This year we took our first real vacation in several years to Iceland, with our friends Jeremy & Jillian (who planned most of the trip), and Harris. It was the first time for either of us, and we had a great time discovering the country. The scenery was brutal and breathtaking, with huge waterfalls, fields of lava rock and grass, mountains, and glaciers.
We started and ended our trip in the capital city of Reykjavik, and rented an RV. Over the next week we traveled clockwise around the island’s outer ring road, taking lots of photos. To get a better idea of all the places we stopped you can also check out this guide we made from all our stops.
Day 1: Reykjavik
Sunday, September 5th, 2021
After getting in on a redeye from JFK we checked into our hotel and headed to Grai Kotturinn for a cozy breakfast. The rest of the day was spent wandering the city’s downtown, checking out Hallgrímskirkja Church, and meeting some friendly neighborhood cats.
We got dinner at Apotek, a fancy hotel restaurant right next to our own hotel. The atmosphere was great, although our food reviews were mixed. James had seared Arctic Char, which was served on a salt block and unfortunately tasted quite like it. Myke had a steak which was alright, but somewhat gamey.
Day 2: Snaefellsnes Peninsula
Monday, September 6th, 2021
Our first day on the road we woke up early, grabbed some coffee and breakfast at Kaffibrennslan, and headed back towards Keflavík airport to pick up our RV for the week. What we hadn’t realized when booking the trip was that the rental company only had manual transmission RVs, which neither James nor Harris knew how to drive. While Myke wasn’t thrilled, he took responsibility for driving for the week. Jeremy & Jillian had their own RV, and a similar issue, that only Jeremy knew how to drive stick.
After quickly settling our luggage and getting acquainted with our new homes we headed out to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula to see our first waterfall at Rauðfeldsgjá Gorge. The ride there was our first chance to really experience the Icelandic countryside, which didn’t disappoint. Not long after leaving the city limits the fields of grass turned into huge cliffs, with lots of small waterfalls seemingly everywhere you looked.
After the gorge we continued on to Kirkjufellsfoss, another waterfall on the northern side of the peninsula. Unlike the waterfall at Rauðfeldsgjá this one was huge (or seemed huge this early in the trip) and less than a mile from a small town. It was clearly a bigger tourist attraction with lots of cars and people all trying to get the perfect angle for their photos.
We had originally planned to visit another waterfall, but realized we were behind schedule and our campsite for the night was still five hours away. So we changed plans to quickly grab food from the nearby town and start driving. By the time we arrived it was after midnight and everyone else had gone to sleep. We pulled into a spot and hooked up as quietly as possible and went to sleep for the night.
Day 3: The Geoactive Landscape
Tuesday, September 7th, 2021
Myke woke up, somehow, early in the morning and made pancakes and eggs for the whole crew. He delivered them to Jeremy & Jillian right before we left the campground, which they said was much appreciated.
We spent the day driving across geo-active fields filled with plums of steam from natural geysers and bubbling pools of sulfuric mud and water (which looked like an alien landscape and smelled awful). We also visited three more waterfalls: Goðafoss (the Waterfall of the Gods), Dettifoss, and Selfoss; and a geothermal crater lake.
The highlight of the day was our trip to the Myvatn Nature Baths, a natural hot spring with milky blue water. After a day of hiking in cool weather and with intermittent rain it felt amazing to soak in the hot waters. This hot spring also had a poolside bar for beer and wine, which James and Harris were sure to take advantage of. We probably would have stayed there all night if we didn’t need to get back on the road to make it to our next campsite.
This night we were camping in Húsavík, and arrived just as it was getting dark. Try as we might we struggled to find an open restaurant that had space for us, eventually settling on an alright hotel restaurant. Because it was getting dark we didn’t get to do much exploring, but instead headed to our campsite to turn in early, still tired from the late night before.
Day 4: Húsavík
Wednesday, September 8th, 2021
Húsavík is known as the whale watching capital of Iceland, which was exactly what we had planned for our morning there. After waking up early we made the short drive back into town to Gentle Giants for a two hour cruise. We thought we would be pretty well prepared for the cold winds and chilly spray with our gear from Antartica, but as it turned out we were actually overdressed. The boat company provided waterproof jumpsuits for everyone and we were warned we didn’t want to wear them alongside our heavy jackets. So after dropping everything else we suited up and walked out to the boats with our group.
It took a little while out of the harbor before we saw any sea life, but then we saw a pod of white-beaked dolphins, followed by a Minke whale, which we had also seen in Antarctica. The highlight though was a huge pod of Long-Finned Pilot whales. Our guide, who was a marine biologist, told us that was a very rare sighting, especially to see so many together and in such shallow water. They breached the surface, a handful at a time, over and over. With that experience under our belt, we headed back to the marina and then to lunch.
Once again we were under a tight schedule since we needed to drive from one of the most northern cities to the southern side of island. On the way we stopped to check out Stuðlagil Canyon, a huge canyon with basalt columns along a wide river. Getting to the canyon turned out to be an adventure in its own way, as we had to drive 15 miles along a roughly paved road that shook the whole RV and gave James a headache. Still, the canyon was beautiful, and worth the trek. Jeremy & Jillian went on to check out a cute town on the eastern coast, while James, Myke, and Harris went for a hike along the other side of the canyon.
Dinner was a quick stop at a cafe in Egilsstaðir, where by coincidence we met up with Jeremy & Jillian again. It was another late night of driving, but about two hours from our campsite Myke wanted to take a break to stretch. It was so dark and clear outside that we could even see the Milky Way, and the quick stop ended up lasting several minutes while everyone appreciated the view. Eventually we had to get back on our way, arriving at Skaftafell Camping well past midnight and very tired.
Day 5: Skaftafell Glacier
Thursday, September 9th, 2021
Today we split up, with Myke and Harris going on a five hour glacier hike and Jeremy, Jillian, and James opting for a more leisurely day exploring an iceberg lagoon and beaches. The glaciers we saw definitely reminded me of the ones from Antarctica, just much smaller, but still gorgeous. And up on the glacier Myke and Harris had a lot of fun transversing dangerous crevices and exploring an ice cave.
Later on, we all met back up, but Jeremy, Jillian, and James wanted to check out a nearby waterfall while Myke and Harris were hiked out for the day, and had unfortunately gotten some blisters too. Instead they opted to make lunch back at the RV and give their feet a rest. Once everyone got back from the waterfall we went to what was basically the only nearby restaurant for dinner. As we were finding, our camping adventure was taking us far from the sparse cities, and finding food was sometimes a challenge.
Having recovered a bit from hiking, Myke and Harris wanted to check out the iceberg lagoon James had gone to earlier, so the three set off to check it out during sunset. James was surprised at just what a difference a few hours had made, as the beach which was previously dotted with icebergs was now clear, and the ice itself had shifted dramatically. The setting sun also made for some great photos.
Day 6: Vik
Friday, September 10th, 2021
After two nights at the same campsite we were anxious to get back on the road. Today we were checking out Vik (the southernmost city in Iceland), some more waterfalls, and Reynisfjara black sand beach. We actually ended up doing the day somewhat out of order, and went to the beach earlier for lunch to check out the aptly named Black Beach Restaurant on a recommendation from a friend. We also got our first taste of the fabled Skyr cake, which is a fluffy almost-cheesecake dessert.
After lunch we checked out the beach, taking our time to admire the towering basalt columns again. With their perfect hexagons they looked unnatural, despite being formed by cooling lava rock. After the beach we moved on to a pair of waterfalls – Kvernufoss and Skógafoss. The first one was tucked away behind a museum, and wasn’t even visible from the road. The latter was clearly the tourist destination, with its own parking lot and walkways. James tapped out for the second waterfall and instead took a nap, which he considers a good decision, since Myke and Harris came back from the waterfall soaking wet from its powerful spray.
On our way to the last waterfall of the day we were stopped by a herd of sheep blocking the road. We’d seen lots of sheep so far on the trip, but this was the first group we saw actively being rounded up. This time of year was the great sheep roundup where all of the farmers would go around to find the sheep who had been wandering all summer and then sort them by farmer. They used 4-wheelers to keep them on the road and chase them down the side of the mountain.
After checking out Gljúfrafoss and Seljalandsfoss, we turned around to head back into town for dinner at Sudur-Vik. Back at the campsite Myke challenged the group to a several games of Uno before everyone had to head to sleep.
Day 7: Back to Reykjavik
Thursday, September 11th, 2021
In the morning, we stopped by a coffee shop located in a converted school bus right inside the campsite grounds. Outside the aptly named Skool Beans we were greeted by the owner, who walked us through the menu and took our order. Normally guests could just go inside and enjoy a coffee in the cozy interior, but due to COVID they were only allowing four people at a time inside the bus, so we waited outside for the current occupants to get their drinks before heading inside. The coffee shop was also occupied by a local cat, although he was out doing other things when we visited.
After a week of great weather the rain had finally returned, so instead of following Jeremy & Jillian to Háifoss we opted to stop at the Lava Centre, a volcano museum and science centre in Hvolsvöllur. The centre was both dry and interesting, with interactive exhibits explaining how the island had formed and the column of lava beneath it.
After we’d exported the centre we headed out to the town of Selfoss for lunch, before meeting back up at Kerið Crater, another volcanic crater lake. Jeremy & Jillian had plans to go to Ion Adventure Hotel that night, which was full when we went to book our trip. Instead, since we had enjoyed the earlier hot springs so much, we found another nearby hot spring (Secret Lagoon, the oldest natural hot spring in Iceland) and decided to pay it a visit. Unlike Myvatn Nature Bath the water here looked like normal water, but still had a softness from the minerals. It was also smaller and less trafficked. It was a very relaxing decision, and we stayed until closing.
Before heading to our campsite we stopped by the Ion Adventure Hotel for dinner with Jeremy & Jillian before continuing on to Reykjavik. On the way we had a surprise: a bright red glowing light in the distance. At first we thought it might be some sort of artificial light on a tower, but soon realized it was a volcano erupting in the distance. We read on the news that it had just started erupting a couple days ago! If we had an extra day, we could have hiked up to it but instead, we kept on to the Hafnarfjörður campground where we spent the night.
The next morning, we woke up, got our COVID-19 rapid tests, returned the RV, and headed to the airport. The flight home went smoothly, back through JFK to SFO.