Crossing Iceland off the bucket list

This is going to be a massive post. We spent 10 days Iceland in September 2018 and I want to break it down for us and for anyone who may want to know WAY too much about our time on this island. If you’re just looking for some tips and our absolute top experiences, feel free to jump to the bottom of the post. If you’re here for the long haul, get your favorite beverage because I have SO many things to tell you.

I love intensive travel planning. I want to know all the gems, all the tips, everything we might want to see, do or eat. There always comes a time when I’ve narrowed down the agenda that I stop planning. I don’t need yet another thing to add as a definite (or a maybe) stop, and I want to get away from the myriad of images online so as not to taint the actual experience of being in a place and really seeing it.

This point never came with Iceland. Sure, I had an itinerary, but I researched and ogled up to the night before we left. I still worried that seeing the stunning sights so many times online would make the real thing less stunning. Those fears were completely misplaced. Iceland is beautiful online. It is otherworldly in person. So if this is your first or your 131st blog looking for Iceland information, rest assured that what you’ll see below is nothing compared to seeing it in real life.

When we traveled: Sept 1 – 13, 2018

Flights: Delta (connecting through Milwaukee on the way out and NYC on the way back)

Accommodations: Three AirBnBs (noted below) and one night at Hotel Keflavik

What we did

Day 1: Arriving and getting a taste of Iceland

After landing, buying liquor at Duty Free, and picking up our rental car, we settled in for the the long drive to our first AirBnB. This lodging was strategically placed to give us access Iceland’s southern coast and put us in striking distance of Jökulsárlón. Driving in Iceland is super easy (they drive on the right side of the road), but can feel terminally slow thanks to the 50 kilometers per hour speed limit on their two lane highways. The Icelandic coffee (which is a mix of espresso and regular coffee beans) and striking scenery helped with the 3 1/2 hour drive. We broke it up by stopping for groceries at Kronan in Selfoss. We also stopped off at Skógafoss, one of the many sights that are easily accessible from Highway 1, also known as the Ring Road because it rings the island.

Skógafoss was a really nice introduction to Iceland’s waterfalls. It is absolutely massive and incredibly beautiful.

The rest of the day was spent admiring the view from our first AirBnB (which I definitely took a photo of and also definitely forgot to ask Aaron to edit) and trying to stay awake until 8 pm – an arbitrary time that we thought we could achieve to help assist with the jet lag and 8 hour time difference between California and Iceland. We made it to about 8:30. Winning.

Day 2: An introduction to F-Roads

After getting a bit of a late start thanks to needing to go out for gas (20 minutes one way), we headed for Landmannalaugar. This highland park was listed as “mind blowing” in the Lonely Planet guidebook and was high on my radar. Once I had the attractions we could hit plotted on a Google map, I noticed that Landmannalaugar could be accessed from either our first or second AirBnB and that it was conveniently located on the SAME road as the first accommodation. Google quoted a 2 hour, 23 minute drive. Google was a baldfaced liar in this instance. That is mostly due to the fact that Google doesn’t properly recognize Iceland’s F-Roads, which are unpaved, 4WD required journeys onto themselves.

The 4WD requirement in and of itself didn’t radically alter our plans at the outset. Luckily, I have a partner who has 4WD skills, and we had the right vehicle for the job. What didn’t work in our favor was the condition of the road (very bumpy) that meant our 2 1/2 hour drive was likely to be closer to 3 hours (or more). Still we pushed ahead, enjoying the inland scenery and ALL of the sheep (Fun fact: There are more sheep on Iceland than people) until we go to this:

This is a river that you have to ford to keep going on the F-road. After consulting our Iceland map, it was one of many we would hit on this section. Not having enough confidence in 1) our rental car, 2) the depth of the river (here or further up), 3) whether weather conditions would change (they do frequently in Iceland) and raise the water depth for our return trip, we called this attempt at Landmannalaugar over. We shot a few photos where we stopped and enjoyed a roadside lunch.

With enough time left in the day to see something else, we headed for Reynisfjara beach. This black sand beach that is backed by basalt towers is one of the most popular spots on Iceland’s southern coast. It is well deserved.

Day 3: The glacier lagoon

I mentioned that our first AirBnB was positioned strategically. It was all for this:

The one and only tour we booked on this trip was an hour-long Zodiac boat tour of Jökulsárlón. Getting out into the icebergs, seeing seals up close and getting near the edge of the glacier was the absolute highlight of Iceland for me. I would visit this spot over and over again.

A few notes:

  • The Zodiac boat tour is SO worth it, but there is plenty to see and photograph from the shore. We spent at least an hour wandering the shores after the tour and may have spent longer if the weather was better.
  • Diamond Beach is just across the highway. It seemed totally walkable from the Jökulsárlón parking lot. Due to the weather, we opted out, but it’s another very popular spot in Iceland.
  • Fjallsárlón is another, smaller glacier lagoon nearby. It is supposed to be less crowded. If we go back, I would plan to stop at this one first before heading to the main attraction.

Svartifoss, a waterfall over basalt columns, was on my list for the drive back. A 1 mile hike seemed like a good way to break up the drive, and the weather was starting to cooperate. The waterfall itself was as advertised – pretty and touristy.

The hike was a bit more strenuous than I realized. We’re both in decent shape, but it became obvious that Aaron’s “Handyman diet and exercise plan” (wherein he works as a handyman instead of mostly sitting at a desk editing photos) made him better conditioned for this type of hike. I blame my recent obsession with high intensity interval training as my preferred method of cardio workouts. Doing jumping jacks or squat jumps or burpees as hard as you can for 20 seconds does little to prepare the body for a sustained uphill slog.

We spent the rest of the drive stopping to shoot waterfalls that caught our eye on the drive out. This country is the very opposite of California in so many ways – black earth, green everything and so wet. We were amazed by how many unnamed, but beautiful waterfalls dot the hills here.

We also pulled off to capture the light spilling across a moss-covered lava field.

Day 4: The day we should have set an alarm clock

Day 4 was our first transition day, meaning we’d need to pack everything up, vacate our existing accommodations, then entertain ourselves and grocery shop before settling into our next temporary home. Knowing all of that we should have set an alarm clock, but we were lulled into complacency by the uncomfortable bed (how long could we sleep?) and our usually very reliable internal clocks (Aaron usually doesn’t sleep much past 7 and I rarely sleep past 8). At 9 am, I rolled over and said “Oh no! We have got to get up.” Cut to us hurriedly eating, packing and leaving with plenty of time to spare, but feeling like we were way behind schedule for the day.

Our first stop was Seljalandsfoss. (Side note: I cannot spell our pronounce any of these names, but I do know that “foss” means waterfall.) This beauty is a huge attraction because you can walk all the way around the waterfall. It’s popular, it’s wet and it’s worth it. (Another sidenote: We toted lightweight rain suits, but never needed them. If you have decent outdoor gear, like a coat and hiking pants, you should be fine.)

What we loved most was the sheer amount of water cascading off the hill and then turning into mist, rather than a roaring river at the bottom. The light (and the amount of people) we’re conducive to many photos. If you want a stunning shot like you see online, you’ll need to go early.

From there we wandered over to Gljúfrabúi. This waterfall is definitely a “pretty to see, not pretty to photograph” spot. To get the full effect you do have to walk up a small creek. We opted to stay dry.

From there, I really wish we would have had the extra few hours back because we would have done the hike to Reykjadalur Hot Springs. It’s a hike through a geothermal area to a hot spring river. And it may be at the top of my list for our next trip. Instead, we opted to stop by the Kerid Crater and it was ok. It’s a multicolored crater with a lake at the bottom.

It is exactly that and hard to photograph and just wasn’t my favorite. Something has to make the bottom of the list, right? This is 100% my personal opinion. Some people absolutely love it so don’t cross it off your list because of me.

From there we headed back to Kronan for more groceries and settled in to our next AirBnB. It was a cute property with a dog that ALWAYS wanted to play fetch, but never wanted to be pet.

Day 5: The Golden Circle and some “hidden gems”

When you start researching Iceland, you will read a LOT about the Golden Circle. This area is the closest nature you can get to from Reykjavík and therefore very popular. The classic Golden Circle tour is: Þingvellir National Park (a park where the tectonic plates are pushing against each other), Geysir (a geyser) and Gulfoss (huge waterfall). We were based on the east side of the circle and decided to string together 2 of the classics with some “hidden gems” in the area. First up we went to Geysir. This is the geyser from which all others get their names. It’s in a very cool geothermal area, and, depending on your interest in seeing water shoot pretty high into the air, you could spend a lot of time here. The eruptions are very regular and about 10 minutes apart.  We watched a few and then continued on our way to Gulfoss.

Gulfoss is massive and magnificent.

We decided to chase a few more waterfalls and headed up the 32, which I had already dubbed “waterfall alley.” The first stop was Hjalparfoss a sweet double waterfall tucked down a short gravel road (4WD not required).

From there we headed in search of Gjáin. To get to this incredibly lush, waterfall laden valley, you have to drive down a very barren, arid F road. I think part of the appeal of this spot is that it’s so unexpected given it’s surroundings. It was a cool place to see, but much of the area is roped off. My best suggestion is to stop here if you want to eat lunch in a pretty place. It’s not really a hiking or photo destination, save for a few angles.

Here. Right here is where I almost made the biggest mistake of this entire trip. I said to Aaron, “There’s another waterfall if you want to drive like 20 minutes the other direction on this F road, but I don’t know if it’s worth it.”

If you can F road (because that is totally a verb now), do not question whether you should visit Háifoss and Granni. Do it.
The internet photos don’t do it justice. (You should still go.)
I’ve been and I don’t think these photos do it justice. (Seriously, GOOOOO)

Háifoss encapsulates Iceland for me. You drive down this F road thinking you’re crazy, walk up to a cliff that tested my fear of heights and see one of the most beautiful things nature has to offer.

Day 6: We make it to Landmannalaugar… but the weather doesn’t cooperate

Day 6 was our last chance at making it back to Landmannalaugar – a multicolored highland park that we didn’t get to enjoy on our first full day in Iceland. The drive from the Golden Circle was much easier (about half of it is paved and the F road portion was not particularly bumpy or treacherous). The park is a mash up of colors – black, fluorescent green, red, orange, white. It is truly a special place on an island that is full of beauty.

Unfortunately, the day we made it up there the weather did not cooperate. It was cold, wet and rather miserable. We did a short hike, which would have been a perfect introduction to the stunning variety of the park – painted mountains, a lava field, and geothermic activity were all encapsulated in a short and easy 3 mile hike. The rain made it hard to photograph and by the time we slogged back to the SUV, we decided to cut our losses and head back down to the AirBnB.

Day 7: Closing out the Golden Circle and heading to Snaefellsnes Peninsula

Thingvellir National Park, the third “Classic Golden Circle” site was at the top of our agenda for the day. This historic area is the home of Iceland’s first parliament and sits atop the spot where the North American and European tectonic plates are slowly tearing away from each other. To be honest, this was one of our least favorite spots on the island. It is clogged with tourists and doesn’t hold a candle to the raw nature you can find in other spots. We read some signs, photographed a small waterfall and continued on our way.

Porufoss waterfall was our next detour. Maybe it was the theme of the day, but this waterfall was also just ok. You can’t get particularly close to it and there’s nothing outstanding about it.

We didn’t spend much time here before heading to Borgarnes to stock up on food for the last leg of our journey on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. This peninsula sits north of Reykjavik and is often called “Iceland in miniature” thanks to the abundance of natural beauty housed in a relatively small footprint. It has a glacier, black sand beaches, mountains, lava fields, waterfalls and more. It’s also significantly less touristy than the south coast and Golden Circle. It seemed liked a perfect last stop. The weather was dreary so we opted to relax at the AirBnB instead of trying to tack on any additional sights.

Day 8: Kirkjufell, Berserkjahruan lava fields and naps

We got our introduction to the peninsula by seeking out the most photographed mountain in Iceland: Kirkjufell. This pyramid-shaped beauty has it’s own neighboring waterfall: Kirkjufellfoss and is conveniently located right off the highway. Both the mountain and waterfall are beautiful in their own right, but it is easy to see why so many people make sure to stop here.

We continued along Highway 54 until just before it meets Highway 56 where the Berserkjahruan lava fields lie. These craggy lava flows are covered with the softest moss, making the landscape incredibly dynamic and photogenic.

At this point, a slight sickness that started the evening before made Aaron ask for a break. I am never one to turn down a nap, so we spent the afternoon resting at the AirBnB before enjoying some dramatic views in the evening.

Day 9: In which I try to make it an easy day but we still see a LOT of sights

Aaron woke up the next day feeling better, but definitely not 100%. “No problem,” I said. “We can make it an easier day.”

I don’t necessarily think hiking a beach, climbing up a crater and then hiking to three waterfalls is necessarily “easy,” but we kept coming across new options and he kept saying “ok” so that’s what we did.

Our first stop was Dritvik Djúpalónssandur, a stunning black beach at the end of the peninsula. It topped Reynisfjara beach thanks to the varied landscape and absolute solitude. We saw one other group walking down to the beach as we were walking out.

The next stop on the road that rings the peninsula was Saxhólar crater. I’m not sure why this landed on my list, but we walked up the steps, circled the crater and decided that craters just are not our jam.

Thankfully there were a few waterfalls nearby. Klukkufoss was billed as falling over impressive basal columns and was just a short 1/3 mile hike. While not nearly as breathtaking as Svartifoss, Klukkufoss had a few nice angles and we had it ALL to ourselves.

Another 1/3 mile walk took us to Snekkjufoss, which was also very pretty.

We opted to stop in Hellisandur to grab a coffee and ended up at the adorable Kaffihús Gamla Rif, where we overheard some fellow tourists asking about how they could get close to the Snæfellsjökull glacier, which had been rather elusive on our trip, always covered in clouds. We learned that F570 takes you pretty close to the glacier and I knew we’d be adding that to tomorrow’s list.

We planned to close out the “easy” day by completing the loop road around the peninsula. At this point, I wondered if we were ‘waterfalled out’ but the signs for Svöðufoss made us pull off. The waterfall was pretty from afar, but we could see a well worn path that might get us up close and personal. A few creek crossings later and we were able to view this stunner from so many angles that we ended up calling it “the jungle gym waterfall.” It was by far one of our favorite waterfalls thanks to how close you can get and how deserted the whole area was.

Day 10: Up close and personal with the glacier

For our last day on the peninsula, we decided to give the F570 a go and see how close we could get to the glacier. Mission accomplished X1000. Once again we were almost completely alone on this road and able to enjoy the glacier from a variety of angles. I even convinced Aaron to stage a glacier selfie.

The view looking down from the mountain was also stunning!

Next up we swung down to Arnarstapi to check out the rugged coastline. There is a pretty well-known hike from Arnarstapi to Hellnar. If this had been the first stop of our trip, it would have been stunning, but having spent 9 1/2 days overloading our eyeballs with everything Iceland had to offer, we were underwhelmed. The coastline is stunning, but once you get into the lava field it felt quite familiar.

Day 11: Souvenir shopping, KFC and Hotel Keflavik

The last day in Iceland we pretty chill. Our main objective was to grab lunch in Reykjavík and stock up on souvenirs and gifts. We opted for the VERY popular Icelandic Street Food and can tell you that the hype is warranted thanks to unlimited delicious soup (lamb or shellfish) and free unlimited desserts. Everything was delicious and it was a complete bargain.

From there we hit up a Kronan to grab lots of treats for ourselves and knock out some Christmas gifts. We grabbed licorice chocolate (an Icelandic favorite), locally produced salt, coffee and a few more resuable shopping bags (the quality and price of European bags is hard to beat). Grabbing these items at the grocery store made them very affordable and very authentic. (Before flying out we rounded out our shopping with a few bottles of Brennivin and a stuffed animal puffin for our niece.)

From there we checked into the Hotel Keflevik. This lovely hotel has a fantastic breakfast spread and is the perfect place to stay before returning to the States thanks to the close proximity to the airport. We looked at menus for our final dinner in country but ended up at KFC, and I regret nothing. Not cooking a meal and being introduced to fries + gravy was exactly the right way to close out our final night. The bottle of wine and cable TV in the hotel didn’t hurt either 😉

Tips

  • The internet has a wealth of information on this small island. I’m not even telling you anything new here, so much as cataloging our trip for my own personal memories. Jeannie at Iceland With a View is hands down the best resource, including a Facebook group that you can join to chat with fellow would be and past Iceland travelers. I may never leave that group thanks to the Iceland images that are injected into my Facebook feed.
  • Rent a car. They drive on the same side of the road as we do. We used Blue with a discount from Iceland With a View and were very happy. Opt for the insurance and add  a wireless hotspot.
  • Everyone speaks English.
  • Food is expensive. If you’ve done any research you already know this. We kept our overall food expenses in check by making nearly all of our own meals, which meant shopping at local grocery stores. Kronan was our favorite for price and selection. On our first trip, I brought our wireless hotspot into the store so we could google to confirm things like “Is this meat beef?” We ate simply, but enjoyed a lot of the local delicacies – Atlantic salmon, lamb and langoustine were highlights. If you’re really interested in meal planning, I’d be happy to write a specific post or just email you some additional thoughts.
  • The best thing we brought with us was a few marinade packets. These small envelopes allowed us to have flavorful meals without buying a bunch of spices we didn’t want to transport home.
  • Buy alcohol at the Duty Free shop before leaving the airport. There’s one handily located right by the baggage claim.
  • F-Roads – Know them and your skill set. Google doesn’t really recognize F-roads, but you’ll need to. If you’re comfortable with off-roading and rent the appropriate vehicle, go for it. Half of our favorite experiences were down this bumpy roads. If these aren’t your cup of tea, just be careful when planning what you want to see.

 

The best of the best – In our opinion the absolute must see stops in Iceland based on what we visited.

 

Parting thoughts: Iceland crept into my heart in a way that I never expected. It was the top of Aaron’s bucket list trip based on the extremely beautiful and diverse landscape, but I have fallen for it hard. We may have crossed it off for now, but I have no doubt that we’ll be back.

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