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…
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….