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Iceland in 10 days: top 10 highlights

We enjoyed 10 whirlwind (literally) days in late August for our first trip to this unique country.

Driving 1,412 miles counter-clockwise in a 2 WD Nissan Qashqai from Blue car rental, we stayed in eight hotels, with two nights in Myvatn. In hindsight, I would have added one night to give us more respite, and gone clockwise to start in the charming Snaefellsnes Peninsula.

Iceland surprised, then captivated us with its variety: from bleak lava fields to lush green meadows, from vast glaciers to shapely craters to gushing waterfalls. Yes, prices were outrageous, but we were prepared and accepted it, protesting only scrimpy portions. Temperatures ranged from the 40s-50s with fierce winds. We wondered if we were bold enough to return to the land of fire and ice in the winter.

Our top 10 highlights:

No. 10: Puffins and more
There aren't a whole lot of critters here but we got a kick out of the wandering sheep, miniature horses waiting for riders, frolicking seals and darling puffins at the Reynisfjara beach. We never saw reindeer.

No. 9: On the road
It's relatively easy to drive here, despite the 1-lane bridges and 1-lane tunnels and many signs with exclamation points. We passed more gas stations than toilets, and saw only one policeman, who had pulled over a driver. Bonus highlights: We loved the portable WiFi box provided with the rental, as well as the free water hoses at gas stations to clean your car.

No. 8: Þingvellir National Park
Part of the Golden Circle, this is a fascinating geological and historic site, one of the few places in the world to see and walk in the fault line between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates.

No. 7: Volcanoes
Iceland is a time bomb with 30 volcano systems. The most recent to erupt was Eyjafjallajokull, which shut down European air traffic in 2010. The most overdue is Katla. We hiked two of the most well preserved, both by Lake Myvatin: Krafla, with its pristine lake called Víti, and Hverfell, which is steeper and bigger. Both rims were uncomfortably windy.

No. 6: Basalt columns
We learn to love basalt columns in Ireland, and were delighted especially with the ones at the Reynisfjara black sand beach near Vik, Svartifoss, and the coastal cliffs at Arnarstapi.

No. 5: Waterfalls
Our first waterfalls were relatively tame and later I learned Iceland had its longest drought in June. Dettifoss was our favorite. You can get RIGHT UP to this thundering beast, described as Europe’s most powerful based on the water flow times fall distance.

No. 4: Snaefellsnes Peninsula
Rick Steves' book does not list this as a highlight, and I think that is a serious oversight. We had way more fun in Snaefellsnes than in the popular Lake Myvatn area. In a very short drive, you can see seals, waterfalls, canyons, cliffs, volcanoes, black beaches and Kirkjufell.

No. 3: Husavik whale watching
Husavik, near the Arctic Circle, is among the best sites in the world for whale watching. My remarkable excursion with Husavik Adventures went out 10 nautical miles on a RIB, where a few whales checked us out, and one breached over and over again.

No. 2: Ice cave tour out of Vik
In late August, Katlatrack offered one of the few tours inside an ice cave. We drove to dormant Katla's Kötlujökull Glacier, donned crampons (for our first time) and helmets with lights, and walked through a small cave with honeycombed walls, dripping icicles and primeval blue/dirty snow.

And the No. 1 Iceland highlight: Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon
Imagine a gigantic, ancient glacier calving constantly, shedding icebergs that shimmer and float out to sea, melting into diamonds upon black sand. That is Jokulsarlon. I was mesmerized at sunset, and again the next day on a Zodiac boat ride.

Here's my commercial-free top pictures to whet your appetite. Enjoy! https://photos.app.goo.gl/vE86ZTzNyxkmHeyq7

Posted by
430 posts

Thanks for sharing your experience. Its nice to see an evaluation of the many varied sites.

Posted by
681 posts

I agree with your top ten list. I am so glad you enjoyed your trip. Your #1 was our favorite also and the waterfalls were truly amazing. I got so spoiled by the amazing waterfalls that when I went to the Pacific Northwest and Canada I was like big deal... Boy am I spoiled or am I spoiled.

Posted by
327 posts

Thanks so much for the great Trip Report and wonderful photos! On an Icelandair stopover, we only had time for Reykjavik, the Blue Lagoon and the Golden Triangle. Would love to return someday and your highlights make me want to do it sooner than later!

Posted by
681 posts

Loved your pictures. We so loved Iceland in June and agree with your top 10. We missed a few sites you hit as well as not seeing any puffins.

Posted by
68 posts

Enjoyed your report! We had a 14 day ring road trip in September of 2017 that was the best trip we have ever taken. We went clockwise. What an amazing country!