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.
This trip took place in March/ April 2016
Iceland had long been a bucket-list destination for me, and its popularity has made the island much more accessible over the last decade. 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 AirBNBs 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.
Day 1 on the Ground – The Golden Circle
I arrived at the small but modern Keflavik Airport, located about an hour outside of Iceland’s capital Reykjavik (R’vik,) shortly before sunrise to a hefty snowfall. 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, then hit the road for the trip to the Circle. Known for its immense waterfalls and gorgeous landscapes, as well as Pingvellir National Park (Thingvellir), the Circle drive was a perfect way to start the trip.
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) and its historical significance. It was a perfect introduction to Iceland and great jumping off point for driving 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 and go on a few minor hikes, the next major stop on the Circle drive was Geysir. The area, stuffed with geothermal activity, was impressive and worth the time.
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. Water is falling everywhere, crashing and clashing. I spent quite a bit of time here and would highly recommend the entire Golden Circle as not only an introduction to Iceland, but an incredible overview of what you can expect to see throughout 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 southeast to the coastal town of Vik via the Ring Road (a loop of the entire island).
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. Sites like these dotted the roadside every 15-30 minutes and were accessible just off the main road. Throughout the drive I gazed upwards to the north as the island appeared 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- 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 a rare opportunity for gas. The final approach to Vik was a steady ascent and descent along a ridge. Just as the ascent began, before 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 10-minute ride off the Ring Road went past a beautiful old church before a slight descent to the beach. The Basalt Caves on the shore were otherworldly, and the sea stacks just off the shore added to the visual drama. 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. 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, I continued along Ring Road to the lagoons. The drive shared many characteristics of long drives in the western U.S. – open roads, desolate and perpetual beauty. In the 3 or so hours I spent getting to the lagoons I frequently stopped to appreciate the surroundings.
An important side-note. Before formally reaching Jorkulsarrla, you may see a turn-off for smaller ice-lagoons. Though a nice precursor to the large lagoon, you will need to both drive and trudge through deep snow to see the less impressive ice-lake. I would recommend waiting for the main event, which does have small signs (and increased traffic) to announce you’ve arrived.
The drive was more than worth it. Jorkulsarrla, with its large silvery-blue lagoons filled with smaller icebergs and seals, against the backdrop of the larger mountains, was indeed a spectacular sight.
I spent a few hours wandering around the lagoons, watching the seals laze around the floating chunks of ice. There are multiple lakes which flow out to the ocean and one could spend half a day here – I actually returned for an additional visit the next morning.
I spent the night a bit further down the road in an AirBNB in the coastal 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 for the next day.
My evening in Hofn consisted of spending hours sitting on the coast of the Atlantic, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis. Despite clear skies and positive predictions provided by the Solar Activity Watch, by 1:00 AM I was was an icicle and had given up hopes of seeing them. This would be one of few disappointments on the trip.
For the next leg of the trip, 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, and led to me visiting a few museums in southern Iceland, generally centered around Viking history and the Eddas.
Highlights of the peninsula included Kirkjufellsfos waterfall, the white-knuckled drive through Snaefellsjokull National Park and brief walks through a few of the towns sparsely dashed around the peninsula. Due to the weather, I felt as though I hardly scratched the surface here.
Though the peninsula takes some time to drive, it looks bigger on maps than it actually is. Before heading back to R’vik, I jumped at 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 found a small lot-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. It’s worth noting, like many nature trails, this one is quite primitive and worth taking your time, as stones, puddles, and uneven ground make up the bulk of the path.
Once on the road back to R’vik, I chose 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. I highly recommend setting aside the additional time for the drive – it does not get a lot of attention, but it is well worth the time.
I spent the night in an AirBNB downtown, but outside of a quick bite and drink at a local bar, I did not spend much time exploring R’vik. Instead I mapped out a final day’s worth of exploration on the Reykjanes Peninsula.
In brief, the peninsula, with its proximity to the airport I would be departing from, was a perfect place to spend a last day. It’s loaded with dramatic landscapes, geothermal pools (IMO, the best I saw in Iceland), and for those interested, the Blue Lagoon baths. I spent the day driving the peninsula in every direction, exploring interesting geosites. The most impressive yet understated was the “Bridge Across Continents.” Though one could easily miss it -there is not a ton to see besides 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.