Self drive into the Hidden IcelandPublished: 1. September 2020
By: Ryan Connolly
When Happy Campers asked me to write a piece on going off the beaten path in Iceland I jumped at the chance. After all, it's Hidden Iceland's bread and butter. We thrive in the lesser known spots. So being able to add an extra level of flexibility i.e. travelling in a Happy Camper campervan, made it even easier for us to avoid the summer crowds in Iceland. I can honestly say that not having to rush to the next part of the country because of a pre-planned hotel reservation is incredibly freeing. This is even more important when you find yourself whiling away the hours under the midnight sun in summer, or hunting the northern lights in autumn and winter. To give up a great vantage point just to check into a hotel would be a great shame when the aurora is lighting up the sky.
Many Happy Camper travellers will often circle the entire island since they can effectively pick and choose how far they want to travel each day. I was no exception. Some days I found myself driving for 6-7 hours because I was so excited to get to the glacier scarred region in the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Vatnajökull National Park, other days we barely drove more than 30 minutes because there were so many hidden hikes and waterfalls and hot pools to explore in the area.
So, rather than recount my entire trip around the island and run the risk of effectively creating a must see list, I thought it would be more interesting to focus on just a couple of days to give you a snapshot of what each day could look like. Just in case you were wondering, Hidden Iceland can provide a self drive itinerary in conjunction with Happy Campers. Depending on how much help you are hoping for we can plan the entire trip for you and provide some local k
Knowledge along the way whenever you find yourself unable to decide on the next fun hike, activity, or view point.
This piece will focus on two days along the south coast of Iceland. These are often the first (or last) two days of your round Iceland tour. I've chosen this section of my adventure because I've heard so many horror stories where people rush straight past the south to the lesser travelled east. Yes, the eastfjords are quieter than the south but that doesn't mean you should skip the south entirely. It's all relative. People say there are parts of Iceland that can get overcrowded in summer. The south coast being one of them. But, armed with a campervan for flexibility, local knowledge from the Hidden Iceland team, and an adventurous spirit, you'll often find yourself completely alone.
Day 1 - The South Coast Sights
After picking up the Happy Camper in Reykjavik, my girlfriend and I zoomed straight out of town, eager to start our journey. Having lived in Iceland for so long I intentionally skipped the easily googled places like Seljalandsfoss, Skogafoss and the Reynisfjara Black Sand beach. If this is your first time to Iceland you should definitely go though. Instead, we decided to aim for a little adventure, mixed with spots that neither of us had been to before. With our trusty Hidden Iceland info pack, which gave driving times, distances, driving conditions and recommended duration at each site, we planned out our day.
Reynisfjara Black Sand Beack - Photo: Hidden Iceland
Kvernufoss waterfall was an easy first choice for our early morning activity. This is a slightly smaller waterfall east of Skogafoss. You can walk behind this 100ft waterfall, just like at Seljalandsfoss, but without anyone else around. The eroded cliffs that circle the impressive waterfall and the curious Icelandic horses only added to our mini secluded hike. The whole round trip from the parking lot of the Skoga Museum to the waterfall and back was around 1 hour, and that included petting the horses. Knowing the folklore off by heart meant we skipped the Museum and turf houses nearby, but it's well worth the small entry fee if you have the time.
Kvernufoss - Photo: Norris Niman
Being a qualified glacier guide with Hidden Iceland I decided to take my less experienced girlfriend for a short hike onto the Sólheimajökull glacier myself. However, you can opt to meet one of our guides on location for a 2.5 hour glacier hike. If you time it right you may be able to meet our scheduled tour group for that portion of the guided tour. Otherwise arranging a private tour for the afternoon is even better, especially if you are keen to try a spot of ice climbing. My girlfriend and I spent the rest of the morning and well past lunch inspecting deep crevasses, peering into bottomless holes and exploring the labyrinth style terrain of the glacier ice.
Glacier Hike - Photo: Ryan Connolly
Next up we headed to the ever popular town of Vik. We drove our campervan to the highest point of the town which overlooked the beach, church and jagged sea cliffs in the distance. Not a bad view at all. By the time we'd taken our 17th picture I could feel the hunger pangs reminding me it was lunch time. But instead of heading into the obvious shopping centre with buffet style lunch we opted to go off the main road towards the camp site. It was still early enough in the day so we decided not to choose this spot to camp for the night despite the fact that this little town sits at the base of the biggest volcano in Iceland and boasts tall sea cliffs littered with puffins and other sea birds. The real reason we ventured towards the campsite was for a uniquely different reason. We had heard reports that the best coffee in the south coast was currently being brewed in the newly opened Skool Beans cafe. After an energy intensive glacier hike I was keen to check it out.
Aside from the lovely owner, Holly, who manages to brighten anyone's day regardless of the weather outside, it was quite a fun realisation when we stepped onto what appeared to be an American School Bus on the outside, but was actually a quaint and cosy cafe on the inside with a wood burning fire to boot. Many moons ago, I worked as a barista in an upmarket coffee shop so my tastes are quite defined when it comes to coffee. My expectations were notably high. Thankfully, the rumours were true! The coffee, roasted on-site in Vik, was unbelievable. Smooth and rich at the same time and expertly prepared. My girlfriend, being averse to caffeine, opted for an elaborate hot chocolate instead which proved to be every bit as good. After getting some local info from the owner and petting her only staff member (Jeffrey the ginger cat) we went off on our merry way with a new fervour for adventure.
Upon new recommendations from Holly, we drove only a short distance out of town to the lesser explored, Yoda Cave. Locally known as Hjörleifshöfði. Aside from it being one of the harder words to pronounce in Icelandic, the reason the few tourists that venture here call it the yoda cave is simply that the entrance looks like a silhouette of yoda. Seeing is believing. There are plenty of fun walks around the cliff side here and a few other smaller caves that are easily findable. On a sunny day the view northwards towards the volcanoes is hard to beat.
Eyjafjallajökull - photo: Ryan Conolly
As the sun started to lower in the sky we made our way to our campsite in the Skaftafell area. Because we packed in so much fun today we were pretty happy to have filled the campervan with food supplies to keep us filled throughout the day. A real time saver. Our late evening dinner in the back of our Happy Camper was simple but pleasurable. Not because of my diabolical cooking skills but rather because the campsite sits at the base of the tallest mountain in Iceland, sporting its very own glaciers pouring down the high peaks in every direction. Not a bad view to enjoy slightly burnt beans on toast and soggy couscous. The campsite, despite its remoteness, was well equipped with showers and washing facilities. Being summer we knew the sky had no intention of getting dark so it was actually a bit of a relief having chosen the campervan over a tent. Closing the curtains on our little windows kept the light out enough to allow us to sleep quite soundly.
Day 2 - UNESCO World Heritage site, Vatnajökull National Park
At the start of day we fully intended to pack up our things and head further east after a few short hikes in the Vatnajökull National Park area. That turned out to not be the case in the slightest. There's a reason this area is the newest addition to the coveted UNESCO World Heritage list. It is monstrous and elegant in one fell swoop. Before we knew it we'd used up our entire day and had no appetite to drive any further east.
The national park has two conflicting attractions, active volcanoes and moving glaciers. The angular peaks point in every direction, heavily scarred from glacier movement and weathering. The highest mountain, Hvannadalshnjúkur, reaches 2,119m but is barely visible under the glacier ice cap that envelopes the top. Ironically, when these active volcanoes haven't erupted for a few centuries at a time they are the perfect place to form glaciers, high and bowl shaped to catch and preserve snow.The nickname, the Land of Fire and Ice, is the perfect moniker in this region of Iceland.
To start the day we chose to hike to Svartifoss in the morning, a basalt column feature with a waterfall flowing over the edge. The trail starts directly from the campsite grounds so it was easy to start the day with a bang. The intention was to turn back after this 2 hour hike but we were so in love with the hiking trail that we decided to extend our walk to include the ascent of the nearby Kristinartindar mountain peak. It isn't as high, or as hard, as its taller neighbours but the view is just as stunning. I only recommend this hike if you are an experienced hiker and have the proper footwear and clothing. Depending on the weather the top section can be quite tricky with your footing. Definitely consult your Hidden Iceland support team or the local visitor centre before attempting it yourself. Otherwise, if you didn't manage to do a glacier hike on day 1 perhaps check out our local glacier expert partners, Local Guide of Vatnajökull who can take you on a longer glacier hike into the higher climbs of the glaciers in the area.
Snowy Mountain - Photo: Scott Drummond
However, having already experienced a glacier hike the day before, we chose to use the rest of our afternoon joining From Coast to Mountain on their Puffin tour by tractor out to Ingólfshöfði. We'd both seen puffins fluttering around before but getting out to one of their undisturbed nesting grounds in low tide was a real treat. The cliff edges, where they nested, were easily accessible without causing a disturbance. In fact, they seemed far more curious than the normal recluse puffins that keep their distance in other parts of Iceland. I'd hasten to say this is the closest I've ever been to a puffin in nature. I also personally loved the history behind the spot as it is reportedly the first place Ingolfur Arnarson, the first settler of Iceland, landed back in 874 AD.
Even this late in the day we still had the intention to travel further east, but after a quick Whatsapp chat with the Hidden Iceland support team we realised staying in Skaftafell for a second night would be better. It would mean we could get to the iceberg filled Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon early in the morning after a good night's rest instead of fitting it in at the end of a long day. It's also much quieter in the early morning too. Instead, we did one final tranquil walk to the edge of the Skaftafellsjökull glacier, also starting directly from our campsite. We were really lucky that night, not a cloud in the sky, meaning we could bask in the midnight sun as we walked back from the glacier. It ended up being quite romantic considering how few people were around at that time of night. My attempt at dinner in our campervan was a little smoother this time too, using the ample space to make fajitas. Ready meals are really not necessary when you have your own little kitchen at your disposal.
Day 3 and beyond
Sadly, I'm going to stop short here. To fill you in on every activity for the 10 days we spent travelling around Iceland would be far too long a post, even for me. I also don't want to give the whole game away. A trip around the island with the guidance and support from Hidden Iceland in a Happy Camper campervan gives you all the adventure, local knowledge and experiences you'll ever desire. I hope I've inspired you to get in touch.
For assistance planning your tour in a Happy Camper campervan contact Hidden Iceland's Self Drive Support team. Everything will be taken care of for you. All you have to worry about is getting from one magical spot to another.