Southern Iceland Road Trip: Mesmerizing Landscapes

Skogafoss is unique because the waterfall comes directly from two glaciers
Skogafoss is unique because the waterfall comes directly from two glaciers. Sonja Stark photos

April in Iceland Promises Fewer Crowds and More Photos

By Sonja Stark
GoNOMAD Senior Writer

The elusive dream of exploring Iceland’s formidable natural beauty finally came true for me in April.  From cascading waterfalls flanked by black sandy beaches to thermal springs shadowed by looming glaciers, this was a country of awe and wonder beyond our wildest imaginations. 

The Kerid Crater is known as a maar because of the pool of water, frozen in early April, at the center.
The Kerid Crater is known as a maar because of the pool of water, frozen in early April, at the center.

Our calling card started on a red-eye arriving at Keflavik International with a faint glimpse of dancing auroras illuminating the northern sky. We flew PLAY Airlines out of Stewart International in NY in north-facing window seats to enjoy the extended sunset.

We were wise not to let scary headlines of the seismic activity impact our decision. True, poor air quality in nearby Grindavik triggered the closure of our morning visit to the Blue Lagoon, but, no worries, the extra time allowed for an earlier start on the Ring Road.  And, besides, bathing opportunities at every turn made up for it.

Stay autonomous 

Tours are wonderful but there was something inherently exciting about seeing a place at our own pace.  We rented a Mitsubishi Eclipse from Avis/Budget and stood first in the queue.

I downloaded PARKA onto my iPhone beforehand and tapped the rental license plate number into the app.  This app is essential.  Enable the “pay by plate” feature so that when you drive into a garage or attraction cameras will detect your plate and automatically charge your credit card.  Without the app, you will have to ‘pay-and-display’ tickets from kiosks or risk fines. 

Hold onto the doors

Before summer you can travel for miles without seeing another vehicle on this moonlike landscape
During the shoulder seasons, you can travel for miles without seeing another vehicle on this mystical, moonlike landscape.

“Be sure to hold onto those doors else the gusts will rip them off their hinges,” forewarned the rental agent.  The coastal winds slapped our cheeks as we left the airport. 

The sun started to breach the horizon as delirium set in on the open road.  Our little hybrid seemed vulnerable navigating the dystopian environment but it handled the snow and ice well.  (Unleaded tops off at $9 a gallon so she was a smart upgrade).

Awe Inspiring Beauty

Driving east, our first stop was at Kerid Crater, an inactive volcano that erupted some 6,500 years ago.  The winds hollowed at the rim so we ducked down into the mouth of the eruption. The water’s frozen edge provided a barren, otherworldly introduction to the extreme environment.

Caffeine and Provisions

Still groggy from the flight, we refueled in Selfoss on eggs and homefries at a cafe called Byrja.  The co-owner from Toronto had fallen madly in love with both man and his country in 2017.  

“There was no arm twisting to get me to move here,” she said enthusiastically.   The cafe was connected to a popular grocery chain called Krónan.  After breakfast, we loaded up on perishables not already in our suitcase.  Given how expensive food can be here in Iceland, do like us and save money overnighting at accommodations furnished with small refrigerators, electric kettles, and microwaves.

Seljalandsfoss is one of Iceland's best known waterfalls and popular with filming locations for Hollywood blockbusters.
Seljalandsfoss is one of Iceland’s best known waterfalls and popular with filming locations for Hollywood blockbusters.

Epic Waterfalls

Made more famous by a 2015 Justin Bieber music video, the Seljalandsfoss is one of the country’s most spectacular waterfalls.  It was love at first sight with this dark and handsome beauty.   An undulating pathway stretched alongside the cliffs tempted a view from behind the falls. I was good with getting soaked but donned waterproof boots and crampons in case of ice.   Unfortunately, the trail was closed for repairs.  Only 500 meters away, the popular Gljúfrabúi made for an impressive alternative.

I guilted my partner to enter the small canyon where the tap was gushing. He was no fan of the crowds.  Once inside, we balanced from stone to stone in the shallow river while a torrent of spray lashed our faces and cameras.   It was intense, even deafening, but the level of thrill was unexpected and we loved it!


Double Rainbow

30 minutes later, we arrived at a geological wonder called Skógafoss.  A vivid rainbow decorated the front of the dramatic plunge that’s said to have a pot of treasure buried below.  A double rainbow is sometimes visible on sunny days.  

A base of crystal clear water was just deep enough for a catch of salmon and trout to tempt anglers.  A towering set of stairs provided a heart-pumping workout to panoramic views.  We lingered longer at this location than nearly all others. 

We even followed the Skógá River upstream hiking the famous Laugavegur Trail. It snaked north into the fire-blasted lava fields past 20+ waterfalls into an even more remote area best saved for a future trip.

At 10,000 or more, the sheer number of waterfalls in Iceland will blow your mind!
At 10,000 or more, the sheer number of waterfalls in Iceland blew this author’s mind!

In March 2010, an eruption from a fissure at the Fimmvörðuháls volcano formed the highest lava waterfall in the world – over 650 feet high. Videos of a ribbon of orange and red molten frosting can still be found online.

It flowed between the icecaps of two glaciers and today is a challenge for backpackers but a quick trip by super jeep or airplane.  


Terrain and Elevation

Route 1 hugs the coastline in Southern Iceland so before arriving in Vik we stopped to toast our good fortunes at the iconic Dyrholaey peninsula. The dangerous waves at this endless black beach can ‘wash you away in the blink of an eye’ so said the locals. 

There was a beautiful cave worth exploring but we skipped it because of the high tide.  From the Reynisfjara viewpoint, we were rewarded with a giant rogue wave called a “sneaker wave” because it sneaks up on unsuspecting beachgoers.

Navy Plane at Sauðanes
This old US Navy plane DC-3 crashed in 1969 and quickly became a shelter for horses and sheep.

If you’re hoping to see an adorable Atlantic Puffin this might be the spot, that is, in the summer. The breed spends eight months out at sea and returns to the black beaches to nest from May to September. 

To guarantee a sighting (and if you have time), migrate to the Westman Islands via a ferry crossing at Landeyjahöfn.  The main island Heimaey is home to the world’s largest puffin (and pufflings) colony and a beluga whale sanctuary too.

Town of Vik

Seeing Iceland in early April has another lofty advantage for weary drivers: more daylight.  I’m talking over 13 hours.  Overwhelmed by what we had just seen in only one day we crashed unceremoniously into the bed of the cutest Vik cottage.  Even the noisy seabirds nesting in the rocky cliff above us did little to wake us.

Hrunalaug Hot Springs
The Hrunalaug Hot Springs is a refreshing oasis surrounded by rolling hills of grazing horses and sheep.

16,000 Artifacts

The land of extremes brought sleet and snow the next day so we did a crash course in cultural heritage and history at the Skógar Museum.   If you, like us, are ignited by vast collections of seemingly random artifacts you’ll adore this myriad of museums.

There are three buildings on premise: one folk, one open air, and one technical; each prolific in their way and deserving of more time.   I enjoyed the reconstructed turf houses while George gravitated to, no surprise, the old cars. 

Blissful Ritual

“I’ll be the wet blanket today so I can bring you a dry towel,” shivered my partner George while dressing for the Hrunalaug Hot Springs.   His loss.  This was a ritual found in the most remote corners of Iceland.  I wasn’t going to skip the bliss.

Granted, my first steam was not the luxurious Blue Lagoon but, at 102°F,  surrounded by rolling hills, it worked for me.  Two small pools – one used to bathe sheep and the other to clean laundry – were now clean as a whistle.  The third was a relatively new spot for the growing demand.

I had to be quick bouncing from one to another else the wind could frostbite fast.  Other than a content creator from Germany and a young couple from Indiana, I soaked in solitude.  We observed the 90-minute rule but didn’t want to budge until my skin shriveled.  George sheltered from the winds in the centuries-old turf shed.

Hrunalaug Natural Hot Spring
The Hrunalaug Natural Hot Spring has been a local favorite for years and it’s charm isn’t lost on tourists.

A Nomadic Retreat

Amidst the craggy wind-swept countryside, near the Gulfoss waterfalls, was a nomadic retreat oddly at one in this ungodly climate.  

It was made of wooden slat lattice walls, a canvas covering, heated cement floors, and plumbed toilets.   Yup, you guessed it, it was a yurt! 

There were 9 fancy ones to pick from; our keys hung loosely in the lock to Yurt 4.  Mongolian-built and strong as the religion it symbolizes, this was one of the best nights of rest I’ve ever experienced, all under a star-filled sky. 

Náttúra Yurtel
Náttúra Yurtel is “a peaceful and relaxing escape from modern life” and, better yet, the yurts have radiant heated floors!


At breakfast, both co-owners Josh and Thomas explained that every rafter and roof pole has a special spiritual anatomy.  “The center dome or “toono” is the most sacred part,” said Thomas. “It connects the earth with the sky,” agreed Josh.  

It’s a faux pas to track dirt inside an Icelandic home so observe this etiquette at the yurt too. Kick off those shoes at the door to revel in the radiant heat.  Your toes will love you for it.

Getting Wet at Gullfoss

Gulfoss is another beloved attraction not far from the Golden Circle.  We arrived at dusk to marvel at the double-tiered waterfall that plunged 105 feet into a crevasse that disappeared into oblivion. 

Many years ago, a greedy plan was afoot to harness the energy into profit.  It was stopped by one of Iceland’s now most famous, if not the world’s first, female environmentalists: Sigríður Tómasdóttir.  Due to her influence, the Gulfoss and many more natural wonders are forever protected from private interests for future generations.  There’s a relief statue of her that stands at Gulfoss.   

Grazing in Gold Grasslands

Seeing herds of horses grazing on the hillsides is like peering into the past. The Icelandic breed is the purest, first brought to the island during Viking times.   They eat from a thick bed of withered straw that makes for quality vegetation year-round.  We pulled off to feed a handful of farmer-approved candy to one of the friendly faces.

Icelandic Horses
Ancient government passed laws that prevented the importation of any other horses to the island so the breed has been kept free from disease.

Thar She Blows!

The Strokkur is like that of a whale’s blowhole, you never know when the nostril of mother earth will sneeze so you keep your camera cocked at the ready.  

The Geysir belched hot water as high as 100 ft into the air every few minutes.  There were plenty of opportunities if you missed the action.   We stood back or else risked getting scolded by the hot stinky water.

The Strokkur geyser
The Strokkur geyser erupts about every 3-5 minutes so no need to fret if you roll late.


Ice Cream after a Hot Geysir

After the hot Geysir, we cooled down with scoops of ice cream inside the Íshlaðan ice cream barn.   Several hands shoveled enormous portions into a cup while cows chewed their cud in the barn opposite the viewing windows.  I indulged with abandon oblivious to my lactose issues.  

Snorkel at Silfra

We’re both PADI-certified so when Phil Rosenthal from the travel show “Somebody Feed Phil” (a favorite) tried his luck at Silfra, we knew we wanted to do the same.  But with so much to explore at  Thingvellir National Park, we missed our chance and instead caught up with Brenna for a testimonial. 

Wrapped in a dry suit (the water is only 39 degrees) she had just left the fissure where the glacier meltwater was so pristine she could see up to 325 feet in front of her.  She and her mom swam the lagoon with a diving operation for 30 minutes. They kicked around in a crux between two shifting tectonic plates mesmerized by tunnels and caverns.  Of course, she was in her glory, a life-defining moment, she said. 

Thingvellir National Park
This UNESCO World Heritage site includes guided walks, angling, and snorkeling at the Silfra fissure.

The Sky is the Limit

Saving the best for last, we exfoliated our senses by swimming about in steamy caves and heated turf houses at the Sky Lagoon.  The infinity pool included a steep waterfall, rock seats, and a swim-up lounge for tall cocktails.

For a few extra dollars, we indulged in a 7-step ritual that included a sauna, steam, and salt rub.  Hilariously, George tolerated the cold plunge pool for a whopping 10 seconds. 

Somehow, he evaded the warm Kvika foot bath at Reykjavik beach at sunset but had no reservations about the pins-and-needles sensations that the cold dip injected.  Go figure?

Sky Lagoon Iceland
Pack your favorite swimsuit and embrace a surreal view of a slow sunset in the infinity pool.

Soul Food Before Flight

Iceland’s de facto national fast food is not a fermented shark or roasted sheep skull but a tasty morsel far more familiar.  The wiener dog!  

The Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur hotdog stand at Keflavik International makes a super yummy parboiled sausage with crispy fried onions, sweet brown mustard, and a secret remoulade sauce. 

My guy isn’t keen about onions but he made an exception.  Try not to wait until minutes before your flight to sample this delicacy.  We nearly missed our flight doing so.  

With all that we explored, and so much more not mentioned in Reykjavik, I still feel like we barely scratched the surface.  Iceland is a rugged tapestry of raw beauty with hidden gems around every turn.  You can ogle sites from the road but feel the primordial power of this place on foot and visit soon!

Skogar Museum
Search and rescues were aided by this unusual-looking Citroën C6 with half-track skis for front wheels.
Atlantic Puffin
The only puffin I saw on my trip was this stuffed bird at the Skogar Museum.
Silfra Fissure
Brenna floats like an angel in the Silfra Fissure.
Reynisfjara Beach
Look familiar? This deceptively dangerous black sand beach in Iceland was featured in the Game of Thrones.
Grotta Lighthouse at Sunset
Plenty of parking at the Grotta lighthouse to see the sunset at 9p in early April.
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