Hitting headlines (remember the mammoth volcanic ash cloud that grounded flights across Europe?), topping bucket lists, and wooing nature lovers across the continents, Iceland is unquestionably the adventure junkie’s paradise.
From the distant western fjords to the desolate burnt shores of the south via the stunning geothermal pools and glittering glaciers of the highlands, Mother Nature has planned no finale for this otherworldly northern island marooned in between the roars of the Atlantic and the chilly gusts of the Arctic. Why is everyone endlessly talking about the place? A symphony of elements nestled deep within this Nordic nirvana continues to draw in the crowds. For those few left in the world waiting to discover it, Iceland is, literally, a vast volcanic laboratory still in the making: geysers burst their acidic chasms, earthquakes rumble the ground, mighty lava fields scramble the precipice, ice-capped volcanoes blow mighty ashes and a Tolkien-esque tundra of lush waterfall flecked landscapes make this land of ice and fire one of the most dramatic on the planet.
With such diversity on offer, it’s near impossible to cover Iceland’s mighty terrain during a single vacation. One moment you could find yourself descending the depths of a volcano and then hiking the geothermal pools of the bewitching Blue Lagoon. Most amazing of all, though, is the fact that even on the hotbed tourist trails it’s still possible to find yourself utterly alone amongst all the noise. Here, we go on a journey lasting three days, exploring some of Iceland’s most adventurous destinations along the south western and eastern coast.
Start early on the road and begin your Icelandic adrenaline pilgrimage through the winding roads of the Reykjanes Peninsula, one of the country’s least explored coastlines and a short 40-minute drive away from Keflavik airport. At first glance it’s one giant desolate panorama of nothingness, but beneath the electric green moss lies millions of years of geological history. Essentially one giant lava field, NASA experts say this part of the world best resembles the surface of the moon.
The Bridge Between Two Continents is the best place to kick things off. Fire scarred and scorched by diamond black sands, cross Leif the Lucky's Bridge from the European tectonic plate to the North American plate and take sights of the earth’s crust literally taking shape before your eyes. Nearby there’s Gunnuhver, home to boiling geothermal reservoirs and sulphide rich (yes, it smells here) mud pools. Tip: don’t touch the water—it’s literally liquid acid. The pools continue further up into the hills of Kleifarvatn. These boiling puddles form a pretty epic hike lakeside and offers dazzling views over the peninsula and Lake Kleifarvatn, said to be home to a giant monster worm whose only foe is a lost whale.
Stop for lunch at Café Bryggjan, a local and very casual favorite restaurant famed for their bottomless lobster soup (it’s very good) in the fishing town of Grindavík before heading north towards the Blue Lagoon. While not every hiking nomad has this Iceland bucket list icon on their adventure to-do list, the best reason to visit now is to experience the increased earthquake activity. ‘The ground is constantly moving’ my guide tells me as we head for the Retreat at the Blue Lagoon. As soon as we enter the hotel another man also warns ‘don’t be alarmed if you feel the ground shake…we only have medium quakes here.’ I raise my eyebrows in suspicion. Wedged in between tectonic plates and a chain of dormant and active volcanoes, scientists predict many of the lava spewers in the area are overdue an eruption. Until the ground shakes and the earth spews volcanic ash, relax in the plush spa at the Retreat at The Blue Lagoon or go selfie wild amongst the jagged edges of the azure shallows, beer or wine in hand.
Wake up early and head for Thrihnukagigur, a now dormant volcano thirty minutes outside Reykjavik in Bláfjöll Country Park. Hike 45 minutes—or take a helicopter in from Reykjavik—from base camp through ancient lava fields and you can get an up-close-and-personal view of all the havoc it wreaked 4,000 years ago. Amazingly, Thrihnukagigur is the only volcano in the world where you can descend 700 feet below ground to visit its ancient magma chamber and lava tubes. Deep enough to swallow the Statue of Liberty whole, once you reach the floor an expert guide will show you around the belly of the fiery beast pointing out everything from razor sharp rocks to its kaleidoscope walls decorated in purples, reds, blues, blacks, and yellows.
Once you’ve hiked back to base camp, hit the road and head inland towards Thingvellir National Park to snorkel or scuba the Silfra Fissure. Book a private excursion with Magmadive and they’ll have you jumping in the freezing water in no time. Though the chill will shock you to the core, the crazy-clear views of the water will help keep your mind focused as you literally float between two plates of the earth.
Escape the chill for Þingvellir National Park, AKA No Man’s Land, and one of Iceland’s three World Heritage Sites on the mainland. Several scenes of the early seasons of Game of Thrones were filmed here—think intense Jon Snow-related exchanges featuring Ygritte and Tormund—for its endless valleys and rock formations. Aside from its starring role in the hit HBO drama, the real draw of Þingvellir is that you can see nature in action. Iceland is the only place in the world where the plates of the Mid-Atlantic rift can be seen above sea-level, and yes, it’s possible to walk through all the geological wonders here. The plates move apart—slowly tearing the country to pieces—every year and are littered with ravines, ripped open by centuries of earthquakes and tremors that continue to shake the region on a near enough daily basis.
After, drive towards Geyser to check out its namesake scorching attraction. It blows roughly every five minutes, so the viewing opportunities are endless. Scramble up the hill and you’ll get the perfect view of all the geothermal pools (signs warning not to get too close are around, though if you stay behind the lines, it’s all perfectly safe). Get back in your wheels and drive toward Gullfoss, home of the mighty waterfall of the same name. Park at the top and make your way down to get some seriously awesome panoramic views over the falls. Don’t be afraid to go right up to it, just beware of the mighty crosswinds and spray.
Spend the night at the Torfhus retreat. It’s wildly remote and in the perfect spot to see the northern lights in the pitch black, from your bed or in your very own geothermal pool. The hotel is also within easy reach of the Icelandic highlands, the home of wild landscapes, lava streams and ice sheets, and there’s also a farm home to 50 drop dead gorgeous Icelandic horses to gush over.
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Begin by exploring the Golden Circle, Iceland’s iconic watery hinterland. Fed by mammoth volcanic glaciers, it’s here you’ll find the immense Seljalandsfoss and the mighty Skógafoss waterfalls. Unsurprisingly it’s wet here so turn up wearing a poncho and some seriously good waterproof boots as you’ll want to scurry across the rocks and stairs that take you up to and behind the falls for that shot. After you’ve finished snapping, ditch the crowds and walk about half a mile down the path along the campground to the lesser known Gljúfrabúi waterfall. Smaller than its neighbors, for what it lacks in size it makes up for in magic. Word of warning: you’ll have to scurry over some seriously wet and shifty rocks to climb into the cave that houses the falls, but once you’re in, your efforts will be instantly rewarded with an up-close view that’s totally worth it—rainbows shooting every direction included.
Once you’ve dried off, continue along the southern coast to one of Iceland’s most Instagrammed spots: Reynisfjara, home to the black beaches of the South Shore. Sea stacks rise on all corners and legend has it that the moody basalt columns protruding from the darkness were once trolls that had been turned to stone during an intense battle back in the Viking days. Whether you believe in folklore or not, the major challenge here is the weather. Winds can reach hurricane force in parts and the gusts are so wild I often had to hold onto the cliffs just to balance. Stop to see the immense basalt columns (a crazy looking volcanic phenomenon) and at low tide marvel at the dragon skin-like walls of Reynisdrangar’s cave. Swimming? Not advised. The sands lead to sheer and extremely jagged cliff drops in the water, and as mentioned, the winds literally tear the place to shreds even on the best of days.
To get an idea of just how vast these beaches are, drive or hike up to Dyrhólaey, a rocky promontory five minutes west of Reynisfjara. If you’re brave enough to face the fierce zephyrs, the lighthouse observation viewing platform dons insane views of the cliffs, beaches, Katla, one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes, and glaciers Sólheimajökull and Eyjafjallajökull. Speaking of glaciers, visit one while you’re here. Sólheimajökull is the most accessible from the beaches and can be done on foot, sled, or quad bike. The incredible forces of the ice flow have formed breath-taking mountainous landscapes, glistening blue caves, and rugged rock formations since the last Ice Age 11,700 years ago.
If you’ve got it in you, head further east to Vatnajökull National Park. Known for its massive glaciers, ice caves, snowy mountain peaks, active geothermal areas and rivers, the region plays host to Jökulsárlón, a glacial lagoon with icebergs, and the Svartifoss and Dettifosis waterfalls, the latter Europe’s most second powerful fall. If you can stomach it, camp here before heading back home, though be warned, temperatures can fall as low as 14°F.