A long weekend in Iceland
My wife and I recently got the chance to do a dream trip… Iceland! We’ve done several ambitious road trips before. They’re typically filled with as much as we can see in a short timeframe. We know this isn’t the ideal way to see anything but for us it’s seeing something the only way we can afford to time wise. We’ve always had fun doing it and this trip was no different. We each had two days of vacation time we could use for the trip. Combining that with a weekend meant we’d have four days in Iceland. Reading the Iceland guides most suggested we stay around Reykjavik and take a few drives out to see the typical golden circle type attractions. I’m a photographer and I have a LOT of photographer friends who have been to Iceland before so I also had a list of “must see” locations (and take amazing pictures of) that were spread out all over Iceland.
Looking at accommodation prices and factoring in a rental car we quickly came to the realization that renting a camper was the most economical option for us. Not only does a camper combine your rental car cost with your accommodations it also allows you to have an open schedule as you don’t need to make it to a specific place for a reservation in a hotel. This sounded perfect for us. Searching for rental campers in Iceland there are lots of options and just as many opinions about those options… One issue we kept running into is our flight from Boston To Keflavik landed at 4:30 in the morning and the campers were mostly off site. They all had different options to get you there via shuttles or picking you up but they all centered around normal working hours. Basically they’d pick you up at 9am at the airport or you’d have to get yourselves there between 9 and 10am. For us this wasted valuable time we simply didn’t have as we only had 84 total hours on the ground in Iceland. I wasn’t willing to give up 4+ hours hanging out at the airport! In researching options I’d found rent.is and they were not only located at the airport but they had 24 hour service. This meant we could walk out to the camper from the airport, hop in and start our trip immediately!
Finally the day came and we were off to Iceland. We landed, made our way through customs, immigration and the duty free shop. I normally wouldn’t mention duty free but in Iceland you literally walk THROUGH the duty free shop on the way to get your baggage and exit the terminal. Alcohol and beer are quite expensive in Iceland so this is a great opportunity to save some money on those things (even the stewardesses were shopping on their way through). Once you get your baggage you have to exit the airport to get to rent.is. You’ll walk past the airport Hotel (which is so new it’s a dirt pile on google’s satellite maps right now) and aim for “Go Iceland Rental Cars” which shares it’s office with rent.is. We could actually see the campers from across the parking lot which made it even easier to find.
Day 1 – The Golden Circle
Once we were loaded into our camper we set off on our first day’s itinerary. We’d planned to do the golden circle (Þingvellir, Öxarárfoss, Geysir and Gullfoss). This is what the major tours do coming out of Reykjavik and are the biggest and best known attractions. We felt we needed to see these to have a good comparison for the rest of the amazing places we’d see. The other big stop for us on day one was Brúarfoss.
Þingvellir is a national park with some great history and natural wonders. This is where you can see the continents moving apart and actually walk through the gap that grows between 1~10mm a year (that’s up to 1/2” for us Americans)! Öxarárfoss is a very neat waterfall here that flows over the top of the ravine then through the divide. The water is crystal clear. We arrived just before 9am which is the official opening time of the park. You pay to park and the restrooms are also a pay to use affair. Nikki was constantly amazed at how nice the restrooms were and said it was totally worth the money. Unfortunately we were here on the first Saturday of the summer season during record high temps (18°c which is ~65°f). Five monster sized tour busses arrived right as we were walking past their parking lot dumping a few hundred tourists right as we went through… This took a bit away from the natural beauty we were after as we were right into crowds. While Þingvellir & Öxarárfoss were interesting locations I would skip them next time to have more time in some of the locations later on. If you do go make sure you use one of the later parking lots coming from Reykjavik parking closer to the waterfall and further from the visitor center and try to go at off peak times.
Read more: How to avoid the crowds
Brúarfoss was the highlight of our first day (except for maybe Gljúfrafoss where we camped). It is a bit tricky to find, but well worth the effort. It’s between Þingvellir and Geysir on the North side of the road back in a quiet neighborhood Once you find the small parking spot (it fits two vans the size of the camper) there is a small dirt trail into the bushes towards the river. Follow the path and you’ll pop out at a bridge that goes over the river just below the amazing falls. They’re not large in size but what makes Bruarfoss so special is the color of the water. The complete lack of crowds is also very nice. We were there with one other couple, Icelandic locals there on their day off. Another local family walked in as we were leaving. You can walk right down to the water’s edge here which is worth the effort. The water flows through volcanic rocks which is how I assume it gets it’s bubbles!
From Brúarfoss it was on to Geysir. We made a pit stop in Laugarvatn for rest rooms and snacks (get the bag of cinnamon buns, they were amazing and breakfast while driving each morning!). Geysir was a non event for us. Not to sound jaded but we lived in Montana for six years and it’s not as impressive as old faithful. It’s the crowds that really made it not fun for us. Thousands of people packed in around the geysers with some even getting hot water on them as they’d erupt. We didn’t even take a single picture here with either phones or the big camera. There are some very interesting viewpoints up on the hill overlooking the basin and this is another location that would be worth revisiting with less crowds in an off peak time.
After Geysir we headed off to Gullfoss which is a very impressive and massive waterfall. Once again it was packed with people as we were there at the worst possible time. While it was impressive I’d again skip this location in the middle of a Saturday to avoid the crowds. There are two viewpoints and parking lots. One high (with shops and bathrooms) and one low which is where you want to park as it’s away from the crowds a bit. The lower lot is the first lot you’ll see approaching on the road. The view from the lower path is up close to the falls and the more impressive option with plenty of spray!
After we’d wrapped up the Golden Circle and Brúarfoss we headed south. We stopped in Selfoss for groceries. We bought a bunch of fruit and yogurt for breakfast as well as sandwich makings for lunches and dinners as needed. We then headed off to the campground at Gljúfrafoss which was amazing! We arrived by 6pm and were in bed by 8pm even though the sun wouldn’t set for another 3 hours. Before bed we walked into the crack in the rocks and found the falls of Gljúfrafoss which was incredible! The path is a few feet wide and disappears into the rocks. It then opens up at the base of a waterfall and is awesome. We happened to park within 100 feet of the base of the falls for the night. The camp site has paid showers which we also took advantage of. Camping was 1.300kr ($10.50) per person and showers were 300kr ($2.50) each. Beware you’ll need coins and the office wasn’t open the entire time we were there.
Day 2 – From Seljalandsfoss to Höfn
Day two we woke up and hiked down the path to Seljalandsfoss. Seljalandsfoss is another of the more well known waterfalls. It’s well known for being able to walk behind the falls. It’s a short hike but expect to spend at least an hour here as it’s just too much fun to rush. The moss under the falls was incredible. Just watching and listening to the water pour over the falls was mesmerizing. After Seljalandsfoss we darted into Gljúfrafoss one last time before packing up the camper, getting a coffee in the camp office and heading out.
Skógafoss was our second stop for the day. This is another waterfall you’ll most likely recognize as it’s on the cover of the Lonely Planet guidebook. As we headed East along the coast the lupines became more and more abundant. As we rounded the corner where Skógafoss pops into view we were also greeted by our first fields of lupines as well! Skógafoss is a nice hike up a staircase to the top of the falls. There’s also a troll in the side of the rocks midway up with an amazing view (my favorite of the falls). The bottom view is also a lot of fun but crowded. There are trails above the falls that go back to “25 more falls” from what we’ve been told. This is one place I’d add more time if we shortened a few of our stops on day one.
After Skógafoss we drove ~1/2 a mile to Kvernufoss. This is another hidden/secret/less traveled waterfall worth finding. It’s another walk behind fall but the real treat here is the hike in. You don’t see the falls for about half the hike and then you crest a ridge and feel like you’ve gone into Jurassic Park! There was one group at the falls when we arrived so we waited for them to leave while taking some pictures along the river. We had the place to ourselves for over half an hour. As we were leaving some local Icelandic kids were coming in. The solitude is worth the effort for both the hike and finding it.
It was then off to Dyrhólaey where we managed the drive up to the lighthouse. It’s a winding dirt road but the camper made it without issue. The fact we followed a small hatchback up the hill boosted our confidence. The view from the top is amazing. I was hoping to see some puffins from the top but no luck. The lighthouse is impressive and the views both towards the ocean, the black sand beach that stretches to the horizon and the snowcap/glaciers in the mountains behind are breathtaking.
After the lighthouse we headed down the hill and to the point to the east where there’s a nice parking lot. We headed out to the grass knoll and found puffins! They’re a lot of fun to watch fly around but VERY hard to get good pictures of! There’s also a great beach here with basalt columns and black volcanic sand of varying grits from pebbles to true sand. It’s also nice and warm if it’s sunny, but the water is VERY cold. There are warning signs as you approach the beach warning of the currents.
Read more: Be safe in Iceland
From there we drove through Vik to get fuel on the way East. Fjaðrárgljúfur was the next stop on the list. It’s a very interesting valley that you can walk along the rim. This is another location we’d wished we’d had more time to hike. We were trying to make it to Höfn for the night. Fjaðrárgljúfur is accessed by a dirt road that can be narrow at times but it’s only about 10 minutes from route 1 and worth the drive. There are also nice public toilets here. Fjaðrárgljúfur is a magical canyon with a crystal clear river at the bottom. There are spines that reach out into the valley that you can walk out on for better but more precarious views.
From Fjaðrárgljúfur we headed to the Jökulsárlón Iceberg Lagoon. We’d been told it was a “must see”. Getting this far east dictated a lot of our decisions for our pace and options on what to see. It did NOT disappoint! The lagoon is on the north side of the road and is best viewed from the lot after crossing the bridge when coming from Vik. There are turnouts before you even see the bridge as well as just before crossing the bridge. We stopped and checked those out as well but the lot after the bridge had the best views with the icebergs all cueing up to leave the channel right in front of us. This was incredible! There’s a lot of bird life here as well. Listening to the icebergs crash into each other and grind on the bottom is an out of this world experience. We were told that the icebergs on the beach were very time and tide dependent and there were really none on the seaside beach at this time (but we were coming back through tomorrow).
From Jökulsárlón we headed to the Hafnarbraut campground in Höfn which is a great facility. They also have showers and we enjoyed a great night parked down by the water in a quiet corner. Camping was 1.100kr ($9) per person and showers were 50kr ($.41) for 2 minutes. The facilities here are quite nice and it’s also right in town so there’s groceries and a gas station nearby as well as a public/town pool.
Day 3 – Camping in East Iceland
Day 3 we were up around 8:45 am and again had coffee in the office of the campground. We spoke with Linda who runs the campsite for quite a while getting the scoop on where to go for the day. We headed out with Vestrahorn as our first stop and our furthest point east we’d go. Vestrahorn is an impressive mountain range on a black sand beach with green seagrass dunes that is very photogenic. You have to pay 800kr ($6.51) per person to drive down the road to see Vestrahorn but the view is totally worth it. The beach here is also massive and a place we’d spend a lot more time at if we had the time. The price also includes access to a viking movie set in the other direction.
From Vestrahorn we headed back east to Jökulsárlón Iceberg Lagoon again. This time the tide must have been right because the beach to the south (park on the west side of the bridge on the south side of the road, after the bridge and to the left coming from Höfn) was COVERED in ice both big and small. The ice really is that blue color and it just pops sitting on a black beach with the white seafoam as the waves wash around them. This was a highlight of the trip for me. We also stopped at the Fjallsárlón Glacier Lagoon which is just west. This is interesting as well but the water here is more coffee colored and it’s a bit of a hike from the parking lot. The backdrop is much more impressive with the glacier spilling down between two mountains right behind the lagoon but if you have to pick one I’d stick with Jökulsárlón.
From there it was off to Svartifoss! Svartifoss was about a 15~20 minute hike for us but I’d plan for 30 minutes at a casual pace. Svartifoss is a spectacular waterfall as it falls over rocks that are basalt columns around two sides of the falls. The Skaftafell park is an amazing place and this is one of the other places we’d like to spend more time if we’d skipped some of the things on the first day. You can hike above the glaciers if you go beyond Svartifoss or even walk out to the edge of them on all reasonable short hikes if you’ve got the time.
After Skaftafell it was back towards Vik where we stopped for a few more groceries and then off to Seljavallalaug hot spring. The hot spring was fun and the hike in with 18 waterfalls lining the canyon was impressive. But the water is… um… a bit earthy? It’s green and you can’t see more than 6” into it. While that doesn’t really bother us that much it’s more the fact that you’ve got to hike back to the van to then you’ll want to find a shower… We headed back to Gljúfrafoss to camp for the night as we knew it was about a half hour down the road and we knew it had showers.
Day 4 – From Þjófafoss to Háifoss
Day four was our last day and it had to be a bit shorter due to flying out in the early evening. We woke up at 6:45am and headed out immediately. We stopped in Hvolsvöllur and got breakfast (bacon wrapped hot dog with fresh grilled onions and honey mustard!!!) and fuel before heading up 268 towards Þjófafoss. The drive on 268 was awesome! It’s a slow winding road that’s sometimes dirt and sometimes paved but the scenery was breathtaking! We drove through lava fields, lupine fields, pastures and around streams. Every turn changed the look and we had a blast! Þjófafoss is down a small dirt road with a sign. It’s an easy drive with a nice parking area. There are NO railings or any sort of protection here to keep you safe so use your own judgement… This is an area I might not bring my kids if/when we go back but the falls themselves are beautiful with a mountain immediately behind them and a volcano off in the distance as well. Morning was not the best time for this location photographically but it was still an amazing sight.
From Þjófafoss we attempted to get to Lekafossar Falls at Sigalda. We managed to drive to within ~.8 of a mile when you’re greeted by an F-road sign. We might have been tempted to hike in but not only were we a bit short on time but the wind was HOWLING here blowing both spray and sand and dirt onto both us and the camera’s lens. Not a good combination! Lekafossar is an impressive looking falls from the images I’ve seen, so if you have the time I’d drive out to the power plant and park and hike in. Just make sure you plan enough time for both the drive out as well as a 1.5 mile + hike.
From Lekafossar we headed down towards Gjáin and Háifoss. I was hoping to see Gjáin but it’s an f-road only access. Háifoss was not though so we headed there. This is not an f-road but keep in mind it is a rocky road that’s slow going so make sure you plan enough time! It took us 30~45 minutes each way to get in and out from Háifoss. I will say though that Háifoss is VERY impressive. It’s the tallest waterfall we saw while there but it’s also a pair of waterfalls. Not only that but there were rainbows galore here as the spray and the canyon generate them non stop. Like Þjófafoss , Háifoss is another falls without much guidance. There’s a great path with a very nice picnic table and the lower viewing area has a rock platform. But there are no railings and plenty of places to tempt you to get closer to the edge than you should. I might not bring my kids here when we go back but it was a very impressive view and Nikki’s favorite falls in the end. From Háifoss it was back to the airport unfortunately. It’s a nice drive back from there that takes a bit over two hours winding through great Icelandic towns.
We had an amazing long weekend in Iceland. We WILL be going back! The only question is when and for how long. Because we live near Boston/Logan airport the direct flights make it an easy weekend trip for us. We would also love to return for a week and bring the kids. As you’ve read throughout this report there are a few places I’d skip (the golden circle basically) and a few places I’d love to spend more time (Fjaðrárgljúfur to hike to the top of the valley, Svartifoss/Skaftafell to hike to the glacier and Skógafoss to hike above the main falls to see the “25 more”). If I had to do it again I’d combine the Brúarfoss with day’s 3 falls and skip the rest of the golden circle even though they’re near Brúarfoss. For us Iceland was much more fun once we got to and beyond Seljalandsfoss as the crowds thinned and the views were more impressive. If given more time the next location I’d add to a trip would be the Snæfellsjökull peninsula. I’ve seen nothing but amazing images from there as well. It was just a bit too far for us leaving us with the choice between it and Vestrahorn and Jökulsárlón. You obviously only scratch the surface with a four day trip to a place like Iceland but we would 100% go again even for a long weekend!
We totaled 1318km/818 miles which cost us a little less than $200 in fuel.
Ben & Nikki Jacobsen
Happy camping! #WohoCamper
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