Self-drive winter day tour along Iceland’s South Coast
Reynisfjara Beach is a popular destination in South Iceland. Photo: Iceland Monitor/Eggert Jóhannesson
The western half of Iceland’s south coast is an easy day tour from Reykjavik, as Iceland Monitor has tried and tested. On the way there are many of Iceland’s most famous landmarks, like Skógarfoss waterfall, Reynisdrangar by Reynisfjara beach, Vík and much more. After all this, we ended the tour with a relaxing soak in a geothermal pool while watching the sunset.
We started off from Reykjavik early in the morning, around 8ish and drove on the nr. 1 ring road heading south. We wanted to be early, but not too early as we did this trip in the end of February and the aim was that the sun would be up when we arrived at our first pit stop.
Kambar view point
Kambar is the road that leads down from the mountain pass Hellisheiði and down to Reykjavik. There’s a parking space in a high point of the road where a big part of the south coast is visible, as well as the Westman Islands. It’s simply stunning to behold in clear weather, and important that the sun is up so it’s visible. Note the steam coming up from the ground around the town below, Hveragerði, which is literally named after the surrounding hot springs.
As the road along the south coast is pretty much on sea level, this is one of the few places on the road with a view over the beautiful landscape from a high point.
Hveragerði is named after the surrounding hot springs. Photo: Iceland Monitor/Golli / Kjartan Þorbjörnsson
Seljalandsfoss & Gljúfrabúi
Seljarlandsfoss is a must stop when driving along the south coast. It’s a 62m tall, picturesque waterfall just by the nr.1 ring road. The river originates in Eyjafjallajökull, the infamous glacier and volcano. We walked up to it but didn’t take the path that lies behind the waterfall, as it was covered in ice and none of us has a death wish.
Gljúfrabúi is another waterfall hidden in a canyon just 500, north of Seljalandsfoss. You can only see a part of the waterfall through a gap in the cliff in front of it. It’s possible to wade the river up to the waterfall and get soaked in the spray but as it was freezing cold, we decided not to do that. It was still worth the walk as the surroundings are very beautiful. And as Gljúfrabúi originates in a spring, not a glacier, the water from it is delicious!
When I drew waterfalls as a kid, they might all have been Skógafoss. Tall and wide, with straight lines and even flow of water, it looks like it was taken from the pages of a book. It’s surrounded by cliffs, covered in soft moss that’s often covered in icicles. We walked close up to the waterfall rather than taking the stairs up the hill and have a view from above. By the waterfall the ice formed pearls around the small rocks on the ground. Very pretty and rather dangerous, as they were slippery. There is an almost everlasting rainbow by the waterfall (always there when the sun shines), which made the scene both beautiful and a bit surreal. The parking lot was packed with buses full of tourists, but we didn’t mind. The area is vast enough to swallow a great number of people and make it feel almost desolated.
Skógafoss in just as impressive in winter as it is in summer. Photo: Iceland Monitor/Jónas Erlendsson
Skógasafn Museums is one of South Iceland’s prime historical and cultural heritage museum, located close by Skógafoss. The museums collection of 15,000 regional folk craft artefacts are exhibited in 3 museums and 6 historical buildings. One of which is a beautiful turf house. A type of house that was a home to most Icelanders around 100 years ago.
If you want to get up close and personal with a glacier, Sólheimajökull is the most accessible. There are plenty of guided tours on the glacier, but for us hiking up to it was an encounter enough this time around. The drive from the nr. 1 ring road to the parking lot by Sólheimajökull is only a few kilometres long (there is minimal service on the road so it can get ill passable or simply blocked. This is only an option if the weather is decent), and the hike from the parking lot up to the glacier takes around 10 minutes. At this point you are dealing with Icelandic nature and you hike there at your own risk. Take care and watch your step.
Sólheimajökull is the fastest shrinking glacier in Iceland. It’s small, but gorgeous. There is just something about standing small in front of a huge, ancient mountain of ice.
There are plenty of hiking trips available on Sólheimajökull Glacier. Photo: Iceland Monitor/Rax / Ragnar Axelsson
Driving east along the south coast, after passing Sólheimajökull you can’t help admiring the view. On one hand there is the long stretch of Sólheimasandur on one side and Mýrdalsjökull glacier looming over on the other, covering Katla, one of Iceland’s most famous volcanoes.
Close to the small town Vík, Dyrhólaey rises from the sand. It’s a small mountain (of sorts) that stands alone by the sea. The south part of Dyrhólaey is a long line of tall cliffs. One of the cliffs stretches out south from the rest of the mountain, with a giant hole by the bottom of it. This is the iconic rock formation this Dyrhólaey is known for and named after, often portrayed on postcards.
This is an area where bare rock meets the power of the ocean, and it’s amazing to watch the waves beat upon the cliffs, which also happen to be beautifully shaped.
The waves are so powerful there that a part of the shore had to be closed off, after a woman got caught in the waves which dragged her into the sea and she lost her life.
The view from all directions amazing. And there’s just something amazing about standing there, watching the ocean facing south. There’s pretty much nothing but sea in front of you, all the way to the South Pole.
It's possible for boats to sail through the hole if the sea is calm. Photo: Iceland Monitor/Brynjar Gauti
Reynisfjara is well known for long stretches of black sand, columnar basalt and Reynisdrangar, the gorgeous pillars that stand up from the sea by the beach. The place was packed with tourists, especially around the columnar basalt, but it didn’t bother us all that much as the beach is pretty vast. The most stunning thing to see there for the local were the pillars, as columnar basalt and black beaches can be found in many other places in Iceland. But still, it’s very beautiful, and we snapped some pictures, sitting on a throne of columnar basalt, like every other tourist there.
Reynisdrangar are to this local, the most stunning part of Reynisfjara beach Photo: Iceland Monitor/Eggert Jóhannesson
There are few things as lovely as ending a long day with a good soak in warm water. The Secret Lagoon, located in Flúðir, a mere 30 kilometres north of the nr. 1 ring road is perfect for just that. This is a rather large natural pool with a sandy bottom and the edges made out of natural stone. To top it off, there’s a small geyser that goes off every 10-15 minutes just by the pool, and there are plenty of small, bubbling hot springs (just keep to the walking path if you go and take a closer look, so not to burn your toes.
We arrived in twilight, we used up all the good daylight for sightseeing. This couldn’t have been more perfect, as while relaxing in the steaming water, we watched the sun go down below the horizon.
Secret Lagoon is a bit steamy when there's frost outside, but plenty warm. Photo: Facebook/Secret Lagoon
On our way back we took a longer route, and drove through Þingvellir national park. In a stroke of extreme luck, the Northern Lights appeared in the sky. A lot of them, and very bright. We were travelling shortly after complete darkness hit and they usually don’t come out until later, but there they were. A perfect end to our trip.