Iceland South Coast: The Essential Guide
For many travelers, driving around Iceland is the trip of a lifetime. At first glance, one might not think that such a small island would have so much to offer. As you delve deeper into the labyrinth of glaciers, waterfalls, and volcanoes, you'll discover quite the opposite. There's much to see and do on an Iceland road trip, and many travelers plot a course from Reykjavik along the Ring Road towards Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. There are plenty of stops along the way that we’ll cover, so consider this your essential guide to the Iceland South Coast.
Iceland South Coast: Home to many of the countries most famous sites
One of the things you'll notice about this list of must-see attractions on the South Coast are familiar names. South Iceland is chock-full of some of our most famous and beloved star attractions and activities. While a longer trip around the Ring Road is ideal, not everyone has 10 to 14 days for a vacation. Southern Iceland is home to many of our country's well-known gems as well as some off-the-beaten-path locations.
Traveling Iceland by campervan, and especially the South Coast, is a great way to experience these unforgettable wonders. It's no wonder that this is one of the most popular regions for travelers who come to our beautiful island. So let's start exploring.
Close to Reykjavik: Reykjadalur Valley
Your first stop is going to be Reykjadalur Valley, a geothermal zone known for its hiking, hot springs and bubbling mud pools. This is also home to the famous Iceland hot river and hot springs hike to reach it. Pack your swimsuit along with a waterproof holder in your backpack and prepare to jump in!
Once you've toweled off, it's time to hit the road again and continue along the Iceland South Coast.
South Coast: Waterfalls and other outdoor attractions
As you make your way from either Reykjavik or Reykjadalur Valley toward Vik, there are several places you can stop. The star attractions in this region are two dramatic and enchanting waterfalls: Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss.
Seljalandsfoss is considered to be Iceland's most beautiful waterfall. In fact, its nickname is "The Beauty" (as opposed to the mighty Dettifoss, which is "The Beast"). This is one of the most photographed waterfalls in Iceland. A unique feature of this cascade is the cave that allows you to go behind the rushing water. Just be sure to pack those waterproof hiking boots and protection for your camera so it doesn't get wet.
Skogafoss is also extremely beautiful, but the cliffs and surrounding territory look completely different than Seljalandsfoss waterfall. This cascade is special for several reasons. First, you can walk right up to the falls themselves, which is not always the case with Iceland waterfalls. Second, there's an observation deck at the top that you can climb up for spectacular views. Lastly, there's supposedly buried treasure behind the waterfall. Maybe you'll be the lucky one to find it and come home with riches beyond your wildest dreams.
The Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar)
The Westman islands are an archipelago made up of the main island, 15 surrounding islands and about 30 reefs. Heimaey, the only inhabited island in the group, is known for its gorgeous hiking trails and wide array of wildlife. It's also home to Elephant Rock. This curious yet fascinating rock formation looks exactly like an elephant dipping its trunk down into the ocean to quench its thirst.
In order to get here all you have to do is catch a ferry from the mainland and you'll arrive in about 35 to 40 minutes. Ferries are available year-round, so if you have the time I highly recommend making this stop.
Other stops along the way: Sólheimajökull Glacier
For those who'd like to see a glacier up-close-and-personal but don't have the time to do a full glacier hike, this is a great place to visit. You can also do a glacier hike at Sólheimajökull Glacier should you choose. If you want to avoid the crowds of stop the sound and still have just once in a lifetime experience, this could be a great option. Just be sure to always go with an experienced professional.
You may have also read about or heard about Seljavallalaug Outdoor Pool and are considering stopping to take a dip. I don't recommend this as the water is at best lukewarm and the facility in general is not really kept up. There are hundreds of much better hot pots and hot pools in Iceland to choose from.
US NAVY DC-3 Plane Wreck Crash Site at Solheimasandur
You may have seen the Solheimasandur plane wreck in Justin Bieber's video I'll Show You, which was entirely shot in Iceland. The aircraft's white fuselage set against the Black Sands are all that remain of this haunting wreckage. The plane encountered difficulty in the fall of 1973 and was forced to make a crash landing on the beach. Luckily, everyone aboard survived and walked away unscathed.
In the aftermath, neither the American government nor the Icelandic government wanted to pay to haul the wrecked body of the airplane away. So it sits on the beach being slowly eaten away by the literal sands of time. It's a quite popular site for both photographers and Instagrammers alike.
Make sure you have time on your itinerary to include the plane crash site. You'll need to park your car and hike for about 45 minutes to arrive, so plan accordingly.
South Iceland: Vik and environs
As you continue your route in southern Iceland, you'll most likely want to stop in Vík í Mýrdal village, commonly known as Vik. This is home to both the quaint seaside fishing village and Dyrhólaey Peninsula promontory point. It's very common for visitors to spend the night here in order to explore the area.
Dyrhólaey Peninsula juts out into the sea and its name means “door hole”, thanks to the interesting opening in the middle of the rock. Depending on the time of day and the tide, some ships can pass through the small hole.
Reynisfjara black sand beach
While Dyrhólaey and Vík í Mýrdal are great to visit, the main reason people come here is to visit the black beaches at Reynisfjara. Iceland's dark volcanic beaches are scattered all across South Iceland, but this particular one is extremely special.
Iceland is known as the Land of Fire and Ice thanks to the plethora of volcanoes and glaciers that coexist here. Those fiery mountains responsible for the lava fields and calderas that you find here continue to shape our geology and landscapes. One of the more unusual features of our terrain are the basalt columns that you'll find on the cliff face at Reynisfjara Beach.
Rapidly cooling lava produced the hexagonal shaped rock that sticks out along the beach’s shore. It looks quite magical and the misty atmosphere only adds to the ambience of the dark sand. The sea stacks and rock formations complete the picture at this bucket list destination on the coast of Iceland
Off the beaten path destinations
Any good road trip includes stops at both the main highlights of a country and its lesser-known hidden gems. Here are some off the beaten path ideas for you.
Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon is a steep, lush canyon tucked away just a short distance from The Ring Road. It looks like something out of Game of Thrones.
Kirkjubæjarklaustur Is a tiny village with both historical significance and a practical purpose. Irish monks lived here before the time of the Vikings, and nowadays it gets raided by tourists. That's because there is a gas station, a supermarket, and a post office, all of which prove quite useful.
Kirkjugólfið (“Church Floor”) is Iceland's own answer to Giant's Causeway in Iceland. You can walk around the 80 m² (860 square feet) of columnar basalt and wonder at the awesome power of Mother Nature to create these perfectly hexagonal shapes.
The Dverghamrar Dwarf Cliffs are yet another example of the volcanic hexagonal Basalt columns. Here you can see them from the side as opposed to above as was the case with Kirkjugólfið. You can also see these types of columns at Svartifoss waterfall at the Skaftafell Nature Reserve.
Southern Iceland and Vatnajokull National Park
Last but certainly not least on our tour of South Coast Iceland are the attractions in and around Vatnajökull National Park. Vatnajökull glacier is not only the largest glacier in Iceland, it's the third largest glacier in Europe. Measuring an impressive 7,900 square kilometers (3,050 square miles), this ice cap covers approximately 11% of Iceland’s surface area.
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
With around 30 outlet glaciers extending from its icy peak, there's lots to see and do here. Breidamerkurjokull is one of the glacier outlets and the source for Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. This magical glacial lake features chunks of broken off icebergs floating like ghosts in the water. The haunting site is one of Iceland's most popular tourist attractions.
Just across the Ring Road is the world famous Diamond Beach. Many of the small icebergs have floated out to sea and then get washed back ashore on this dark volcanic beach. These icy diamonds glitter and sparkle and you’ll want to get a picture next to one that's as big as an SUV.
Glacier hiking and ice cave treks in Skaftafell Nature Reserve
And of course, every outdoor enthusiast's dream is to hike on a glacier. Glacier hiking, glacier caves, and ice cave exploration were tailor-made for adventure lovers and active vacationers. You can do all of these activities in Skaftafell Nature Reserve, which gets its name from the Skaftafell glacier tongue. Glacier hiking is available all year long, whereas the ice caves and glacier caves can be visited during the winter months.
South Coast Iceland
There is so much here that you could spend an entire week just on the South Coast Iceland alone. See which activities and places appeal to you and then start planning your journey. And if you come in the summertime you can even take a small detour north to head into the Highlands. just make sure you have a four-by-four camper rental as you'll need it to traverse the region's F-roads.
Whatever you decide on for your itinerary, Have an amazing trip and see you behind the wheel.