Exploring Iceland's Rugged South

From volcanoes and glaciers to lush valleys and black sand beaches, Iceland has it all, and a drive along the south coast is a perfect way to sample the country’s natural beauty.  The trip takes anywhere from 9-14 hours round trip from Reykjavik with stops, and is worthwhile for anyone on a short timeframe but looking to explore beyond Reykjavik and the Golden Circle.  

We left Reykjavik under partly cloudy skies, and within 20 minutes found ourselves driving through the beautiful Hellisheiði Mountain pass, which has a tendency towards wind and rain even on the sunniest of days everywhere else. This stretch, a combination of lava fields and rolling green hills, is one of many examples of Iceland’s rugged natural beauty.  Looking in any direction, you can also easily spot steam rising from the ground, as geothermal energy is Iceland's primary power source.

Hellisheiði Mountain Pass

Hellisheiði Mountain Pass

After passing through the quaint town of Selfoss, we found ourselves driving on a fairly flat road surrounded by jagged green mountains and the occasional waterfall.  This stretch is full of farms, which meant plenty of sheep as well favorite, the Icelandic Horse.  As we drove west, the impressive Eyjafjallajökull glacier – the spot of the famous volcanic eruption in 2010 - came into view.  We stopped for plenty of pictures along this peaceful stretch.  Closer to Vik the mountains remained but were paired with rugged black sand beaches to our south.  Among these sands is the famous wreckage of a 1973 plane crash, which we visited on our way back.  Just prior to Vik, the road once again rises into the mountains before winding back down.  I highly recommend safely pulling over (into a marked pull off, not the side of the road) to enjoy this beautiful combination of mountains and black sand.

I had read much about Vik prior to the trip, but the town was very small and while it was a great spot for lunch, we quickly moved on.  What Vik does offer is impressive views of both mountains and beaches.  Our favorite spot to take these in was Vik Church and the surrounding mountain path.  While Sarah wandered around the church, I took the dirt path in order to get a viewpoint from higher up.  Across from the church is a restaurant called Sudur Vik where we ordered some much needed pizza before continuing towards our final destination.

Vik Church

Vik Church

After Vik we continued towards east on a stretch of road that was by far our favorite of the day. Shortly after we resumed our journey, the seemingly endless black sand beaches were replaced by the Eldhraun Lava Field, which stretches as far as the eye can see.  Although Iceland is full of lava fields, this one is the largest and was our favorite of the trip.  The field was caused by a massive eruption in the late 1700s whose effects were far reaching and were even said to have caused the French Revolution.  It was amazing driving for miles through this field with no end in sight.  Needless to stay, we stopped many times to walk around and take in the scenery.  

Eldhraun Lava Field

Eldhraun Lava Field

About 55 minutes after leaving Vik, and after 10 minutes on a bumpy gravel road, we finally reached the Fjadrargljufur canyon, which was well worth the 3-hour drive from Reykjavik.  Nicknamed the “Bieber-Canyon” by some locals after his latest music video, the canyon was luckily not too crowded.  We spent about an hour walking through the base of the canyon, which is almost 300 feet deep, as walking the marked path along the length of the rim.

Fjadrargljufur Canyon

Fjadrargljufur Canyon

Driving back to Reykjavik, we made one last obligatory stop.  About 15 minutes west of Vik, we pulled over in a dirt parking lot of about 40 cars.  Although we weren’t exactly sure we were going, we were pretty confident that this was the spot.  After parking, we crossed the road began the 2.5 mile walk towards the ocean down a dirt/gravel road, flanked by black sand on either side.  As we got closer to the beach, we saw a few people stray off the path to the left and decided to do the same.  We were glad we had, as this saved at least a few minutes on the long walk.  Finally, after close to 40 minutes, our final destination came into view - the wreckage of a DC-73 that crash landed in 1973. Rather than being removed, the plane was abandoned and is now visited by hundreds of tourists every day.  Despite the crowd (which at 15-20 other people wasn’t as bad as we had expected) the crash site is definitely worth visiting. The combination of the plane, beach, and glacier in the distance make it a truly surreal location.  In fact, it was so cool that we didn’t even mind the walk back.

DC-73 Wreckage 

DC-73 Wreckage 

On our way back we stopped in the quaint town of Selfoss for a meal at Tryggvaskali.  This charming spot is located in an old house adorned with vintage items, not to mention mention the delicious salmon.  Be sure to look out the window for a beautiful view of the Olfusa River.  Following dinner we returned to Reykjavik exhausted but thrilled that we had seen so much in just 12 hours.

Tryggvaskali's Salmon

Tryggvaskali's Salmon

One of the best things about Iceland is that so much of the country’s breathtaking sights can be explored from just one road - Route 1, known as the “ring road.”  But with the continual increase in tourists comes both an increase in cars on the road and an influx of people doing stupid things.   A few rules come to mind - don’t jump the ropes to walk on the side of a cliff; heed warnings to slow down for curves; don’t pull over with your car still in the road; and slow down or pull over to let faster cars pass.  Although these sound like common sense, we saw plenty of people failing to do all of the above.  So stay safe and enjoy all that Iceland has to offer!

-Zaz