Iceland has been incredibly shaped by nature. Water, fire, quakes, their marks are everywhere. From active volcanos to gigantic glaciers and impressive waterfalls, it offers plenty of sights for travelers. Extreme but stunning, many say it’s a country you got to visit both in winter and summer. Having a week off in February and as a winter lover, I took the opportunity to ticked the first season off the list.
After an almost 24hrs trip, we finally landed in Keflavik International for the start of our Icelandic journey. We rented a 4×4 car to freely organize our road-trip. And we did well, Icelandic roads can be a bit (a lot) tricky during winter time, and to be honest, ice and wind don’t help.
We took advantage of the airport location, on the Reykjanes Peninsula, to explore the area before heading to Reykjavik and our hostel. A couple of hours in the Peninsula were enough to realize how important the volcanic activity is on the island with the world famous Blue Lagoon and the Krysuvik geothermal fields, filled with hot springs, mud pools and sulphur deposits.
Road Trip, Day 1 : Kerið, Geysir, Gullfoss and Seljalandsfoss
After a night in Oslo airport, sleeping in a bunk bed was like staying in a palace. We had a decent sleep and were ready for an early start in the morning. A kiwi backpacker, met the night before, joined us for the trip. All set, we hit the road heading East and the Golden Circle. Icelanders ironically call this route the golden circle as it includes three popular tourists attractions nearby Reykjavik, and the many gift shops, coffees and restaurants as well as organized day tours, kind of help taking travelers’ money …
Remember when we were told roads can be tricky in Iceland ? Well, we’ve experienced it straight away when leaving the capital. We were heading toward Thingvellir National Park, our first stop of the day, but the road was closed due to extreme weather conditions (strong winds and ice). We had to take an hour and a half detour on road 1, meant to be the well maintained main road … but instead it was like driving on an ice rink with zero visibility!
We finally made it to our first stop of the day: Kerið, a 170m wide volcanic crater. The place is usually nicer in Summer with a color palette of red, green and orange, but winter time also offers a nice sight.
A few kilometers later, Geysir is a more interactive place, the Geyser can hurl boiling water up to 60 meters in the air and erupt every 5 to 10 minutes, a fun thing to see even if it’s crowded with dozens of tourists trying to get the perfect shot. 15 minutes from here is Gullfoss Waterfall, after flowing down through what looks like a staircase, the water disappears into a 32 meters deep fissure. From above, the falls have a mighty appearance and with the ice formed by extreme temperature, the whole place looks incredible and truly spectacular.
After a home-made traveler style lunch (toast, ham and cheese, any backpacker knows what I’m talking about). We headed South-East to Seljalandsfoss Waterfall, a beautiful 60 meters fall over cliffs that were once part of the coastline. We had fun climbing up the slopes to shot the place from every different angles and started our “slide your bum down the icy slope” contest.
We then drove toward Vik, on a road stuck between mountains (volcanos) and ocean. The golden hour started and offered us an absolutely stunning sunset. We basically stopped the car every kilometers with a breathtaking sight of the ocean on our right and a not less amazing full moon rise on our left. Best way to end the day!
Day 2 : Vík, Fjaðrárgljúfur, Vatnajökull and Jökulsárlón
We’ve stayed in Vík for the night. The village location is ideal as it’s halfway between Reykjavik and Jökulsárlón and nearby the southern most point of the island. Vík is well known for its black sand beaches, another evidence of the volcanic activity in the area. We got up early enough to catch the sunrise on the beach, a perfect morning start before hitting the road again.
We quickly found ourselves alone on the road, a pleasant change after the rush of buses and tourists we’ve experienced the day before. The feeling we had of being lost in the middle of no where was incredibly peaceful. An hour drive later, a mass appeared in the horizon: Vatnajökull. The second largest ice cap in Europe. It covers 8% of Iceland, with around 30 outlet glaciers and numerous volcanoes. The ice cap can apparently be seen from the Faroe Islands, 550 km away from here, which makes it the world’s longest sight line. It explains the sensation you have when you drive there: seeing it for hours but not getting closer.
A couple of hours after leaving Vík, we reached our first stop, Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon. The road was indicated as being impassable but our beloved Raffy the Rav4, brought us close enough to the Canyon. We then started our exploration, with no one around but 3 other adventurous travelers. The spot is truly incredible, the Canyon gradually rises and you can walk along its ridge for spectacular views. When you walk along the river in it, you feel like you are surrounded by giant rocks. The “slide your bum down the icy slopes” contest was part of the game again with a thrilling slide down the Canyon’s steep slopes. Definitely one of my favorite stop of the trip. Avoid all the tourists rush, and being able to quietly walk on the ice or rocks was thrilled us. We felt like we had the place for us.
We then got some food for lunch in a small settlement off the main road and headed to Jökulsárlón, the glacier lagoon. Timing was good again as we arrived an hour before sunset. It allowed us to wander around, waiting for a stunning winter golden hour (another one … !). The lagoon is filled with Icebergs breaking away from an outlet glacier of Vatnajökull and then dragged to the ocean by wind and tides. Walking around the shore, with seals playing in the water, plenty of luminous blue icebergs and mountains in the background, was a perfect way to wait for the sunset. And when it started, the whole area became magical …
We then drove to the Eastern most point of our trip to get to our hostel for the night. A cosy place located on a flat land between mountains and ocean. The full moon that night ruined our hope to catch the Northern Lights but allowed us to wander around the area with no need for headlamp, we enjoyed the quietude and even met some friendly and curious Islandic poneys.
Day 3 : Vík and Skogafoss
Our itinerary involved from the beginning to drive back from where we were coming as we didn’t have time for a loop ride around the island. But we kept a few spots to explore on our way back to Reykjavik, starting with a stop in Reynisfjara, a black sand beach with basalts columns and caverns West of Vík. A few kilometers later, we took a track off the road to reach the crash site of an old DC-3 from the US Navy brought to the ground due to bad weather in the 70’s. A part from a few holes and a missing cockpit, the structure isn’t that damaged and offers some nice photo opportunities.
A few kilometers before the road section where we’ve stopped for sunset on our first day, is Skogafoss Waterfall. A mighty 25 meters wide and 60 meters high drop. The place is impressive. As Seljalandsfoss, the waterfall is situated at the cliffs of the former coastline, clearly delimited when visiting that part of the island. Due to the amount of spray produce by the fall, a rainbow is often seen on sunny days. After trying to get closer to the fall without falling (the ground was covered with ice). We climbed up the stairs on the right, bringing us to a platform overviewing the whole place. It revealed a beautiful river of ice, flowing down from a canyon. I followed the track to find out two other waterfalls and a winding gorge with the Eyjafjallajökull ice cap and volcano in the background. This spot remains as my favorite one during the trip. Tour buses were gone, the place was empty and peaceful. The golden hour brought a shadowed yellow to the landscape and the result was simply mindblowing …!
We then completed the 2hrs drive to Reykjavik and went back to the hostel we’ve stayed at on our first day in the city. Chilled atmosphere and a (few) well deserved beer(s) after the 1200+km we had done in three days.
Day 4 – Sneafellsness Peninsula, Grundarfjörður and Thingvellir
We used the last day of our journey to explore the Western Peninsula of Sneafellsness and its main fjord Grundarfjörður. After crossing a pass in the middle of the peninsula, we reached the Fjord and the Kirkjufell mountain and waterfall. The falls were covered with ice, with the opportunity to get fine shots of the area.
We then headed back to Reykjavik but we stopped first in Thingvellir. We’ve missed the place due to a closed road on Day 1 of our trip but finally got the chance to visit it. Thingvellir is home to the first ever European parliament during the Viking era. Iceland independence was proclaimed in here too. It is also known as the evidence of Iceland’s location on the mid-atlantic ridge. Here you can clearly witness the earth crust’s movement and the continental drift between the North American plate and the Eurasian plate, with the apparent fissures and faults. A must see place for nature and geology onlookers.
Iceland has been an intense but amazing journey. It is extreme, its location and nature made it extreme, but it’s worth a trip. I’ll have to plan a stay in summer to explore the rest of the Island and hike the countless tracks and summits in the center area, unaccessible in winter. Outdoor enthusiasts with an interest in geology should definitely consider a visit, the island showed a great potential for adventures … I’ll definitely come back soon!
Best hostel of the stay:
Bus Hostel Reykjavik, we stayed there as we got a discount with our car rental. The infrastructure are clean, staff is friendly and available 24hrs a day. Beds are comfy and if you’re travelling with your sleeping bag you won’t have to pay for linen. They also have a bar which kind of make the difference if you want to socialize with your fellow travelers!
Car rental company:
SadCARS, they are way (way) cheaper than usual car rental companies. But cheap price involves older cars, way older. But I knew from experience it is usually perfectly fine and indeed it was. The Toyota Rav4 they gave us, has been totally reliable for the whole length of the trip. The heated seats at the front were terrific and it brought us anywhere even with the poorest driving conditions! I’d recommend to take the gravel insurance though. We got a few rock chips during the trip and it happens all the time here!