As I shared in my previous article, The Bucket List Guide to Iceland – Part 1: Reykjavik, Iceland is a land of unbelievable adventure, great food, and amazing beauty! I felt an overwhelming sense of discovery everywhere I went. I couldn’t shake the feeling that every time I saw a waterfall, the coastline, or some other unbelievable landmark, it was as if I had never seen anything like it before.
I went to Iceland in April of 2015 to complete 3 Bucket list items:
95) See the Northern Lights (aka: Aurora Borealis)
134) Swim in the Thermal Blue Lagoon in Iceland
Despite my valiant efforts, I failed seeing the Northern Lights. However, what I did discover was a geothermal land of unbelievable adventure and incredible beauty! Wondering what you should do in Iceland? To help you out, I have split up my review into two parts:
Part 2: Iceland’s Outdoor Adventures
Iceland’s Outdoor Adventures
With the tourism slogan, “Pure. Natural. Unspoiled. Iceland. The Way Life Should Be!” you can assume that Iceland is going to be a clean, natural, unspoiled destination. Though Reykjavik is phenomenal, make sure you get out and explore everything the country has to offer in the outdoors!
Rent A Car
There are no trains in Iceland and though there are cheap public buses in the city, there really isn’t a decent public transit system for travel around the country. That doesn’t mean you have to subject yourself to expensive restrictive tour buses. Iceland is an easy country to navigate – it is an island with one major highway, the Ring Road (aka: Route 1). The Ring Road is about 831 miles long, extends around the entire coast of Iceland and offers the freedom and unrestricted views you will be craving!
If you want to drive yourself, SAD CARS offers the cheapest car rentals in the country.
Here are a few driving tips you should know ahead of time:
- Most of the rental cars are stick shift
- Speed limits in Iceland are 50 km/h (30mph) within cities & 90 km/h (55mph) on all other paved roads
- Off road driving is illegal in Iceland
- There are Speed Trap Cameras everywhere & the fees can be very expensive
Visit the Golden Circle
The Golden Circle is one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations and for good reason. It is a 200 mile road outside of Reykjavik and it includes 4 natural sights that should be on everyone’s outdoor Iceland bucket list:
- Þingvellir National Park: The national parliament of Iceland was established at Þingvellir (Thingvellir) in 930, and held sessions there until 1798. The area became a national park in 1930 and was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2004. In addition to its historical importance, Þingvellir (Thingvellir) is also the location of the separating North American and Eurasian continental shelf plates, causing a visible rift in the valley.
- Gullfoss: Gullfoss (the Golden Falls) is a 3 tier stair case waterfall that will take your breath away! The waterfall is formed as the Hvítá river rushes southward flowing over Gullfoss at an average rate of 109 cubic meters per second. While enjoying the beauty of these magnificent falls, make sure you read the monument devoted to Sigríður Tómasdóttir of Brattholt, who is considered the savior of Gullfoss.
- Geysir: The world renowned geothermal hot spring area around Geysir includes several mini geysers and 2 big ones, Great Geysir and Strokkur. Although the original Great Geysir is not currently active, its neighbor, Strokkur, erupts every 5 to 10 minutes.
- Kerið Volcanic Crater: Kerið is a crater formed some 5,000 years ago, with a pretty deep lake in the bottom. While I was there, in April, the lake was frozen and tourists were allowed to climb to the bottom of the crater. During warmer months, it is said that the lake is a mesmerizing blue surrounded by gorgeous colorful vegetation! Please note that it does cost about 400ISK (About $3.50 USD) to enter the area, but it is worth it.
See the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis)
So I totally struck out seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland, but that doesn’t mean you will! The best chance of seeing the Northern Lights is when the sky is clear. Often, when it’s cold and dark outside – the aurora activity is high. Take a drive away from the city lights of Reykjavik for an unobstructed view of the night sky. It is said that the best time to see the northern lights in Iceland is from October to March, however there is no guarantee. Vedur is the national weather website that forecasts predicted visibility of the lights.
Visit with the Icelandic Horses
These small, pony-sized horses are a majestic breed. According to Wikipedia, the breed is used for traditional sheepherding work, as well as for leisure, showing, and racing. They are everywhere, but I found many of them lined along fences on the Golden Circle. Bred to carry adults smoothly and willingly over difficult terrain, Icelandic Horses bring their cheerful demeanor and sensible attitude to each ride.
Visit a “Foss”
In Icelandic, the word “Foss” translates to “waterfall.” Iceland is enveloped in waterfalls of all shapes and sizes. Each one offers a unique beauty that is unrivaled anywhere else. Gullfoss in the Golden Circle is one of the biggest waterfalls in Iceland. However, there other waterfalls that should be part of your Iceland Bucket List.
- Gullfoss (The Golden Waterfall): See above
- Skogarfoss: Located in the village of Skogar, Skogarfoss is a beautiful waterfall that you can walk up to. It is a popular destination and easy to find if you follow the tour busses.
- Oxararfoss: Located in Þingvellir National Park, you can walk along the continental rift wall which flows into the river Öxará.
- Ensku Husin Area Waterfalls: Hraunfossar and Barnafoss are two waterfalls in the Ensku Husin area. These were the 1st waterfalls I encountered along my drive into the northwest.
- Detifoss: Is the largest waterfall in Europe in terms of water flow, and is said to be the most powerful as well. It falls 150 feet down.
Explore the Land of Fire and Ice
Iceland is home to beautiful glaciers and active volcanoes. When out east, you can also visit Jökulsárlón ice lagoon. It is filled with large chunks of ice crashing about in the darkness of the Atlantic ocean. You may recognize it from the movies, including two James Bond films. From there, make time to visit Vatnajökull National Park. It is the largest glacier cap in all of Iceland. You can climb a path along Skeidararjokull glacier, while doing so, you will see the amazing blue glacier ice along the side.
Please note that glacier climbing is considered dangerous and should not be done without professional assistance.
Along the same trek, you will see Grímsvötn above you, a basaltic volcano which has the highest eruption frequency in all of Iceland. In May 2011 it erupted, causing major disturbances, not only in Iceland, but to air travel in the United Kingdom, Greenland, Germany, Ireland and Norway. On beautiful days, you will even see lenticular clouds hovering over Grímsvötn.
Explore the Beaches in Iceland’s Suderland
Driving along the Ring Road (Rte 1) in the southland of Iceland is an adventure in itself and you’ll pass many of the popular tourist attractions. However, the road along the southern coast offers beautiful views of the coast line and will take you to the black beaches. To get there, head to Dyrhólaey or the city of Vik. Nearby you will find two popular destinations:
- Kirkjufjara Beach: Kirkjufjara beach offers gorgeous views, where the Atlantic ocean comes ashore, powerfully crashing waves onto the black sand beach. You can hike leisurely along the top of the cliff or make your way to the bottom and the beach. However, please note all signs. In 2015, authorities regulated the area due to loose rocks.
- Reynisfjara Beach: Reynisfjara Beach is a natural black sand and pebble beach with large boulders. However, the highlight is the interesting basalt caves. The basalt columns resemble a rocky pyramid and form an extraordinary cave, Hálsanefshellir.
Whenever I go to the beach I want to go swimming! However, please note that swimming at any of the beaches listed here or anywhere connected to the Atlantic is not recommended or considered safe. Swimming in them is ill advised due to the temperature and severity of the ocean.
With that said, Iceland is full of geothermal pools that offer the chance to soak in warm waters all around the island. Water from these geothermal hot springs can range from 37–39 °C (98-102°F). Here are several pools that you should definitely explore:
- Nautholsvik Geothermal Beach: Read all about it in Part 1: Reykjavik
- Seljavallalaug: Seljavallalaug, also known as the Seljvavellir pool was built in 1923 and is the oldest pool in Iceland. However, it is not on any tourist guide list or main tour map. To find this hidden pool, drive the Ring Road until you see a sign that says Seljavellir. Pull to the back right of the area until you find a newer pool where you can park. From there, walk about 30 minutes towards the bottom of the valley. There are worn paths that are easy to follow. You will have to jump over a little waterfall (be careful), but it’s an easy walk. After you cross the waterfall, follow the river, you’ll come to pipes pumping hot water – they will lead you to the pool – just around the corner.
- The Blue Lagoon: The Blue Lagoon is probably the #1 item on everyone’s Iceland Bucket List. It is spa is located on the Reykjanes Peninsula – southwestern Iceland, near the airport. Although this is one of the most visited attractions in Iceland, its definitely worth it. The drive is easy and there is ample parking. Another option is finding the ticket center in Reykjavik, there you can pre-purchase your tickets and get a bus pass to the Lagoon. The bus runs hourly. The Lagoon offers general entry, but you can also purchase various spa services. Entry includes a wristband, which acts as a key for your electronic changing room locker and allows you to keep an electronic tab if you partake in the outdoor bar or restaurant. To learn more or purchase cheap tickets online visit The Blue Lagoon Online
Find the U.S. Navy Plane Crash
In 1973, the United States Navy was flying a DC 3 over Iceland when they ran out of gas and crashed on the beaches of Sólheimasandur. Everyone survived the crash, but apparently they just left the plane there and went home. The plane has been there ever since. Unfortunately, it is stripped clean, but the shell of the plane remains at its final resting spot on the black sand beach.
There are no signs or much information readily available when trying to find the plane, you just have to do some research. When you park on Ring Road, please remember that off roading in Iceland is illegal. Park your car on the highway and hike 4km in to the plane.
To locate this hidden piece of history, use these GPS coordinates: 63.459523, -19.364618
The easiest thing to do is to plug these coordinates into the search bar of the Google Maps app. Once entered, you will see a marker on the Google Maps titled, Sólheimasandur Plane Wreck. If you are in Iceland, hit the 3 lines at the top of the search bar to open the menu and select “start driving.” This will give you directions to the spot on the Ring Road where you park and start your journey.
All in all, there is a reason that Iceland is at the top of everyone’s travel list recently. The unparalleled beauty, friendly people, unspoiled landscape and opportunity for adventure make it a fantastic travel destination. Whether you want to spend time in the city or take an outdoor adventure, Iceland is right for you. Give it a try – you many be surprised!