I’d somehow never heard of Garden of the Gods until I started planning a trip to Colorado Springs. As soon as I saw pictures of it, I knew I’d have to visit. It’s an incredible naturally formed area full of red rock formations that will dazzle you. I loved wandering through the enormous boulders and spires and marveling at the power of nature. Bring your camera and some hiking boots and be prepared to explore some awe-inspiring scenery. Best of all? It’s free!
Rocky Mountain National Park is full of gorgeous scenery and offers all kinds of hiking trails, from an easy stroll around Sprague Lake to a climb to the summit of Longs Peak. As Midwesterners (aka from low elevation) of average fitness level, we stuck to the easy/moderate rated trails. Mostly. Our last hike of the weekend challenged us a lot more than we expected, and left us so exhausted that we barely made it out for dinner that night.
Hiking the Gem Lake trail in Rocky Mountain National Park taught us a very important lesson: always be very clear about your level of fitness when inquiring about hiking trails in the mountains. We were pointed toward Gem Lake by a NPS volunteer at one of the visitor centers and eagerly headed off to check out the views he talked about. The problem: when we told the first park volunteer that we were looking for a moderately easy trail to fill up the rest of the afternoon, she called over this other guy and didn’t relay the message that we weren’t looking for something strenuous. Based on his enthusiastic recommendation, we set off to hike to Gem Lake, with stomachs full of elk and bison burgers, fries, and pop.
You’ve probably heard about the spectacular beauty of Iceland. After spending a week roadtripping around the country, I’m convinced that it’s the most condensed concentration on natural beauty that I’ll ever see. It’s a relatively small island, but every corner is crammed with swoon-worthy sights. 80% of the landscape doesn’t even look like it belongs on this planet. Here are my favorite 25 pictures that will put Iceland on your winter bucket list.
We were incredibly lucky to have this ice cave in the Vatnajökull glacier to ourselves for a few short minutes. The blue light filtering through the ice was incredible. We visited as part of a snowmobiling and ice caving tour – read about our adventure here.
This one looks like something out of a sci-fi movie.
Sunset over the water from Borgarnes was the perfect way to end a day. The pinks and purples on the snow-covered mountains were spectacular. Don’t miss the fjord region on your visit.
Seeing the Northern Lights has been on my bucket list for the longest time. We got incredibly lucky and saw them on four different nights on our trip. We relentlessly refreshed cloud tracking maps hoping and hoping for clear nights, and on this evening driving along the Ring Road, we appeared to be in the only pocket of clear sky in the whole country.
A tripod and a slow exposure are key to getting good Northern Lights pictures, but don’t forget to enjoy the show yourself while snapping pictures.
This zebra striped iceberg floating in the Jökulsárlón was my favorite. The black stripes come from volcanic ash deposited by long-ago eruptions.
The mirror-like water of Jökulsárlón was thoroughly captivating.
I could’ve spent an entire day just taking pictures of Jökulsárlón.
Jökulsárlón is just as magical at dusk.
After the icebergs leave Jökulsárlón, some of them make it out to sea. Others get washed up on the shore at Diamond Beach. The black sand there is covered with ice boulders that have been pushed in by the relentless waves. It’s a stunning scene.
The entrance to this ice cave looms at the base of the Vatnajökull glacier under the pink skies of sunset.
Gljúfrabúi, the “secret” waterfall hidden behind a rock ledge peeks out through the opening carved out by the stream flowing away. In order to see the whole waterfall, you have to wade through the water to enter the cavern or climb up the front of the rock wall. Read about exploring it here.
Getting to see all of Gljúfrabúi is worth getting a little wet.
Seljalandsfoss is one of Iceland’s most famous waterfalls. You can walk behind it along the edge of the cavern in the rock wall during the warmer months.
In 1973, a US Navy plane crash landed on this stretch of black lava desert – don’t worry, all crew members survived – and the wreckage has sat here exposed to the elements ever since. It’s about a 4km walk from the Ring Road, but it’s an eerily beautiful sight. This picture wasn’t black and white – it’s still in true color. The sky was perfectly grey that day.
The Blue Lagoon is one of Iceland’s most famous attractions. It’s not the ultimate experience, but it’s still a lot of fun. I enjoyed the swim-up bar and the relaxing artificial cave. If you visit in the winter, make sure to explore the whole lagoon to find the warmer spots.
We stayed across the road from the famous Geysir area one night and were treated to some spectacular Northern Lights. The geyser Strokkur erupted several times as we watched the dazzling show in the sky. It was an incredible Iceland experience.
The adorable Icelandic horses can be spotted all over the country, and what better way to get up close and personal with them than by taking a horseback ride? I think we found the best spot possible when we stumbled across riding stables in Vik. Trotting along the black sand beach with the iconic Reynisdrangar rock formations just offshore was incredible. Read about that experience here.
The Northern Lights weren’t as bright when we passed by this lesser-known, but still beautiful waterfall called Foss á Siðu, but they make for a perfect backdrop.
The Geysir area is covered with steaming pools and geysers that give it an unearthly feel. Though the famous Geysir rarely erupts any more, the smaller geyser, Strokkur, right next to it shoots water into the air every few minutes.
The snow and ice surrounding Gullfoss make it somehow more beautiful.
This road, part of the popular Golden Circle route winds through the Icelandic country side.
This waterfall, found in the Þingvellir National Park tumbles down into the rift valley formed by the North American and Eurasian continental plates separating.
This broad flat valley formed by the continental rift was also the site of the first Viking parliaments, giving it both geological and historical significance.
Don’t pass up the opportunity to see the beautiful Icelandic horses while you’re visiting. You’ll want to spend hours photographing them.
What would you most like to see on a visit to Iceland?
Looking for an itinerary that encompasses all of these photo spots? Look no further. Here’s my perfect 6-day southern Iceland roadtrip itinerary.
Exploring Goat Island
Rainbow Bridge Crossing
As I was leaving the park, I noticed the sign for the walking bridge to Canada. The closest crossing to the falls has a pedestrian lane so visitors can walk back and forth between the two sides. Since I still had my passport on me, I decided to go for it even though I was pretty well frozen by that point. I’ve crossed international borders by plane, train, and car before, but never on foot, so this experience was something new. The mist coming up from the water kind of obscured the view of the Canadian falls, but walking out on the bridge gave a unique view that I’d never seen before and was well worth it. Keep in mind that this is an international border, so once you set foot on the bridge, you’ll need a passport to get back into the US.
Read about our time on the Canadian side of the falls here.
Have you ever visited Niagara Falls? Let me know in the comments.
While I was working in the Buffalo area, I had to stay out there for a weekend. Since it’s so close to Niagara Falls, and Niagara Falls is only a few hours from home, I invited my boyfriend to join me on a semi-work-funded mini-vacation. Niagara Falls is the perfect weekend destination. There’s just the right amount of scenery, attractions, and nightlife to keep you entertained in any season.
He had to drive in from Detroit after working a full day, so I had Friday evening to kill on my own. I decided to head to downtown Buffalo to find some dinner, but quickly realized that that wasn’t in the cards because the Sabres had a home game that night. I wandered around a little looking for somewhere to pull over so I could look up some other areas on my phone and ended up stumbling across an outdoor hockey rink with a bar and restaurant attached. That was good enough for me, so I grabbed a seat at the bar and watched some kids play through the glass. It was such a cool location right along the river and as a life-long hockey addict, I loved hearing the sounds of pucks and skates echoing while I had my dinner.
When I was done eating, I decided that it was time to head up to Niagara Falls to check into the hotel. I had booked the Holiday Inn on the Canadian side because it’s super cheap (at least during the winter), only a couple blocks from the falls, and I generally have good experiences at IHG properties. I had looked and looked to try to find a reasonably priced room with a view of the falls, but I ended up choosing price over such niceties and was generally pleased. I also appreciated the free parking right on site.
I was planning to wait to go see the falls until the next morning with my boyfriend, but the hotel clerk mentioned that there were fireworks displays on Friday nights and I wasn’t going to pass up a chance to see fireworks over a waterfall. I walked down to the overlook and tried to find a spot that would allow me to see the fireworks over the Canadian falls. This would’ve required a lot more walking than I was prepared to do at that point because the location the fireworks were being shot off from was further down by the American falls.
The fireworks show was nothing mind-blowing, but it was kind of neat. It’s definitely a unique setting for a display like that. It wasn’t very crowded on a Friday night in December, but I would imagine it could be pretty crowded in more popular tourist seasons. The fireworks don’t go up very high, so getting there early to grab a spot by the railing would be a good idea if it looks like it’s going to be crowded.
Of course, the lights on the falls provide a spectacular enough view that there’s really no need to dress them up any further, but fireworks are always appreciated by this blogger.
The Main Attraction
If you’re visiting Niagara Falls, you’re obviously going to spend some time enjoying the view of Mother Nature’s handiwork. When we got up the next morning, we grabbed breakfast across the street from the hotel at the Fallsview Casino. We ate at the Famous Diner, a little restaurant with thoroughly cute décor and delicious food.
After that, we started our walk along the overlooks at the falls. We stopped to take pictures from every imaginable angle, of course. My boyfriend had never been there before, and it had been years since I visited, so we took our time enjoying the view. You get the best wide-angle view from a little ways down the walkway, but don’t miss the chance to look straight down at the brink of the falls. The thunderous roar and sight of the water rushing over the edge really gives you a feel for the power of the river as it tumbles downward.
I had discovered a coupon for a thing called a Beaver Tail in one of the guidebooks at the hotel, and as a lover of all things sugary, I absolutely had to have one. We walked down to Clifton Hill, what I would classify as the cheesy tourist area of Niagara Falls, and hunted down the delicious fried pastries covered in an assortment of sugary toppings. It’s both very good and infuriating that there isn’t an easily accessible location where I can get these little bites of heaven on a regular basis.
If you’re looking for family fun, this is the place you want to be. Every corner had attractions ranging from fun houses to wax museums to Ripley’s Believe it or Not. Even on a chilly day in the off-season, it was bustling with people.
Exploring outside of town
We opted out of the cheesy tourist attractions (sadly, the Maid of the Mist boats were not running since it was winter) and instead hopped into the car to drive up to the whirlpool where the river takes a sharp turn to the right. It’s so pretty up there and we got a good view from the cable car platforms that were closed for the season. We decided to keep going up to Niagara-on-the-Lake and stopped at a few other scenic overlooks along the way.
Niagara-on-the-Lake was a cute little town, but it was swarmed with crowds of people that day. There appeared to be some sort of festival going on, but we couldn’t figure out what it was. We ended up finally finding a place to park at a little lakeside park, so we walked down to Lake Ontario and climbed around some of the boulders on the shore.
Dinner with a view at the Skylon Tower
We had dinner reservations at the rotating restaurant at the Skylon Tower for their early prix fixe meal. This also entitled us to a free trip to the top of the tower. Don’t make the mistake we did – go early for your reservation. We showed up with enough time to ride to the top before our time slot, but we ended up seated in the interior of the restaurant behind a tall group of people (seriously good genes in that family) so we couldn’t see anything out the windows.
Since that was kind of the point of eating there, I asked if there was anywhere to move. All of the window tables were full, but we were offered a pager to wait for one to clear. We decided to do that and headed up to the observation deck to kill some time before we could eat. When our buzzer rang, we went back down and were seated at a perfect table, but discovered that we were no longer allowed to order off of the prix fixe menu. It made dinner a LOT more expensive, and I wished that the staff had told us that waiting for a table would mean that we’d have to take the late dinner menu.
The food was delicious though, and even my boyfriend who hadn’t been feeling great all day downed his entire dinner. You really can’t beat the view from up there, and my boyfriend was excited to have his first meal in a rotating restaurant. I’d never been up in the tower on my previous visits, and getting an aerial view of the falls was amazing. They’re especially beautiful at night, and spending that much time up in the tower gave us a chance to see the lights rotate through the different color patterns.
We had also gotten free tickets to the Skylon Tower from the hotel, so we decided to use those the next morning to check out the view during the day. I wouldn’t have paid to go up again, but since they were free there wasn’t much sense in letting them go to waste. Daylight definitely brings a different perspective to the falls. Whereas the lights at night give them a soft, dreamy feel, seeing the roaring water tumbling down into the gorge during the day gives a much more impressive insight into the raw power of mother nature.
This part of Ontario is actually quite famous for its wine. The Canadian climate also provides for a unique type of treat: ice wine. This super sweet local specialty is made by allowing grapes to freeze on the vine and then very quickly harvesting them while they’re still frozen. I don’t know a lot about the wine-making process (outside of that one episode of I Love Lucy), but the freezing process somehow makes the wine extra sugary, which, as noted above, is exactly my kind of thing.
We took the ice wine home and drank it a couple weeks later and it was incredible. I’m not a wine fan at all, but this was so sweet it was more like drinking juice. It’s hard (and expensive) to find elsewhere, but if you find yourself in the Ontario wine region at any point, definitely make a point to try it.
Have you visited Niagara Falls? What’s your favorite thing to do there? Let me know in the comments.
Read about another winter weekend adventure in Canada:
Iceland is full of natural beauty, with landscapes that will take your breath away, but one of the highlights of any trip there is a chance to see the adorable Icelandic horses up close. They’re thoroughly adorable, and should not be missed. These small horses – not ponies – were brought to the island centuries ago and have been bred to live in the often harsh climate. In order to protect the integrity of the breed, strict rules are enforced. Once a horse leaves Iceland for any reason, it can never return, and no horses (or any other livestock) can be imported.
Going horseback riding is the perfect way to get up close to these miniature beauties, and the black sand beach at Vik provides a stunning backdrop for your excursion. It’s less famous than nearby Reynisfjara, but I liked the view of the rock formations from Vik better, and it was much less crowded.
An unexpected discovery
Our trip was completely unplanned, as we hadn’t even looked into going horseback riding prior to arriving in Vik. We were out taking pictures of the beach one morning when we saw a group trotting along on their horses. We immediately started looking online to figure out how we could book a trip of our own and found Vik Horse Adventure. We called that day and were lucky enough to get spots in the first group the next morning. This is definitely something you’d want to book ahead of time during busier seasons so you don’t miss out on the opportunity.
We met at the stables bright and early the next morning and got ready to go. They’re located right off of the beach in the main area of town. We had a beautiful, sunny day – probably the nicest weather of our trip – and we were eager to start our adventure.
I got to ride a cute little chestnut horse named Von, which translates to “hope” in Icelandic. She’s evidently a show horse and a young girl rides her in competitions.
After mounting up, we had a chance to ride around on our own in the paddock for a few minutes to get the feel for controlling the horses. The way European style riders use the reins is a little bit different than the western style steering that I’ve always used. It’s not difficult to learn, but it is a slight adjustment if you’re used to only using one hand on the reins. Our guides showed us what we needed to do and gave us pointers throughout the ride, so don’t worry about not being able to get the hang of it.
Exploring the Beach
I’m not an experienced rider by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ve gone on a few trail rides over the years at different locations in the US. I’m used to sort of walking slowly in a single-file line, but this was way more fun. We set off at a walk and circled around by the beach before heading back inland for a minute. We got to wade the horses through a stream, too. One of my boots got pretty wet from the splashing, but it was really fun.
For the grand finale, we headed back down near the water and our guides dismounted to snap some pictures of us, which was very nice. After that, they asked us if we’d be comfortable going a little faster, to which we enthusiastically said yes.
We took off at a fast trot, running across the beautiful black sand toward the craggy rock formations that sit just offshore. It was thrilling. Especially when Von got a bit too excited and galloped for a few steps. I was able to reign her in quickly though, and made sure we were keeping pace with the other horses for the rest of the way.
Once we crossed the beach, we continued at a walking pace along the bottom of the ridge and returned to the stable. After we dismounted, and their saddles were removed, the horses frolicked in their fenced in area and took the opportunity to roll in the sand in their pen.
Though we hadn’t even planned on doing it, going for a ride on the Icelandic horses was one of the more memorable activities we did on our trip. A ride with Vik Horse Adventure currently costs 9000 ISK per person, and there are plenty of other riding stables located around the country. If you want a top notch view for your ride, this is the place to do it.
Did you get to meet any Icelandic horses while visiting? Tell me about your favorite encounters in the comments.
Looking for other activities for your trip to Iceland? Check these posts out:
- Snowmobiling and Caving in the Vatnajökull Glacier
- Discovering Gljúfrabúi – Iceland’s Secret Waterfall
- Your Perfect Six-Day Southern Iceland Itinerary
If you’re planning a trip to Iceland, odds are you’ve seen pictures of the most famous waterfalls. You’ll be able to recognize Gullfoss, Seljalandsfoss, and Skógafoss on sight. Far too many visitors overlook the “secret” waterfall, Gljúfrabúi aka Gljúfrafoss on their visit, though. You may have heard the phrase, “don’t go chasing waterfalls” before, but this is one occasion on which you should definitely ignore those words of wisdom.
Whereas Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss are easy to spot as you approach from the Ring Road, Gljúfrabúi makes visitors work to experience its beauty. It’s well-worth the effort to get up close to this hidden gem.
If you’re driving the Ring Road, you can’t pass up a chance to take pictures of Seljalandsfoss and explore the cave behind it. However, far too many people end their visit there and miss Gljúfrabúi without even realizing how close they are to another beautiful sight.
If you cross the bridge over the stream beneath Seljalandsfoss and keep walking along the path along the cliff, you’ll be treated to several small cascades tumbling down from above. It will be tempting to turn back because it doesn’t look like there’s anything up ahead, but keep going, because Gljúfrabúi isn’t much further.
It doesn’t look like much as you approach because you’ll only be able to see the top of it before it disappears behind a wall of rock. If you want to enjoy the full view – and it’s worth it – you’ll have to either wade into the cavern through the stream or climb the rock wall in front of it.
Wading Through the Stream
Walking through flowing water didn’t seem very appealing on the chilly winter day when we visited, but we were already thoroughly soaked from rain and mist from Seljalandsfoss, so we decided to go for it. You’ll definitely want to make sure you have waterproof boots for this adventure.
We followed another visitor in, and she did most of the hard work for us. She figured out that there were enough larger rocks that you could step from one to the other without having to put your feet all the way into the stream. Staying to the right allows you to hold onto the wall for balance. I managed to get in and out without getting my feet wet, but my sister slipped on the way out and took some water over the top of one of her boots. I wouldn’t attempt this if you’re afraid of falling.
The walk through the stream only lasted about 15 feet before we emerged into the cavern with a full view of Gljúfrabúi. Once you get back there, you’re on dry land again.
Well, solid land. Nothing back there is dry. The cavern is full of swirling mist from the waterfall and anything you bring back there will get wet. I had a protective plastic bag around my camera and it still got soaked. I didn’t even attempt to shoot any good pictures because I was afraid that I was going to ruin it.
There was one other couple back there, so the five of us took turns snapping quick pictures of each other. It was a cool feeling to be back there enjoying the “secret” natural wonder roaring down in front of us.
The View From the Top
After we waded back out, we decided that it would be worth it to climb the rock wall to get the view from the top. It’s a slightly tough climb that was made a little treacherous by the mud caused by the constant rain that day, but we made it easily without any special equipment and less-than-ideal hiking boots.
We worked our way up about half way and then got to a spot where chains had been bolted into the rock face so you could hold on as you scooted along a narrow ledge. We were pretty high up by that point, so looking down below was a little intimidating.
When we got to the top, we were faced with another rock wall. I had seen pictures of a small ladder there before, but it looked like it had been broken. Only one plank was still there, wedged up against the base of the bulging rock.
My sister tried to walk up it like a balance beam, but it was slippery from water and mud and her rain boots didn’t have the kind of traction needed, so she slipped off of it. We figured out that if one of us got a leg up on it and the other held their foot in place so it wouldn’t slide down, we could get up high enough to grab onto the rocks and make our way up to get a view.
I’ve done some rock climbing on artificial walls, but this was my first time doing anything like bouldering in the real world. It was a lot of fun, but kind of stressful because 1. my boots did not have the kind of grip necessary for that 2. I was carrying a $1000 camera and 3. my American health insurance doesn’t cover me outside of the US.
After taking a few pictures, I determined that the best way down was just to lower myself as far as possible and then jump the last few feet. I passed my camera to my sister, felt my way backward down the face of the rock, and then took a leap into the snow-covered mud.
This was a little adventure, but we had so much fun. It was by far my favorite out of the waterfalls we saw in Iceland, just because of the adventure involved in getting to it. I’m used to seeing sights like that safely behind railings and safety barriers, so getting to experience this waterfall up close and unrestrained felt wild and unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been.
We were thoroughly soaked and covered with mud, so it’s a good idea to plan on changing clothes if you’re going to attempt this. Or wear those super cool rainproof pants that I chose not to buy for the trip. The good news is that there’s a bathroom – tiny and not exactly spotless, but functional – near the Seljalandsfoss parking lot, so you’ll be able to change if you need to. Guard any electronics you bring with you closely, as they can quickly become soaked. I wished I had brought the waterproof camera I had in my suitcase for this adventure because I came pretty close to ruining my good one trying to take pictures in the cavern.
Have you visited Gljúfrabúi? Have you had any other unique experiences in Iceland? Let me know in the comments.
Read more Iceland tips:
When we were planning our trip to Iceland, one of the places that caught my eye the most was Jökulsárlón, especially when I found out that it was a stepping off point for a lot of ice cave tours. It was a little out of the way for us – we hadn’t been planning on going any further east than Vík – but I’m so glad we spent the extra time in the car.
The Vatnajökull glacier is the largest in Europe, and is protected by a national park. It’s size is truly massive and can be best appreciated by viewing a satellite map of the area. The area of the national park accounts for just over 13% of the entire country. It is massive and it is spectacular.
We booked our tour through Extreme Iceland, but it was operated by Glacier Journey, a small business owned by a local couple. We were only expecting to go ice caving, but they were evidently missing a guide that day, so we got combined with the snowmobile tour. We could not have been more thrilled with this development, or our tour guide, Laufey. On the way back to Vík, my sister and I spent more time telling my mom, who didn’t go on the adventure, about her than any of the sights we’d seen on the tour. She was absolutely hilarious and had the six of us in the van cracking up for most of the ride out to the base of the glacier. Our tour happened to fall on International Women’s Day, and as there was only one guy in our group, she gave him a fair amount of good-natured teasing.
Meeting Up with the Group
This was truly the hardest part of the trip. Our tickets said that the tour departed from the parking lot at Jökulsárlón, but when we got there, we discovered a sea of vans, trucks, and trailers for various companies. We hadn’t realized that our tour was being operated by a different company than we had booked with, so when we saw an Extreme Iceland van leaving the parking lot as we were pulling in, I got pretty nervous that we’d missed it. We went inside the little building at the end of the parking lot to inquire, and we were told that they usually picked up right outside.
We waited around for a while, but our 3pm departure time was rapidly approaching, so I went out and started wandering through the parking lot. After asking another tour guide, he pointed us in the direction of the Glacier Journey van, but no guide was there. We asked the passengers already inside, but when they said they were snowmobiling, we thought we were in the wrong place. Laufey eventually found us and took us her trailer to get suited up for the trip that we only then found out was going to include much more than ice caving.
I would recommend getting to Jökulsárlón with plenty of time to spare so that you don’t miss your tour. The parking lot there was very chaotic with tour vans parked everywhere, and you’ll want to explore the area anyway.
My sister and I thought we were pretty well-equipped for the trip, but we were wrong. Laufey has an excellent eye for size and provided us with perfectly fitting wind- and waterproof suits and snowmobiling helmets after just a glance at us. We had brought crampons with us for the ice cave, but those were discarded since she said we wouldn’t be needing them. Our ski gloves were also set aside in favor of what I was sure were much too thin wool gloves, but they were more than enough to keep us warm – even when we had to wait on top of the glacier for a long time (more on that later). We were told to put everything we’d need in our pockets, and I shoved my camera down the front of my snowsuit to keep it warm and safe. It was a very whirlwind process, especially since we hadn’t even expected to be snowmobiling that day.
Make sure to wear warm layers for your tour, since you’ll be leaving your coat behind. You’ll also want to make sure to wear warm (preferably wool) socks and waterproof boots so your feet stay warm and dry while you’re up on the glacier. The helmets we were given had sun shades on them, but sunglasses (wire framed would be ideal because thicker plastic ones won’t fit in your helmet well) would also be helpful on a sunny day.
The Ride Out
Our tour had six people on it, all of whom turned out to be Americans. It was kind of funny to end up in remote Iceland surrounded by a bunch of other people from the States, but it was nice to chat with them and exchange tips about other stops that were still on our itinerary.
When we got into the van, Laufey warned us that the road out to the glacier was horrible, but I had no idea just how right she was. I grew up riding roller coasters and have never gotten motion sick, seasick, or airsick anywhere and by the end of the 40-minute trip in the back of the van, I was a little queasy. There were several spots where I was sure the van was going to get stuck. Laufey has to be the best driver I’ve ever been in the presence of. I believe the road is publicly accessible, but I would not want to drive it myself. There were huge holes that would swallow my little Focus, and some downgrades so steep that I wouldn’t even attempt to drive a vehicle down them. Needless to say, I was very happy to finally arrive at the glacier.
Laufey said that it would take less than 10 minutes to snowmobile from the main road to the glacier, but that the national park no longer allowed that. She said that they also won’t fix the road for some reason, which is a shame.
Despite growing up in Michigan, neither of us had ever snowmobiled before. We had to double up and my sister insisted on driving first because she had driven a jet ski once. I was not at all pleased with this because I’m 11 years older than her and have severe trust issues. I will admit that she handled herself pretty well though.
Laufey gave us a brief demo of how to drive and instructions for what to do when we were up on the glacier. We were to follow exactly in her tracks and line up next to each other when she stopped and gave a hand signal. After a few more tips like what to do if we flipped it, she taught us how to start them up and we were ready to go.
After mounting up, we set off up the glacier. Laufey kept us going at what felt like a pretty fast pace. I was riding in back and felt like I was hanging on for my life. Every bump in the snow sent me bouncing around and I was sure that my little sister was going to get me killed. She did almost roll it at one point, but managed to keep us upright.
Stuck on the Glacier
We went a little way up the glacier and Laufey had us pull into a line to check to make sure that everyone was doing alright. She said we’d stop once more for a check-in and then go up into the mountains that she promised were spectacularly beautiful. We never made it there though.
Shortly after setting off again, she led us through a slushy puddle. My sister was next in line and sped through it just like Laufey did. However a little ways beyond the slush, Laufey had us stop next to her. She had looked back to check on the other two snowmobiles and saw that they were stuck. I never asked exactly what happened, but I think the guy driving the one behind us slowed down when he saw the slush and sunk in. As a result, the girls behind him got stuck too.
Laufey told us to wait there and rode back down to assist the others, who were far enough back that they were out of earshot. After watching them struggle for several minutes, one of the girls hopped on the back of Laufey’s snowmobile and they set off down the glacier. We were alone. And confused.
My sister and I debated whether we should loop around and drive down to where the other three people were, but eventually decided against it because we figured Laufey wouldn’t be pleased. After debating whether we were likely to start an avalanche – we’re from Michigan where it’s flat and don’t know about such things – I decided that it was worth a shot to try yelling down to the others. I waved at them until I got their attention and then shouted to ask what was going on. They yelled back that Laufey had gone to get rope to try to pull the stranded snowmobiles out.
We just had to wait it out until she got back. My sister had her phone with her, so she got it out and started playing some music for us. We had a little sing-along (with minor seat dancing) on our snowmobile parked on top of the glacier. Apparently we were loud enough that the others could hear faint traces of music because they asked us if we were singing Adele songs later on. It was definitely one of the more unique moments I’ve had in my life. How many people can say that they’ve had a dance party on top of a glacier?
Eventually, Laufey returned with not one, but two more snowmobiles. I think she found other guides that she knew down by the ice cave and they rode up with her. She had decided to leave the two stranded snowmobiles there and come back for them later with a Jeep. The two guys who rode up with her left one snowmobile behind and hopped on the other one together and rode back down.
The guy who had gotten stuck hopped on the back of Laufey’s and the other two girls got on the new snowmobile together. They caught up to where we had been waiting and we set off further up the glacier.
My Turn to Drive
We went a little ways further up the glacier, but we’d wasted too much time with the stuck snowmobiles and didn’t have time to go all the way up into the mountains. We got to a good spot near the top and stopped to take pictures for a while. I got to walk around for a bit to take some pictures, and then I switched spots with my sister for the trip back down the glacier.
Driving was a lot more fun than riding. I was getting bounced around a lot less than I had been when I was in back and I liked being in control. The speedometer said we were going 40-50 km/hr, but it felt so much faster. I found myself laughing with joy as we flew across the snow-covered landscape. It was a huge thrill.
As much fun as snowmobiling was, the ice cave was the highlight of the trip for me. We got very lucky with the timing because we had the cave almost to ourselves for a few minutes, and even Laufey was snapping pictures because she said that she rarely got to visit it without crowds of people.
The blue ice surrounding us was spectacular. The ripples and waves in the walls of the cave were mesmerizing. Water flowing under the glacier carved the cave out of the glacial ice leaving the huge cavern for us to explore. It’s inaccessible during the summer and after rainfall when the cave floods once again, so visiting in winter is your best chance to tour it. Even that is no guarantee though, as Laufey told us that the cave was flooded for several weeks earlier this year due to rains.
We were expecting it to be slippery inside – it was an ice cave after all – but the floor wasn’t icy at all. This was the main reason my mom hadn’t wanted to join us on the tour, so don’t let that hold you back. It was also quite warm inside and we were sweating in our snowmobiling suits. Drips of water were coming off of the ceiling as the ice above us melted due to the warmth.
We had free reign to explore on our own and take as many pictures as we wanted. Laufey pointed out a black streak in the ceiling above us and said that it was ash from a volcanic eruption in the 1200s. She also showed us a spot on one of the walls with a thin sheet of ice that we could stick our heads behind to take pictures looking like we were frozen in the glacier.
Outside of the cave was a little tunnel through the ice. My sister and I climbed up the outside and then lowered ourselves into the crawlspace. It was very slushy inside and we would’ve been soaked if we hadn’t been wearing the waterproof snowmobiling outfits we were provided. Crawling through the ice was fun, but I’d skip it if you’re not wearing waterproof clothing from head to toe.
Once everyone was done exploring, we headed back to the van for the long, rough ride back to Jӧkulsárlón. When we got back to the parking lot, we took turns hopping into the trailer to return our snowmobiling gear and pick up our own coats, gloves, and other miscellaneous belongings.
The site we booked through recommends staying near Jökulsárlón the night before for the morning time slot or the night after for the afternoon time and this was very good advice. The other people on the tour were all staying in Reykjavík, which meant that they had a very long drive back to their hotels that night. Our trip to Vík was only about half of their drive and we still didn’t get back until almost midnight after a stop for dinner and Northern Lights viewing.
I would definitely recommend this tour to anyone visiting southeastern Iceland. We loved Laufey and her sense of humor. The tour is not cheap – it costs nearly 29,900 krona – but the experience was amazing. I’ve never seen anything like the ice cave before, and the adventure was the highlight of our entire trip. If you don’t want to snowmobile, you can take a tour that is only to the ice cave at a much cheaper price. We absolutely loved our afternoon with Laufey, and I couldn’t imagine our trip without this adventure. If you have the time and budget for the tour, do it!
Want to learn more about visiting? Check out the perfect 6-Day Southern Iceland Itinerary!
Driving the full Ring Road may be the ultimate Iceland vacation itinerary, but if you’re short on time, you can still experience plenty of spectacular scenery in the southern part of the country.
Day One: Reykjavik
Start your trip in Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital city. It’s pretty small compared to other capitals, but that makes it very walkable. Most of the main tourist sites are within 10-15 minutes on foot, and it’s an incredibly safe city to walk around in. I didn’t fall in love with the architecture like I have in other European cities – most of the buildings are pretty plain – but a couple do stand out. The Harpa conference hall is pretty by day and night. Try to catch it on a sunny day for the best lighting and views of the harbor, but it’s also worth checking out at night when the glass panels are lit up. I found that the lighting looked better from a little bit of a distance, as the closer I got, the more I could pick out the individual light bars inside instead of seeing the full picture.
Hallgrímskirkja is another must-see building in Reykjavik, and it’s hard to miss. I loved the iconic church atop the hill with it’s striking exterior modeled after the basalt columns present throughout the country. It’s very plain inside, so if you don’t get a chance to enter the church, don’t feel like you’re missing out. You can also take an elevator to the top for 900 ISK, but the line was very long the morning we visited. We stood in line for a few minutes to see how it was moving, and at the rate it was going it would’ve taken us close to an hour to get to the top.
Learn about the country’s Viking history at the Settlement Exhibition, which houses the remnants of an old longhouse dating back over 1000 years. For more Icelandic history, you can head over to the Saga Museum in the Old Harbor area which uses very lifelike wax figures to tell the stories of several heroes and villains. Bonus at the end of the audio tour: a chance to dress up in Viking costumes and weapons to take pictures. (If you’ve never worn full chainmail, you’ll be astounded at the fact that anyone was able to run and fight while weighted down by it.)
This will also be your best chance to sample Icelandic cuisine. Once you’re out in the small towns, restaurant options are limited, and we found that a lot of them had pretty standard American fare. Torfan Lobsterhouse is a great place to sample langoustine (or puffin salad if you’re brave), and right next door is Lækjarbrekka, which offer a variety of food options, including traditional fish stew (mashed potatoes with haddock and onions mixed in). Food in Iceland is incredibly expensive, but if you’re looking for a cheap eat, check out one of the many stands serving Icelandic lamb hot dogs. I don’t eat plain hot dogs very often (and I’m not a huge fan of lamb), but I really liked mine. It had a very satisfying snap to it and tasted pretty much like the ones I’m used to getting at home.
Day Two: Fjords
Depart for the western fjords region. Depending on how early you get on the road, you can make it pretty far into the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and admire the beauty in a part of Iceland that’s much less touristy than some of the other stops on this route. Along the way, marvel at the 6 km-long tunnel under one of the fjords (and make sure you have enough money for the 1000 ISK toll). On a clear day, you’ll be able to see the massive Snæfellsjökull volcano looming at the western end of the peninsula.
This area is sparsely populated, but Borgarnes is a cute little seaside town that has a few hotels, as well as a highly-rated Settlement museum. We opted not to visit the museum since it was 2500 ISK per person, but had a delicious meal in their restaurant.
While you’re in Borgarnes, make time to walk or drive across the bridge out to the dock/breakwater area for great views of the town and surrounding mountains. If you’re lucky enough to have a clear day, the end of the dock is a perfect place to sit and watch the sunset at night.
Day Three: Geysir
Backtrack a little from Borgarnes to pick up the route for the Golden Circle. Coming in from the west, your first stop will be Þingvellir National Park, which contains a spectacular rift valley where the continental plates are spreading apart. It was also home to the Viking parliaments of old. Admission to the park is free, but there is a fee for parking. Stop into the small gift shop for a look at maps of the area and a little bit of the history and then head out to soak up the scenery and history.
There is a path that takes you down between two ridges into the rift valley, and you can see spectacular views of the rivers and small buildings in the distance. If you continue walking, you’ll come across a small waterfall leading to a pool that was used to drown women convicted of various crimes. There are several walking paths to explore, but don’t linger too long because more great scenery awaits you.
Your next stop on the Golden Circle will be the Geysir area. Though Geysir (the English word “geyser” comes from this one) rarely erupts anymore, you should be able to see several smaller eruptions from neighboring geyser Strokkur during your visit. It erupts every few minutes and can reach heights of up to 40 meters high. There are several smaller geysirs and hot spring pools along the walking paths, but make sure to stay on the marked trails. Once you’ve had enough geothermal activity, you can grab a delicious meal in the visitor center across the street.
The last stop on the Golden Circle is Gulfoss, a double-tiered waterfall that sends water tumbling down into a canyon. Start with the views from high atop the gorge, but don’t miss the chance to get up close by climbing down the stairs to the brink of the falls.
Backtrack a little to stay at the hotel Litli Geysir, located right across the street from the Geysir area. It’s less famous than the Hotel Geysir, but offers a better view of the geyser field. We were able to see Strokkur erupting from our room’s window.
For dinner, try the Litli Geysir’s restaurant, or venture a couple minutes down the road to Skjól, a campground/hostel with a restaurant that serves up some pretty good pizza in a fun, quirky atmosphere. Musical instruments line the walls, and rumor has it that if you play a few songs well enough to earn applause, you’ll get a free beer. It’s worth a shot.
Day Four: Road to Vik
Day Four of your journey will be filled with waterfalls. Take the road toward Selfoss to pick up the Ring Road again, and then head east toward Vik. A significant portion of your drive today will be lined with small waterfalls, but the first major one you’ll encounter is Seljalandsfoss, famous for its rainbow and the cave behind it that enables visitors to see the cascade from all sides. Seljalandsfoss is visible right from the Ring Road, and it’ll be hard to miss as you pass by. There’s a large parking area and bathrooms on site, as well.
Once you’ve had your fill of Seljalandsfoss, keep walking across the little bridge and up the path that parallels the cliff side. You’ll pass a few smaller waterfalls, and it will be tempting to turn back, but there’s one more hidden surprise – the “secret” waterfall Gljúfrabúi. It’s easy to miss because you can only see the top portion from in front. In order to view the whole thing, you need to wade through the stream or climb up the rocky outcrop blocking it from view. Both options are a lot of fun, though you will get very wet in the cavern even if you manage to keep your feet dry in the stream.
When you get back to your car, keep heading east toward Vik. The next notable sight you’ll see is Eyjafjallajökull (you may remember this volcano as the one that interrupted European air travel in 2010). There’s a small visitor center and a pull-off area where you can take pictures of it with a small farm in the foreground.
Next up is Skógafoss, one of Iceland’s largest waterfalls. This one is also visible from the Ring Road, and it’s beautiful 200 foot drop is hard to miss. You can’t walk behind this one, but you can get close enough to get soaked again. There is also a staircase winding up to the top of the cliff, but we didn’t think the view from the top was worth the effort of climbing the 429 stairs.
The last stop on today’s route is the famous DC 3 plane crash site. It’s the abandoned wreckage of a US Navy plane that was forced to crash land there in 1973. Don’t feel too macabre about posing with plane wreckage – all of the passengers survived. It takes about 45 minutes to walk out to the wreckage, and it felt even longer than that. When you finally make it to the wreckage, it offers great photo opportunities. The overcast sky on the day we visited, combined with the black sand made my pictures look like black and whites even though my camera was set to color.
If you have time today, you can stop by Reynisfjara, the famous black sand beach nearby, but you’ll want to take your time there and it will be better to visit on the way back to Reykjavik.
Spend the next two nights in Vik, the biggest town in the area. There are a few hotels and restaurants there, which is quite a bit in comparison to the rest of this area. We stayed at a fantastic AirBnB, but the IcelandAir hotel looked very nice when we wandered in in search of breakfast.
Day Five: Jökulsárlón
The drive to Jökulsárlón takes a little less than 2.5 hours without stops, but you’ll want to give yourselves at least an extra hour. You’ll be passing by some cute little waterfalls, and desolate landscape shaped by glacial floods. During the 1990s, floods caused by a volcanic eruption washed away a couple of the Ring Road bridges in this area, and there is a pull-off spot where you can see some of the wreckage left behind.
When you make it to the Jökulsárlón area, stop at Diamond Beach first. The parking lot is located just before the bridge you’ll see. This black sand beach offers stunning photo ops with ice boulders that have been pushed ashore by the surf. It’s a great way to witness the power of the ocean as waves continue to slam into larger ice bergs that haven’t made it all the way to the beach yet.
From here, continue across the bridge to the Jökulsárlón parking area. The beautiful blue glaciers striped by black volcanic ash from long-ago eruptions are mesmerizing as they float in the calm water of the lagoon. There are great paths to walk along close to the water, as well as a hilltop vantage point. There is a small building with snacks, bathrooms, and a gift shop at the back of the parking lot. This is also where the glacier tours meet.
We took an ice cave and snowmobiling tour that was phenomenal. The ride out on the road through the national park is rough, but it’s so worth it. If snowmobiling is too intense for you, you can take tours just to the ice cave or go hiking on the glacier. We went with Glacier Journeys and absolutely loved our guide. Read all about our tour – and stranded snowmobiles – here.
It’ll be late by the time you get back, and there aren’t a lot of places for dinner in the area. If you start heading back toward Vik, Hotel Skaftafell is one of the first places you’ll come across. They have a bustling restaurant that has Vatnajokull beer – brewed with water from icebergs in Jökulsárlón – on the menu. It’s a great way to get a taste of ice from the glacier you’ve spent the day touring.
Keep your eyes on the sky as you head back toward Vik. There is very little ambient light in this area, so if the skies are clear, you’ll have a good chance at spotting the Northern Lights on your way back.
Day Six: Reynisjara and Blue Lagoon
Start the day with an early morning ride along Vik’s black sand beach with an early morning horseback ride with Vik Horse Adventure. This was a spur of the moment choice for us, and was one of the highlights of the trip. If you’ve fallen in love with the Icelandic horses that graze seemingly everywhere, this will be your best chance to get up close to them. It was also the most scenic horseback ride I’ve ever taken.
When you hit the road to head back toward Reykjavik, your first stop will be Reynisfjara. The rock formations and basalt columns are spectacular to look at, but stay well back from the water. Dangerous rogue waves are known to come ashore there and tourists have lost their lives after being swept out to sea. There is a small café there with good food and great desserts so you can fill up before hitting the road.
The drive to the Blue Lagoon will take you 2:45 minutes without stops, but like all drives through Iceland, the scenery will make it pleasant. You’ll spend a while backtracking, so you can revisit some of the waterfalls from day four if you have time.
The last major stop on your itinerary is the Blue Lagoon. Yes, it’s touristy, but it’s also fun. There’s no better way to wrap up your stay in Iceland than by relaxing in the powdery blue water. Be sure to book your tickets in advance to ensure that you get in.
If you have time before an evening flight, you can stop at the Bridge Between Continents, a symbolic bridge that spans a rift canyon between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. If your flight isn’t until the next day, you can stay at a hotel right at the Blue Lagoon, or head back up to Reykjavik for one last evening.
Did I miss anything that’s a must-see in south Iceland? Let me know in the comments.