Iceland is the land of the midnight sun, the land of fire and ice, the land of Game of Thrones, and most importantly, the land of epic road trips. The most popular road trip in Iceland is unquestionably the Ring Road (Iceland’s Route 1), which circles the island. While Iceland is not one of the larger countries on the planet, completing a circuit of the Ring Road takes at least five days, and because Iceland is one of the countries on the planet with the largest scenery, one cannot fully appreciate the beauty of the Ring Road without taking at least ten days or longer. Unfortunately, in 2016, not everyone has a full ten days or longer to devote to exploring everything that Iceland has to offer. Fortunately, some of Iceland’s best and most iconic features can be explored in the course of a single day road-trip through Southeast Iceland.
For me, road trips are a great way to experience how life is really like in a foreign country, and Iceland is no exception. While Reykjavik is a great city, with amazing buildings and culture, and it is near to the infamous Blue Lagoon, it is not Iceland, as it lacks the stunning, jaw dropping scenery, and is full of (nice) people. While 200,000 people living in and around Reykjavik may not seem like a lot, in Iceland, that number represents sixty percent (60%) of the total population. Anyone that ventures out of Reykjavik will find that the majority of the country is wild, beautiful – and empty, which makes it a great place to seek and find solitude. However, even for a day road trip, Reykjavik is a great jumping off and end point, as it has the most places to stay, the most restaurants to eat at, and a very vibrant nightlife.
Depending on the season, with winter having very short days in Iceland, and summer having very long days, this road trip can be done in one, or two days, with additions or subtractions made depending on time constraints. If you feel that you’ve got a great tip to add to these destinations, let me know, and I’ll be sure to update the post accordingly. This guide will cover what one needs to know in the Southeast Iceland region leaving from Reykjavik, and also ending back at Reykjavik, as well as some general tips about road travel in Iceland at the end. So, once one has their car, and is headed out of Reykjavik, the first place to stop is:
Seljalandsfoss. Located right off of the Route 1, 121 kilometers to the Southeast of Reykjavik, Seljalandsfoss is one of the most well-known waterfalls in the country, and the only waterfall in Iceland that one can walk behind. It is also one of Iceland’s most popular waterfalls, and is regularly visited by large tour groups. In order to beat the tours, I recommend getting an early start from Reykjavik, as it is a two hour drive. Additionally, there is a short trail that goes past the main waterfall at Seljandsfoss that also provides some great views of some smaller falls, and of the main fall that is not usually explored by the larger groups.
Skogafoss. From Seljandsfoss, Skogafoss is thirty-four kilometers to the East along Route 1, and is located just outside the town of Skogar. Like Seljandsfoss, Skogafoss is a popular destination, and is also a stunning waterfall that one can approach. Skogafoss is also the starting place for the Laugavegur track, and visitors should take the time to hike to the top of the fall, where the track starts from.
Sólheimasandur Beach Plane Wreck. (2017 UPDATE! At this point in time, access has been restricted to foot traffic, due to unruly vehicles and high traffic. From the road, it is a 4 kilometer walk to the wreck.)
Unlike the first two destinations, this location is man-made (albeit unintentionally); but in the age of digital media, has also become one of the “must-see” locations in this part of Iceland. Again, unlike the first two destinations, this location (outside of Skogar) is somewhat difficult to reach, as it requires route-finding and off-road driving on a black sand beach. Tourists who do not feel comfortable driving in such conditions, should not attempt to find this wreck, which, during the summer months is quite popular, despite its remote location. It is also worth noting that while the distance to the wreck is relatively short, it is a time consuming process to travel to and from the location, so if you are in a rush, or do not have a lot of time, this may be something that you wish to skip. Having said that, it is a unique item in a unique spot, so if you do have the time, you will probably not regret visiting it.
Dyrhólaey. If the Sólheimasandur Beach Plane Wreck is the area’s secret man-made spot, Dyrhólaey is the area’s secret natural spot. Located twenty-five kilometers to the east of Skogar, Dyrhólaey has some amazing beaches, incredible rock features, and deadly tides. While Seljandsfoss and Skogafoss are rightfully, some of the most popular items on this list, and in the country, Dyrhólaey is an amazing natural area that regularly has the silence and serenity that the first two locations sometimes lack. Tourists to the area should be aware, however, that the tides and waves that awe in this area are indeed no joke, and should be cautious near the ocean.
Vik. From either the Sólheimasandur Beach Plane Wreck or Dyrhólaey, the town of Vik is a short drive to the east (22 kilometers from Dyrhólaey). Although it may seem small by other standards, Vik is the “big town” for the region, and a must stop for a number of reasons. First, although distances in Iceland appear short on a map, a full tank of gas is a necessity in order to remain safe, as from Vik on, there are almost no other gas stations for the next several hundred kilometers. Second, Vik is a great place to stop and eat, whether it is to gain snacks from the last grocery store for several hundred kilometers, or as a place where one can sample some of the local delicacies, including gas station hot dogs.
Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon. From Vik, the Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon is one hundred and ninety kilometers (190) to the northeast, a drive that takes a minimum of two hours. One of the reasons I say that this section of the drive takes “a minimum” of two hours is because over the course of this distance, one will pass by an incredible amount of varied terrain that begs for stops. From moss covered boulders that appear to be part of the land of faerie, to desolate volcanic landscapes that look like a moon, this area has a little bit of everything to see. While one can’t stop every five minutes (and cover ground), you can take it from me that stops will be made, which will slow your overall progress. The end result is the Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon, a place that cannot be described by any single adjective. This is also the endpoint of this adventure, and a spot where one can either return back the way they came immediately, and arrive back in Reykjavik on the same day (and unless it is winter, still during the daylight hours), or a spot where one can start to make their own adventure from. Either way, the advantage to coming to Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon in the late afternoon is that if there are crowds, they will be smaller at this time of day.
General Driving Tips for Iceland. Overall, driving in Iceland to me was a great experience. The main difficulty, in my opinion is the language barrier. Obviously, most foreigners, myself included, do not speak Icelandic, but as I noted on my trip, “One doesn’t need to be able to pronounce locations, or roads, but merely able to identify them”. In this respect, Iceland does a great job, and while a barrier may exist, everything on this list (aside from the plane wreck) is very well signed and identified. In terms of the conditions of the roads, drivers should be aware that there will be some rough spots along the Route 1; but this is not surprising considering the severity and extent of Icelandic winters (and weather year-round). As long as one drives carefully, and cautiously, these spots when they occur, are really not big deals. Finally, a word about the scenery: it is spectacular. While I’ve identified the key spots that one will want to visit along this route, there are a plethora of small, unmarked, and just “normal Icelandic terrain” spots that you, as a visitor will likely want to stop at. As I noted above, while one can’t stop everywhere, visitors will want to try and stop where they want, when they want – especially as there is limited traffic. Having said that, let me let you in on a secret – a secret that I will put in bold as it is so important – and that secret is: DO NOT STOP IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ROAD WHEN YOU DO STOP.
Really. Don’t do it. DON’T STOP IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ROAD WHEN YOU DO STOP. I realize, if you’ve read this far, this may seem like a bizarre thing to say, and I thought it was weird when I heard it before I left, but it’s a real concept: there are people – foreigners from around the world – who when they see something they want to see along the Route 1, just stop in the middle of the road for unexplained reasons. In some ways, I get it: the country is stunning. The roads are mostly empty. But still – at the end of the day, no matter where one is from, in your home country, if you saw something stunning, you would pull over on the shoulder. It’s common sense, so use it in Iceland as well. If you want to stop, stop – but pull over to do so. Finally, be sure to have a good time: get out and explore. There are abandoned farmhouses, there is great scenery – so no matter what you do, explore, have snacks, try Skyr, and just have a great time!