One of the many wonderful things about Iceland, is the plethora of sites to enjoy—requiring minimal effort—directly off the Ring Road, making Iceland truly accessible to anyone and everyone. Contrary to popular belief, you do not have to be “Captain Outdoor Adventure” to enjoy all that Iceland has to offer. In fact, if you are someone who finds yourself filled with hesitation when it comes to adventuring outside, we highly suggest hightailing it to Iceland immediately, as it possesses magical powers that will connect you with nature unlike any other place in the world.
So, if you are not the most adventurous, outdoorsy soul on the planet, this very blog is a wonderful place for you to find yourself. We are assuming you found the almighty Iceland piquing your interest upon seeing our recent adventures there. It seems as though the main hesitation that exists with visiting Iceland, is fear of its extremeness. Iceland is very extreme on multiple levels, yes, but there are less extreme parts for those who are new to the adventurous style of travel that we have personally adopted. Not everything in Iceland requires an off roading vehicle or a trek through the vast wilderness.
Hence, we give you a low key—but equally beautiful—route to seeing the Land of Fire and Ice. Driving the scenic route of the South is essentially your “Icelandic Starter Kit”, as South Iceland offers very picturesque, yet diverse, landscapes and sites that are easy to access year-round. In addition to being able to get away with not needing extreme gear, you can see a lot of neat things in a relatively short amount of time. Driving the south coast around to the east allows you see waterfalls, black sand beaches, mountains, and glaciers in a very timely manner. You get a safe, swift kick of adventure without having a go too far from the main hub of Reykjavik. This makes this route perfect for people on the quick “Icelandic Stopover”.
Additionally, visiting Iceland between October and May means winter weather conditions, making a lot of the island entirely inaccessible. Two of our four trips to Iceland have been in the dead of winter (late November and early January), as we came with a goal to see the Northern Lights. Coming in the winter meant having to forgo on much of what we wanted to see in North, so we found ourselves adventuring in the South for part of those trips, as weather can’t stop an SUV from driving on paved roads to various landmarks like it can stop you from off roading, trekking, or being outside for too long. We found ourselves in the South again on our most recent March/April visit, as it was easy on Krissy’s recovery from a seizure that required a hospital visit. If that doesn’t show you how low key this route is, we don’t know what will.
All that being said, if you are short on time, you hate hiking, you are injured, or the weather is preventing you from doing what you came to Iceland for, the South is going to be the right place for you. The only negative thing to expect, is that you will likely be sharing the landmarks with a lot of other people in a similar situation. The south is definitely “touristy” Iceland due how much you can see so easily, so be ready to share.
This blog contains a list of sites you can see in South Iceland, directly off the main road. There are of course a number of additional incredible things to see along the south coast into the east, however they involve off roading, long walks, or hikes to get to. In our effort to keep this blog on track, we choose to leave out anything that isn’t easy to see. With a little effort, you’ll find the south and east boast quite a few incredible canyons, glaciers, and waterfalls that are off the beaten the path and require anywhere from 45-90 minutes of hiking. Research things like Fjaðrárgljúfur, Svartifoss, and the Sólheimasandur airplane wreckage to find some the good stuff if you are up for a little bit more adventure in the South and have the time.
This route can take you anywhere from 36-72 hours depending on much time you spend at any stop or what you choose to add or subtract. First things first, you are going to need to rent a car. We suggest leaving Reykjavík in the morning, then driving the 6-7 hours through to Höfn to sleep for the night, hitting the road again first thing in the morning. Check out our Iceland Travel Guide if you need help with car rentals, navigating/driving, or configuring accommodations in Iceland.
If you have the time and you care about photography, we suggest stopping at the stops on the way out, if the weather and lighting are in your favor, as well as on the way back. Iceland’s weather is unpredictable, so take every chance you get to shoot in dry or desirable conditions. The scenery looked completely different even days apart, so we took every chance we could to shoot, even if it meant shooting things twice if the weather Gods were on our side. At the end of every stop, we have included photo tips to help you shoot the location.
Every single one of the listed stops has a parking lot and requires zero hiking or trekking to see. Every locations is also in Google Maps and will accurately take you to exactly where you need to go, so we left detailed directions out and simply put the journey in order for you. Do not use Apple Maps while in Iceland.
Before we started, we need to go over something kinda important real quick…
Flying a Drone In Iceland
It goes without saying that Iceland is a drone pilot’s paradise. It literally doesn’t get an sexier than getting drone footage in this country. A few things you should probably know about drone’s in Iceland…
DO NOT LAND OR TAKE OFF FROM THE BLACK SAND. This may come as a bit of a no brainer to more seasoned drone pilots, but the black, volcanic sand on the beaches (and all over Iceland) can be incredibly fine, almost dusty. So fine, that it has a tendency to lodge itself into the gimbal and propellor motors. This will kill your drone. We have seen enough drone fatalities from Icelands beach sands to feel compelled to issue a warning, so be careful. Make sure to catch and take off by hand on the beaches.
Another mentionable point, which will again come as a no brainer to experienced drone pilots, is drone etiquette. Sure, it’s just a drone and it’s really not a big deal, but the rest of the people you’re sharing these landmarks with may not feel the same way about. They also may have traveled halfway across the world, just like you, to see this beautiful country. Iceland is one of the most insane places to fly a drone in the world and we fully encourage you to get adventurous and find new perspectives, just don’t ruin anybody else’s experience, put anybody in danger, and don’t fly where signs are posted not to. Period.
Vestrahorn & Stokksnes Beach
Technically, these two landmarks reside in Southeast Iceland, but given their proximity to the other things on things on list—and their breathtaking beauty—it felt wrong to not include them, as the little bit of extra driving time is well worth it. The black Stokksnes Beach is the darkest beach in all of Iceland and it sits at the base of the great, jagged Vestrahorn. The landscape is simultaneously rough and beautiful, truly unlike any other place in the world. If you appreciate raw nature at its finest, this place is guaranteed to knock your socks clean off.
The beach is on private property, so unlike most other landmarks and landscapes in Iceland, there is small entrance fee to get past the gate and make your way down to the beach. You can access the area 24 hours a day, so catching sunset or sunrise photos here is a nonissue (we did both… because duh). As you make your way down the road you have seen countless drone shots of, you will notice there are several places to stop. Stop at them all! Play in the lagoon reflection pool, run around on the dunes, and walk through the receding waves. Soak in all the magic, as there is a lot to soak in here.
- The beach and mountain are both SO massive, they are difficult to photograph. Bring the widest lens you have, and don’t be afraid to photograph the area from a little farther away than the beach itself.
- The reason we suggest staying in Höfn, is to be able to catch the scene at both sunset and sunrise, as it is astonishing how different it looks lit up from different directions, as well as the tides changing.
- Use the landscape to “beef up” your photos. The sand dunes create great foreground bokeh and you can also catch a lot of texture using things on the beach. Additionally, there are multiple places to catch some great reflection shots.
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
The Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon is basically a massive glacial lake in Southeast Iceland. The lake stretches over 18km2 and began forming in 1934 when part of Europe’s largest glacier began retreating. This lagoon is without a doubt one of Iceland’s most visited places, as it is incredibly beautiful and awe-inspiring. Part of what makes the glacier lagoon so beautiful, is the fact that thousands of icebergs float in it, many of which are well over 1000 years old. These icebergs flow through a small channel out of the lagoon, that sites directly on the Atlantic Ocean, and end up on the beach (but we saved that info for your next stop). The lagoon is Iceland’s biggest “lake” and the reason it is so blue, is due to the water being a mixture of fresh and sea water from its location directly by the ocean.
Honestly, we find the lagoon to be bordering on sad, as it is glaring evidence of the impact of global warming is having on the poles. The lagoon has more than quadrupled in size since the 1970’s due to rate that the glaciers are melting in Iceland, making it on the verge of depressing to look at for too long. Try to just appreciate its natural beauty without thinking too hard about what’s actually going on. It’s not the glacier’s or the lagoon’s fault that humans are dummies.
- The lagoon is so big, it’s difficult to photograph well. Bring your wide lens. Additionally, a lot of the icebergs are super interesting, so you are going to want a telephoto to catch anything floating far away. And there is A LOT floating far away, due to the size of the lagoon.
- If you go to the west end of the bridge (the opposite side of the main parking lot), there is a dirt parking lot that will likely be empty. Park there, as you’re able to not only walk around the lagoon more, but you can get down to the water to catch reflection shots.
- This is technically a “no drone zone”. Unless you go far enough away… like far enough away to not be able to see the “no drone” signs. That way you technically aren’t breaking any rules and you also aren’t being a dick.
Located directly across from the glacier lagoon, you will find the famous Diamond Beach. As mentioned above, icebergs from the glacier lagoon float out through the channel, into the Atlantic Ocean, where they are pummeled, polished, then washed up on to the beach for our viewing pleasure. What is truly fascinating, is that some of the icebergs on the beach that never get taken out to sea are decades old, taking an eternity to melt. The coolest thing about Diamond Beach, is that it never looks the same. New icebergs appear daily from the lagoon, the sea takes some ice from the beach daily, and the shapes of the “diamonds” are always changing due to the crashing waves, the sun, and Iceland’s wild climate that entails rapidly changing weather.
And sorry, but we have to say it. Please don’t propose to your girl here, fellas, it’s cheesy. Propose to her on a glacier or something far more creative than giving your girl a diamond on Diamond Beach.
- Park in the east parking lot, directly to your right once you go over the bridge, coming from Reykjavik. It will be on your left, immediately before the bridge, coming from Höfn. The icebergs are larger on this side of the beach.
- Holding the small guys up to the sun creates a REALLY cool effect for photos. Play around with angles to catch some flares through and around the ice.
- Do not be afraid to climb on them to get cool pictures! At the same time, do not be a disrespectful idiot.
Fjallsárlón Glacier Lagoon
About five minutes past the big, above mentioned glacier lagoon, lies a smaller, less populated one. Fjallsárlón is Jökulsárlón’s lesser known little brother. Despite being less popular, the smaller lagoon boasts even more beauty than the big one, in our opinion. Less people and tourism make the smaller lagoon seem far more serene and tranquil in comparison to big, overwhelming one. Additionally, you can get a lot closer to the tongue and actually SEE where the ice breaks off into the lagoon. Similar to Jökulsárlón, icebergs breakaway from the glacier that feeds the lagoon, floating around and colliding. Unlike Jökulsárlón, you can actually see the entire lagoon, making it a little easier to not only look at, but to photograph.
- Use the ice and rocks on the beach to create texture in your foreground when shooting the lagoon (or your subject in front in front of the lagoon).
- The lagoon is very still, so the ability to catch reflections here is incredible.
Skeiðará Bridge Monument
Nature can flex on man-made structures real hard, especially in Iceland, and this monument is prime example of that. Following the combination of a volcanic eruption paired with massive glacial floods, a seemingly immovable iron bridge was entirely dismembered and relocated by Mother Nature herself.
The Skeiðará Bridge was once the longest bridge in Iceland, making up a lengthy segment of the Ring Road itself. Then, in 1996 during a volcano eruption, massive icebergs were washed down the plain as the glacier melted, taking sections of the bridge with them. All that remains of the bridge today are a couple of twisted girders that are laying right on the ride of the ring road, offering a great testament to the strength of Iceland’s powerful landscape.
- Don’t be afraid to climb around on the thing; it’s stable, safe, and completely accepted. Just don’t be the hero who tries to land a backflip, then breaks your neck. We don’t want to see a “keep off” sign on this thing anytime soon.
- Since this is one of the rare occasions in Iceland where you can walk all the way around the thing you are photographing, you actually can really flex that creative muscle here. Walk alllllll the way around it and get funky.
The Town of Vik
Vik is a wonderful little hub that offers quite a bit more than the typical Icelandic township. Vik is a great stopping point for a sit-down meal, a grocery trip, or a sleepover. We suggest sleeping here, getting a solid meal in, and catching the sunset (or sunrise!) over the famous Black Sand Beach. If you need assistance with eating and lodging in Iceland, be sure to check our Iceland Travel Guide that gives you a grand overview of what you need to know when visiting Iceland.
Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach
The most famous and photographed beach in all of Iceland, perhaps the world (shout out to GoT)! The towering basalt columns nearly take your breath away as you make your way on to the black sand. Out to sea reside several massive sea stacks that you will recognize from Beyond the Wall. Speaking of the sea, the beach is also world famous for its “sneaker waves”. This is not a joke, so don’t turn your back on the ocean when you are walking around. And be careful where you set your belongings down, as the sneaker waves will take everything you own and leave you on your ass.
The beach also gives you an insane view of the Dyrhólaey Arch, creating major perspective for the next stop on your road trip. You are probably starting to realize why this specific beach is so popular right about now… you get a lot of Iceland in one small place. Black sand, massive waves, basalt columns, sea stacks, natural forming arches, and more. Lastly, the little cafe at the beach is delicious and we highly suggest grabbing a bite there.
- This is the busiest beach in all of Iceland, so be ready for that. You will likely have to wait a few minutes to get a picture on the basalt stacks, just stay patient and enjoy your surroundings.
- Make your way down the beach a way either direction to getter better shots. Walk toward the sea stacks or toward arch, past all the people.
Dyrhólaey, which can be translated to “The Hill with The Door Hole”, is famous for a number of reasons. The massive arch that stretches nearly 400 feet in the air, the infinite black sand beach that stretches farther than the human eye can see, and the embellished lighthouse that resembles a castle are all each a site to see in their own respects. The area was deemed a nature reserve in 1978 in an effort to protect to puffins, as the area is known bird sanctuary.
We you make your way on to the peninsula, that resembles more of an island, drive alllll the way up to the top (assuming your vehicle and the weather permit this) to park. You can honestly spend hours up there due to how much walking around there is to do. You can even walk the arch during certain times of the year. If you do end up staying in Vik, we suggest catching the area at both sunset and sunrise if you are up for it.
Warning: this is the windiest place we have ever been in our lives.
- Like we said, this is a nature reserve and bird sanctuary. If an area is roped off, it is to protect wildlife, thus DO NOT cross over anything to “get the shot”. Just get creative and photograph things from a different perspective that won’t disrupt—or disrespect—nature.
- You truly have a breathtaking view in multiple directions up here, don’t let it go to waste! SHOOT EVERYTHING.
Iceland’s most famous waterfall makes you feel incredibly small as you approach it. More impressive than its 200’ height is its 80’ width. One of the coolest things about this fall, is that its spray always causes a rainbow. In sunny conditions, you can even catch two rainbows across it. Another thing that makes this waterfall so radical, is the staircase that takes you 200 feet up into the air to get a view from above the cascade via a platform.
The spray from this beast can felt from shockingly far away, so be prepared to get wet, especially since this one of the few waterfalls in Iceland you can literally walk right up to the water wall. Which is highly suggested, as there really aren’t many places you can WALK up to a waterfall like this on foot.
- This is one of those places we admittedly had to remove people from the photos, as the fall is so popular. If you get close enough and have the right lens, you can get the shot sans people, just prepare to get WET.
- If you bring boots that can make it through shallow water, cross over the river and get your shot from the opposite side, as that is a perspective few are willing to get!
Seljalandsfoss & Gljúfrabúi
This is one the most photographed waterfalls in all of Iceland, and for good reason. The fall cascades 200 feet to the ground over ancient sea cliffs. Part of what makes it such a unique (thus popular) place is because it is possible to actually walk behind the waterfall. If you walk behind, you WILL get a sick shot, but you will also get soaked. Make sure you are prepared for that if you are going to brave the walk behind the fall, especially in the winter.
You probably remember the content of us crawling inside a crack in the earth, that opened up into a canyon with a waterfall pouring inside. The name of that waterfall is Gljúfrabúi and not many people know about it. If you are up for a less than five-minute walk and getting completely soaked, just follow the path! Keep going until it ends, where you will see said crack in the earth and head on it! The water isn’t that cold, we promise.
- Again, framing a shot without people in it is tough here; it takes a lot of walking around and finagling. Luckily you can walk around the entire fall to find your shot.
- Shooting inside of Gljúfrabúi is… interesting. Come prepared to wipe your lens off one thousand times due to the conditions.
- Make sure you have at least a 24mm lens, preferably even wider to get the full scale of the bad boy. You have to be right up on it to shoot it.
The Icelandic Horses
The world famous Icelandic horses don’t have a designated stop on your road trip, as you are going to see them during your entire time in Iceland, especially along the Ring Road in the South. When you see them huddled up against the fence together, pull off the road *safely*, hop out, say hello, and give them a good pet. They are very friendly and will bring you stupendous amounts of joy. See below for proof.
The sweetest creatures on earth and one of THE best things about Iceland.
Head back to Reykjavík!
We hope you enjoyed this “beginners guide” to Iceland and that you are able to use it as a guide to plan your first adventure to the Land of Fire and Ice! If you are looking for something a little more adventurous, we suggest checking out other Iceland blogs on different parts of the island!