For an international trip, the magical country of Iceland is easy to navigate, exciting to explore, and beautiful, to boot. It was with shocking ease that I pulled off a solo 7-day “shoulder season” trip, prepared only a few weeks in advance. Everything you have heard about Iceland is true – except for ease in seeing the northern lights.
- Day 1: Fly Chicago ORD to Baltimore. Connect to WoW Air (which now flies direct from Chicago) for 5 hour flight to Reykjavik. Drive and explore Golden Road. Stay in Reykjavik.
- Day 2: Drive Reykjavik to Vik, stopping at numerous points of interest. Stay in Vik.
- Day 3: Drive Vik to Hofn. Stay in Hofn.
- Day 4: Return drive to Reykjavik. Stay in Reykjavik.
- Day 5: Reykjavik to Olafsvik – Explore Snaefellsnes Peninsula
- Day 6: Olafsvik to Reykjavik. Stay in Reykjavik – Explore Snaefellsnes Peninsula part 2
- Day 7: Reykjavik to Reykjanes Peninsula – Explore peninsula
- Day 8: Fly home.
Iceland had long been a bucket-list destination for me, and though its popularity has made the island much more accessible over the last decade, for some reason there was an intimidation factor to making plans for this adventure. Varied life circumstances provided an opportunity to quickly plan a trip in the spring of 2016, though this would be a solo adventure.
I jumped at the opportunity, but worked with a tighter budget than I was used to. I quickly booked airfare (WoW Air), a rental car (Sixt [in this case a small SUV with GPS]), and a few AirBNB’s to get a jumpstart. I told myself I would figure out the rest of it once I got on the ground… little did I know that a trip to Iceland would be easier and less frustrating than many of my domestic travels.
In all, between airfare, rental car, AirBNBs and food, the trip was around $2000. The only logistical issue was wondering if the late March/ early April weather would cooperate with outdoor adventures, which for the most part, it did.
A few other quick notes – once on the road, the island gets desolate quickly. You can regularly go 100 km without seeing a place to stop for food or gas. Credit cards are a must – gas stations, especially during off hours, require them. Restaurants outside of main towns are few and far between – I ate a lot of Peanut Butter and Jelly along the trip. And finally, back to weather – it can change abruptly, though I never encountered frigid temperatures. Make use of all good weather, but don’t be scared off by sudden rain or snow – it can clear in minutes. Finally, keep an eye out for warning signs. Though the island appears friendly, nature has its dangers.
Day 1 on the Ground – The Golden Circle
My flight arrived before sunrise and, in what seemed like a bad premonition, the snow was flying. I had to wait a short while to grab a rental car, so I used the time to contemplate what I might do if the snow impeded some of my day 1 plans. The small but modern Keflavik Airport is located about an hour outside of Iceland’s capital Reykjavik (R’vik,) and during the course of my drive to R’vik the snow shower slowly gave way to sun. Though tired from the overnight flight, this seemed like a prime opportunity to hit one of Iceland’s famous drives, The Golden Circle.
I stopped briefly in the suburbs of R’vik to grab some food for the road. In this short time, the skies turned blue, further inviting the trek to the Golden Circle. Known for its immense waterfalls, as well as Pingvellir National Park (Thingvellir), and gorgeous landscape, the drive coupled with minor hiking seemed like a perfect way to start the trip. I was further encouraged to jump right into the adventures by the waitress at the restaurant who insisted I make use of any and all good weather at this time of the year.
Though I would find throughout the trip the weather changes drastically at the drop of the hat, the hour or so ride to the Pingvellir was a breeze, with a slight ascent in altitude. Pingvellir features a rugged landscape, and is a national park for both its nature (you can walk a fault line) as well as historical significance. It was a perfect introduction to Iceland and great jumping off point for the Golden Circle, which in total was about a 3-4 hour round-trip (if done non-stop) from R’vik.
Though I stopped a number of times along the drive to simply stare at the surroundings, the next major stop was Geysir. The area, stuffed with geothermal activity, was definitely worth the stop to wander but I found it less astounding than other visitors, having been to the geothermal sites at Yellowstone in the states.
My final big stop on the Golden Circle was Gulfoss Waterfall. Wow! Iceland is loaded with waterfalls, but this was probably the best I have ever seen. You’re able to get up close (as with most everything here), but these falls are fairly indescribable. It feels like water is falling everywhere, crashing and clashing. I spent quite a bit of time here and would highly recommend the entire Golden Road as not only an introduction to Iceland, but an incredible overview of what you can expect to see through the country.
Reykjavik to the Eastern Coast
After a night’s stay at a R’vik area AirBNB (which I returned to later in the trip,) I headed east along the Ring Road (a loop of the entire island,) with frequent stops along the way to the Southern coastal town of Vik.
The 3 hour ride offered up a number of gorgeous and well-known waterfalls, a small town with geothermal activity everywhere, and a mighty impressive glacier that many folks just walked up to and started climbing on. These stops dotted the roadside every 15-30 minutes were accessible just off the main road. Throughout the drive you could simply gaze upwards to the north as the island appears to continually ascend in altitude to what seemed like one enormous snow-capped peak. Along the ride to Vik it became clear just how desolate the island is outside of R’vik. In what eventually totaled about 20 hours of driving throughout the southern half of the island, I think I only encountered 2 stoplights outside of R’vik., and traffic literally did not exist.
The Vik area is known for its black sand beaches on the raging southern coast along the Atlantic. The town itself is rather small, but offered up an opportunity for gas (not a lot of stations along the road). The final approach to Vik was a steady ascent and descent up a ridge. Just as the ascent began, before ever seeing Vik, I chose to make a quick turnoff down one of the side roads (Rt. 215) to Reynisfjara Beach which was a stunning stop.
The short ride off the Ring Road went past a beautiful old church before a slight descent to the beach. Having no expectations or knowledge of the area whatsoever, the Basalt Caves were otherworldly and the sea stacks just off the shore added to the visual drama. Though these beaches didn’t have the black sand (those are on the other side of the ridge), this area was one of the highlights of the trip. It is also worth noting that the area is known for rip currents and volatile waves. Depending on the tides, it appears one could easily be trapped in the caves which sit at the shoreline.
I continued on to the other side of the ridge, just on the outskirts of Vik, to the black sands which provided a distant vantage point of the aforementioned sea stacks. Coupled with the last stop, this was a perfect 1-2 punch for the third day of the trip. Having spent the previous night in the area I was able to get out early in the morning and make use of the pleasant weather. My understanding is that during peak tourist seasons the beaches are packed, but early in the morning during late March I was there just about by myself.
After the beach visits I set my sites on Jorkulsarrla, ice lagoons along the eastern side of the island. Leaving Vik with no plans but making it to the lagoons, I continued along the Ring Road, taking in the never-ending vistas of the rising ice-capped mountains to the north framed by moss-covered lava fields filling in the foreground. The drive shared many characteristics of long drives in the western U.S. – open road, desolate, and perpetual beauty. In the 3 or so hours I spent getting to the lagoons I frequently got out just to appreciate the surroundings. The weather, sunny and warm enough to not be wearing a jacket, made it all the more inviting.
I realized I was coming in on the destination after seeing a car pulling out of an ice-covered drive. I abruptly turned and headed up the icy path to a lot about a 1/4 mile down. From there I caught my first glimpse of a lagoon – it appeared to be a small crater lake at the base of the mountains. In my head I thought “this can’t be it,” but chose to start trudging through the deep snow another 1/4 mile or so to the lake. There were a handful of people in the distance as I got up closer to the lagoon. I hung out for a bit, slowly growing snow-blind from the sun’s strong reflection off the snow, before making my way back to the car, continuing northeast. A few miles up the road the traffic began to increase dramatically, relative to what I had seen in the last few hours, and I saw a small marker for Jorkulsarrla, meaning the lagoon I had already stopped at was simply a small precursor to the main attraction.
It would be hard to properly describe the area in words, but what had been minor disappointment in my last stop was quickly assuaged. Large silvery-blue lagoons, filled with smaller icebergs and seals amidst the backdrop of the larger mountains was a site I had never before seen.
I spent a few hours wandering around the lakes, watching the seals laze around the floating chunk of ice. There are multiple lakes which flow out to the ocean and one could spend a good chunk of time here without a tinge of doubt – I actually returned the next morning.
Having no definitive plans, I spent the night a bit further down the road in an AirBNB in the town of Hofn, the largest town outside of Reykjavik I would visit. While in town I spoke with a few other travelers and heard the snow in the north made travel along the Ring Road a bit more treacherous, so I began to making plans to drive back to the western side the island.
With clear skies this evening, I spent hours sitting on the coast of the Atlantic, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis. Despite confidence and hope from the Solar Activity Watch, by 1:00 AM I had given up hopes of seeing them. This would be one of few disappointments on the trip.
After a bit of evening research, I decided to avoid the snows in the north and begin the trek to Snaefellsnes Peninsula an area a few hours north of R’vik, often described as Iceland in a nutshell. Backtracking to R’vik, where I spent the night again, the weather began to change to a steady rain and snow, occasionally letting up for a few rainbows. This weather would remain a constant for the duration of my trip. While the shifting weather often made the views significantly more dramatic, it also led to less time outdoors.
The rains did provide a chance for me to check out a few museums in southern Iceland, generally centered around Viking history and the Eddas. The museums were cool, but didn’t match my desire to be in nature. In general the weather really hampered my opportunity to immerse myself within the peninsula.
Highlights of the peninsula included Kirkjufellsfos waterfall, the somewhat white-knuckled drive through Snaefellsjokull National Park, and brief walks through a few of the towns sparsely dashed around the peninsula.
My hunch is that I didn’t even scratch the surface of the area. The flip side, much like what I had seen thus far, was the drive was relentlessly engaging with plenty to stop and stare at.
After 2.5 days of relatively steady rain I made the choice to start heading back to Reykjavik to finally explore the city. Though the peninsula takes some time to drive, it looks bigger on maps than it actually is and my excitement for one stop was piqued upon hearing of the chance to hike the Eldborg Volcano Crater on the southern end of the peninsula. Despite a struggle finding it (many sites are not well-marked) I finally made it off the road lot to do a bit of hiking. In the distance were the remnants of the volcano. Though the ground was fully saturated (I literally sank into the mud trail with every step,) it took about 2 hours to get up to the top of the perfectly formed crater. Quite impressed, yet soaked and exhausted from the laborious hike, I remained at the top, surprised by the moss and plant life growing inside.
As early afternoon approached, I began the trek back to my car, having the brilliant idea to hop rocks down the side of the muddy mountain rather than continually sink into the mud. Poor choice – just a few rocks into my bunny-hopping I missed a rock and severely twisted an ankle. The pain was significant enough to make the walk back to the car a struggle, but I was hiking down a volcano – pretty worth it.
Once on the road, I decided to take the long route, avoiding the toll for the underwater tunnel, instead driving the perimeter of the Foraging-Hvalfjordjur (fjord,) which was one of the more beautiful drives of the trip, and I would highly recommend setting aside the additional time for the drive – it does not get a lot of attention.
I spent the night in an AirBNB downtown, but outside of a quick bite and drink at a local bar, it was apparent my ankle was not up for a ton of walking. Instead I mapped out a final days worth of exploration on the Reykjanes Peninsula.
In brief, the peninsula, with it’s closeness to the airport, is a perfect place to spend a last day. It’s simply loaded with dramatic landscapes, geothermal pools (IMO, the best I saw in Iceland), and for those interested, the Blue Lagoon baths. I spent a significant portion of the day driving the peninsula in every direction, getting out and limping around interesting geosites. The most impressive yet understated was the “Bridge Across Continents.” Though one would easily pass right by, as there is not a ton to see besides what appeared to be a tiny stone valley between two small rock formations, the bridge, all of 100 feet long, spans the distance between North American and European plates.
Getting to the nature area in the south-central portion of the peninsula did require a short ride on a gravel road, but I would highly recommend touring the peninsula as a bookend to the trip. More-so than Snaefellsness, it really did capture Iceland in a nutshell – the beauty, desolation, lava, geothermal, ocean shores, mountains – just splendid.
In all the trip was amazing – almost everywhere you turn is a highlight. Speaking to others who have traveled, weather is without a doubt the greatest impediment to enjoyment. A few others, particularly those with kids, noted that they grew bored and disappointed with the repetitive lava and moss. I, however, cannot wait to return and continue digging in to this island.