Iceland’s Natural Highlights

Experience Iceland’s many striking contrasts: steaming hot geysers on a freezing cold day, red houses set against blue waters, and Nordic cool warmed by the northern light.

Jökulsárlón, Iceland
This lake filled with giant, translucent chunks of iceberg is one of Iceland’s most distinctive and photogenic sights. Featured in high-profile movies, including two of the James Bond series and Batman Begins (as well as many local TV commercials), the sight is reached via a scenic drive along the country’s main ring road (Route 1). The icebergs originate at the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier, which looms in the distance behind the lagoon, and look especially otherworldly when they reach the nearby black-sand beach. The area is also a paradise for bird lovers, with arctic terns and skuas nesting in the area (they may dive-bomb you if you get too close to their nests), and it’s possible to spot the occasional seal. A nearby visitor center offers simple fast food and drinks as well as souvenirs.
This dramatic two-tier waterfall, whose name translates as “Golden Falls,” a reference to the shimmering mist that sometimes appears around the falls, is one of Iceland’s most famous—which is saying something in a country abundant with waterfalls. Saved from oblivion during the 1920s (foreign investors wanted to dam the falls to create hydropower), the waterfall lies in a canyon on the Hvítá river and is backed by scenic snowcapped peaks. It’s possible to follow the falls as they flow downstream through the canyon, either via a walking trail or on a rafting trip, though it’s worth noting that the paths are wet and can be slippery. The visitor center has a canteen that serves up surprisingly tasty local dishes like lamb soup; there are also a gift shop and a local exhibition centered around traditional life in the area.
Located about an hour northeast from Reykjavík and part of the famed Golden Circle tour (along with Gullfoss), the Geysir hot springs area consists of around a dozen hot water blowholes, including the eponymous Geysir. The Strokkur blowhole is the most popular, principally because it regularly (every few minutes, usually) spouts its boiling water up to 100 feet into the air. It’s still worth looking around at the other pools, even if they haven’t erupted for years or even decades, since they usually offer interesting colors and bubbling geothermal activity. The site also has a hotel, souvenir shop, café, and a related exhibition.
Rauðisandur, or (Red Sand), is precisely that: a beach with red sand. Endless red sand. Well, not endless, but 10 km is a lot. The magnificent hues of the sand differ with daylight and weather, and the beach is the biggest pearl in a string of coves with sand ranging in colors from white through yellow through red to black, and in coarseness from very fine to sole-hurting chips of seashells. What to do in Rauðisandur? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. There is a cafe but not much else. There’s just pure sand and unique tranquility. You might want to step out of the car, get the camera out and start walking. Forget everything. Except maybe getting the perfect shot of the ever-changing hues of yellow, orange and red. Getting there the road (614) is not of great quality and it’s very winding with 180-degree turns. Not protected with rails and narrow at times. I admit I was really scared looking down on my side of the car. Our car wasn’t really fit for this kind of road even if it is not an F type road. Jeep-like vehicles are best. But at the end of that was this magnificent beach and it was worth it.
Mývatn, Iceland
During summer the northern parts of Iceland get almost continuous daylight. The area around Lake Myvatn is ridiculously scenic - and not a little surreal - with geothermal areas (pictured), volcanic lakes and more. This image was taken at 11pm!
Dynjandi, Iceland
Although Gullfoss gets most of the tourists, Dynjandi waterfall is arguably one of the most breathtaking (and one of the biggest) in Iceland. Situated in the remote Westfjords (it’s sometimes described as the region’s jewel), it tumbles some 328 feet and creates a thunderous sound (dynjandi means “thunderous” or “resounding”). Impressively, the multiple cascades start at around 98 feet wide and spread to 646 feet at the bottom, creating a shape that’s often said to resemble a bridal veil. There are a few more additional waterfalls below Dynjandi that help make the short (15-minute) hike up to the main falls even more picturesque. You can stand right behind if you don’t mind a splash of water.
In the remote Westfjords of Iceland, many villages were abandoned in the 1950s due to the general decline of the fishing industries that kept them alive. Many of these villages are now protected wildlife areas and have their own special atmosphere for walkers and hikers. Hesteyri (pictured) is one of my favourites.
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