Iceland: Day 3: South Coast Waterfalls and Jökulsárlón Lagoon

June 23, 2014

South Coast Tour


We booked our South Coast tour with EagleAir: a one-way bus trip down the coast on a bus followed by a one-way flight back to Reykjavik in the evening.  EagleAir also offers Fly-And-Drive and scheduled flights around Iceland as well.

The weather was picture perfect with blue skies and sunlight.  The previous two weeks had been rainy and gray, so we brought some sunny California weather with us (and packed our raincoats to ensure nice weather).

We boarded the bus around 7:30AM next to the Harpa concert hall in Reykjavik and we headed off south. Oddly, this tour stopped at a lot of gas stations and quick marts – it turned out that is was a regular bus that runs from Reykjavik to Höfn along the south coast, picking up riders and backpackers along the way. This is basically OK in theory because the bus stopped at most locations for “long enough” – though we seemed to be on a schedule – however, we did not stop at two of the sights that we had expected to see (see more later in this post – note: always ask about specific details).

South Coast

We were fortunate to have a blue sky day for our South Coast tour.   Iceland is lush and green this time of year with hay season well underway.


Our first stop was Gljúfurárfoss and Seljalandsfoss. These waterfalls take a small amount of the runoff from Eyjafjallajökull – the glacier-covered volcano that, you may recall, erupted in 2010 and caused flight issues in Northern Europe.

Gljúfurárfoss (literally Canyon River waterfall) isn’t on the regular circuit, but our guide took us here first before seeing the more famous Seljalandsfoss. To get to the falls, our guide led us through a narrow crevice in the canyon wall with wet mist billowing out of it.

Mid-way through the crevice, the mist is at its maximum speed, blasting out water vapor, but just past that point, it quickly settles down and opens up to a larger cavity in the rocks with blue skies above. The water falls from high up on the cliff into a hole or pocket that it has presumably created over time:

The falls:

Walking back out of the falls:

Outside the falls, there is a trail that leads up for a bird’s-eye view:

The view back down wasn’t so bad either – there is a campsite just outside the falls.

And there was a cute building with a traditional turf roof (note the smaller waterfalls in the background):


About a half a mile down the ridge from Gljúfurárfoss, and past a sea of wildflowers, is Seljalandsfoss.

In fact, there are several small waterfalls (water wisps?) along the way.

Looking back towards Gljúfurárfoss:

Approaching Seljalandsfoss you can start to see people exiting from the falls…

Seljalandsfoss is one of the more famous waterfalls because years of water and ice have carved out an area under the waterfall, allowing visitors to walk behind it.

It’s wet and a little slick, but a great experience (though next to impossible to take a group photo with all the backlighting):

Another view after exiting out from under the waterfall:

The lupine was out in force as we turned into see Skógafoss:

Skógafoss served as the backdrops for Thor and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. It is a very powerful waterfall measuring 82 feet wide, and it drops about 200 feet.

All of these waterfalls generate their share of mist and water, making photo ops quick!

There is a stairway up the side of the waterfall. Because of our bus schedule, we only had time to climb up halfway, but the views were amazing! My friend climbed up on top of the grassy knob:

and we took some glamor-waterfall shots:

The higher vantage point provided some nice views…

…before we headed back down.

We stopped for lunch at Vik, the southernmost village in Iceland, where we walked down to the beach to try to find basalt columns.

We had anticipated seeing Dyrhólaey  and Reynishverfisvegur, both 5 minutes off the main highway and 10-15 minutes from the town of Vik (5 minutes as the crow flies), however, these were not on the regular bus stops (caveat emptor). Dyrhólaey is a unique rock arch formation just off the coast, similar to the arch in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Reynishverfisvegur is a large group of massive hexagonal basalt columns formed when molten rock (lava) cools slowly in a hexagonal crystal / columnar shape. Ironically, and to add insult to injury, we did see these two features on the in-flight movie Noah while flying back to the US.

Back to Vik:
The trail to the beach and massive sea cliff was flanked by lupine.

This was as close as we got to finding basalt columns on the ridge (on the other side of which was Reynishverfisvegur). The basalt columns are formed when the lava cools. It’s especially common when the lava comes into contact with water or, in this case, probably ice. You can read more about columnar jointing here and here. It’s also similar to how a dry lake bed mud cracks – very uniform and slow surface cooling or evaporation. Here’s a great video on the topic.

On a hill overlooking Vik stands a lone church which also serves as the highest point and gathering location should the neighboring volcano Katla erupt again.:

Here’s a view back towards Vik from the ridge. You can see the church in the distance on the left:

Onward Around the Coast
The lush greenery of Vik quickly gave way to black volcanic sand and a massive drainage area with the glacier in the distance. This was followed by the very old, moss-covered lava:

The ancient lava flow slowly turned back into green hills and populated areas (note the plowed rectangle on top of the ridge in the second photo):

and more waterfalls:

The bus continued north and eastward, stopping occasionally to pick up passengers and at one point switching drivers.  We liked the second driver best – mostly because he would stop if we asked, and we were the only passengers on the entire bus!

Our sunny blue sky weather began to turn a bit overcast.

We spied more basalt columnar features in the ridges above us:

This area is sparsely populated, but it’s always amazing to see little farm houses tucked under massive cliffs like these grass-roofed buildings:

The slopes of massive cliffs, possibly remnants of old sub-glacial volcanic eruptions, were green with new growth. Rivulets of blackness had eroded paths through the new growth:

Black Sand Floodplain
These cliffs died away and we were back in the flat black lava sand flood plains:

In 1996, there was a massive glacial run, or flood, that occurs when a glacial lake that is contained by the glacier breaks through. It flowed down this flood plain carrying massive icebergs (33 ft tall) and destroyed the 880 meter long bridge, leaving it bent and mangled. So they built this “temporary” one-ish lane bridge:

We stopped briefly near Vatnajökull, or Vatna Glacier, the largest glacier in Iceland, the largest glacier in Europe by volume, and the 2nd largest in Europe by area. The two tongues of the glacier behind us used to meet around the hill 80 years ago. Just off camera is the mangled remains of the bridge.

The rocks that we’re standing on are most likely part of the glacial moraine and retreat (and flood) of the glacier. Here’s a link to Google Earth where you can zoom out and get a feel for these lava-covered badlands.

Within a 45-minute hike (1.5 hours out and back) of our stop near Vatna is the Svartifoss, or Black Waterfall which features an amazing balsalt column formation. It was too far to walk during our brief stop, so we’ll definitely have to go back…

Land of Lupine
After being in the land of ice and lava, the scenery changed once again, and we were back in the lupine.

But the lupine didn’t last long as the battle between green low lands and retreating glaciers were evident:

Jökulsárlón Lagoon
Jökulsárlón Lagoon is an almost-land locked lagoon where the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier now terminates.  The lagoon was formed by the receding glacier. Hundreds of years ago, the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier ended at the ocean, but warming trends have pushed that back. The moraine – rock mounds – that have been piled up by the glacier have formed walls for the lagoon.

We arrived and donned our survival suits, a.k.a Gumby suits, which will allow us to float and survive longer should we capsize or fall overboard into the frigid water. The air temperature on the water was quite cold, so we were glad to have the suits. Those in our group who brought gloves and hats were even happier.

We marched down to the zodiac and motored around the icebergs.

We stopped to pick up a piece of ice floating nearby:

Then we cruised over to the glacier’s edge. We didn’t see too much calving, as today was not what you might call warm on this part of the coast.

There are actually two options: the zodiac, which we took, and the the giant amphibious truck:

We didn’t realize that we had spent a little too long on the boat, and now we were late for our flight back to Reykjavik! Fortunately our driver called the airline (twice!) and they held the plane for us.

Before we got to the airport, however, we were pleasantly surprised to pass a herd of reindeer:

Once at the airport, our little plane was fueled up and ready to go:

Flying above Iceland, we could see snow-capped peaks from the glaciers as we cut inland.

We landed back in Reykjavik about an hour later to sunny skies.  You can see the Pearl on top of the hill, the Harpa concert hall on the waterfront, and Hallgrímskirkja the viking-esque Lutheran church in the center.

We walked back to downtown for some dinner, a bit more exploring, and off to bed.

This tour was good in that some south coast tours only go as far as Vik and turn around. Others go to the Lagoon, but you have to stay in Höfn for the night (we looked into this option). We didn’t have time to stay or drive all the way back, so the hour-long flight back was a really nice option.

Tomorrow we head into the mouth of a volcano and face the near-freezing waters of Silfra.

Happy RTW Travels!

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