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If you could have a wish list of natural wonders to visit in your lifetime, you may well find them all located along Iceland’s South Coast. In fact, the South Coast is one Iceland’s gems with the most dramatic and varied scenery Iceland has to offer. You can expect to encounter many of the country’s best features here, including black sand beaches, vast lava fields, majestic waterfalls, glaciers and much more!
It was Led Zeppelin who once sang about Iceland “We come from the land of the ice and snow from the midnight sun, where the hot springs flow” in their famous hit Immigrant Song. These lyrics come from the reputation Iceland has as of being a country born of fire and ice, a reputation that will become incredibly clear to you as you journey along the southern coast.
The south shore of Iceland is lined with remarkable destinations, each magical in its own way. These include the picturesque waterfalls of Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss, the black beach and columnar basalt of Reynisfjara, Eyjafjallajökull and Sólheimajökull glaciers in addition to the enormous Vatnajökull. I could go on but you get my drift.
The area is full of natural pearls of exquisite beauty and they are within a few hours’ drive from Reykjavik. And I was lucky enough to be sharing this trip with Gunta, Marc and Mina, all of whom decided to join me for the day in my hired car.
Reykjadalur Hot Springs
These are one of the best hot springs in Iceland, a local favourite but rather off-the-beaten track for foreign tourists. What’s great about this place is that it’s free AND also offers a great opportunity for hiking at the same time. The hike is 3 km long one way and will take about 45-60 minutes one way with plenty of photo stops. Unfortunately, we did not realise this until after we arrived, and since we had so many more places to visit that day, we had to content ourselves with just a short walk around the area.
Reykjadalur roughly translates to smokey valley, and throughout the entire hike, steam is released from the ground in the surrounding hills. This makes for a beautiful landscape, but with geothermal energy and steam comes boiling water. While the steam is safe to approach, the boiling water for obvious reasons is not so be careful where you place your feet!
Having said that, the area is very colourful; green grass, steam, blue river, hot pots, soda springs, greyish blue mud pools, patches of silicon and sulphur – all blending in with nature. It’s truly a photographer’s paradise!
The experience only gets better as you begin the hike. So, befriend some sheep, lace up your boots, grab a few friends, and with these tips, head into the valley for an unforgettable adventure!
Seljalandsfoss is one of the most breathtaking waterfalls in South Iceland with a whooping 196 ft (60 m) cascade. The waterfall is loved by travellers because you can actually walk behind it! Step behind the curtain of water and marvel at Iceland’s South Coast from a completely new perspective.
This waterfall has also been featured in films and music videos. Justin Bieber’s music video for the song I’ll Show You was filmed at many South Iceland attractions, including Seljalandsfoss. Parts of the TV series The Amazing Race 6 and CKY2K were also shot near the waterfall.
Seljalandsfoss Waterfall is one of the most popular sites in Iceland. The water flows from the Seljalandsá river, which has its origin at the infamous volcano glacier, Eyjafjallajökull, which caused a huge impact on air travel in 2010 when it erupted!
It’s possible to access the path to go behind the falls during summer even if you will get a little bit wet from the drizzle. However, do be careful as the path is rocky and muddy in places and can be a bit slippery. In fact, I got the fright of my life here as I saw a woman tumble and roll down the slope three or four times before somehow coming to a stop. If she had not, she would almost certainly have been killed!
Be sure to take a raincoat and good sturdy shoes or hiking boots when you take the marvellous trip behind Seljalandsfoss. The views and the sounds from behind the waterfall are truly astonishing! However, it is not recommended to take this path during the winter months as it becomes too slippery and dangerous.
There are also some other smaller waterfalls connected by a little walking path to the left of the Seljalandsfoss Waterfall. At the end you may start to see people returning a little drenched and that’s because they’ve found Gljúfrabúi. Gljúfrabúi is hidden in a cylinder-live cave of mist which you can access by walking upstream into it’s watery lair.
If you’re driving, there’s a designated car park at Seljalandsfoss but please note that it’s not free. It costs 800 ISK (around €5) to park there and will last you the whole day. In the area, you’ll also find a shop where you can buy souvenirs and a small food kiosk with coffee and sandwiches.
Iceland has many waterfalls, but the Skogafoss Waterfall is one of the most stunning and popular ones to visit. The Forest Waterfall, as the word Skógafoss translates, is one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Iceland.
Standing at 60 metres (197 ft) tall, the heavy veil of water is impressive. Although you’re unable to walk behind this waterfall, you can get fairly close to the water; but one step too close will leave you soaked by the mist, so dress accordingly and come prepared with a rain jacket! On a clear day, the waterfall is unbelievably photogenic and is the perfect place to look out for rainbows and to take in the breathtaking scenery.
If you’re short on time, watching the water plunge into the river below from the bottom of the falls is a breathtaking view alone. If you have more time or are planning a stay here, don’t miss the hike up the 400+ stairs to the top of the falls. Although the climb isn’t for everyone, the view from the stop is spectacular and a great way to get a bird’s-eye view of the surrounding area. Up top, you’ll be able to see the river that connects the falls and the start of the popular Fimmvorduhals hiking trail to Pórsmörk.
There is a lot of free parking available here if you happen to be in your own car. In addition, there are three restaurants on site attached to Hótel Skógar, Hótel Skógafoss and the Skógar Museum.
Translating to Home of the Sun in English, Sólheimajökull is one of Iceland’s most accessible glaciers. Only two hours away by car from Reykjavik, it is conveniently situated just off the Ring Road near the coastal town of Vik.
Solheimajokull Glacier has a wealth of dramatic ice formations including crevasses, rugged ridges and sinkholes. Sólheimajökull is a glacier tongue of Mýrdalsjökull – the 4th largest glacier in Iceland. The marks of climate change can be seen very clearly here – the glacier has retreated about a kilometre over the last decade.
Sólheimajökull is one of the two glaciers closest to the capital, Langjökull being the other one. It is easily accessible and glacier tours are operated on the glacier all year round multiple times a day although in our case we only had time to admire it from afar.
Dyrhólaey Peninsula, the southernmost point in mainland Iceland, is a must-visit place near Vik. What is the most mesmerising thing about Dyrhólaey is the arch in the middle of the peninsula; it shows the true power of the nature and how the ocean has been shaping the coast of Iceland for centuries.
The name Dyrhólaey means Door Hill Island in Icelandic. The reason behind the name is that the arch is so big that ships and even small airplanes can pass through it at certain times. It’s the power of the ocean that has worn the black basalt into this 120-metre high arch (394 ft).
Once up there, you will get a great view of the black sand beaches around the village Vik and the Reynisdrangar black lava sea stacks. On a clear day, almost all the coastline west of Dyrhólaey is visible and you can see almost all the way to Selfoss village.
At Dyrhólaey, you will find a century-old lighthouse. But what you may not know is that it’s not your regular kind of lighthouse. On the inside, it has been renovated and converted into a private luxury hotel. Nevertheless, the exterior look is extremely charming, making it a popular landmark to photograph amongst travellers.
Reynisfjara black sand beach is the most famous beach on the South Coast of Iceland. What sets Reynisfjara apart from all the rest are its black volcanic sands, smooth pebbles, unique rock formations, overall moody atmosphere and huge waves crashing on the shore, although we were lucky enough to have a near calm sea when we visited. It’s a truly unique place to visit and a popular filming location (Game of Thrones, Star Wars and more). In 1991, Reynisfjara appeared on the top ten list of the most beautiful non-tropical beaches in the world, and it is very easy to see why it was chosen!
From the beach you can see the Reynisdrangar sea stacks. These are some of the most famous and recognizable rock formations in the world. They rise 217 ft (66 metres) into the air and are home to a number of different seabirds, including puffins, arctic terns, and fulmars. The Reynisdrangar sea stacks are an absolute must for anyone looking to check off Iceland’s biggest attractions and the perfect backdrop for a photo or two.
These bizarre looking rock pillars are said to be petrified trolls that were caught outside at sunrise and frozen in time, but some strongly believe that they’re actually basalt columns that were once part of the extensive shoreline cliffs that remained standing while other parts were battered down by the ocean. Whichever story you choose to believe, they’re a sight to behold.
Also along Reynisfjara are the stunning Hálsanefshellir sea cave and the Gardar cliff, which is composed of dark basalt columns that some say resemble a pyramid or organ pipes. From the shore you’ll also have spectacular views of the arched cliff of Dyrhólaey looming over the sea.
The Gardar basalt columns have also served as inspiration for many of Iceland’s famous buildings, most notably the iconic Hallgrimskirkja Church in Reykjavik. Best described as Iceland’s version of the Giant’s Causeway, the Gardar columns are a true, genuine stairway to the heavens. They were formed by ancient lava flowing at an incredibly slow speed: this would cause the cooling rock to crack and solidify into the perfectly symmetrical columns present today.
Extreme caution is to be exercised at all times while visiting Reynisfjara. Stay far back from the water’s edge and heed all signs and warnings. Though the beach is stunning, please be careful as rogue waves are common and the current is very strong.
Just off the beach you can find a small café called Black Beach Restaurant that serves a limited menu and drinks. There are also public toilets on site. Parking is free, if you can find a spot, as this is a very popular site. The nearby town of Vík also features a petrol station with a fast food diner and a café.
This canyon is one of those places in Iceland that you don’t find in any of the brochures, and don’t see many photos of, but that’s one of the reasons it’s all that much more magical when you get there. There is a little grassy walking trail along the side of the canyon, with dramatic views to the valley floor that would make even the most experienced climbers dizzy. The canyon is 100 metres tall and 2 km long, making for a nice little walk once you get there. You can also hike along the floor of the canyon, although be prepared to wade through glacial rivers for that adventure!
Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon was created by progressive erosion by flowing water from glaciers through the rocks over a long period of time, some say 9000 years ago. It’s not difficult to find this canyon because it’s not far away from the main ring road and the gravel road that leads you up there is in good condition. Once there, you can park the car and walk along the canyon all the way to the top.
I really recommend this hike because the view is constantly changing, ending with a beautiful waterfall and a breathtaking view. Well, the canyon does not actually end there but it’s a good place to end your walk and simply enjoy the majestic view in all directions with the sound of the water. The best part, though, is the solitude of this place: it feels authentically Icelandic.
Although you may book a tour to visit many places along Iceland’s South Coast, I definitely recommend hiring a car. Having wheels will allow you to see so much more and experience a real adventure as you cruise past epic scenery and stop whenever you like. You are in charge of what to see and do, plan your own itinerary and explore at your own pace.
With wide-open roads and epic viewpoints around every corner, hiring a car in Iceland is the ultimate way to explore this island nation so pack your favourite snacks and get ready for the road trip of a lifetime!