Waterfalls and Glaciers: A Day Trip Along Iceland's South Coast

The Golden Circle gets a lot of the glory in Iceland, but the south coast is a truly exceptional place. With barren volcanic landscapes, countless waterfalls, and one of Europe's largest glaciers, this area is a must-see for any visitor to Iceland. 

Seljalandsfoss

An unexpected side of the highway waterfall. Okay, maybe just for misinformed rubes like us. This is apparently one of the most famous waterfalls in Iceland. Yeah, I wish I lived in a place where I'm driving and all of a sudden there's a gorgeous wall of water tumbling over a green cliff side. Seljalandsfoss is visible from Route 1, otherwise known as the Ring Road. We originally mistook it for Skogafoss, which is larger and further down the highway. 

This 60-meter waterfall has a cave behind it that can be reached by stairs. Just be careful with your camera and be prepared to get wet. 

Skogafoss

It's hard to believe that we mistook Seljalandsfoss for Skogafoss (travel noobs we are) when looking at the photos. At over two hundred feet high and eighty feet across, Skogafoss is a beast of a waterfall and one of the largest in Iceland. The waterfall marks where the coastline used to be; the coast is now about 3 miles away. Legend has it a Viking buried treasure in the cave behind the waterfall, but I wasn't brave enough to go looking for it. 

The hike up to the top is on a metal staircase. It's quite a trek but totally worth it. Just hold on as the stairs can get quite slippery with the rain and mist coming from the waterfall. 

River Foss

This part of Iceland does not fail to deliver on the pretty factor. The River Foss was an unexpected beauty. We were driving then saw this aquamarine torrent tumbling next to the road. We immediately pulled over and crossed the road. This was one of my favorite things about Iceland: seeing absolutely stunning countryside and natural wonders required almost no planning since it is just there. 

Skaftafell and Vatnajokull Glacier

Now we get to the best part of our entire trip: hiking on Vatnajokull Glacier, the largest glacier by volume in Europe (Austfonna in Svalbard is larger by area).Through most of our trip we avoided guided tours, but this is the one thing I would highly recommend doing with a guide, especially if you're not familiar with glacier hiking. We decided to go with the Glacier Wonders hike with Glacier Guides. This was a three-hour hike with a guide, ours was a Slovakian man named Marek, in a group of about ten. The tour costs 10,990 ISK per person. If you want to rent boots, a fleece, or a waterproof jacket they cost an additional 1,000 ISK. They provide you with crampons and an ice ax. 

Being a complete gear nerd and wannabe mountaineer, I was super fucking excited about getting to use crampons and ice ax for the first time. Our group was small and a mix of people from all over the world: two young women from Scotland, a couple from Holland, several people from Taiwan, a woman from South Korea, and a woman from Japan. Everyone in our group was most likely under the age of thirty-five. It was interesting to see so many young people traveling, especially in October. 

The large tour bus drove about fifteen minutes south from Skaftafell and dropped us off near the base of the glacier. We hiked for about fifteen minutes through volcanic rock and across some sketchy makeshift bridges over a glacier lagoon. The glacier has receded drastically in the last twenty years and most likely will continue to recede rapidly. I considered it a great privilege to be able to see it. 

When we reached the base of the glacier, Marek taught us how to properly attach our crampons and how to hold the ice ax. If you are looking for a tour where you learn how to arrest using an ice ax, this is not the tour to do it. If we had more time, I would have loved to do the ice climbing tour or the longer glacier tour but the glacier was a four-hour drive from our AirBnB and we wouldn't have had time. 

Our guide took us to see a number of crevasses and we drank water straight from the glacier Viking style. Put your ice ax across a stream, hold on, lower yourself in a push-up position and drink from the water. One of the people on our trip tried it twice and fell on her face both times! 

Iceland's south coast is wild and worth the long drive. Next time I would plan to stay in Hofn so we could have more time. Other things to check out are Reynishverfi Beach (the black sand beach with basalt columns), the Westmann Islands (perfect for puffin spotting), and the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon.