We went on this wonderful road trip through Iceland’s southeast while we were in Reykjavík in September 2018, at the end of our Scandinavia tour that brought us to Helsinki, Stockholm and Oslo before reaching this Nordic island country. Both my husband and I agreed that was the best part of this trip by far. Thanks to this, we fell in love with Iceland and promised we would come back to see more and more.
We first visited Reykjavík and had a look at what this small capital offers, and then went for this amazing road trip that ended with probably the most tourist stop, the stunning Blue Lagoon. We visited the southern-western part of the island as we were based in Reykjavik and that’s the closest to the city.
But, let’s buckle up and dive into this new adventure called “Exploring Iceland’s stunning southwest”.
1. Þingvellir National Park
Our first stop, Þingvellir National Park, is around 50km/30mi east of the Icelandic capital. It is the only UNESCO World Heritage Site on the Icelandic mainland and part of a three-stop popular route called Golden Circle; the others being the Geysir geothermal area and Gullfoss waterfall.
Þingvellir is a site of historical, cultural, and geological significance. Its name derived from the Old Norse “Þingvǫllr” (from “þing“, “thing, assembly”, and “vǫllr”, “field”), meaning “assembly fields”. It was the site of the “Alþing“, the open-air annual parliamentary assembly of Iceland from the year 930 until 1798. Over two weeks a year, that assembly set laws, seen as a covenant between free men, and settled disputes. It was Iceland’s and the world’s first parliament.
The park lies in a rift valley that marks the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and the boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. To its south lies “Þingvallavatn“, the largest natural lake in Iceland.
Parking fee: 750 ISK/5€/5.86$.
The next stop of our road trip, following the Golden Circle clockwise, was the Geysir Geothermal Area, 60km/37mi away from Þingvellir National Park.
2. Geysir Geothermal Area
The highly active Geysir Geothermal or Hot Springs Area comprises boiling mud pits, exploding geysers and the lively Strokkur which spouts water 30 metres (100 ft) into the air every few minutes.
This geothermal field became active over 1000 years ago and comprises more than a dozen hot water blowholes, the most ancient of them known by the name of “Geysir”, after which they named hot springs all over the world.
The oldest account of Geysir dates back to 1294, when earthquakes in southern Iceland caused changes in the geothermal area and created several new hot springs. Seismic activity in the area influences Geysir and after being dormant for years, an earthquake revived Geysir in 2000 and it erupted twice a day for a few years. Now, Geysir is mostly dormant, though other hot springs in the Geysir geothermal area are quite active, such as Strokkur (The Churn), another geyser 100 meters south of the Geysir. It erupts at regular intervals every 10 minutes and its white column of boiling water can reach as high as 30 meters.
Our next stop, the last of the Golden Circle, was Gullfoss Waterfall, almost 10km/6.2mi away from the Geysir Geothermal Area.
Gullfoss (literally “Golden Falls”) is one of Iceland’s most iconic and beloved waterfalls in Iceland and is listed as one of the top 10 waterfalls in the world by the World of Waterfalls.
The water in Hvítá river (White River) travels from the glacier Langjökull (Long Glacier), before cascading 32 m /105 ft down Gullfoss’ two stages in a dramatic display of nature’s raw power.
In the summer, approximately 140 m3 (459 ft3) of water surges down the waterfall every second, whilst in winter that number drops to around 109 m3 (358 ft3). With such energy, it should not surprise you to find yourself drenched by the waterfall’s mighty spray should you get too close.
Besides, Gullfoss is unique because you can view the falls from above, and it is going underground! Gullfoss plunges into a gorge of foaming water, so there is no way you could even view it from the bottom. Seeing a waterfall disappear into the earth is a very memorable experience!
From there, we drove to Seljalandsfoss, around 110km/68mi away from Gullfoss.
Seljalandsfoss is a majestic waterfall with a drop of 60 m/196 ft that you can fully encircle.
The waterfall is formed by the Seljalands River, which originates in Eyjafjallajökull Glacier Volcano, the one that erupted in 2010 and caused havoc at airports across Europe.
They have set floodlights up on both sides of the waterfall, which impressively illuminates the scene during the night when the midnight sun is not out.
Along with a multitude of South Iceland’s most famous natural attractions, you can see Seljalandsfoss in Justin Bieber’s music video for his song “I’ll Show You“. It was also a featured waypoint during the first leg of the 6th season of “The Amazing Race“, an American reality TV series. The first episode of season three of Star Trek: Discovery “That Hope Is You, Part 1” featured a brief scene at the waterfall as well.
From there, we visited Skógafoss, around 30km/19mi away.
Skógafoss is one of the biggest waterfalls in Iceland, with a drop of some 60m/197ft and a width of 25m/82ft, and you can walk right up to, but be prepared to be drenched. Seeing that it produces a lot of drizzles, then you will see beautiful rainbows on sunny days. 370 steps lead up to an observation platform above it.
They connect a legend to Skógafoss waterfall; people believe that behind it you can find a chest filled with gold and treasures. The story goes that Þrasi Þórólfsson, the Viking Settler at Skógar (Eystriskógar) in around 900, hid the chest and it is said that the first man who goes there will find great treasures.
If this waterfall seems to be familiar to you, this may not be déjà vu! This location has been quite popular with filmmakers, scenes of “Thor: The Dark World“, season 5 of “Vikings”, season 8 of “Game of Thrones” and other productions were shot here.
Then, we headed to the wonderful, world-famous black-sand beach known as Reynisfjara, almost 35km/22mi away, just beside the small fishing village of Vík í Mýrdal.
Reynisfjara is without a doubt the most famous beach in all of Iceland, so much so that many world-renowned magazines such as National Geographic or the Condé Nast Traveler have listed this extraordinary place among the most beautiful beaches on the planet!
What sets Reynisfjara apart from all the rest are its black volcanic sands, smooth pebbles, unique rock formations in the shape of columns, its overall moody atmosphere, and the gigantic waves crashing on the shore.
From the beach, you have a view of the Reynisdrangar sea stacks. They say these bizarre-looking rock pillars to be petrified trolls that were caught outside at sunrise and frozen in time, but some strongly believe that they are 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.
They named the site after a Norwegian Viking called Reynir, the first settler in this area. Reynisfjara translates to “Reynir’s beach”. Reynisfjall (Reynir’s mountain) and the Reynisdrangar (Reynir’s pillars) can also be found here.
Reynir’s pillars vary from 0.5-1 m/1.6-3.2 ft in diameter and can be up to 20 m /65.6 ft tall. They are parallel and straight, but there are also curved columns that form a large and very scenic cave. The formations continue to change constantly as the waves crash against their walls. Someday, they may even collapse and disappear entirely. This, however, is not expected to happen any time soon, as the process can take decades or centuries.
These sea stacks are also home to thousands of nesting seabirds. Species that can be found here include puffins, fulmars and guillemots, making it a must-see location for all birdwatchers out there.
Unlike many other black sand beaches in the world, the volcanic sand on Reynisfjara is almost always wet because it is in the rainiest part of Iceland. So, the sand never becomes dry and grey, remaining instead unbelievably pitch black. In winter, when snow covers the beach, the black and white mix and look as if they are poppy seeds and powdered sugar.
So mesmerizing are these features that they appeared in Season 7 of the HBO Series “Game of Thrones”; in “Star Trek: Into Darkness“; “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “Rogue One“.
You must be well aware, though, of the potential dangers present at the beach. First, the rolling, roaring waves of Reynisfjara are violent, often pushing far further up the beach than many would expect. They call these “sneaker waves” as they can appear when least expected, even on incredibly still days. There are no significant landmasses in between Antarctica and the shores of Reynisfjara, meaning waves have thousands of kilometres to build. All reasons why they advised visitors to never turn their back on the waves, and keep a safe distance of at least 30 m /98 ft.
Aside from these sudden and dramatic shifts in the tide, the rip currents offshore are infamous for their strength and ability to drag helpless people out into the cold, open ocean. Several fatal accidents have occurred at Reynisfjara, the last of which occurred in January 2017.
From there, heading back to Reykjavík, we visited Krýsuvík, another geothermal area around 200km/124mi away from Reynisfjara and around 40km/35mi away from Reykjavik.
The Krýsuvík Geothermal Area in the Reykjanes Peninsula is defined by mud pots, hot springs and steaming vents, as well as the multi-coloured mineral deposits that stain the earth. The reason for so much geothermal activity here is that of the presence of the Mid-Atlantic Rift, where the North American tectonic plate and the Eurasian plate meet just above the peninsula.
What makes Krýsuvík unique as a geothermal area is that they have excellently prepared it for visitors. Walkways take you safely across the uneven earth to the distinct features of the area, and there are also many signs explaining the geothermal and geological forces at work.
A few lakes are beside the mud pots and sulphur deposits. Lake Graenavatn, Lake Gestsstadavatn and Augun (the Eyes) are explosion craters formed by volcanic eruptions. Lake Graenavatn, 150 feet deep, glows with deep green colour, because of thermal algae and crystals that absorb sunlight.
From there, we headed to the second last stop of this road trip through Iceland’s southwest, Kleifarvatn Lake, only 5km/3mi away from Krýsuvík.
8. Lake Kleifarvatn
Covering about 8m²/86ft², Kleifarvatn is the largest lake on the Reykjanes peninsula and with a maximum depth of 97m/318ft is one of the deepest lakes in Iceland.
It is nestled within an impressive volcanic landscape, full of steep and amazingly coloured hills and weird lava formations.
Lake Kleifarvatn’s position on the geothermally active area along the diverging tectonic plates provides some unusual features. They recently discovered underwater hot springs about 10m/33mi from the shore on the south side of the lake. In the centre of the hot springs is a gigantic crater that emits large quantities of warm water and gases. As the air bubbles are pushed through the crater on the lake floor, the pressure causes the surrounding rocks to vibrate slightly. They say divers can usually feel these vibrations themselves, but we weren’t lucky enough to experience it.
This lake is also unusual because of its constantly rising and falling water levels, although the lake has no visible surface drainage, i.e. no connecting rivers. Changes in water level are due mostly to alterations in groundwater level. For instance, the water level in the lake noticeably decreased in 2000 as water drained into the ground following earthquakes that created a fissure in the lake’s floor. Since then, the water levels have risen again, but it must be checked frequently in order to gauge access to the dive site.
Kliefarvatn Lake is a popular fishing site during summer and is known for unusually large brown trout and char. A monster the size of a whale and the shape of a serpent is also said to inhabit the lake. The lake is also the setting for the crime novel The Draining Lake by one of Iceland’s most prominent crime authors, Arnaldur Indriðason. As the lake partially freezes over during winter, they paused both diving and fishing activities during winter.
Today, the Kleifarvatn area is gradually becoming a popular destination for hikers, joggers and bird watchers. Surrounding the lake is a comfortable trail where you can enjoy the dramatic and ever-changing landscape. Kleifarvatn lake and the area around the lake is also a great place to view the Northern Lights.
From there, we headed to the last stop of this road trip through Iceland’s southwest, the world-famous Blue Lagoon, 40km/25mi away from Krýsuvík and 31km/19 mi from Reykjavik.
9. Blue Lagoon
The Blue Lagoon is one of Iceland’s most popular attractions, and it’s little wonder why. The beautiful milky-blue water is unlike anything else found on earth and makes a stark contrast to the surrounding black lava fields and creeping grey moss. The water sits at 39°C (102°F) year-round, making it the perfect bathing temperature.
National Geographic named it one of the top 25 Wonders of the World, and Condé Nast Traveler included it on a list of the top 10 spas in the world. In fact, the Blue Lagoon has become so popular that you’ll need to book your entry days or even weeks in advance to get in.
Its history dates back to 1976, when it formed next to the geothermal power plant, Svartsengi.
Contrary to many people’s belief, the lagoon is not a natural hot spring, but a pool created by a human-made structure. It is wastewater from a power plant that is drilling for steam and hot water. But worry not; the water is completely clean and does not contain any harmful chemicals, only natural minerals that have been proven to be very good for people’s skin.
The first public bathing facilities opened in 1987, first mainly intended for people with psoriasis or similar skin problems. It didn’t take long for locals to flock here, especially since its location was convenient, a short drive from the capital city.
The 1999 transformation moved the lagoon further away from the geothermal plant and added modern changing facilities. They also added a café, hotel, restaurant, and a shop where it is possible to buy Blue Lagoon’s luxury skin products. Walking paths, small bridges, and saunas were also added to the site.
Entrance fee: from 44€/51.5$ p.p.
The following pictures were taken just outside the Blue Lagoon facility where there are several pools you can visit for free but you cannot bathe in.
With this unmissable experience in the Blue Lagoon, this adventure called “Exploring Iceland’s stunning southwest” comes to an end, but it will remain forever in our hearts.
Both my husband and I agree this has been the most incredible trip we have done so far from a naturalistic point of view, as you can difficultly find another place with such a unique natural beauty. Some time ago, though, someone pointed out to me that Ireland has similar landscapes, and that’s kind of true. I love Ireland and think its countryside is matchless but, honestly, I have never felt an overwhelming and helplessness feeling such as the one I felt in front of Iceland’s majestic natural beauty anywhere else. A mystic beauty that tastes almost as it belongs to another planet.