Iceland’s south coast. 8 days and 2065km. Waterfalls, glaciers, mountains, volcanoes, lava fields, plumes of geothermal activity, and the northern lights. This is the story of my 2018 trip to Iceland.
Idea: 8 day intensive road trip along the South Coast. Limit to smaller region (not entire ring road) to dig in and find interesting locations, and have the time to revisit with a better chance for good light/conditions. Each day in the trip had a couple researched focal points, but most of the details were left open ended on purpose. This shifts the entire nature of road trips away from a destination focused experience; driving along, you give yourself time to explore and discover. Stay in low-key accommodation (HI Hostels), focus resources on experience-based activities.
Timing: First week in September means just out of peak season, but the majority of summer activities are still running. The daylight hours are more reasonable for sunrise and sunset photography (6:15am – 8:30pm) and, in addition, it is the beginning of the northern lights season.
Planning tools: Google Maps/terrain, Lonely Planet Iceland book, Instagram, friends/family who have been recently (and some local), general research into things that interested me (glaciers/light aircraft flights/hiking/photography).
This trip was therefore not exhaustive, but an amazing first experience of Iceland and its south coast. My trip was exactly what I had hoped for, an exercise in getting lost in the wilderness. Iceland has left me utterly grateful to have experienced its raw landscapes. At the same time, I want to go back and explore further, to return to locations and to visit new one’s – in particular along the Snaefellsnes Peninsula and the northern Ring Road.
Below is a day-by-day summary that is hopefully the beginning of a quick guide to the south coast, from the perspective of landscape and nature photography. Part 2 will go into more detail regarding specific photography locations and sharing some more of my images.
Day 1 – Keflavik to Selfoss. Land in early afternoon, drive to along coast to Reykjanes Lighthouse. First glimpses of expansive empty lava fields and the Icelandic landscape. Continue further along the coast through Reykjanesfólkvangur towards Floi bird reserve and Selfoss. Spend night in Selfoss.
Day 2 – Selfoss to Seljalandsfoss. Pick up friend early from Reykjavik, back along Route 1 through Selfoss, then up Route 30 and 32 towards Haifoss. Small car couldn’t handle the rough roads so we hiked about an hour in the rain to Haifoss (Iceland’s second tallest waterfall). Headed back towards Ring Road via Route 26, driving right under Hekla (volcano, the mythological gateway to hell). Followed the Ring Road east along the south coast again, finally crossing a bridge with Seljalandsfoss on the left. We visited Seljalandsfoss in the late evening sunset before spending the night nearby.
Day 3 – Seljalandsfoss to Vik, via Landmannalaugar. The highlands. Midgard Adventure full day 4×4 trip to the mountains of Landmannalagaur starting and ending at their base in Hvolsvöllur. Amazing day of mountains hikes, volcanoes, lava fields & hot springs. Then drove to the small coastal town Vik in the evening as night fell.
Day 4 – Vik to Höfn. Explore Reynisfjara Beach (black sand beach, basalt columns, puffins, Reynisdrangar Seastacks) at sunrise. Drive further east along Route 1, detour on side roads 209/208 – fantastic views over braided river system. A little bit further east, Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon and waterfalls. Drove passed Skaftafell (glacier & volcano wilderness area) to see Fjallsárlón and Jökulsárlón iceberg lagoons. Most of this day was spent overcast; however, as we arrived to the iceberg lagoons (Fjallsárlón, the smaller one, allows you to get closer with a greater density of icebergs) a heavy fog rolled in, adding a simplicity to the giant blocks of floating ice. As we drove on to Höfn, I noted some locations with potential for night sky photography, looking for anchoring elements such as glacier views & reflections. With two nights in the remote peninsula of Höfn and some fairly clear weather predicted ahead, I was hopeful for northern lights. That night I saw the aurora borealis for the first time, dancing overhead at about 1:30am.
Day 5 – Skaftafell, Vatnajökull National Park. We headed back down the coastline to Skaftafell where we would spend most of the day. We started with a morning hike to Svartifoss, a black basalt columnar waterfall in the mountains before heading to a glacier hike on Iceland’s highest peak, Hvannadalshnúkur. This peak has glacier mouths spilling in all directions, with the largest glacier in Europe, Vatnajökull (8100sq. km), sitting just behind it. Arriving back in Höfn, the sky broke to the west as the sun was setting, with rays of sun illuminating the mountains across the bay. We stayed up late once again to see the northern lights, this time with a plan: chase some clear skies to the east and find a lake to photograph some reflections, a glacier, and the lights shining above.
Day 6 – Höfn back to Vik, via Skogafoss. Made the long drive back to Vik, with a few roadside compositions as the conditions were good, before heading out to Skogafoss in the early afternoon (skipping the long walk to the popular plane wreck). The overcast day, with the occasional breaks, helped to control the otherwise harsh light. That evening for sunset and blue hour headed up to the opposite end of Reynisfjara beach to the Dyrhólaey peninsula/arch. That night we took a chance and drove back to Skogafoss; watched a fairly short, weak display of the northern lights over the waterfall.
Day 7 – Vik to Laugarvatn. Revisited Reynisfjara in the morning before heading west towards Laugarvatn. First stop was Seljavallalaug, an old naturally heated swimming pool tucked away under Eyjafjallajökull (volcano). Thought about visiting the island of Vestmanneyar for a half day excursion but the weather was windy and bleak, so decided it was better to move on in search of better conditions. Took Route 1 west until turning north on the 30 to Gullfoss & Geysir. We did some exploring on the way, pulling over to spend time with some Icelandic horses.
Day 8 – Laugarvatn to Reykjavik, via Thingvellir. Spent the morning exploring Thingvellir National Park before heading into Reykjavik for a night. Reykjavik was absolutely charming (can recommend to explore the local food scene – in particular, the cinnamon buns from Brauð & Co.). Hallgrimskirkja provides a great view over the city, and there are some lovely walks along the harbour front.
Day 9 – Morning in Reykjavik before flying out.
Part 2 will go into more details on specific shooting locations and some of my images. Coming soon…