Iceland is a country of extremes: it’s the most sparsely populated European country with a population of approximately 330,000 people (mostly in the capital of Reykjavík), but it hosted over 2,000,000 foreign visitors in 2017.
It has long been in the top 15 wealthiest nations as measured by GDP per capita, which was USD$70,000 in 2017. Relative to the size of its economy, Iceland’s financial crisis in the 2008 “Great Financial Crisis” was the largest in the world, with its three largest banks (Glitnir, Landsbanki and Kaupthing) all collapsing. It then boasted one of the speediest recoveries on record, returning to growth in 2011. In 2018, it was ranked as the sixth most developed country in the world by the United Nations’ Human Development Index, and it ranks first on the Global Peace Index [Wikipedia].
What attracted us to Iceland is its stark but dramatic landscape of volcanoes, geysers, hot springs and lava fields. We have a week to explore this fascinating country, as we take the Ring Road around the island…
- When to go (and for how long!)
- Getting there and around
- Food & Accommodation
- Our Itinerary
When to go (and for how long)
It’s never hot in Iceland… and it gets pretty cold in winter. So it’s not surprising that almost half of Iceland’s tourists visit in the summer months of June-August. The days are long, with the midnight sun being experienced between mid-May and early August. The downside is you won’t see the northern lights, and some of the more popular tourist attractions (epecially around Reykjavík) get fairly crowded.
July and August are the best months for hiking, as there may still be snow lingering until mid to late July (and you may still be luck in September to early October).
Between May and September is best for whale watching, and by late-September you also have a decent chance of seeing the Northern Lights. Personally, I would recommend May or September to avoid the crowds and to have a chance of seeing the northern lights, and September if you want to go hiking.
Getting to Iceland
We flew into Reykjavík (Keflavík International Airport) from Paris, and then flew back to London. There are regular flights between Iceland and Europe, the UK and the US – in fact, 20 airlines provide direct flights from over 80 cities. As well short-stay holidays becoming increasingly popular, because Iceland is located midway between North America and Europe it’s also becoming a stopover point for transatlantic journey with some airlines offering free stopovers. You’re most likely to arrive at Keflavík Airport (KEF), Iceland’s largest international airport, although some other smaller airports (Ísafjörður, Egilsstaðir, Akureyri, and Reykjavík Domestic Airport) also host international flights.
Food & Accommodation
The food is world-class in Reykjavík, where you’ll find a range of restaurants across different cuisines. What you won’t find is a McDonalds – or a Starbucks – the only McDonalds restaurant closed in 2009 and the last cheeseburger and fries sold in Iceland is exhibited in a hostel in Reykjavík.
Once you leave Reykjavík the food is still good, but you’ll generally have a limited choice and it was sometimes challenging with kids to find something they would eat. Fish, whale or reindeer… although since our visit, Icelandic whaling has mostly ceased. Minke whale meat is often served in restaurants with the suggestion that it’s a traditional Icelandic dish, but in reality about 1% of households eat whale on a weekly basis.
There is a wide range of accommodation across Iceland, especially around the major tourist attractions – we generally stayed in self-contained cabins or guesthouses. It’s best to pre-book, as it can get very busy in summer and some places will close in winter or off-season. We generally found guesthouses and restaurants catered to tourists well info the shoulder seasons, compared to Norway a few years later where it felt like we were staying in ghost towns!
Neither food or accommodation is cheap… Iceland is ranked in the top 5 most expensive country in the world.
The general plan is to follow Route 1 (Ring Road) around the Iceland, allowing a bit more time to explore the south. We have seven days, which means about 120 miles / 200km per day excluding side-trips. This was enough time – but you could easily spend two weeks without getting bored – especially if you’re planning on doing some hiking.
Day 1: Golden Circle [325km]
Arriving into Iceland on a Thursday we drive straight into Reykjavík, making an early start on Friday for the “Golden Circle”. A popular day trip, the route takes in Thingvellir National Park, the Haukadalur valley geysers (Strokkur and Geysir) and the famous Gullfoss waterfall. Rather than coming back to Reykjavík, we then continue east to Lambafell on our way around the island.
We don’t spend long in Reykjavic, stopping briefly to have a look at Hallgrímskirkja, a Lutheran (Church of Iceland) church that’s among the tallest structures in Iceland. Designed in 1937 to reflect Iceland’s landscape, it took 41 years to build the church, with the nave consecrated in 1986.
Then it’s onto the highway, heading north-east on the deserted road to Thingvellir.
One of Iceland’s most popular attractions, Thingvellir (or Þingvellir to use the correct Icelandic spelling) lies in a rift valley where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet.
This has resulted in some dramatic fissures and cliffs that demonstrate inter-continental drifting.
As well as the geological aspect of Thingvellir, it was the site of Iceland’s open air parliamentary assembly (Alþing) held annually here from around 930 AD to 1798. As a result of this cultual history, Thingvellir is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Next stop is the highly active Geysir Hot Spring Area, featuring boiling mud pits and exploding geysers… The term “geysir” is derived from the Icelandic verb geysa (“to gush”), and Old Norse verb. Active for active for approximately 10,000 years, it was the great Geysir here that gave its name to hot springs all over the world.
There are around thirty much geysers and hot pools in the area, including Litli Geysir (‘Little Geysir’).
The most impressive geyser is Strokkur, which erupts on a pretty consistent schedule – every few mimutes – with the water reaching heights of up to 30 metres.
A short walk up to the top of the fairly barren and red-coloured vocanic ridge provides a view over the Geysir Hot Spring Area to the east and the Hvítá River to the west.
Then it’s back on the road, heading further north to Gullfoss.
There’s just one unscheduled shop: our daughter is besotted with the Icelandic horses that are a common site. A breed of horse developed in Iceland, they are more pony-sized than the horses we are used to, and we find them without exception to be friendly and interested in company!
Gullfoss is the last of the “Big Three” Golden Circle attractions – and it’s impressive. The Hvítá river cascades over a wide curved three-step “staircase”, before plunging in two stages into a 32-metre deep crevice.
A walking path descends to the top of the lower falls, where you can feel the power of the water as it surges over the rocks into the narrow crevice.
We continue from here down Route 30 until it joins Route 1, when rather than completing the loop back to Reykjavík we turn left (east) onto Route 1 (Ring Road). We’ve got one last stop for the day (well, one official stop and another Icelandic horse-greeting stop), which is a short detour off Route 1.
Gluggafoss / Merkjárfoss
Gluggafoss is the official name of this waterfall, although it’s also recognised as Merkjárfoss. The most prominent of a series of waterfalls on the Merkjá River, Gluggafoss has a total height of about 52m with an upper drop of 44 m into a narrow recess and a wider drop of 8.5m across three main channels.
We’re here fairly late in the day and have the waterfall to ourselves; a walking path goes past the lower falls and up to the base of the upper falls. The upper falls have carved a channel through stratified palagonite or tuff (heavily compacted ash, sand, and boulders) which is easily eroded, leading to the distinctive Gluggafoss geology of holes, arches and tunnels.
From here it’s a short drive to reach today’s desination at Lambafell.
Day 2: Around Vik [160km]
We’re staying two nights at the Welcome Hotel Lambafell, near the foot of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano. Behind the guesthouse are the jagged foothills of Eyjafjallajökull; the scenery is pertty spectacular, even without leaving the hotel.
Directly to the west is the historic farm and now museum, Þorvaldseyri .After the most recent eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010, Þorvaldseyri was devastated by the ash that killed crops and affected livestock, and exhibition on the eruption was opened to provide some additional income.
We’re initially back-tracking a little, returning down the Ring Road to Seljalandsfoss. A waterfall with a drop of 60m, it’s formed by the Seljalands River, which originates from a glacier on Eyjafjallajökull. As with many other waterfalls along the south coast, the river plunges over the cliffs of the former coastline – with the the ocean having receded by about five kilometres, these “sea-cliffs” run parallel to the ocean for hundreds of kilometres.
Seljalandsfoss is one of the most popular waterfalls in Iceland, as it’s one of a small number where you can walk behind the falls. We’ve arrived pretty early, so there’s just a handful of other people here.
Along the side of Route 1 is the Shed at Sauðhúsvöllur, built in 1948 and used until 1963 to shelter milk cans. These were fairly common across Iceland, although most have been removed or are in poor condition.
It’s not long before another waterfall stop… this time Skógafoss, one of the biggest waterfalls in Iceland with a width of 25m and a drop of 60m. The waterfall has also been used as the location of a number of movies, including Thor: The Dark World and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. It’s also pretty busy today, but not crowded.
At the eastern side of the waterfall, a hiking trail leads up to the top of the falls and continues to to the Fimmvörðuháls Pass between the glaciers Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökul.
Skógafoss is equally impressive from the top of the falls as from the bottom, with its signature rainbow.
Continuing along the Ring Road, we continue to Vik, the largest settlement in the area – and the only town around for over 50km in each direction. One of the local and most photographed attractions is the Vik i Myrdal Church: the red-roofed church was completed in 1934 and also serves as the areas’ evacuation spot.
Like many beaches along Iceland’s south coast, the Black Sand Beach (a short walk down from the village) has black sand formed by lava from the nearby Katla volcano. The lava cools down so rapidly when reaching the sea that it instantly breaks down into debris and sand. In the distance is Reynisdrangar, basalt sea stacks that are said to have once been trolls trying to pull ships from the ocean to shore, before dawn broke on the horizon and the trolls were turned into solid stone.
From Vik, we head back up to Route 1 and then down to Reynisfjara, another beach that lies just to the west. On the way, we see a huge flock of sheep being herded across the huge grass slopes that lie below the jagged peaks just inland from the coast.
Not just another beach, Reynisfjara is considered one of the most beautiful black sand beaches in the world. (National Geographic voted Reynisfjara as one of the Top 21 beaches in the world.) The beach is surrounded by towering cliffs, sea caves and basalt columns, which has made it a another popular Icelandic filming location (including Game of Thrones and Star Wars ).
One of the unique aspects of Reynisfjara beach are the hexagonal basalt columns, formed when lava cooled over a period of time in a process called columnar jointing. They vary from 0.5-1 metre in diameter and can be up to 20 metres tall.
At the western end of the beach and at the base of the Reynisfjall mountain is a basalt cave (Hálsanefshellir), which is surrounded by these basalt columns.
From the top of Dyrhólaey, a naturally formed sea arch to the west of Reynisfjara beach, there’s a view of another sea stacks just off the coast, with the Reynisdrangar sea stacks in the distance.
The views along the rugged coastline and the rock formations are pretty impressive; swimming is not allowed at any of the beaches around here due to rogue waves (or “sneaker waves” in local lingo), with the next stop from here if you head south into the ocean being Antarctica. This makes for some fairly intensive weathering action on the coastline!
Our last stop on the way back to our accommodation is the Sólheimajökull glacier, an outlet glacier of the huge Mýrdalsjökul icecap. It’s fairly accessible even with a 2WD car, with a car park near the foot of the retreating glacier.
Iceland’s fourth largest ice cap (nearly 600 square kilometres), it offers glacier hiking, ice climbing and ice caving… as we’re not doing a tour and don’t have any specialist equipment, we settle for a short “self-guided hike” with the kids.
We don’t cover a lot of distance, but it’s fun for the kids experiencing the sensation of walking on the frozen ground and playing with thousand-year-old ice from the glacier!
Then it’s back to our second and last night at in Lambafell, for some star-gazing, as we wait hopefully for a glimpse of the aurora borealis.
Day 3: Mýrdalsjökull Glacier and Jökulsárlón [248km]
Today we’re heading a bit further east, allowing a full day to explore the Mýrdalsjökull Glacier and Jokusarlon. Our first stop, just off the main road, is a Snowmobile Tour with Arcanum Adventure Tours.
After a short briefing, we’re given warm winter overalls and helmets, ready for our snowmobile tour.
The tour takes us to the top of the Mýrdalsjökull glacier, which is an icecap covering Katla, one of Iceland’s largest (and active) volcanoes. The view from the top isn’t overly impressive, both due to the weather being a little overcast, and it’s more of a huge dome than a summit. Still, it’s fun to walk around the snow which is up to 30m deep, on top of the glacer which is about 75m in depth.
There’s a better view as we speed back down the glacier, of the rugged terrain and barren landscape beyond the icecap.
After the tour, I’ve got time for a quick walk up to the hills overlooking Vik, for a last look at the coastal town and black sand beaches.
Then we’re back in the car and continuing east along the coast, with the road mostly to ourselves. Out next stop is not really planned: the Ring Road goes directly through Iceland’s Eldhraun lava fields, near Kirkjubæjarklaustur village (another easy-to-pronounce Icelandic name!). Created during the Laki eruption in the late 18th century, it’s the largest lava flow in the worl,d with the 1783 and 1784 eruptions releasing a total of 14.7 km3 of lava from a 25-km-long fissure.
There’s a short walk through the lava field, which covers around 560 square kilometres, with the lava covered by soft green moss to create a surreal landscape.
After the picturesque lava fields we stop to admire Foss á Síðu (Foss a Sidu), a narrow but tall waterfall formed by the Fossá river plunging over a basalt cliff.
A short distance further and right by the side of the Ring Road are some nice cascades set against a backdrop of towering cliffs.
As the road continues it crosses some massive flood plains at the base of the massive Vatnajökull glacier. The jökulhlaup, or glacial flood, is a regular feature of this area of Iceland; in 1996 severe floods washed away a number of the bridges.
We reach Jökulsárlón in the afternoon, with time for a quick look at the glacial lake before our tour. Situated at the head of the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier, Jökulsárlón developed into a lake once the glacier started receding from the edge of the Atlantic Ocean in the 1930s. Behind the lake is the huge ice cap, which rises to a height of 910m.
Jökulsárlón consists of sea water and freshwater as it connected to the ocean, giving the lake its unique colour; the icebergs are composed of ice that is over 1,000 years old.
We’ve got about an hour to wander around before our amphibian boat tour, which gets us closer to the icebergs and hopefully the wildlife (seals live in the lake year-round). Commercial tours started in 1985, after the premiere of the James Bond movie A View to a Kill which was filmed at Jökulsárlón, and there are now four of the funny-looking amphibian boats. (The James Bond film, ‘Die Another Day’, was alsio filmed here, 17 years later.)
The “boat” drives into the water, and we’re soon sailing among the huge icebergs. Many of the icebergs have a deep blue hue, a result of the highly compacted ice absorbing red wavelengths and only reflecting blue wavelengths.
Midway through the 40min tour, the guide passes around some of the 1000 year old ice, accompanied by some commentary.
Although the icebergs are scenery are the staff of the show, we we manage to spot a few seals, as well as many birds making their home on the icebergs.
We’re staying close to Jökulsárlón at Guesthouse Gerði for two nights, so after the tour we spend a bit more time wandering along the lake, with the late afternoon light and overcast weather bringing out the the blue colour of the icebergs.
Day 4: Jökulsárlón
We’ve got a full day at Jökulsárlón, so we’re back at the morning for another look at the iceberg-filled lake.
Once the icebergs have calved from the glacier, they eventually drift towards the river mouth, under the Jökulsárlón Bridge and out to sea. (The bridge, constructed in 1966-7, spans the outfall river from the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon – you can’t drive along the south coast of Iceland without passing over this bridge.)
Many of these icebergs are then washed by the tide onto the nearby black sand beach, which is sometimes referred to as “diamond beach” because of ice chunks scattered on the sand. It creates a very surreal landscape withe long beach covered in glistening icebergs of different shapes and sizes.
One of Skaftafell’s shortest walks, the track to Skaftafellsjökull runs from the Visitor Centre to the front of the Skaftafellsjökull glacier.
The gravel path goes through low scrub, including sub-arctic mountain birch, and moss-covered rocks. While it’s a somewhat stark and almost barren landscape, it’s also quite colourful with the birch leaves changing colour.
At the end of the path is a view of the icy tongue of Skaftafellsjökull, an outlet glacier next to Skaftafell mountain. The ice runs down a deep valley from the north part of Öræfajökull glacier, and is about 10km long and 2km wide.
On the way back to our hotel, we make one last stop to admire the ever-changing landscape of Jökulsárlón, and spotting some seals swimming near the shore.
It’s a view you could never get tired of… if you’re following the Ring Road around Iceland, make sure you allow a full day to explore this area.
Day 5: Jökulsárlón to Husavik [520km]
Today’s the first of two long driving days, as we cross the eastern part of Iceland to reach Husavik on the northern coast. We see our first reindeer – they are not native to Iceland, but were introduce in the 18th century. Most attempts to introduce reindeer farming were a complete failure, and the only animals which managed to prosper were those released in the Eastfjords (the population in the mountains of the Eastfjords and Central Highlands numbers 6-7,000 reindeer).
The Ring Road follows the coast fairly closely, and although we don’t have time for extended stops the scenery is impressive despite the slightly overcast weather.
As we pass the Hvalnes Lighthouse, between Höfn and Djúpivogur, the landscape gets even more dramatic with the Ring Road traversing the side of of a steep, rocky slope.
A bit further is Lækjavik, a nature reserve with a lonely sea stack (Starmyri Basalt Dalkur) in the middle of the black sand beach.
We have a brief top at the coastal town of Djúpivogur, before continuing along the Ring Road.
Just after Djúpivogur we turn off the Ring Road onto Route 939, a steep gravel road that crosses the Öxi pass. Near the start is Folaldafoss, a waterfall formed by the Berufjarðará River that’s visible from the road. (There is a path to the base of the falls which takes about half an hour, but we didn’t have time to do this.)
The scenery is pretty spectacular, with views down to the coast behind us and sheer vertical cliffs ahead. Route 939 has an average gradent of 17%, but is suitable for 2WD cars.
Route 939 is only about 20km in length before it meets Route 95, which eventually re-joins Route 1 (the Ring Road) at Egilsstaðir. Route 95 is also unsealed, but much less steep and easier to drive on.
Once we’re back on the sealed Route 1, the road goes through the Jökuldalur valley, passing the Rjúkandi waterfall. It’s one of the few major waterfalls in the north part of of Iceland that you can see from the Ring Road.
The landscape starts to get a lot more stark as we traverse the less populated north-east corner of Iceland.
There’s also a lot more snow now alongside the road, which makes for some fun roadside stops with the kids.
Just before the turn-off to the Detifoss waterfall is the impressive Grímsstaðir Bridge over the large river Jökulsá á Fjöllum, sometimes called the “Golden Gate Bridge of the Highlands”. (The main claim to fame of the nearby settlement of Grímsstaðir is that its weather station holds the low-temperature record for Iceland of -38°C.)
Shortly after the bridge we turn onto Route 862, a side-trip to the Detifoss waterfall. The road up to Detifoss stands out in stark contrast to the snow-covered landscape, and is only cleared as far as Detifoss. (Route 862 provides access to Dettifoss all year; the alternate and unsealed Route 864 is passable only in summer, but arguably provides a better vantage point.)
There’s only a handful of people around, as we take the well-trodden path through the snow to the falls.
Dettifoss is reputed to be the second most powerful waterfall in Europe after the Rhine Falls (Wikipedia). It’s situated on the Jökulsá á Fjöllum river (the same one we crossed earlier on the “Golden Gate Bridge of the Highlands”) which flows from Vatnajökull glacier.
It’s the largest waterfall in Iceland in terms of volume discharge, with the falls being 100 metres and dropping 44 metres into the Jökulsárgljúfur canyon.
As we can’t continue north up Route 862, we head back to the Ring Road and past Myvatn, a shallow lake situated in an area of active volcanism. We don’t have time to look around here, but stop briefly to take a photo of Námaskarð. A narrow geothermal pass between the mountains Námafjall and Dalfjall, Námaskarð is geothermal landscape of hot sulfuric mud springs and steam vents.
From here there’s just an hour or so to reach Husavik, our destination for today.
We’re staying at Kaldbakskot Cottages, which are situated at two lakes known as the ‘Goldfish lakes‘ because they are naturally heated through geothermal heat. We remain hopeful we might see the northern lights again, but tonight there’s just a very faint green glow that’s not really visible to the naked eye.
Day 6: Husavik
Husavik is considered one of the best whale watching locations in the world, with tours beginning in 1995 when North Sailing launched its first whale watching boat. We’ve booked a tour on Bjössi Sör, which was constructed in Akureyri in 1975 and is one of the last oak boats to have been built in Iceland. Ironically, Bjössi Sör was engaged in minke-whaling along the northern coast of Iceland before it was bought by North Sailing in 2002, and used for whale watching from 2003,
It’s bitterly cold a wet as set out across Skjálfandi Bay, wearing winter jackets supplied by North Sailing.
Whie many of us are keeping an eye out for wildlife (and trying not to get seasick as we leave the harbour and hit the ocean swell), Luke regails the North Sailing staff with stories about trip around Iceland.
We end up seeing a few fulmars, which resemble gulls but are actually members of the petrel and shearwater group of birds. And we finally see a minke whale – one of the most common whales spotted off the coast of Iceland, which can be seen year round.
Day 6: Husavik to Reykjavík [575km]
Our last full day in Iceland, and the longest distance we’re driving in one day, as we complete the circuit from Husavik to our accommodation near Keflavik airport.
First stop is the impressive Goðafoss, a waterfall formed by the river Skjálfandafljót which falls from a height of 12 metres, but over a width of 30 metres. The name of the falls means either “waterfall of the goð (pagan idols)” or “waterfall of the goði (chieftain)”, derived from two crags at the falls which resemble pagan idols.
Another stop on the Ring Road is at Hörgarsveit, where a hiking trail descends to the river, which is spanned by a footbridge.
From here it’s about an hour and a half to the junction with Route 717, where we make a detour around Vatnsnes Peninsula.
Vatnsnes is a remote peninsula which juts into Húnaflói in northern Iceland, and surrounded by the waters of Miðfjörður on the west and Húnafjörður on the east. On the (eastern) Húnafjörður side the coastline is very rugged, with odd-shaped sea stacks that are rumoured to be frozen trolls.
Hvítserkur, a 15m high basalt rock formation, has two holes at the base which gives it the appearance of a dragon which is drinking.
On the western side is Illugastaðir, where a farm was the setting of a brutal murder in 1828, and subsequently the last ever execution in Iceland when Friðrik Sigurdsson and Agnes Magnusdottir were beheaded in front of 150 spectators. The fascinating story inspired the novel, Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, which details the the final days of Agnes.
Illugastaðir is also home to one of the largest seal colonies in Iceland, and after walking down to the beach we observe a number of seals swimming in the water.
It’s a lonely and windswept location, and perhaps a fitting last stop on our circuit around Iceland. From here we continue past Reykjavík and onto Keflavík, where we stay overnight before our morning flight to London the next day.
Reflections on Iceland
This was a great holiday, and many years later remains one of our favourite family holidays… it’s definitely somewhere I’d like to go back and spend a a few weeks hiking, now that I’ve seen the main attractions.
Spending most of the time on the southern side of Iceland was a good decision (by my wife, who does the hard work planning our holiday itineraries). It gave us a full day to explore the area around Vik and Jökulsárlón: seven days is really the minimum you need, and we could have easily filled another couple of days around Myvatn and Husavik.
The only change I would make to a 7-day itinerary is to have one night at Myvatn, allowing a bit of time to explore this area, and then one night (rather than two) at Husavik. Even better, if time permits, is to allow nine days so you can spend a couple of days exploring the rugged and remote northern part of Iceland.