The south of Iceland is home to many of the country’s most celebrated attractions including Gullfoss, Geysir and the historically significant site of Thingvellir. The majority of people visiting the region tend to focus on these areas, but for the more determined explorer South Iceland has a wealth of natural treasures to be discovered. Apart from its rich agriculture, folklore and Saga-age legends, the area is also renowned for its magnificent volcanoes like Mt. Hekla and Eykjafjallajokull in addition to several great rivers such as Hvita, Ranga and the mighty Thjorsa which feed impressive stretches of fertile land.
The coastal road, which extends from the Markarfljót valley to Hofn, threads through some of Iceland’s most remarkable landscapes stitching together a progression of diverse natural wonders, including the Dyrholaey sea arch, the black sand beaches around the town of Vik and two of the country’s biggest attractions: Iceland’s highest peak Hvannadalshnukur and the glorious Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon. As a favourite with film directors, many big budget films have been shot in extraordinary settings found in South Iceland with many of its cinematic locations making regular appearances on the silver-screen.
The rising heights above Hveragerdi are riddled with trails and smoking hot springs, and for those who appreciate a more comfortable and less time-consuming hike with the added bonus of a geothermal swimming-spot at destination’s end, then the smoky valley of Reykjadalur in the Hengill area is a rewarding detour (or pre-tour) for explorers of the south central Iceland. The place to bathe is slightly downstream from where boiling hot river water from the west valley of Klambragil merges with a stream of cold fresh water from the east side of the valley.
The Golden Circle
The famous Golden Circle is one of Iceland’s most popular tourist hotspots and features three main attractions: Thingvellir, an area of great cultural and geological significance, where the Icelandic parliament was founded in 930 AD; Geysir, an old gushing geyser, one of two in the geothermal area of Haukadalur, from where the word geyser is derived; and Gullfoss, or the Golden Falls – a spectacular waterfall in the Hvítá river canyon, with a powerful flow that cascades down two giant ravine steps at a rate of 140 cubic meters per second.
Located near Mt. Hekla, Haífoss waterfall is another highlight of South Iceland and a must-see destination for those impressed by size. Standing at a spectacular height of 122m (400 ft), this is Iceland’s second highest waterfall and is fed by the river Fossa – a branch of the mighty Thjorsa. As the water falls over the edge it forms a spectacular slender torrent which plummets thunderously into a sheer-walled gorge.
The Hjalparfoss waterfall is one of several striking attractions located in the spectacular valley Thjorsardalur valley and is framed by extraordinary rock formations. Its most distinctive quality is a powerful stream of water fed by the Fossa river that bursts through of an unusual structure of twisted basalt columns into a dual torrent. It’s well worth a quick visit to experience the pleasant atmosphere and picturesque surrounding, which a stunning in any season.
Before the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull in 2010, formidable Mt. Hekla was the star volcano of Iceland, with a record of 18 eruptions taking place within the last millennium. The earliest known eruption struck in 1104 burying and partly preserving the Viking settlement at Stong. Instead of a classical volcano cone, Hekla is part of a squat series of ridges, usually hidden behind a thick bank of clouds earning it the menacing name ‘the hooded one’. Hekla has erupted once every ten years since 1970 with the last eruption on 26th February in 2000, which lasted for 12 days.
Getting the chance of a magical inside-out perspective is a feature you don’t normally expect, even in a land of endless spectacular waterfalls with countless variations in design; but this particular idiosyncrasy is the marking characteristic of this waterfall. Seljalandsfoss is majestic enough face-on without its rearward access to make your jaw drop; but the opportunity to view the water falling from the inside out, is so thrilling you don’t even realize (until you’re back out front) that you should’ve brought your waterproofs along!
Best known for its attractive 60m (197 ft) tall Skogafoss waterfall which is clearly visible from the road, this area has much to offer. On a sunny day the waterfall makes rather splendid rainbows where visitors can frame some excellent shots. By the side of the falls a staircase winds all the way up to a top made of grassy slopes; with plenty of spots overlooking a stretch of sensational south coast vistas. The area, which is aslo known for its excellent Folk Museum also marks the start of the popular Fimmvorduhals trail between the Eyjafjallajokull and Myrdalsjokull glaciers to Thorsmork.
An extraordinary valley enclosed between the sheltering Myrdalsjokull and Eyjafjallajokull mountain glaciers, Thorsmork is an oasis of vegetation, where moss, birch and fir tress grow in abundance, creating a vivid contrast with the surrounding snowcapped mountains. Because of the significant shelter, the valley has an unusually warm climate and is an attractive tourist destination, especially for Icelanders; it’s also very popular with ramblers for its excellent system of hiking trails and is both the start or end points of the famous Fimmvorduhals and Laugarvegurinn hiking routes.
This quiet village is situated in the mild and fertile Myrdalur valley and framed on all sides with wonderments of nature. The western border is marked by the glacial river, Jokulsa, to the east by the river Blautakvisl, and to the south by black, volcanic beaches and the Atlantic Ocean. Mýrdalur is an area of great contrasts with lush green pastures lying between vast black volcanic sands where rugged glacier topped mountains rise up towards to sky. The area is an ornithologists paradise and is host to country’s largest nesting colony of arctic terns. In the early summer months (May – July) countless puffins, kittiwakes and fulmars make their homes in the in cliffs to west of the village.
The Troll Rocks of Reynisdragar
According to folklore, this row of impressive basalt spikes, reaching 66m (216 ft) high and reminiscent of a giant sea-wading dinosaur, are the masts of a troll ship turned to stone in the morning sun. In the same location the black pebble beach of Reynisfjara forms a spit of lands extending over 2km from the Reynifjall mountain towards Dýraholaey. At the base of the same mountain, the gaping mouth of the Halsanefshellir basalt sea cave beckons would be spelunkers. Exploration opportunities depend entirely on the tide.
Dyrholaey is a magnificent rocky promontory with sheer cliffs marking the southernmost extremities of Iceland. Its most fantastic feature is a huge wave cut archway said to be large enough for a sailboat to pass though; this also makes it an irresistible attraction for photographers and daredevil aviators! The area is teaming with birds of numerous species, occupying the rugged cliffs and nesting in the grassy slopes. Dyrholaey is a bird sanctuary and out of bounds during the breeding season (May 1st – June 25th).
Iceland has a number of glaciers condensed in this the south and this one is the country’s fourth largest. With a thickness of 700 meters in places, this solid frozen mass sits firmly in shimmering splendour on top of the foreboding Katla – a massive sub-glacial central volcano. Its caldera is 10km (6.3 miles) in diameter and has erupted between 16–20 times with an average interval of 40–80 years, since the settlement of Iceland. Although glaciers look tempting, they should only be navigated in the company of an expert guide like those who offer tours and ice walks of Solheimajokull – Myrdaljokull’s largest glacial tongue.
If you’re not in too much of a hurry to revisit civilization, and fancy a short hike or lunch break, then this 100m (328ft.) river canyon and relic of the Ice-age is only a 2km diversion from Rte.1 on Rte.206. With its stunning convoluted cliff-sides – covered with narrow ledges and frequently interrupted by slippery emerald slopes – this compelling attraction will reward you with further lasting impressions of the region.
The Laki Craters form a massive area of geological significance, 6km North of Kirkjubaejarklaustur. In June 1783, the earth here erupted into over 130 lava spouting cavities along a 25km (16 miles) long fissure. The eruption, which lasted for eight months and generated a molten mass estimated at 14.7 cubic km (31/2 cubic miles), is said to be the largest volcanic event ever witnessed in recorded history, and one that caused catastrophic consequences throughout the northern hemisphere. If you have a passion for observing the beauty in the bleak, then this area with its hiking trails criss-crossing endless expanses of moss covered craters, is well worth a visit.
Kirkjubaejarklaustur is the only village located on this extraordinary stretch of road between Vík and Hofn. With its six-syllable mouthful of a title most people just refer to it as “Klaustur” meaning cloister – a reference to a now vanished convent established in 1186. The town’s connection to the church is reflected in place names such as Systrafoss (Sisters’ Fall), a pretty waterfall on the west side of town which pours out from the elevated Systravatn (Sisters’ Lake). A hiking trail leads from the lake to an impressive hill-mounted rock called Systrastapi, meaning Sisters’ Rock; according to folklore two nuns were buried here after being burnt at the stake for heresy.