BUDGET ICELAND ROAD TRIP DAY 4 – JOKULSARLON GLACIAL LAGOON, SKAFTAFELL NATIONAL PARK, SVARTIFOSS, GEYSER AND GULLFOSS
And so following on from our day 3 adventure where we saw several of the delights of the South coast of Iceland, we woke up early on day 4 and set off to our next location, which luckily for us was a short 20 minute drive from the hostel we were staying in. We were headed to the ghostly, and quite fantastic location of the glacial lagoon Jokulsarlon…
Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon
The glacial lagoon of Jokulsarlon is really quite amazing. Formed where the huge Icelandic glacier Breioamerkurjokull started receding into the Atlantic Ocean – and very easily accessible from the Route 1 ring road – it is well and truly a natural wonder.
It is so easily accessible from the ring road, you may even get a shock when you drive through it. Surrounded by typical Icelandic landscape for the region, you suddenly drive over a bridge and find yourself in a ghostly Icelandic graveyard of ice and freezing blue water. Minute icebergs float around the lagoon, and the ice lake stretches all the way back to the foot of the glacier.
Its really a very impressive and otherworldly sight – so much so it has been used in several Hollywood blockbusters, including two James Bond films – A View To A Kill, Die Another Day, Tomb Raider and Batman Begins.
Impressively, Jokulsarlon is – like most natural wonders of Iceland – completely free. Most other countries of the world would charge a steep admission to see this place! My best tip would be to get there early. We stayed nearby overnight and was able to get to Jokulsarlon around 8.30-9am when it was still relatively quiet and the dreaded coach loads of tourists had yet to turn up. This meant we had a little while to wander around ourselves and enjoy the eerie silence of the lagoon ourselves.
The sound of the lagoon itself is worth a mention – you hear nothing but silence, the creaking of the lagoon, and wind whistling through the ice. Sparse and wonderfully creepy.
By about 10am the lagoon was already starting to get busy, with keen amateur photographers abundant. Despite being a glacial lagoon, it wasn’t all that cold when we visited in April. Obviously wrap up warm, but the area itself wasn’t freezing sub-zero temperatures despite being the setting of an ice lake.
Otherworldly, atmospheric, and so easy to access, Jokulsarlon should definitely feature high on any Iceland road trip list.
After a quick warm-up coffee in the tiny gift shop handily located next to the lagoon, it was back into the car and onto our next location, again not located too far away…
SKAFTAFELL NATIONAL PARK AND SVARTIFOSS
Skaftafell is a huge Icelandic national park, with the entrance and visitors centre located about 1KM from the Route 1 ring road. It is decently signposted and we had no issues finding it. Skaftafell is located around the area of the Breioamerkurjokull glacier (which Jokulsarlon above is formed from), and offers a variety of hikes around the region, some of which take you right up to (and even on) the glacier itself!
Sadly we didn’t have time to go on a glacial hike (as much as I would have liked to), so we settled on the much shorter (and I’m sure almost as impressive) hike to the beautiful waterfall Svartifoss.
The hike to Svartifoss starts to the left of the Skaftafell vistors centre, and is clearly signposted. It is not a particularly difficult hike, being just a few km on a relatively easily incline. It takes about 45 minutes to reach Svartifoss, and the hike is well worth it – you pass over the top of two other waterfalls on the way to Svartifoss, and the drama of watching the water tumble down from the top is always a fascinating sight to behold. After a while, the incredibly picturesque Svartifoss starts to come into view –
A few minutes later, you are standing right in front of it
Svartifoss is STUNNING. Such a reward for a small amount of work to see it. Similar to Jokulsarlon above, Svartifoss shares some of its ethereal, other worldly appeal.
The gothic, black, basalt columns formed by lava that surround the fall are incredibly atmospheric, and look too perfect and beautiful to be formed by nature alone –
We stayed and had a picnic. Certainly one of the most scenic lunches I have ever partaken in –
A short hike to the side of Svartifoss (less than 1km) is another trail to a viewing platform and compass, that I certainly recommend even if you are short on time. The trail leads you high up to the top of the mountain you have been climbing, which overlooks vast, vast kilometres of barren landscape below. It is a fascinating view. With nothing to block your way (this is a very isolated part of the Route 1 road) you can see all the way to the sea. Such a huge distance in visible we saw areas that were currently being rained on, and where the rain starts and stops.
On the opposing side of this spectacular view of the valley below, is fantastic views of the surrounding mountain range and the glacier Breioamerkurjokull itself.
Having dipped a toe into Skaftafell (there are much more intensive hikes available had we desired), it was back to the car and a long drive to our next destination…
GULLFOSS AND GEYSIR
Two iconic sights of Iceland, and stars of the famous “golden circle” of Icelandic must-see sights. We couldn’t come to Iceland and not see Gullfoss or Geysir. So in order to see everything we wanted to see, we had to fit them in today. Gullfoss and Geysir are very close together, but not at all close to Skaftafell, Svartifoss or Jokulsarlon. They are however vaguely close to Reyjavik, which is where we were headed back to, so back in the car it was for a long drive back across the country (break it up by stopping at service stations and tasting different flavours of Skyr yoghurt drink – top tip).
The drive back is full of incredible views, at least in the Skaftafell region, with waterfalls a-plenty and huge rock formations abound. Driving through a valley we genuinely saw the end of a rainbow! –
alas no pot of gold was to be found
We also passed the historic peat church located in Hof –
After a very long drive, we eventually arrived at the first of the two attractions, Geysir.
To be honest, I was quite disappointed by Geysir. As you pull up you initially just see a gigantic gift-shop and restaurant, and very little in the way of steaming geysers. Eventually you find the entrance across the street. Perhaps seeing so much awesome stuff previous (a glacial lagoon! Svartifoss! Walking through a geothermal meadow! etc) made Geysir seem terribly sterile in comparison.
Essentially what you see is this for a long time –
Followed by this, which is over so quickly you miss actually seeing it as you’re trying too hard to get a picture of it on your iphone –
It was perfectly fine, but the sights we had seen the day previous at Hveragerdi were comparable and MUCH more impressive.
Back in the car again it was to Gullfoss, the famous gigantic waterfall and star of the opening credits of Prometheus.
Sadly, again I was disappointed by Gullfoss. Perhaps being blown away earlier that day by the beautiful Svartifoss didn’t help, neither did visiting the incredible Seljalandfoss and Skogafoss the day previous either.
Gullfoss IS incredible. Much more visiually impressive than Geysir, but such a force of nature it was – at least the day we visited – quite hard to get close, or see it. There was SO MUCH freezing water in the air it kind of hurt your face. Lots of railings were closed off to see closer to the waterfall – not the fault of Gullfoss for being an awesome waterfall, just a little disappointing for us having travelled to see it –
I wouldn’t want to go on a Golden Circle tour myself. Compared to some of the sights we saw (which were not difficult to access at all), they just seem a little tame. Svartifoss, Hellnar, Seltun (which is to come on day 5), Vik beach, Jokulsarlon, Seljalandfoss and Skogafoss are all so much more impressive.
Back in the car it was again, and back to Reykjavik. We did intend to stop at a crater lake named Kerid that Bjork had once performed at on a raft –
Alas, our car got stuck in the mud extremely close to the Kerid crater, and we ended up being pulled out by a local (and very kind) Icelandic man in a tractor –
Tired having had a very busy day (and it was dark), with a car that we didn’t want to stick in the mud again we gave Kerid a miss sadly (I will return one day!) and made our way back to Reykjavik. We then proceeded to have an extremely drunken night out on the town in Reykjavik as is apparently the custom in Iceland.
We had one more day left, day 5 bought us a stinking hangover, the Blue Lagoon, and the amazing Mars-like Seltun…
Following on from our eye-opening (and often jaw-dropping) day 2 trip around the West of Iceland, day 3 started us off on the biggest leg of our Icelandic road trip. We were going to drive from Reykjavik all along the South West coast and spend the night in a hostel near to a Western Icelandic town named Hofn. This was so on day 4 we would be able to visit the incredible Icelandic glacial lagoon (but more about that in the day 4 blog-post).
Luckily for us, Iceland is almost entirely based around an enormous ring road that spans the entire country (imaginatively named Route 1), meaning it is very difficult to get lost unless you veer significantly off the road – you only really have two choices of direction, left or right!
We didn’t have a set plan for this day, we knew there would be some awesome stuff to see along the way, so we decided to set off and see what happened…this turned out to be an excellent plan, although we were perhaps a little over ambitious with how much we packed in (there really are not enough hours in the day).
Our first stop was somewhere that had a couple of paragraphs in the guidebook and sounded like an interesting stop off point. About 45 minutes drive out West of Reykjavik you find yourself driving through quite a few large greenhouses I assume are full of vegetables…ladies and gentleman, meet the town of –
As mentioned, our guidebook briefly mentioned this town, so we decided to stop and have a look around. The town itself is nothing to write home about, a very standard small Icelandic town. The pull of Hveragerdi lies in its location. The town is situated on a site that has high levels of geothermal activity. The familiar smell of sulphur is particularly strong here, and the mountains surrounding it all mist with hot steam pouring from cracks in their sides.
There is apparently a geothermal park in the town centre with mud pots and hot springs, however this was closed when we visited. The guidebook did also however mention a steaming hot river Reykjadalur…intrigued we decided to investigate further.
A small drive to the left of the hill behind the town lies the beginning of the trail to the mysterious steaming river. Wanting to see some geothermal activity ourselves in the flesh we decided to take it. We weren’t really anticipating a hike so early into our day, but our excitement pretty much glossed over that – “3KM in’t THAT far” was definitely a common reasoning used when we were deciding whether to hike or not.
The trail to the river Reykjadalur starts at the foot of a set of mountains. Unfortunately I was so excited about a magical boiling hot river I forgot to take my phone with me, so I don’t have a lot of pictures to illustrate very well.
The hike is initially quite easy, going relatively slight up the hill. The hill from the car park is quite exciting, first walking through a lukewarm (and very shallow) river, then as you climb the hill steam starts arising from the ground left right and centre. At the top of the first hill you conquer is a wonderful prize – a HUGE belching, bubbling, angry mud pot. Very much a taster of things to come, it certainly fills you with excitement and anticipation for what lies ahead.
Following the muddy belching highs of the first hill, the trail does unfortunately become a little less exciting although extremely scenic. What follows is a 2.5km hike through the mountains. Its not a particularly difficult trail, but it does get steep at times, and the weather was very erratic the day we went so come prepared! Stupidly, we didn’t quite grasp the scale of a 3km hike (and back) through the mountains, and didn’t bring any food or much water with us – this is something I would definitely recommend you do! Whilst not overwhelmingly far, a little food and drink would have certainly made the walk a little more pleasant.
The scenery on the hike is predictably incredible. You start to climb rather quickly after the first couple of hills, and you rapidly find yourself up high without having really noticed. Views of stunning steaming mountains, and a distant gigantic waterfall are really quite amazing. The trail wasn’t massively busy when we went either, so competing for space with other hikers shouldn’t be too much of an issue.
Eventually after 2.5km, you hit the really sweet spot of the hike, and one of the most wonderful places I have ever walked through – Hveragerdi’s amazing geothermal meadow!
The ground is steaming, sulphur is strong in the air, you can hear oozing, bubbling and hissing noises – this place was absolutely incredible. It felt like being on another planet, or in some sort of insane film set (it actually really reminded me of the initial room of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory where Augustus Gloop falls into the chocolate river, but less tropical obviously).
Explore, run about, look at all the crazy shit. Each geothermal pool is different, all visually stunning. My personal favourite (and luckily my friend snapped a picture) was this enormous gleaming powder blue bath. The blue was sparkling bright (not represented as well as it could be colour-wise in the picture). Unlike anything I had ever seen before, and completely amazing –
There are loads of these pools all over. Some blue, some red, some brown, some bubbling, some angry, some belching, some stationary, ALL AWESOME. It is a really special stretch of landscape, and the ability to wander through it and get right next to the crazy steaming pools and bubbling pots is different to other more tourist-focused parts of Iceland. In some places insane geothermal activity is roped off – very much “look but don’t touch”, here you can get stuck right in!
The hike to get there is SO worth it. A spot not too far out of Reykjavik I heartily recommend.
Having played in the geothermal meadow you will notice towards the end large amounts of steam coming from around the corner of the mountain in front of you. This steam tells you that you have finally arrived at your intended destination (although with all the geothermal distractions you may have temporarily forgotten) the magnificent boiling river Reykjadalur.
As I said, I unfortunately forgot my phone for this entire visually stunning hike, so the only picture I have of Reykjadalur is the one above of my friends in their underwear.
As you can see, the river itself isn’t particularly deep (or at least it wasn’t when we visited in April), but it really is a fantastic juxtaposition compared to the cold climate all around it. The river is not boiling, but a balmy temperature – very much like a hot bath. Having hiked all the way to get to it, taking at least your shoes and socks off and relaxing in what is essentially an entirely natural spa is incredibly satisfying – some people got well and truly stuck in, we saw one couple get completely naked and lie on their stomachs in the river and have a good slide around (despite the water level barely coming past my ankle).
With time pressing on, and still so much to do we hiked back to our car. The entire hike from start to finish took about 3-4 hours which we hadn’t planned on at all, but it really was so worth it. We then had a longish drive to our next destination, the truly stunning…
Seljalandfoss, wow. Nature at its most formidable, and most interactive. This is an absolutely enormous waterfall, enormous and incredibly beautiful. (to get a sense of scale check out the bridge in the top left part of the picture below). Easily viewed from Route 1, Seljalandfoss is famous for its beauty, and also for being a waterfall that you can walk around. You can see this waterfall from all angles, and it really is extremely impressive and special up close.
Starting on the route behind the waterfall, you instantly get a real sense of the absolute power Seljalandfoss has. You can actually feel its enormous energy as the water pummels the pool it falls into, and as you get close you get absolutely drenched with sheets of freezing cold mist and water vapour being given off from the fall. Its a unique experience and really quite amazing.
Going behind the fall, everything is completely hypnotic. Watching the falling water make shapes and patterns as it falls, then crashes below. Its definitely somewhere you can easily just stand and stare at.
Definitely a highlight of the trip, and a sight that is well worth seeking out. There are several other waterfalls a few metres to the left of Seljalandfoss too that are worth having a look at, although obviously none as impressive as this beast. Bizarrely the waterfall second biggest to Seljalandfoss has had a small concrete hut built directly in front of it, spoiling what could have been a second obscenely picturesque waterfall within a couple of hundred metres. Very strange positioning decision there.
Around 10 minutes drive on Route 1 you soon come to another of Southern Iceland’s most impressive waterfalls…
Similarly massive, and also reasonably interactive, Skogafoss is another beautiful and awe-inspiring sight. If you are doing a Route 1 trip West however and returning the same way, I’d actually recommend seeing Skogafoss on your return from the West, or at least independently from Seljalandfoss if possible. Two very impressive natural wonders within 10 minutes drive of each other inevitably means the impact of Skogafoss directly following Seljalandfoss diminishes somewhat, which is unfair as Skogafoss is extremely impressive in its own right.
Similar to how you can walk behind Seljalandfoss, with Skogafoss you can walk to the top! The climb is rather steep but not particularly difficult (prepare to be short of breath though), and from the top you can see the calm river behind drifting towards the fall, then crashing down below. The calm of the river to the drama and violence of the fall is again really quite impressive
Skogafoss is quite a wide waterfall and is really beautiful viewed from the bottom too. The basin is surrounded by dark rock and mist making it feel like a cave (The Little Mermaid “Kiss The Girl” scene vibes are rife here).
Our final stop of the day (friendly Icelandic petrol stations and supermarkets not counting) was another hour-ish drive down Route 1, and again something incredibly beautiful and scenic, the ghostly beach at…
Often voted one of the worlds most beautiful beaches, Vik is really something special. For some reason the usually bright blue Icelandic sea appears extremely white around the Vik area. Added to this the jet black sands of Vik beach and you have a landscape made in monochrome heaven.
The beach itself really does at times feel like the world has suddenly transformed entirely into black and white (think Pleasantville : Icelandic beach edition), and its hard not to have a bit of a beachy moment.
The white waves crash against the jet black beach in an absolutely stunning way, similar to the waterfalls above, its quite easy to be a bit mesmerised watching the tide crash against the shore –
Vik beach is also famous for its four black rocks jutting out of the sea in near distance, these rocks are named Reynisdrangur and are said to be the final resting place of four trolls that got caught in the daylight –
Reynisdrangur looming on the horizon as black silhouettes just add to the eerie otherworldly feeling of Vik beach, it really is a very special part of the world.
By now time was getting on, and we were still a long way from our final destination for the day near the town of Hofn. What followed after Vik turned out to be mildly terrifying. The night quickly came in, and soon we were driving in absolute pitch black. Route 1 doesn’t have any road lamps, just (very effective) cats eyes to light the way, and with no civilisation to light the route either we actually were driving in absolute darkness. Our hostel was about 3 hours drive away, and the last hour where the night really came in was actually quite scary at parts. If you are driving in Iceland don’t make the mistake we did, try to get to your destination before night comes in strong, driving in the pitch black isn’t too fun!
We did however eventually make it safely, and very quickly went straight to bed…we had a date with a glacial lagoon early on day 4…
So following on from my initial Iceland budget guide post , here starts my actual Iceland road-trip!
Iceland really IS in an incredible country, believe the hype – by far one of my most favourite places I have ever travelled.
We started out with a very early flight from London Luton, arriving in Reykjavik mid-morning. This was actually ideal because despite being tired it meant we had almost a full day at our disposal before our holiday started properly, so today was mainly about getting our bearings in Reykjavik, stocking up ready for the next day and getting hella drunk in the evening (as seems to be becoming my holiday first-night tradition).
Reykjavik Keflavik airport
As you land in Reykjavik you will probably notice the landscape is unlike anything you have ever really seen before – you enter over barren flatlands of dull green and brown almost entirely devoid of trees and houses. This is far from being the most scenic part of Iceland (if anything you enter over some of the most uninspiring landscape to be seen by Iceland standards), but it still gives you a taste of what is still to come, and be seen over the next few days – definitely worth trying to grab a window-seat.
As you depart the plane you will most likely be hit by a strong smell of sulphur – get used to it, being a huge geothermal rock sulphur is everywhere in Iceland, you won’t even smell it come 2 days down the line.
The next thing you will probably notice is how nice Reykjavik airport is compared to other airports you may have visited – I’m not trying to claim the place is palatial, but a large amount of sculpture, clean layout and friendly staff make getting through passports a much nicer experience than Stanstead for example.
Airport admin out of the way, we grabbed our hire car and set out to explore Reykjavik. As seems to be the way with most airports, Reykjavik Keflavik airport isn’t actually located IN Reykjavik, but around 45 minutes – 1 hours drive outside. Luckily its a pretty easy route – you turn right out of the airport and pretty much just keep on going.
Airport out of the way, we finally hit Reykjavik itself. Reykjavik is TINY, well at least by capital city standards it is. The most Northern capital in Europe, Reykjavik would probably only be handed town status in the UK.
If I’m being entirely honest, by day I didn’t really fall in love with Reykjavik as a city. Despite being framed by dramatic mountains and its very own stretch of the sea, I found it as a destination extremely functional. The general architecture isn’t particularly amazing (especially compared to other Scandi cities such as Bergen and Stockholm) again coming across as functional – think concrete boxes rather than fabulous.
Most places of interest in Reykjavik are located on the main streets right in the centre. Reykjavik is famous for its coffee shops and galleries of which there are plenty (alongside lots of tourist shops selling the likes of fur hats and mugs) but hey, I didn’t come to Iceland to drink coffee!
The main place of interest in Reykjavik is definitely the magnificent modernist church Hallgrimskirkja –
This huge hulking mound of stylised concrete is visually stunning, and really makes an impression considering its rather bland surrounding buildings. A statue of Viking Leifur Eiriksson (the first Viking to discover America I believe) stands proudly outside.
Being a bit of a geek for huge imposing buildings, I love this brooding grey rocket-shaped mass, and the symmetrical concrete pillars leading up to the churches main body are something of an OCD sufferers wet dream –
Inside everything gets a lot calmer, with the interior being surprisingly tranquil compared to the buildings prickly exterior, this is until you turn around and see the enormous organ based above the main entrance. Somewhere between a samurai sword collection and a transformer, it looks more like a weapon than a musical instrument – I loved it!
You can go to the top of Hallgrimskirkja’s 75m tower, buying a ticket from the gift shop (although nobody seemed to be enforcing this). You get a great view of the City and the surrounding mountains and sea (also see picture at the top of this post) –
The other main tourist draw of the city during daylight ours is the extremely unique Icelandic Phallological Museum.
Essentially (I believe) the worlds only museum dedicated entirely to male genitalia, its a fun little mooch around, but don’t expect too much. The museum isn’t really much bigger than one room, and to be honest it made me learn that human’s aside, most preserved animal penises kiiiiiinda look the same –
So Reykjavik is cute, but don’t expect too much. Its certainly not really comparable to most other capital cities worldwide, however compared to what was to come during our Iceland adventure, it certainly retrospectively felt like an enormous metropolis.
As I mentioned in my previous post we used this day to go to (what became) our favourite Icelandic supermarket BONUS to stock up on food for the days to come. There is one right in the City Centre, as well as pretty much where ever there is a significant human population, and the produce was good quality, and comparable price-wise to Tesco supermarket in the UK.
We then left the city centre to find our home for the next few days that we found through accommodation website airbnb. I cannot sing the praises of airbnb enough. I’m yet to find a city that it doesn’t cover, and aside from a smelly Parisian apartment a couple of years back I’m yet to have a bad experience, its really changed how I travel (ie. a lot more often and a lot cheaper).
We rented a 2 bedroom apartment in the Reykjavik old-town suburb which is about a 15 minute walk from the centre (5 minutes by car), which also happened to be right on the sea front. For the first night – and not realising what was still to come – this was highly exciting for us, we probably swore it was the most beautiful view we had ever seen several times (only to disregard that statement entirely once the day after happened). Here’s me looking like a dork by our little stretch of coast line –
We then ate some dinner I cooked up and proceeded to get VERY drunk and overexcited on account of arriving in Iceland. Reykjavik was nice, but it was absolutely nothing compared to what was to come on day 2….