Driving the South Coast of Iceland
Much like the rest of Iceland, the south coast of Iceland is a beautiful area. Driving with majestic mountain ranges on one side and the open Atlantic ocean on the other, with several iconic stops along the way, is the perfect way to spend a day in Iceland. There’s a good reason why it’s the second most popular day tour from Reykjavík after the Golden Circle! To drive there, you take route 1 south as far as the village of Vík, seeing famed volcano Eyjafjallajökull and glacier Mýrdalsjökull along the way. Scenic stops include waterfalls Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss and the black-sand beach at Reynisfjara near Vík, with its famous rock formations.
There are plenty of other stops and route variations to take as well, so if you know the main route but are looking for ideas for what to do, just scroll down a bit!
The First Steps
Reykjavík is very easy to navigate, with only three ways out of town, leading north, south, or out of the country (towards the Keflavík international airport). You will be taking route 1 south towards the south coast of Iceland. It’s easy enough, just find the main street Miklabraut (route 49) and follow it east, past two gas stations on your right and then you find a right-hand turn towards Vík. The road sign marks it as 1S – route 1 south. Route 1 is basically only one highway in Iceland, and it goes the whole way around the island, which is why you have the choice or 1N or 1S.
Heaths And Cliffs
Outside Reykjavík, you will notice the road elevating quickly until you’re up on Hellisheiði “heath.” This area is sometimes shut down in wintertime due to weather so be sure to check with the road authority website before taking off.
The heath comes to an abrupt end at a steep hill down to the village of Hveragerði. Here and there you see columns of steam rising up from the valley and town because it’s built right on top of a geothermal hot spot.
There are more things you can add to your trip in Hveragerði, which we’ll discuss below.
Do Go Chasing Waterfalls!
The South coast of Iceland has beautiful waterfalls. After Hveragerði, it’s about an hour’s drive on route 1 until you get to Seljalandsfoss. This is a magnificent waterfall which lands in the mouth of a cave, so you can walk behind it and all the way around.
Around this part of your journey, you will start to see Eyjafjallajökull in the distance – the sub-glacial volcano which stopped Europe’s air traffic in 2010. Then you will get to the exhibition “Eyjafjallajökull Erupts” at Þorvaldseyri, operated by the farmers whose land was covered in ash in the eruption.
A little further along the road, you will get to the small village of Skógar, beside the huge waterfall Skógafoss. You can walk right up to the waterfall if you don’t mind getting drenched from the spray at its base. At least Beyoncé didn’t seem to mind!
In the village of Skógar, you will also find the fantastic folk museum Skógasafn.
You’re In Iceland, Why Not Go Hiking On a Glacier?
Around this time, the enormous glacier Mýrdalsjökull will start coming into view, though the part you’re looking at will likely be referred to as Sólheimajökull. This is where most of the glacier hikes take place. Yes, that’s right, you can absolutely climb up on this glacier, though you need to have the right gear, experience, and preferably a guide.
Charming But Dangerous!
Vík is a beautiful little fishing village with a mountain range on three sides and the open sea on the fourth. It’s right by the famous Reynisfjara black sand beach, so it’s a popular place to stop, stretch your legs and get some refreshments. Do note, however, that it’s a small town, so don’t assume you can get anything you need at any time, or even all (both) the restaurants being open on a given day.
PLEASE OBSERVE: Do no not go to close to the water! THERE IS A DEADLY “ROGUE WAVE” or “sneaker wave” on Reynisfjara beach. meaning that even though the waves look harmless, they can suddenly and unexpectedly pull you into the ocean and out to sea. People have been hurt and even killed!
If you just have one day, most people turn around in Vík and drive back to Reykjavík. Driving back without stops takes about 2.5 hours.
What To Do On the South Coast Of Iceland
Of course, there are plenty of other things you can do on the way, aside from the main attractions. Here are some ideas for activities and stops, in the same order as before, starting in Reykjavík and driving east towards Vík.
A Fallen Empire – So To Speak…
On the Hellisheiði heath, you will see signs advertising the geothermal energy exhibition. This is an active geothermal power plant where you can get a really cool guided tour.
The heath is also where you would turn off route 39 if you want to see the village of Eyrarbakki. This is a small town which 150 years ago was the biggest port in the south of Iceland and was, at the time, more important than Reykjavík. You will find many historic buildings there, as well as an altarpiece painted by the Danish queen Louise, great-great-grandmother to the current queen Margrethe, in the little wooden church. There’s also a cool folk museum which documents the town’s and country’s history.
If you get peckish, the Red house restaurant serves some of the best langoustine (Icelandic lobster) in the country. You can also park your car and walk along the coastline and its dramatic waves.
Hveragerði Is So Hot Right Now
You will have to choose between Eyrarbakki and Hveragerði unless you visit one of them on your way out, and the other on the way back. Most people usually end up driving past Hveragerði, but if you turn off the main road and enter the village, you’ll find a charming little town whose inhabitants mostly rely on vegetable and flower farming, utilising the copious amounts of geothermal heat in the ground underneath the town. Like most towns in Iceland, Hveragerði has a great swimming pool but this village also has an impressive art gallery for its size, not to mention the beautiful nature surrounding it.
From Hveragerði you can start the hike towards Reykjadalur where you can bathe in a natural hot spring. It’s just a matter of asking at the local information center. You could even swing off route 1 onto route 35 to see the volcanic crater Kerið, without going too far out of your way. Or you could find the Secret Lagoon by the village Flúðir, on route 30.
The Road Less Taken
Around Seljalandsfoss is where you turn off the main road to go towards the Þórsmörk highlands. Þórsmörk is a beautiful, untouched wilderness in the highlands north of Mýrdalsjökull, but to get there you need a serious 4WD vehicle and you need to know how to drive on some rugged mountain roads. Otherwise, you can take a bus- or jeep tour to get there in the summertime. It’s absolutely closed in the winter but we might be able to find some specially-outfitted professional to drive you there. Book a day tour there online or contact us for more information.
As mentioned above, you can take a hike or drive a snowmobile on Mýrdalsjökull!
If you’ve booked a tour you can meet your guide after a left-hand turn on route 221 (Sólheimajökulsvegur) or 222 (Mýrdalsjökulsvegur), depending on which tour you booked.
Is It Too Late Now To Say Please Don’t Do Any Illegal Off-Road Driving While You’re Here?
DC-3 Plane wreck on Sólheimasandur: if you’ve seen Iceland on social media you’ve probably noticed a photo of this plane wreck. (You might also have seen Justin Bieber skateboard on it in a video, although I’m not sure if that will make people more or less likely to want to see it). If you want to see it, you’re going to have to work for it – There’s not really a road there and people have treated the area so poorly (it’s actually illegal to drive off-road in Iceland) they’ve had to shut down the path, so now it’s a several kilometre walk (about an hour either way).
But if you feel up for the walk, have fun, the plane wreck is still a pretty cool sight!
The trail has no number but google maps have helpfully marked it as “Path to Wrecked DC-3 Plane on Sólheimasandur” – so enjoy!
Islands In the Stream
Dyrhólaey is a “keyhole” rock formation about 30 minutes from Skógar. To get there you take a right-hand turn on route 218 and drive about 5 minutes until you get to Dyrhólaeyjarviti lighthouse.
PLEASE OBSERVE that there have been several mudslides there recently, so if you go there without a guide you should proceed with great caution.
Despite the name (ey means island), Dyrhólaey is not really an island. If you’re feeling cheated, you can always make it up by going over to the Vestmannaeyjar islands as well. This is a small cluster of islands off the south coast of Iceland. You don’t have time to do both the south coast and the Westman Islands in the same day, but on the way back to Reykjavík you could stay overnight there. Herjólfur, the ferry, sails out from Landeyjahöfn (unless the weather is terrible, then it sails from Þorlákshöfn).
The biggest island in the archipelago is Heimaey, where the village is located. Today, it’s a great place to see puffins in the summer or go on a RIB boat tour but in the seventies, it made the headlines in Iceland, when all of a sudden, in the middle of the night, a volcano started erupting in the middle of the town. If you’d like to learn more, go visit the Eldheimar volcano museum.
The Road Goes Ever On And On
Finally, those who have more time than just one day can drive further, perhaps even spending the night in Vík before moving on to the east. That’s certainly a good idea as there are more than a few stunning natural wonders (like Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon and Skaftafell nature reserve) on the southeast and east coast but tht’s a bit out of the range of this article about the south coast of Iceland. Look out for future installments of “driving in Iceland” which will deal with other exciting parts of the country.