East Iceland is one of the most beautiful parts of the island and one that the majority of travellers don’t visit since out of the way unless you’re driving the ring road. Between the slick black sands of the south-east coast, and the magnificent mountains of the east fjords, it really is an amazing area.
This article is a part of our series on the ring road, so we will assume that you’re driving through the east coast, starting from the town of Vík and heading to the village of Egilsstaðir.
Fields of Fire
As you drive east out of Vík you will drive past picturesque lava fields covered with moss. Much of the lava fields date back to the 1783 eruption of nearby volcano Laki, which darkened the sky over Europe for many years causing widespread famine, which supposedly caused the French revolution of 1789.
About 45 minutes from Vík, you will have a chance to make a left-hand turn on route 206 towards Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon, just before you get to Kirkjubæjarklaustur village. It says “Laki” on the road sign.
After Kirkjubæjarklaustur you will start to notice the endless black sands of Skeiðarársandur, streaked by the rivers running out of Vatnajökull glacier. Soon you will cross the longest bridge in Iceland, Skeiðarárbrú.
Skeiðarárbrú was built because the rivers keep changing their course so you can’t really build a road here. When my father was a boy, there was no way to cross the sands, and if you wanted to go to Reykjavík, you would to the long way round, via the north of the country. In times of floods, the bridge has even washed away by meltwater from the glacier! If you keep your eyes out you can see the remains of the last bridge – all twisted metal- besides the new one.
Surrounded By Giants
Around this time is when Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest ice cap, comes into view. As you drive along, route 1 winds left towards the glacier and Skaftafell. Here, nestled in between the glacier on three sides, there is a nature reserve with some great hiking trails. If you take a left-hand turn on route 998, you’ll find a campsite and other services. This is also where the trail to Svartifoss waterfall begins. Svartifoss is an amazing waterfall which falls over beautiful black basalt columns. You can easily spend a day or two in Skaftafell. This is also where the glacier hikes on Vatnajökull start.
Right by is Hvannadalshnjúkur, Iceland’s tallest peak, with an elevation of 2.110 metres (6.922 ft). North of here lies the volcano Bárðarbunga which erupted spectacularly in 2014-15. That eruption was the second largest eruption on earth in all of recorded history, when measured by volume of magma. It was second only to the aforementioned 1783 eruption of Laki, the volcano you passed earlier.
A tale of two Glacier Lagoons – Jökulsárlón and Fjallsárlón
As route 1 curves away again, it reaches the coast to the east of the glacier. About 35 minutes from Skaftafell you will come to the left-hand turn towards Fjallsárlón glacier lagoon. It says Fjallsárlón on the road sign, with the “point of interest” icon (⌘). From here it’s a gravel road for a few minutes until you get to the lagoon.
This is followed shortly by the famous Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, about 10 minutes away, which in contrast lies right by the main road. You literally can’t miss it, you’ll see it on the left of the road as you’re driving. You will come to a bridge and then a parking lot. You can walk down to the lagoon, or find one of the boat tour operators who go from this same parking lot (in summer).
Do not go into the lagoon or climb on the icebergs – it’s extremely dangerous! The water is dangerously cold, the icebergs are treacherous (breaking and capsizing easily with no notice) and the currents in the lagoon can easily carry you out to sea.
Don’t miss the chance to go down to the beach downriver from the lagoon – it’s really cool to see all the stranded icebergs slowly melting on the black sand!
In the winter, some of the ice caving tours in Vatnajökull leave from the parking lot at Jökulsárlón, while others pick up from nearby farm Fagurhólsmýri.
A Safe Haven at Höfn
From Jökulsárlón it’s about an hour’s drive to the small village of Höfn. Höfn means harbour and you can really see that it’s true – Höfn is on a peninsula so it’s surrounded by three sides by ocean, but on either side of the ocean is another, bigger peninsula, so the harbour there is extremely well protected. This is one of few towns in the area and could be a great place to spend the night.
Höfn is famous for its lobster (or langoustine to be more precise) and all of the restaurants in town serve this delicate and delicious seafood in creative and mouth-watering ways. Don’t leave without trying some!
How to get there: Look out for a right-hand turn on route 99. There will be a road sign saying “Höfn” and then a 5-minute drive.
Fork in the road – The East Fjords and Breiðdalsheiði
After the almost completely smooth south coast of Iceland, the East fjords stand out in stark contrast – tall basaltic mountains grooved with narrow inlets separated by peninsulas and almost no flat land. The main road after Höfn crosses two of the narrower of these fjords before following Berufjörður all the way around. Berufjörður fjord is a geological wonderland filled with unusual mineral formations. It is also on private land, so don’t go there without asking permission.
After Berufjörður, route 1 road turns abruptly inland, about 2 hours out from Höfn.
Here you actually need to pay attention because to stay on route 1, you need to take a sharp left-hand turn at an intersection. There is a road sign for Egilsstaðir for a road that turns off towards the mountains.
Pining for the Fjords?
If you drive straight ahead at the intersection, you will find yourself on route 96 towards Stöðvarfjörður. In Stöðvarfjörður you will find a tiny fishing town, and amongst other things, Petra’s stone collection. This area is in many ways unique, geologically speaking, and Petra has many excellent specimens to prove it.
It is actually possible to drive on route 96 and thread all the fjords through Fáskrúðsfjörður to Reyðarfjörður – where the British TV series Fortitude was shot. From Reyðarfjörður, take route 92 towards Egilsstaðir to reconnect with route 1.
Driving the fjords will, of course, take a bit longer than driving route 1 and the roads can be tricky in wintertime, but these abandoned fjords and tiny fishing villages are some of the best places to get away from the more frequented tourist spots in Iceland.
The Road Goes Ever On and On
Assuming you’re staying on route 1, after turning left at the intersection, you will cross the Breiðdalsheiði heath, the only gravel road section of route 1. It is regularly snowed out in winter, so check the road authority website and ask the locals before attempting to cross it. It’s about 3 hours from Höfn to Egilsstaðir.
From Egilsstaðir you could decide to detour to a number of small towns in the fjords, for instance, Seyðisfjörður, a beautiful, picturesque town of old wooden houses, set in a powerful fjord. This where the ferry Norræna from Denmark lands and is one of the locations where Icelandic TV sensation Trapped was filmed. You could also drive all the way north to Borgarfjörður Eystri, where you can apparently hike to the Elf-queen’s court and many other places.
After Egilsstaðir you should have a fairly uneventful drive along route 1 until you get to the Northern part of the country. To read more about the Northern part of the country, see our self-drive tour about that!