The shuttle bus shook gently as we crossed over the mountains. Or at least, we were told they were mountains. The low-lying clouds covered much of the landscape, shrouding hills, and distant volcanos in thick fog. After about twenty minutes of poor visibility, the road veered back down the mountain trail, the clouds dispersing to reveal the landscape; craggy lava fields, the coastline, volcanic mountains, and waterfalls of the south coast of Iceland.
The south coast of Iceland is one of the most popular places to visit, for obvious reasons; this area is what most people picture when they imagine Iceland. Soaring waterfalls, wild ocean waves, volcanoes, icy glaciers, and the adorable Icelandic horses in the fields. It’s a photographer’s dream, even on overcast days. And, after two visits to this country, it’s my favourite area of Iceland so far.
Seeing the Main Sites in 1 Day
Since I was only in Iceland for 2.5 days, it didn’t make sense to rent a car. Instead, I used BusTravel Iceland for this tour. It was my second visit to Iceland, and the second bus tour I had taken in the country. To be honest, I was hesitant because our first experience with Reykjavík Excursions in 2012 was pretty awful. However, after reading reviews and hearing feedback from other travellers about Bustravel Iceland, we gave them a try. We weren’t disappointed at all.
Our guide for the day, Bogi, was friendly and knowledgeable with lots of stories (which I loved). He made extra stops for me to take some quick photos, and was easy to talk to when I had questions. Another major perk; Bustravel Iceland is one of few companies that runs the majority of their tours on a daily basis, including the south coast tour, which includes some of Iceland’s most amazing sights.
At 60m high and 25m wide, Skógafoss is one of the largest waterfalls in Iceland. It also comes with an old legend which tells of a Viking by the name of Þrasi Þórólfsson who buried a chest of treasure in the cave behind the falls. According to the story, the chest was found years later by some locals, but they were only able to grab the ring from the side of the chest before it disappeared again- not to be seen since. Today, the ring from the chest is said to be found on the church door at Skógar.
Whether you believe in the legend or not, visitors are (sadly) not allowed behind the falls. However, there are 500+ steps you can take to view the falls from above, or, if you aren’t afraid to get a bit wet- go up close to the bottom. On sunny days you can often see 1 or 2 rainbows in the mist and spray, but even in cloudy weather there is no doubt that Skógafoss is a stunning waterfall.
Another famous attraction in Iceland is it’s many glaciers, and Sólheimajökull is a popular stop for travellers exploring Iceland’s south coast. You’ll have to walk about 10-15 minutes past the parking lot to really see it, but once you do it’s amazing. Especially when you learn that it covers one of Iceland’s major volcanos: Katla, which hasn’t erupted since 1918 and, as such, is expected to blow at any time.
As amazing at this glacier is, it’s heart breaking to hear how quickly it’s disappearing. Our guide for the day, Bogi, showed us where the glacier started less than 50 years ago when he was a child, compared to where it is today. The difference is astounding; so much so that I couldn’t capture it in my photos. What I can tell you, to give you an idea, is that the lagoon in front of the glacier, used to be glacier as well.
When you visit Sólheimajökull you will notice a sign, asking visitors to stop well before the glacier. Not only does this help protect the glacier from melting and disappearing that much faster, but it’s also a caution sign for visitors. The area around the glacier is steep and slippery, making it easy to fall. The glacier is also given to moving, which can shake the earth around it. So, out of respect for the environment, and personal safety, it’s strongly advised to stay behind the sign.
Vík is the southernmost city of Iceland, and the perfect place for a lunch stop. Most tours will stop here for about an hour or so break midway through the tour. There is a cafeteria style restaurant for lunch which serves soups, hamburgers, and sandwiches for about $10-15 CDN, but you could also always bring your own. There’s also a shop nearby selling traditional Icelandic souvenirs and clothing, and of course you can explore the town a bit.
One of the most prominent buildings in the town is the red-roofed church on top of the hill. Not only is it beautiful against the backdrop of the mountains, but it’s also a safety zone. Should the volcano Katla explode, it will likely trigger a flash flood of glacier water. It is believed that this church on the hill would be the only building to survive such a flood, and therefore is the escape route for all in the area.
Reynisfjara: The Black Sand Beach
This black pebble beach with massive basalt columns is world-famous but although the scenery is amazing, my favorite part about this site is the legend that goes along with it. Icelandic culture is full of myths and legends, and according to one of these stories, the massive stacks just off the shoreline were once trolls. The legend tells that two trolls were caught by the sun fishing just off the shoreline, and were turned to stone and remain there to this day.
This is definitely an awesome place to explore and take photos but it’s important to note that the tide and undercurrent are incredibly strong here, so stay well away from the shoreline. The waves come high and can be quite unpredictable- I got a bit too close and ended up soaking my feet in the frigid surf while taking a photo.
Another stunning waterfall, Sejalandsfoss sadly doesn’t come with legends of hidden treasure, but you can walk behind it! The path is usually closed in winter due to icy conditions, however was open for exploring during my visit. While the view wasn’t as pretty as those found on google images (mainly because of the grey sky) it was still an awesome experience. If you decided to go behind, be careful as it is very slippery, and prepare to get quite wet.
If you don’t want to walk behind, head to the small bridge across the river in front. It’s a perfect place to take photos and far enough away that the dozens of people walking behind the falls barely show in your pictures.
As mentioned earlier, I had an awesome driver (thanks Bogi!) who made a few extra stops along the way for us to take photos. Including the glacier which holds the now world-famous volcano Eyjafjallajökull (E15), which erupted in 2010 and caused flight cancellations across Europe.
We also stopped along the side of the road to take a peek at this traditional method of using natural caves at storage areas, and to learn about the old Icelandic houses; made of rocks and turf; can you spot it (in front of the barn, to the left- you can see a window and door).
Our day ended up being about 9.5 hours from pick up (around 9am) to drop off (about 6:30pm). It was fun, entertaining, and educational. Despite the grey skies, the south coast of Iceland was absolutely beautiful, and a must visit for anyone coming to Iceland.
We were guests if Bustravel Iceland for the South Coast tour, however all opinions (as always) are my own.