Iceland is becoming a more and more popular travel destination, and I think it’s a good thing, as long as tourists respect the fragile and sensitive environment you can find over there, especially in the Highlands. People deserve to experience this magical place and enjoy raw nature at its best. It’s a unique experience you will never forget :-) Is Iceland only about the blue lagoon, the Golden circle, the Jökulsárlón or Reykjavik? Of course not, but it’s true that the South of Iceland is easier to visit, especially for short trips, so these places come first to mind when people are talking about Iceland. You can find so many tours that give you a nice overview of the South, from hot springs, to waterfalls, passing by icebergs, but there is often more to see and experience than what is usually proposed by tour operators. So why not renting a car and explore the area by yourself? Of course I encourage you to visit all these major landmarks of the South mentioned above, but for people who like to go a bit off the beaten tracks, I have also some nice places to recommend in this region, not too far away from the main sights… it would be a shame to miss them right ?! :-)
#1 Hafnaberg Cliffs
It is a nice bird cliff made of basaltic layers of lava forming ledges on its surface, located a few kilometers from the Keflavik Airport terminal. To get there, you have to take Road 41 before turning right onto road 44 at the sign for Hafnir. Once you spot a parking as well as a sign saying “Hafnabergi”, you can park your car and walk to the bird cliff. It is a popular spot among bird watchers and it’s common to see puffins over there. The vegetation is also nice, don’t forget to look down ;-) One drawback ? The walk to the cliff is quite long, at least 45 minutes to reach the edge.
#2 Krýsuvíkurberg Cliffs
Located close to Grindavik, it can easily be combined with a visit to the Blue Lagoon. From Grindavik, take road 43 then the first road on the left going towards Þorlákshöfn. Drive until you spot a sign saying “Krýsuvíkurbjarg”. It is an ideal spot for bird nesting and if you are lucky you can even see some puffins, depending the season you are visiting. This colorful cliff is the largest bird cliff you can find in the South. One drawback? A regular car won’t be able to reach the cliffs as you have to cross a little river…. The wind can also be really strong over there. Better to explore this place under good climatic conditions.
The South of Iceland is famous for its waterfalls, especially Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss waterfalls. Urriðafoss is often missed by tourists who are in a hurry, but this hidden gem is quite gorgeous, with the water flowing over a strong rock platform. It’s a perfect spot to have lunch, avoiding the crowds but enjoying Iceland’s at its best. Located on the iconic road 1, you just have to turn on a gravel road just before/after the Þjórsá River depending on which way you are coming from. One drawback ? Not really, it’s easy to find.
When visiting the famous Reynisfjara Beach, with its black pebble beach sand and the amazing basalt sea stacks, you must drive past a very nice looking church, Reyniskirkja. It’s worth to stop and visit the graveyard. You have nice views from there, especially of Mt. Reynisfjal. The church has been built against Mt. Reynisfjall and in the evening, it can be very pretty. One drawback ? Not really, it’s easy to find.
If you are driving on road 1 towards Skaftafell National Park, or if you are coming back to Reykjavik from Skaftafell, you will drive in front of a lava ridge surrounded by stone cairns, between the Hólmsá and Skálmá rivers. Everyone passing by it for the first time is supposed to add a stone to bring good luck on his/her journey. The parking area has great views over the Katla, the Mýrdalsjökull and the Kötlujökull glaciers, when sky is clear. One drawback ? Not that I can think of…maybe the size of the parking ?
#6 Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon
This canyon was created by progressive erosion due to flowing water from glaciers through the rocks over the years. It can be reached from above or by walking beside the river, if you have time, I encourage you to enjoy the two viewpoints. It can be easily missed as it is not on the ring road. To reach it, you have to drive towards Lakagígjar (Road F206). When you arrive at a fork, do not take the right turn to Laki instead you should continue straight on and you will reach the parking area. One drawback ? Impossible to go there with a regular car without risking serious damages since you have to take the road F206 leading to Lakagígjar.
This quite interesting structure is made of flat basalt columns, also know as “The Church Floor“. The rocks were eroded and shaped by glaciers and waves and it really looks like it has been craft by mankind. At the Kirkjubaejarklaustur round-about, take the direction to Geirland. On the left side, you will see a small parking lot with a small sign saying “Kirkjugólf“. Open the fence, take the path and you won’t miss it ! :-) One drawback ? The parking lot is quite small, can be very busy during summer.
#8 The bridge remains at Skeiðarársandur
Skeidararsandur is a sand plain made of alluvial deposits. This area is mostly devoid of vegetation, making the landscape very desolate and amazing at the same time. The only bit of colour is coming from these interesting twisted remains of a bridge that was broken down after a volcanic eruption nearly 20 years ago. The colours are quite stricking with the glacier as a background. One drawback ? I think this is becoming a quite popular spot. Soon, you won’t have the place for yourself anymore ;-)
#9 Ingólfshöfði Cape
This is a wonderful spot if one wishes to spot puffins. To go there, take the road marked “Ingólfshöfði 2 km” situated off the ring road, roughly 1/2 hour drive East of Skaftafell and 1/2 hour drive West of the Jökulsárlón. You will arrive at a small parking, with pic nic tables and toilets, as well as the Local guide Travel service office. It’s impossible to reach the Nature Reserve by car, but the Local Guide travel service will take you in a tractor and drive you accross the six kilomoters of marshes and sands. You will be dropped at the base of the giant sand dune and all you have to do is to climb to be able to see the birds :-) Better to check timetable and availibility on their website. One drawback ? Not accessible during the nesting season and you have to book a tour to go there, but it’s really cheap. It can be challenging to climb the dune, not suitable for everyone.
Hoffellsjökull is probably a less visited glacial tongue of the Vatnajökull glacier located in the South. In the past, it was a popular place to gather ice to chill the seafood in Höfn. Due to climate change, the glacier has retreated a lot throughout the years and is therefore not the most accessible one. The road to get there is quite long and bumpy. It is a quiet area, we were the only one there last time we visited. One drawback ? Very bumpy ride, not recommended for regular car.
I hope you enjoyed this non exhaustive list. We’ve visited all these places and we really enjoyed ourselves. I know there must be other hidden gems, so if you know nice places, please free to share ideas :-)