Continuing on our Iceland vacation, spending two days exploring the Southeast and it’s otherworldly glaciers and blue ice-filled lagoons.
Oh, and more wondrous waterfalls and cascades too numerous to count! There’s also stark deltas of grey glacial sand, coastal vistas, sheep and horses grazing on both sides of the road, and cloud-cloaked mountains.
Civilization and towns are far and few between. Beds here are in great demand and require booking far in advance.
But, there are an amazing array of activities for outdoor enthusiasts and a smorgasbord of tour offerings. Destinations are so numerous, you simply can’t do it all. Be sure to do your research, constructing and pacing an Iceland vacation itinerary.
Start with the driving time between accommodations, map sites along the way, allow necessary time to enjoy activities and excursions, and include time for provisioning and eating. Then, add some buffer into your schedule for spontaneous discoveries. You’ll need to book popular excursions in advance and work them into the itinerary. Weather (rain) and driving conditions may cause delays, so always have a plan B.
Our itinerary included must-do’s and short lists of optional stops, activities and places to eat. Bundle up and put on your hiking boots.
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Iceland Vacation Day 3: Waterfalls & Glaciers
Leaving Civilization BehindWe finished our second day as far as Reynisfjara, with it’s black sand beach, stacks of basalt columns, and views of the famous Reynisdrangar sea stacks. Then, we reversed course along the Ring Road, to bed down for the night.
The third day of our Iceland vacation began with a stop on a ridge overlooking Vik. A parking lot at the village church offers a vista view of the sea stacks and coast, across fields of wildflowers.
If you’re just joining this journey, you might want to begin at the beginning. Incredible Iceland Trip Ten Day Adventure exploring the Golden Circle and Southwest Coast. Our Iceland vacation continued counter-clockwise around the country.
After Vik, the road heads northeast, away from the coastline. We traveled through glacial outwash plains, yellow moss-covered lava fields, and pseudo crater mounds for about an hour and a half.
Tiny Town with Big Name
Travel guides warn drivers to plan ahead for petrol stops and provisions, as population centers and services are sparse over the next couple of days. Kirkjubaejarklaustur is a tiny town with a big waterfall. It’s also the last service stop until Hofn.
At the western end of the village is Systrafoss (Sisters Falls), a tall double waterfall worth a quick visit. Back in the car, we headed on for another hour, past deep green landscapes, gravel river beds, sandur, and glacial rivers.
Surprises on the Way
All that glacial melt and runoff has got to go somewhere! That must be why waterfalls abound in Iceland? This lofty beauty soared behind and above an isolated farm, right along the Ring Road. How would you like to have that in your backyard?!
Because it was on private property, the waterfall wasn’t listed in any Iceland vacation guidebook. We quickly pulled into the drive, stopped at the gate, took pictures and went on our way.
Traveler Note: drivers are not allowed to pull off the side of the road in Iceland. The road is narrow to begin with, and there is no shoulder. Not only could you create a safety hazard for other cars, you could end up in ditch or stuck in mud. Most bridges are one-lane.
Further along, we came upon a glacial river and cascades, easily accessible from a small gravel parking lot. Gorgeous!
Peaks & Glaciers
The primary destination for day 3 of our Iceland vacation was Skaftafell, part of the Vatnajokull National Park. Visitors come to marvel at waterfalls, a web of rivers, and glaciers flowing from the enormous Vatnajokull ice cap.
Traveler Tip: First thing, go into the Visitor’s Center with your car’s license plate number handy. At a kiosk, enter your information and pay for parking. There’s then no need to return the long distance back to the car. It’s also advisable to pick up a hiking path map and ask for directions to trail heads. Park signage leaves a bit to be desired.
I also advise eating at the park’s new cafe. Our sons wanted to opt for the attractive-looking food trucks outdoors. Bad idea. It was expensive, very slow, and the soup was cold.
Steep Hike to Stunning Falls
Svartifoss (Black Falls) is a stunner, named for black basalt columns that flank the waterfall. This is as close as I got, as I was spent from the 45-minute climb, just to the overlook.
Only my oldest son elected to continue down to the bridge, and I have R (who ran the NYC Marathon last year) to thank for the picture below. The rest of us passed, rather than having to make a steep return climb back to the overlook.
There are two trail options to the falls. I asked for directions to the less steep, but longer route. Travel guides describe the 90-minute round trip hike as relatively easy. I think we took the wrong path — like I said before, not great park signage.
Maybe it was trying to keep pace with my runner husband and sons, but I had to pause frequently. I do work out at the gym twice weekly; guess I need more cardio!
Glacier Sticks Out Its Tongue
Do you know what a glacier tongue is?
“A fascinating phenomenon in the Icelandic landscape; an enormous part of a glacier falling from the top of the ice cap down a long slope. Near the lowest level ice starts to break away. It often ends in a lake or the ocean. When the crushed ice hits the lake, sometimes after decades of travel from the top, it breaks away from the tongue and becomes an iceberg.” Hit Iceland
Our second hike in the park was an easy, relatively flat trial to the glacial face of Skaftafellsjokull. Allow one-hour for the roundtrip hike and another for exploration. The trail begins directly behind the Visitor’s Center.
Take a hike pamphlet with you to appreciate and understand the various geological sights along the trial. I found it downright depressing to see how far and rapidly the glacier has retreated in our lifetime. These pictures are all of the glacier my future grandkids may get to see of the see of the glacier tongue.
Afterwards, the drive through the park and further north was one of the most scenic of our Iceland vacation. Waterfalls galore. Glacier-topped volcanic mountains. It was only another hour drive to the new, 105-room Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon.
No Better Way to End Day
Before checking-in, we elected to push on another 15 minutes to the Fjallsarion Glacial Lagoon.
The easily accessible glacial lagoon is right off the Ring Road and not to be missed!
It was the Iceland of my dreams!
The Christmas card-worthy family photo of our Iceland vacation. Behind us is the glacier itself, with calved blue ice floating in the lagoon.
Off in the distance you can see the much larger and famous Jokulsarlon glacier — day four’s primary destination. But, don’t be tempted to skip Fjallsarlon, where the glacier is far more accessible. The park had emptied out of tourists for the day, and we had it nearly to ourselves.
Despite its name, our high-end hotel did not have glacial lagoon view. It was, however, ideally situated for our itinerary and pretty swanky — considering it’s remote location.
We should have called ahead for a dinner reservation though. A tour group had overtaken the bar and restaurant. The meal there was excellent. My first taste of Icelandic lamb — yum! There’s nowhere else to eat, except for the new cafe at Fjallsarion, which closes early at 7.
Iceland Vacation Day 4: Jokularion & Into the Wilderness
Just a half hour drive from our hotel is Jokularion glacier and lagoon, with a glacial river that empties into the ocean.
That’s Fjallsarlon in the background from to the day before.
Iceland’s Crown Jewel
Pictured below is the massive Jokulsarlon glacier behind the lagoon.
It’s also the setting of several 007 movie scenes.
You’re Gonna Need a Boat
Unlike the smaller Fjallsarlon, to truly appreciate massive Jokulsarlon and it’s lagoon requires a boat tour. We opted for the 40-minute amphibious excursion, rather than the much more expensive Zodiac raft tour. It was the second excursion we had booked ahead for our Iceland trip. Time and money well spent.
We had pre-booked a late morning boat ride.
The boat takes you right up to the ever-changing landscape of icebergs.
Often, you can hear cracking and see ice calve into the lagoon. If you’re lucky, one will roll over.
Heading to Sea
It was fascinating to see the ice working its way to the ocean, floating in a glacial river under the Ring Road suspension bridge.
I highly recommend moving the car to the other side of the road and walking down to the beach. The ice looks like sparkling diamonds against the black sand, even on an overcast day.
Eldest son was forever climbing on top of things!
Younger son was the unfortunately the wet victim of an ill-timed wave!
Into the Wilderness
The rest of the day was somewhat dictated by the nearly five hours of driving to reach unique Wilderness Center accommodations. We broke up the ride with an excellent seafood lunch at Humarhofnin, in the harbor town of Hofn. It was also the last opportunity to fill up the gas tank and grab some snacks for the long drive.
Before leaving the coast, we stretched our legs with a stop at the swan-filled lagoon at Havlnes Nature Reserve.
Although you can’t see them in this picture, I promise you, there are hundreds, maybe thousands of swans — in Iceland! Who knew?
The Road Less Taken
After that, there was a family debate on which of two routes we should take into Iceland’s wilderness. A 30-mile shortcut, known as the Oxi Pass, was strongly discouraged in my guidebook. The route is described this way:
“A mountain pass at an elevation of 539m above the sea level. Avoid this pass outside of summer and during bad weather. It’s a well maintained gravel mountain road but narrow and steep, with sections up to 17%. Along the road you will be literally driving up and over a mountain. From sea level to over 500 meters as you zigzag your way up various steep inclines along a ravine.”
So the guys pulled up Oxi Pass on YouTube. Instead of being intimidated as I was, they were thrilled at the prospect of driving the 4×4 and putting the drone to use.
I was simply out-voted.
Out of My Comfort Zone
This vacation definitely took me out of my comfort zone — snorkeling in the rift, steep hikes, and going into the wilderness on an Iceland vacation. But I’m so glad we did it all! If not, there wouldn’t have been isolated explorations and discoveries along the way.
Like finding numerous waterfalls, glacial streams and volcanic terrain — all to ourselves (except for sheep who manage vertical climbs to dizzy heights!).
It was after we got the end of the Oxi Pass that things got dicey. Into the wilderness is no exaggeration!
For one thing, it poured down rain. And the heavy cloud cover at high altitudes made visibility extremely limited. Much of the route to the Wilderness Center lacked any gravel and was rough-riding over ruts and bumps. It also meant we traveled at a snail’s pace. I was sure we were hopelessly lost. We weren’t, but it took much longer to get there than we planned. A long day’s drive.
We were rewarded by one of the best meals of our Iceland vacation. A family style, traditional Icelandic lamb feast with delicious rhubarb dessert.
The next few days of our Iceland vacation took us north to moon-like lava fields, epic waterfalls, snow-capped mountains and whale-watching. Continue the journey at Iceland Journey North to Whale-Filled Bays.
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Brrr!!! It looks so cold but absolutely beautiful there. Seems like every time I turn around I’m hearing about Iceland these days. It’s understandable too because it seems so remote and uncivilized. I’m so glad you’ve had a once in a lifetime vacation there.
Hi Stacey! Most of Iceland averages around 55 degrees in the summer. Layering is the key, primarily due to rain (to stay dry and comfortable) and areas of strong wind. If you look closely, you’ll see some pix I’m only wearing a fleece (over a long sleeve shirt and sports bra). Hikes really warm you up! I seldom added silk thermals under my hiking pants or shirts. My husband and sons tend to “run hot” and didn’t even wear a hat or gloves a lot of the time.
You are so adventurous- I could never do that! Looks like it was a fascinating place to visit.
It’s my husband and sons that are adventurous souls. Me, I tend to be cautious. But, I didn’t want them to miss experiences because I was Debbee Downer, LOL! I do know my physical limitations, which meant there were a number of steep climbs I just didn’t do. I’d go part of the way, find a good spot to sit and enjoy the scenery, waiting for them on the return back. My dear husband always insisted on taking hikes at my side, at a slower pace than our boys.
Great pix and write-up! Feel like I was there with you guys…
You’re always with me in spirit! I think you and your kids and their spouses would love an Iceland trip together!
Amazing trip and great write-up! Such a wonderful family experience. So glad you all had awesome time
You’ve been to so many awesome places, I have to keep adding to my bucket list! We’ve got to get our scheduling synched so we can all have a travel adventure together!
Agree we need to plan a trip together
My daughter and her husband had a holiday there and really loved it. The colours at sunset, she said, were amazing. It looks so cold, but I’m getting tempted. Looks like you had a great time xx
Oh Maria do go! In the summer it’s quite mild. It’s those glaciers and ice in the background that make it look so cold. As long as you have the proper clothing, particularly rain/wind gear, you’ll be quite comfortable. I was only really cold when I initially put my face in the glacial water to snorkel.
Even though it looks cold, I would go! The pictures are beautiful, and the hikes look amazing. Iceland is definitely on my vacation list. Your pictures make me feel like I was seeing it with you:)
Hi Michelle, thanks for traveling along! All the glaciers make it look really cold — it isn’t in the summer. Average temperatures are in the 50’s. I look more bundled up than I really am; the coat and rain gear are puffy. As long as you stay dry, you’ll be comfortable. If you see pix of my sons and husband, they have less layers on than I do.
OH wow! That looks so amazing! Perfect family photo too.
Thanks Joanne, it was an epic, memorable trip.
Such rugged beauty! Thanks for sharing your travels!
Glad you could come along for the journey. Will post part 3 tonight; going north to whale/puffin watching and 2 epic, huge waterfalls.