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From Fire to Ice: The Best of Iceland’s Natural Wonders

The Háifoss waterfall in southern Iceland is 122 metres (400 feet) high
The Háifoss waterfall in southern Iceland is 122 metres (400 feet) high | © Marcel Gross / Alamy Stock Photo
Spectacular landscapes and mystical scenery abound in Iceland. Here, a local guide and the CEO of Fjallhalla Adventures, Erla Thordis Traustadóttir, shares her invaluable insights into how to narrow down the country’s unmissable natural wonders.

Between Europe and America lies one of the world’s youngest and most geologically active countries. Iceland’s numerous volcanoes contribute to its otherworldly lands, and it is within these natural wonders that American astronauts first prepared for their journey to the moon and why, among countless other filmmakers, Christopher Nolan chose the country for the location of his 2014 film Interstellar. Reykjavík’s name (‘Bay of Smokes’) gives us a clue about the geological features of the northernmost national capital in the world.

While leading the first Norse settlers in 874, Ingólfur Arnarson cast the pillars of his high seat that symbolised his leadership into the sea, determined to settle where they reached the shore. The pillars washed up in an area teeming with hot springs, thus earning the name ‘Smoky Bay’.

Glymur waterfall

Located in the Hvalfjörður fjord, near Reykjavík, Glymur waterfall stands at 198 metres (650 feet) tall, making it the second-highest waterfall in Iceland. It is accessible all year, but in the winter, only the western part of the waterfall is available for hiking due to heavy snowfall. Fjallhalla Adventures organises special tours here, as this spot is a relatively unknown destination. Following a three-hour hike through mossy cliffs and narrow canyons leading you to Glymur, the adventure is made even more special with exquisite views along the canyon and sightings of the birdlife that populates the area.

Glymur is the second-highest waterfall in Iceland © Arvidas Saladauskas / Alamy Stock Photo

Þjórsárdalur

A valley located near Road 32 in Árnessýsla county and reachable by bus or car, Þjórsárdalur is an often overlooked spot next to the Golden Circle. Many activities are available there, such as visiting Háifoss waterfall and even getting up close to Hekla when it is erupting. Visitors also have the chance to experience the Viking Age thanks to Þjóðveldisbærinn Stöng, a reconstructed Viking-era farmstead that is open between 1 June and 31 August. Buried in volcanic ash following Hekla’s eruption in 1104, the farm was rebuilt in 1974 to commemorate the 1,100th anniversary of Iceland’s first settlement. As such, this place is packed with adventure while offering a genuine Icelandic experience.

The Háifoss waterfall lies in Þjórsárdalur © Jens Ickler / Alamy Stock Photo

Landmannalaugar

Known for its geothermal hot springs and spectacular landscape, Landmannalaugar is situated within the highlands near the edge of the Laugahraun lava field in the Fjallabak Nature Reserve that formed during a 1477 eruption. Bus companies regularly run to Landmannalaugar during the tourist season; the hot springs are also reachable at the northern end of the well-known Laugavegur Trail. During the summer, a small mountain cabin welcomes up to 75 guests with warm showers and a place to rest. Landmannalaugar, which is open year-round, offers visitors a chance to enjoy a hike, a swim, horseback riding, snowmobiling or even a barbecue.

Landmannalaugar offers hot springs and grand views © Joana Kruse / Alamy Stock Photo

Reykjanes Peninsula

The moon-like Reykjanes Peninsula, where Arctic terns nest during the summer, lies next to Hafnarfjörður, south of Reykjavík. The famous Blue Lagoon (Bláa Lónið) luxury spa is located in this area, harnessing the hot, mineralised water from the Svartsengi geothermal power station. The peninsula is marked by volcanic activity where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet, and the resulting surface is covered in lava fields that allow for little vegetation. There are several fishing towns nearby, including Njarðvík, Sandgerði and Grindavík. In the latter, make sure to visit the restaurant Bryggjan and tell the residents that Erla sends her greetings.

The Blue Lagoon is a stunning geothermal spa © Bruce yuanyue Bi / Alamy Stock Photo

Snæfellsnes Peninsula

Driving north out of Reykjavík, the remarkable Snæfellsnes Peninsula is accessible year-round and is home to the Snæfellsjökull National Park, which stretches out to the sea. With horseback-riding tours along the shores of black beaches, hot mineral water for bathing, hiking trails shrouded in mysterious folklore and views of Kirkjufell mountain and Snæfellsjökull glacier, Fjallhalla Adventures’ two-day tour to this area is highly recommended to enjoy everything to the fullest.

The Snæfellsnes Peninsula is north of Reykjavík © Rubens Alarcon / Alamy Stock Photo

Hveravellir (Hot Spring Fields)

Hveravellir is a beautiful geothermal area that lies in the barren Icelandic highlands. The nature reserve is also home to an old route (Kjalvegur Road) that dates to at least the 900s and a geothermal pool that overlooks the astounding Kjalhraun lava field, formed in a grand explosion 8,000 years ago. Hikers can also explore routes of varying lengths along the Rjupnafell, Thjofadalir or Jokulkrok trails towards Langjökull glacier or the one from Hallmundarhraun to Húsafell. The area is best accessible by jeep or by visiting with a guide.

Hveravellir is a nature reserve © Prisma by Dukas Presseagentur GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo

Vatnajökull National Park

Covering approximately 14 percent of Iceland, Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Europe and a UNESCO World Heritage site as of 2019, is the second-largest national park in Europe. Beneath its icy exterior, the glacier even hides active volcanoes, including Bárðarbunga (the biggest) and Grímsvötn (the most active). Inside Vatnajökull itself is an area formerly known as Skaftafell National Park. Here, you can hike to Svartifoss waterfall and Skaftafellsjökull glacier. For something a bit more challenging, you can head towards Kristínartindar (a mountain) and Morsárdalur valley. The highest mountain peak in Iceland, Hvannadalshnjúkur, is also in the area.

The Vatnajökull National Park covers 14 percent of Iceland © Simon Lane / Alamy Stock Photo

The Golden Circle

The Golden Circle, a classic route in Iceland, is accessible all year. You can explore it yourself by driving or by booking a guided tour. Start your journey in Þingvellir National Park where you can snorkel between tectonic plates, visit Geysir (an erupting hot spring) and take in the majestic Gullfoss waterfall. These natural wonders illustrate how much there is to experience in this land of fire and ice. In addition to the magical surroundings, many tours also offer various hikes that take you around mountains, offering visitors an exclusive perspective on this popular area.

The Golden Circle has many incredible natural wonders within its perimeter © Marc-André Le Tourneux / Alamy Stock Photo

Kerlingarfjöll

As you continue from the Golden Circle on the road towards Gullfoss, you will reach the well-kept secret that is the Kerlingarfjöll mountain range, which is part of a large volcanic system. As it’s difficult to reach by road, a guided tour can take you into the heart of the highlands where the area punctuated by hot springs will unfold into dazzling shades of red, yellow and green. A hike here also features spectacular sights of glaciers Langjökull and Hofsjökull. For a complete Icelandic hiking experience, stop somewhere for some hot chocolate or a pancake.

Kerlingarfjöll is a volcanic mountain range situated in the highlands of Iceland © Menno Schaefer / Alamy Stock Photo

This article is an updated version of a story created by Camille Buckley.