The Best Natural Wonders in Iceland: What to See & Do in the Land of Fire and Ice
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How can I possibly begin to describe Iceland? Drenched in legend and history, at the borderline of reality and fantasy, the country is adorned with ancient glaciers, volcano craters, deep-blue lakes, lava fields, steaming hot springs, and an otherworldly landscape that will leave you spellbound.
Iceland’s supercharged landscape amazes through its striking contrasts. You can hike a glacier and then find yourself bedazzled at the sight of a geyser shooting boiling water up into the sky, visit an ice cave and then relax in an outdoor hot spring like a Viking.
Of course, you cannot talk about traveling in Iceland without mentioning capital Reykjavik, home to a bustling nightlife, numerous museums, and fascinating buildings, like Hallgrimskirkja church, the city’s main landmark and a bizarre sight to say the least. And the Northern Lights, once thought to be the glitter of Valkyries taking the souls of the dead to the afterlife. But Iceland’s unique charm lies in its natural sights.
So pack your bags and get ready to discover Iceland like a local and experience the raw force of nature up close!
When to visit Iceland
The weather in Iceland is milder than the name might suggest. The country doesn’t get too cold during winter months; temperatures will hover around freezing, but nothing too extreme. July and August are Iceland’s warmest months, but they never get too hot. That being said, the country is known for its sudden changes of weather that can occur regardless of the season.
For sightseeing tours, summer is the recommended season to hike or go on a motorcycle or jeep tour. The weather is pleasant, there are low chances of precipitation, and all the roads and nature reserves are open. In mid-summer, you can take advantage of the midnight sun, which casts light over the land for over 21 hours. June has 24 hours of sunlight! Since summer is peak tourist season and many of the sights can get crowded, you can take this opportunity to visit the natural landmarks at night.
If you want to go glacier trekking or visiting the many ice caves that Iceland is famous for, winter months are the best season. This is when the glaciers are sturdier and the caves are safe to enter.
Winter, between October and March, has short days and lots of precipitation. In December, daylight is reduced to less than four hours a day, which can be a major setback. On the bright side, prices drop considerably during the off-season. Plus, the dark winter days make for excellent conditions for viewing the Northern Lights.
For the Northern Lights, go between October and April. Peak visibility is between December and February. During periods of low activity, the towns in the north of Iceland these are your best bet. When the lights are strong, you can even see them from Reykjavik. Iceland has a wide window for viewing the Northern Lights and less cloud cover than other countries. For the best experience, there has to be complete darkness, no moonlight, no pollution, and no cloud coverage.
Whale watching season is from April through September and if you wish to get close to some cute Atlantic puffins, you should know that they nest all over Iceland’s coastline between mid-April and mid-August.
The best natural sights in Iceland
The Ring Road (Route 1) is Iceland’s iconic road trip, a 1,332-kilometer (828-mile) loop along the island’s coast, passing by some of the country’s’ symbolic landmarks. While you can technically travel the distance in one day, you should set aside at least one week to complete the route in summer and up to two weeks in winter. The longer time you spend on the road, the more you will get to see.
However, there are many other sights and hikes outside the Ring Road that deserve your attention. If you want to explore the best natural attractions in Iceland, here’s what you should add to your itinerary:
In west Iceland
A large peninsula in northwestern Iceland is home to deep fjords, remote fishing villages, quaint little towns, and pristine nature. The best way to explore the Westjfords region is either by 4x4 or by hiking the nature trails.
In the northern Westfjords, the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve is one of the most isolated areas in Iceland, famous for its towering cliffside peaks and the large population of inquisitive Arctic foxes. Some of the largest populations of puffins in Iceland reside here, and you might also get the chance to see whales and seals.
Visiting Hornstrandir is recommended in summer when the weather is friendlier, but you can also visit in winter. Keep in mind that during winter, some of the roads may close.
Snæfellsjökull National Park
Located on the small Snæfellsnes Peninsula in West Iceland, Snæfellsjökull National Park is named after the glacier-capped, twin-peaked volcano Snæfellsjökull, which was the setting for Jules Verne’s A Journey to the Center of the Earth.
The best way to explore Snæfellsjökull is by hiking the glacier or by super jeep tours of the lava field encircling the volcano. The nearby coastline, with its sheer cliffs diving straight into the North Atlantic, is a great whale-watching destination.
The Golden Circle
If you want to see some of Iceland’s best natural landmarks but don’t have much time to spare, The Golden Circle is your best bet. This popular 300-kilometer (190-mile) tourist loop will take you from Reykjavik through the southern uplands and back. Most visitors choose to do it as a one-day road trip, but I recommend taking longer stops to enjoy the many hiking and horse riding trails in the area.
The three main attractions that make up the Golden Circle are:
Thingvellir (Þingvellir) National Park is usually the first stop on the Golden Circle. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is the location of the world’s first parliament, Alþingi, founded in 930AD. But that’s not all that it is famous for.
Þingvellir is the only place on earth where you can see a rift valley above sea level. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge separates the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. At Þingvellir, you can see the plates shifting from each other, making way for cracks, rivers, and ravines. For a truly unique experience, you can go snorkeling in the Silfra Fissure, between the two tectonic plates in 2°C (35.6°F) water, said to be one of the greatest diving experiences on the planet.
The Geysir Geothermal Field is named after Great Geysir, the first European geyser to be discovered. This hot spring used to shoot water up to 70 meters (230 feet) into the air, but it is currently classified as dormant. Don’t worry, its smaller brother, Strokkur, erupts every 10 minutes like clockwork, pluming between 20 meters (65 feet) to 40 meters (130 feet) up into the air.
The last stop on the Golden Circle is Gullfoss, one of the biggest, most impressive, and most photographed waterfalls in Iceland. Fed by the Langjökull glacier, the country’s second-biggest glacier, Gulfoss means “Golden Falls.” And it truly lives up to its name. On sunny days, the spray from its 32-meter (105-foot) curtain creates rainbows that will leave you in awe.
The Reykjanes Peninsula
If bustling Reykjavik will be your base camp, then you’ll be thrilled to know that there are plenty of sightseeing and motorcycle tours that you can embark on. Furthermore, numerous whale-watching tours depart from Reykjavik and, despite the cold water, the Reykjanes Peninsula is a preferred surfing destination for Icelandic surfers.
Here are the must-see natural attractions near Reykjavik:
South of Reykjavik, you cannot deny yourself a visit to the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa filled with seawater, partly man-made and partly natural, located in the middle of a lava field. The milky-blue water against the backdrop of black volcanic rocks has made the covers of magazines for decades. It is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Iceland, which also means that it can get very crowded.
Thrihnukagigur Volcano in the Bláfjöll Mountains, a 30 minutes’ drive from Reykjavik, is the only place in the world where you can see how a volcano looks like on the inside. The volcano has not erupted in 4,000 years, and visitors can descend all the way down to the magma chamber.
Also in the Bláfjöll Mountains, Leiðarendi is Iceland’s longest lava tube, a 900-meter (3,000-foot) long blood-red tunnel that literally means “The End of the Journey.”
To the south of the Reykjanes Peninsula, Krýsuvík geothermal area puts on quite a show, with kaleidoscopic hills, steam vents, boiling hot springs, and Iceland’s largest geothermal mud pool. The place also goes by the name of Seltún, and is easily accessible from the road, from where a boardwalk will take you through the colorful geothermal fields.
In southern Iceland
The South Coast
On the South Coast of Iceland, close to the Ring Road, Seljalandsfoss is one of the most famous waterfalls in Iceland, boasting a 65-meter (213-foot) curtain of water. What makes it particularly special is the path that takes visitors behind the waterfall. On a sunny day, there’s a good chance of catching a rainbow and you simply won’t get enough of taking pictures.
East of Ásólfsskáli, a village on the Ring Road, Seljavallalaug Pool is the oldest man-made outdoor swimming pool in Iceland. Nestled in a little valley, the pool fills up naturally with warm water from a geothermal spring. Seljavallalaug can be reached on foot from Seljavellir.
Towards the coastal village of Vík, stop at the otherworldly Reynisfjara Beach, a black pebble beach surrounded by imposing basalt columns. The nearby Reynisdrangar Sea Pillars and the imposing peninsula of dark lava Dyrhólaey, arching 120 meters (400 feet) above the sea, deserve a visit. This area is also home to a large population of puffins.
The Landmannalaugar Hike
In the Fjallabak Nature Reserve, Landmannaaugar is the country’s premier hiking destination. A geothermal wonder, it is famous for its kaleidoscopic rhyolite mountains, with various shades of orange, red, green, and purple, and its bubbling hot springs. Landmannalaugar means “The Pools of the People.” True to their name, the Landmannalaugar thermal pools are free of charge.
Thórsmörk is the preferred starting point for the numerous hiking and horse riding trails in the area. Landmannalaugar can be visited any time of the year, but summer is highly recommended because some roads may close in winter. The Landmannalaugar Hike can be broken down into two main trails, which can be either connected to complete the entire route or can be taken separately:
The Laugavegur trail runs for 55 kilometers (34 miles) from Thórsmörk to Landmannalaugar and is considered one of the most stunning walking trails in the world, passing by mountains, rolling green hills, bubbling thermal springs, panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean, and black volcanic deserts. It takes two to four days to complete the trail, with overnight stays in mountain huts.
The Fimmvörðuháls trail is shorter, 22 kilometers (14 miles), and runs between Skógar and Thórsmörk. Also known as “The Waterfall Way,” the trail begins at Skógafoss, one of the biggest waterfalls in Iceland. It takes travelers past 26 falls at the foothills of the Eyjafjallajökull and Katla volcanoes, located within the Mýrdalsjökull Glacier.
Vatnajökull National Park
One of the three national parks in Iceland, Vatnajökull is a protected wilderness area around Vatnajökull Glacier, Europe’s largest glacier, covering a whopping 8% of the country’s surface. There are numerous hiking trails to the glaciers, peaks, ice caves, and lagoons in the park.
Here are the sights you cannot miss:
Skaftafell Nature Reserve is home to the tallest mountain in Iceland, Hvannadalshnúkur, standing at 2,110 meters (6,920 feet). There are easy trails to the Skaftafellsjökull Glacier, to the Svartifoss Waterfall (“Black Fall”), which flows over a cliff of black basalt columns, and to Morsárfoss, Iceland’s tallest waterfall, measuring 228 meters (748 feet).
One of Iceland’s most visited attractions, the famed Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon is located at the border of Vatnajökull National Park, close to the country’s southeastern coast, with big chunks of glaciers floating on its unbelievably blue water. Jökulsárlón was formed as the result of the Breiðamerkurjökull Glacier having retreated quickly between 1920 and 1965, and is up to 190 meters (623 feet) deep. You can take a boat trip on the lagoon or simply rest on the shore and listen to the ice blocks crashing in each other.
The coastline next to Jökulsárlón is dotted with big blocks of ice from the Breiðamerkurjökull glacial plain, resting on a strip of black sand that has rightfully earned the name of Diamond Beach.
Vatnajökull Glacier is home to a large number of ice caves, each one promising to be better than the other. There are numerous organized tours around the Vatnajökull ice caves, as well as the ones formed in the Skaftafellsjökull and Breiðamerkurjökull glaciers. The best time to visit is in winter, between November and March, when the ice does not melt and it is safe to enter.
In northern Iceland
The Diamond Circle
One of Iceland’s most popular tourist routes, the Diamond Circle is a 260-kilometer (160-mile) loop in northeast Iceland. The four main attractions that make up the Diamond Circle are:
The picturesque coastal town of Húsavík is Iceland’s self-proclaimed whale watching capital. And with good reason; your chances of actually seeing whales in Húsavík are among the best in the world. Humpback whales migrate during warm summer months, between May and September. You will also get the chance to see minke and giant blue whales, as well as white-beaked dolphins.
Ásbyrgi Nature Reserve is located around a horseshoe-shaped canyon, said to have been formed by the hoofprint of Odin’s horse, Sleipnir. The 3.5-kilometer (2-mile) long canyon is the stuff of fairytales, with lush green vegetation enclosed by 100-meter (330-foot) walls.
Mývatn is Iceland’s fourth-largest lake. Located in a highly active volcanic area, it was formed as the result of a volcanic eruption some 200 years ago. The nearby deep blue Mývatn Nature Baths are a less crowded alternative to the Blue Lagoon near Reykjavik.
Dettifoss is the most powerful waterfall in Europe. Standing 44 meters (144 feet) tall, it is the most thunderous in Iceland. The smaller Goðafoss – The Waterfall of the Gods – is located on the Ring Road between Akureyri and Lake Mývatn, and should also be added to your itinerary.
In east Iceland
Often overlooked by tourists, the Eastfjords offer some of the most stunning landscapes in the country, and are one of the best horse riding destinations in Iceland. The Eastfjords are famous for their herds of wild reindeer. Reindeers are not native to Iceland; they were introduced from Norway and were never domesticated. Today, the only remaining herds live in East Iceland.
Seeing wild reindeer grazing as you hike or travel on horseback through the Eastfjords is a truly unique and authentic experience. But it’s not the only attraction the area boasts. Breiðdalur is the longest and widest valley in Iceland, and Hallormsstaðarskógur is the biggest forest in the country. Borgarfjörður Eystri is considered the best place in Iceland to see puffins face to face. Elves are also believed to reside in this fjord.
Although the Eastfjords are blessed with the sunniest weather in Iceland, the best time to visit remains summer, when you can also explore the fjords by kayak. In winter, many roads close due to heavy snowfall.
Teeming with natural wonders unlike anywhere else on the planet and a Martian landscape that will blow your mind, you will feel as though you are walking on the set of The Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones when seeing the above natural attractions for yourself. And you won’t be far from the truth.
The author of The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien, was inspired by East Iceland. Many scenes from Game of Thrones were filmed in Iceland, locations including Vatnajökull Glacier, Þingvellir, Reynisfjara Beach, and Þórsmörk.
Follow the footsteps of your favorite authors, of the Vikings and the Norse gods, go deep into the unknown and write your own story!
Are you ready to cross Iceland off your bucket list? One lifetime would hardly be enough to discover all this little country has to offer, but you can start with the best natural wonders by embarking on a country tour in Iceland.