A Guide to Iceland's Natural Wonders

Ævar Guðmundsson/Flickr

Ævar Guðmundsson/Flickr

Iceland, the land of fire and ice, has emerged as one of the trendiest travel destinations. Cheap and convenient stopover flight deals between Europe and North America make visiting this northerly island doable for a range of budgets. For those arriving by air, Reykjavik is the first stop. The compact, quirky capital has a thriving music and cultural scene, but it’s Iceland’s stunning, otherworld natural beauty that makes this country so special. For such a modestly sized country, it boasts a wide range of landscapes and geothermal wonders. We’ve amassed a list of some of Iceland’s finest scenery below, but keep in mind that this country is a treasure trove of natural beauty, so head to Iceland and discover the others for yourself. 

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Hot Springs

The Lagoon at the Silica Hotel/Oyster

The Lagoon at the Silica Hotel/Oyster

The Blue Lagoon is one of the most iconic of Iceland’s attractions, but it, in fact, is not a natural phenomenon. The therapeutic sulfuric water originates from a nearby geothermal power plant  and comes into the man-made pools at the Blue Lagoon. We recommend seeking out the real thing, as Iceland is dotted with numerous natural hot springs.

Just 45 minutes outside Reykjavik, Reykjadalur is an easy day trip from the capital. A roughly two-mile hike leads from the town of Hveragerði to the hot spring river. The hike follows a gorge, passing waterfalls and periodic steam vents. Recently, a wooden boardwalk and changing shelter have been added near a portion of the bathing area. For more seclusion, head upstream, but be aware that the water gets increasingly warmer the farther up you go. For those with more time -- and four-wheel drive -- to reach Iceland’s interior, Landmannalaugar is home to a natural hot spring in an outrageously stunning setting. The surrounding landscape consists of multicolored sandy hills and mountains with specks of blue, green, yellow, and black among the dominant red. It’s an excellent hiking destination, so there’s no excuse not to explore a bit with the promise of a healing soak afterwards. 

Although one can’t bath there, the Geysir Hot Spring Area along the Golden Circle is well worth a visit. The most active of the geysers, Strokkur, spews water 90 feet high every several minutes. The word geyser draws its name from Geysir, the largest of the geysers, which has been dormant for some years now. In its heyday, it would shoot water over 500 feet above the surface.

Volcanoes

Lava Field, Marco Verch/Flickr

Lava Field, Marco Verch/Flickr

Straddling the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates, Iceland’s geothermal activity is remarkable. There are currently 30 active volcano systems and roughly 100 dormant ones on the island. The most recent eruption, at Bárðarbunga in 2014, lasted for months. However, Eyjafjallajökull lives in much more infamy from its eruption of ash clouds in 2010, which cancelled flights across Europe. 

It’s possible to visit many of these volcano systems. For anyone feeling weary of eruptions, Þríhnúkagígur volcano has been dormant for thousands of years and can be entered. Small groups are taken down a lift into the massive lava cave hundreds of feet below. Numerous tunnels branch off from here, deeper into the earth. Another worthwhile trip is Snæfellsjökull volcano, located on the Snæfellsnes peninsula, which juts out into the Atlantic from Iceland’s west coast. Jules Verne chose the location as the entrance to the center of the Earth in his novel about the topic, and it certainly doesn’t disappoint. In northern Iceland, Krafla volcano’s sapphire blue crater lake merits a trip for the adventurous, as this is still a fairly active volcano. Many of Iceland’s volcanoes can be viewed comfortably from below, or via helicopter trips as well. 

Glaciers

Andrés Martín Rodríguez/Flickr

Andrés Martín Rodríguez/Flickr

Glaciers covered approximately 11 percent of Iceland’s surface -- many of which can be visited, and easily reached from the Ring Road. The largest glacier, Vatnajökull, lies on the southeastern coast. Visitors can walk a modest distance to the glacier, which is gradually making its way down to the sea. During the summer, guided tours lead hikers across the glacier, traversing its crevices. In the winter, Vatnajökull offers the chance to explore cavernous areas below the glacier. The Crystal Cave’s intensely blue color is the result of pressure compressing the ice and its protection from the elements. Downhill from the glacier, Jökulsárlón, a glacial lagoon full of floating icebergs from the glacier, and occasionally some playful seals. 

Other glaciers, such as Myrdalsjökull and Eyjafjallajökull (atop the volcano of the same name), are connected by hiking trails and navigable by snow mobile. The second largest glacier, Langjökull, lies near the Golden Circle and is popular for snowmobile tours and visiting its manmade ice tunnel.

National Parks

Ævar Guðmundsson/Flickr

Ævar Guðmundsson/Flickr

Although much of Iceland outside of Reykjavik and the other major towns seems like one big wilderness, the country boasts three designated national parks: Þingvellir (also known as Thingvellir), Snaefellsjokull, and the newly created Vatnajökull (formerly two separate parks: Skaftafell and Jökulsárgljúfur). These three protected areas are home to much of Iceland’s most spectacular scenery -- and several of the volcanoes and glaciers previously mentioned. 

Þingvellir, a national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site, lies along the Golden Circle, making it a popular stop. The park houses the remains of the historic parliament site, which was utilized from 930 to 1798 by Icelandic parliament. This site prompted the creation of the park in 1930, which has since been expanded to incorporate the beautiful surrounding region in the rift valley -- where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet. A section of the rift lies below the waters of Þingvallavatn Lake at Silfra, a spring-fed fissure with crystal clear water. Both diving and snorkeling tours are possible, with visibility often reaching 300 feet, helping divers to spot the nearly see-through fish and small plants that live in the frigid water. Away from the rift, lava fields spread out to the base of the mountains surrounding this enchanting park. 

Snaefellsjökull is situated on the Snæfellsnes peninsula in western Iceland, bearing the same name as the volcano and glacier at the site. In just a modest area of 65 square miles, Snaefellsjökull includes craggy shoreline, a stunning glacier, caves, lava fields, mossy slopes, and bird nesting grounds. The park is best seen by hiking the rugged sea cliffs or paths through the interior sections. Snaefellsjökull is only a 2.5-hour drive from Reykjavik, but sees substantially smaller crowds than Þingvellir.

Covering 13 percent of Iceland’s surface, Vatnajökull claims status as being the second largest park and having the largest glacier in Europe. Several volcanoes lie within the park boundaries, notably Askja, Holuhraun, and Kverkfjöll. To the north, the glacial river canyon of Jökulsárgljúfur includes powerful Dettifoss, a 150-foot high waterfall. To the south, Iceland’s highest peak, Hvannadalshnjúkur lies within the Öræfajökull glacier. The Skaftafell area has birch forests (trees are rare in Iceland), fields of wildflowers, and some of Iceland’s calmest and sunniest weather, making this a great spot to set up camp. Perhaps you’ll even see the elusive arctic fox.  

Waterfalls

David Russo/Flickr

David Russo/Flickr

Iceland’s rugged, mountainous landscape and massive glaciers are the perfect combination for waterfalls -- lots of them. The popular Golden Circle route goes past Seljalandsfoss, Gullfoss, and Skógasfoss, which can all be done in a day trip from Reykjavik. Seljalandsfoss offers the unique opportunity of being able to hike behind a 210-foot waterfall. At Skógafoss, visitors can get up close and personal with this nearly 200-foot waterfall. An adjacent staircase takes visitors up 527 steps to get an even more stunning view of these powerful falls. Gullfoss impresses visitors with its substantial width and cascading falls. To get away from the crowds a bit, visit the hidden gem of Gljúfrabúi. This 130-foot waterfall is largely hidden by rock, with just a narrow passage leading into the open gorge below the falls. 

Farther afield, Svartifoss, located in Vatnajökull National Park, descends 65 feet over basalt cliffs, composed of hexagonal columns. In western Iceland’s interior, the underrated Hraunfossar flows across a lava field before pouring into a glacial river. Numerous other waterfalls bearing all types of complicated Icelandic names are waiting, and they are all well worth the effort to see them. 

Beaches

Damian Moore/Flickr

Damian Moore/Flickr

Iceland isn’t usually the place that comes to mind when envisioning European beaches. Though you may see some brave surfers riding the frigid waves, it’s advisable to stick to beach combing. One of the most dramatic stretches of sand can be found near Vík, perhaps the easiest Icelandic name in this article. The beach, known as Reynisfjara, is an expanse of volcanic black sand stretching over a mile among impressive rock formations. Gardar, a basalt cliff makes for easy climbing or a comfy seat amongst its geometric configuration to enjoy the view. A sizable cave lies adjacent to the basalt columns. Just offshore, two imposing rocks rise above the surf, which, as story has it, were made when two trolls turned to stone after being caught in daylight. 

The beach where Jökulsárlón empties into the Atlantic is a must see. Fragments from the glacier break off into the lagoon and eventually make their way down to Diamond Beach, nicknamed for the stunning ice formations that wash ashore. Pieces come in all shapes and sizes, some even as big as a sedan. It is not uncommon to see seals swim up the short river to rest on the icebergs in the lagoon.

Nautholsvik Beach, located near Reykjavik, is actually swimmable. The geothermal beach is sheltered by manmade walls, creating a small bay. The geothermal water mixes with the incoming sea, creating swimmable temperatures in the summer months. 

Fjords

Daniel Knieper/Flickr

Daniel Knieper/Flickr

Perhaps not as well-known for fjords as Norway, Iceland has 109 fjords, with most found in the Westfjords in the northwest and on the east coast. A short distance north of Reykjavik, two fjords, Hvalfjörður and Borgarfjörður, are worth exploring. Iceland’s highest waterfall, Glymur, is located in Hvalfjörður. For those with the time and visiting during the summer, the Westfjords are a great escape. Known for its remoteness, sea cliffs, and fjords, the Westfjords are an ideal destination for spotting puffins, hiking, and seeing overall spectacular scenery. 

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