The South Shore of Iceland in one neat little day-long (ok, maybe 18 hours) Iceland road trip. If you have a bit more time and can spend a few days in Iceland, then this is the route for you! You’ll cover waterfalls, glaciers, glacial lagoons, national parks, black beaches, lava fields and much more on this unforgettable route.
WHY DRIVE THE South Shore YOURSELF?
After figuring out that we didn’t want to do an organized coach tour (see also: Road Trip of the Golden Circle), we opted to wake up at the crack of dawn and drive ourselves out to Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, at which we had a 1pm reservation for a Zodiac boat tour.
We also wanted the freedom to be able to stop wherever we liked if something looked interesting. From everything we’ve read, the south shore of Iceland has so much to offer, it’d be crazy to just drive right by it all.
Pro-Tip: Make sure you have a chip-enabled credit card with pin with you if you’re on an Iceland road trip – you’ll need it to buy gas at gas stations along the way.
HITTING THE ROAD
We set out from Reykjavik after a quick stop for breakfast and coffee at Sandholt Bakery in Reykjavik’s city center (more on that later – about $14 US). We stocked up on snacks (fresh-baked soft pretzels from the bakery and bottled waters) and made our way east, out of the city. Our plan was to just go to the glacier lagoon and then spend the rest of the day sightseeing on the way back at our leisure. It worked out really well.
The weather was a little iffy – drizzling, light rain, then sunshine, some wind, and basically everything but snow. So, be prepared for a few different seasons if you’re visiting in the summer! Then it was onward to our first stop: the Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon!
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
I don’t often feel like James Bond, but when I do, I’m gripping the edge of a Zodiac boat in a glacier lagoon in Iceland, cruising along next to seals and whizzing past icebergs. Oh yeah, and dressed like a minion:
We dressed pretty warmly for our cruise, but we were so grateful for these suits. What they lacked in fashion, they made up for in utility. They were so warm and blocked the wind, which whipped up when you were speeding around the lagoon like 007.
Doing the tours on the zodiac boats means you can get closer to the icebergs and the glacier than the bigger boats. I have to admit, it was tough getting used to the fact that you’re sitting on the edge of the inflatable boat and holding on for dear life. But it was as exhilarating as the view was breathtaking!
We even got up close to the seals that live in the lagoon, like this beautiful one.
Some of the icebergs are deep, deep blue and appear to be clear, while others are more white and look more snowy – this is because they sometimes flip over in the water. This one is one of those that flipped over somewhat recently. The color was absolutely amazing. No filters were used on any of these photos!
We sped all the way across the lagoon to the edge of the actual glacier. We couldn’t get too close, because pieces can fall off and crash into the water at any time. When that happens, they can submerge and then pop up like a champagne cork unexpectedly – not the safest conditions for an inflatable boat full of people dressed like minions. I was kind of bummed we couldn’t get closer, but safety is paramount.
After the lagoon cruise we warmed up with some spiked hot chocolate and then headed back west, towards Reykjavik.
Lava Fields – Everywhere!
There are lava fields pretty much everywhere along the roads and they are tempting to get out and walk around in. However, it’s not safe to do so – Joe warned us of this on our tour to Snaefellsnes, so we resisted the urge.
They are still really beautiful, though!
It’s not hard to imagine why the Icelandic people believe in trolls and fairies. The landscape of this country looks like something out of a book, or out of this world!
On what other road trip would you see something like this? Answer: None, only on an Iceland road trip 🙂
Hiking at the edge of a Glacier at SvínafellSjökull
Heading west back in the general direction of the big city after Jökulsárlón, we took Route 1 and began the lookout for the entrance to the hiking trail we saw on the way east to the glacial lagoon. We can call this “another time I wish we had an SUV” because it was a dirt, rocky road that wound its way down to a parking lot, where you can park and continue on foot through some gates up to a trail that leads uphill next to a major tongue of the enormous glacier.
One of the perks of being on our own Iceland road trip was that we could stop anywhere we liked – including here.
One is reminded of how dangerous it can be to walk unassisted on the actual ice by the plaque dedicated to two young German hikers who went missing here in 2007, whose bodies were never recovered. It’s believed that they fell through the ice as it broke away unexpectedly underneath them, and a crevasse was formed. Scary stuff. Stick to the trails, people!
Svartifoss Waterfall & Skaftafell National Park
I’m just going to put this out there in case it’s unclear. I’m horribly out of shape. And the hike up to the famous black waterfall of Svartifoss was a killer. It’s 1.5km long and uphill (and sometimes up very steep hills) the entire way. It was NOT enjoyable.
The basalt black columns behind the waterfall make this a really unique place.
On the way there and back, we crossed over little streams and brooks, and smaller waterfalls.
The view was worth it.
Plus, I got to take a celebratory photo at the end of the hike. By the way, this sign was on the ground and I didn’t vandalize anything in order to take this pic. Just in case you were thinking that…
Black Beaches of Vik
The black beaches of Vik still are one of my all-time favorite places I’ve ever been. They’re GORGEOUS, and not full of people, which was the opposite of what I was expecting to find. I posted video of the waves crashing here previously, but even that doesn’t do this place justice.
We arrived first at the town of Vik and headed down to the beach. It was very pretty but we knew there had to be something missing.
This place was amazing. There’s a little cafe right next to the parking lot where you can eat lunch or dinner, but you can walk right onto the beach and start exploring. There are huge caves carved into the basalt cliffs, and you can spot puffins and other seabirds making nests above.
We drove a bit further along and came to a lookout point, where you can look back towards Reynisfjara and Vik, which allowed us to take amazing photos. The sun was peeking through the clouds after a generally overcast day, and all was right in the world.
Still not content that we’d seen everything we needed to see (and we skipped the crashed plane site), we fit in one more stop on our Iceland road trip of the south shore. Skógafoss was a must-see, as it’s one of the most famous waterfalls in the country.
One of the highlights of doing an Iceland road trip during the summertime is that it’s light out for so long, you can sightsee around natural beauty all day long, well into the evening hours. We didn’t get to Skógafoss until around 830pm, and it might as well have been 4 in the afternoon.
The light was great.
Exhausted, we piled back into the car and headed back to the city. By the time we got back, we were too late to make a dinner reservation so we ate like locals at a kebab shop (Kebab Husid), which was really very good, all things considered.
We slept like the dead that night!
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Have you ever been to the glacier lagoon or elsewhere on Iceland’s south shore? I’d love to hear what you think!