Itinerary: Reykjavik – Thingvellir National Park – Geysir & Strokkur – Gulffoss – Tjórsárdalur – Seljalandsfoss – Skogafoss – Solheimajökul – Dyrhólaey – Eldrhaun – Fjadrárglúfur – Skeidarársandur – Skaftafell – Jökulsárlon – Breiddalsvik – Seydisfjördur – Dettifoss – Myvatn – Öxnadalur – Kirkjufell – Snaefellsjökul National Park
It feels a bit strange to travel while the world is struggling with a pandemic and the Netherlands is only just starting to wake up after three months of far-reaching restrictive measures. Air traffic has been suspended for most of those three months and countries have closed their borders. As a result, my planned trip to Iceland in the last week of May could not take place. Now that the measures are slowly being relaxed and Iceland (one of the countries that has fought the covid-19 virus most effectively) has opened its borders again, I can – with only a month’s delay – still go. And I won’t let that chance pass!
Iceland is located near the Arctic Circle and in the last ten years or so, more precisely since the eruption of the volcano Eyjafjallajökull (which disrupted European air traffic that year), the country has become a hugely popular travel destination. The number of visitors has increased fivefold in recent years and now amounts to about 2.5 million on an annual basis. And that’s a lot when you consider that Iceland only has about 350,000 inhabitants. This makes Iceland the most sparsely populated country in Europe. The country has more sheep (460,000) than people.
In addition, Iceland has no fewer than thirty (!) active volcanoes. One tenth of the country consists of ice caps and glaciers. And more than sixty percent of the country is virtually impassable. Fun fact: Icelanders always address each other by their first name (even in the phone book the names are listed alphabetically by first name). As far as they use surnames, a person’s surname is the father’s first name with the addition -son or -daughter. Which means that brother and sister have different surnames.
After a flight of less than three hours, I arrive at Keflavik International Airport, 40 kilometers southwest of the Icelandic capital Reykjavik. Due to the covid-19 pandemic, everyone traveling into Iceland is tested at the airport. This goes very quickly and a few hours later I get a text message that the result is negative.
My hotel is situated in the center of the most northerly capital in the world. Of the 350,000 Icelanders, 125,000 live in Reykjavik, more than a third. Reykjavik has about as many inhabitants as my hometown Leiden and is not big for a capital. From my hotel room I have a view over the bay and mountains in the background. Not a bad start to the trip! It is the end of June and so it does not get dark here in the evening. Between midnight and 4 a.m. is one long near-sunset/sunrise. A really strange sensation! It does make for beautiful pictures at 2 a.m..
The center of Reykjavik is fairly compact and easy to walk. It feels more like a big village than a city. The architecture is Scandinavian, especially the older houses are made of wood and painted in different colors. The newer buildings have a fairly simple design. I hardly see bricks, most facades and roofs are either plastered or made of corrugated metal. Undoubtedly designed for harsh winter conditions.
I’m staying in what is called Old Reykjavik, the oldest part of the city. This includes the dark gray basalt parliament building, the Althingi, built in 1881. It is a remarkably small building for a parliament building, but that also fits the scale of Iceland. A little further on is the modern concrete Rádhús, Reykjavik’s town hall. It stands on the edge of Tjörnin, a lake in the middle of the city, which in turn borders the park Hljómskálagardur. Ideal for walking, jogging or picnicking.
In the neighborhood next to Old Reykjavik, Laugavedur, are many shops, cafes and restaurants. The uniquely designed Hallgrimskirkja is also located here. Its characteristic 75-meter-high tower towers over the entire city. In front of the church is a statue of the Viking Leifur Eiríksson, said to have been the first person to discover the continent of America, well before Amerigo Vespucci and Christopher Columbus. And speaking of Vikings: Although the Greek explorer Pytheas discovered the island as early as 330 BCA, the Norse Vikings were the first to settle here permanently in the ninth century, initially calling the island Snowland. Only later was it renamed Iceland.
Where Laugavedur borders the water, modern high-rises dominate the main road. At the waters edge, you will find Sólfar (Sun Voyager), a steel work of art depicting a Viking ship, with the water and the mountains as a background. A little further on is the unmissable Harpa, a state-of-the-art concert hall-cum-cinema-cum-cultural complex. If you continue along the water, you will come to the old harbor of Reykjavik. These days you will find a mix of fishing boats, tourist excursions and restaurants and cafes here.
I think Reykjavik is a quiet, friendly city, no doubt because there are few tourists at the moment. Yet on Saturday morning it is time to leave the city. As soon as I drive out of the city, I get a first impression of what southern Iceland looks like: green, hilly, open. What is striking: fields of purple and white lupines are blooming everywhere.
The Golden Circle
Iceland sits right on the Mid Atlantic Ridge, the fault line between two tectonic plates: the North American and Eurasian. Hence, the country is dotted with geysers, hot springs and volcanoes. It even owes its origin to volcanic activity. All over the world, the fault lines between tectonic plates lie deep under water. There is only one place where there is a fault line above sea level and that is in Iceland, in what is now Thingvellir National Park. Here the North American and Eurasian plates move up to 18 millimeters apart every year. Over the millennia, a wide valley has formed in between. Numerous fissures can be seen in the valley – tangible evidence of the fact that the earth is literally being pulled apart here. The largest gorge is Almannagjá and from the edge of the cliff you have a magnificent view over the valley. Here you will also find the waterfall Öxarárfoss.
In a part of the valley a lake has formed, Thingvallavatn, which is the largest lake in Iceland at 84 square kilometers. Glacial water from the Langjökull glacier 40 kilometers away seeps through the earth until it flows into the lake. In the year 920, the Icelanders chose beautiful Thingvelir to establish their first parliament, the Althingi. And not just their first; Iceland was the first country in the world to establish a National Legislative Assembly. In a world ruled by kings, parliament was a new idea, although the Athingi met only once a year and it was not only a political but also a social event.
Thingvellir National Park is part of what is called the Golden Circle. This is the most visited part of Iceland and besides Thingvellir The Golden Circle also includes the Geysir and Gullfoss. The Geysir is the geyser from which all other geysers in the world owe their name. This mother-of-all-geysers is located in the Haukadalur geothermal area, where steam rises from the ground everywhere and the air smells of phosphorus. The Geysir itself has been ‘dormant’ for a number of years; the boiling pool is steaming, but it’s not spraying water into the air anymore. The adjacent Stokkur still does. Every few minutes he sprays boiling hot water ten to twenty meters high into the air. My last stop in this somewhat touristy region (there are quite a few visitors) is the Gullfoss waterfall. The Hvítá River rushes down here in two stages; first wide over the rocks and then into a narrow gorge.
The South Coast
I spend the night in Fludir, a small hamlet, and the next morning I leave the Golden Circle behind and drive on Route 1, the Ring Road, towards the south coast. The two-lane road winds through the green landscape, with the flat coast on the right and rough rocks and cliffs on the left, foothills of the mountains beyond, such as the volcanoes Hekla and Eyafjallajökull. My first stop is the Seljalandsfoss, a beautiful sixty meter high waterfall that tumbles down picture perfect against a green background from the high cliff. A little further on is another waterfall, the Gljúfurárbui.
My second stop is also a waterfall: the Skógafoss, 62 meters high and wider than the Seljalandsfoss. Both falls bring meltwater from the higher Eyafjallajökull to the low-lying coast. The weather changes continuously, one moment the sun is shining and I am walking outside without a coat, the next moment it gets cloudy and rain starts pooring down. The south coast of Iceland gets the most rain, so it’s part of it. I’m lucky (or I have a good sense of planning): the showers always occur when I’m in the car. In any case, it is a beautiful route to drive!
My third stop is the Sólheimajökull. This glacier is a part of the Mýrdalsjökull ice sheet. A short walk along a lagoon brings you to a point where you have a magnificent view of the colossal glacier. Unlike the glaciers in Patagonia, for example, the Sólheimajökull is not stark white. Because the glacier is located in a volcanic area, the ice also brings black lava sand down. It gives the glacier a white and black appearance, as if someone has been enthusiastically working it with charcoal.
At Dyrhólaey, Iceland’s south coast is characterized by spectacular cliffs and rock formations, including a natural rock arch. At the bottom of the rocks are jet-black beaches with lava sand (due to the breeding season of the birds living here, the beach is currently closed). After a day with only photogenic places, I spend the night near the village of Vik. The next morning (Monday) it is gray and drizzling. I first take a look at Reynisfjara, a beach of black lava sand, right next to a high cliff. But what sets this place apart is not so much the cliff or the black sand, but the unusual columns of basalt, a kind of big upright matches, that line the bottom of the cliff. As if someone has made some kind of work of art out of the rocks.
From Vik (only a few hundred inhabitants), Route 1 goes through an almost flat landscape for a long time. The first kilometers are brightened up left and right with endless fields of purple-white lupines. After that, the landscape consists of moss-covered lava sand for a long time. The empty landscape, the almost equally empty road and the thick layer of gray clouds give the area a desolate appearance. I take the exit onto Route 206, where the Fjadrárgljúfur is worth a stop. The Fjadrágljúfur is a deep gorge, carved by the river Fjadrá. A path runs along the cliff’s edge on the south side with a number of places where you can look into the gorge. The ultimate view is at the end of the trail. Here you look into the full length of the gorge and on the right is a beautiful waterfall. A very nice place!
From Kirkjubaejarklaustur (less than 200 inhabitants) the Ring Road first goes through another desolate landscape of black lava sand. The landscape remains flat on the right side of the road, but after a while spectacular rocks and cliffs loom on the left. Those are the foothills of Vatnajökull, the gigantic ice sheet that covers a large part of south-east Iceland. One of the most popular parts of Vatnajökull National Park is Skaftafell, which on the map looks like a green bite out of the white ice cap. It is a ‘must stop’, because a short walk here takes you to the beautiful waterfall Svartifoss. The waterfall falls from a steep cliff against a background of black basalt columns, like the ones at Reynisfjara, but ‘hanging’ instead of standing. My last stop today is Svinafellsjökull, one of the many glacier originating from Vatnajökull. The front of the glacier ends at a large glacial lake with floating ice floes.
The East Coast
On Iceland’s southeast coast, Route 1 runs between steep cliffs along the edge of the Vatnajökull ice sheet and the low coastal plain. It is a truly beautiful route to drive. My first stop is Fjarsárlón, a lagoon deserted on this Tuesday morning with the glacier Fjallsjökull in the background. (Just like the Svinafellsjökull yesterday, only more beautiful.) The highlight – glacierwise – is a little further on though. Jökulsárlón is an immense lagoon in which countless ice floes float. This ice has broken off from the Breidamerkurjökull (one of the many glaciers of the Vatnajökull) and is slowly drifting towards the Atlantic Ocean. The clear, white-crystallized ice floes, appearing blue by reflecting the sunlight, float like natural works of art in the water of the lagoon. Incredibly photogenic! Besides viewing the ice floes from the shore, I also go for a boat tour. In forty minutes we sail between the ice floes, which yields many beautiful pictures. Well worth it!
From Jökulsárlón I leisurely drive towards the village of Höfn, a part of the Ring Road that is more than worthy of the term ‘road trip’. I drive alternately along steep cliffs and down wide valleys with farms here and there, past marshland and along even more glaciers. Along the way you have to watch out for sheep, which roam freely everywhere and can also appear along or in the middle of the road. This too – I am repeating myself – is a beautiful part to drive.
My destination today is Höfn, the first village of any size since, well, since I’ve been on my way actually. Although it only has 1,700 inhabitants, this part of Iceland is even less populated than the south coast. Höfn means harbor and in the village you notice from the fish smell that it is a fishing harbour. Höfn is fantastically situated on the tip of a peninsula. From the hiking trail along the water, you have a breathtaking view over the water of the Hornafjördur with on the horizon (on a clear day like today) the Vatnajökull and no fewer than four glaciers in one panorama. What a location!
It is Wednesday morning when I leave Höfn and drive north. Route 1 runs right along the coast here. The first hundred kilometers or so, up to Djúpivogur, is really beautiful and can be added to the list of most beautiful coastal roads in the world as far as I’m concerned. To the right the Atlantic Ocean, to the left imposing mountains and the Ring Road that meanders between them, with new vistas after every turn This part of Iceland is hardly inhabited and therefore feels very remote. Only occasionally do you come across a farm. Other than that, many sheep, horses, birds (remarkably many swans) and in addition to lupins I also see Arctic cotton, a grass that produces small tufts of cotton.
At Djúpivogur, the eastern fjords begin, starting with Berufjördur, which is marked by the 1,000-foot mountain Búlandstindor. The route winds along the shores of the fjords, the Stödvarfjördur, the Fáskrúdsfjördur and, after a six kilometer tunnel under the mountains, the Reydarfjördur. From there, Route 1 heads inland, through the mountains towards Egilsstadir. My last stop is the Seydisfjördur, as far as I’m concerned the most beautiful of the fjords I have passed. To get there you have to cross a pass from Egilsstadir. The road climbs steeply and suddenly you seem to have entered another world. Snow! On top of the pass, the snow from last winter has not yet completely melted, which makes for beautiful pictures!
On the other side of the pass, the road descends into the valley of the river Fjardará, to arrive at the village of Seydisfjördur (650 inhabitants). The village consists of colored wooden houses surrounded by mighty high mountains, with numerous small and larger waterfalls. In one of the streets the road surface is painted in the colors of the rainbow, with the wooden houses and the blue church at the end of the street as picture perfect decor.
After spending the night in Egilsstadir, I head west. First I drive a long stretch through hilly and slightly mountainous landscape. No houses, no villages, no traffic. This is the empty, desolate Iceland I imagined. The distances between the villages and the sights are much greater here than on the south side of the island. The weather is beautiful, sunny, although there is a cold wind. After a two hour drive I take the exit to the waterfall Dettifoss. There are two things I can say about this waterfall: a lot of water falls down and you are sure to get wet from the resulting mist.
My next stop is Krafla, a more than eight hundred meter high volcano. A short climb here takes you to the Víti crater, with a large bright green crater lake surrounded by a bare, reddish-brown crater rim. The crust in this area is very thin and in 1975 this led to the so-called Krafla fires. Lava broke through the earth’s crust in several places. A series of eruptions followed, and over the next nine years, the current otherworldly landscape was formed. Volcanic activity still takes place here, in various places you hear bubbling and hissing and you see steam rising from the ground. Apparently it is considered safe to walk here among the large flows of solidified lava.
My next stop is Hverir, a moonlike landscape with boiling mud pools and steaming cracks in the ground. There is a strong smell of phosphorus. A little further is Mývatn, a large lake. On its eastern side is the Hverfjall crater. This crater is the result of an eruption that occurred nearly three thousand years ago. After a short climb I reach the rim of the crater. There is no crater lake here (the crater is dry), but you do have a beautiful view of the area.
Dimmuborgir is also the result of volcanic activity. Here you will find strangely shaped rocks of petrified lava. My last stop today is the Godafoss waterfall. It is not the largest waterfall in Iceland, but it is a beautiful one. I finish the day in Akureyri. Iceland’s second city (18,000 inhabitants) is beautifully situated at the end of the Eyafjördur, with sixty kilometers the longest fjord in Iceland, surrounded by mountains with snow on the tops.
The next day it’s time for a long drive: from Akureyri to the Snaefellsnes peninsula, on the west coast of Iceland. From Akureyri, the Ring Road first goes down the beautiful Öxnadalur valley, a wide, green valley with snow-capped peaks to the left and right, including the more than a thousand meters high Hraundrangi. The rest of the five-hour drive goes down vast valleys of grassland, a single farm, horses, sheep (obviously) and the two-lane Route 1.
Once at Snaefellsnes I drive to Stykkishólmur on the north side of the peninsula. This picturesque village with old colored houses and a harbor overlooks the water of the Breidafjördur fjord. The best view is from the top of the Súgandisey cliff. I finish the day in Grundarfjördur, a village with just over eight hundred inhabitants, located on the bay of the same name. The reason to come here is to capture the beautiful Kirkjufell, probably the most photographed mountain in Iceland, in one frame with the Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall.
Snaefellsnes is a long peninsula, the interior of which consists of high mountains, including the 1,445 meter high Snaefellsjökull (glacier included). Route 574 runs around it, across the coastal plain, with farms, pasture with horses and a few hamlets. On my last day I drive to Djúpalónsandur, on the tip of Snaefellsnes. A circular beach is surrounded by rugged cliffs of volcanic rock that rise straight up from the ocean. It’s a beautiful place, which comes a little unexpected, but all the more fun. After this I stop at Púfubjarg, a high cliff that is a favorite with the local seagull population. My last stop is at Gatklettur, a beautiful natural area on the south side of the peninsula.
After this I drive back to Reykjavik. After having driven more than two thousand kilometers, I return the rental car. The rest of the afternoon I walk about in Reykjavik and enjoy the sun on the roof terrace of the hostel. On Sunday morning I have to get up very early to take the bus to the airport for the flight back to the Netherlands.
Iceland has exceeded my expectations. I had expected a lot of long distances where you don’t see anyone else, desolate nothingness and depressing weather. Some parts were certainly remote, but it was certainly not deserted and desolate. The island is also packed with beautiful places: countless waterfalls, volcanoes, glaciers, geysers, lava fields, valleys and constantly changing views. And that only a three-hour flight from the Netherlands. Iceland has landed high on my list of favorite destinations!