Among others, TMIWTM has asked me about Iceland stuff. I can’t really say I know Iceland particularly well. Despite going there three times, I’ve really only done the major tourist things: the Golden Triangle and the Ring Road.
This list is mostly focused on the south of Iceland, the Seljalandsfoss-Vik-Hofn region. I’m skipping (most) of the Golden Circle, because it is so highly “ritualized:” Þingvellir, Geysir, and Gullfoss1. Also, most of these attractions are either right on the main Ring Road, or a relatively short drive off of it.2
Finally, if you see a sign that seems interesting, follow it. Some of the best things I saw were because I made a last minute decision to turn left.
Things to always have
- An extra towel
- A swimsuit
- Shoes to get wet 3
In the south, there are two must-see waterfalls: this and Skógafoss. Somewhere I read that this was “part of the Icelandic national identity,” which might be a bit extreme, but believable. Every time I’ve been there, it’s been crowded. Also, every time I’ve been there, I’ve had one pair of not-waterproof shoes, which meant it would have been reckless to see Gljúfrafoss.
Gljúfrafoss seems like the real attraction: it’s about a quarter of a mile from Seljalandfoss, along a pretty trail with a meandering stream and wildflowers. The waterfall itself is hidden in a narrow canyon, which can only be reached by wading in the water.
The informational plaque calls it a “man-made cave,” but it’s more an honest-to-god Hobbit Hole. My memory is that there are two or three along the main road between Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss. Rútshellir is nice because you can walk in and explore it. It’s over several levels, with enough light to see details (and to help a few ferns grow). It’s not a long stop, but worth it.
One more iconic waterfall. (Although with at least three in this list, and two that are out of geographic scope, the barrier to entry for “iconic waterfall” is painfully low in Iceland.) The waterfall itself is stunning, with a broad, flat floodplain that makes it easy to walk almost to the base.
Yet, the part I have always enjoyed is the walk to the top of the waterfall, and the seemingly endless trail into the mountains whence the river springs. I’ve never gotten more than about a mile and half up the trail, but there is so much variation along the trail. At times, all you can focus on is the sheer power of the river and the falls.
And other times, you focus on the other-worldly aspect of the landscape with the tall mountains. They are covered in green4 moss, with weird rock formations jutting out, and a small stream running through it all.
Crashed Airplane (Sólheimasandur)
If you are not an airplane nerd, the 90 minute walk through fine black sand is probably not worth it. But, if you are, it is the remnants of a Douglas C-117 (a variant of the famous DC-3) which was forced to land due to wing icing. No one died in the landing, but the airplane was written off.
The estimates of three to four hours to get there and back are not too far off the mark. The sand on the beach is quite fine, which makes the walk slow-going and hard. In addition, unusually, there is paid parking at the head of the trail.
I took far too many pictures of the random details of the plane. Even eighty odd years later, manufacturing idioms are still readily apparent.
I visited as a bit of a lark; I had spent the night nearby, and had seen the sign for it. The next morning, I stopped by for what I thought would be a quick lighthouse visit. I ended up spending over an hour exploring the area, and enjoying the puffins.
The views in almost any direction are stunning: the coastline and the dramatic cliffs; the sea stacks and natural bridges; and the black sand beaches.
Finally, you come for the views, but stay for the puffins. When I was there in mid-spring, they were almost everywhere. Their bright beaks were full of fish for their young, and they seemed to be relaxed and enjoying themselves.
I visited this in the middle of a rain storm, and I still loved it. It might have been the single best sight I saw on the entire Ring Road trip.
It’s a narrow canyon, with a river running down the middle of it. The trail follows the top of the canyon, with a number of scenic overlooks. The rain made the overlooks even more exciting, with the slippery footings and slightly rusted handrails making you wonder just how much you trusted there would not be an earthquake. .
Of all the things on this list, it was the furthest off the main Ring road. There was some construction, but Apple Maps managed to get me there safely. On the way there, the Ring Road crosses an area where the volcanic landscape has been completely covered by thick moss. There are a few places where you can pull over and follow short trails into the fields. It was like the entire landscape had a thick crocheted blanket over it.
This is supposed to be another one of the iconic waterfalls in Iceland. Despite the columnar basalt surroundings (much like the Giant’s Causeway or the Isle of Staffa), I was a little underwhelmed. The walk there is through a (rare) forest, and it felt as if the forest had been planted in the past few decades.
Kettle Holes (Háalda)
I’m not entirely sure where this is, because the iPhone’s GPS is failing me somewhat. The informative plaque at the site says “Háalda,” but that’s clearly not right. It’s in the general vicinity of the Vatnajökull ice cap and Fagurhólsmýri. In the late afternoon fog and mist, these craters formed by melting icebergs felt like a view of a world utterly strange and unfamiliar.
Worth it - bay with icebergs
It was a beautiful morning, and I wandered among the alpine fields, the historic Icelandic buildings, and the way the wind sculpted the dunes. There was a strange entry fee to get close to the areas of interest. I probably spent about two or three hours there, and the entry fee was totally worth it.
I did find doing the ring road in a short time (six days?) was too much: I could never really take the time I wanted to relax and really explore an area. It was also hard because I was both the explorer and the driver. I needed to make sure I still had the energy at the end of the day to drive 2 more hours to the hotel.
If you want more, I enjoyed Kerið crater, and the Secret Lagoon is much quieter than the highly commercial Blue Lagoon. But it’s not an easy drive from the airport. ↩
This begs the question of cause and effect. I’m assuming that the road engineers plotted the road such that it would be near the major attactions. ↩
Water in Iceland is either freezing cold or boiling hot. There is no middle ground. So, in some cases a pair of Tevas might work, and in other cases, Tevas would result in frostbite and hypothermia. ↩
As you travel through Iceland, remember, that despite how beautiful it appears now, it is a living example of an environmental disaster. It should be covered by trees, but we cut those all down by about 1200A.D., and they have not come back. Ecosystems are a system, and removing one part can destroy the entire thing. ↩