It was early spring 2016 when Jake and I started following a couple adventure photographers on Instagram. Amazed by the stunning landscapes we saw, we realized that most of these accounts had one thing in common: Iceland. Traveling here “one day” quickly became a dream of ours. Little did we know it wasn’t as unaccessible as we thought.
Out of curiosity, later that year we looked up the cost of a round trip flight to Iceland. We were surprised to see the price: $400 from LA! That was September. We booked a trip for three weeks from that day – October 1st.
We landed at 4am. Having left California’s 90 degree fall weather, we were slightly shocked by the 45 degree windy and rainy air. Pitch black, barely old enough to rent a car, 828 miles to drive around a foreign country in the off season. We knew we were in for the adventure of our lives.
We drove to Reykjavik and parked. This was my first experience with “first light.” For those of you who’ve been to Iceland, you know that a trip here is like one giant geological field trip. We were constantly learning things about weather, seasons, and water cycles. Cool stuff.
The sky slowly morphed from black to a light grey while Jake slept. It was freezing and I was too excited to close my eyes. Jake woke up in a Kia Rio right by a lake in the heart of the northernmost capital in the world.
From here, we started our Golden Circle drive. This is about a four hour drive in the south of Iceland, from Reykjavik, inland, and back around again.
Day 2 – the Southern coast
We began our trek around the entire country. There is a route called The Ring Road, or Hringvegur in Icelandic, that goes around the whole island. For the most part, it’s pretty safe. Usually paved. 😉
As crazy as it sounds, there are roughly 50,000 waterfalls in Iceland. Driving along the Ring Road you see waterfalls every couple minutes. Coming back from this trip I kept telling my friends: “It was unbelievable – within an hour of driving we saw icebergs, a glacier, waterfalls, rivers, the ocean, lakes, a geyser, and a rainbow.” More natural beauty than I’ve ever seen!
Along the southern border there are multiple “troll caves,” as we like to call them. I guess this is where cattle would come in to get a break from the harsh weather, either to sleep or to give birth to their young. I even read a story of some campers who were in extreme cold and decided to come in one of these and sleep with the sheep. Now they have “no camping” signs.
Day 3 – South coast eastern half
This was a day I’ll never forget for two reasons: I got to see two natural phenomena for the first time. A glacier AND the northern lights!
But a couple other amazing things first: Skogafoss and my favorite picture I’ve ever taken of another troll cave!
As we kept driving, we saw in the distance what looked like a huge white block, and as we got closer, we realized we were seeing a glacier for the first time in our lives! This was not even on our itinerary, just something we saw from the road and pulled off. That is the beauty of Iceland. You could literally have nothing planned (besides where you’re sleeping, of course) and just drive the Ring Road, pulling off whenever you see something beautiful. And trust me, that will be often.
After this we went to the famous plane crash on Solheimassandur. These two locations are not far from each other, but to see the plane crash there is about a four mile walk. The walk is entirely flat, but it does take quite a while.
We stayed in Hofn that night, a quaint little coastal town in the southeast. I was cooking pasta in our airbnb at around 11pm, and we totally would have missed these next few shots if it weren’t for our Alaskan roommate running in and shouting “Northern Lights!!!”
Day 4 – East Coast
Our first stop was the Iceberg Lagoon. Huge pieces of ice break off from a massive glacier and flow slowly through a lagoon into the sea.
From here, we started our cliffside drive along the east coast. This part of the drive is where you feel adrenaline pumping through your veins because the drop-off to the ocean beneath you is so steep! Once the drive calms a little, there are plenty of black sand beaches to pull off at and get some fresh air.
At this point we were so far away from any tourist attractions- or any establishments at all for that matter- that we actually experienced complete seclusion for the first time in our lives. There was not a soul in any direction for miles. We got a glimpse of what it would feel like to be alone on planet earth.
Day 5 – Northeastern Region
The Northeast of Iceland is extremely beautiful – and extremely diverse. On this trip, we experienced serene lakeside views. On my second trip, we experienced a blizzard in the middle of June. It is also home to the mighty Detifoss– Europe’s most powerful waterfall. It requires 20 miles of off-roading (each way) to reach, but the bumpy drive is worth the scene at the end.
We started heading west toward Akureyri. On the way there, I captured the following picture. I love this shot because despite the fact it looks like a volcano, this was taken in the middle of the day. The thick fall sky was so dark that even a slight opening in the clouds allowed for this dramatic flash of light on this hill.
We entered Akureyri, the “Pearl of the North.” This is the region my Icelandic relatives were from. This part of Iceland can actually be considered “arctic” because temperatures don’t surpass 55 degrees Fahrenheit in July. If I had to live in Iceland, this is probably my favorite city.
Day 6 – Family history and a creepy house
We met with a historian so I could collect family records. We drove to this beautiful office in the middle of nowhere – this town probably had less than 200 people. I couldn’t believe it, but the historian said they get visitors almost everyday from people like me.
We found this abandoned house off the side of the road and decided to go in…
Day 7 – West Iceland
We spent most of our day driving around the Snaefellsness Peninsula. This was probably the sunniest day we had during our trip. This is home to the famous Kirkjufell, where Game of Thrones was filmed! The nearby town of Grundarfjörður is a good place to stop in for a cup of coffee at the local library.
Day 8 – Bridge between continents + the Greenland Sea
Since we were flying home that night, we decided to stay near Reykjavik our last day. We got to stand in the “bridge between continents” – the point where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet. Pretty cool to be standing in the gap between Europe and North America. This location is just a short drive from the Keflavik airport.
From there, we pulled off to see the Greenland Sea.
And of course, it wouldn’t be a trip to Iceland without going to the Blue Lagoon! The water is naturally heated to a perfect 100 degrees no matter how cold the outside temp is. I would recommend booking EARLY because the times fill up! Since we booked our trip only 3 weeks in advance, we had to go after dark. The views are much better in the daylight!
If you fly home in the daytime, you’ll get some pretty amazing views of Greenland.
I have never felt more changed by a place. It was almost an emotional experience. I’ve had over a year to process it- and one more trip to think through it again. I think it’s the untouched, unadulterated beauty. To see a life-threatening powerhouse of a waterfall completely unobstructed- no $20 fee to enter, no fence “for your protection,” no crowds of people. No gum on the ground, no trash on the side of the freeway, no cheap buildings, no billboards, no pollution. Just raw, untouched, extreme, rugged, untamed beauty. Endless miles to run and breathe fresh air and explore. The water was bluer and the grass greener than I had ever seen. I felt freer than I ever had!