When we were originally planning our trip to Iceland I knew that I wanted to do the Golden Circle and South Iceland tours that were offered through Gray Line. I purposely booked the South Iceland tour for our last day because it was the part I was most looking forward to. I’d say I did the right thing because this set up saved the best for last. I’ve broken down our time on the South Iceland tour into two blog posts because there is just too much to write about to try to fit it all into one. Up first: Skogafoss Waterfall and the Sólheimajökull Glacier.
Just like the Golden Circle tour we had done the day before, Gray Line picked us up at bus stop #8 which was located right next to Hallgrimskirkja. The biggest difference with this tour was that it was about 3 hours longer and there were only 8 of us on the bus which meant we had a smaller vehicle and less tourists to fight through to see the stops. The smaller group also meant that we were able to talk with and get to know our fellow tour goers. Our group consisted of individuals from Italy, Estonia, The Netherlands, Mexico, Ireland, and, of course, The United States of America. It was certainly interesting to be able to learn about life in other countries and I made sure to ask the girl from Estonia about the amount of vacation days given to their workers. 40 days. That’s how many vacation days she receives per year. It was rather embarrassing to admit that the US does not have a minimum vacation day requirement and most workers are lucky to receive 10.
Anyways, on to South Iceland. The first part of our tour consisted of driving through the beautiful countryside and many small towns. Our first stop, Skogafoss, was about a two hour drive from Reykjavik but there was no time to be bored with the drive when surrounded by such natural beauty. I’ll admit, this whole tour I was like an excited puppy dog, eyes glued to the passing landscape that changed so quickly from lava rock to green hills and then glacier topped volcanoes.
The landscape was dotted with colorful and capturing sights and I was afraid of missing out on seeing anything on our journey. Now before I get to the main stops on our South Iceland tour I will mention that I would like to give Iceland another title: The land of giants. The size of the waterfalls and cliffs were intimidating and seemed massive when standing beside them, but when you stepped back- far back- and took in the whole picture of the landscape you realized that the massive waterfall that we had just ventured under is tiny compared to the volcano & glacier from which the water originates. Of course I knew that these sights in Iceland were going to be bigger than anything I had seen back in the states, but it was almost incomprehensible the size of the natural formations around us when you were standing next to them.
After two hours in the small tour bus we arrived at our first stop, Skogafoss. Much like the stops on our Golden Circle tour the parking lot for Skogafoss was filled but there was enough to see and do here that I never felt like the crowds ultimately took away from the sight. The first thing I did when we embarked on our short walk to Skogafoss from the parking lot was go to the river from which the waterfall let out. While most people hugged the riverside to take their photos we ventured out into the middle of the river. I quickly realized that my hiking boots were in fact waterproof which made my decision to brave the cold glacial water that much better. Some tourists did try to copy our adventurous spirit by wading into the river, however I was surprised to find that a good amount of the visitors here had worn simple tennis shoes or even flip flops. South Iceland tip: don’t wear tennis shoes or flip flops.
Walking closer to the falls the beautiful landscape with the green hills and blue sky turned into a thunderous roar with a powerful rainstorm of water. There weren’t too many tourists at the closest point of land near the falls and that’s because you will get soaking wet. If you planned accordingly with your hiking boots and rain jacket then standing this close won’t be a problem, in fact it will be an incredible experience. So two tips for the base of Skogafoss: Walk in the river and get as close to the waterfall as you can.
The coolest thing about Skogafoss though are the stairs that lead from the base of the waterfall to the top where you can hike along the river that leads from the glacier topped volcano to Skogafoss. We were not able to hike all along the glacial river due to time constraints but I made sure to book it up the stairs to get a view of Skogafoss from above. Beware: there are 500 steps that separate you from the base of the waterfall to the top, but the hike is definitely worth it. I think I may have set a record for the short amount of time it took me to climb all 500 stairs just because I was so excited to see the view form the top.
I have to admit, I was out of breath and the muscles in my legs were shaking from my quick jog up the 500 stairs but all of that was forgotten once I took in the view. You are barely able to see the actually waterfall from certain points of the viewing platform which makes for a neat vantage point with the water encountering a sudden drop. This is one of those places though where you realize how small the all-powerfull Skogafoss is compared to the surrounding landscape. Behind Skogafoss there is the river that originates from the glacier. You are also able to get a great view of the volcano and glacier from this location. As mentioned before there are miles and miles of hiking trails that continue from the top of Skogafoss to the volcano. To hike the entirety of the trails would take about another two hours, which we didn’t have.
My Skogafoss review: Don’t miss this location along the South Coast. I would recommend arriving early in the morning to try to avoid the crowds of tourists or even camp overnight here to be one of the first ones here in the morning. Take the time to climb the 500 steps to the top of the waterfall and even hike the trails at the top if you have the time. With that being said, I will mention that if I were to ever go back to Iceland and do a South Iceland tour I would rent a car and see the sights myself, simply because there would not be a time constraint. Remember that in the summer months Iceland will have 20+ hours of sunlight which gives tourists a lot more flexibility in when they can visit these sites. Lastly, make sure to interact with the waterfall. I know that seems like such a crazy thing to say, but my favorite types of waterfalls are the ones that you can get up close to and even go into the water if you feel so inclined. I think this is why Gullfoss on the Golden Circle tour turned out to be my least favorite waterfall we saw while in Iceland even though it was the biggest and most powerful.
Our next stop on the South Iceland tour was not originally on the itinerary and I think that maybe that’s why this spot turned out to be my favorite. Before heading to Vik for lunch our driver told us that we had some time to hike to the Sólheimajökull Glacier if we were up for it which, of course, I led the charge for. A short drive from Skogafoss there is a road that leads to a parking area for Sólheimajökull. From the parking lot it is about a 10 minute hike to the glacial river. You will see other tours in this area that are actually going to hike onto the glacier, but for the most part this location was empty of tourists.
The hike from the parking lot to the glacier was made quicker for me than my other tour members due to the fact that I had chosen to jog the distance. Let’s just get one thing clear: If you tell me to run one lap around my gyms 1/4 of a mile walking track I can do it but will certainly struggle towards the end. If you give me a waterfall or glacier to run to though, I’ll set a record for quickest time completed. I am motivated by natural beauty and am able to push past my own imaginary limits when there is something breathtaking to run towards.
Before Iceland I had never seen a glacier before and certainly had never gotten close enough to a glacial river to stand in it. This was an experience like no other and one that I am so glad I got to experience.
As I mentioned in an earlier Iceland blog post, I had wanted to be a Geologist for some time when I was in high school. This interest stemmed from my personal research in the earth and its ever changing environment. Global warming, for me, has always been an “inconvenient truth” that is present in so many places around the world. Never before Iceland had the physical proof of global warming been so obvious to me. When I was standing next to the glacial river of Sólheimajökull all I could think about was how the land between the parking lot and (what’s left of) the glacier should be ice covered. Don’t get me wrong, the glacier is beautiful and it certainly a sight to see, but standing next to ice chunks in a melting glacial river in 60 degree temperatures just doesn’t seem right.
Only a few weeks after my trip, one of Iceland’s other ice sheets actually lost its status as a glacier because of how much of the ice had melted. The time to see glaciers is nearing its end it seems. I fear the day that I tell my grandkids about lands covered by vast sheets of ice, trying to explain to them the beauty that only seems like a fairy tale in their minds.
My advice is “When in Iceland, seek out a glacier” because who knows how much longer you have to experience one. Getting to see Sólheimajökull up close was so unlike any other location I had ever been to. The environment was completely calm and, lucky for us, there were no other tourists around to spoil our view. With my time at the glacier I was prompted to sit next to the water and just take it all in. Who knows if I’ll ever see something as unique as Sólheimajökull ever again.
I was fortunate enough to have a fantastic tour group that helped each other out when a picture was needed and so I was able to have the above moment captured. This photo turned out to be my favorite in all of my time in Iceland, and I think that’s because this whole part of the tour was unplanned. Everything about visiting Sólheimajökull had been a suprise and that was a kind of excitement that I very rarely get to experience. In my travels I am always the one to plan everything we do, so to have someone else plan an impromptu experience for me really is a treat.
While Sólheimajökull looks like its off the beaten path there is actually an access road not far from Skogafoss. I ABSOLUTELY recommend adding this spot to your South Iceland itinerary, in fact this is a must (as long as the glacier is present and still has its glacier status…).
Before ending this blog post I would like to thank Gray Line Iceland for delivering an exceptional South Iceland tour with a very knowledgable and flexible driver & tour guide. I would also like to thank my fellow tour member from The Netherlands who so graciously took my photo time and time again during this tour. He receives the photo credit for the picture of me at Sólheimajökull.
I apologize for having to break up my South Iceland tour into two blog posts, but there was just too much to write about and share to try to keep it all in one post. Up next is my very last Iceland blog focusing on Vik, Reynisfjara, and perhaps my favorite spot in all of Iceland, Seljalandsfoss.