Setting out on a 3-month adventure through Iceland uncovers a wonderland almost too good to be true. Seeing this country’s magnificent geological features should be at the top of every traveler’s bucket list.
I admit we were as far from informed about Iceland’s diverse wonders as possible. Ordinarily, we’d be excited about knowing what to see after weighing up time and resources available.
As voyagers with no more knowledge than knowing that Iceland is more than just Reyjavik, we headed upcountry. We accepted that taking in the totality of its volcanic plateau of ice fields, rhyolite mountains, and a shoreline serrated by glacier-carved fjords would span lifetimes.
We had 10 weeks from October through December 2019 to unearth the nature of this island jewel, a tad smaller than Kentucky, glistening ice blue between the North Atlantic Ocean and the Greenland Sea, west of Norway.
Epic Iceland Road Trip: Tread Carefully on This Dreamland
One of Iceland’s well-regarded maxims is “Nature first, safety second,” in treating the sensitive environment with the utmost respect. Enveloping many lava formations, woolly fringe moss delicately forms a continuous layer. Not for tramping over — and congruous with coral — it takes 200 years for the moss to grow. One step can scar the landscape for decades.
Every undulating gravel road beckoned our Toyota Hilux, we affectionately call White Rhino. Winding around hairpin bends over all-but-impassable mountain passes, we ventured nowhere on a whim without checking the weather and road conditions first. Thanks to our onboard Motorhome Wi-Fi router and antenna, we tapped into these resources en route.
Common 100 mph gales blasted temperatures down to 10 degrees. Life in the deep freeze never ceased to amuse when our dish-drying towels routinely became stiff as a board. Hah! Storing those in our CFX fridge stopped them from freezing over.
Such extreme conditions caught us out. Our truck’s lithium battery — usually unbeatable — stopped working until it slowly returned to life from the cab’s heater. Fortunately, we fell back on a Dometic Portable Leisure Battery in the overlanding arsenal. Lesson learned.
South Iceland: You Don’t Look a Day Over Magnificent!
A heavily visited part of the country — cue imposing waterfalls and glaciers at your feet — South Iceland was where the distinctions of Icelandic landscapes were the clearest. Rift valleys surrounded by cliffs, gorges, and green slopes met jet-black deserts. Volcanoes silhouetted against the skyline.
Dotted along the coast, icy glaciers were streaked with black ash from fiery volcanic eruptions. Jagged cliffs dropped dramatically to the plains below.
Welcome to the Golden Circle. Here, it can become overcrowded, even during our arrival in the shoulder season. No matter, the south was an easy sell to get going.
An iconic black beach fringed with ancient basalt columns and photogenic sea stacks always looks tempting to the unassuming sightseer. But don’t be fooled: a raging power underpinned this place at the island’s southernmost tip.
Outside the quaint fishing village of Vik at Reynisfjara, waves smacked against the stony bulkheads along the shore. Foamy water sloshed onto the beach.
The cold plucked my body’s last vestiges of heat and I shivered at the thought of getting dragged into the undertow.
Jokulsarlon & Fjallassarlon Glacial Lagoons
Two-and-a-half hours northeast of Reynisfjara are Jokulsarlon and Fjallassarlon — both within a stone’s throw of Iceland’s 820-mile-long Ring Road.
Glacial lagoons see the blinding brilliance of icebergs floating lazily by as they drift out to sea. They created ice sculptures that washed up glimmering on the shoreline at Diamond Beach.
Seals swam in the blue lagoon or basked on the bergs. They barely batted an eyelid at the ferocious Arctic wind, often chopping the sea’s surface.
Vatnajokull National Park
North of Jokulsarlon, Vatnajokull is an ice-capped national park embracing 14% of Iceland and over 125 miles of the Ring Road. Few places on the planet possess such impressive natural phenomena.
This area is defined by massive glaciers, glittering rivers, steaming geothermal areas, booming waterfalls, black sand beaches, and luminous blue ice caves. Within the park boundaries, the battle between fire and ice rages.
South Iceland is where we found the actual “ice” of Iceland, including Vatnajokull glacier, a giant white unmissable blob on the map. The glacier seems so close to the locals that they often refer to the ice as part of their backyard.
There was nothing like seeing the glacier descend into black sands and hot streams erupt from frozen ice banks. What a place to live!
East Iceland: OD’ing on Iceland’s Rough Roads
Home to splendid pockets of remote fishing villages and natural harbors nestled in an isolated landscape cleft with innumerable fjords, the East felt off the globetrotter’s radar. Like all of Iceland, it was untouched. Geologically, the Eastfjords are one of the oldest regions of the island and the furthest from Reykjavik.
The landscape on the Southeastern side was remarkable. Think of mountains jutting from the earth close to the sea.
Sweeping headlands such as Stokksnes lure not just wilderness seekers to this pristine wonder but also the “Game of Thrones” cast and crew. Located between Papafjordur and Skardsfjordur fjords near Hofn and Hornafjordur, it’s one of the few plutonic gabbro formations on the island, from 8 to 11 million years ago.
An impactful sight at Skokksnes is Vestrahorn, a 1,489-foot-high magnet. No wonder it’s hailed by photographers that amass from all corners. Gushing over the splendor of the rock, we stayed for days on end.
By day, we paid it forward frequently winch-rescuing carloads of tourists in their 2WD rental vehicles, who’d gotten royally stuck in the black sand. By night, we tingled with terrific impatience to witness the northern lights inspired by the stills of the locale we’d drooled over for goodness knows how long.
And then the celestial magic unfolded. The aurora borealis displayed a solar-powered jig of shimmering green curtains flashing across the sky. Bearing witness to the coronal mass ejection in this dark spot at least 20 times over 10 weeks meant enduring inhuman temperatures.
Keeping all but my eyes covered and my face glued to the sky, some auroras glowed the softest emerald. Others rippled in a fleeting moment. Later, the miracle burst into the phenomenon that it was, discharging through the night.
West Iceland: West Is Best
Ping-ponging to the island’s opposite side, I heard west is best for some. A hidden pearl of nature by today’s standards, West Iceland stretches from the Botnsa River in the lush serenity of Hvalfjordur to the Gilsfordur fjord. Watersheds and glaciers border it.
From the frigid expanse of Langjokull glacier to the deepest depths of the lava caves, it’s a region rich in just about every known and hidden gem. What drew us in were the shape-shifting, stark lava formations of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, where the border between mountain and shore narrows. Iceland is distilled into a miniature of itself.
You don’t fritter away sunlit days in Iceland. The weather here is as cutting as it is capricious. The cornflower blue sky we encountered one day at Hvitsedur along the eastern shore of the Vatnsnes Peninsula was filled with fulmars.
The imposing Hvitsedur rock radiated energy that seemed to exude out of all 50 feet of it. With two holes at its base, it resembled a dragon taking a drink. Insatiable, I seized every moment I could get on the thing — a ravenous response to an obscene reckoning that was this rock.
On Snaefellsnes Peninsula’s northern shore, 90 miles northwest of Hvitsedur but not far from Frundarfjordur, we found Kirkjufell. Uncannily, the 1,519-foot prominence had all the hallmarks of the Sorting Hat in Harry Potter. Broad and flat-topped from one angle, it jutted up from the earth at another.
Entirely outside the Ring Road’s loop, 4 hours north of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, the Westfjords gave us some of the prettiest landscapes on the island. Peaceful and remote, it’s Iceland’s largest peninsula.
Gloriously, we encountered untold coastlines, cliffs buzzing with birdlife, and quaint little communities at the foothills. The roads were carved into an infinite series of table-topped mountains, descending pointedly to small settlements amid fjords sawtoothing the coastline. These were often accompanied by hot pots and cozy spots to make camp for the night.
It was an extraordinary, free-to-overnight (as can be found throughout the island), sparsely populated region. Precisely our kind of place.
North Iceland: A Must-Experience Majesty
Wending our way eastward, a special atmosphere befell North Iceland. Deep in the cragginess of the north, everything — weather included — seemed stormier and riotous but more spectacular because of it.
As the capital of the north, Akureyri at its heart provided us with a base from which to explore the wilds of the Diamond Circle. It’s distinguished by the ruggedness of Lake Myvatn, glacially fed waterfalls, frozen-over meadows, and striking leviathans. Dip your big toe into the frozen north if you dare.
Our first stop up north, between Akureyri and Lake Myvatn, was Godafoss. The “Waterfall of the Gods” was named for the pagan god statues and was where Icelanders plunged in after they converted to Christianity. Looking down into the seething barrage of the semi-circular cascade, my mind flooded with understanding as to why a near-religious significance was ascribed to this place.
Another formidable waterfall an hour down Road 842 was Aldeyjarfoss, situated midway in the glacial river, Skjalfandafljot. At this one, the water hollowed out peculiar columns of basalt formations and rock bowls, like a giant church organ suspended in a snowscape.
Positioned on the epic highland road’s northern edge, Sprengisandur, the threat of it disappearing grew as the hydropower dam construction neared approval.
Perhaps the most intoxicating waterfall in Europe, about 100 miles northeast of Aldeyjarfoss, Dettifoss tumbles glacial river at 500 cubic meters per second over its lip. If you’ve seen Prometheus’ opener, it’s easy to see why it’s a movie star. The force of Icelandic nature was at its most glaring display here.
Even from the parking lot (a 10-minute walk away), we heard the deep thundering of Dettifoss. Intense spray emerged beside the torrent as the iron-grey water churned relentlessly over the precipice. Were the Earth flat, this is surely what the edge would look like. A profoundly elemental side of Iceland, it made a mind-concentrating sight.
One of Iceland’s most active volcanoes — teeming with vital moss and ribbons of bizarre lava formations — Krafla, erupted nine times between ’75 and ’84.
After doubling back on ourselves for an hour from Dettifoss, we chanced upon the Krafla Geothermal Centre between the volcano and Lake Myvatn. As a world-leading geothermal power plant, abundant, sustainable energy is a blessing, providing warmth to local homes in the bitter wintertime.
Indeed, a soothing dip in the nearby hot springs warmed the coldest of my extremities. A stone’s throw away, I found myself in a geothermal heated outdoor shower. I’m not one to miss out on a complimentary wash but “refreshing” is a weak term when the air’s a stiff 14 degrees.
The Highlands: Remove Dentures, Tighten Bra Straps
Astronauts once trained on Icelandic terra firma. Hardly surprising when we saw the unearthly similarity to the moon. The stark Highlands, also called the desert interior, spilled over with lunar-like craters, glacial lakes and springs, jagged lava fields, hotpots, and explosive unnamed waterfalls.
My truly favorite region, it felt as unchartered as the seabed. Uninhabited as much as inhospitable, the interior wilderness is only accessible in the summer. It doesn’t have services or assistance nearby, and gas stations are few and far between. It was time to get our game face on. This overlanding business just got real.
Taking on several microclimates, the Highlands, which were mostly 2,000 feet above sea level, called for vigilance at all times. There’s a local saying: “If you don’t like what’s happening with the weather, wait 10 minutes.”
The summer is no stranger to cold conditions. It can snow on any day of the year in the Highlands. This was the one place where our decision to invest in an expedition truck with 4×4, drive-up-a-wall, all-terrain tire capabilities was never better appreciated.
During the onset of winter, sometime after official summertime was over when road closures increasingly occurred, White Rhino flawlessly navigated us to places 2WD vehicles simply wouldn’t have a hope of reaching.
Filled with deep glacial water, the streams and rivers barely hiding lethal currents regularly flooded without warning. Although the temperature drops by only a few degrees in the Highlands, it sometimes proves fatal during a downpour. Hypothermia can set in between 32 to 39 degrees.
Clearly, there was no better place to experience the pristine and powerful. That said, Iceland was a study in forbearance because light and weather changed nonstop. It’s what made the Highlands a photographer’s Shangri-La.
Near Hestalda and Rauðkembingar, a sequence of switchbacks in the Hekla Highlands cutting into the landscape took us on a marked track around an apple-red and fluorescent-green volcano called Raudaskal, otherwise dubbed Apple Crater.
Near the top, the route saw us negotiate a soft pillowy patch, where the gradient became sharper but manageable in the final third. Our derrieres getting an involuntary workout, we cautiously crested White Rhino on the moonlike crater and stood on the volcano’s edge, the abyss at our feet.
In a wicked wind chill, Jason’s ears glowed a crimson red in the crisp air. Worth every frozen finger and toe — even my gums were stone cold — the aerial view was as succulently sweet as it gets.
Having to conquer some deeper-than-advisable river crossings to get there, Thorsmork was a forested nature reserve. Lined by active volcanoes, the verdant valley of Thor was studded with vividly colored rhyolite mountains. Add in an arresting composition of erupting geysers, deep canyons, and on the outskirts, beautiful birch forests.
It was here we spotted our first Arctic fox roaming in the wild. Fed by the manager of the guesthouse in Thorsmork, the potbellied creature showed itself as pretty tame when proffered with chunks of reindeer sausage and salami breakfast leftovers every other morning.
Cyclonic Endings on an Epic Iceland Road Trip
Ten weeks charged by, which soon saw our penultimate day arrive. Dawn broke across the landscape, setting the snowline on vibrant silver fire. There was an eerie stillness about the island. The whole place seemed to be in the iron grip of its inestimable will. The skies were ablaze in neon pink and deep, dynamic lavender. Even the environment took on a glow from a light I’d never seen before.
While the mesmerizing silence ensued, disconcerting weather alerts raced across our phones. Urgent communications pinged and beckoned us to respond to a sailing update. Our crossing had been brought forward by 24 hours.
Startlingly, a 10-year bombogenesis cyclone was due to imminently hit Iceland in the north as we were to set sail out of the east. Maybe the Norse Gods were bored and would throw us a lifeline. We were still 170 snow-compacted miles from our ferry.
On top, the mountain pass to get us home was due to close, the only route leading us to safe passage. Alas. Even so, there’s nothing like a cyclonic bombogenesis to round off one’s Icelandic adventures.
Everything else was wiped out in our glorious surroundings and the absolute concentration of the icy ride hightailing it out of there. I set out catastrophizing, uncertain, but we reached our vessel, relieved and elated.
So Long, Iceland
There will always be jewels in Earth’s crown that have eluded all human endeavors to be tamed — fattened-up Arctic foxes excluded. Iceland is one of those precious gems — wondrously faceted yet boundlessly vulnerable.
For Jason and me, there’s more Iceland in our future. Whether that’s our second time or sixtieth, its enduring beauty perpetuated by unending change just won’t get old.
If nothing else, Iceland will sharpen the sense that there is no time to ponder how life should pan out. It’s a place that will leave you ready to embrace your aliveness. It will give you sparkling energy to imbibe the island’s dazzling vibrancy. It did me.