Iceland’s most impressive natural wonders

24/10/2017 11:47

Written by Bradt Travel Guides

A trip to Iceland is not complete until you immerse yourself in the unrivalled, powerful nature of the island. From volcanoes and waterfalls to glaciers and geothermal areas – here are the best places to visit if you want to be blown away by the country's natural wonders. 

Jökulsárlón

Jökulsárlón, Iceland by David Sam, Visit South IcelandAt Jökulsárlón you can see icebergs close up © Visit South Iceland

The glacier lagoon of Breiðarmerkurjökull is the only place in Iceland where you are guaranteed to see icebergs up close. Only 50 years ago, the glacier reached all the way to the shore and the broken ice merely drifted away in the ocean waves. As the glacier recedes (100m per year) it gouges out a depression that is filled with melted water and giant chunks of ice. These icebergs collect at Jökulsárlón lagoon’s shallow exit until they melt down into smaller ice cubes that tumble out to sea. It makes for quite a dramatic scene, with icy blue and white shapes lingering gently before the glacial cliffs of Vatnajökull. What makes some of Iceland’s glaciers so unique is the opportunity to get up close and personal, to leave the car behind and walk directly on to a glacier. 

Lake Mývatn 

Mývatn, Iceland by orxy, ShutterstockA visit to Mývatn often inspires reflection © orxy, Shutterstock

The volcanic wonderland of Mývatn is a bright oasis at the edge of Iceland’s desert highlands. Black lava fields give way to young mountains, interesting crater circles, and a flow of inland streams and lakes. The largest of these is Lake Mývatn, whose myriad pools and archipelagos are laid out with all the precision of a golf course. It is the famous Krafla hotspot that transforms a beautiful lake into an extraordinary landscape. The magma reservoir sits less than two miles beneath the surface – a literal bubble of volcanic activity that keeps things bubbling. Between the hot springs and mud pots the crusted ground is cracked and bulging. If anything, Mývatn inspires reflection about how the rest of the earth was made. 

Thingvellir 

Thingvellir, Iceland by Smallredgirl, DreamstimeThingvellir is home to a lake, mountains and lave fields © Smallredgirl, Dreamstime

Most images of Thingvellir depict the epicentre cluster of houses and the church next to the imperial lögberg (‘law rock’), but the sizeable national park encompasses the entire northern half of a pristine lake and all the mountains and lava fields beyond. Thingvallavatn (Thingvellir Lake) is the largest natural lake in Iceland (83km²) and probably the most tranquil. Here the melting ice of faraway glaciers is filtered through miles and miles of volcanic rock before the purest water flows directly into the lake from underground springs. The result is a deep (over 100m), clear, body of water that supports a vibrant ecosystem like no other.

Snæfellsjökull  

Snæfellsjökull, Iceland by Jan Mastnik, ShutterstockThe national park centres around Mt Snæfellsjökull © Jan Mastnik, Shutterstock

As a national park, Snæfellsjökull offers a tranquil escape with powerful views. It centres on the imposing volcano Mt Snæfellsjökull (1,446m). Geologists consider Snæfellsjökull dormant but Icelanders insist the mountain is very much alive – the last eruption took place 1,800 years ago, but the previous 10,000-year period saw some 20 different eruptions. Below the white cap, the sloping lava descends into a rough and desolate landscape of grey-black hills, craters, cliffs, and fields of broken lava rock.

Geysir

Strokkur, Iceland by Wojtek Chmielewski, ShutterstockStrokkur is the best place to capture an image on an erupting geyser © Wojtek Chmielewski, Shutterstock

Trails meander through this geothermal field, a compact collection of hot pools, fumaroles and geysers. The great geyser of Geysir has been known to shoot boiling water more than 70m high. At the moment it is dormant (just a giant, quivering, circular pool) but that could change at any moment, so keep watching it closely. Meanwhile, Strokkur erupts at a height of under 20m every 7 to 8 minutes, providing the best photo opoortunities. The bubbling turquoise pool and churning gush of hot water is impressive. 

Námaskarð

Námaskarð, Iceland by Bjarki Sigursveinsson, Wikimedia CommonsMud pools and fumaroles dot the landscape at Námaskarð © Bjarki Sigursveinsson, Wikimedia Commons

The mountain pass across Námaskarð is one of the highlights on the ring road – depending on the direction of travel, visitors get hit with idyllic views of Mývatn or the intense smell of sulphur. The naturally heated foot trail around Námafjall allows a view from up high, but one might save time by going straight to the hot springs area at Hverir. The desolate scenery of Námaskarð is streaked with the most striking colours: reddish-brown ochre and whitish dirt, bright sulphur-green crystals and purplish pools of boiling mud. When there’s wind (which is most of the time), the hissing fumaroles feel positively ethereal. 

Landmannalaugar

Landmannalaugar, Iceland by Marten House, ShutterstockThe mountains of Landmannalaugar are pure rhyolite © Marten House, Shutterstock 

Hot springs and volcanoes are found just about everywhere in Iceland, but nothing compares to the wild wonderland that is Landmannalaugar. Halfway between the volcanoes of Laki and Mt Hekla, this polygon-shaped nature reserve encloses a mysterious landscape made from the many forms of water and lava. The mountains of Landmannalaugar are pure rhyolite  – a crystallised, slow-forming igneous rock that is far more interesting than the basic basalt blocks seen everywhere else in Iceland. The colourful stone forms smooth, pyramid shaped peaks, with slopes that lie somewhere between gentle and unforgiving. Depending on the weather and the light, the rocks and sand shine yellow and reddish-brown, streaked with blue, green, and purple ash impacted from ancient eruptions. On other days, the earth seems scorched and lifeless. The steam rising up from each valley adds a mystical sense and leads to the hidden lives of all the rivers, pools and springs that mark the land.

Kirkjufell 

Kirkjufell, Iceland by SnorriThor, ShutterstockKirkjufell is surprisingly easy to climb © SnorriThor, Shutterstock

Kirkjufell is a cathedral of stone that rises up in the middle of the Grundarfjörður fjord. It’s a stunning postcard vision, printed in ads and brochures but often without any acknowledgement. Granted their first view, travellers are compelled to stop and exclaim ‘wow’. With sheer rock walls that slope steeper and steeper, it might seem impossible to climb, but it’s really quite a cinch. Anyone can do it, but given a few complex situations near the top, it’s imperative that you take a guide with you.

Svartifoss

Svartifoss, Iceland by Visit IcelandWater shoots over black basalt columns at Svartifoss © Visit Iceland 

At the popular Svartifoss, gushing white water shoots out over an overhanging ridge of shiny black basalt columns. The rocks were formed from slow volcanic cooling, after which the water and ice broke down the cliff. The land beyond Svartifoss is ‘the heath’ or Skaftafellsheiði – it is a very gradual incline that rises up to the higher mountains in the Skaftafell National Park.  

Goðafoss

Goðafoss, Iceland by Filip Fuxa, ShutterstockGoðafoss can be found in the midst of a flat, rocky landscape © Filip Fuxa, Shutterstock

The wide white waterfalls of Goðafoss come as a bit of a surprise, even if you can see the mist rising from a distance. In the midst of the flat, rocky landscape, a gorge of columnar basalt suddenly opens up, causing the Skjálfandafljót River to tumble in a loud rush. The semicircular falls are not only impressive for their height (12m), but also for their width (over 30m) and the massive volume of clear water that shoots from the edge. 

Látrabjarg bird cliffs

Látrabjarg, Iceland by BMJ, ShutterstockLátrabjarg is the largest bird cliff in Iceland © BMJ, Shutterstock

Any seaside rock face that’s covered with birds for some of the year is called a bird cliff, and in Iceland that constitutes most of the mountainous coastline and the off shore islands. In columns or in layers, the basalt cliffs offer the perfect nesting spot for so many birds. In summer, the magnificent number and concentration of birds is astounding. On a cliff like Látrabjarg, the largest bird cliff in Iceland, more than one million birds will cling to a sheer and vertical surface, protected from harm and with easy access to the sea. From May to August, expect puffins, guillemots, razorbills, and fulmar in overwhelming numbers. 


Iceland is our Destination of the Month for November, sponsored by Discover the World.

Discover the World have been pioneering holidays to Iceland for almost 35 years. Proud of their reputation as the no.1 specialist for self-drive, guided tours, independent and tailor made travel to Iceland they also offer Scandinavia, Australia and New Zealand, Canada and Alaska, Namibia and beyond. All Iceland self-drive clients receive free access to an iPad with their unique and exclusive app, iDiscover, featuring your personalised itinerary, useful information and hidden gems to explore along the way.  

Discover the World’s dedicated Travel Specialists have personal experience of all their destinations and can give expert, friendly advice. Visit the website to browse their trip packages, or contact them for a tailor made quote. 

Discover the World logo

 Want to see Iceland's natural wonders for yourself? Check out our guide for more information:   

Iceland, The Bradt Travel Guide by Andrew Evans

Back to the top


Post Comments

There are no comments on this article yet.


Submit Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment. Click here to log in.