Everything You Need to Know about the South Coast of Iceland

A very popular directions to head in after arriving in Reykjavik, the south coast of Iceland is widely considered one of the most beautiful areas in the country. This article will tell you everything you need to know about the region.

Iceland’s south coast has it all; black sand beaches, wonderful waterfalls, spectacular scenery full of glaciers, volcanoes, and mountains, and gorgeous vistas of windswept landscapes dotted with lonely and lost looking farmhouses. The entire area can be split up into two parts, which is what this article will do. First, the drive from Reykjavik down towards Vik, which can be completed in a day trip that will let you see a lot in such a small area. The second part of the south coast is a bit more spread out, but no less spectacular; the entire area is sparsely inhabited, dominated by the enormous Vatnajökull glacier. For those with the time on their hands to make it out towards the south east, the second half of this article will delve into the sights between the towns of Vik in the south, and Höfn in the south east.

From Reykjavik to Vík: A South Coast Day Trip

The drive from Reykjavik down towards the south is a relatively easy one. The mountain pass of Hellisheiði can at times be very windy, so remember to keep on top of any extreme winds or blizzards that might be occurring up there at www.en.vedur.is.
But once you’re over it’s easy going all the way down to Vík, with flat roads, plenty of places to stop for food, and most importantly, loads of amazing sights. Along the way are several towns, the biggest ones being Selfoss and Hveragerði, with the smaller outposts of Hella and Hvolsvöllur and Hella a bit further along, all with nice swimming pools for those looking to have a quick dip. For the travellers interested in bathing in the Reykjadalur hot spring river out the back of Hveragerði, this article won’t go into it, but you can read all about the hike here.

Seljalandsfoss and Gljúfrabúi

The first major stop on the way to Vik is a big one: Seljalandsfoss waterfall. You can see this one from a couple of kms away as you drive along the ring road, shooting out over the precipice of the highlands. It’s a special waterfall because you can walk all the way around it, getting a bit wet in the process – so bring your rain gear! Parking will set you back 700 isk.

To make the 700 isk cost worth it, head north along the cliff face and you’ll eventually come across a crack in the cliffs where you can climb in, finding the waterfall Gljúfrabúi gushing down inside. You can stand right at the base of these falls, and there are a lot less people. Again, make sure you’re wearing rain proof gear because you will get wet.

Seljalandsfoss waterfallPhoto by James Taylor/Travelade

Seljavallalaug

This popular and iconic hot pool can be found hidden along the south coast in the foothills of Eyjafjallajökull. Although it’s not the warmest water in the world, it’s still swimmable, and the location more than makes up for the cool water. Nestled at the base of the Eyjafjallajökull inside a lush valley is where you’ll find this gem, which was built in 1923 as a place for Icelanders to learn how to swim. It’s officially Iceland’s oldest swimming pool that can be found in the country today.

Take road 242 off the main route and follow the road towards the end. There is a small area for cars to park and then it takes about 30 minutes to walk into the valley, crossing over shallow streams and a slew of rocks. There are changing rooms on site.

Outdoor thermal pool in IcelandPhoto: Unsplash

Skógafoss

One of the biggest and most popular sights on this day trip is Skógafoss, another waterfall that can be spied easily as you drive along the main route. The beautiful and powerful waterfall is 60 metres tall, the water crashing into the bottom with such force that the mist will drench you as you get nearer to it. There is often a rainbow at the base, which makes for an amazing sight, and a set of stairs climb the cliff next to it allowing you to get several great vantage points of the falling sheet of water.

From the top, there is a small ladder that leads over the fence – this is the beginning of the Fimmvörðurháls pass. If you’re after a great day hike that will take you between two glaciers, past the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, and into the lush Thórsmörk Valley, then you can read about the hike here.
For those who don’t have the time to do the hike, I encourage you to follow the river up towards the glaciers anyway; you’ll leave the crowds behind and find numerous other waterfalls, most without names, and you can turn back whenever you want.

Skogafoss waterfall on the south coast of IcelandPhoto by James Taylor/Travelade

Sólheimasandur Plane Wreck

This spectacular and popular sight can be found just after you’ve passed Skogafoss. An old abandoned wreck of a plane lies on this black sand beach, making for a striking photo and conjuring up feelings of a stark isolation that many people travel to Iceland for. On the side of the main route is a large parking lot, the beginning of a long and dreary 45-minute trek over a vast expanse of black sand towards the coast. Just as you’re about to give up and turn back, you’ll sight the wrecked plane over a rise. It was the year 1973 when this US Navy airplane ran out of fuel and crashed on the beach. Luckily, everyone survived, and it turns out that instead of running out of fuel the pilot just switched over to the wrong fuel tank. For some reason it was never cleaned up and has now turned into a photographer’s dream.

Wrecked plane on the Icelandic black sand beachPhoto by James Taylor/Travelade

Dyrhólaey Peninsula and Rock Arch

Next stop along the route to Vik is the Dyrhólaey Peninsula, a large cliff that you might recognize from a Justin Bieber video. It’s here where he’s perched on the edge of the cliff looking out over an epic and long black sand beach, the waves crashing into the shore. The views from this outlook are phenomenal, and you can see the entire surrounding area; the cliffs off the coast of Vik further east, Solheimasandur beach stretching away towards the west, and of course the glaciers and highlands towards the north, often covered in a blanket of snow and shrouded in mist. As a bonus, puffins make their nests in the cliffs here during the summer months, so you can sight the quirky birds as they fly back and forth between the ocean and the cliffs, small fish caught in their bright beaks.

A beautiful rock arch stretches out further into the ocean, off limits to visitors but very impressive nonetheless.

The view from DYrholaey PeninsulaPhoto by James Taylor/Travelade

Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach

The last stop before reaching the small coastal hamlet of Vik is Reynisfjara black sand beach. This is the beach that caught the attention of the world, as a starring location in many TV shows and movies; think Game of Thrones, Star Wars, etc. At one end of the beach is a stack of volcanic basalt columns rising from the sand, serving as a reminder as to just why the sand is black – the ever-present volcanoes of Iceland. Beware of the water here, as it’s one of the most dangerous beaches in the world. Unsuspecting waves can sweep you off your feet and into the water, where unforgiving and powerful currents are the norm.

Reynisfjara black sand beach Photo by James Taylor/Travelade

Vík í Mýrdal

The beautiful town of Vík rests at the southernmost point of Iceland, the fierce North Atlantic crashing into the black sands of the nearby coast. It marks the turnaround point for day trips from Reykjavik, or a place to grab a bite to eat and fuel up before continuing along towards the east. The most famous sight in the town are three large sea stacks can be seen resting in the water, known as Reynisdrangar. It is said that these were trolls that turned to stone when they got caught by the rising sun.

Head out towards the beach for more black sand action and views out over the town and nearby cliffs. For a vista that gives you an overview of the entire area, make you way to the small church that sits atop of the hill at the back of town.

The church at VikPhoto by James Taylor/Travelade

Towards the Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach

If your thirst for adventure and road trips weren’t quenched with a day trip to Vík, or you’re on an Icelandic south coast spree, then it’s very likely that on your list of things to see is the Diamond Beach and Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. But before driving the 2.5 hours to get there from Vik, read on to discover some interesting spots along the way that are worth a stop.

Fjaðrárgljúfur

This enticing canyon snakes its way north towards the highlands, the beautiful mossy and lush greens covering the cliffs and contrasting with the dark river at the bottom of the large crevice. Formed by a glacial flood eon ago, the canyon has since enjoyed a quiet existence, drawing in small crowds of visitors. Ever since the popularity of Iceland has risen, so too has the number of visitors to this precious and fragile area; recently the Iceland government closed it down to give it a rest, installing clearly marked paths to protect the beautiful sight. Open again now, please make a conscience effort to stick to the paths and don’t be tempted to stray off them.

Photo: Unsplash

Rauðárfoss, Systrafoss and Stjórnarfoss

A trio of waterfalls found nearby to the town of Kirkjubæjarklaustur (most likely the hardest to pronounce town name in the country), these pretty falls fly somewhat under the radar, offering a nice change of pace from the intense crowds that are so often at Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss.

Skaftafell National Park

Skaftafell is by far one of my favourite places in Iceland, if not number 1 on my list. The beauty of this area and its proximity to the glaciers is incredible. Numerous hiking trails meander throughout this small oasis nestled at the base of the largest glacier in Europe, Vatnajökull, providing views of the behemoth icecap above whilst also being hidden away from the strong winds so often charging off it. With a great campsite and visitor’s centre, it’s makes for a great stop and place to stay a night.

The most popular trail in the park is the one that leads to Svartifoss, a gorgeous waterfall only 45-minute from the visitor’s centre. Surrounded by more black basalt columns, it’s one of the most unique waterfalls in the country and always turns up pretty in photos. Continue along the trail and you’ll come out on top of a ridge, affording you views over the glacier tongue Svinafellsjökull spilling out between two mountain ridges.

To learn more about hiking through Skaftafell National Park, make sure to check out this detailed article.

Svartifoss waterfall in Skaftafell National ParkPhoto by James Taylor/Travelade

Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach

One of the most famous sights in all of Iceland, the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon and Diamond Beach always draw a lot of visitors in every season. The glacier lagoon is a sight to behold, with large chunks of ice floating around slowly before washing out in the river towards the ocean. You can often spot seals in the water and lazing on the ice, and you can always book a tour of the lagoon on a boat or a zodiac to get up nice and close to the incredible ice formations in the water.

Diamond Beach is just across the road from the lagoon. As the glaciers wash out into the ocean, they get caught by the tide and wash back up to settle onto the black sand of the beach. The result is a spectacular labyrinth of blue ice chunks that stretches for a way down the coast, shining like diamonds in the beautiful Icelandic light.

If you’re into hiking, there is a 5-hour return trip from Jökulsárlón towards another lagoon that you drove past along the way. Fjallsárlón is a smaller version of Jökulsárlón, but also quite impressive. Go here if you’re after smaller crowds or enjoy the peace and quiet of the hike as the trail takes you up close and personal with the Vatnajökull glacier.

The glacier lagoon in IcelandPhoto by James Taylor

Höfn and Vestrahorn

For those who aren’t completing the ring road, Höfn acts as the perfect turning point to head back along the coast towards Reykjavik. The small fishing town is well-known for its lobster, some of the best in the country, so it’s nice to treat yourself to a great meal after adventuring along the south.

But before you charge off to Reykjavik, there is something well worth checking out just minutes from the town; Vestrahorn Mountain. This spectacular area makes for some amazing photos, with tufts of green grass growing in clumps along some wavy black sand dunes, with a spectacular mountain in the background. It makes for a great photo opportunity and is a uniquely Icelandic view that will stay with you long after you’ve left the country.

Vestrahorn MountainPhoto: Unsplash

The Roads

For the most part, the roads along the south are well maintained and regularly checked. If you’re heading off route 1, chances are there will be some dirt roads, but nothing too terrible. If you do venture north off the ring road though, some roads eventually lead towards F-Roads. These tracks can be incredibly rough, which is why 4x4 vehicles are the only ones allowed on them. During heavy winds, there can often be sandstorms in this area, particularly between Kirkjubæjarklaustur and Höfn as this is a large expanse of black sand. Make sure to read the wind map on the weather website, and avoiding any wind speeds that exceed 15m/s. www.road.is should be regularly checked as well to ascertain the current conditions of the route.

Private Tours

Follow this link to see a range of private tours along the south coast.