This week’s journey takes us back to Iceland, and some of our favorite places for adventure and exploration on the nation’s famed South Coast. Join us as we visit the towering falls of Gluggafoss, Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss, the breathtaking black sand beach of Reynisfjara, and the adorable puffin colonies of Dyrhólaey – all in 24 hours!
We traveled to Iceland with B.’s parents for a 6-day/5-night holiday in July 2018, a short five months after Little A. was born. He was a well seasoned explorer at this point – with six countries under his belt (onesie?) already! – and far exceeded our expectations of international travel with an infant. We look back so fondly on this time with our little adventurer, and hope you enjoy this snapshot from one of our very favorite family trips – the first in our new “One Day In” series!
We found this off-the-beaten-track falls completely by accident while cruising around in our rental jeep off the main highway, and boy are we glad we did! Gluggafoss (also known as Merkjárfoss) has a total height of approximately 52m (170ft) and features two main drops: one, of 44m (144ft) into a narrow recess and pool, and another of 8m (26ft) through three main channels. The larger of the drops is only partially visible at a distance through “windows” (Icelandic: gluggar) in the soft palagonite rock of the cliff wall. Given its somewhat remote location, there was no one else at the falls for the majority of our visit, which made this spot a uniquely private place in an otherwise touristy part of the coast.
This magnificent waterfall, nearly 60m (200ft) high and 25m (82ft) wide, is one of the country’s largest and most iconic. Fed by two nearby glaciers via the Skóga River, the falls used to tumble over cliffs directly into the sea. Given the dramatic recession of the Icelandic coastline, however, Skógafoss now rests nearly 5 kilometers (3 miles) from the shore. The flat terrain at the bottom of the falls makes it possible to be fully enveloped in the heavy mist at its base – a truly magical and otherworldly experience, best enjoyed with excellent rain gear! For a drier but no less delightful adventure, we trekked up the 500+ stairs to a small observation platform at the top of the falls. Here, the views stretch for miles in every direction, and offered B. the chance to enjoy a short section of the popular Fimmvörðuháls trail, a 22 kilometer (14 mile) footpath along the banks of the Skóga en route to Fimmvörðuháls Pass. Based on Little A.’s twinkling eyes, we think this waterfall was one of his favorite stops on our South Coast tour, too!
Located a short 35 minute drive from Skógafoss – and approximately 1.5 hours from the nation’s capital city of Reykjavik – is one of Iceland’s most popular and photographed attractions: Seljalandsfoss. Originating in the volcanic glacier of Eyjafjallajökull, these falls also drop an impressive 60m, but include an exciting feature not found at our first two destinations: a small (summer-accessible) cave behind the cascade! Exploring the cavern was such a fun (albeit totally drenching) experience, but the popularity of the falls meant it was also an exceedingly crowded one, even on a rainy weekday. The trail to reach the cave was also slippery, rocky and occasionally steep, so only B. ventured inside. Luckily, Seljalandsfoss is a beautiful sight from virtually any perspective, and we all enjoyed our visit here.
The next stop on our journey along the South Coast was Reynisfjara. One of Iceland’s – and indeed, the world’s – most spectacular beaches, Reynisfjara is well-known for its octagonal basalt columns, legendary sea stacks, and striking jet-black sands.
The beach is a short walk from a nearby car park, and is notable first for its massive wall of basalt pillars known as Garðar cliff. Formed by rapidly cooling lava after an ancient volcanic eruption, these columns – 0.5-1 meter (1.6-3.2 feet) in diameter and up to 20 meters (65.6 feet) tall – curve around the west side of the beach, terminating at the entrance to a large cave. From here, jagged sea stacks are visible across the expanse of dark volcanic sand. Known as Reynisdrangar, Icelandic folklore suggests they represent sea trolls, caught in the sunrise and frozen in perpetuity as they attempted to lure ships to their destruction on the cliffs.
Our favorite feature at Reynisfjara was the very active colony of puffins nesting in the grassy area of the cliffs. While it was terribly difficult to capture on camera, we absolutely loved watching the puffins take off from their nests to fish in the turbulent waters offshore. It was truly an amazing experience to see these lovely wee birds in their element!
Our last stop on this portion of the South Coast was Dyrhólaey, a small promontory into the sea and the southernmost point in mainland Iceland. Translated as “the hill island with the door hole”, Dyrhólaey is particularly famous for both its sea arch (the aforementioned “door hole”) and lighthouse. We, however, bypassed both of these attractions in search of … you guessed it, more puffins!
Dyrhólaey is one of the best places in Iceland to view Atlantic puffins relatively up-close (but still appropriately distanced) in the summer months. If we thought we’d hit the puffin jackpot at Reynisfjara, we were in for a real treat here! Little A. was particularly delighted watching the puffins fly out to sea and return with their beaks full of small fish and sand eels. Puffins remain one of his favorite animals to this day, and we can’t help but think that love was first cultivated on this stunning stretch of Icelandic coastline.
Thank you for joining us on this adventure in southern Iceland! -The Junes
Next week’s journey: Blue Lagoon – Malta