WOW airlines has direct flights from all over the U.S. and Europe to Keflavik, Iceland. It’s a discount airline, with decent prices but also the amenities to match. For our fare, we got seats – pretty nice spacious ones, surprisingly – but that’s it. We paid extra for a couple of checked bags as we were flying from 100°F temps in the southwestern U.S. to 0°C temps in Iceland and needed the clothes to deal. We flew out of LA, stocked up on snacks and freebies at the LAX USO for our no-frills no-food WOW flight, and spent the 9+ hour flight reading or napping; good thing my kiddo’s have spent longer durations in super-no-frills space-A travel.
In Keflavik, at 4 am, the sun was up and it was sleeting. Yay! We booked a rental car for the weird morning arrival – not wanting to pay the high price for an extra full day of our campervan rental for the handful of extra hours. By 5:30am we were at Krysuvik geothermal area watching the bubbling mud pots and steaming creeks flow out of the mountain. It was devoid of life and freezing cold, but an interesting site reminiscent of Yellowstone. We had yet to change into those winter clothes we brought and just threw on coats and hats.
To warm up, we arrived early for our 8am opening appointment at the Blue Lagoon. This place is what you see advertised the most when searching for Iceland, and it was unique, though overpriced. I really feel like we could’ve skipped it and just hit up another city pool and saved some cash, especially with kids, but more on that later. The Blue Lagoon is basically a giant outdoor spa hot tub lake full of water runoff from the nearby geothermal plant, which is not gross. It’s full of silica; touted as being very good for your skin and clearing up any skin conditions. It was expensive; roughly $100 each for Bryan and I, though the kids were free. In our gender-based changing rooms we were given a locker to stash our clothes, showered nude, doused our hair in the free conditioner, and then put on our swimsuits to hustle out into the cold air.
The water is super warm and very blue, chalky blue. We wandered and explored the steamy space; when we first arrived the steam was so thick and the air so cold we couldn’t see but 10 feet in front of us and had no idea to the size of the pool we were in. It gave the place a fun mystery that kept the interest alive for our kids. We had fun finding neat rocks or snugly places under a bridge, or putting on the free silica face mask clay. Zoe loved this face mask, and covered herself with it multiple times! She could’ve used a bit more conditioner, though, as the silica coated her hair and turned it into a giant crunchy chunk. There were little jets at a few spots and a fun water fountain under the bridge; we grabbed our free beverage, too, choosing a couple skyr (Icelandic yogurt) shakes, favoring the blueberry to the strawberry. When sufficiently hot, we would go shallow or sit on the edge to freeze and then hop in the water again. It was a bit tough on the kiddo’s to not splash and treat this massive pool like a relaxing hot tub, but they had a good time exploring. By the time we were pruny, the steam had cleared and the pool was fairly full of people. We returned to our chilly locker rooms to shower, and found that the free conditioner helped removed the plasticky coating from Zoe’s hair. In all, we spent about 3 hours.
We returned to the airport, and Geysir car rental, to pick up our campervan which turned out to be newer than expected but had some lovely duct tape holding together a side panel, a bathroom sink that leaked, and a table Bryan needed to zip tie down to prevent collapse. Regardless, it was still quite nice with a great over-cab bed, and another in the rear, plenty of storage and good heat. It was ideal for touring Iceland as planning ahead for hotels would be a hassle; this way we could flow with the weather and our interests.
Our first stop was the Kronan grocery for some pasta, taco ingredients, fruit, veg, and skyr. The prices were not as crazy as we expected given that we did not purchase meat and chose store brand food. Later, we discovered that certain items were best priced at Kronan, like fruit and veg, while other things were cheaper and more plentiful at a store called Bonus whose attractive giant pink pig logo was hard to miss.
We were pretty exhausted after being nearly awake, with only small airplane naps, for over 24 hours. The kids fell asleep instantly in the camper, but Bryan and I pushed up 45 minutes to Reykjavik – the capital of Iceland and parked at the university for a little break. Eventually, we woke the kids and took a lovely sunny walk about the city to see the Hallgrimskirkja. It’s a beautiful city with nice parks and spring flowers just coming up; it certainly had the look of a German/Scandinavian blend. At the church, Avi loved the organ, which was practicing during our visit. We walked around town window shopping a bit, and popped into a couple thrift stores to check on buying a wool sweater, but the prices were still too high for us. As we looped back to the car we got our first experience with crazy Icelandic weather patterns; all those hats, mits, and coats we had been hand-carrying because of the nice warm sunshine went back on as it started to snow. Nice big flakes of snow, too, which didn’t seem to bother this very soft small kitty we stopped to pet for a long while. As we reached the camper, the wind accompanied the snow and we were so glad for a little rolling house.
In the morning we woke up to 3 inches of snow on the grounds of Þingvellir (thingvellir); the national park where the earliest Icelandic people began their yearly AlÞing (allthing). The AlÞthing was the national council, or assembly or parliament, where representatives from the regional councils, local Þings, came to decide on laws, pass judgments that couldn’t be handled regionally, and also to speak and meet with each other. It’s usually quite a crowded tourist magnet, but we lucked out with fresh snow, mostly sun, and empty fields and trails.
The kids built a snowman, and we walked the length of the canyon reading boards along the way and finding the council rock where local lawmakers ran Iceland beginning in 930 and continuing until 1800 even during absorption into both Norway and then Denmark. This is the oldest and longest running parliament in the world, and the tradition continues, though the AlÞingi meetings now take place downtown Reykjavik. It’s an incredible place when empty; there is water rushing through the canyon and we could feel the power of place those early Vikings-turned-farmers must have felt when choosing the location. There is human history steeped here, but the canyon itself is geologically ‘young’. It is the fresh ground where the North American tectonic plate and the Eurasian tectonic plate are slowly spreading; there is 2cm of new land here yearly and it’s getting wetter. The valley floor had been more of a field during ancient times, allowing the attendees to travel across Iceland and campout. Now, it is a marshy wet series of streams. The canyon is part of the mid-Atlantic ridge that runs the length of the Atlantic ocean; very special, indeed. Also special: giant Iceland rye crispbreads (hrökkbrauð).
Once the road was plowed we began to see a handful of tourists, and got back on the road for the rest of the “Golden Circle” – a little loop of tourist sites near Reykjavik that sees the most day trippers. Geysir was next; this is the original geysir from whence we get the English word geysir for a hot pot that periodically sprays into the air. The actual Geysir no longer sprays, but its buddy Strokkur sure puts on a good show every 8 minutes. While watching Strokkur and enjoying some of the nearby mudpots, it snowed again – quite hard – for about 20 minutes and we realized this would be our norm for the next few days: hourly snow squalls followed by warm sun!
Next on the Golden Circle is Gullfoss (foss means waterfall), where Avi insisted we take the path down through the spray to see it from side and I’m so glad we did. This foss is really like a stairstep set of Niagara falls – one coming down to a ledge and a second fall turned 90 degrees descending into the steep canyon below. We could only see the bottom of the lower falls once we walked the trail.
The kids fell asleep in the camper after that, which worked out as the Reyjadalur hot springs – next on our loop – were closed for preservation. Finished with the ‘golden circle’ highlights we began our anti-clockwise loop along route 1: the Ring Road around the whole of Iceland. We have the next 8 days to return to Reykjavik the long way around.
Seljalandfoss (remember foss = waterfall) was next along the road – its a beautiful tall waterfall with a trail that loops behind. Avi was so into this place, and kept running down the valley to see the other waterfalls along the cliff. There are so very very many waterfalls in Iceland! Many, which would be special elsewhere, are simply named after the farm or town they are nearest and after a few days we just passed them by. Near Seljalandfoss are 3 other falls – the most special being a hidden fall that has carved a hole into a thin canyon. Along the walk to it, Zoe noticed the first of many tiny hydroelectric power plants we would see. It was inside a shed-sized building along the base of a waterfall; farmers here used to make their own little plants like this to harness the power of the water.
In the evening we took advantage of a small outdoor hot spring, which turned out to be simply a warm spring – and not quite warm enough. A bit of a hike up a valley, the Seljavallalaug (laug being pool) was built up with cement and had some changing rooms but was only warm enough if you kept moving. Zoe and I did quite a few laps swimming in the most inefficient way we could – like an octopus pushing with our feet – and so stayed warm, but she joked with Bryan as he kept offering to get anyone’s towel when they were ready to get out… in reality he was ready to get out as soon as he got in. The getting out was super cold, but once dried and changed, it was a fine hike back out.
So, the lesson of the day was that the daylight will not fade. It’s May – there is only about 3 hours of twilight during the deepest night. We realized only too late that it was really really late at night by the time we were done in the hot spring and had driven to the Skogar campground.
The lesson during our next day was that if we hike with the snow at our backs, when it changes to sun in an hour, the return hike will be gorgeous and warm. Again we woke to fresh snow, but slept in and waited for the best shot at hiking to the top of Skogarfoss – another huge waterfall. And, true to our new expectation, the snow and wind was wild on the way up, but just as quickly as the snow started, it stopped and sun and blue sky came out.
After the hike, we spent hours at the Skogar Museum – part outdoor traditional and old farms to explore, and part indoor museum of rural life. Only 36% of Icelanders live in towns – the rest are still rural farmers and we all found this place fascinating because much of the traditional lifestyle in Iceland had not changed up to world war 2. Zoe loved to see all the spinning wheels, while Avi loved the old fishing boat.
Back on the road near the town of Vik the wind was getting quite strong; nearing the 15m/sec limit for our camping. Avi and I walked out to the Dyrholaey headlands to get a try at seeing some puffins or other seabirds, but the wind was so strong it felt like he was going to blow off!
From Vik it was a long drive across the sandur; the outwash plain of volcanic rock formed when the local volcanoes, Hekla, Katla, and even the huge one Grimsva under the Vatnajokull (glacier) erupt and melt their ice caps causing a massive flood into the valley. These huge sandur sections are all over Iceland, but this southerly one is the largest. The sandur’s look like big flat plains, but really the landscape rolling past is black sharp rock that looks like a massive gravel road was buckled everywhere and moss grew atop it.
Our haven for evening was the town of Kirkjubaejarklauster; and old town rumored to have been the location ancient Irish monks, or perhaps trolls, built a church prior to Viking settlement era. In reality, the basalt church ‘floor’ in question is really the tops of volcanic columns that have been eroded flat. Still, the theory that Irish monks actually discovered Iceland around the year 700 and used it as a hermitage has some backing in both the sagas and writings from monks of the time. Bryan and I took a ‘date night’ to walk to the basalt ‘church floor’ and the waterfall across the street from our evening campsite. The kids were too pooped out after a nice afternoon hike along the forested cliff in town. We were able to see the tallest tree in Iceland – its a measly 27 meters high – and a pretty double waterfall. The kids also found a neat little cave with an info board telling us its where the nuns used to hide from the monks when they would visit; apparently the nuns would sing from here to let the monks know they were near the monastery. A real monastery was built here around 1100, after Iceland adopted Christianity.
Another morning, another inch of fresh snow on the ground! We finished driving across the sandur, which was much prettier with a coating of snow, and visited Skagtafell National Park. Here is a beautiful canyon with waterfall after waterfall cascading down from the glacier high above. The kids voted to try to hard hike up and it was quite nice and easy – we figured out later that the easy hikes were nearly paved and this was deemed hard because it was an actual hiking trail. Yes, there was decent elevation gain, but the trail was easy for our family and it went alongside the waterfalls the entire route. Avi insisted on posing in front of each fall, to the point of telling me where to stand to get the best angle.
When we arrived at our destination: the Svartifoss (waterfall) at the top of the hike, the sun had been replaced and we prepped for snow. Instead we got frozen pellets, huge frozen pellets. It was like Dippin Dots falling from the sky! As the pellets gathered, we could pick them up and they stuck together nicely just like dippin dots and tasted quite fresh – as well! Zoe gathered them on her cracker, and Bryan figured out they smooshed together and became crunchy. What a funny treat. To finish the hike, we looped around the top of the heath: there is so much water in this country that it doesn’t soak into the soil. A lot of the land is overladen and squishy heaths or fens. I think its why trees and plants don’t grow well. Along the way, the kids began getting silly with nicknames. Avi asked to be called Avten from now on and Zoe learned that PaJoe used to call me Katie Monica conehead, which they both found hysterical. It was such a joyful time!
After Skaftafell came glacier land – the massive Vatnajokull (jokull here meaning glacier) covers 8100km² and is the largest glacier in Europe by volume. There are numerous small glacier tongues that extend down into the lower valleys, like that in Svinafells. As we made our way toward the glacier along a bit of sketchy cliff edge we were caught in the hourly snowstorm and instead made our way back to the little lagoon of meltwater and glacial chunks. By the time we climbed up on a chunky bit, the sky cleared again and we could really see the bright blue beauty of this glacier. Avi declared this his favorite part of the trip so far, to be able to play on some massive chunks of glacier!
Prior to the trip, I downloaded all the free Smart Guide tours in Iceland, and the talks along this section were fun and interesting to listen to while driving between glacial valleys. We listened to stories about Thorgerdur, the female settler to the area and heard all about Arctic foxes. Amazingly, just as we finished the fox segment, a real Arctic fox ran across the street in front of us and lumbered off into a field to our left!
Back on the glacier path, we stopped for a peek at the small glacier lagoon before parking along the ocean side of the biggest glacier lagoon (Jokulsarlon) in Iceland. Here, the kids were excited with a black sand beach and glaciers floating along the small river out of the lagoon and into the sea! We watched one large glacier roll over and expose its large underside, just like you read about. Too cool! There was ice to throw and sand the play in. We sat for a long snuggled into a little mound watching the ice and the seals who live here.
We overnighted that evening in the town of Hofn where the wind was so loud and scary that Bryan nor I slept well. We woke early and left to drive along the windy and drizzly south coast – finally leaving behind the other tourists on limited time. It seems that the glacier lagoon is the turn around point for short visits. It was quite a good thing we did this coastal drive so early while the wind was bearable – later we found it had risen to 24m/sec along that stretch after we were done! yikes. Along the way we saw some of the wild reindeer that make Iceland home – an introduced species. Those arctic foxes are the only native mammals on the island, and scientists aren’t quite sure how exactly they got there. The cutest mammals on the island, though, must be the baby sheep! It is lambing time, and they are so fuzzy and adorable.
In Djupivogur, a small coastal town that marks the beginning of the east coast, and the end of that long stretch of southerly windy coast road, we found a quiet place near the port and took a much-needed morning nap. The town has some really cute homes intertwined with interesting rock outcroppings which make for nice windbreaks and silence! The eastern fjords country is very pretty, and quite different than the southern coast we have spent 4 days crossing. We tried to find a water spout called saxa hole with no luck, though each kiddo felt they spotted it somewhere or another. We stocked up on food in the town of Reydarfjordur, and veered off route 1 and the ring road to visit some of the smaller fjord towns. There was a fun Smart Guide tour of Eskifjordur all about the fishing history and the people who lived here.
From there, we drove an 8km tunnel to spend a lovely sunny afternoon in the town of Neskaupstadur hiking along their Folkvangur park atop the coastal cliffs. There were little bridges over the soggy ground, and views of the Atlantic ocean, plus a cool exposed cave where Zoe poked her head into a little hole and was shocked when a mama bird flew out. There were babies in a nest inside! Avi kept driving me nuts walking a bit to recklessly near the edge, but it was a wonderful afternoon hike. We would’ve liked to stay in Neskaupstadur – the town was lovely with nice schools and playgrounds and the regional hospital, but their campground (and you must stay in a campground throughout Iceland) was high on the hill behind town. After the windy night we had prior, we decided to backtrack to Eskifjordur and use their little campground tucked back in the trees along the valley floor. The kids spent a late evening playing in their playground, and Bryan and I took a stroll around town.
In the morning, we had our first visit to a city pool; another learning experience. The public pools are all outdoors in Iceland, but heated and used year round!! They are amazing. The Eskifjordur public pool has some super fun outdoor slides, plus a nice lap pool, two hot tubs and a great shallow kid pool, plus a dry sauna and a cold dip, as if we would use that. The kids had a blast and this was a wonderfully warm and satisfying way to get cleaned up. We, of course, showered prior to going into the pool as is required because they don’t chemically treat the pool water, and also had nice long showers afterward.
This first half of our Ring Road adventure has been a blast. We rounded it out with a stop in Egillstadir for restocking a a quick glance into their deep lake for The Worm – the Icelandic lake monster. The north and west parts of the island await!