at the Water's Edge

Living life and learning all I can along the way!

8 Reasons You Should Visit Iceland

My husband, Tom, and I recently returned from an 8-day trip in Iceland. Iceland? "Why Iceland," you may ask. Iceland first came on my radar as a potential vacation destination four years ago when we were planning our trip to England, Wales and Ireland. There are several airlines that have layovers in Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, connecting the U.S. to European destinations. While it didn't work out for us to include Iceland on that trip, it remained in the back of my mind as some place that would be fun to explore. This year, we learned of some inexpensive airline tickets to Iceland, and indeed, as we considered vacation destinations in the western U.S. and Canada, we found that plane tickets to Iceland were only half the price of flying to Montana! (We discovered later that once you get there, everything is SUPER expensive. But, with a little planning you can find ways to keep your costs down.) So, without knowing a whole lot about the country, we booked a flight! Then came the research. Lots of research and planning. We had eight days to try to fit in as much of Iceland as we could, and I sure jam packed our schedule! We spent most of our time along the "Ring Road", highway 1, which circles the main part of the island -- with a couple days in the beautiful Snaefellsness Peninsula. If I can ever find the time, I hope to do a more detailed post(s) on our itinerary later, for anyone else who may be planning a trip. But, in case you need to be convinced to go there first, here are eight heavily photographed reasons that YOU should visit Iceland!

1. Waterfalls

Somebody in Iceland told us that there are 10,000 waterfalls in the country. I don't know if that's true, but I believe it! From giant thunderous falls, to multi-tiered cascades, to whispy streams plummeting off mountainside cliffs, there are waterfalls seemingly everywhere. There was a time hiking in Colorado where we joked about being sick of waterfalls because they were everywhere, and I wondered if we would feel like that in Iceland. But, we didn't. Each waterfall was so unique that it was a wonder all its own. My niece asked me recently, prior to our trip, what my favorite waterfall I'd seen was. I didn't have a good answer for her - maybe something in Hawaii. I'm not sure I have a good answer now, but it's almost certainly one of these beauties from Iceland. I will say, however, that some of the big and touristy waterfalls right off the Ring Road are not nearly as beautiful as the smaller random falls we stumbled across in our road trip around the country. Others, although touristy, were absolutely worth visiting! We visited at least 10 waterfalls that actually had posted names at the site, and saw countless others along the roadside from the car. Here are some of my favorites.




Roadside Falls


2. Rainbows

There is definitely something about Iceland that tempts one to use the word "magical" when describing the place. From the unique landscape, dark rocks, green mosses and beautiful shorelines, it's easy to see why. But one of the most "magical" things about Iceland to me was that there seemed to be a rainbow following us around everywhere we went! This is the one benefit to the fact that it was often raining either where we were or somewhere nearby. We get rainbows in Michigan, and I've seen a number of beautiful ones, but nothing compares to the ones we saw in Iceland. Not only were they bright, but they would appear in the most picturesque settings. I could not have placed the rainbows better had I chosen where they should be. Arching over a mountain peak. Extending from a cliffside into the ocean. A full arch along the country pastures. They were stunning and perfect in every way. I knew there were often rainbows that would show up through the waterfalls, but no where did I read about so many rainbows in the sky. Perhaps we were just lucky.

Arnarstapi Cliff Walk

Random mountain peak in the south

Somewhere near the turnoff for the West Fjords

Taken by our hitchhiker friend, Rodrigo

3. Glaciers

Seeing a glacier has been on my bucket list since I was a kid. I'm not quite sure why I was fascinated with them, but I was. The glaciers carved out our Great Lakes and much of the landscape in Michigan, but the glaciers themselves are long since gone. In Iceland, you can see the effects of glaciers on the landscape, as well as the still frozen (and melting) glaciers themselves. One of the few paid tours we did in Iceland was a Glacier Hike and Ice Climbing on the glacier. We hiked up part of Falljökull (falling glacier), and it was probably even cooler than I imagined. The glacier ice is often blue, supposedly due to it being so compacted that there's not much air in it compared to regular ice -- and so it reflects mostly blue light. What a bright and beautiful blue! There are fresh streams of glacier water running through various places, and it may be the freshest, purest water you'll ever taste. We filled up a couple of water bottles along the way! The glacial marvels don't stop on the glacier, however. Tom's favorite place in Iceland was Jökulsárlón, or Glacier Lagoon, where pieces of glacier break off into a lake, creating a lagoon filled with icebergs and really cool ice formations. Just across the street from this lagoon is what is known as Diamond Beach, where the glacial ice chunks meet the ocean, and the waves recede along the black sand beach to reveal crystal clear diamond-like pieces of ice in all sorts of unique shapes. I don't know where else in the world you can see something like this! And, then, of course, was the famed Snæfellsjökull - the glacier volcano that was the setting for Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth. We had a view of the glacier form our last lodging in Arnarstapi, and you can actually drive up the mountain/volcano to just about where the glacier starts. It was a scary drive, but cool to see!

Ice Climbing

Diamond Beach 
Diamond Beach





4. Canyons

Perhaps not as well known among the geological features of Iceland are some really cool canyons. I had several on my itinerary, one of which was really off the beaten path, one that has become a pretty popular tourist destination (and you'll see why!) with marked walking paths, and one that was part of a national park. The first was Sigöldugljufur, located in a more remote and harder to get to location -- with no signs. You just have to know where to find it. We found it, but went the wrong way to the lookout point and ended up going to the bottom of the canyon first! It was indeed quite beautiful with a bright blue stream along the bottom and moss covered rocks strewn along the canyon floor. On section of the canyon walls has multiple waterfalls streaming down it, too. The second was one of my favorite spots in Iceland -- Fjaðrárgljúfur. Also, I was very proud that when I tried pronouncing this word to a native, he actually understood what I was trying to say! And he told me that it means Feather River Canyon (you'll notice most place names in Iceland are descriptors of the location and squished together into a single word, which is why the words are so dang long). It was just a short ways off of the ring road, easy to access and easily one of the most beautiful sights we saw there. The rocky walls of the canyon jut out in crazy formations along either side. The third canyon visit was quite different from what I expected due to my own error. We were headed to Ásbyrgi canyon, which is part of the Jökulsárgljúfur national park. It was part of a long driving day and I meant to go to this spot where there's a short little hike to a pond. But, unbeknownst to me, we parked in the wrong spot. We followed some trail for a while that was supposed to have a "pond view", but soon discovered a little path leading right up the canyon wall! Of course, we had to take it. They had a ladder and ropes to assist, but Tom didn't need them! (Don't worry, Mom. It was mostly safe and not that high.) It ended up being an awesome little hike with no other people in sight.






5. Volcanoes

Certainly one thing that makes Iceland unique from most other places on earth is all of the volcanic activity. Besides seeing the volcanoes themselves (many of them topped with glaciers) and the volcanic craters, there is evidence of the volcanoes everywhere. From the geothermally heated water (and homes!) across the country, to steam vents in the ground that constantly spew out sulphurous vapors, to geysers. The volcanoes have shaped much of the landscape in the country and combined with the glacial activity, it is truly unlike anything I've ever seen. There are some places in Iceland that can only be described as otherworldly. I first had this sense that I was no longer on earth as we were driving from the East to the North of Iceland. We started at the base of a fjord and worked our way up into the mountains, back down into a small town and through some countryside...and all of a sudden...nothing. No more sheep. No more vegetation. Just black and grey volcanic rock everywhere you looked. It seemed like we had arrived at some barren, uninhabited rock planet. Then there's the  Námafjall Geothermal Area where there are large puddles of boiling gray mud. Seriously. How are we still on earth? The mineral deposits from the volcanic vents make the ground a crazy red and white that makes me think of Mars. Because there's so much geothermally heated water in the country, many of the places we stayed had naturally heated hot tubs - no electricity! And we went to the Mývatn Nature Baths where the water is not just naturally hot, but full of minerals that are supposed to be very good for your skin. What a beautiful setting for an outdoor giant "hot pool" spa!


Volcanic wasteland

Námafjall Geothermal Area

Krafla Viti Crater

In some places the ground literally cracked open

Mývatn Nature Baths

6. Rocks & Mountains

One of the things I was most looking forward to on our trip was a hike at Landmannalaugar. There is an awesome 3-5 day hike that a lot of people do in the region that we just didn't have the time or equipment for this trip, so I settled for a short 2-hour loop hike. We had to drive a crazy dirt road to get there (one of the so-called "F" roads) that requires 4-wheel drive. Tom navigated around many pot holes, but also these mud puddles lakes that took up the entire road! It was a cool drive to get there, but the hike was unbelievable. Again, the volcanic activity leaves mineral deposits, coloring the mountains in various shades of red and blue and green. The colorful mountains were absolutely beautiful, with snow-topped peaks showing even further in the distance. There was also a section of this trail that seemed to me like the road to Mordor! Awesome and crazy lava rock formations stuck out of the ground and there were steam vents that lent a bit of an eerie look. We drove through several mountainous areas, each one with its own look and vibe. Many of the peaks around Akureryi (the only other decent size city outside of the capital) in the North were covered in snow, and it's supposedly a great spot for skiing in the winter. If we had more time, we could have done some other really awesome mountain hikes, I'm sure. The rocky landscape all around is also amazingly beautiful. The volcanic rocks are often dark and provide a great contrast to the greenery and (if you're lucky) blue sky. Many areas have these beautiful basalt columns, as well, that look carved out rather than natural!

Landmannalaugar - Brennisteinsalda / Sulphur Wave Trail

Road to Mordor?

Reynisdrangar - Reynisfjara Beach

7. Fjords

Fjords are one of the very unique features of the shoreline in Iceland. These sunken glacier valleys form crazy long arms of land that jut out into the sea, with a long, narrow inlet of water between them. It was a particular landscape feature that I was interested in seeing, and we got to traverse a few! While we didn't make it into the Westfjords (a peninsula of Iceland in the west that is in many ways off on its own), we did drive across the isthmus that connects it to the west of Iceland and saw some of the other fjords there, as well as in the east. What a beautiful coastline it is! Besides the coastline, moving inland from the innermost section of a fjord in the east also gave us some really stunning scenery. We were on dry land, but in that same glacial valley, making our way up. There were mountains on either side of us, with tiers or ridges along the way up, covered with green grasses, mosses and low growing shrubs, and with waterfalls streaming down the mountain walls everywhere.  For those interested in going to Iceland, this is where we diverted from the ring road and took 939 inward and upward from the end of Berufjörður -- and I highly recommend this drive (though, to be fair, we missed what I'm sure were some other beautiful coastline along the Ring Road). If you have time to visit the Westfjords, I hear that is stunning, as well.

View from the car window - somewhere in the North/West

One of the first things we saw making our way up the mountain from the base of the fjord

8. Food & Culture

While we didn't get as much into the culture or meet as many locals as we would have liked, I enjoyed what we did experience. Iceland is a very safe country (safe enough for hitchhiking -- and we picked up several--another adventure in itself!) and people are very friendly on the whole. The language there includes many letters that don't exist in the English alphabet and sounds that my mouth is not quite sure how to make. I originally wanted to learn some phrases in Icelandic before we left, but when that proved difficult, I opted for just trying to be able to pronounce our destinations with enough degree of accuracy so as to be understood! It's quite a beautiful language, though, a softer tongue than I originally imagined -- and even when they are speaking English, as nearly everyone--thankfully--does, their words seemed somehow more rounded, less harsh than my American English. While tourism is now the dominant industry, the fishing scene is still lively and there are still many sheep farmers in the country -- one of whom we had the pleasure of staying with for a night. Most of the country is sparsely populated and dotted with small towns and villages -- and lots of sheeps. It's lovely. We stopped at a few small town cafes and stayed in small towns most nights, outside of one night in Reykjavik and one night in Akureyri. Yet, wherever we went, we were able to find good food! You should know that everything in Iceland is very expensive (hey, what do you expect on an island just south of the Arctic Circle?), and food and drinks are no exception. We bought groceries and gas station sandwiches (they were actually quite good!) for most of our breakfasts and lunches. But each night, we ate out for dinner. As you might imagine, they have a lot of seafood and lamb -- and it's all amazing. I'm not normally a huge fan of either, but when it's fresh and well prepared, even cod can be amazing. From fish soup, to lamb stew, to reindeer sliders, we tried quite a bit that was out of the ordinary for us! The dairy is also wonderful -- we had some deliciously creamy homemade ice cream and tried skyr -- the Icelandic yogurt-like soft cheese. They whip it up with sugar for dessert dishes, and make skyr cake like a lighter, fluffier cheesecake. All delicious, and I even tried my hand at making some of my own once we got home! On the whole, I loved Iceland. Though a little too cold and a little too remote to want to live there, I'd love to go back to visit and would highly recommend this trip to anyone who loves an adventure!

Geothermal power is also big there - check out this power plant! 
View from one of our rental homes

Skyr dessert

Cod dish
A lovely cafe in Hellnar

Surf 'n Turf - Lamb Chops & Langoustine

My favorite road trip snack from the gas station!

Bonus: Cool Animals!

I cannot go without mentioning the beautiful animals that dominate much of the landscape. I love seeing sheep dotting the countryside, and the Icelandic horses are truly a special breed. We did manage to see a few puffins and seals as well!

I mean, seriously. Best. Horses. Ever. Plus, they tolt!


My horse for the hour

Most photogenic sheep in Iceland

This guy wanted to come with us!

Goodbye, seals! Goodbye, Iceland - we miss you already!

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Hi there! My name is Dana and I live in West Michigan with my husband, Tom and our dog Copernicus. I created this space as a place to share the things I learn along this journey I call life. I work in marketing and I'm a sort of Jane of All Trades, interested in all things nature, gardening, cooking, exploring and learning new things. This blog is a conglomeration of my interests, hobbies, life and life lessons. Thanks for stopping by!