Editor’s note: Iceland might be the very top of my travel wish list, although before reading Sam’s journey I didn’t know much of the south. Now I am dying to see these waterfalls and beaches! For more of Sam’s adventures, click here to visit his index page.
As I write this article, we are in the midst of a typical summer heatwave in Utah. We have triple digit temperatures, I feel zonked, and earlier this week, the air conditioning went out at my synagogue. While many of us go on vacation to places with warm weather, I have this week found myself nostalgic to go back to the nice cool destination of Iceland. Living in a desert climate, Iceland is an ideal spot to go for a summer vacation, with temperatures topping off in the summer in the upper 50s or low 60s Fahrenheit. Iceland is a place of friendly people and stunning natural beauty. I was fortunate enough to go there two summers ago, and the first place I went was the southernmost town in the country, Vik.
Vik, also known by its full name, Vik i Myrdal, is not a large town by metrics outside of Iceland; it only has around 400 inhabitants. However, it is the main town in the center of the southern coast of the island nation, roughly 200 kilometers east from the capital and by far largest city of Iceland, Reykjavik, and 270 kilometers west of the main eastern city of Hofn. Vik is right on the Atlantic Ocean along the Ring Road, a loop highway stretching 821 miles around the whole country of Iceland. Coming from Reykjavik, there are wonderful stops on the way, including two phenomenal waterfalls. Conveniently, these stops are all right off the Ring Road, making it easy and accessible to visit, especially as I came with a then 10-week-old baby. Seljalandsfoss is a 197-foot waterfall that has been featured in numerous shows, films and music videos (Beliebers might recognize it from the video I’ll Show You). Seljalandsfoss is one of the most picturesque sites in this country known for its natural beauty. It is fed by the glacier Eyjafjallajokul, under which a volcano erupted, melting much of the ice. The waterfall provides a backdrop of rock and a foreground of greenery as the water cascades into a pool below. What is so unique and special about this waterfall is that behind it is a trail that goes through a cave so you can walk behind the waterfall and see it from behind.
A bit further up is a waterfall with a similar height, Skogafoss, at 200 feet. It is evident with Skogafoss that it stands on what used to be the coastline as it drops from former sea cliffs. Unlike Seljalandsfoss that has a pool beneath it, Skogafoss, with an even more dramatic drop, appears to have a rock beach or bank at the bottom of it that you can walk along. The steep drop causes mist that creates a perpetual single or double rainbow on sunny days. While many might stop and see the waterfall and then continue along the Ring Road, the highlight of Skogafoss is above and behind the waterfall. There is a steep climb up the cliff with a stair pathway. Upon reaching the top, you will be treated to spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean to the south, and to the north is the Fimmvorduhal Trail that goes through a valley with a scenic river with multiple other beautiful, albeit smaller, waterfalls.
Continuing east, just outside the town of Vik, is Dyrholaey, the southernmost tip of Iceland. A peninsula, Dyrholaey was once a separate volcanic island that later, through a land bridge, merged with the main island. As a result, the peninsula has peaks of nearly 400 feet with great views down the coastline on either side, where lava tubes still spill out to the sea. Due to the volcanic nature of this particular spot, both sides of Dyrholaey contain gorgeous black sand beaches. On Dyrholaey, check out the lighthouse and then make your way over to its most famous spot, a black lava arch that goes out into the ocean. The archway was formed as a result of rough waves pounding the rock for hundreds of thousands of years, wearing it down. However, during the summer, the most popular spot on Dyrholaey is the cliffs where thousands of puffins have formed a colony. Watching these adorable and goofy looking birds fly, walk, and play will be a highlight of any Icelandic trip. The puffins were not the only animals that we encountered in Dyrholaey though; on our way leaving the peninsula the road was blocked by a herd of Icelandic sheep, who roam throughout the island even though they all belong to someone. Be careful while driving, because if you hit an Icelandic sheep, you have to compensate the owner for the loss, even if their sheep was standing in the middle of the highway!
The black basalt sand beach just east of Dyrholaey is Reynisfjara Beach, ranked as one of the top 10 most beautiful beaches in the world by Islands Magazine. This beach also gets the largest amount of rainfall of any place in Iceland and is one of the most dangerous places in Iceland. Located right on the water with no barrier, giant waves have been known to come powerfully onto shore and sweep people away, so do be cautious, especially with children. The wild and stormy nature of the spot is the reason for a monument located there for drowned seamen. On the beach are magnificent basalt columns that look like pipes on an organ. With trolls being an important part of Icelandic mythology, legend tells that these columns are the remains of petrified trolls. Along both the beach and the peninsula are numerous caves that you can wander into as well.
Only ten minutes from the beach is the town of Vik, which is a great place to stay for exploring the many destinations in the area. In particular, I recommend the Gotur Cottages, where you will have beautiful views and a nice, comfortable cottage to yourself. The town of Vik is pretty small and you can walk through it fairly quickly, but there is a charm to it and a couple of attractions. The Vik i Myrdal Church is on top of the hill and stands over the town. Going up there provides beautiful views of Vik, the ocean, and the surrounding area. Vik also has a lava show where you can go inside a center and they will simulate a volcanic eruption and create real lava to teach people about it. There are a few restaurants in town. I recommend the pub in the middle of town and Sudurvik, an upscale restaurant on a cliff that is in a charming building and provides great views of the town.
About two hours east of Vik along the Ring Road is the Vatnajokull National Park. This park has ice caves and glaciers you can trek across (do so with a guide so you do not fall into a crevasse), but with a 10-week-old, we did not do this. Rather, we went to another destination in the park that is one of the most popular attractions in all of Iceland, Svartifoss. Svartifoss literally means “black waterfall,” and this is because it has a dramatic backdrop of black basalt columns similar to those on Reynisfjara Beach. The backdrop of Svartifoss has inspired many Icelandic architects, including the design for Reykjavik’s famed Hallgrimskirkja Church. Around Svartifoss are many lovely hiking trails to visit with various viewpoints and platforms for observing the waterfall.
The final attraction on the southern coast of Iceland might be the most impressive. About 2.5 hours east of Vik and near the town of Hofn is a glacial lake called Jokulsarlon. Jokulsarlon is the deepest lake in Iceland at 932 feet. At five miles in length, this lake is constantly expanding by the retreating of the glacier that is connected to it and feeds into it, meaning that global warming may cause a massive lake but could destroy the wonder that you can witness here. Jokulsarlon is often referred to as the “iceberg lagoon.” Massive milky white and bright blue icebergs that break off of the glacier float around the lake and then are carried out through an outlet under a suspension bridge to sea. Standing on the shore and watching the icebergs drift out is an incredible experience that is not found in many places in the world. An excellent opportunity is to take a boat trip around the iceberg lagoon where you can get up close to the icebergs and learn all about them. Undoubtably, you will see many happy, well fed, blubbery seals in the iceberg lagoon who swim around the outlet of the lake to catch all the fish going in and out of the ocean.
Just outside the outlet and the lake is another of Iceland’s famous black sand beaches, this one called Diamond Beach. As the icebergs go out to sea, they start to break apart. Small and large chunks break off of the icebergs and are smoothed by the waves and lose their milky hue becoming transparent before washing ashore. The end result is that all of the pieces of ice that end up on the dark black beach sparkle like diamonds making this a unique and spectacular beach that you will never forget.
While many who journey to the “Land of Fire and Ice” never explore beyond the Blue Lagoon, Golden Circle, and Reykjavik, renting a car and going down the southern coast is a worthwhile adventure. You will see some of the greatest spectacles that nature has to offer. Though you may not enjoy the warmth that a Mediterranean European summer adventure may have, this area of Iceland will offer something that is as unique as it is breathtaking and unforgettable.
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