Other Worldly Scenery
Iceland’s amazing landscape is thanks to its geology. Born a mere 16 million years ago via an underwater lava plume that erupted from the North Atlantic seafloor, the island grew as molten lava drove apart the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. Even today, Iceland continues to expand at a rate of 0.8 inches (2 centimeters) a year. Icelanders sometimes joke that millions of years from now, Iceland will be large enough to be called a continent.
The most obvious example of Icelandic expansion is in Thingvellir National Park, an hour northeast of the capital city, Reykjavik. Here you can stroll beside a towering cliff wall of solidified lava that is part of the North American plate, while gazing across the rift valley toward the Eurasian side of Iceland. On the Reykjanes peninsula southwest of Reykjavik, you can actually walk across this continental divide via the Bridge Between Two Continents.
Thingvellir is one of three stunning locations that comprise the ‘Golden Circle,’ a must-see excursion when visiting Iceland. The others are the Geysir Hot Spring Area, where every few minutes the geyser Strokkur shoots water 100 feet (30 meters) into the air, and Gullfoss, the ‘Golden Falls.’ Iceland’s iconic, thundering waterfall.
Iceland may have more waterfalls, per capita, than any other country. These falls are a consequence of numerous large glaciers, whose summer melts feed rivers that flow over the many lava walls and cliffs found throughout the island. Along the south coast, in addition to Gullfoss, is magnificent Skógafoss (with the excellent Skógar Museum nearby) and Seljalandsfoss, a tall cascade of water you can actually walk behind. In the north is Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Iceland, and majestic Goðafoss, the ‘Waterfall of the Gods.’ In the Westfjords is Dynjandi, cited by some Icelanders as the country’s most beautiful waterfall.
There are at least 30 active and extinct volcanoes in Iceland. Perhaps the most famous is Eyjafjallajökull, which erupted in 2010 and caused a major disruption in air travel across parts of Europe for a week. Hekla, an easy 90-minute drive east of Reykjavik, last erupted in 2000 and used to do so regularly every decade. In West Iceland, on the Snæfellsnes peninsula, is stunning Snæfellsjökull, a 700,000-year-old glacier-capped stratovolcano that last erupted around 200 AD. Its claim to fame is courtesy of the author Jules Verne. In his 1864 novel Journey to the Center of the Earth, he placed the entrance of a passage leading to Earth’s center on Snæfellsjökull.
One benefit of so many volcanoes on the island are the fascinating fields of frozen lava. One of the most amazing is the jagged Dimmuborgir ‘Dark Castles’ lava field in northern Iceland. Created by eruptions 2,300 years ago, this fairy-tale-like lava sculpture park features bizarre rock formations and is an absolute must see on any Iceland trip.
Volcanoes also contribute to numerous steaming geothermal landscapes. In the north near Lake Mývatn, the Námafjall (Hverir) Geothermal Area is full of smoking fumaroles and boiling mud pots. The landscape is a colorful blend of minerals, including sulfur, deposited by the geothermal waters. Thanks to the sulfur, the area’s rotten-egg smell is unmistakable. On the south coast near Reykjavik lies Seltún, another equally colorful and equally smelly geothermal area.
Farther to the east along Iceland’s south shore is the little town of Vik and Reynisfjara—a black sand beach once described as one of the 10 most beautiful beaches in the world, and the only cold-water beach so designated. Flanked by enormous, multi-sided basalt stacks, with mist rising from the crashing waves of the north Atlantic, this beach is a unique site, even for Iceland.
To the west of Reykjavik is the pretty waterfall Hraunfossar. Its name means ‘Lava Falls,’ because the water emerges from beneath a lava field and cascades into the river below. Farther west is Kirkjufell, a symmetrical peak known as ‘The Lonely Mountain.’ It’s thought to be the most photographed mountain in Iceland, thanks in part to the beautiful nearby waterfall Kirkjufellsfoss. One of the more remote and seldom visited regions of Iceland is the Westfjords, where the scenery is stunning but roads and visitors are few.
No description of Iceland would be complete without mention of Reykjavik. The older, central portion of the island’s capital is easily walkable. Here you’ll find numerous museums, art galleries, public art, and Harpa, the city’s stunning concert hall. If nightlife is your thing, Icelanders know how to party on Friday and Saturday nights, but the action doesn’t usually start until after midnight.