Not that any number of photos could do Iceland any kind of justice, but hey, we’re meant to try. For ten days in August, I road tripped around Iceland with two girlfriends. We often drove for 12+ hours each day, encouraged by the long daylight hours of Icelandic summer and the conviction that we’d miss something amazing if we slowed down.
Icelanders call their country Ìsland, a fitting name for an European country that’s around 600 miles away from its closest Scandinavian neighbor (Norway). The city of Austin, Texas has a population more than twice that of the entire country of Iceland, 75% of whom live around the capital Reykjavik. Much of Iceland’s land ends in fjords—long, narrow pieces of coastal land that lay side-by-side, trapping bodies of water between them. Fjords both multiply drive time (con) and look stunningly beautiful (pro). According to one of my road trip buddies, they look like long fingers on a map.
Unlike many of my other trips, we didn’t have a particularly clear itinerary until the morning we left to pick up the car. Hell, sometimes we woke up without a clear itinerary for the day and let visitor information centers, Google Maps and the weather determine where we went. But the best maps and most insightful advice came from Icelandic locals and other experienced backpackers already in Iceland.
Even with 10 days of almost maximum daylight, so many things had to be cut from our trip—the hiking paradise Hornstrandir, for example, and cloudy rain ruined our chances of seeing Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon, the crashed plane Sólheimasandur and any visible northern light activity. The potential of a trip to Iceland is seriously absurd. To make it a little easier for future travelers and to keep the spirit of my own road trip alive, I’ve included some of my favorite snapshots below of the most beautiful, awe-inspiring country I’ve ever been in.
Day 1-4: Southern Iceland
1. Views of national capital Reykjavik from the iconic church Hallgrímskirkja.
2. Passing by Hallgrímskirkja, the church, after a fun free walking tour via citywalk.is.
3. We drove to Landmannalaugar, an area in the interior of Iceland that is connected by a road only open during the summertime, called F-208. “F-Roads” refer to unmaintained, unpaved gravel roads (to our dismay) that are usually seasonally open, full of river crossings and accessed via 4×4 only.
4. We stumbled upon a glowing little glacial melt during our day trek around Landmannalaugar. All the green is endless moss covering volcanic or lava rock.
5. After Landmannalaugar we drove the Golden Circle to Strokkur (a geyser) and Gulfoss waterfall (pictured here). The suffix “-foss” means “waterfall” in Icelandic.
6. Admiring Skógafoss, another incredible waterfall in the south of Iceland, in the middle of a freezing downpour (my misery not pictured).
7. Standing directly above Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Iceland and in all of Europe, via day hike in Skaftafell National Park.
8. Trying to wrap our heads around the crazy basalt columns of Svartifoss waterfall.
9. Jökulsárlón, a glacial lagoon of floating icebergs, formed when a glacier receded from the Atlantic Ocean.
10. We wandered across the street after checking out Jökulsárlón to find a misty, jet-black sand beach with glittering floating ice and waves that glimmered green and blue. We ended up rolling around in surprisingly warm sand for two peaceful hours.
11. Shout out to skyr (Icelandic yoghurt) for existing. This stuff is high-protein, low-fat, and tastes better than any Siggi’s ever could.
Day 5-6: Northern Iceland
By now I learned that I underestimated the misery of having everything I own perpetually wet and cold. In retrospect, two rain jackets would have been a good idea. Or a battery-powered hair dryer.
I also learned that Iceland is not the place to go on a budget. I was mentally prepared for expensive, but $50 – $100 USD just to fill up on gas every single day?! So we camped for the majority of our nights (still $10-20 USD per person, per night) and existed on groceries from Bonus, Iceland’s discount supermarket. Instead of real meals, we ate chocolate digestive biscuits, ramen, carrots, apples, salami and skyr at irregular intervals while usually still on the road. We lit up over free gas station coffee and $16 fish and chips from a food truck.
12. My camera had died twice already by the time we pulled over in the eastern fjords, but I managed to warm the battery up enough to snag this one shot. The clouds were getting lower and lower as the day went on, making every mountain look ethereal and special.
13. This photo captures one of the many times we started driving in the wrong direction but kept going because it was too beautiful to turn around 🙂
14. The most powerful waterfall in Europe (Dettifoss) is the main attraction here, but when I turned around, I think this view is even better. I love the way the water winds its way through the little canyon.
15. What blew my mind the most about Dettifoss is that there are no guard rails, fences or otherwise anything at all to prevent us from just jumping into the water. It’s like in Iceland they trust us not to underestimate nature, which makes the waterfall’s power so much more potent and real for us.
16. Viti Crater is situated at the end of a kind-of paved road, surrounded by eerie power plants and strangely colorful hills. We took a short jaunt around the crater itself, which is filled with aquamarine blue water.
17. Krafla Geothermal Power Station is the largest power plant in Iceland, employing about 15 full-time workers and still looks like a foreboding scene out of a dystopian movie.
18. Hverir is an active geothermal area full of bubbling mud pots, blowing steam vents and the stench of rotten eggs (ie sulfur). The colors are unbelievably vivid purples and hues of orange.
19. The crater Hverfell is massive. It’s so huge that it took a kilometer of climbing ashy black sediment just to reach the top of it. I was winded by the walk up and also by the wind itself, which is much stronger up there — that and the view of the surrounding area of lava fields and Lake Myvatn almost blew me away.
20. Hvítserkur — this huge, majestic stone rising inexplicably out of the sea, out on northwest Vatnsnes peninsula — cost us a two-hour detour because we got so caught up in talking/bonding that we missed a turn. Legend says that Hvítserkur is a petrified troll, though to me this stone looks like a drinking rhino.
21. All I can think when I snapped this photo was “little house on the fjord”.
Day 7-8: The West Fjords
If you don’t know anything about the West Fjords, well, neither did I, really. Around 10% of tourists make it out to the northwest peninsula of Iceland, off the Ring Road and on some seriously treacherous, unpaved cliffside roads. The West Fjords are also largely uninhabited (housing about 2% of the Icelandic population), full of wildlife, and a great place to see nobody.
At this point, our rental car–a 4×4 Subaru Forester (we named her Heidi, affectionately)–became more of a family member than a temporary rental car to us. She drove through lava rocks, held her own on top of a glacier, wound through ocean side cliffs with no railings; she kept us safe from freak storms and she was big enough (well, sort of) to sleep all three of us when it was too rainy to tent; she was a clothesline while we air-dried our towels and jackets. The fact that she was mud-splattered, grimy and reeked of wet socks and rotting carrots by the end of our trip was more of a testament to how much she had been through with us rather than a symbol of our ratchetry.
22. Our first stop in the West Fjords was Ísafjörður, the largest town in the area and surprisingly warm and charming. We hiked up a steep mountain without a trail to get an aerial view to find that the town is almost shaped like an oblong amoeba (town center) with a long tail (the main road in and out).
23. Dynjandi is a series of waterfalls in the West Fjords, perfect for tinkering with (shutter speed and aperture-wise) on the camera 🙂 I was really excited to find the day overcast enough to practice shooting some longer exposure shots for the silky water effect.
24. Small human for reference against the mighty Dynjandi. I was particularly enamored with the way this waterfall cascades unevenly against itself all the way down, rather than falling in one clean sheet of water.
25. After 2.5 terrifying hours of driving on winding, unfenced cliffs in rain and mist, we made it to the jagged, colorful cliffs on Latrabjarg — the westernmost point in Iceland (hello, Greenland!).
26 . Standing as close to the edge of the látrabjarg cliffs (or as close as the crazy winds would allow) as possible produces a million shades of exhilaration, euphoria and the biggest feeling of being alive all mixed together. It’s better than skydiving.
27. They said rauðisandur (pictured here) would be red. But the beach was clearly full of pumpkin-orange sand, albeit just as beautiful and flanked by misty mountains on either side.
Day 9-10: West Iceland
West Iceland is a hidden gem (even Lonely Planet says so!). If I had just a few days to explore Iceland, I’d poke around Reykjavik for a day, take a peek at Gulfoss waterfall and spend the rest of my time exploring the area immediately north of Reykjavik and to the west of it. The Snaefellsnes peninsula in particular is full of incredible craters and cliffs, mountains and caves, waterfalls and charming little towns (Stykkishólmur takes the cake here).
28. We drove on F-Road 550 all the way to the base of Langjökull, the second largest glacier in Iceland.
29. The glacial melt and sediment streams (found while walking on Langjökull glacier) look like milk tea. For real.
30. One of my road trip mates made an impressive and peaceful habit of quietly observing the views without bothering with her camera, phone or chatter. The incredible cliffs of Anarstapi is a particularly good place to do that, I mused (but while I took a picture of her, of course).
31. The famous black basalt cliffs and caves at Anarstapi are so intricate that it doesn’t look like the unintentional work of trillions of crashing waves.
32. Mount Stapafell is sitting pretty behind this epic hole-into-the-ocean-cave hybrid, creating the natural bridge pictured above. Inside the cave (below the feet of the little people in this photo) are hundreds of swooping seagulls, in and out of the waves and cave.
33. Kirkjufell is the most photographed mountain in Iceland and has an interesting, unusual shape, which reminded me of the tip of a wilting elf hat (albeit the most beautiful elf hat I’ve ever seen). The mountain is also flanked by little waterfalls, the coast and a little town called Grundarfjörður, adding to its grandeur 🙂
34. Our final stop was Glymur, the tallest waterfall in Iceland. It’s a three hour, easy round trip hike to reach the best views of the falls, with plenty of wild (and edible!) blueberries along the first part of the trail and just a few slippery, steeper sections near the end. The waterfall itself is nestled inside sweeping canyon views with what seemed like thousands of flying seagulls. The higher we climbed and the closer we approached Glymur, the more of the ocean we could see behind us. At this point my camera battery was gone again (camping each night meant that I rarely was able to use a plug to recharge) and I didn’t care at all. Sitting on a ledge without thinking about composition and lighting made soaking in the view so simple and effortless in ways that having a camera just doesn’t help with.
35. Last note — these guys run amok everywhere in Iceland. For their tendencies to run into oncoming traffic and calmly strut away, a lot of sheep are dubbed “suicide sheep”.
Cheers. Get up, get out and go to Iceland as soon as you can. Feel free to drop a line below if you’ve been to Iceland, are planning to go (and are really excited about it, woohoo) or have a favorite memory from the ísland 🙂