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 rather subdued first-day in Reykjavik, things really started getting serious on our second day.
Initially we were at a bit of a blank with what we were to do with our second day. We had already pre-planned to explore the entire South coast of Iceland on days 3 and 4, and had booked accommodation accordingly, meaning we had a whole day at our disposal on day 2. A little bit of digging and research pointed us in the way of Western Iceland – the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Located about 2.5 hours drive out of Reykjavik, the peninsula is actually a national park and has a lot to see – more than enough to fill a day. So off we set.
This is a much less visited corner of Iceland compared to the typical tourist trails of the South Coast and “Golden Circle”, and we weren’t too sure what to expect. To be honest I don’t think our expectations were set enormously high, as we were expecting the main bulk of our breathtaking sights to occur on the South coast on days 3 and 4, so we went into Western Iceland with quite an open mind. It turned out to be an ideal starting point to see some of the insane scenery Iceland has to offer!
The drive itself out of Iceland is incredibly beautiful, passing through mountain after mountain before Reykjavik is even out of your sight-line, eventually crossing a low road straight through an estuary that leads to the sea. You will probably find yourself getting over-excited and wanting to photograph EVERYTHING from your car window (I know I was) – don’t bother, save your phone memory/film – these mountains are nothing compared to what is to come.
Eventually we came to what became our first stop of the day (snack stops not counting) at what we later learnt was Budavik. This wasn’t a planned stop, it just looked pretty interesting so we decided to have a look. On of the first sights you will probably see when passing here is the dramatic jet-black Stave Church standing lonely next to a huge lava-field :
The Church is what initially caught our attention, and we got out to investigate. As I mentioned, right next to the church is a huge and mightily impressive lava field. This was the first lava field we had properly seen in Iceland (little did we realise how many there were to come), and we were properly amazed. It really was our first real look at the otherworldly Icelandic landscape we had heard so much about –
The lava field is really fun to run around and play in – whilst we were there we saw somebody else meditating on top of a flat lava spike. Its actually quite a small field in comparison to others we saw later on, but as our first it was extremely impressive.
We wandered around a bit further near the church, and quickly realised we were walking in what affectionately became known as “The Valley of the Hair”.
This place really is like something from a Disney film. Mountains of strands of long, sandy grass spilling over an entire valley – if this hasn’t influenced at least one animated film already, I’d put it as a certainty to do so in the future. The entire landscape is quite surreal and made a great backdrop for a lot of photo ops –
“The Valley of the Hair” leads down to the sea, and a picturesque if relatively unspectacular beach (in comparison to other beaches we were yet to see). But as our first real glimpse at Iceland’s coastline, we were pretty happy –
I mentioned above “The Valley of the Hair” being a Disney-esque landscape, it probably won’t be a surprise that this area of Iceland has been the setting for several films in the past, most famously “Journey To The Centre Of The Earth” by Jules Verne. Having reached Budavik, we were actually now inside Western Iceland’s national park “Snaefellsjokull”, and the landscape was only going to get more dramatic the further we went in…
Raudfeldsgja is something we very nearly missed. Having left Budavik and our beloved Valley of the Hair, we were back on the road and in the car, when from the road we saw a very dramatic looking cliff with a huge crack in it. It looked very intriguing, however we didn’t realise we could actually go up close until we saw the “Area Of Interest” sign that will quickly become familiar to any tourist making their way around Iceland. Seeing the sign we quickly spun the car round and pulled up to get a closer look…
My photographs of Raudfeldsgja unfortunately do not really do it justice. For some reason the scale of it doesn’t translate on the iPhone camera at all, making it look a lot smaller and less dramatic than it actually is! Raudfeldsgja is pictured behind me in the photo above, and is essentially a narrow cleft that mysteriously disappears into the huge cliff wall. Its a 10-15 minute hike up to the cleft, which is steeper and trickier than it looks, with the last part being in deep (and sinking snow), with a long drop into a stream on your left hand side.
Out of our party of four, I was the only one that managed to make it to the crack in the cliff face (the other three didn’t die, they simply gave up). This picture taken from the cleft makes the scale a little clearer, with my two friends looking like little ants in the snow climbing their way towards me –
However it still doesn’t really translate the scale properly at all.
Inside the cleft you can go right inside the cliff face, and discover a stream that runs right up the mountain. You can hop along rocks a decent way along the stream, and the views upwards from inside are pretty stunning (there were also lots of dead birds lying around in very states of decay). Sadly my pictures from inside didn’t come out too good, but here is a close up of the rift in the cliff itself –
and here is inside the cliff looking upwards, this was really beautiful looking at it in real life –
Having gotten out of the cliff and back in the car, the next thing to grab our attention was Arnarstapi which has a gigantic troll monument clearly visible from the road –
Giant stone troll aside however, there ain’t much to see here. Our next stop was something we had read about in a guidebook, but look very underwhelming on entry…ladies and gentlemen, how wrong we were….
For Western Iceland Hellnar is a relatively big place, with a hotel and several houses in the surrounding area. We had been told it was a good place to stop, and it was signed as a place of interest, but driving towards it we had very little idea WHY.
We soon came to learn in Iceland that many places only really display their charms to you when you get right up close to them – be it a crater, a waterfall or a cliff edge, you often don’t get to see what it is you actually came to see until the very last second, and Hellnar is no exception.
You drive up to Hellnar and start walking towards the coast not really knowing what to expect, then as you approach the cliff edge everything starts to spill out underneath in wonderfully dramatic fashion. I really loved Hellnar, its one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited –
From a long shot, it’s probably not entirely clear what everything is. Essentially Hellnar is home to some insane rock formations. I had so many pictures of crazy rock patterns on my phone after visiting this place, its pretty amazing that some of these patterns are formed naturally –
These formations are all over, everywhere you look – its a pretty inspiring place visually.
Hellnar’s trump card however is its huge rock-arch to the side of the coast line, Badstofa. This big arch houses its own small (and very angry) lagoon inside, of which waves are constantly crashing against the rocks in an extremely dramatic fashion. I could watch this all day, the scenery is mesmerising. I tried really hard to get a really strong wave-crashing photo, but my timing was all wrong – this was the best I managed –
Hellnar is definitely a hidden delight of Iceland, and somewhere I definitely recommend. I would have liked to have spent longer there – the entire bay is pretty hypnotising.
Back in the car, and we saw our next destination from several kilometres away. Several huge jutting rocks hurl themselves out the sea in imposing style at Londrangar –
You can walk right up to them, but sadly we didn’t have time. We did however have lunch by the insane rocket-shaped lighthouse at nearby Malariff (which I forgot to take a picture of). Malariff has a very angry sea right under its coastline, and its well worth taking a few minutes to watch the waves crash against the rocks.
Next up was another place that wasn’t instantly visible from the road, but was so worth the short walk to see it…
By this point you are well into the huge national park, and the massive mountain Songhellir is pretty much what you are driving around – views of it from the road are pretty breathtaking.
Dritvik is a beach area, right next to another beach area called Djupalonssandur. I’m not entirely sure which beach is which as they are pretty much next to each other, so I’m going to call the area Dritvik, purely because it is easier to write.
This is a seriously stunning area, well worth an entire afternoon of your time (if you have it) as opposed to the hour or so we could spend here. Walking towards the beach you will pass a small rocky arch Gatklettur, with some accessible (and very beautiful) mineral pools behind it –
Heading down to the beach, you will walk through the remains of the shipwrecked British ship Eding which was wrecked here in the 1940s – eerie right.
The beach itself is amazing. Really stunning. Middle earth, black sands, rock formations everywhere you look. Take a while and have a walk, the landscape is so incredible, and all set among the backdrop of a completely clear, angry sea empty of ships and boats –
Have a play on the rocks, take some pictures, soak in the environment, this was a really stunning area to visit.
Back to the car, and the day was getting on, we didn’t have too much time before darkness would become us (not forgetting we had still to drive back to Reykjavik), but we still had time for a couple more stops…
Saxholl is an accessible crater a short drive off the main road. The climb to the top is about 300m, but isn’t too tough going. The views from the top are magnificent, enable you to see over a huge section of completely uninhabited land. The vast distances of huge plains of emptiness are quite unique for a Londoner, and really quite beautiful (this is looking down from the top of the crater, the height doesn’t seem to have come through too well, those small blobs of white were massive snow patches!) –
The crater itself is dry inside, and again extremely scenic to look down into (and another thing on this road trip that didn’t translate particularly well on an iPhone camera!) –
Our final stop was a bit of a curveball, another beach we had read about Skarosvik.
Skarosvik is completely unexpected. Having spent the day on dramatic black sand beaches, surrounded by lava fields, craters and rocks, suddenly you have a perfect golden sand Caribbean-style beach right in front of you! This beach is flawless, and again a really beautiful spot particularly (I imagine) in the warmer Summer months –
The road past Skarosvik apparently leads to some amazing bird cliffs which we tried to access, but I really wouldn’t recommend in a two-wheel drive. Its a very tough and rocky road, and a very remote place to find yourself in trouble with your car…
It was now starting to get late, and as such it was time for us to turn back to Reykjavik. The road home was as unexpectedly scenic as our day had been, taking us to a dramatically different landscape – all of a sudden we were going over snowy mountains, very different to the lava fields below –
We also saw mirror-clear lakes of which the mountains reflected into – landscape lovers, stuff like this will make you cream your pants –
By the end of the day Western Iceland had absolutely out-done our expectations. The landscape was awe-inspiring, vast and varied, and a fantastic introduction to the wonders of the country. What had initially started as a “might as well give this area a go” definitely turned into some of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. Top tip though (and this basically applies to EVERYWHERE in Iceland) – take food, water and make sure your car is good for petrol. Places to pit-stop are few and very far between…
Our next day saw us take on our first leg of the might and the wonder of the Southern Icelandic coast….
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….