In 2015, we were lucky enough to have the opportunity to spend a couple of weeks in Iceland, where we split our time between visiting Reykjavik, camping along the south coast, and backpacking the Laugaveggurin. As this was a varied sort of trip, we had to pack along quite a bit of gear, both for touring in the towns and cities and for camping as we made our way through the country. And to make the road trip easier, we rented a 4×4 to ensure that we could drive on any road that we may have come across in our travels. Especially if we ended up on some of Iceland’s rougher F roads, where many rental cars are prohibited from travelling.
While most of our gear made the flight with us, our camp stove ended up having to stay in Edmonton, since the airline refused to let us bring it along in our luggage. That meant we also had to rent a stove for the trip which ended up being one of our first tasks on the second day in Reykjavik. It wasn’t a big deal as there are quite a number of outdoor outfitters in Iceland that rent practically everything a person might need for gear. Through Facebook, we were able to reserve a stove from Gangleri Oufitters in Reykjavik, as well as buy fuel, for a reasonable price for use while we were in the country.
We also recommend good, solid rain gear as we were to find that we pretty well lived in ours for much of this trip.
Driving is pretty easy in Iceland, particularly if you have a good map. And with cell service being almost everywhere, Google Maps became our go to for finding our way around, both in and out of the city. We also found that traffic was generally pretty light on the highways, which was nice as the roads did tend to be quite twisting and turning. Of course, our first task after getting our vehicle was grocery shopping, where we proceeded to stock up on food for a week on the road.
Once out of Reykjavik on our second day in the country, our first and only planned tour was a trip inside the inactive (hopefully) volcano Thrihnukagigur’s magma chamber. Having planned for the afternoon tour time, that gave us plenty of time to get to the town of Selfoss to the east for us to set up at one of the local campgrounds. Along the way, it was hard not to stop every five minutes and just take pictures of the stunning landscape as we drove along the highway to the town.
After arriving in Selfoss and pitching our tent at the campground, we made our way back to where the tour was to begin. The tour started at the Bláfjöll Ski resort, where we had to hike for three kilometers to the base camp where the touring company equipped us with helmets, lamps, and harnesses for the trip down on an open elevator. While we waited, they served us hot soup and drinks as we were entertained by a very friendly Arctic fox pup that wandered around looking for handouts.
The tour operators only take a small group at a time for the trip down into the chamber and when our time came, we made the short hike to the top of the volcano where the elevator goes down through a shaft from the surface. The total drop is about 120 meters and it was a pretty cool experience descending down into this dark underworld. We had about 30 minutes to wander around and check it out. While the chamber did have lights strung about, it was hard to capture the scope of the chamber’s size from any one location but we still ended up taking many pictures. The colours of the rocks were truly amazing and we couldn’t help but to feel insignificant compared to the awesome power that created this chamber.
After our time below expired, we went back to the surface for the hike back to the base camp, and onwards to our vehicle. A nice thing about Iceland in the summer is that the sun sets very late in August, so even after finishing the tour at 9pm, we had plenty of daylight left. In fact, we were able to capture the sunset far to the west as the sun set over the Western Fjord mountains.
Being that we did not have a dinner plan after the tour and that we were not motivated to cook, we stopped to enjoy what is almost the official road food of Iceland, the hotdog. Practically every store and gas station seems to sell them, so they’re pretty easy to come by. It’s best to not ask what they’re made of.
The next day, after the first of what was to be many rainy nights spent in a campground, we packed ourselves up and continued on our way east for our first, full day on the road.
The plan this day was to cover Iceland’s Golden Circle route, which allows travelers to hit three of Iceland’s most famous sites along a 300 kilometer route; Thingvellir, Geysir, and Gullfoss. Thingvellir was first along the way as it was the closest to us, so off we went, making many stops along the way to check our attractions and just generally enjoy the views. Weather-wise, it rained for much of the time, which resulted in us more or less living in our rain gear for much of the next week. Sunny periods were to prove to be few and far between.
Driving through the south was just stunning. The land was so green with scattered rock and lava formations all over the place. As much of Iceland’s agriculture takes place in this region, the land is dotted with farms and sheep all along the roads, and in the case of sheep, many times they were on the roads as well.
Arriving at Thingvellir, we parked and made our way along some of the many trails that cover this park. The best sites at Thingvellir can be covered within a few kilometers of hiking, so it only took us a couple of hours for us to cover most of it.
After a quick stop to get some souvenirs, and to take a break from the rain, we took some last photos and headed on back to the truck for the next leg of our trip.
It seemed at this point in the day that we were beginning to catch up with the crowds. As we rolled into the Geysir area, we found that parking was a bit of a challenge, as were the large numbers of people all around the area. It’s only a short walk from the parking area to see Geysir’s most famous geyser, Strokkur, which typically blows every eight minutes or so. Our timing was bad, however, and with the pouring rain, the terrible sulfurous odour, and a lot of miserable and wet people wandering around, we missed the biggest eruption and just headed on back to our vehicle after a short time. We left satisfied that we saw steam coming out of the ground.
Another hour up the highway brought us to the last attraction along this route, Gullfoss, or Golden Waterfall, as it’s known in English. Once parked, we followed the trail down and were rewarded with the roar of the falls spilling down in several places along the river. It was quite a sight but tricky to get any photos as there was a lot of mist coming of the falls that pretty well coated a camera lens in seconds.
Once finished at Gullfoss, we were once again on the road as we continued on our way to the east for a stop, with a plan to make our last stop of the day at the black beach of Sólheimasandur. Using some handy directions we had printed off of the internet, we made our way to check out both the beach and the somewhat famous DC-3 plane that still lives on the beach many years after it had crash landed there.
We wandered around and took lots of photos until we were done with the wind whipping at us and moved along to the next town, Vik, where we were to spend the night.
We arrived in Vik in some really bad weather, which made the thought of camping at the local campground a little unappealing. But after checking with the few hotels in town, we found there were no rooms to be had anywhere and made our way to the campground. We tried seeing if we could sleep in the vehicle that night but we soon determined that there was just not enough room, so we used it as our cooking area to stay out of the weather and pitched the tent downwind and behind the vehicle. In any case, as much as it rained, we did not get wet that night and it wasn’t too bad at all cooking in the back of the vehicle.
Thanks to some suggestions by our friend Siggi before we left Reyjakvik, the next morning after we had packed up, we made our way over to some of the area’s famous black sand beaches and columnar basalt rock formations.
Formed by the cooling of thick lava flows, these formations are quite a sight to see. And from our point at the Black Beach, we were also able to see the lighthouse at nearby Dyrhólaey. Which was a good thing as days later on our way back, we stopped at the lighthouse and couldn’t see anything at all due to the incredibly thick fog covering the area.
We kept going on our way to the east, just making stops wherever we saw something interesting. And as we made our way along the coast, we gave up any thought of driving around the Ring Road, which had been something we had considered since it seemed to be achievable before starting our trip. This also seemed to be the land of waterfalls as we saw so many along the highway, cascading from the mountains above down the many sheer cliffs and rocks faces into the valleys below. While much of our views were obscured by clouds, there was still a lot to be seen on the drive.
East of Vik, the highway passes through several long, desolate stretches on the way Höfn that are the result of vast amounts of mud and ash flowing down from the mountains due to volcanic activity. It made for interesting bridges as they are constructed in a modular fashion so that only parts of the bridges are washed away during floods. The Icelanders learned the hard way to not build big, permanent bridges in this area.
The next major stop along our way was Jökulsárlón, which means Glacier Lagoon. This is an area where one of the many glaciers reaches down to a small freshwater lagoon and pieces that have calved off of the glacier float to the ocean. While we couldn’t see as much as we would have liked here, it was still a worthwhile stop to see the massive chunks of ice floating in the water on their way to the Atlantic Ocean.
As the day made its way into the afternoon, we decided to see if we could find a hotel or room somewhere instead of another night camping in the rain. With the sheer amount people touring the area, we were lucky to literally get the last available room in Höfn. This turned to more or less be just a room that a very nice woman rented out. With a hot shower and a nice, comfortable bed, it was a little piece of paradise that we enjoyed during our evening in the town. We had to laugh as this was the place to see Iceland’s tallest peak but on the day we were there, there was nothing to see except fog and clouds. It gives us an excuse to come back again some other day.
At this point of our road trip, we began our journey back to the west rather than continuing around the island. As there were still plenty of things to see that we had passed getting to Höfn, we had made another list of some of the places to stop for the next two days on our way back to Reykjavik. And just for fun, we were randomly taking roads that led off into the countryside just to see what there was out there that couldn’t be seen from the highway. This was when it was good to have a solid 4×4 vehicle as some of the roads were fairly dodgy.
After two more days of driving and sightseeing, we arrived back in Reykjavik, where Siggi picked us up once again after we dropped off our rental vehicle. We can’t convey how wonderful our hosts were and how it made Iceland truly welcoming when they opened their doors to us and let us stay in their home several times throughout our trip. We wished we could have more time to visit everyone who had invited us to come see them. And we sincerely hope they can make it back to Canada someday so that we can return the favour.
We took the opportunity to clean up, rest, and get ready for the next leg of our vacation in Iceland, backpacking the Laugavegurinn.
Touring the south coast of Iceland was an amazing experience. It’s hard to convey the sheer scope of the many things to see that were so much different from what we are used to seeing in our little part of Western Canada. While at times it was a bit discouraging to have so much rain and fog, we found that there was still a lot to see and do in the this region, regardless.
We look very much forward to coming back to again tour this wonderful and scenic place.