Iceland is a place you want to visit multiple times so you can experience it in all seasons. Summer days never seem to end with midnight sun, rainbows constantly dancing across waterfalls, and camping along the Ring Road. Winter days are short and cold but everything is coated in layer of snow and ice and you can hike to snow covered waterfalls, explore newly formed ice caves, and see the Northern Lights if you’re lucky. Unfortunately Iceland is known for its sporadic weather and for us that meant rain, fog, and cloudy skies. Luckily Iceland is so magical that even with all that rain (which meant no Northern Lights) it was an unforgettable and magical trip – and we’ll just have to go back again to see them!
Duration: 4 days – fly Thursday night, land Friday morning, leave Monday afternoon
Season: Winter (December, 2017)
- Day 0: Evening flight out of Boston (8pm), fly overnight
- Day 1: Land in Reykjavik around 6am, pick up some groceries then drive to Blue Lagoon, then drive the South Coast* (night in Kalfafell)
- Day 2: Glacier hike and ice caves tour in the morning, Svartifoss waterfall hike, then drive to Reykjavik** (night in Reykjavik)
- Day 3: Drive the Golden Circle (night in Reykjavik)
- Day 4: Drive South Coast back to waterfalls then return rental car at 3pm
* It was raining all day so we had quick stops at the waterfalls and skipped Gljúfrabúi (which you shouldn’t miss!) and went back on our final day before the airport when it wasn’t raining
** We intended to drive to Diamond Beach at Jökulsárlón but it was so windy that Route 1 was closed because they were worried cars would get blown off the road!
The South Coast is known for its scenic views, beautiful coast, and roadside waterfalls. Our first day along the South Coast was overcast and rainy, so we came back to some of the falls again on our final day before the airport.
- Seljalandsfoss: A huge waterfall nearly 200 feet tall is something you don’t want to miss, even if the weather isn’t cooperating. You can get a great view of the falls just walking steps from the parking lot. There is also a viewing platform to the left of the waterfall and a path to the right that allows you to go behind the falls. Unfortunately both were closed when we were there due to ice and snow on the paths. There is another short trail that connects Seljalandsfoss to Gljúfrabúi (which I highly recommend visiting, and where parking is free!)
Parking: There is a small gift shop and a bathroom here, and it’s $7 to park. I recommend parking at Gljúfrabúi instead (see below).
- Gljúfrabúi: Only a 5-10 minute walk from it’s bigger neighbor, Seljalandsfoss, be sure to not miss this one! It’s a beautiful waterfall hidden in a canyon and to enter you must wade through the river or navigate some carefully placed rocks as stepping stones. The river isn’t too deep, but was up to 6 inches in some spots, so wear good shoes and hope you have good balance! Once inside you can get up close to the powerful waterfall and stand on a perfectly placed boulder for a great photo opportunity.
When we were in here it was cold and we were getting sprayed by the waterfall so I highly recommend some waterproof pants and a rain jacket, and also be aware of the moisture on your camera or phone. We saw others climbing a steep path up the cliff wall for a view of the waterfall and the cave from above, but since we were pressed on time (and it looked pretty slippery and muddy) we opted not to do this. The path to get to Seljalandsfoss is easy to see (you’ll probably see people walking along it) and it’s easy to walk along.
Parking: To get here drive past the Seljalandsfoss parking area about 100 yards and look for signs on your right (you can see the waterfall from the road, hidden and peaking out from above the cliff walls.) Parking is free and you can easily walk between the two falls.
- Skógafoss: Another huge waterfall that is well known, shouldn’t be skipped, and is conveniently located right off Route 1 is Skógafoss. You can walk down onto the rocks near the river for a photo up close or you can opt to climb the 500+ stairs for a view from above (or even better, do both!)
Once you’ve climbed the stairs I strongly encourage you to enter the gate to walk the trail along the river, called the Fimmvörðuháls hike, getting away from the crowds and bringing you a never ending supply of waterfalls and good views. We only walked about a hundred yards due to being short on time and we immediately stumbled upon a small waterfall. This will definitely be on my list when I return in the summer!
- Reynisfjara Beach at Vik: We almost skipped this due to the weather (it was rainy and cold) but we were so glad that we made the stop. The beach is known for its black sand which contrasted perfectly with the gray, cloudy sky and rain. Basaltic rock formations, formed when lava cools and fractures, make up the cliff edges as well as a couple of shallow caves that you can explore. Dotting the coast are neat rocks formations that make for great pictures.
Note: Be careful not to turn your back to the ocean since there are warning everywhere about people who have been killed by “sneaker waves” which happen randomly and sweep people out to sea.
- Svartifoss: While the bigger waterfalls are impressive, I loved the smaller unique falls that required a little extra effort to get to. Svartifoss, which roughly translates to “black falls” for its basaltic rock columns, is located in Skaftafell/Vatnajökull National Park. It is an easy 4km round trip hike with a moderate incline and with two smaller waterfalls along the way. The last 0.2km are relatively steep and crampons were required to make it down to the falls.
Note: We did this hike before sunrise in an attempt to see the falls before our glacier hike, but since we didn’t have crampons we had to turn back. The visitor’s center had crampons for sale for ~70USD that we purchased so we could do the hike AGAIN to see the waterfall. It was worth it.
- Ice Caves: If we were going to come in the winter, we wanted to make sure we did activities that couldn’t be done in the summer. At the top of that list was exploring an ice cave! Ice caves are temporary tunnels forming from glacial streams that make their way over the ice caps and into crevices that expand into magical caves. This causes the bases to be a dirty brown with sediment (i.e. dirt) frozen in the ice and the top to be a stunning blue with bubbles of air trapped inside.
Glaciers are constantly moving and ice caves can collapse, so you should never go searching for these without a knowledgeable guide. We did the “Into the Glacier” tour through Arctic Adventures (19,000ISK/person) which was about 3.5 hours. It included a short 20-30 minute drive to the glacier base, a glacier hike, and a tour of the ice cave. We were on the ice for 2-2.5 hours, and were in the ice cave for about 20 minutes. The cave was smaller than we expected, but it was beautiful and so cool being inside a glacier! Walking on the glacier provided stunning views and our guides gave us plenty of time to stop and take pictures (and were happy to take pictures for us!)
While this was by far the most expensive thing we did, I thought it was worth it. They give you all the of the gear you need (crampons, ice pick, helmet) but be sure to wear warm clothes and have on good shoes (hiking boots are recommended). Getting used to walking on the ice was harder than I expected, but I think anyone who is reasonably fit should be fine. The crampons really require you to stomp around so be prepared to feel a little clunky!
If we had more time and daylight…
- Fjaðrárgljúfur: This canyon looked beautiful in pictures and we were hoping to see what it looked like covered in snow, but due to short days and our delay from hiking Svartifoss twice we arrived right as the sun was setting. The road to the canyon was winding and icy so I would recommend a 4-wheel drive car in the winter and a driver who is confident with ice (or snow) if there was a recent storm.
- Plane Wreck: I have heard mixed reviews about this hike and it’s supposed to take a few hours so with our limited daylight being precious to us we decided it wasn’t worth adding it to this trip. Getting to the site was described by most as “boring”, requiring you to walk 2 miles across monotonous beach. The plane itself looks eerie and makes for a good picture though and it seems to be personal preference. I think I would happily add this to my list if we had unlimited summer daylight.
- Diamond Beach at Jökulsárlón: We were really looking forward to this and planned to drive the 45 minutes East after our ice caves tour, but due to bad weather the road to get there was closed. Apparently the winds were so strong that it could blow cars off the road! All of the pictures that I saw and everything that I read make it look like an incredible site so I would add it to your list if possible.
The Golden Circle is probably the most well-known driving route in Iceland and for good reason: you can drive the entire thing in one day, it gives you a great sampling of a national park, waterfalls, and geysers, and there are easy additions if you have more time. All of the attractions are fairly close to one another and are easily accessed right off of the main road.
- Gullfoss: I hope you don’t get bored of waterfalls because they are everywhere in Iceland! Gullfoss is another giant, powerful waterfall that reminded me more of Niagara Falls than the ones we saw on our South Coast drive. This is one of the most popular tourist destinations and the surroundings cater to the industry. The large parking lot has a souvenir shop, restaurant/cafe, and bathrooms (200ISK to use). There are two viewing points to see the falls, one from above and one from below, and all of the paths are well maintained with wooden walkways.
Both views are equally impressive. To get to the bottom view you have to walk down a large flight of stairs (we did see some cars parked down there, so I think you can drive if the stairs are an issue). There is a pathway that will lead you close to the falls but it was closed on our visit due to ice and snow. The view from the top is relatively flat and will give you a view of the canyon that can’t be seen from the bottom.
- Geysir: Just a few minutes down the road from Gullfoss is the equally popular Geysir hot springs geothermal area. The area is famously known for Geysir (also known as the Great Geysir) but it is mostly inactive. Earthquakes tend to revive the geyser but over time the eruptions become less frequent and more unpredictable, so your chances of seeing it erupt are slim.
Nearby, however, is Strokkur geyser which is active and erupts every 5-7 minutes, spouting water up to 100 feet into the air. You’ll see hundreds of people standing around the rope fence with their cameras up waiting for it to erupt. Also in the area are numerous smaller geysers and thermal pools that create a mystical feel due to the steam that covers the area. Remember that the water is extremely hot and can burn you and that you should stay only on the marked paths.
- Brúarfoss: This was easily my favorite waterfall of the trip and should be added to any Golden Circle itinerary. The intense blue of the river cutting through the black rocks was stunning and made us forget that it was a grey and cloudy day. This waterfall would be beautiful in any type of weather!
Getting here is a little more difficult, and there are a couple of options. The directions that we followed to “Brúarfoss Waterfall Access” on GoogleMaps made it so that we only had to walk for about 10 minutes, but the parking was limited and I believe it’s technically private land. It was also a maze to get there! Alternatively if you stay on Route 37 heading West and cross the river, there will be a parking lot immediately on your right with a sign that says “Brúarfoss”. Here you will have a ~3km walk along the river to reach the waterfall. It can get very muddy and icy so wear proper footwear (crampons are recommended in winter!)
If we had more time and daylight…
- Secret Lagoon: When we were putting together our itinerary we were deciding between visiting the Blue Lagoon or the Secret Lagoon. Both looked equally appealing, with the Blue Lagoon being more grand and the Secret Lagoon being more secluded – and we hoped to do both! Unfortunately time wasn’t on our side and we didn’t make it to the Secret Lagoon. However, this could easily be added to the Golden Circle Tour as it’s only 30 minutes from Gullfoss.
- Þingvellir National Park: We drove through the park which was very impressive, but didn’t have time to stop and explore – next time I visit I will be sure to spend more time here!
The Blue Lagoon:
Even though we heard that the Blue Lagoon was expensive, touristy, and crowded, we knew that we wanted to make a visit. Our flight landed at 6:20am and the sun didn’t rise until 10:30am, so we decided that starting our trip with a stop at the Blue Lagoon was a good way to loosen up from a long plane ride and shake off our jet lag.
Buy your tickets before you go: You need to book your tickets to the Blue Lagoon in advance, and the earlier you buy them the cheaper they will be. When you buy your tickets you need to select your date as well as your time, and the price will vary based on your selection. For guaranteed entry you must arrive within an hour of your entry time (i.e. if you have a ticket for 8am you must arrive by 9am)
Selecting your package: When you buy your ticket you also have to select your package, ranging from “standard” to “luxury”. According to the Blue Lagoon website the package options will change in March 2018, so look there for specific pricing and what is included. We opted for the Comfort Package which included an algae mask, a silica mask, a complementary drink at the bar, and use of a towel. Other packages included a bathrobe, slippers, reservations and sparking wine at their LAVA restaurant, and a private changing room. We didn’t bring towels so the extra money was worth it for this reason alone, but enjoying a glass of champagne while the sun was rising was wonderful and the algae mask really did leave my skin feeling silky smooth!
Getting into the lagoon: We arrived about 30 minutes before our entry time and they let us in with no fuss. The line to check in was organized and moved quickly, and after each being handed a towel and electronic bracelet we made our way to the changing room. The lockers were accessed using our bracelets and were big enough to hold all of our belongings. Before entering the lagoon you are required to take a full shower without a bathing suit, so we quickly undressed, grabbed our suits, and headed to rinse off. The showers were clean, private, and there were plenty so we didn’t have to wait (though this could be different during peak hours).
In the lagoon: There are two way to enter the lagoon – one from inside and one from outdoors. We opted to go outside (it was freezing!) and we quickly hung up our towels and hopped in. When we first arrived it was still completely dark and the lagoon wasn’t crowded at all. After exploring some empty outlets of the lagoon we made our way to the bar at sunrie for our complementary glass of champagne (if you want to purchase anything else you can use your electronic bracelet.) The mask bar was surrounded by people with white faces making it easy to spot, so we headed over for our silica and algae masks. The silica mask is out in a bowl at the bar so you can use as much as you want, but the algae mask you need the correct color wrist band to get a handful. By the time it was 10:30 the lagoon had started to fill up and get much more crowded.
Leaving the lagoon: Exiting was just as easy as entering. We jumped in the shower and changed into some clean clothes (a bonus shower for when you take an overnight flight and can’t get into your hotel room until the afternoon!) There were hairdryers available and plastic bags to put your wet bathing suits in. Once you’re ready to leave you can just exit through the gate, putting your bracelet in to exit. If you purchased anything on your bracelet you need to make an extra stop at the cashier.
Driving in Winter:
Driving Routes and Times
Be sure to include extra time to enjoy the sites, stop for gas, coffee, and hot dogs, and to pull over for pictures! Times are just based on driving in normal weather conditions.
- Blue Lagoon to Seljalandsfoss/Gljúfrabúi: Route 427 to Route 34 to Route 1 via Grindavik, Eyrarbakki, and Selfoss (~2 hours)
- Seljalandsfoss/Gljúfrabúi to Skógafoss: Route 1 East (~25 minutes)
- Skógafoss to Reynisfjara Beach: Route 1 to 215 (~30 minutes)
- Reynisfjara Beach to Fjaðrárgljúfur: 215 to Route 1 East via Vik (~1 hour)
- Fjaðrárgljúfur to Svartifoss: Route 1 East via Kálfafell (~1 hour)
- Svartifoss to Diamond Beach Jökulsárlón: Route 1 East (~45 minutes)
- Reykjavik to Gullfoss: Route 36 East to Route 365 to Route 37 East to Route 35 (~1.5 hours)
- Gullfoss to Geysir: Route 35 West (~10 minutes)
- Geysir to Bruarfoss: Route 35 West to Route 37 (~15 minutes)
- Bruarfoss to Þingvellir: Route 37 to Route route 365 to Route 36 West (~45 minutes)
- Þingvellir to Reykjavik: Route 36 West (~ 40 minutes)
Winter Driving Tips:
- We rented a 4×4 car because we planned on doing a lot of driving, only had a few short days, and wanted to hopefully avoid any delays due to the weather. We were glad that we had it as some of the roads were icy, and I would recommend spending the little extra money to get it. The high clearance was also very helpful!
- The roads are relatively flat and we didn’t encounter too many cars on the road (except for in Reykjavik of course), but they are narrow and at sometimes windy so be prepared for that! The main roads were very well maintained but some of the smaller side roads were covered in a layer of ice. There are many one way bridges that caused slight backups (apparently the bridges get washed away so often the government started putting these up since they are cheaper to replace) but they never felt dangerous.
- We were warned to follow the speed limits and on many roads there was signage for speed cameras. With the icy and narrow roads and beautiful scenery we weren’t tempted to go much faster, but a big speeding ticket would definitely ruin your vacation.
- Gas stations with only pumps (no building and no person attending the pumps) were very common. These don’t take cash and only accept credit cards with a pin – so be prepared if you are coming from the US!
- We rented our car through Lava Car Rental and it was a very pleasant experience. They picked us up from the airport and even had some coffee for us at the office which was great after a long overnight flight! We opted to pay extra for the gravel protection (this was recommended to us by a friend and we were glad we did it due to the many gravel/dirt roads) and saved money by getting a car with manual transmission.
Tips and Tricks:
- Weather: The weather was in the 30/40s and felt comfortably cold during the day and freezing when it was windy. There’s a saying in Iceland that the weather can dramatically change any minute – so be prepared for everything! We found that layers worked best, and sometimes that included layering a warm nanopuff under a rain jacket when it was both windy and cold.
- Daylight: In the winter you’re not working with much daylight so it’s really important to make the most of it. When we were there sunrise was around 10:30am and sunset was around 4:30pm. On rainy days it seems to not really get bright until 11 and be dark around 4, but on clear days it was “light” (enough to see things at least!) around 9:30am and not “dark” until 5pm. The sun never really rises fully in the sky so it’s always rising or setting which makes for great photos – it’s always golden hour!
- Bring campons! I can’t stress this enough. If you’re going when it might be icy/snowy there’s a good chance that any hike you want to do will need them (even if there’s little incline.) It’s better to spend the little bit of money in the US to have them than be forced to buy them in a visitor’s center for a higher price (I speak from experience on that one, we got ours at the Svartifoss Visitor’s Center for ~70USD.) Remember that depending on the crampons you purchase it will most likely force you to check your bag.
- Gas station hot dogs are delicious and affordable. Eat them. Get both types of onions (raw and crispy) and find which sauce(s) you like best!
- If you’re looking for hot springs check out hotspots.is for a list across of hot springs across the country. I came across this in my research and then heard a local recommend it too!
- Icelandic ponies are everywhere… and you will not be disappointed by them – they are adorable!