Last September I had the opportunity to visit Iceland for a few days, and explore one of my bucket list countries. While we visited a little too early in the year to get a great view of the northern lights, the weather couldn’t have been more perfect. It wasn’t too cold and only rained a few times on and off throughout the week. If you’re looking to drive around Iceland on your own, I definitely recommend visiting before the weather gets too cold and the snow starts to fall since the roads can be pretty dangerous as you get further into the winter months. If you want the summary of our itinerary and skip the details you can scroll to the bottom of this article.
Day 1: Rekyjavic to the Golden Circle
So getting to Iceland I took the overnight flight from DFW into KEF (Rekyjavic), landing on a Monday morning. My parents had already flown in the day before and rented a car, so they picked me up from the airport and we headed on out towards the Golden Circle. If you haven’t heard of the Golden Circle, basically its a tourist route in southern Iceland, covering about 300 kilometres looping from Reykjavík into the southern uplands of Iceland and back. You can easily do it in one day, so if you happen to be in Iceland on a layover (talking to you, flight attendants!) I highly recommend renting a car and checking it out or booking a tour! Anyways, we started along the Golden Circle, and saw waterfalls, geysers, lakes, caves and more. You’re going to be driving right by everything (it’s one road that loops around the whole country pretty much) so you can’t miss the scenic stops and photo ops. You’ll see signs and cars pulled over, just trust me. To give you an idea of what to expect though, here’s a few highlights from what we saw plus a cute little map I found:
Stops worth seeing at the Golden Circle:
- Þingvellir national park
- Geothermal wonders of Geysir
- Gullfoss Waterfall
- Kerið Volcanic Crater
- Scuba dive or Snorkel Silfra
- Lava Caving at Raufarhólshellir
- Snowmobiling Langjökull glacier
- Horseback Riding Mosfellsdalur valley
- Whale Watching Faxaflói
- White water rafting at Gullfoss Canyon
Unfortunately with only 5 full days in Iceland I didn’t have time to do any of these excursions, but I plan to go back to dive Silfra one day, and hopefully get to do some of the other excursions as well. In case you didn’t know, Silfra is the only place in the world where you can dive or snorkel directly in a crack between two tectonic plates. Here’s a quick little youtube video I found that shows what it’s all about. As for the other things, a lot of Golden Circle tours you book have the option to add one or more of these activities depending on how much time you have.
So back to the Golden Circle highlights… we were able to complete the whole thing in one day and still make our drive over to Skogafoss that same night so we could check out the waterfall first thing in the morning.
First stop we got to see as we entered the golden circle was Þingvellir (Thingvellir) which was the site of the annual parliament of Iceland from 930AD to 1798AD until it later was moved over to Reykjavik. The park was pretty, but honestly it only got better from here the further we went along the circle!
Next we came across the geothermal geysers. There’s one main geyser that spouts water really high called Strokkur (you’ll see people gathered around it, can’t miss it). It’s actually one of the largest and most powerful geysers in all of Iceland and also one of the most frequent in all the world, erupting almost every 5 minutes on average. So if you stick around for a few, chances are you can definitely get a good photo/video of it. Unfortunately, the only photos I had of the big geyser I lost when my phone took a swim a few months ago, but here’s a saved snap I had of a smaller one on the way there!
After the geysers you’ll come across Gulfoss. An impressive group of waterfalls that reminded me somewhat of Niagara Falls because of its size. The main waterfall flows down into a wide curved three-step staircase, with water rushing at 80-140 cubic meters per second on average, depending on what time of the year it is. You’ll also notice there’s usually a rainbow or two there, because of the constant spray from the falls.
Our last stop on the Golden Circle was the Kerið volcanic crater lake. It’s believed that Kerið was a cone volcano which erupted and emptied its magma reserve. Once the magma was depleted, the weight of the cone collapsed into the empty magma chamber, also known as a caldera. While there are several crater lakes in the area, this one has the most recognizable caldera and has become the most popular for tourists to visit.
Total, the drive to visit all these landmarks is around 120 km and would take about 2 hours if you drove straight through from Reykjavik. It makes it a great day trip filled with plenty of add on activities if you choose to stop along the way, take pictures, or do excursions. We ended our travel on the circle at City of Selfoss and got on Highway 1 where we started our drive around the island at Selfoss, east along the southern Iceland coast.
Day 2: Waterfalls, Vík & Lava Fields
So as we left the Golden Circle the night before, we passed a few waterfalls on our left as we drove eastward. We stopped at two falls on way, but since it was getting dark we stopped again in the morning since we stayed close by in a town called Edinborg. The two main waterfalls we stopped at were Seljalands and Skogafoss.
This 60 meter waterfall has path to walk behind if you choose to, but be sure to bring a rain coat because you’ll get wet. You do have to pay to
Also very high waterfall, at 60 meters as well but with a larger water flow than Seljalands at 25 metres. It’s actually one of the biggest waterfalls in the country, and has no fees to enter or park which is nice. There’s also a nice restaurant at the base with a view facing falls we at at. Dinner was somewhat self-service, order at the bar from a menu and sit at your table.
After the waterfalls, we continued on our way eastward towards Vík, the southernmost village in Iceland. On the way there we stopped in Dyrholaey to check out the view of some rock formations and cliffs along the ocean. We parked the car and started hiking up a cliff to get to the viewpoint only to have it start POURING on us and have hurricane force winds roll through too. Either way we kept going on, and here’s what our photos looked like…this is the day I found out that my jacket was not waterproof.
We ended up circling back around and hiking back up after the storm passed and this is what it looked like afterwards. What a difference!
Finally we ended up in Vík. This was one of my favorites spots we visited in all of Iceland! It’s seriously so photogenic. Black basalt sand beaches, tall basalt columns and beautiful rock formations surround this cute little fishing town and make up the area of Reynisfjall (the mountains that lead to the black sand beach). It actually also happens to be the warmest part of Iceland with an average temperature of 41.5 °F. Yes, that’s warm for Iceland… But with the warmer weather comes a lot of rain, making it the wettest coastal town in Iceland, with an annual rainfall of 89 inches on average, almost 3x as much as Reykjavik.
You may recognize Reynisdrangar and Reynisfjall in the photos above from tv. Reynisdrangar are the basalt sea stacks situated under the mountain Reynisfjall at the black sand beach, and films such as Star Wars and Star Trek and shows like Game of Thrones. Legend says that the basalt stacks originated when two trolls dragged a three-masted ship to land unsuccessfully and when daylight broke they became needles of rock. There’s also several other folklore stories about how the rocks came to be, but the short answer is volcanoes and erosion from the ocean. One more thing to note when visiting the black sand beaches here: the waves of Reynisfjara are super strong and will push a lot further up the beach than one might expect. When they pull back away from the beach, their force is even stronger, and they’re more than capable of dragging unfortunate people away with them. In the short time we were there we almost saw it happen multiple times. Being from Florida, I guess it’s something I am aware of, but apparently they’ve had quite a few deaths here because of it.
As we left Vík we stopped by Vikurfjara black sand beach right before we kept heading east towards the Eldhraun lava fields, which are the largest in the world. The Laki eruption that happened in the late 18th century that caused this giant area of lava fields lasted almost an entire year, and is considered the most poisonous eruption to date. Wild. I couldn’t believe how far the lava fields flowed. Hundreds and hundreds of miles of lava rock covered by moss make up this section of Iceland (565 sq km to be exact). Fun fact, these lava fields were also where the Apollo 11 crew trained for their moonwalk in 1969 because the terrain was thought to be so similar to the moon. Pretty cool, considering I come from that little town in Florida where they launched that mission from (Cape Canaveral). Anyways, after exploring the lava fields we drove a little further and ended up spending the night in a cute cabin about 10 miles east of Kirkjubæjarklaustur. And no, I didn’t make up that name just hitting random letters on my keyboard as much as it may look…
Day 3: Glaciers & Diamond Beach
We woke up fairly early today and headed towards the Vatnajokull glacier, passing more lava fields and waterfalls along the way. This glacier happens to not only be the biggest in Iceland, but out of all Europe. However, without taking a guided tour where you can hike the glacier, there wasn’t really too much to see from the side of the road in my opinion. The real highlight of the day was visiting the Glacier Lagoon Jökulsarlon and Diamond Beach. Because Jökulsarlon is connected to the sea, the giant ice chunks that fall from the glacier drift out and into the ocean and the black sand beach is left sparkling in the sunlight with all the glacier pieces scattered, hence the name Diamond Beach. After the beach we continued on towards Vetrahorn mountain which turned out to be underwhelming, and finally ended our day in Breiddalsvik, a quiet harbor town.
Day 4: More Mountains, Gourges & Myvatn, the hidden Blue Lagoon
After a quick breakfast at our hotel, my parents and I got on the road by 9 am. Up until now, we had been stopping so often that we hadn’t had any long stretches of driving to be honest. But as you can see on the map below we were only about half way through the country at this point but since needed to be back to Reykjavik by the the next night we picked up the pace a bit.
As we started driving away from the town we drove through mountain pass that became gravel road. All the scenery at this part of the drive was starting to remind me of something out of Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. Just endless mountains and land as far as you could see with no civilization besides a small red cabin that was at the peak of
pass to provide cover to those in trouble. I seriously wish I had more time in Iceland cause I want to explore every last inch of it. Everywhere you looked was incredible. All in all, this area was super desolate but beautiful. We didn’t even see another car the whole time we ran around taking pictures in this area.
One thing I knew I wanted to do when I visited Iceland was swim in some of their beautiful geothermal hot springs. After doing a lot of research I came across the Myvatn Bath and Spa. Basically the same thing as the Blue Lagoon that you’ve probably seen pictures of near Reykjavik, but much less crowded and kind of off the beaten path. We stopped for about 3 hours here to swim and take pictures. They had lifeguards that brought you drinks (you pre order when you entered the spa), a nice locker room and a shower area and restaurant inside.
After the spa we stopped at yet another waterfall nearby called Goðafoss before ending our night finding a hotel in Blonduos. It was the perfect spot to watch the sunset.
Day 5: Vatnsnes Peninsula & Kolugljufur
Today we knew we had to make it back to Rekyavik so we only tried to stop a few times. First area we visited was the Vatnsnes Peninsula. We drove bumpy gravel highway around perimeter of the peninsula and saw the dragon rock formation (Hvitserkur), had the best seafood soup of my life at Geitafell Seafood restaurant and then visited the city of Hvammstang that’s known for being the city of seals, although we saw none.
Then we backtracked a little bit to go back and visit the Kolugljufur Waterfall and gorge, and saw some icelandic horses near a fence on our way out so we stopped to take some photos with them and feed them some grass. You could tell they get a lot of human interaction because they came right up to us and seemed to loved the attention.
After the horses we stopped by a gas station, grabbed some food and a coffee and made our way back to Reykjavik, traveling through a 6 km tunnel that passed under the Hvalffjordur Bay/Fjord at one point. I would have loved to visit the West Fjords but unfortunately due to time, and the conditions we weren’t able to. Definitely something I plan to stop and see next time I come to Iceland! If you want to see more about my trip, you can click the link below to view my instagram highlight of my trip, or head over to instagram.com/xoblondevoyage and click the Iceland highlight!
5 Day Road Trip Itinerary Summary
- Golden Circle
- Skogafoss waterfall
- Town of Vík
- Reynisfjall beach
- Eldhraun lava field
- Vatnajokull glacier
- Glacier Lagoon Jökulsarlon
- Diamond Beach
- Myvatn Geothermal Spa
- Vatnsnes Peninsula
- Kolugljufur Waterall and Gorge
- Icelandic Horses near the Gorge
- Back to Rekyavik