During our stay in Iceland we decided that we really wanted to see some actual ice! Most of Iceland is surprisingly green in the summer months with the exception of some snow-capped mountains. So we made up our minds to do a day trip out to East Iceland and see the glacier lagoon at Jökulsárlón. Haven’t heard of Jökulsárlón before? You’ve probably seen it a few times. Remember that scene in Die Another Day with James Bond racing across a huge ice sheet in his Aston Martin Vanquish? Or Lara Croft heading into the frozen wastes of “Siberia” in Tomb Raider? That’s Jökulsárlón!
After looking at the tours on offer, we thought it was best to rent a car and do the trip ourselves so that we had the freedom to stop anywhere and do things at our own pace. Although we were aware that covering 800 kilometers in one day was not going to be an easy feat, we went for it anyway and ended up having a really awesome experience.
Our chariot awaits
Car rental in Iceland is pretty straightforward, and we’d arranged everything weeks before we left for our trip, so we were able to pick up the car at Keflavik Airport when we arrived in Iceland. We had booked a Hyundai, but ended up with a Nissan. It still handled quite well and was very fuel efficient, so I wasn’t really bothered. As we were actually staying on the outskirts of Reykjavik, it made sense to hire the car for the length of our stay in Iceland because public transport isn’t really frequent in all areas, and Reykjavik is a 50 minute drive from the airport. Added to that, driving in Iceland is pretty easy as the roads are good and traffic is light.
Journey to the East
On our second day in Iceland we got up early and had some Icelandic smoked salmon with our breakfast before we jumped in the car and began our adventure. In June, the sun never really sets, so even though we set off around 7am there was still plenty of light. However, when you drive in Iceland you are required to turn your headlights on no matter what the light conditions are and we quickly discovered why. Soon after we got onto Route 1, a dense fog rolled in and limited visibility to about 100 meters. Although there wasn’t a lot of traffic, it was still good to see the headlights of other cars poking through the fog. When we got closer to Hveragerði, the fog began to clear as we left North America and descended to the European continent.
On the Highway to Hella
The next part of the drive was somewhat uneventful as the terrain is quite flat. As you go through the town of Selfoss you cross the Ölfusá River and continue through flat, treeless landscapes and the occasional ancient lava field. However, as you near the towns of Hella and Hvolsvöllur, the snowy peaks of Þórsmörk and the base of Eyjafjallajökull (the volcano that grounded flights across Europe back in 2010) come into view.
What part of Eyjafjallajökull don’t you understand?
This is where the drive began to get a bit more interesting, as you start to see more waterfalls and different landscapes. By this point, we had already been driving for over 1.5 hours, so we left the highway and turned onto a gravel road to take in the scenery on the western side of Eyjafjallajökull. There was quite a bit of glacial meltwater and the Seljalandsfoss Waterfall was thundering away in the distance. It was good to stretch our legs and breathe in the fresh air before continuing the drive. A little bit down the road is the Eyjafjallajökull Erupts Visitor Centre, which is across the road from the Þorvaldseyri Farm. There’s a 20 minute film about the eruption and you can buy a $10 jar of volcanic ash if that’s your kind of thing.
We pushed on to Vik, which was our lunch stop. We passed the Skógafoss Waterfall as we decided to stop there on the way back to break up the drive. You can also see the Sólheimasandur Plane wreckage on the right, but we weren’t so interested in it. This stretch of Route 1 will give you the chance to see lush green slopes on your left and flat plains stretching to the coast on the right. As you drive down into Vik you’ll see a picturesque church perched above the town and a few black rock formations jutting out of the sea. There’s a petrol station on the main road with a bistro attached to the back and a shop that sells wool jumpers, just like the ones you’ll see tourists wearing around the main street of Reykjavik. In June, the town is covered in purple wildflowers, so it’s a nice walk down to the black sand beach. We touched the North Atlantic Ocean and took in the scenery for a while, had some food, and then went back to the car. On the way back we stopped in Vik again and ate in the bistro. For 2 small pieces of fish, 3 baby potatoes, a few slices of carrot, some beans, a few smears of sauce, and a coffee, we paid US$41 … in a gas station bistro. You have been warned! Iceland isn’t cheap.
Lava fields, glaciers, and moonscapes
The next 200 kilometers were the best part of the trip. We were continually stopping to look at the scenery and take photos. We saw numerous farms with turf houses and waterfalls, and we drove in to take a closer look at some of the really beautiful ones. We passed through areas where all you could see were ancient lava fields covered in green and yellow moss which had piled up over the years to make strange contorted structures. About 60 kilometers from Jökulsárlón we came across a place unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. In almost every direction, all you could see was black sand stretching to the horizon. It was quite surreal to see. Then the Vatnajökull Glacier started to come into view. This is the second largest glacier in Europe and contains numerous waterfalls, mountain peaks, active geothermal areas, rivers, and the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon we had driven so far to see.
Jökulsárlón & Fjallsárlón
We finally reached Jökulsárlón around 2pm. After you cross the bridge you turn left into the carpark on the edge of the lagoon. When Die Another Day was shot, they blocked the inlet under the bridge to stop sea water entering the lagoon so that the whole lagoon froze over. On the edge of the carpark there is a little gift shop/café with a toilet. This is where you can buy a ticket for an amphibious vehicle to take you around the lagoon. It was a bit cloudy when we got out on the lagoon, but apparently when there’s a bit of rain it brings out the blue colours in the icebergs. As seals and ducks swam around us, they dragged a chunk of ice out of the water and passed it around for people to eat as it was possibly 2,500 years old. Then we headed back to dry land and climbed a hill to look over the lagoon.
After a 7 hour journey to get to Jökulsárlón, we didn’t want to leave. The whole place was incredibly beautiful, but with mist rolling in and rain starting to fall, we got back into the car to start the journey back to Reykjavik. However, we noticed a small dirt road leading off towards the glacier and decided to see where it went. Eventually the road came to an end and we followed a little path down the hill that ended with a great view of the Fjallsárlón glacier lagoon and the Vatnajökull glacier. It was extremely quiet as there were only a couple of people around, and the silence was occasionally broken by sounds of the ice in the glacier cracking. I was so glad that I had decided to drive as tour buses don’t go to Fjallsárlón. I would’ve completely missed the experience if I didn’t have my own car.
The Journey Home
It was time to go back to our house in Kópavogur on the outskirts of Reykjavik. Even though we were driving back the way we’d come, the scenery was still stunning, so the drive was still great. We frequently stopped to take photos and have snacks, but surprisingly I didn’t feel tired at all. Perhaps it was because the sun was always up it felt like it was mid-afternoon all day, so my body was tricked into thinking that it wasn’t tired. From time to time heavy rain or fog rolled in which made the drive a bit more challenging, but thanks to the excellent condition of the roads and the way the car handled it wasn’t a problem.
If you google the drive from Reykjavik to Jökulsárlón it will tell you that it takes about 4.5 hours one way. This may be possible if you sit on 90km/h (the maximum speed limit) the whole way, but it’s not the reality. It took us 7 hours to get to Jökulsárlón and about 6 hours to drive back. Of course, this was because we made a lot of stops along the way. I would really suggest doing the drive in summer as the weather in Iceland can be extremely fickle and may add extra time. Another benefit of driving in summer is that we made it home by about 10pm and we didn’t feel tired because the sun was still out. The downside is that you won't see any Northern Lights in summer. Although I’m not in a hurry to drive 800 kilometers in one day any time soon, I’m really happy I did it and have heaps of great pictures and memories as a result.
If you want details about the rules and regulations of driving in Iceland, Visit Iceland has compiled everything you need to know.