Disclaimer: Thank you to Mountaineers of Iceland & Tröll Expeditions for hosting us as your guests. The thoughts and opinions expressed here are entirely our own.
Iceland is commonly known as “The Land of Fire and Ice”; with frigid winters, volatile volcanoes, and stunning scenery, this small nation has a lot to offer those willing to brave its elements. Settled in the 9th century by Vikings, Iceland has since developed into an economically powerful European country that cherishes its natural beauty and diversity, becoming a top travel destination for adventure seekers and nature lovers alike.
Because we love a good challenge, we decided to visit this Nordic island nation in winter when the conditions are most severe, with snowy roads, high winds, and ice laden landscapes; we opted for a ten day road trip by camper van, as we set out to circle the entire country and its beautiful coastlines. Prior to departure, we spent many days researching the best locations and activities for a 10 day ring road excursion and as you can see in the maps below, there is quite a LOT to do:
10 Days in Iceland Itinerary - Part 1:
10 Days in Iceland Itinerary - Part 2:
At first glance, these maps can be a bit overwhelming! Thankfully, we’ve done all the hard work on and off-line for you. We’ve even tested out these very routes, to see what worked and what didn’t, so that you can experience the very best that Iceland has to offer. So grab an ice cold Einstök beer, put on your warmest jacket, and scroll through our list of 15 must-see attractions for the ideal Iceland winter expedition!
1. Northern Lights Snowmobiling in Iceland
No, they didn’t just jam two amazing concepts together, this is a real expedition and it’s somehow even more incredible than it sounds! Departing from the Gulfoss Falls parking lot [a 2 hour trek from Reykjavik], this tour starts off strong: you board a super jeep monster truck and head off into the barren wilderness to escape all sources of light pollution.
After 30 to 60 minutes of off-roading fun, you’ll arrive at the Mountaineers of Iceland’s base camp where you’ll change into a full body suit to conquer the chilly night ahead and get an introduction to snowmobiling basics. Don’t worry if you’ve never gone before, we hadn’t either and our guide Snaebjorn [aka Sniper] showed us the ropes to ensure we felt safe and confident before heading out into the pitch black darkness; so they’ll be sure to do the same for you.
Once you’re suited up, you’ll jump on your snowmobiles and set out for the Langjökull Glacier: It’s a surreal experience, as you float across the frozen landscapes before you, driving away from all civilization and light, into a foreign glacial terrain, marveling at the clarity of the stars and the Milky Way above. With your tour guide leading the way, the hunt for the Northern Lights begins. Also known as Aurora Borealis, seeing this natural phenomenon is a game of chance - you need clear skies, high solar wind activity, and a sprinkling of good luck. Not all tours see the lights, but those who do - never forget it. Watching the green ribbons unfold across the sky in serene, snowy surroundings with your friends and family is an extraordinary adventure you won’t stop talking about for years to come - we clearly haven’t!
After an hour of riding that feels all too short, you will head back to base camp to enjoy a cup of coffee or hot chocolate and reheat your hands and feet. This might seem obvious but it bears repeating: ICE-land is VERY cold, especially at night, on a glacier, in the winter. Prepare for the cold with hand warmers, water proof gloves and proper snow boots. Once you’ve geared up, you’re ready to rock. Head on over to the Mountaineers of Iceland’s site to reserve your Northern Lights Snowmobiling trip of a lifetime!
2. Sólheimasandur Plane Crash
In 1973 a United States Navy plane ran out of fuel and crashed on the black sand beach at Sólheimasandur - luckily, everyone on board survived but the aircraft still lies there today and thanks to the unique juxtaposition of pitch black sand, strong white ocean swells, and a crippled aluminum aircraft, this particular site has become a photographer’s paradise. The wreck is located on the southern side of Iceland, only a short drive from Skógafoss (one of the many waterfalls worth visiting in Iceland), and has become so popular it now has a dedicated parking lot and shuttle service to take you to and from the wreckage. In summer, it’s best to get there as early as possible to avoid the crowds and hike the hour it takes to reach the relic. If you’re traveling to Iceland in winter, feel free to go whenever you please but check weather conditions as the wind chill can quickly make this trek very unpleasant. We loved the experience, and the photos were worth braving the harsh winter elements.
3. Skaftafell Blue Ice Cave Adventure & Glacier Hike
This 4 hour tour hosted by Tröll Expeditions, departs from Skaftafell, a stunning nature reserve in south-east Iceland, home to Europe’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull. After a quick safety briefing, you’ll be handed an ice pick, heavy-duty crampons, and a helmet - all sure signs of a serious expedition! This tour is extremely unique and rewarding, offering guests a once in a lifetime chance to scale icy rugged terrain in search for one of the most fascinating phenomena on earth: a naturally formed ice cave. During the glacier hike your guide will explain how they form and evolve along with their fascinating formations such as crevasses and icefalls. Crevasses are deep open cracks within a glacier that can be extremely dangerous while icefalls are rapidly moving and highly unstable ice. Aren’t you glad your group leader is certified and highly experienced?
After 30-60 minutes of trekking the icy tundra of Vatnajökull, you’ll be escorted by your guide into several hidden ice caves whose walls are painted various shades of blue, white and grey. These intricate glacial walls are made through complex organic interactions, forming a surreal, otherworldly setting that is sure to take your breath away.
4. Crystal Blue Ice Cave & Super Jeep from Jökulsárlón
No you’re not seeing double - we loved Ice Caving in Iceland so much we added it to our itinerary twice! While it is easy to understand the importance of glacier safety, it is nearly impossible to adequately express the grandeur and magnitude of these icy giants. Thanks to seasonal changes and the inherent qualities of frozen water, every iceberg tongue, ridge, and cavern is utterly unique and every encounter guaranteed to be different.
While our first grotto experience was dominated by glacial hiking and multicolored ice exploration, our second attempt with Tröll Expeditions began in a “Super Jeep” aka Monster Truck and led us to a starkly blue hollow of ice painted in various shades of blue. This particular ice formation called the Crystal Blue Ice Cave was found deep within the ancient Jökulsárlón glacier; formed by rolling rivers of snowmelt that carved through the glacial terrain to create these marvelous, ephemeral microcosms for us to enjoy. The tours are so distinct from each other that we advise you to book several so that you too can safely observe the variety and elegance of Iceland’s frosty titans and glacial monstrosities that reside here.
5. Jökulsárlón Iceberg Lagoon
A mere 5 minute drive from your last Crystal Blue Ice Cave Tour will introduce you to the next phase of these icy behemoths: icebergs. These towering, refrigerated marvels form when hunks of ice break off the main body of a glacier and begin floating independently. This process is not only dangerous to ships (see: Titanic, 1912), but also scientifically informative and grandiose.
Fun Fact: the color of an iceberg lets us determine the air content of the packed snow and the age of an ice shelf. Jökulsárlón stands as a pristine case study. This Lagoon is frequently home to dazzling blue icebergs thanks to the sheer number of glaciers in Iceland and the unfortunate visible impact of climate change. As you admire the awe-inspiring and beautiful panorama before you, take a moment to acknowledge the rarity and fleeting nature of this exceptional ecosystem that will soon disappear in the next 50 years.
6. Diamond Beach [Breiðamerkursandur]
From Jökulsárlón Iceberg Lagoon, a brief walk across the road will take you even further down the life process of glaciers, to a breathtaking bank known as Diamond Beach. As the elements weather the icebergs in Jökulsárlón, ever-smaller blocks of ice make their way to the ocean, then carried out to sea, polished by the tides, and pushed back to shore as gleaming jewels to be set upon jet-black sand and an ivory white swell.
These highly reflective frozen gems superimposed on Iceland’s trademark charcoal coast create an uncommon, highly photogenic sight that has captured visitor’s hearts, minds, and Instagram feeds.
7. Hafnarbuðin - Langoustine [Lobster] Rolls
Icelandic food is generally known for being expensive and shall we say… not so tasty. Hafnarbúðin in Höfn challenges both expectations with its delicious, reasonably-priced Langoustines rolls and approachable old-school diner atmosphere. Langoustines are lobster’s smaller, tastier, and scarcer cousins, that are especially mouth watering when combined with freshly-baked baguettes and a side of savory sweet potato fries. Forget fermented shark or dry fish jerky, this is a local meal you cannot miss!
8. Hengifoss and Litlanesfoss
This stop is a tale of two chutes: Hengifoss is the more famous brother and the country’s third largest waterfall, standing at 128 meters (420 feet). This fall is impressive not only for its size but also for the layers of red clay and basalt visible behind the cascading waters. Unfortunately for us, we visited Iceland in winter when the path was too treacherous and only saw the falls from afar. But worry not, this hike was still worth the effort thanks to Hengifoss’ smaller, lesser known brother: Litlanesfoss.
This oft-forgotten sight is also known as Stuðlabergsfoss, translating to Basalt Column Falls. The cataract itself reaches 30 meters (100 feet) in height, but its beauty stems from the stunning stone pillars that frame it. Much of the frozen lava is perfectly stacked upright while other columns curve gently around the torrential flow, creating a singular spectacle that deserves much more attention than it currently receives.
9. Stuðlagil Canyon
Can’t get enough of the astonishing magma columns in Iceland? Only a short trip from Hengifoss lies a recently discovered curiosity: the walls of the Jokulsa a Dal River. These particular walls are composed of rows upon rows of octagonal, obsidian pillars, resulting in an exotic display of geological grace. Due to the recent discovery of this location, accessing it is still rather difficult and during winter can be slightly unsafe so please use extreme caution when visiting. Be sure to utilize these directions to Stuðlagil to ensure you’re in the right place:
To get there from Hengifoss, drive along the gravel road (Jökuldalsvegur) for 14km until you see a sign on the left for a farm called Klaustursel. Follow the path until you’ve reached the parking lot. If you come across a white bridge that is too narrow for cars to cross, you’ve gone too far and need to back track.
Once you’ve parked, the trailhead is to the immediate right of the bridge. Follow the path for 2 kilometers, until you see a basalt fall named Stuðlafoss. From there, continue on the trail to the end of the route - you may have to climb over a few gates to get there, but once you reach the end of the pathway, turn right and follow the narrow trail downwards, keeping the river to your left, until you reach a bridge, where you will make another right to follow a smaller track. From here on out, the only directions are the ones you set for yourself! Carefully descend to the bottom of the canyon but be vigilant as the rocks can be very slippery, especially during the winter months. Please make sure you are well prepared with proper hiking equipment and potentially even crampons! Safety always comes first, so navigate the terrain with caution.
10. Dettifoss and Selfoss
Another two for one deal! Dettifoss is the second-most powerful waterfall in all of Europe, discharging 500 cubic meters (132,086 gallons) per second. That is an unfathomable amount of water to put into perspective, standing 45 meters (147 feet) tall and stretching 100 meters (330 feet) wide. Regrettably, winters in Iceland are fickle and we had almost no visibility when we visited, but were once again saved by its lesser known counterpart: Selfoss..
Not to be confused with the city of Selfoss (which sits 7 and a half hours away), this canyon resides downstream from Dettifoss but we found it to be far superior than it’s notorious neighbor. The facades are built from basalt towers mixed with gigantic sandstone blocks. Many have collapsed on the valley floor, dusted in snow, bordering raging waters fed by the Jökulsá á Fjöllum, a river from the Vatnajökull Glacier. The site is serene, a pure spectacle to see in person, and is guaranteed to leave a lasting impression.
Are you getting tired of waterfalls yet? Of course not! But it’s time for something completely different - so peculiar in fact, that you’ll feel like you’re walking on a planet from another galaxy!
Hverir, also called Namaskard, is one of the most unique sites on the island and perhaps even the entire world. Located near Dettifoss, at the foot of the volcano Namafjall, this geothermal area has fumaroles (steam vents), bubbling mud pools, and an ochre landscape covered in sulfurous crystals that crunch and crackle under your feet. This site and its sights will make you feel connected to the raw potential of our planet and the subterranean systems that feverishly thrive underneath us. The smell of rotten eggs is omnipresent and rather noxious but the strange surroundings will have you staying - and staring - far longer than you would ever expect.
12. Bjórböðin - The Beer Spa
You may have noticed this list is very action-packed; lots of hiking, climbing, and driving through Iceland’s infamously unforgiving weather. That’s why we’ve included a spot whose main focus is on rest, relaxation and rejuvenation using beer baths, hot tubs, and traditional microbrews to put you at ease. Upon arrival to The Beer Spa, you may choose between the following experiences:
Option 1: Enjoy your pick of two outdoor hot tubs that face the frigid fjords, both hand carved from cedar wood. Once you’ve settled into the warm waters, order some well-deserved local beers supplied by nearby breweries to share with your family and friends. With this package, you also have full access to the outdoor sauna to further unwind, taking in the tranquil serenity that surrounds you. This choice will only cost you 2,000 ISK per person ($16), plus the cost of the beers, and serves as a perfect break from your ceaseless Iceland camper van adventures.
Option 2: Soothe both mind and body in a warm, hoppy beer bath. What actually goes into these baths? The first two ingredients are geothermal water and a “young beer”, which is unfermented and without yeast. The third element is brewer’s yeast, which carries B-complex vitamins, along with selenium and magnesium, all of which are great for your skin! A few hops are thrown in, along with essential oils, bath salts and some of their famous beer soap. The end result is 300 liters of beery goodness, all accompanied by an endless tap for you to savor local brews as you soak your weary body. The experience lasts 25 minutes after which you’ll be taken to a relaxation area to let the nutrients work their way into your skin. This will cost you 9,900 ISK ($82) per person or 16,900 ($140) per couple, but is fully worth every penny if you’re in need of easing muscle tension and/or stress.We opted for Option 1 due to our budget, but either choice is a win win.
Now that you feel rejuvenated, it’s time to get back to exploring! Djúpalónssandur is a lava flow field leading to what was once a bustling fishing village and a prominent trading hub for the Snæfellsnes peninsula and Iceland as a whole. The coast, made of smooth lava pebbles is nowadays the main attraction as the white seafoam, ebony rock, and vibrant verdure combine to form truly sensational scenery. Dedicate some time here for scrambling the jagged rocks as every crest on the path provides a new, electrifying panorama. On your way to or from the waterfront, try heaving the ancient lifting stones that were once used to test the strength of local fishermen. The four stones weigh 23 kg (51 lbs) to 155 kg (341 lbs) and are named “Amlóði” (useless), “Hálfdrættingur” (weakling), “Hálfsterkur” (half-strong) and “Fullsterkur” (full-strong). Give it a whirl to see whether the fishing boats would have taken you aboard!
14. Búðakirkja (Black Church)
The next spot is all about showcasing local architecture. Búðakirkja has become an increasingly famous tiny black wooden church, set amidst a sprawling lava field with a vertiginous mountainous backdrop; a prototypical example of Icelandic history and engineering. What made this chapel extra special for us however, was its shadowy color contrasting against fields of burnt orange and green. Along with a vibrant sunset, this place is a quintessential and dramatic display of Iceland’s unique versatility.
15. Secret Lagoon Hot Spring
This geothermal pool in Flúðir was built in 1891, making it the oldest swimming hole in all of Iceland. Still frequented by locals, this historical lagoon offers showers, a bar, hot drinks, and a cozy inside eating area. It’s the perfect last stop to your road trip itinerary; especially after continuous trekking and strenuous days of exploration, nothing can compare to an ice cold beer and a hot bath (40° Celcius, 104° Fahrenheit), to repair sore muscles. Once you’ve settled into its soothing waters, you’ll experience this hotspot’s magic, with steam reaching towards the skies, walking paths on the perimeter built for guests to get a closer look at nearby spouting springs, all engulfed by a quiet calm - you can’t help but appreciate this proper Icelandic experience.
As is evident from the list above, Iceland is a country replete with splendid sights and uncommon adventures, all of which are impossible to boil down into a top 15. We agonized over which sights to include as every conversation we had led to a longer list and gleeful reminiscing over our time spent on this enchanted island. With that said, after much consideration and debate, we’ve selected our personal favorites to share with you and genuinely believe the map and items above represent the very best that Iceland has to offer.
Now it’s your turn to plan the perfect Iceland itinerary with what we’ve provided. Build your journey. Be bold and design the trip of your dreams like we know you can. If you need any help or have any questions, feel free to contact us and we’ll gladly do our part to ensure your trip is the best it can possibly be!