Suðurland: a road trip on Iceland’s south coast

My long weekend in Iceland was based in Reykjavík, which was convenient, but limited exploring to a two-hour/200 kilometre drive from the city to ensure there was enough time to actually see everything we wanted to see on a south coast adventure. To keep it manageable, we chose Vík as our turnaround point, 176ish kilometres from Reykjavík.

For what it’s worth, a road trip is among the more budget-friendly ways to see Iceland, so long as you have friends to share the car rental and fuel costs. Everything I visited in this post was free of charge – except the pay toilets at Skógarfoss, coffee, restaurant meals, and snacks. I believe this is one of Iceland’s most underrated qualities. Sure, the thing you buy are more expensive than at home, but all around the country, you can drive up to a waterfall, explore it freely, and go home with amazing memories.

Our plan was simple: spend the morning driving out to Vík, have some lunch, then turn around and hit our intended waterfalls and other stops on the way back. In any other place, a simple check of the morning forecast would have confirmed the greatness of this plan, but Iceland doesn’t play like that. Setting out, the weather was perfect. Bright blue skies, lots of sun, and barely a cloud to be found. We cruised by the mountains, waterfalls, glaciers, and islands that had been clouded over on the previous day’s adventure to Vestmannaeyjar/Westman Islands.iceland south coast road trip sign westman islands

Stunned by our good fortune, and hubris, we blasted past Seljalandsfoss and Skógarfoss with barely a glance, waved quickly at cloudless Eyjafyallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull, incredibly rare sights for the casual visitor. Then, in the distance, darkening skies.

iceland south coast road trip

Just beyond Skógarfoss, we turned a corner and ran into grey skies and mist, which turned to rain, which turned to sideways rain and strong winds, and arrived in Vík scrambling to put on rain gear and running for the door of Halldórskaffi restaurant. Lunch was a delight, I got a chance to warm up by devouring a garlic pizza with salami, among the better pizza interpretations I’ve encountered in my travels.

Black rock beach of Reynisfjara and Dýrhólaey

Reynisfjara iceland south coast black rock beachUndeterred by the lack of improvement in the weather, we departed Vík, turning back toward Reykjavík to see the sights. The black rock beach of Reynisfjara is just a couple of kilometres away, where we were greeted by an electronic sign promising winds of 20 m/s (that’s over 70 km/h). In the parking lot at Reynisfjara, signs warn visitors about opening car doors carefully (noted!) on account of the unpredictable winds. Once again, piling on all of the rain gear I brought for the trip, I headed out carefully, bent over into to the wind to make myself even shorter and avoid being blown away by a gust.Reynisfjara iceland south coast black rock beach basalt columns

For the record, I will go back to Vík, Reynisfjara, and Dýrhólaey because they are stunningly beautiful and my brief, blustery stops in all three did not give me ample time to enjoy the wild beauty and impressive landscape. The basalt columns of Reynisfjara were otherworldly, and a cave composed of the columns handily provided shelter from the unrelenting winds and rain. Puffins nested overhead, almost literally unflappable in the face of the strong winds, launching themselves off the rock face to go hunting.

iceland south coast puffins reynisfjara beach

The black rock beach was enchanting, but it did make for challenging walking because of the wind. No matter. It was glorious and the view of Dýrhólaey was spectacular.

iceland reynisfjara black sand beach Dyrhólaey

Even though you can easily see Dýrhólaey from Reynisfjara, and probably even walk there in more favourable conditions, the drive takes about 20 minutes (out on Route 215, back on the Route 1, in on Route 218). Arriving at the parking lot on slightly higher ground, the wind was even stronger, which meant I could only manage a short visit to take in the spectacular view without completely destroying my camera with rain and salty mist. I saw the “hole in the door,” the hole in the rock formation that makes up the name, but the wind just about knocked me over, so a walk out to the lighthouse was not in the cards this day.

Road tip trip: Sólheimasandur plane crash site

Between Dýrhólaey and Skógarfoss – approximately 13 kilometres west from the Dýrhólaey parking lot, 10 kilometres west once you’ve turned back on  Route 1 – an unmarked field (if it’s marked, I couldn’t tell) with some cars parked in it serves as the starting point for the trek out to Sólheimasandur, otherwise known as the place where that US military plane crashed in 1973. Once you’ve parked, it’s approximately four kilometre trek to the beach (each way) on a well-trod path. For this trip, we simply didn’t have the time to venture out, but it’s in the neighbourhood if you’re following the route I’ve outlined here.

Chasing rainbows at Skógarfoss

Back in the car and back on the road, we promptly drove out of the rain and wind and back into sunshine, blue skies, and warm breezes. It was 18C, according to the car, by the time we arrived at Skógarfoss with its thunderous falls and always-present rainbow.iceland south coast skogarfoss waterfall

The view of Skógarfoss is more impressive from the ground, but it’s worth hiking up the 60 metre climb, and just over 500 steps, to see the view of the surrounding area from the top.iceland south coast skogarfoss waterfall stairs

You actually see very little of the waterfall from the viewing platform, and certainly nothing that fits conveniently into a camera frame. There are a couple of roughed out trails that give slightly different views, but they are unprotected, and as a result, somewhat more dangerous.iceland south coast skogarfoss waterfall

If you’re wearing your rain gear, be sure to go in for a closer look at the base of the falls. The waterfall is vigourous and you will definitely get wet. The upside: if it’s sunny, you will definitely also see rainbows.

iceland south coast skogarfoss waterfall

The Parliament in the Cave

Between Skógarfoss and Seljalandsfoss, an unremarkable wooden door set against the hillside revealed a most extraordinary find: a parliament in a cave. Known as Steinahellir, the cave was used by local farmers for their parliament until the early 20th century. Today, the greenery grows up the walls and to the ceiling of the cave, yet another unexpected delight, adding to the story of Iceland.

iceland south coast Steinahellir cave parliament

Chasing waterfalls at Seljalandsfoss and Gljúfrabúi

iceland waterfall south coast seljalandsfossI’ve wanted to visit Seljalandsfoss since I learned you can walk behind it. It’s barely one of Iceland’s more remarkable waterfalls, but I was dazzled by the idea and the experience was an utter delight.

This particular waterfall is so minor, it didn’t even warrant a mention in my otherwise very thorough guidebook. This is more of an indicator of Iceland’s embarrassment of riches when it comes to spectacular scenery and abundance of natural phenomena to enjoy. Seriously, everything is beautiful here.

Prior to visiting, I was advised to wear full raingear to maximize my enjoyment, and I would advise the same. First, walking behind a waterfall is a surefire way to get soaked. If you are wearing raingear, you will enjoy it way, way more. Also, wear sturdy footwear. The spray from the waterfall makes the trail behind it messy, and involves some careful foot placement along the way.

iceland waterfall south coast seljalandsfossSince the day had pretty terrific weather, it was busy at Seljalandsfoss, though we easily got a parking spot. We slowly made our way up the approach, stopping to take photos of every possible angle. It was starting to cloud over by the time we reached Seljalandsfoss, but we managed to catch a sliver of sunlight to add another rainbow to the adventure.

Seljalandsfoss is pretty busy, so we made our way around the back of the waterfall with lots of enthusiastic waterfall-chasers. It’s a short path, but we made the most of the adventure by stopping for pictures, watching out for a patch of mud, and just to take a moment to stop and look upon the wonder before us.

Departing Seljalandsfoss, there’s a narrow trail on your right that takes you to a secret, hidden waterfall, less than 500 metres away. More accurately, Gljúfrabúi is hidden in plain sight. From the outside, it’s relatively unimpressive.iceland south Gljúfrabúi waterfall

iceland waterfall south coast Gljúfrabúi rain gear
Bring your rain gear so you can go *in* a waterfall, like at Gljúfrabúi

Going through the small entrance into the cave, you find yourself in a waterfall, surrounded by mossy cave walls. It’s quieter, with far fewer visitors. The precarious, wet rocks that make up the “path” are dangerous – again, wear sturdy footwear. More adventurous visitors (wearing sturdy footwear), can climb up on a large rock for a profile pic for the ages.

Reluctantly, it was time to return to Reykjavík, but we left with many great memories and plans to drive around the whole perimeter of Iceland. There are so many things to see along this route, we really only hit the major sights and had a delicious pizza. If you have the time, stretch it out, turn down side roads to see the small farms, churches, and historic installations that dot this route. Take lots of photos, take all of your litter with you, and, if it rains, put on your rain gear and go enjoy the heck out of Iceland anyway.

Follow along on my Suðurland road trip:

bitesized travel iceland

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