THE SOUTH OF ICELAND (south.is)
The expanse of country along South Iceland between Selfoss and Höfn has it all: from the lush agricultural plain in the west, through fields of moss covered lava around Kirkjubæarklostur, the sweeping black sand desert at the foot of the glacier and the mountains surrounding Höfn, the journey is a scenic treat with countless vistas unfolding along the route.
The area of South Iceland is vast, the attractions are numerous as they are varied and you are advised to allow plenty of time for this part of the trip so you can enjoy them all.
At the start of the journey along South Iceland the coast road from Selfoss to Hvolsvöllur in the summer is flanked by green pastures filled with either horses or bales of freshly cut hay. Close to R1 are waterfalls at Urriðafoss (trout falls) on the rushing grey, glacial Þjórsá river and Árbæjarfoss (R271) next to the little church of Árbær, and the larger Ægissiðufoss (R25), both on the Ytri Rangá river which runs through the village of Hella.
Before crossing the Þjórsá road bridge R30 takes you inland from where another turn onto R32 will take you to Hjálparfoss and then the reconstructed Víking farm of Þjóðveldisbærinn. The pools and waterfalls found in the little valley at Gjáinare accessed via the nearby F327 (4WD vehicles only).
Much farther up the valley the route comes to the junction with R26. By turning right and heading back down the river valley on this road you will be en route to Mt Hekla, a quiet but still active volcano. At the foot of the mountain is Hotel Leirubakki and the Hekla Center, which houses an impressive array of volcanic themed exhibits. Hekla can also be reached more directly by turning off R1 onto R26 just before reaching the village of Hella.
After Hella the next little settlement along R1 is Hvolsvöllur. When leaving there all fuelled up and watered, once the bridge over the little river Hvolsá was crossed it seemed like stepping into the unknown world of the great beyond. Of course Vík lies but an hour away but this fact is conveniently forgotten as we stubbornly hold on to the romantic notion that civilisation is being left behind for ever!
It does seem different at that point of the journey though, as the last of the pastoral scenery gives way to a starker scene of mountains to the left and the wide ocean sky on the right.
On the seaward horizon of South Iceland is the bulk of the Westman Islands, jutting from the ocean all green and black. A seasonal ferry runs daily from Landeyjahöfn. Once ashore the two main attractions are the aquarium and the Pompeii of the North exhibition which highlights the devastating eruption in 1973. Walks around the island and to the top of the volcano are also popular things to do. To get to the ferry take R254, which is on the west bank of the Markarfljót river.
South Iceland’s Crown Jewels
After crossing the Markarfljót river while heading east, the turning on the left takes you to the Seljalandsfosswaterfall. Make sure to keep going past here and see Gljúfrabúi, where you can walk into the foss itself (closed in winter). This pair of watery wonders make a fine prelude to the much larger Skógafoss which is about 15-minutes away on R1.
The stretch of R1 between the two waterfall locations is in the shadow of the notorious and unpronounceable Eyjafjallajökull, where there is a visitors centre. Behind the volcano is the valley that leads to the Þorsmörkwilderness. Next to the main road on this part of the route is the car park for those wishing to visit the Solheimasandur plane wreck.
Nearing Vík brings us into the Katla Geo Park, named after the constantly murmuring volcano that lies beneath the Mýrdalsjokull glacier, seen from the road. Legend says that if she blows it will make the neighbouring Eyjafjallajökull eruption of 2010 look like a puff of smoke. Tours onto the glacier are available.
Vík – The designated checkpoint
As a self proclaimed checkpoint of South Iceland, Vík itself is a bustling little village and the only coastal settlement in the country that doesn´t have a harbour. The surf pounded beach shows why the locals have to do without. The surrounding area has a lot to offer in scenery and services. Just outside Vík, hidden in a beautiful valley at the end of R214 is the Þakgil camping site from where you can explore the surrounding mountains or just enjoy the tranquility.
With the verdant hills of Vík behind the road now heads into a darker, flatter landscape as the first area of black sand desert is crossed. On the other side of it the approach to Kirkjubærjarklaustur (often shortened to Klaustur) is through a moss and lichen covered lava field. This village of 150 souls is the regional centre for shops and services as there is not much between here and Höfn, 272 km to the east. It is a popular stop for locals, especially when going east, to fill the tank and take on nourishment before heading further into the wilds.
From here on to Höfn the journey is filled with magnificent vistas and many sites to stop and visit. For the first 30km the horizon is dominated by the sight of the Lómagnúpur mountain, which ends abruptly in a sheer drop to the roadside. Hold your breath as you pass this point because the view opens up to reveal the mighty glacier to the left and the black sand vastness stretching into the distance.
The first stop off point is at Skaftafell where there is a visitors centre, camp site and access to the Hundafoss, Svartifoss and Magnusarfoss waterfalls. Tours onto the glacier are also available. And yes, that is a farmstead perched on top of the green mountainside!
Here comes the popular one: Jökulsárlón
From here the road skirts the foot of the ice covered mountains that has a peak of 2,000 metres. The colours of the ice glimpsed up in the crags can be amazing in the right light. Jökulsárlón is the main attraction for those wanting to get close to the ice, but don´t forget to look out for the sign to Fjallsárlón for a more organic experience. The turn off is found 11 km before Jökulsárlón.
After getting your fill of icebergs the remainder of the journey to Höfn is filled with more mountain scenery viewed from the coastal plain. The mountains begin to get farther away and the scene begins to soften as signs of agriculture begin to reappear.
The town is the major settlement in east Iceland with a population of over 2,000. Fishing is the stay of the economy and is the major centre in the country for landings of Norway lobster. There´s a Lobster Festival each summer and if you find lobster soup on the menu don´t pass on this national delicacy!