After exploring Reykjavik and The Golden Circle on our drive of Iceland’s Ring Road, Julia, Owen, and I made our way towards the Southeast portion of the country. The Ring Road is a spectacle in it’s entirety, but if I had to choose one section to see again, I would choose the Southeast. With waterfalls, black sand beaches, basalt columns, puffins, and glacier lagoons, there is no shortage of incredible things to see. In this guide, I will provide a map, photographs, and a detailed trip write up for those of you planning to explore Southeast Iceland on your visit.
- Distance: 439km if you start in Selfoss and end in Hofn
- Time: Driving time is nearly 6 hours, but with time to explore each site you will need much more. I would recommend 2 or 3 days.
- Transportation: To enjoy this guide, you will need to have access to a rental car. There are some tour buses that will drive you around Southeast Iceland, but none that I know of will allow you to enjoy it at your own pace.
- Food and Gas: There are abundant gas stations on this stretch of the drive. Most gas stations have convenience food and some have fast food. Restaurants are in larger towns, but food is very expensive. There are a few smaller markets in the larger towns as well.
A Guide To Southeast Iceland
Keldur Turf House
Our first visit on this drive of Southeast Iceland was to the Keldur turf house, the oldest turf house in Iceland. What makes Keldur special is that it’s one of the few preserved turf structures in the south of Iceland. According to Regína Hrönn Ragnarsdóttir of Guide to Iceland:
“Keldur farm is a historical place and here lived one of the characters in the Saga of Njáll, Ingjaldur Höskuldsson, who lived at Keldur from 974 until around year 1000. In the 12th and 13th century Keldur was one of the manors of one of the most powerful clans in Iceland, the Oddi clan, and Jón Loftsson (1124-1197), who was their chieftain, lived at Keldur until his death in 1197. He was the most powerful chieftain of the old Norse religion, Ásatrú religion, in the 12th century. He also lived at the manor Oddi, which is nearby.”
We arrived at the Keldur turf house just shy of 7:00 AM, so we were the only ones on the grounds. Owen enjoyed being able to explore the houses in solitude.
After our early morning visit to Keldur, we made our next stop at Seljalandsfoss. Seljalandsfoss has a large dirt parking lot that fills up quickly due to the number of buses that drop of tourists here. There is a short walking trail that allows visitors to walk up to and behind the main fall. There is a small cafe cart at the start of the trail that sells coffee and snacks.
If you plan to hike behind Seljalandsfoss, make sure to wear a rain jacket and bring protective measures for your electronics. The splash from the falls can feel just like a heavy rain at times! You’ll also want to make sure you’re wearing proper footwear, as the walking path is a little muddy with a lot of slick rocks.
Once you’ve finished walking behind Seljalandsfoss, you can continue back to your car or take a right hand turn and follow the rest of the walking path towards a few minor falls.
The next stop on this guide of Southeast Iceland is the majestic Skógafoss. Don’t get too comfortable in your rental car after visiting Seljalandsfoss because Skógafoss is only 30km away. Skógafoss is 50 feet wide and falls over 200ft, making it one of the larger waterfalls in Iceland. Skógafoss is also a part of Viking legend, as it is said that the viking settler Þrasi Þórólfsson buried treasure in a cave behind the fall.
There is a campground, visitor center, cafe/restaurant, and restrooms available at Skógafoss. There is also ample parking.
On the east (right) side of Skógafoss, you’ll see a trail that leads up to the top of the falls. This trail leads up to Fimmvörðuháls pass in between Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull. This is the start of one of the most beautiful hikes in all of Iceland, and totals 25km. We weren’t able to complete this hike due to time constraints, but when I return to Iceland, this hike will be at the top of my list. You can learn more about this hike on Guide to Iceland from Jorunn Sjofn Gudlaugsdottir.
Solheimasandur Plane Wreck
After visiting Skógafoss, you’ll get back onto the Ring Road and make your way to the Solheimasandur Plane Wreck. Make sure to stay alert while driving, as the parking lot of this one can be easy to miss. The Solheimasandur Plane Wreck used to be an “off the beaten path” point of interest, but due to mass exposure, that is no longer the case. Visitors used to be able to drive right up to the wreck, but now an 8km (5 mile) hike is required. I love hiking and walking, but the path towards the Solheimasandur Plane Wreck is like being on a walking escalator with a view that never changes. The end result is still worthwhile in my opinion. Just make sure you have the time to visit, and maybe pass this one up if you’re on a tight schedule.
The Solheimasandur Plane Wreck is what remains of a a US Navy DC-3 that crashed in 1973 after it ran out of fuel. Fortunately, everyone on the plane survived the crash. The broken and tattered white fuselage perched atop the black sand beach of Solheimasandur makes for quite the photograph. Unfortunately, it’s been defaced by trash and graffiti.
Reynisfjara Beach and Vik
The next stop on this road trip is the basalt sea stacks of Reynisfjara. The name of the actual sea stacks are Reynisdrangar and the mountain they sit under is Reynisfjall. There is a large parking lot near the shores of Reynisfjara, as well as a visitor center with restrooms and a cafe. From the parking lot, walk along the black sand beach and head east towards the basalt sea stacks. You’ll first see the columns at the base of the mountain, and as your round the corner the sea stacks will appear.
*Be very careful while visiting this beach. Rogue sneaker waves and high tide have been known to wash people out to sea.
Reynisfjara is also a great place to see puffins. I saw quite a few while exploring the back caves and hillside. After Reynisfjara, you can visit the town of Vik. We had planned on lunch in Vik with a little exploration, but it started to rain, so we drove out after lunch.
Our original road trip plan had us driving north to hike Bláhnjúkur after our lunch in Vik, but a rain storm forced us to change our plans. I’ve read a lot of great things about this hike, so you might want to add it to your trip if time and weather permit.
Kirkjubæjarklaustur is a small village in the Southeast of Iceland with a rich history, beautiful waterfalls, and hiking trails that provide welcome solitude. To explore Kirkjubæjarklaustur, exit on the road called Klausturvegur. This road runs through the entire town.
The first thing you’ll see when driving into Kirkjubæjarklaustur is Systrafoss, which translates to Sister Falls. There is a hiking trail that leads you to the top. If you look at the photo below, you’ll see a man’s silhouette on the mound to the right of the falls.
Skaftafell – Svartifoss – Svínafellsjökull
The Skaftafell Wilderness Area is a beautiful park located within the larger Vatnajökull National Park. There are so many things to see and do within Skaftafell and Vatnajökull that we could have spent our entire two weeks there. For those that are limited on time like us, I suggest a hike to Svartifoss, also known as Black Falls. There is a large parking lot here with a visitor center. There are guides in the visitor center to help with any questions you might have. There is also an option to join a company for a glacier walk from here.
If you’re facing the visitor center from the parking lot, head left on the walkway passing the campground and RV park. You’ll soon see a trail for Svartifoss. This is one of the more beautiful trails we hiked in Iceland. Plan around 1-2 hours for this hike. The first stretch of trail is pretty steep, but levels out when you see the first waterfall on the trail. Like always, make sure to have proper hiking gear and footwear.
After passing the first water fall, continue heading uphill towards the mountains in the distance. It won’t be long until Svartifoss comes into view. The black basalt columns are unmistakeable.
There is a metal bridge and walkway that allows hikers to see Svartifoss without having to hike down the hillside to the pools below. It was quite the experience to see those massive black basalt columns up close and personal. There are more hiking trails to explore within Skaftafell park from here, so bring a map and enjoy if you have the extra time.
After leaving Skaftafell Park behind, you’ll see a dirt road right after exiting the road to Skaftafell. Follow this dirt road and you’ll be able to see the Svínafellsjökull glacier. There is a small parking lot at the end of the dirt road. From the lot, you’ll see a dirt hiking path that leads up along the side of the glacier. Be extra careful here, a fall could be disastrous.
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon – Diamond Beach
After visiting Skaftafell, we visited one of the most recognizable sites along Iceland’s Ring Road, the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach. There is a large asphalt parking lot with food carts and restrooms on the north side of the street by the lagoon. There are also a number of companies that provide boat rides through the lagoon. You can walk along the black sand beaches to enjoy the glaciers without having to hop into a boat.
Once you’ve spent enough time enjoying the glacier lagoon, drive or walk to the south side of the street and park on the beach. The glaciers in the lagoon get washed out into the ocean, only to break apart, where waves push them back onto the beach. These polished pieces of ice resemble sparkling diamonds on the black sand.
After visiting the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach, we made our way towards Höfn and the end of our journey. The Ring Road drive is a spectacle all by itself on this stretch, especially when the weather is on display as it was for us.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this guide for Southeast Iceland. Make sure to leave your comments and questions below. You can see more posts about Iceland and the Ring Road here.