About half the size of Colorado, this Nordic island nation is the most sparsely populated country in Europe, but don’t let its size dissuade you. Within its boundaries lies a wealth of natural phenomena exemplifying the extremes of Mother Nature’s wildly diverse personality. She can be calm—like in serene ice- blue glacial caves and desolate windswept fjords. She can be entrancing—in magical waterfalls framed in chartreuse moss and night skies dancing in iridescent auroral light shows. She can also be explosive—like in turbulent hissing geysers fueled by the fiery rumblings of active volcanoes. Read on to discover three places to experience Iceland’s spectacular extremes on a grand scale.
Southwest Iceland’s wide Hvítá River is a tremendous sight on flat grounds, but seeing the waters scramble over a three-step tiered waterfall before plunging into a rocky crevice where plumes of mist cast a perfectly arced rainbow overhead. This is another experience entirely. It’s called Gullfoss, the furthest point of the Golden Circle tour carving through Iceland’s scenic Southern uplands. Not only one of the most accessible options from Reykjavik, it also passes some of the big destinations in a loop of less than 200 miles. Gaze into the aquamarine lake inside Kerið volcanic crater from its scenic rim trail, overlooking a valley of pines below.
Walk between two continents at the UNESCO-designated Þingvellir National Park, where the Mid-Atlantic Rift exposes the convergences of two distinct tectonic plates in full view—the only one of its kind above sea-level. Continue on to the Haukadalur geothermal field, where the famous Stokkur geyser blasts water up to 65 feet in the air every 10 minutes.
SKAFTAFELL NATIONAL PARK
Nestled along the southeast coast of Iceland, Skaftafell National Park is most famous for its location at the roots of Europe’s largest glacier, but this preservation area boasts a powerful trio of impressive geological sites—Morsárdalur Valley, Kristínartindar Mountain and the Skaftafellsjökull glacier. The hiking trails here offer breathtaking scenery for any skill level, with enough fantastic routes to fill a weeklong vacation.
See the curious columnar basalt rock formations surrounding the towering Svartifoss waterfall. Soak in panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and glaciers at Sjónarnípa viewpoint. See miles of wildflower fields carpeting the majestic Lómagnúpur mountain valley. Summit the highest peak of Iceland at Hvannadalshnjúkur or trek to an isolated nature reserve atop the bird cliff of Ingólfshöfði Cape.
Within the national park are enough sites to overwhelm even the most ambitious explorers. If you only have time for one, however, don’t miss the flagship attraction of Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon. Also called Diamond Beach, massive ice-blue glacier pieces float and bob in the picturesque sapphire lagoon. Over time, the glacier calves and smaller chunks break off into the icy waters. Tumbled in the rough surf, they drift ashore in hundreds of crystal-clear pieces along miles of striking black sand beach in an ecological life cycle display paralleled by few places on earth.