Let’s make it simple : in Iceland, in winter, there is only one reasonable way to travel around. And that’s a car. Although there are buses and Iceland is known for a good hitchhiking country, I would have died if I had spent half an hour waiting outside in the snow, as often happens with these modes of transportation.
With a car, you can run back and turn on the seat warmer whenever you feel you’re about to loose your fingers, and that’s a necessity, not a comfort.
This road trip, starting from Reykjavik and driving on the road one all along the south coast of Iceland, could be done in any season and with any kind of vehicle. In Iceland, some roads are only allowed if you’re driving a four wheel drive, and others are forbidden to rental cars altogether (the F-roads).
There’s also the simple fact that, in winter, a reasonable driver will refuse to engage on some roads that are not properly cleared. In any case, this road trip is available to everybody in any weather, so enjoy!
DAY 1 – FROM REYKJAVIK TO SELFOSS
Driving out of Reykjavik gives you the opportunity to drive the popular Golden Circle. Big tourist buses will show you the way no matter what.
Thingvellir is a national park with a beautiful view on a huge lake. You can pretty much stop wherever you want, although there’s one official stop where several walking trails start (once again, you’ll find it easily, it’s full of tourists buses and there’s only one road). In summer, you might want to stop here for the day if you’re a hiker.
Further along, the Geysir area is a geothermal hot spot with several bubbling streams and smallish geyser. The main attraction is the Strokkur that explodes every seven minutes in a huge column of water (at least 10 meters high)! You can also walk up the hill behind the area in about ten minutes to get a beautiful view of your surroundings.
The last item on the Golden Circle is Gulfoss, which is so big it’s hard to call it a waterfall. A small path leads down to a good view point (packed with tourists, obviously). To be honest, the pictures might look amazing, but I don’t remember much. The waterfall is very powerful and was sending droplets of water everywhere, making it so cold that I had to walk the last meters towards the waterfall backwards, and then turn really quickly to have a look.
I ended up running to the store at the start of the path because my fingers were hurting like hell and I was starting to have frostbites image flashing through my brain. When I got back to the car, it indicated -15°. Bring good gloves.
Driving towards Selfoss, you can make one last stop at Skalholt, a little church surrounded by a handful of houses and a beautiful countryside.
Selfoss is nothing much but has a really good hostel open all year : Bed and breakfast Selfoss (Austurvegur 28). If it’s empty, don’t hesitate to ask lower prices, the owner is really nice.
DAY 2 – FROM SELFOSS TO VIK
Warning, this was my favorite day, be prepared for some mind blowing scenery!
A few minutes outside of Selfoss is Urridafoss, a big waterfall with a path along the edge of the water. I enjoyed it much more than Gulfoss, because it was less cold, but also because the masses of “Golden Circle tourists” were gone.
Keep going on the road 1 and be careful when you go through Hvolsvollur, that’s the last gas station before Vik!
There’s a big drive after Selfoss before reaching the next spot of interest, although Iceland is so beautiful that there’s always something on the edge of the road, some view point, to stop for. The Seljalandsfoss Waterfall is clearly visible from the road. There’s a path going behind the waterfall, which must be slippery in summer, but in winter was completely frozen over and seriously dangerous. Still, it’s a beautiful spot.
Just a few minutes further on the road, the Skogafoss Waterfall is another popular stop. I was lucky enough to see a rainbow on the waterfall, and there’s a stair climbing all the way so that you can stand above the waterfall. I highly recommend the view!
Now we’re arriving at the weirdest spot : the Solheimasandur Plane Wreck. The road is in theory only accessible for 4×4, so if you have a small car you can park in front of the gate and then walk the two little kilometers (or get a lift from someone with a big car). The plane crashed there on the edge of the sea during WWII, and the owner of the land decided it was his property now and made them leave it there.
The good news is that no one was killed in the crash, and the good news is that now it’s just there to offer the best photography opportunity ever (yep, no bad news with me)! It kind of made me feel like I had stumbled inside a Lost episode, and it also gave me my very first view of the sea. You just have to walk for about five minutes from the wreck to land on a black sand beach face to face with the powerful freezing waves. I’ll ramble on about Iceland’s coast later.
As we’re getting nearer to Vik, we’re also driving closer to the sea. Turn on the 218 to reach Dyrholaey. Two car paths are available from this road, I recommend you do both. One will take you just a tad above sea level, and the other climbs (narrow path, slippery in winter, be careful) up a hill to a lighthouse.
From there, you have a beautiful view on the cliffs, with birds flying everywhere. It’s a puffin nesting ground, so you might even get lucky and see some. The famous arch is also clearly visible from both spots, standing in the sea.
Just before reaching Vik, turn on the 215 to get to Reynisfjara. This is Vik’s beach, my favorite spot, and I’ve already dedicated a whole post to its incredible beauty, so I won’t bore you more.
In Vik, I recommend sleeping at the Nordur-Vik Youth Hostel (first on the left after the river, follow the road to the end), it’s a little bit apart from the city and standing on a hill, so it’s a good spot to maybe catch an aurora (this is where I saw mine, in any case).
DAY 3 – FROM VIK TO HOFN
After driving about one hour out of Vik, turn on the 206 to reach Fjaorarglijufur (no idea how to say that one), a river inside a deep canyon, with a path climbing on the side over the cliff. The view is beautiful and there was no snow there for some reason.
Next stop is Skaftafell at the feet of the glacier. There’s plenty of long or short walks to do from there to get nearer to the glacier or deeper into the national park. The best is to park next to the information center and to ask them directly which way you can walk, because in winter some ways might not be open.
There’s also a small exhibit on the glacier inside the information center. One of the most popular walks is the one to Svartifoss, a waterfall surrounded by basalt columns. The path is easy and lasts less than one hour.
Back in the car, just after the information center (about 2 kilometers), take a path on the left. There’s a parking lot and then a five minutes walk that will lead you to the very feet of the glacier, the Svinafellsjokull! You could also walk there from the information center if you have time.
The last stop before Hofn is one of the most famous places in Iceland. The Jokulsarlon is a lake in which huge blocks of ice float, looking like a scene straight out of the Titanic movie. A little bit further on the other side of the road, there’s a black sand beach also covered by these mysterious blocks of ice.
At sunset or sunrise, the light makes it all breathtaking. Jokulsarlon is also a prime spot for Aurora watching, because the lights reflect on the ice, creating a completely surreal scene, but I was not lucky enough to catch them there!
There’s no need to drive to Hofn is you’re not on a budget, but in winter, it’s the only place that has an open hostel (Hvannabraut 3), so the drive is worth your money.
DAY 4 – FROM HOFN TO REYKJAVIK
Obviously, you have to turn back at some point, and bring the car back to Reykjavik. It’s a rather long drive, but you can still use it to stop again at your favorite spots (Vik’s beach, hum hum).
I rented a car at Sixt car, which was really cheap, especially if you manage to fill up the car (which I encourage you to do).