The Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis)
Have you ever seen a photo of Iceland that didn’t make you go, “wow!”?
The land of fire and ice lives up to its name, with volcanoes, geysers, hot springs, glaciers and ice caves like you’ve never seen anywhere else. Being one of the least populated countries on earth, it’s no surprise that Iceland is one of the wildest. It’s known for having more geothermal activity than any other country in the world.
“Iceland is a living geological masterpiece, a peerless volcanic land of dramatic skies, bubbling earth, thundering waterfalls and thermal lagoons. If you want an insight into how the planet was sculpted by the forces of Mother Nature, exploring the Golden Circle will provide many answers.”
– Clare Jones
Iceland seems to have been earning its place on more and more people’s bucket lists since the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull. There’s no doubt it seems to be the place to go in 2017.
The visitor statistics back this up and it’s easy enough to trace the events behind this rise in popularity. One thing’s for certain, though, all this attention is well-deserved. It was only a matter of time before Iceland got its recognition.
Finding mind blowing outdoor adventures in Iceland was absolutely the easiest part of writing this article but, to be honest, the hardest part was deciding which ones were worthy of this list. There are just so many and they all look incredible. As a result, I’m only just barely scratching the surface of what’s on offer, but this is what I’ve come up with.
The first three adventures on my list can be done without a guide, providing you’re prepared to do some planning and preparation. Most other adventure trips in Iceland will generally require joining a guided tour. That’s a small price to pay, though, to really experience this magical place.
Drone POV: Soaring Over Iceland’s Rugged Landscape
Video courtesy of National Geographic
Hike Reykjadalur Valley
You don’t have to travel far from Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, to discover true Icelandic wilderness. The Reykjadalur Valley is only about 40 minutes drive.
Reykjadalur translates to “steam valley” and you’ll see why as soon as you hit the trail. In 2008 a huge earthquake ripped through this part of Iceland, reviving dozens of hot springs that now bubble their sulphurous steam into the valley. At times the steam is so thick that you’ll need to stop and wait for it to pass so that you can see where you’re going.
Ascending gradually into the valley, you’ll pass waterfalls and turquoise pools, before arriving at a warm stream where you can bathe in the rejuvenating spring water. It’s only 3.5 km from the car park to the spring, so the reward is well worth the short, relatively easy hike.
Need to know
Length: 7 km
Time: 3 hours (allow extra time to bathe in the hot springs)
Grade: Moderate – A 250 m climb over 3.5 km, with a couple of streams to wade through
Map: Pick up a map from a tourist office in Reykjavik
Access: There’s no public transport I’m aware of that will take you to Reykjadalur Valley, so you’ll need a vehicle. From Reykjavik, follow Þjóðvegur 1 for 37 km to Breiðamörk in Suðurland. Turn right onto Breiðamörk and continue for 4 km to a gravel carpark, which is clearly signed. It’s a 40 minute drive from the center of Reykjavik. The trail is clearly signed from the gravel carpark.
Further info: The hot springs along this trail are unfenced and are not all safe to swim in. Stick to the trail, as the crusts surrounding the springs can be wafer thin.
Photo courtesy of Diana Norgaard, on flickr
If you’re after a much more challenging trail, The Laugavegur Trek (or Laugavegurinn), might be up your alley.
The Laugavegur takes in lava fields, rainbow coloured mountains, black ash desert, waterfalls, bubbling springs, glacial ice, and rich green woodlands. You’ll even see the famous Eyjafjallajökull volcano. This might be a challenging trek but the rewards are too many to count.
It’s become so known as the quintessential Icelandic hike that it’s been dubbed Iceland’s Inca Trail. But although it’s now one of Iceland’s most popular hikes, you won’t encounter the same constant stream of tourists all along the trail.
Most people complete the classic Laugavegur Trek in four days, but there are many side trips and alternate routes if you’re looking to extend your time here. The first two days can even be combined to complete the classic route in three days.
Accommodation is available in huts (at a cost) and fresh Icelandic spring water is available all along the trail, so it’s easy to keep your pack weight down. There are also campgrounds if you don’t want to shell out for a bed or are looking for a more authentic hiking experience.
You’ll need to be prepared for all kinds of weather on the Laugavegur, and carry all of your food. Make sure you check SafeTravel.is for any alerts about the trail and leave them a travel plan in case the worst should happen. They also have PLB emergency beacons available for hire. The elements are your biggest danger on this trek but make sure you watch out for elves, too.
Photo courtesy of Ashley Buttle, on flickr
Need to know
Length: 53 km
Time: 4 days
Grade: Difficult – This hike requires a good level of fitness and preparedness.
Map: You’ll need to pick up the Laugavegur Hiking Trail guide, available online from the Icelandic Touring Association, or locally from petrol stations and book shops.
Access: Both ends of this trail are accessible via public transport. Check out Reykjavik Excursions for buses.
Further Info: There are huts along the trail but they must be booked and cost around USD$40 per night. Otherwise, you must use the designated campgrounds (wild camping is not permitted). Huts are open only in the summer months. It’s recommended not to take on this trail at any other time. Considering the level of planning that needs to go into hiking this trail, I’d recommend using a detailed guide like this one from The Modern Female Hiker or this one by Frugal Frolicker, in conjunction with the aforementioned Laugavegur Hiking Trail guide.
See the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis)
Iceland is the perfect place to see the famous Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis). This incredible celestial light show can be taken in from all over the country, between August and March. There aren’t many other places in the world where the lights are visible for so much of the year.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to predict when the lights will make an appearance, especially far in advance. They do occur in cycles, though, so it’s worth checking the forecasts close to the date of your visit.
Need to know
Unfortunately, there’s never any guarantee of seeing the Northern Lights. Obviously, the longer you have to spend looking, the better your chances will be. Staying awake all night would also be beneficial. Some hotels and other accommodation providers will offer to wake you up when the lights get started. You’ll need to get away from any light pollution and find a spot with the widest view possible.
You can, of course, see them by yourself but some of the multitudes of guided tours available may help increase your chances. Tours will normally combine the Northern Lights with a range of other attractions and experiences.
Dive or snorkel the fault line at Silfra
Within the UNESCO World Heritage listed Thingvellir National Park lies Silfra – a rift formed in the tectonic boundary between the North American and Eurasian plates. The rift is located in Thingvallavatn Lake, which makes it the perfect place to dive or snorkel.
Although the plates drift further apart at a rate of about two centimetres per year, they are still close enough that when diving you can place one hand on each tectonic plates. With visibility of 70 to 80 metres, it’s no surprise this is listed among the world’s top 50 diving destinations.
Diving or snorkelling at Silfra makes the perfect adventurous day trip since it’s only 50 km from Reykjavik. Various companies offer tours here all year round, including the off-road adventure through the park by horse, jeep or fat-wheeled buggy.
Need to know
There are too many tour options to list and compare them here. Google or the local tourist offices are your friend. You will need a PADI Open Water qualification to dive here.
Whitewater rafting in Iceland
White water rafting the Jökulsá Austari (East Glacier River)
Image courtesy of Stig Nygaard, on Flickr
Whitewater rafting tours in Iceland make for the ultimate adventure and offer the chance to see parts of the country you can’t see any other way.
From Jökulsá Austari (East Glacier River) and Jökulsá Vestari (West Glacier River) in the north to Gullfoss Canyon in the south, taking on Iceland’s adrenaline pumping rapids and deep canyons by raft looks incredible. You can even have an invigorating dip in the glacial runoff, either by choice or when your boat gets overturned.
Whether you want to kick your feet up, relax and take in the scenery on the easier tours, or step outside your comfort zone and take on some challenging rapids, there’s something for everyone. Your day will finish with a hot meal and some cocoa on most tours, or even a hot sauna on others.
Need to know
Iceland offers many rafting tours to choose from, ranging in difficulty and time commitment. Tour companies will provide all the gear you’ll need to raft safely, but you’ll need to wear your layers, bring a change of clothes, a towel, and your sense of adventure.
Have you been to Iceland? Got it on your bucket list? Got any questions, comments, updates or corrections? Let us know by commenting below.
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