Exploring the Land of Fire and Ice
I remember a time, not so long ago, when Iceland was easily overlooked as a travel destination. Given it’s name and remote location in the North Atlantic Ocean, many North Americans viewed Iceland as an icy tundra unsuitable for a vacation.
But that was the Iceland of the past.
These days, Iceland has skyrocketed to the top of list when it comes to adventure travel. From dramatic volcanic landscapes to powerful glaciers and raging waterfalls, the Land of Fire and Ice is one of the most diverse countries on the planet.
Within a few hours drive, you can cross lava fields, explore giant ice caves, hike snow-capped mountains, witness bubbling geysers, and scuba dive through a canyon that splits the continents of Europe and North America.
Today, as part of an ongoing campaign to raise awareness about this whimsical land, we’d like to share some of the unique things to see and do in Iceland.
The Golden Circle
Given its relatively small size and incredibly diverse landscapes, Iceland was built for road trips. The country’s most famous drive is the Golden circle, a 300 km route that begins in the capital of Reykjavik and travels to central Iceland and back. You can rent a car and do a self drive tour or join an organized Golden circle tour that departs from Reykjavik.
The Golden Circle tours are popular because they take visitors to 3 of Iceland’s top attractions – Thingvellir National Park, Gullfoss Waterfall and Haukadalur, a geothermally active valley that’s home to the geysers Geysir and Strokkur.
(1) Thingvellir National Park
Thingvellir National Park sits in a rift valley separated by the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the point where the Eurasian and North American Plates meet.
This historical park has also been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site based on cultural criteria because it is the founding site for Iceland’s national parliament, Althingi, now situated in Reykjavik.
For all you Game of Thrones geeks out there (me being one of them!), you may recognize this place as the location of North Westeros and the setting for the battle of the Hound and Brienne.
(2) Scuba diving at Silfra
While in Thingvellir National Park, you can scuba dive the frigid clear blue waters of Silfra fissure, located in the Þingvallavatn Lake. This underwater canyon is wide enough for divers to float between the tectonic plates that separate Europe and North America, while peering hundreds of feet down into the abyss.
According to many scuba divers, Silfra is ‘Iceland’s best kept secret’.
(3) Gullfoss Waterfall
Gullfoss Waterfall is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Iceland. Located in the canyon of the powerful Hvítá river in southwest Iceland, the Gullfoss Waterfalls are a sight to behold.
The mighty waterfalls drop down 32 meters into the river gorge below. As you can see in the above image, visitors can get close enough to feel the water spray on their face.
(4) Strokkur Geysir
The English term geyser is named after The Great Geysir, found in the Haukadalur Valley, which is a geothermal region located in the southwest part of the country.
The Strokkur geothermal fountain is the star attraction in this region. Eruptions occur every 4-8 minutes, shooting boiling hot water up to 40 meters up in the air.
Strokkur puts on quite the show for its spectators.
(5) Glacier Walking on Vatnajökull
Vatnajökull glacier, also known as the Vatna Glacier, is the largest glacier in Iceland. It’s also the largest ice cap in Europe, by volume, and and the second-largest by area (behind Austfonna in Nordaustlandet, Svalbard, Norway).
Located in the south-east of Iceland, Vatnajökull Glacier is said to cover more than 8 percent of the country. It’s situated in Vatnajökull National Park, one of three national parks in Iceland.
Vatnajökull has around 30 outlet glaciers flowing from the ice cap, so there are many hiking sections to choose from. The Svinafellsjokull Glacier at Skaftafell is one of the most popular spots for glacier walking.
(6) Skaftafell Ice Cave
If you’re looking for a truly unique experience in Iceland, exploring the Skaftafell ice caves will certainly do the trick. If you’re visiting the Vatnajökull Glacier during the summer months, it’s recommended to include a stop at Skaftafell National Park.
In the summer months, when the melting water from the Vatnajökull glacier runs underneath the glacier, it forms these otherworldly ice caves. The location and structure of the caves change every year, so it’s best to hire a guide or join a tour for safety reasons. They are only safe to explore during the winter.
Svartifoss, also known as Black Falls, is a breathtaking waterfall in Skaftafell, which is located in the Vatnajökull National Park. It’s one of the most popular sights in the park.
What makes these falls so unique are the dark lava columns that surround the falls. These rock formations are similar to the ones found on the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.
Another impressive waterfall is Skógafoss, situated on the Skógá River in the south of Iceland. Skógafoss is closer to Reykjavik, about half the distance to Skaftafell.
The Skógafoss is one of the biggest waterfalls in the country, with a width of 25 metres (82 feet) and a drop of 60 m (200 ft). According to legend, the first Viking settler in the area buried a treasure in a cave behind the waterfall.
(9) Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights)
The Aurora Borealis is one of the worlds most amazing phenomenon, so it’s no surprise that it’s also one of the biggest draws to Iceland. This magical performance of dancing lights in the sky is best viewed in remote places, as far away from urban lights as possible.
The Northern Lights are also one of the most elusive and unpredictable attractions the country has. You never know what Mother Nature has in store, so it’s best to plan you trip and give yourself more than just one night.
The best time to catch them is from middle September to middle April. You need a clear dark sky and the colder the temperature, the brighter the show.
A popular place to witness the Northern Lights is in the beautiful area of Lake Myvatn, located in the north of Iceland, not far from the stunning Krafla volcano.
(10) Maelifell Volcano in Myrdalsjökull Glacier Park
Located on the the edge of the Myrdalsjökull Glacier in south Iceland, Maelifell Volcano is a perfect cone shape volcano surrounded by black soil and surreal landscapes.
During the summer, snow melts off the sides of the volcano to reveal a mossy green surface. Many of the roads in the park will close during the winter, so it’s best to visit the Maelifell Volcano in the summer months.
Photo credit – Matthew Karsten
(11) Airplane Wreckage In Iceland
To capture the above photo, Matthew Karsten spent the night at the wreckage site and got lucky with a Northern Lights appearance. It’s by far the coolest photo of the site I’ve seen.
The Sólheimasandur airplane wreckage is located on Iceland’s South coast, between Skógafoss and the town of Vik. In 1973, the United States Navy DC plane ran out of fuel and crashed on the black beach at Sólheimasandur. Fortunately, all passengers survived.
It has since become a photographers dream shoot.
The multicolored rhyolite mountains and volcanic lava fields make Landmannalaugar one of Iceland’s most interesting tourist attractions. Located in Fjallabak Nature Reserve, the spectacular landscapes of Landmannalaugar look like something you’d find on another planet.
Landmannalaugar is famous for its hiking trails. The most popular routes include the 2 hour hike through the Laugahraun lava field to Mt. Brennisteinsalda (“Sulphur Wave”) and the 4 hour hike to Ljótipollur crater lake (“Ugly Puddle”). It’s also a popular place to go Icelandic horse riding.
While in the area, include a visit to the legendary Hekla, one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes. Hekla is part of a volcanic ridge that stretches 40 kilometers long. It’s had more than 20 eruptions since 874, with the last eruption happening in the year 2000.
Have you visited Iceland? What did we miss?
Share your favorite things to see and do in Iceland in the comments section below!
The photos used in this post are not ours. To find photo credit source, click on the image.