the sea and decided to walk on to the black sand beach. We noticed a peculiar cave. Once again, Iceland made us, not only drop our jaws, but also laugh. The cave entrance was shaped like Yoda. It’s a fun place to take pictures, but there is nothing to see inside the cave.
Skogafoss was the first of three waterfalls we would see on our last day. The waterfall is 60 metres high, often casting two rainbows nearby on sunny days. We walked up the stairs to see the waterfall from above, since we were pressed for time and we were happy we did as standing on the edge of the waterfall gave a better appreciation for the force the water generated, rushing over the cliff’s edge.
We only had to make one more stop since the last two waterfalls were in the same area with five minutes walk between.
Seljalandsfoss, is one of the most photographed waterfalls in Iceland. It is 65 metres high and the mist from the waterfall requires you wear at least a raincoat if you want to get close, and you should get close. There is a path, which carries you right behind the waterfall. You can watch the massive cascades of water dropping into the pool from behind the waterfall. We didn’t know it, but we had the perfect timing, cause when we got to the waterfall, the sky cleared and the sunset made the view complete. I felt like standing there, watching the sunset on our last day in Iceland, but we had another waterfall to see, plus you get quite cold and wet standing behind a waterfall.
The next waterfall, Gljufurarfoss was hidden inside a canyon. We stood, peeking into the canyon, trying to see if we would walk inside without getting our feet soaked. Of course, someone had carefully placed rocks to step on, all the way, so we made the journey inside the canyon to experience Gljufurarfoss, close up. This waterfall was, luckily, not as powerful as Seljalandsfoss. If it had been, then we would have been soaked. Bring a waterproof camera or bring your smart phone in a waterproof bag if you want to take pictures, otherwise it will get very wet.
We watched the sun set completely while driving back to Reykjavik. Driving back with a feeling of being filled with an adventure, which left us awestruck and grateful to be able to experience Iceland’s magnificent and very unique natural beauty. It is one place, that should be on your bucket list if it isn’t already.