Iceland Road Trip - 5 Days
Updated, August 2019
I was not convinced visiting Iceland would be a great idea. It was a lot of action near the end of our three month trip around Europe. We were simply afraid we wouldn’t appreciate it all. Iceland has become a very popular destination over the last decade and I was also concerned it would be overrun by tourists. On photography forums and in other blog posts I had seen too many photos and it felt as if I had already been there before landing at Keflavik. This prenotion was dead wrong. Although I took hundreds of images in Iceland, it became less about the photos and more about just being there, surrounded by breathtaking landscapes where ever you go.
Route Map - Iceland Road Trip
Day 1 - Reykjavik to Stokkseyri
We picked up a rental car near the airport, a compact Kia. It was the longest we had ever waited to get a car, probably an hour and a half. It was quickly forgotten as we aimed for the south coast. We stocked up on groceries as we headed out of Reykjavik and prices were not as high as feared. The first night’s accommodation was at Ocean Beach Apartments in Stokkseyri. We found the drive perfectly manageable after our three and a half hour flight from Copenhagen and checked ourselves in. We booked the Ocean Beach Apartments with Expedia and paid $CAD 108.00 for one night. Very reasonable for Iceland. The room was very basic with a bathroom down the hall but we a had great sleep and woke up to a glorious sunrise.
Day 2, Stokkseyri - Kirkjubæjarklaustu
Can you see Seljalandsfoss, Skógafoss and Reynisfjara in one day?
Today’s destination was a bit of a tongue twister to pronounce. Even with my native language being Danish, which sometimes can resemble Icelandic words, this one was tricky. Not only was the destination a challenge to pronounce but it proved even harder to find. More about this later.
It was awesome to wake up to blue skies and to see the sun, low over the southern skies. We drove through farmland and even encountered a small herd of sheep on the road. Di suggested we make a detour on a gravel road, which was an awesome idea, as it let us straight to our first non-planned stop at the Urriðafoss Falls near Hwy 1. The sun was still low in the sky and provided a stellar scenario with backlighting. A photographer's dream scenario. We met a small group setting up for a day of fishing at the falls.
Seljalandsfoss, arriving early
Once on Hwy 1 we quickly found one of the more popular stops along the south coast, Seljalandsfoss. We were there fairly early but the tour buses beat us and it was indeed crowded. At first glance, the falls look underwhelming, but once you get closer and hear the roar of the 60-meter drop, the falls win you over. The crowds weren’t too bad once you got near the falls. The thing about crowds, you can always get rid of them in Photoshop :) Case in point, the photo below. Seljalandsfoss is also in the featured photo in this post.
Skogafoss, a worthwhile stop
Iceland is like an amusement park for landscape photographers. It only felt like a few kilometers in the car and we were ready for the next ride, Skógafoss, another waterfall. The sun was out when we arrived, so I jumped out of the car and managed to get a few shots before it clouded over. The weather lived up to Iceland’s reputation and changed very quickly. The drop at Skógafoss is coincidentally also 60 meters and we climbed the 370 steps up along the side of the falls and enjoyed the view from above. Although we were on the major tourist route, this made for a rewarding stop. The crowds magically disappeared again in the photo below.
Some of the most spectacular scenes unfold as you drive through the landscape in Iceland. Our plan was a three and a half-day round trip from Reykjavik to Stokksnes, approximately 1250 kilometers in total. Due to the fact, Hwy 1 is a two-lane highway, and most often does not have a shoulder, pulling over at the exact spot you envision isn’t always possible, and at times prohibited. There are however plenty of opportunities to take photos from designated pullouts, side roads and parking lots along the route. The photo below is captured from the road between Skógafass and the Black Sand Beach at Reynisfjara near Vik.
Reynisfjara and the Black Sand Beach
We made a couple of stops at Reynisfjara. First stop was at a distance to get an overview of the beach and, later right at the Black Sand Beach. It was extremely windy. I attempted a few long exposures from the viewpoint but it was impossible to keep the camera still on my mini tripod. The Black Sand Beach was insanely busy and initially, I felt like a fool for stopping. Countless tour buses make a stop here and it immediately shows. There is usually a solution to this problem and, in this case, it was merely to walk another 100 meters further down the beach and away from the crowds. A good stop after all.
Lunch stop in Vik
We made a quick stop at a shopping mall in Vik, where we warmed up with a coffee and picked up a few groceries. The mall was super modern and resembled any other mall you would find in North America or Copenhagen or anywhere in the world for that matter. Convenient but slightly disappointing. Vik, being one of the only towns you drive through, I had hoped for something more quaint.
Where to stay in Iceland?
Our final destination of the day, Kirkjubæjarklaustu, was about an hour away. Tiredness was starting to set it so we decided to go straight there and call it a day. We followed the GPS link from our Airbnb app, which was an unfortunate bad move. It sent us about half an hour too far along our route and when we finally realized, we had to turn around and backtrack. Slightly annoyed with our host, who didn’t seem too eager to help us, we arrived at our destination just fine but about an hour later than anticipated. We stayed at Flaga 2 - Guesthouse and paid CDN $240 for one night. The place was in the middle of nowhere but was decent and clean. We had a small room and shared a kitchen and bath with two or three other rooms. Accommodation cost is about, or more than double of what we would usually pay around Europe. We had a home-cooked meal, made plans for the following day and had an early night.
Day 3: Kirkjubæjarklaustu to Stokksnes
Jökulsárlón, Diamond Beach and Stokksnes in one day
We were looking at a manageable 210-kilometer road trip, which gave us lots of opportunities to make stops along the way. As it happened we were in for a grey, rainy, misty, windy and cloudy day. As we drove through the vast Eldhraun Mossy Lava Fields we were reminded of the forces at play here. Below a quote from Guide to Iceland.
The Eldhrun Lava Fields were created in one of the greatest eruptions in recorded history and is of the largest of its kind in the world.
This eruption lasted from 1783 to 1784. This was a cataclysmic event for Iceland and beyond. In Iceland, it lead to disease, crop failure, and disasters.
Despite the abysmal effect the eruption had, this lava field of 565 km2 is today one of the most stunningly attractive ones in Iceland.
Landscape photography from your car
You could easily pull over every two minutes along the road and capture a meaningful landscape photo. The scenery is in abundance. After a while, we decided we had to keep moving and just enjoy it from the car or we would not reach our destination in one day.
Vatnajökull Glacier comes into view
I was worried that we would run out of spectacular views as we drove further and further east. My line of thinking was: how could anything possibly top what we had already seen? Then suddenly, parts of the Vatnajökull Glacier, Iceland’s largest glacier, started appearing as the clouds were lifting on the horizon. It was magical and awe-inspiring and we made several stops to savor the moment.
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
Our next stop was at the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. This is one of the most famous attractions on the south coast of Iceland. The lagoon is linked to the Atlantic Ocean through a narrow straight. Numerous icebergs, broken off the glacier, float in the lagoon and eventually drift out to the Atlantic. This was Di’s favourite stop in Iceland. Several tour operators offer boat trips in the lagoon and it is indeed a tourist hot spot.
Iceland in September
The weather was a complete mixed bag in early September. One moment rain, the next windy and then around the corner nice and sunny and our jackets would come off.
At this point in our day, the weather was changing slightly for the better. There was plenty of scenery to feast your eyes on during the final leg of the drive.
Hotel in Höfn
We stayed at the Hotel Jökull in Höfn, an excellent choice but again the prices for accommodation is not for the faint of heart in Iceland. We booked with Expedia and paid CAD$ 235.00 for a basic room. The room was clean and simple with a bathroom across the hall. We were not too concerned as we would only spend one night. The included breakfast buffet was the most memorable part. It was a hearty Scandinavian breakfast with lots of choices. From cold cut meats to oatmeal, Müsli, eggs and delicious fresh bread to go with it. Marvellous!
Vestrahorn on the Stokksnes peninsula is stunning if you see it
Stokksnes is located about a twenty-minute drive from our hotel, which was near the town of Höfn. We checked in and had a rest before we decided to make the final drive out to Stokksnes, I will quote the Guide to Iceland again:
Vestrahorn, on the Stokksnes peninsula in Southeast Iceland, is one of the country’s most breathtaking mountains. With peaks reaching up to 454 meters (1490 ft), steep cliffs rising from the sides of a stunning lagoon, and black sand beaches all around, it promises to blow away anyone with an appreciation of stark natural beauty.
After a write up like that, you can imagine expectations and anticipation were building as we neared the turning point for our Iceland road trip. Anticipation slowly changed to skepticism as the weather and visibility made a turn for the worse. We kept going and paid the fee to cross the gate to the peninsula. The weather was not improving, so we waited a while in the car and consumed our dinner snack. It was now raining sideways and you couldn’t see Vestrahorn at all. The thing was, the weather could have turned on a dime but the reality felt different. This system seemed pretty determined to stick around for a while. I contemplated braving the element and Di finally convinced me to do it. I wandered the area for about 45 minutes and in the end, I captured a sliver of a silhouette of the mountain. That was the best we could do. It was slightly disappointing but then again, not. This is what you can expect out here and it was refreshing to feel the ruggedness of the elements right on the Ocean.
Day 4: Höfn - Reykjavik, 458 Kilometers
Driving in Iceland
Our Iceland itinerary was for 5 days, so it was time to double back as we made our way to Reykjavik along the same route we had followed the previous three days. The other option would have been to take the Iceland ring road, a 1332 kilometer loop. We had not allowed enough time for this but maybe one day. So backtracking it was.
Good news. The weather cooperated and we enjoyed varying degrees of sunshine. An all-around pleasant day for the 7-hour trek back. We made several stops along the way, including a second look at the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach. The light is everything and did some long exposure photography at Diamond beach capturing chunks of ice along the beach.
Day 5: Reykjavik and The Blue Lagoon
Staying two nights in Reykjavik
Almost three months of travel were coming to an end and before returning to Vancouver, Canada, we spent a couple of nights at an Airbnb, located about a 15 drive from central Reykjavik. A convenient spot between the airport and the city. It also made for an easy drive to the Blue Lagoon, which we were fortunate to visit on our last night.
Reykjavik, a city with Scandinavian flair
Reykjavik was an interesting city to visit and has an unmistakable Scandinavian flair. The city feels remote and yet modern at the same time. We primarily came to Iceland to explore the vast landscapes but Reykjavik was an enjoyable experience. To keep our cost in check we shopped at the local grocery store and cooked our meals in the common kitchen in the Airbnb. I think we may have discussed the challenges of getting coffee while on the road in the blog from time to time. Although promised, there was no coffee to be found in the Airbnb. There was however a sign promising free coffee at the neighborhood coffee shop. At the coffee shop, which didn’t open till 9 am, they had never heard of it but served us a much-needed cup all the same. Great service and we decided to go back the following day and this time paid for our coffees.
Reykjavik City Tour
We spent a morning in the city center. Parked by Hallgrímskirkja, the iconic 74.5-meter tall church. We arrived as it opened and after a very short wait toured the clock tower and snapped a view pic or two and then ventured into the quaint and cozy streets. After a short while the sun came out and the photographer was happy as the bright colours of the city really stood out. The center is quite touristy with dozens of gift shops featuring countless Icelandic wool sweaters. Very tempting but we resisted. We warmed ourselves in a nice coffee shop but did not spend more than a couple of hours in the city. We had to get back for our 3 pm time slot at the Blue Lagoon.
Blue Lagoon Trip
Almost everyone you talk to, who has been to Iceland, has also visited the Blue Lagoon. The official web site calls it one of the 25 wonders of the world. Located in the middle of a lava field, we were initially underwhelmed. However, upon entering the geothermal springs it was an almost surreal experience. I am usually skeptical when an attraction gets this much attention and ask myself, can it really be that special?
Blue Lagoon Booking
I will admit I found this a very expensive experience but an experience none the less, and one I would not be without. We had received gift cards for fathers and mothers day for the Blue Lagoon from our kids so the sting was not as bad. Our booking was made well in advance and we booked the premium tour which included admission, face masks, towels, slippers, bathrobes as well as a drink in the pool and a dinner reservation. Make sure to check the schedule and book well in advance for the most flexibility for options and availability.
Photography Tips for Iceland
I have been using my Fujifilm X-H1 mostly for the Iceland landscape photos. The built-in image stabilizer has aided me in getting steady and sharp photos handheld while stopping my lens down to typically f/8 or f/11. With my XF 90mm f/2 R WR, I would normally keep my shutter speed higher than 1/250 in order to avoid any camera shake. With the IBIS, I would quite often be okay all the way down to 1/30 or even lower if was careful in keeping the camera steady. Why not just use a tripod? We are traveling very lightweight and I have decided not to travel with a tripod besides a Manfrotto Pixi mini tripod.
For more photos from our 5-Day Iceland Road Trip check out our Smugmug site here: Iceland Road Trip
Travel Tips for Iceland
We rented a small Kia Hatchback, which was fine for the roads we traveled. For many destinations in Iceland, you will need a vehicle with more clearance and quite possibly a 4 wheel drive. Make sure you read up on your destination to make sure you do not get stuck. Note also your insurance may be void if you travel on terrain not meant for the vehicle you have rented. We stocked up on lunch snacks from the local supermarkets along the way. We found pricing more reasonable than we had anticipated.