Everything you’ve heard about Iceland is absolutely true.
(A) It’s beautiful as sin.
(B) The weather changes every hour, and will mercilessly whoop your ass.
(C) It’s unbelievably expensive – get ready to drop some serious dough.
(D) Hidden elf people watching your every move.
Cute ponies and sheep roam in blissful stupor everywhere you look. Sulfurous overtones seep from the water, earth, and air. The ground releases plumes of smoke, the landscapes feel alien, and the possible adventures seem endless.
And I screwed up a bit in making the best of it.
What went wrong
Due to an Icelandair promotion that offers up to 7 days free on a stopover to/from mainland Europe, I was limited in time. Instead of taking the entire ring road around the island in a race against time, I decided to pick either the north or south to focus my energy.
I chose the south, and due to some catastrophic weather failures, this was ill-advised. I couldn’t have predicted the following would happen:
- An absolutely biblical fog took over Jökulsárlon glacier lagoon, canceling my boat tour… ON MY BIRTHDAY!
- Flooding literally DESTROYED a critical portion of the ring road on the day I was going to head to Höfn, my terminal city in the east.
- Due to the moist environment, my trail-runner-adorned feet were soaked to the bone every single day. “Hey, what’s over there!’ *SQUELCH* “GOD DAMMIT!”
I couldn’t have predicted the weather, but I do wish I had prepared myself a little better with my transport choice.
Despite these challenges, I would return in a heartbeat.
Driving along Iceland’s southern coast
Renting a car is an absolute must, and I would go so far as to say renting a camper should be top priority for any adventurous traveler to Iceland. Having the ability to reroute yourself based on weather could save a lot of heartburn. Bonus points for getting a high ride 4×4 to get to the highlands. This is the only appropriate time to go muddin’ in your truck and not come off like an Alabama frat boy.
Along the south coast there is a bevy of geographical features to take in including lava flows that have turned to fields of volcanic rock, active geysers, vast reaches of black sands, TONS of volcanoes, and many unique glaciers and canyons. Many of these features are easily accessible at rest stops along the ring road, and you’ll have no trouble filling your day with glorious natural wonders.
Fjaðrárgljúfur was one of the highlights for me – a severe canyon cut through mossy rock with multiple waterfalls. Three of the falls converge at the final overlook. All the views are stunning and the cool air and sounds of the river flowing are invigorating after a long drive.
There are also three very touristy activities that every visitor to Iceland dreams of while planning a trip. I will tell you they are all worth doing for their own reasons. Don’t be afraid of the beaten path here – it’s worth braving the crowds to see some of the famous sights in Iceland.
The Blue Lagoon
Located in between Keflavik International Airport and Reykjavik, this massive geothermal spa is a perfect stop on your first or last day in Iceland. You’ll pay a steep price, but you can spend as much time as you like relaxing in the geothermal runoff (sounds gross, doesn’t it?) and enjoying the steam rooms and spas.
I spent a good six or seven hours decompressing from my other travels and talking to others about their Iceland experience. It was my first day in the country, and served as a good introduction. Take it slow and you’ll thank yourself later.
There is also an expensive restaurant called Lava – skip it, as the service and food are nothing special and you can fill up on snacks in the café. Food isn’t a main attraction in Iceland – with exceptions. A good rule of thumb is to go cheap on food and spend your money on activities instead.
Glaciers in Skaftafell
This was one of the highlights of my month of travels in Europe in 2017. I booked a three hour walk, but could have easily gone for a six hour excursion if one had been available. Make sure to book months in advance, as they fill up. I saw one great option – fully booked – which included ice climbing training and a full 4 or 5 hours on the ice.
You’ll strap on some crampons and explore a very strange feature of nature that is becoming more rare by the year. You may be shocked to experience firsthand the effects of climate change. I can’t lie – I’d lose a a lot of respect for anyone who could walk on a glacier and still be a denier. Our guide pointed out the previous level of the glacier from twenty years ago; the scale is hard to describe and must be experienced firsthand.
You’ll also learn a bit about how glaciers form, the role of volcanoes in the region, and why the ice contains different colors and appearances throughout. I did my walk in Skaftafell park on a glacier called Svínafellsjökull.
The Northern Lights
If you are remotely interested in Iceland you already have the Aurora Borealis on your list of white whales. I did see it, though the effects are exaggerated in the above picture. The Northern Lights may appear less colorful in person unless you get an evening of high magnetic activity coupled with clear skies. Regardless, the way the skies change shape before your eyes is impressive and humbling.
Many tours exist to go hunting for good views off the main road as well as off the coast on a boat. I did not make the effort to do these, but they may be of interest to you if the Northern Lights top your wishlist.
Winter is coming
As the year goes on, Iceland’s days get shorter and shorter. Though perpetual darkness certainly has its downside, don’t be hesitant to visit during this time if you are particularly adventurous. Some activities are much better during this time, or completely unavailable during warmer months. Some examples include snowmobiling, enhanced stargazing and aurora hunting, and ice caving.
I cannot wait to rectify my unpreparedness and come back to Iceland. It is the #1 country on my list for a return trip. The North is a completely different experience, I hear. Couple this with the stark differences in seasons – the midnight sun in August vs. the unique winter activities in complete darkness – and anyone would be hard pressed to take in a country like Iceland in one visit.
I’ll leave off with some more pretty pictures, but first please consider subscribing to my newsletter on the right side of this page. I’ll notify you of new posts and throw in some special surprises too. I appreciate your readership and kind support! I’ll be back on the dusty trail before too long.