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 Iceland’s natural wonders.
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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.
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.
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 of Iceland’s natural wonders.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.