Have you driven the Golden Circle and want to see more of Iceland's unique nature and magnificent sights? Take the rental car from Reykjavik and drive to southern Iceland along the Ring road towards Vik, and you will get a long and experiential day trip to wild waterfalls, black lava beaches and rugged landscapes! Here you will find my travel guide to all the places and sights that we visited and appreciated, by car and on foot.
Distances and roads
To get from Reykjavik to Vik, drive the Ring Road (the ring road) to the south. It is extremely important that you start your day trip early in the morning! It is 18 miles easy road, so expect it to take between 4,5-5 hours there and back without stopping.
The southern Ring Road is paved and the speed is 90 km/h on most stretches, but the road surface is basically non-existent. You should expect a lot of traffic in the middle of the day during the summer months and simply plan to take it easy after the road. During the summer months in Iceland, however, the days are long, so you don't have to worry about having to drive in the dark.
The first part of the day trip lasts 1,5 hours over a landscape reminiscent of a barren mountain. The roads were snow-free when we drove them in April, but there was plenty of snow on the side of the road in places. The ground is sizzling and smoking and there are thermal power plants and pipes along large parts of the route.
There are a few viewpoints along the way, including one 4,5 miles from Reykjavik, just before Hveragerði. Around Hveragerði there is a lot of geothermal activity, and here in the village there are both geothermal greenhouses (where you can grow tomatoes, among other things, all year round) and a bath house. If you have time and want to eat something unique on your way back to Reykjavik, the restaurant will cook Meat and art their food directly on the hot water vapor from the underground.
1: Vestmannaeyjar (11 miles)
Just before you reach the first stop on this day trip, look out over the sea and Vestmannaeyjar – The Västman Islands. If you have time, these islands are worth a day trip from Reykjavik in themselves!
Home island (the large island on the far right), is the largest of the Västman Islands and the only inhabited island. In 1973, the island was hit by a large volcanic eruption and for a whole five months, lava welled up over the island. By the time the eruption was over, over 400 houses had been covered in ash and lava – from which the island was nicknamed "The Pompeii of the North".
The island on the far left is Ellidae, an uninhabited island known for "the world's loneliest house". In the 1950s the Ellidaey Hunting Association built a lodge for its members to use here on the island when hunting puffins. I couldn't see the house from land even if I tried, it's probably hidden behind a ridge of rocks.
2: Seljalandsfoss waterfall (12,1 miles)
The 60 meter high seljalandsfoss is one of the few waterfalls I've visited where you can actually go behind the waterfall itself. The waterfall is located near Ringvägen and is one of the most famous motifs on postcards and in commercials. The water that thunders down Seljalandsfoss comes from the glacier Eyjafjallajokull. Heard that name before? It is quite likely that you have heard about this glacier in connection with a volcanic eruption that caused great flight chaos in 2010.
Feel free to walk a little further along the edge of the mountain, here there are several small beautiful waterfalls that are worth a walk.
NOTE: The car park is very small, so it is well worth being out early in the morning. We managed to squeeze in the last parking spot when we got here, but don't count on that kind of luck! Don't forget to pay the parking fee and please bring a rain poncho, because it is very wet going in behind the waterfall!
3: Skogafoss waterfall (14,8 miles)
The next stop is only a short drive from the previous stop. Skogafoss is as high as Seljalandsfoss, but much wider and wilder. This waterfall is Hollywood's favorite and you can see glimpses of it in one of the Thor movies. The location of the waterfall and the large amount of water droplets that are scattered in the air create large rainbows when the sun is shining. Very pompous! If you want, you can walk a small path up to the top of the waterfall, where you can get a different angle of the waterfall's power.
NOTE: We actually skipped Skogafoss on the way to Vik and took this stop on the way back to Reykjavik instead, both because of the weather and the amount of cars and buses. The parking lot here is slightly larger than at Seljalandsfoss, but there are no IKEA parking lots.
4: Skógar Folk Museum (14,8 miles)
Right next to the Skogafoss waterfall is Skogar and its museum. Even if you're not into old houses, this is Iceland's equivalent of Skansen. Here you will learn about how Icelanders lived through the centuries and see objects that date back to the Viking Age. The entrance is quite expensive (2000 Icelandic kronor per adult in 2018), but you should at least stop by the parking lot briefly and look around the area. Viewing the houses from the parking lot is free.
5: Dyrhólaey (17,4 miles)
Almost at the front of Vik is the bird paradise Dyrholaey. Dyrholaey is a small peninsula that is best known for its rock arches by the sea, but during the summer months this is a nesting area for puffins, among other things, so then the road is closed (May and June - check with the tourist office!). We were here in April and didn't see a single puffin, but at least the road was open.
You can choose to go up to the lighthouse at the top or take a lower route towards the rocks. The road to the top did not feel like something our VW Golf would have been able to handle, here I would have liked to have had a four-wheel drive image. However, the lower road is entirely possible to drive with a normal car. The view of the lava beaches and the dark sea is striking, here you can stay for hours and wander around looking at the views.
From the lower parking lot you can walk down to the beach Kirkjusandur, but do so with great care and with constant attention! On the beaches at Dyrholaey often come so-called "sneaker waves" – bigger and longer waves that come much further up land than the normal waves. Fatalities have unfortunately occurred when tourists have been sucked out to sea, so stay a good distance up the beach and keep an eye out for high tide!
6: Reynisfjara (18 miles)
Last stop for today, is the black lava beach reynisfjara with its mysterious large basalt columns and with the black rocks Reynisdrangar that rises out of the sea. The weather here is among the most changeable I experienced in Iceland. We had three weathers - Sunshine, snow and rain. All within an hour. Reynisdrangar (see image at top of page) is very popular to climb for the ultimate selfie, but the sea here is just as unreliable as at Dyrhauley. Big unexpected waves often come high up on the beach - no selfie in the world is worth being dragged out to sea for!
Even Reynisfjara has had its fair share of Hollywood fame, with the filming of Game of Thrones and Rogue One here on the beach. Walk up and down the beach (at a safe distance from the sea!) and admire the smooth black rocks that make up the beach and feel the smooth basalt pillars that are constantly changing.
Tip: If the weather is bad and your stomach rumbles is Svarta Fjaran Café a perfectly OK place to sit and warm up and wait out the storm. A bit overpriced, but fresh and what we ordered was good!
Time to turn back to Reykjavik
It's probably almost noon by now, so it's time to turn back towards Reykjavik. Your cheeks are warm from all the chilly sea breezes and your memory full of unimaginably beautiful views. This day trip really showcases some of South Iceland's most beautiful places, hope you will enjoy this day trip as much as I did!
Tip: On the way back to Reykjavik, take the opportunity to take out your mobile phone and book a restaurant in Reykjavik if you haven't already done so. It is very nice to drive directly from this adventure to a lovely restaurant. Doesn't it feel completely okay to cook dinner in a fleece sweater and hiking boots? Just calm down, everyone does it!!
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