Iceland had been on my bucket list for years so I couldn’t pass up the cheap flights I found in January leaving Memorial Day weekend. We figured a vacation exploring the magical outdoors in the land of ice and fire would be right up the alley of our rock loving two year old.
Day 1 – Reykjavik, Oxarafoss & Geysir – The flights from Boston to Iceland are surprisingly short, so our overnight flight landed at 4am local time. We were getting picked up by our campervan company, GO Campers, at noon so we had 8 hours to enjoy Reykjavik on 5 hours of restless airplane sleep. We set up camp in the arrival terminal to kill some time but you need a boarding pass to buy anything from the convenience store in the terminal food court. Fortunately I had packed a fair amount of snacks, including some instant coffee, so we were able to take the edge off a little. We took the Flybus into Reykjavik, stashed most of our bags in a locker at the bus terminal, and set out to sleepily explore the city. Benton has an uncannily natural ability to sniff out donuts which helped us track down some pastries that we ate in front of Hallgrimskirkja Church. If you are ever in Reykjavik go to Braud & Co to stock up on baked goods, you will not be disappointed. We strolled down to the Sun Voyager sculpture and walk along the water while we waited for Hallgrimskirkja Church to open. You can head up to the top of the steeple for a great view of the city, but if you are visiting on Sunday make sure you check the service schedule and when the church is open to the public. We had big plans to visit The National Museum but ended up walking around the city like zombies in the rain before taking an impromptu nap at the beautifully designed tourist center with in City Hall set on a lake before heading back to the bus station.
After picking up the campervan, we headed north west toward Thingvellir National Park. Our first stop was Oxarafoss. The walk to the waterfall through a rock crevasse was almost as stunning as the waterfall itself. We ended up spending almost two hours strolling all along the boardwalks around Oxarafoss at a toddler pace, throwing rocks into all the water we could see, even the puddles in the path.
By the time we made it to our next stop, Geysir Geothermal Field, we were all cold, tired and damp from being rained on all day. I forgot to pack hats so we bought some winter “Iceland” hats from the gift shop so we could always be identified as tourists before heading across the street to see the geyser. Even with the overcast skies, the colors of the bubbling thermal pools were out of this world. This was the first of many times we said, “Are we still on Earth? How is this even real?”
Day 2 – Gullfoss, Hrunalaug Hot Springs, Seljalandsfoss, Seljavellir Geothermal Pools & Reynishfjara Beach – Because we crashed so early and so hard that first night, we were all up and ready to go very early in the morning. Even after a 30 minute drive, we were some of the first and only people at Gullfoss Waterfall. The massive power of Gullfoss sneaks up on you. If you park at the upper parking lot you can’t see waterfall until you are standing over the rush of 140 cubic meters of water per second. You can walk or drive around to a lower parking lot that lets you get up close and personal with the waterfall. Be careful if you are carrying or walking with a child: the spray from the waterfall means that all the rocks and pathways are slick and can be very slippery if you are not paying attention. That misty waterfall spray, along with the booming noise, is another reminder of just how powerful this waterfall is.
On the drive between Gullfoss and Hrunalaug hot springs we pulled off into an unmarked parking lot to stretch our legs (read: throw rocks in water) and because every turn in this country holds new beauty. This little nook of boulders and running water looked completely different than anything else we saw and was the perfect spot to throw rocks for a few minutes.
As much as everyone talks about how Blue Lagoon is the can’t miss spot in Iceland, we chose to skip it in favor of a few hidden hot spring gems that were more off the beaten path and not a regular stop on every other bus tour of Iceland. Hrunalaug hot spring was exactly what I was hoping for in the magical unnamed back roads of the land of ice and fire. From the “parking lot” it is a short walk to the springs. There is a hut that looks right out of The Shire where you can stay warm while you change in and out of your suit and stash your towels. The water was so perfectly warm, but not too hot that Benton was uncomfortable. We arrived at the hot springs around 11 am and there were only 3 other people there who mostly sat in a different area, so it felt like we had the entire place to ourselves for an hour. While these hot springs are not staffed, there is an honor system payment box and a suggested fee of about $10 per person. On the drive between Gullfoss and Hrunalaug hot springs we pulled off into an unmarked parking lot to stretch our legs (read throw rocks in water) and because every turn in tis country holds new beauty. This little nook of boulders and running water looked completely different than anything else we saw and was the perfect spot to throw rocks for a few minutes.
Refreshed from our soak in geothermal hot springs, we continued on towards the highlight-packed south coast. There is a reason so many visitors spend their entre Iceland trip on the south coast. Our first stop was the epic Seljalandsfoss waterfall. Benton was napping in the van when we arrived at Seljalandsfoss. Craig and I decided to take turns viewing the waterfall so that Benton could sleep, which was a blessing in disguise with this specific site. You can walk behind the waterfall!!! You can see the named waterfall and a few other smaller ones pouring over the cliff as you drive towards the massive parking lot, but there is no way to understand the scale of this waterfall until you are behind it. Every single step behind the waterfall is slick wet rocks. With a toddler like mine who loves to run and get as close to the edge as possible, I was super grateful that he was asleep and not running over the edge or perched on my back in a carrier.
Not much farther down the road is Seljavellir Geothermal Pools where we stopped for our second dip of the day. The geothermal pool is about a 30 minute walk up a riverbed towards the mountains from the parking lot. You do have to wade through some water but nothing deeper than the ankles. There are a few spots in the pool where super-hot water comes in that are very toasty, but in general the pool is cool and refreshing. It was late in the afternoon when we arrived and the pool was not too crowded. Like most big draws in Iceland, your best bet for privacy is arriving early in the morning or late in the evening.
As we continued on towards our campsite in Vik, we stopped at one last major attraction, Reynishfjara Beach. The parking lot was full when we arrived around 5pm, which made me worried about the throngs of tourists crowding the beach. There is a reason the parking lot was full, Reynishfjara Beach and the enormous basalt stacks coming out of this black pebble beach are stunning. Even though there were lots of other people the beach didn’t feel crowded and we carved out the perfect spot to throw pebbles in the ocean.
Day 3 – Diamond Beach, Jökulsárlón and Fjallsarlon Glacier Lagoons – After two jam-packed days of driving around Iceland and seeing so many highlights we realized that there is unknown magic around every turn. A few minutes into our drive along the south coast out of Vik, we turned down a road marked with a “highlight” sign because it looked intriguing. The “highlight” symbol looks like a cross between a four leaf clover and an infinity loop with four circles. Sometimes the sign leads to a spot in the middle of a field where a historic event took place (usually a farm getting swallowed by lava) and sometimes it leads to this completely unoccupied black sand beach.
We intentionally left our schedule very flexible so that we could make unplanned stops like this and go where the strong Icelandic wind took us. We stopped twice more on the side of the road on the way to Diamond Beach just to check out the moonscape countryside that changed at every turn.
It was cool to see the pieces of crystal clear ice all over Diamond Beach but it was nothing compared to Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon directly across the road. Words, and even all the picture I took, do not do justice to splendor of the lagoon full of light blue ice blocks gently floating out to the ocean. You can take a zodiac tour of the lagoon, which gets you right up close to the ice and the edge of the glacier itself, as long as your kids are 5 or older. Even just standing on the shore was one of the most epic vistas we have ever seen.
Heading back west along the south coast, we stopped at another stunning glacial lake with a different feel. Fjallsarlon wasn’t quite as blue as Jökulsárlón, but you can get closer to the edge of the glacier itself, and you can walk father around the lake to explore different perspectives.
On our way to camp at the Skaftafell visitors center we stopped at one last, nameless waterfall by the side of the road that felt like it was right out of a fairy world with bouncy, moss-covered rocks and light purple wild flowers everywhere.
Day 4 – Svartifoss, Falljokull Glacier, Kirkjufjara Beach & Skogafoss waterfall – Camping at the Skaftafell Visitors Center has perks if you plan to hike to Svartifoss and/or Faljokul Glacier. Not only is the campsite well maintained with some of the nicer camp bathrooms, but you don’t have to pay the additional park entrance fee if you are camping. We all woke up surprisingly early, which meant that even after a casual breakfast and putting our campervan back together, we set out to hike up to Svartifoss just after 7 am. We had the roughly one hour hike up to the waterfall all to ourselves, which helped with our egos, so no one else saw how out of shape and slow we hiked. The 7 am start time also meant that we had the entire waterfall to ourselves. Svartifoss looks like a Hollywood movie set creation and it out of this world.
Falljokull Glacier is also part of the Skaftafall National Park and it is an easy 20 minute walk on flat ground to the edge of the glacial tongue if, like us, you can’t hack the 2-3 hour hike along the side of the glacier to get views from above the glacier.
On our drive East along the coast, we intentionally skipped some sites so that we could catch them on the drive back, including this bright blue river rushing by the side of the road. There were no signs, but there was a clear place to pull off and the white water was visible from the car.
Kirkjufjara beach is right across an inlet from Reynishfjara beach and could easily be seen in the same day if you are not venturing farther east of Vik. While the beach itself is dangerous because of massive waves, the rocky cliffs are a great place to watch the waves crash and spot puffins. We visited a little early for true puffin season, but we did luck out in seeing one, despite the fog.
After one more spontaneous pull off, we headed to our last highlight of the day, Skogafoss waterfall. At this point you might think, “if you’ve seen one epic waterfall, you’ve seen them all.” Wrong. Each of these well-know waterfalls are so different that each one is worth visiting on its own merits. You can walk along the riverbed to the base of the waterfall or you can hike up to look over the rushing water from the top. I regret that it was so late in the day and I was too tired to brave the stairs to get the upper view and wish I did it despite my jelly legs.
Day 5 – Reykjardalur Geothermal River & Landbrotalaug Hot Springs – Our main goal for the day was to make our way up past Reykjavik to the base of the Snaeffneses Peninsula, so we could drive the peninsula the following day. About 40km south of Reykjavik is the Reykjadalur Geothermal River. The river itself is over an hour hike up into the hills. The hiking path is well maintained, but almost entirely at an incline until the last few hundred yards. We took our time because we are out of shape and Craig was carrying Benton while I was carrying a pregnant belly and our backpack of water, suits and towels. While the hike might be daunting to the average non-hiker, it is totally worth it, so just keep putting one foot in front of the other. There is a boardwalk next to the river dotted with crude changing barriers. While the water wasn’t very hot it was comfortable and we lucked out with a beautiful sunny day. The river is shallow but there are perfect pockets to sit in and get massaged with fine gravel leaving your skin feeling wonderfully soft and refreshed.
After the hikes up and back and our swim at the thermal river, we were starving since we forgot to bring snacks with us, and took a long lunch in the van while our suits dried.
The last hot springs dip of our trip was the most off-the-beaten-path. Before leaving for our vacation I geotagged all the waterfalls, hot springs, attractions and even campsites to make planning on the fly easier. We never would have enjoyed the perfect almost solitary enjoyment of Landbrotalaug hot springs without a pin in the map. There are no signs for the hot springs and there are hardly any roads signs, which makes this place is easy to miss. The map pin I have doesn’t seem to work so I found the GPS coordinates, N64°49.933 W22°19.110 because if you go to Iceland this should definitely be a stop on your trip.
Day 6 – Snaeffneses Peninsula: Seals, Cliffs, The Witches Hat, Shark Museum, Icelandic Ponies – You can spend as much or as little time as you want driving around the peninsula.
We drove clockwise stopping at anything that seemed interesting. Our first stop was Ytri Tunga, a beach that is regular home for seals, and we were in luck, spotting dozens resting on the rocks.
Our next stop was the small fishing village of Arnarstapi and the rocky cliffs overlooking the ocean at Gatklettur. There is a fish and chips shack where we bought our only restaurant meal of the trip, and it was well worth the splurge.
We tried to tour the Vatnshellir Caves but they do not allow children under 5 or children in carriers for safety reasons. Making our way around the peninsula also included stops at Kirkjufell, commonly know as the Witches Hat, followed by a visit to the Bjarnarhofn Shark Museum.
The museum is small but packed, and includes a guide, a taste of fermented shark meant and an optional shot of Icelandic liquor to wash it down. The shark museum is situated on a beautiful working farm with dozens of Icelandic ponies. It was hard to keep Benton contained, even in the carrier, he was so excited to get close to the ponies and couldn’t stop waving hello at them.
Day 7 – Back Roads & Heading Home – We drove the long way back from the Snaeffneses Peninsula towards Reykjavik to return our campervan and head to the airport. There is a tunnel that cuts off the bay and saves about an hour as you are driving south from Snaeffneses towards Reykjavik, but since we were up early with time to pack and cleaned the van, we took the long way. Parts of the road were under construction and it was slow going but the views were beautiful and worth the extra time.
Even though six and a half days in not nearly enough time to spend exploring any country, we felt like we were able to experience so much of the beauty Iceland has to offer. We barded the plane full and ready to go home, knowing that we will definitely be back to explore more.