We explored Iceland's southern region in a four day excursion at the tail end of April.
We spent two days heading east as far as Jokulsarlon Lagoon, then headed back west to tour the classic Golden Circle.
After landing at Keflavik airport, we headed south and east along a coastal road.
The first hour of driving, the landscape was flat, rocky, and very alien-looking. The volcanic rocks that cover the ground appeared to have been ejected out of a volcano recently, although it has been many years since an eruption has affected this area.
Kirkjufjara beach, on the Dyrhólaey peninsula, is next to the village of Vik.
Pictured above, the large rocks out in the ocean are called Reynisdrangar. They are formed from stacked basalt, similar to the cliffs on the beach itself. Legend has it that Reynisdranger were formed when two trolls failed to land their ship on shore before daylight. When daylight broke, they became needles of rock.
The waves were small and innocuous, but the beach was temporarily closed this year after a tourist was sweapt out to sea in January. Luckily, the beach was reopened by the time we visited in April, but extensive warning signs had been erected to explain the danger of large "sneaker waves" that can appear suddenly.
Kirkjufjara beach is a puffin nesting ground during the summer months. We were a little early for puffin season, but we were lucky enough to catch sight of these two puffins up on the cliff above us before they took flight.
We headed out of Vik the next morning towards Jokulsarlon lagoon.
The road jogs inland here, so the ocean was no longer visible on our right. The air was hazy, and it was difficult to see much out ahead of us. The air thickened, and we realized we were in the middle of a basalt sand storm.
The flat landscape results in perfect conditions for basalt sand to be carried about by the wind. Even after we passed through the sandstorm, the mountains ahead of us continued to appear hazy due to the sand in the air.
Along the way to Jokulsarlon, we stopped to hike in Vatnajökull National Park.
Vatnajökull is an enormous glacier, covering more than 8% of Iceland. Volcanoes lurk underneath Vatnajökull. Sub-glacial eruptions and geothermal heat under the ice cap can create sealed lakes within the glacier. When that seal breaks, the result is a sudden massive flood called a jökulhlaup.
We arrived at the lagoon around four in the afternoon, strolling around as the sun sank low. It is a favorite spot with photographers, for good reason, but it is also one of the most peaceful places I have ever visited.
The lagoon borders a glacier, and chunks of ice break off and float across the water, making strange shapes and reflecting the light.
We headed back west towards the "Golden Circle," stopping to check out sites along the way that we missed as we drove east.
The waterfall shown here is Skogafoss, one of the largest waterfalls in Iceland with a drop of 60 meters.
Horse riding is part of Icelandic culture. Due to the topographical landscape and harsh weather, roads were (and still are) difficult to build and maintain in Iceland. Horses were the most practical way to traverse the country. here are about 80,000 horses in Iceland, about 1 horse for every 4 people. Compare that to the US, which has only 1 horse for every 36 people.
The Icelandic Horse was developed from ponies that Norse settlers brought to Iceland hundreds of years ago. Natural selection ensured that the horses that survived the conditions produced offspring that are very hardy and have few diseases.
Unfortunately, attempts to import foreign horses into the country result in the spread of new (to the Icelandic horse) diseases that can wipe out large numbers of the animals. Today, it is strictly forbidden to import any horses into Iceland, and there are even strong restrictions on bringing used riding gear into the country.
First stop along the Golden Circle.
Thingvellir is a flat area lying in a rift valley between the the North American tectonic plate and the Eurasian plate. Scuba divers dive at Silfra Lake, which is formed from glacial melt water, resulting in exceptionally clear visibility.
The Althing, the national parliament of Iceland, was held here starting in 930 AD until 1798. From the founding of the Althing until 1271, this location was also used for legislative and judicial processes. "Law Rock" formed a platform for speeches, where the law of the land would be recited by the Lawspeaker, legal actions were brought against others, and any other announcements were made that were of import to the nation.
Our next stop along the Golden Circle was Gullfoss, described to me as "the Niagara Falls of Iceland." The wide Olfusa river cascades down a series of three drops.
Like most massive natural features, a photo cannot really give one a sense of the scale of this waterfall. The final crevice that Gullfoss drops into is 32m deep, compared to the drop of 50m at Niagara Falls.
The final stop along the Golden Cirlce is Geysir. The name Geysir comes from the Icelandic word "geysa", "to gush." This was the first geyser known to modern Europeans, hence the English word "geyser" was derived from this site.
Geysir is technically still active, but eruptions are infrequent, and have stopped altogether for years at a time. Earthquake activity can disrupt and change the pattern of eruptions. In 2000, an earthquake revived Geysir, which reached 122m in height for 2 days, about 8 times a day. By 2003, activity decreased to eruptions about 3 times a day.
At the time we visited, in 2017, the geyser seemed dormant.
So we couldn't see Geysir errupt, but not to worry, a mere 50m away is Stokkur Geysir, which still erupts with regularity every few minutes to a height of 15 to 20m (sometimes as high as 40m though!)
"Strokkur" is Icelandic for "churn." This geyser was first "unlocked" in 1789 following an earthquake. Another earthquake blocked it again around 1900. In 1963, locals cleaned out the blocked conduit, resulting in regular eruptions ever since, much to the enjoyment of tourists.