[Author’s note: I know I’m super behind on trip reports and still owe you Cape Town and (the country of) Georgia.  Those will happen soon, I promise!]

My trip to Iceland in 2018 was one of my favorite trips of all time.  Yes, by “favorite” I actually mean “most exhausting” because I traversed the entire Ring Road (plus the Westfjords) in way too little time.  But still, Iceland is just a phenomenal place to visit.

Want to see my trip report from last year?
Part I: Introduction
Part II: Snaefellsness Peninsula
Part III: Into the Westfjords and Dynjandi
Part IV: Djupavik and the most remote swimming pool in the world
Part V: Hvitserkur and a lot of driving
Part VI: Aldeyjarfoss and some friendly Dutch people
Finale: The Touristy Southern Coast

(by the way, if you follow me on Instagram you’ll have seen a lot of this already.  If you don’t, why not?  Fix that by following me at @realandyluten)

A month ago, my girlfriend and I were talking about taking another trip.  I wanted to go to New England to see the leaves change color.  She wanted to go to Iceland.  We compromised and booked a trip to Iceland.

She was right though.  Tickets were relatively cheap ($660 each for roundtrip Real Economy) and we would be flying the DFW-KEF nonstop just one week before it went away forever.

I’ll cover the airport experience in another post (sneak peek: I got to sample Flagship First Dining at the new DFW Flagship Lounge) and summarize the flight as such: it was an international flight on an old 757 in coach.  How was it?  I repeat: it was an international flight on an old 757 in coach.  A short 7 hours and 16 minutes later, we arrived into Keflavik, Iceland, ready and rearing to take a nap go.

The plan

We weren’t going to be in Iceland for very long, only 3 nights, so we had to hit the road.  Our plan was to stay on the southern coast, since there are tons of awesome things to see and do pretty much one after the other.  The agenda:

  • Day One: Drive all the way east to the Vestrahorn mountain, staying at the Viking Cafe Guesthouse next to the Vestrahorn, bypassing a lot of what we’ll see in the next few days on the way
  • Day Two: Work back towards Skogafoss, seeing the Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon and diamond beach, hiking up to Svartifoss, head out on the Reynisfjara black sand beach, and staying that night next to Skogafoss
  • Day Three: Stay around the Skogafoss/Seljalandsfoss area, seeing Kvernufoss, staying another night next to Skogafoss
  • Day Four: Leave early in the morning for our flight back home

We ended up adjusting the plan a bit but you’ll have to stay tuned for that.

To Vik

We picked up our car from Hertz, a cute little Hyundai something or other, and made our way to the Ring Road.  After clearing Reykjavik traffic we were out on the open road of Iceland, and the scenery started to get amazing.  I had seen the drive before, of course, but it was my girlfriend’s first time; getting to see her reactions around every bend in the road may have been my favorite part of the trip!

We eventually got to the touristy part of the southern coast (the Foss part with all the waterfalls) and passed Seljalandsfoss and stopped at Skogafoss briefly so I could take a nap and revisit the exact parking spot where I locked my keys in my rental car last year and had to pay $400 for someone to come out and bring the spare key, ugh.

Nap taken, we made our way further east to the small town of Vik.  Vik is famous for being named when someone started to spell the word Viking and suddenly stopped close to the Reynisfjara black sand beach and a great middle point for the southern coast.  Just like last year, we ended up having lunch in Vik a few times just because we were passing through yet again.

Vik has an absolutely idyllic church building overlooking the town and the seaside cliffs of Reynisfjara.  We drove up to the church at the same time as an enormous tourist bus pulled in for everyone to take pictures from the hill, so I grumpily took the same picture from the hill.

a landscape with a body of water and a city

The rock formations were absolutely beautiful in the midday light, and you can see Vik’s school in the foreground.  We made our way to a little microbrewery for lunch where we were quickly reminded of how eye-wateringly expensive the food can be, after paying $56 for two burgers, fries, and drinks.  When we were done we walked outside and actually had a great view of the church, so I whipped out my camera and grabbed a shot of it.

a white building with a red roof on a hill with hills in the background

(the church is prettier in the spring and summer when lupines are in bloom, but I still love the setting for this one.

To Jokulsarlon

We kept driving after Vik and, looking at Waze, realized we’d be in the area around the Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon for sunset.  Jokulsarlon is pretty unique: chunks of ice will break off a glacier into the lagoon, where they’re carried out to sea and then are broken up by ocean currents and end up on the beach just to the south (which is why they call it Diamond Beach).  The sky was coloring up nicely out at the lagoon so I grabbed a shot quickly before we went over to the beach.  You can even see one of Iceland’s many glaciers in the background on the left!

icebergs in the water with mountains in the background

We went out to the Diamond Beach to join the 20349572034895720698270594735 other photographers out there.  I picked my chunk of ice and got my camera ready.  The sunset never exploded like I had hoped but I still ended up with a cool shot!

a large iceberg on a beach

The next shot was a bit contrived, someone had put some ice chunks in the black sand for some pictures.  It was kind of corny but I really like the shot anyway.

a close up of a piece of ice

Vestrahorn Mountain

We finally arrived at the Viking Cafe next to the Vestrahorn mountain, where we were quickly checked in and given the key to our room at the guesthouse behind the cafe.  It was perfectly functional with an en-suite restroom for about $150 and came with two free entry passes into the Vestrahorn area (it’s private land and there’s a nominal entry fee to get in normally).

Emily got ready for bed and I got ready to go hunting for Northern Lights.  The forecast was showing few clouds and maybe a little aurora activity, so I was hopeful.  I drove out into the Vestrahorn area to try and find a composition.  I had my Sony a7rIV and the 24mm f1.4 GM lens, perfect for some aurora-ing.

Lo and behold, I saw them almost immediately.  Certainly not as big as other aurorae I’ve seen, but they were definitely there!

a road with green lights in the sky

I wanted to go a bit further down the road to try and capture the whole of the Vestrahorn mountain with what I hoped would be Northern Lights over it.  I was creeping along when all of a sudden I felt the road texture change, from rocky gravel to really soft sand.  For those of you who haven’t driven on a beach, really soft sand can be incredibly difficult to navigate, especially when you’re not expecting it.  I tried to give the car some gas, but before I knew it I was effectively stuck.  I tried to carefully back out, and was able to get some traction and back up a bit, but then I couldn’t go forward nor backward and the clutch started to smell.  I strategically yelled a swear word into the universe but then decided I might as well try to get a picture while deciding what to do.  I left the car where it was stuck and went up on a slight hill.

The aurora was really low in the sky but I loved how it created a sort of “glow” around the mountain and the incredible dynamic range of the Sony allowed me to capture some detail in the mountain too!

a landscape of mountains and a body of water

Satisfied with my picture, I went back to the car.  I realized what was holding me up was sand in front of the bumper, so I kicked away some sand to make a path for the bumper, put the car in second gear, and swearfully started to nudge my way forward and, luckily, the tires found some grip!  I didn’t know how long the sand patch was but knew I would need some speed to get through it, so I punished the clutch, threw it into first gear, and zoomed through the remaining 4 feet of sand (that’s right, I got stuck in a 5-foot sand patch).  I decided that was my cue to call it a night and went back to the room and slept hard after a long but wonderful day.

Morning at Vestrahorn

Emily and I woke up early the next morning to get out into the Vestrahorn area for sunrise.  The sky was kind of boring so just taking a picture of the mountain wasn’t going to be good, so I explored some textures, first with the wave marks in the black sand beach and then the frozen water over the black sand and ended up with pictures that I really love!

a mountain in the distance

ice on the beach with a mountain in the background

And then I looked over and saw Emily taking some pictures of her own and had to get a candid of her.

a person standing on a beach

All in all, it was a great first day, night, and morning in Iceland, we couldn’t wait for what the rest of day two would bring!


Which picture is your favorite from day one?  Tell me in the comments below!

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