Day 2: Driving the Ring Road in Iceland | Vik to Höfn
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On our second day on the Ring Road in Iceland, we continued heading east along the south coast towards the fishing village of Höfn. Only a 205 km drive straight, it took 10 hours with all of the amazing stops in between. We drove through drastically changing terrains from a lava field covered in moss to glaciers. We ended the day with an exhilarating snowmobile ride on a glacier while it snowed. A highlight of our trip, for sure.
We got an early start to the day, around 6 am, and set off on the road. The earlier you can get on the road, the better you will be. Most sights do not get busy until mid-day. If you are traveling in the summer, make use of the 24 hours of sunlight. It took nearly 30 minutes before we saw another car on the road and our first couple stops we had entirely to ourselves.
Eldhraun is largest lava field in the world and feels a bit out-of-this-world. It is an expansive area of land with lava rocks covered in moss that you will drive through for miles on the Ring Road. All of the rough edges of the lava rock are softened by the thick layer of green moss, which gets greener with rain. Lucky for us, since it rained all day. Eldhraun has its origins from a devasting 1783 eruption.
There is a spot to view the lava fields with space for parking on Route 1 and a short raised trail to a viewing platform. You can find the stop on Google Maps by searching “Þjóðvegur Rest Stop” or using the coordinates 63.746608, -18.161295.
DO NOT sTEP ON THE MOSS!
Always stay on the well labeled trails and away from living moss. This moss is very sensitive and easily damageable by footprints or tires. It takes hundreds of years to grow back. Most of the signs around Iceland that restrict hikers are for the nature's safety, not the hiker's. There is a common saying of "take only photos, leave only footprints" when you travel. This is not true at Elhraun, where even footprints can cause harm.
TIME SPENT: 15 Minutes
A striking and massive canyon, fjaðrárgljúfur was formed 2 million years ago during the ice age after progressive erosion from flowing waterfalls. The canyon is 100m deep and 2km long, with a small stream flowing through it. There is a trail to hike along above the canyon and a way to get down to the base. Work is been done to maintain the site and repair the damage that has already been done to the flora.
You can get to the canyon by taking Road 206 off of the Ring Road. This will be one of the first of many gravel roads you will go on, but take it slow and any type of car will do.
TIME SPENT: 45 Minutes
SKAFTAFELL/VATNAJÖKULL NATIONAL PARK
Vatnajökull is the largest glacier in Europe, covering 10% of Iceland's landmass. Vatnajökull National Park covers even more as it includes both the glacier and land surrounding it. It was recently nominated to be included as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The national park is made up of several areas, including Skaftafell. The skaftafell area has a couple quick hikes, one to Svatifoss waterfall and another to the base of the glacier. We chose the Svatifoss route, a 5.5km round trip hike that takes about 2 hours. Svartifoss – meaning black falls – is a gorgeous waterfall that cascades over basalt columns. The hike is easy but all uphill on the way to the falls. Even with the chilly temperatures, we had to strip off a couple of our outer layers.
Both hikes start at the Skaftafell Visitor Center, where you pay for parking and can go to the bathroom or buy food.
Parking: $5.50 or 600 isk
TIME SPENT: 2 HOURs
JÖKULSÁRLÓN GLACIAL LAGOON
The Jewel of the South Coast. If you are only visiting the south coast on your Iceland adventure, you must make it to Jökulsárlón before turning around. Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon is a lake that is connected to the ocean by a short river between two black sand banks. On the other side of the lake is the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier head, part of the massive Vatnajökull glacier. Large icebergs breaking off the glacier drift out to the ocean. Most of these icebergs are pretty slow moving but as you go closer to the ocean, you might see smaller icebergs being carried off. Also, be on the lookout for seals!
The lagoon only appeared around 80 years ago as the glacier has been melting, and has only gotten bigger.
It is an incredibly surreal place to visit. No matter how beautiful, pictures in no way do this place justice. The icebergs are bigger than you can imagine and seemingly sit so peacefully on the reflective blue water.
Right across the street from the lagoon is Diamond Beach. Resting on this beach are icebergs that stand out like diamonds against the black sand. You can get up close to various sizes of icebergs.
Don't worry about what time of the year you are visiting, the lagoon and beach are magnificent in all seasons. We could have spent half the day there, but we had an excursion out on the glacier scheduled for 2 pm.
TIME SPENT: 1 HOUR
VATNAJÖKULL Glacier Snowmobiling
If you are visiting in summer, you likely won't get too many chances to be up close and personal with ice or glaciers. All of the ice caves melt in spring and all of the lower altitude snow is gone. You can hike to the base of the glacier at Skaftafell, or boat between icebergs at Jökulsárlón. Neither match up to the experience of actually being on a glacier. There are quite a few tours you can book to get you out on the glacier. Snowmobiling is probably the most expensive. It is also the most thrilling.
The experience starts down at sea level where you get into their super jeeps and head up a mountain road. If you are even slightly afraid of heights, this experience is terrifying at times. The road starts off fine, just a bit bumpy and small river crossing. About a fourth of the way, you pass a delightful sign that says IMPASSABLE. Perfect. Might as well just swerve and drive around that. The rest of the road, while incredibly scenic, is practically vertical. Even if you are scared, look out the window. While driving up the mountain, you see the incredible valley that resulted from the retreating glacier. Our driver pointed out where many movies and TV shows were filmed in this area – including several scenes for Game of Thrones and Batman. The Glacier Jeep company was hired to drive up the actors and props. Near the end of the drive, you start to see snow and then the glacier. The massive and extremely impressive glacier.
The road ends at their base camp. We had a chance to use the bathroom and they gave us extra layers to put on. Despite it snowing (rare for June), we were plenty warm while on the glacier. We were snowmobiling for at least an hour. We had a few chances to stop, walk around, start a snowball fight. By the way, this was some of the best snowball making snow. It costs less to share a snowmobile, but they do give you a chance to switch drivers. While snowmobiling, you do have to follow in the same tracks as everyone else. This is because the glacier has several deep crevices, moving out of the path may mean tumbling down a few hundred meters. We only had 3 snowmobilers in our group get stuck or flip, which apparently is pretty good.
Once we made it back to base camp, we took the same road back down to our cars. The ride down was a bit better, solely due to a thick fog which prevented me from seeing just how far down we would go if we took one of the switchbacks too wide.
While the price is a bit steep, we found the whole experience worth it. We got to experience mountain-roading and glacier-roading.
Cost: $230 pp
TIME SPENT: 3.5 HOURs
Another 40-minute drive took us to the town of Höfn and our Airbnb (use this link for $40 off your first stay). Airbnb has been banned in Höfn, but a few properties were grandfathered in and can still accept guests.
Höfn is a quaint Icelandic fishing town located on a peninsula. It is a great place to walk around, especially around the harbor area at the end of the peninsula. There are beautiful views of the lagoon and sea that surrounds Höfn.
Like the rest of our trip, we ate in for dinner. This was our only Airbnb that lacked a hot plate, so we enjoyed some microwavable noodles and apples.
So now that you know what we saw, why don't you watch it:
What we skipped:
boat or Kayak in Jökulsárlón Lagoon
While we had a great time walking around Jökulsárlón lagoon, you can get a completely different insight actually being in the lagoon. You can either boat or kayak between the floating icebergs. We skipped this experience only due to time and the snowmobiling adventure we already had planned.
Skaftafellsjökull Glacier hike in Vatnajökull National Park
While in Skaftafell, there are two popular hikes. We took the longer one towards Svatifoss waterfall. The other takes about an hour round-trip and gets you to the base of Skaftafellsjökull glacier. If we had more time, we would have loved to do both hikes.
How can you explore the South coast without a rental car?
The south coast has some of the most beautiful scenery in all of Iceland. It is also an easy area to visit as a day trip from Reykjavik. We saw several bus tours along our drive that allowed visitors to see the sights without worrying about a car. One of the best tour companies in Iceland is Iceland Travel. They have many tours or special excursions all around Iceland.