by Alyssa Ramos
Aside from “magical”, I would describe Iceland as a “Natural Amusement Park” with endless amounts of exciting attractions and activities. From the moment I landed in Iceland, my mind was completely blown, and it still is even after leaving. The sight of snow-topped mountains made me feel giddy like a little girl, eager to go build a snowman, except more on the level of an insane adrenaline junkie who wants to climb to the top of the mountain first. Luckily, I had brought a stuffed Olaf (from Frozen) snowman with me, because I would later learn that what I thought was snow, was actually glaciers.
That’s right. Freaking glaciers. I had never even seen a glacier before and there they were, just chilling right in front of me. They’re typically on top of mountains and are likely to be next to a volcano or a vibrant green mountain with a cascading waterfall, which was also continuously mind blowing to see. Waterfalls, to my extreme satisfaction, are abundant in Iceland, and caused by the melting of the glaciers above them which forms the cold, pure, Icelandic glacier water you could drink right from a stream.
But glaciers and waterfalls weren’t all that kept the look of bewilderment plastered on my face. It seemed like every time my mind was blown by one thing, there was just another even more mind blowing thing to amp me up again right around the corner! I saw all of the most popular and iconic sites of Iceland, but I also did a lot of exploring by myself on the road less traveled, and discovered a plethora of things you wouldn’t normally find on the typical tour-schedules.
My list of things to see and do in Iceland is a long one, but here are the things that were most mind blowing that definitely deserve a visit!
Jökulsárón literally translates to “glacier lagoon” and was recommended by a blogger from StuckinIceland.com that I interviewed prior to my trip. I also saw it on the list of places where movies were filmed and Tomb Raider was one of them, so naturally I had to go see this so called lagoon of glaciers, the only problem was that it was almost 5 hours (it’s in SouthEast Iceland) from the hotel I was staying at (Hotel Keilir) in Keflavik near the airport. But I didn’t let that stop me, I landed at 5:30am, hopped in a rental car, and drove all the way across the country to see it.
When I finally got there, it was even more mind blowing than I had ever imagined. It’s literally like a beautiful ice kingdom you’d see in Frozen, yet something potentially dangerous about the jagged ice and freezing water makes it a bit chilling. It’s my top-pick for mind blowing sites nonetheless, and I recommend driving straight to it first if you’re coming from the west, and then stopping at other places on the way back if you have time.
The majority of the beaches in Iceland have black sand due to the lava rocks eroding, but what makes this one especially mind blowing are the glass-like ice rocks that dot the jet-black shore. It’s a small beach across from Jökulsárón, and the name isn’t well known (and by “well known” I mean, “well, known” because I couldn’t even find it online), but it was so incredible and uncanny to see the calm Arctic water grazing up against the crystalline glacier pieces on the ebony-colored sand that it just had to get recommended!
Skaftafell National Park is also in the South East area of Iceland, and another place that is sometimes overlooked if you aren’t planning on traveling far from Reykjavik. However, if you want to see an epic waterfall that cascades down from black basalt rocks, you’re going to want to make the drive to Skaftafell, then hike up the mountain to Svartifoss.
The hike is easy, despite the numerous tourists wearing head-to-toe extreme hiking gear, and you’ll get some amazing views of the glacier next to it, plus you’ll pass two other waterfalls on the way to it. When you reach Svartifoss, you can stop at the bridge in front of it, or climb down to the rocks closer to it like I did for a better view.
There’s also a little visitor store and bathroom area in case you want to make this a pit stop on your travels. Oh, and also a camping area…if you’re into that sort of thing.
Ah Seljalandsfoss. I can’t pronounce your name, but you took my mega-waterfall virginity within the first few hours of being in Iceland, and I love you so much for it. If you’re driving to the South Coast, this is the first big waterfall you’ll see even though it’s a bit of a distance from the road. You’ll also see a bunch of cars and tour busses in front of it which is a better indicator of the sign pointing to it, since you won’t be able to read it anyway.
This cascading beauty is exactly what you’d imagine you’d see in any sort of fairytale or iPhone emoji, and you can even walk behind it! Granted, you’ll get soaked by the glacial mist coming from it’s landing point, but I guarantee the adrenaline and excitement will keep you warm as you’re walking up to this powerful, majestic, mind blowing beast.
Thingvellir is probably one of the most well-known National Parks in Iceland…probably because it’s the most publicized, or more realistically…the safest. It’s a little North East of Reykjavik, and most tour companies will pick you up from your hotel then visit it first on the Golden Circle tours, or you can just follow the signs and drive there yourself as long as you keep in mind that it’s actually spelled with a funny looking Nordic letter that looks like a Times New Roman “P” that’s very hard to put in GPS.
Essentially, Thingvellir is where parliament met for thousands of years to discuss laws and settle disputes, and you can even see the remains of booths that were built there for these assemblies. The waterfall called Öxarárfoss is supposedly where vikings would execute people, which is kinda creepy but also kinda cool, and pretty nonetheless.
There’s also an active volcano and a massive tectonic ridge that you can hike along, which also happened to cause a fissure (underwater crack) between two continents, which I actually got to go snorkeling in between with Dive.is!
Hearing that “Journey to the Center of the Earth” was filmed there was enough to make me want to go see Snæfellsjokull, even though it’s not typically listed on many tours. I didn’t really get the whole “glacier” concept until I drove up Snæfellsjokull, because up until then I thought that glaciers were what float on water in Antarctica. Low and behold, glaciers are any frozen ice masses, including the ones at the top of many mountains in Iceland like this one.
Obviously, it’s not so easy as to just drive your curious, wanderlust, happy ass up a mountain to see a glacier, otherwise they wouldn’t have caution signs at the base of it, but it is possible…as long as you don’t hold me liable for recommending it. Carefully, and slowly, drive up the mountain, preferably in a 4X4, or other vehicle that is meant to climb mountains. I’m serious, my little four-dour, economy compact rental car almost slid off the side of the narrow, “impassable” road, landing the number 6 spot on my list of Iceland heart attacks.
Although relatively dangerous, it is still quite mind blowing once you get to the top (or what I think was the top before I got scared of my car almost falling off a cliff and turned around) and you can even (CAREFULLY) pull to the side of the road to take pictures in front of a patch of glacier or with the massive one behind you.
Luckily, a local recommended this little gem called Djúpalónssandur to me, even though when I got there it was apparent that it’s also a stop on one of the big touristy tours. I walked in the opposite direction of them though, and to my extreme surprise and satisfaction, saw the most mesmerizing view of the black sand beach below, which was framed by grassy rock formations jutting out randomly along the shore.
I walked down the meadowy pathway to the lava sand, and down to the shore where I noticed how brilliantly blue and clear the water was. To the left was an even more enchanting area, where the massive rock formations had formed little pools of calm water that was so clear that you could see all 50 shades of grey rocks and neon green seaweed below it.
If you turn in the opposite direction of the water, you’ll also get a mind blowing view of the black sand, the green meadows, and the picturesque Snæfellsjokull glacier in the background.
So I kind of found this place on my way to Djúpalónssandur (and now I can’t find it anywhere online…), but it left such a huge impact on me that I have to include it on my list. What had happened was…I was driving to this supposedly cool beach, but on the way I saw a bunch of people walking up to what seemed like your typical mountain side. After a few minutes of debating how badly I had to go pee, I finally decided to turn around and just go see what all the damn fuss was about.
TURNS OUT that this little “canyon” called Rauõfeldar Canyon is actually where an angry troll ghost lives, which I didn’t actually believe until I went inside of it. It’s very beautiful on the outside, and even has a serene little creek flowing in front of it…but as you walk closer, you’ll realize that that creek leads you into a narrow sliver in the side of the mountain, that you have to hop along rocks to get to. My first thoughts were, “How is this allowed?”, thinking of the potential injuries such activities would cause to a careless traveler.
But then I remembered that it was real life nature, and that there were probably tons of these sort of “canyons” in the country. Anyway. I climbed over the creek, into the canyon, where my mind was blown by how magical the little stone enclave was. Its walls were covered in some sort of green moss, that led up to a circular opening above. There were people further in the crevice, which made me want to go further in as well, so after they came out, I went in.
An ICE CAVE?! I couldn’t believe my eyes! I didn’t think I’d get to see an ice cave, and there in front of me, above the mini-cave-waterfall, was another crevice that had a spiraling chunk of ice above it! I got all excited to get closer but then OH WAIT. I looked down and saw not one…but about FIVE dead birds sprawled in icy water that was streaming from the mini-waterfall. I got such bad chills that I immediately left, and apparently lost my sunglasses at some point along the way.
Did you know that the only types of horses allowed in Iceland are the Icelandic ones? Mind blowing. I know. But seriously, my horse tour guide Fiola at Eldhestar told me that you can export an Icelandic horse, but they won’t allow you to bring it back because they want to keep the breed pure in Iceland. What makes Icelandic horses so different and special? They’re a lot smaller than most horses, and have a specific gait (way they run) called the “tölt” that is so smooth that you can “hold a cup of water without spilling it while they trot”.
Anyway, my Icelandic horse back riding tour went up a beautiful mountain side, through a man-planted magical forest (most of the trees in Iceland are hand planted due to re-forestation) and ended at a field of hot springs. It’s not only mind blowing to ride such magical creatures, but also to see massive clouds of steam coming out of the ground in random spots…even though there’s glaciers nearby.
You might wonder how it’s possible to have a bridge between two continents in Iceland, since it seemingly isn’t “connected” to any at all. Well. The continents are actually divided by continental plates…meaning they span the length of the land or ocean until it gets to the bordering one, and in this case, it occurs in the South West tip of Reykjanes, the town where you probably flew into. This is also a spot that’s hard to find, but if you just follow the main road (i.e. just drive straight and don’t take any “slip roads”) or get a map, you’ll be sure to spot it.
Look for what seems like a slope between two areas of land that have an iron bridge connecting them, and a river of black sand below. This is an official separation point on land of the two continents, which you can only see elsewhere underwater in the Silfra fissure.
I obviously have a ton of other places that I loved in Iceland, and even more photos and tips! So feel free to check back or follow me on social media for more updates!