Did you know that writing a travel journal was the original thing that made me start blogging? Well, now you do. But this post is about traveling around Iceland with a car and roof tent. I had a bit less than five days, but I made it to Diamond Beach and back. So here are all the places I visited and the lessons I learned along the way.
But before we start, here is a map that has all the places I visited, and some I missed this time but would, I visit, if I had to do it again: Map.
Arrival and pick up my ride: I had booked a car via the website Northbound.is. That platform is like the hotel-booking websites that sum up a bunch of offers for you, so you don’t have to look through all the different rental companies. Very handy, but pay attention to where it says you can give back the car. The Keflavik address had a “Reykjavik” in it because it’s like the same post-code or something, but it’s still an hour more drive between Keflavik (where the international airport is) and Iceland’s capital city.
So I arrived, gave the company a call, named Camping Cars, and got shuttled to the company’s place. Overall smooth process and I got some tips about driving on the way. All the paperwork I got beforehand via mail. After a few signatures, I was ready to go.
Since I arrived in the late afternoon and the exhaustion from the flight started to be noticeable I planned only a short ride to the next supermarket and then a campground to go to sleep soon. The drive along the southeast coast was already an experience. The landscape gives you a real primordial feeling.
Camping in General
Most campsites will have toilets and cooking areas. Often with stoves. But you’ll need to bring your own pot. I probably could have survived well by only bringing a pot and a spoon. Hehe. Showers are not available at all places, but more than I would have expected.
But you need to factor in fees for the campgrounds since camping in the wild is prohibited. During my trip (2022) I paid between 2.000 to 3.000 ISK per night.
A very good place to stay. The showers are open 24h a day other than some places that close them during the night. The main building has a nice kitchen and seating area with a view of the bay. Sadly the kitchen building was closed between 23:00 and 08:00, which delayed my travels a bit.
There is also a playground to entertain the little ones. And if you don’t have camping gear with you, there are cabins for rent.
Day 1 Route
- Bogatröð (the Rental Car place)
- Bridge America – Europe (A little sand-filled rift between the lava rocks connected with a bridge)
- Valahnúkamöl (Rock formation at Coast – should have stopped there, but missed it)
- Brimketill lava rock pool
- Campsite Grindavik
Day 1 Gallery
Starting early from Grindavik I drove along a gravel road to visit the lighthouse and a bunch of shipwrecks on the coast. There were also a few ruins on the roadside later.
After the first couple of pictures, I headed on. I drove past the Raufarhólshellir lava cave as I planned to give it a look on my way back – which I then didn’t. But that’s a nice excuse to go to Iceland some other time again.
Instead into a cave, I drove further up into the slowly growing mountains towards the Hveradalir Geothermal Area. In the 18th century, a couple did settle there and built their own farm, utilizing the geothermal heat to build a greenhouse. Now there is only one building called the “Skylodge” which I would have liked to see from the inside, but it was sadly closed at the time. So I headed on.
My next goal was the small town called Hveragerði. When you drive down into the valley in which the settlement lies you can see the spots of vapor rising into the sky from the treeless flanks of the valley. And even further ahead you can see the sea glimmering in the sun. It’s really a nice view. Down in the city, I bought myself lunch and then headed to the parking lot of my next goal:
Some guy from Canada I met last night at the Grindavik Campground gave me the tip about the Reykjadalur hot spring, which is actually a warmed-up stream. And that’s where I planned to go. Funny thing when paying your parking fee: You need to know your car’s number plate. Some camera systems take a picture of it when you enter the parking lot. When you pay, you have to enter the number plate, and then have five minutes to exit the lot.
After figuring that out, and deciding the price per hour was okay to stay, I did a quick packing for the hike and went climbing the hills of the valley further up. It was a Sunday and quite a bit of traffic. It seems that the local Icelanders also wanted to enjoy the good weather with a little hike. After about one and half hours and many pictures taken later, I reached the valley with the hot spring stream. Now, hot would have been a bit of an overstatement that day. But it certainly was warm enough to take a dip in. The water also wasn’t too deep in most places, so there was hardly more possible than a dip. But of course, I had to. :) After that, the walk down felt done in no time and I continued my travels.
I passed through Selfoss – that’s apparently where they make the famous Skyr – and continued until a sign pointed me to the waterfall called Urriðafoss. It’s only a very short drive from the main highway to a gravel parking place and a wide path from which you can admire this huge waterfall. If the sun is in the right position, you may even see a rainbow in the mist above it.
Now with a couple pictures more on my camera I headed on to a tiny place called Hvolsvöllur and took a turn off the main road. My goal was the Hellishólar Cottages, that not only rent out cabins but also offer space to camp. There was no kitchen at the time, just a couple of heated containers housing showers and toilets. And a restaurant, of which I don’t know if it was open. It was still rather off-season. What was great about this campground was the view.
Day 2 Route
- Campsite Grindavik
- Hópsnesviti (Lighthouse & shipwrecks)
- Raufarhólshellir (Lava cave with guided tours – which I missed this time)
- Hveradalir Geothermal Area (Smaller but nice place of geothermal pools)
- Hveragerði (for lunch)
- Reykjadalur bílastæði (Parking)
- Reykjadalur Hot Spring Thermal River (~1.5 to 2h hike from the parking lot)
- Urriðafoss (Waterfall)
- Hellishólar Cottages (Campsite)
Day 2 Gallery
The next day started very early. Being early rewarded me with a great sunrise above the mountain ranges in the west. My first stop was supposed to be a waterfall called Gljúfrafoss. But I read conflicting news about the road to it being closed for tourists. So I decided not to chance it and instead had on to be early at Seljalandsfoss & Gljufrabui. These two are close to the ring road and would have more people visiting the longer the day would progress.
To get to Gljufrabui, which is a waterfall within a cave, you just have to go ~600m to the north (turn left, when you stand in front of Seljalandsfoss). That short walk is well worth it if you have waterproof shoes to make it into the cave. Being so close to the waterfall was pretty impressive, and the cave looks awesome. Also, put on a raincoat.
The wind had taken up when my road trip continued towards the impressive Skógafoss waterfall. My route led me directly against the wind. That probably did cost me double the fuel. Skógafoss really is an impressive sight you can see from afar. The parking lot was still rather empty when I arrived, good for taking pictures.
When you take the stairs up to the top of the waterfall you will find the beginning of a hiking trail. And there are more than twenty more waterfalls you can discover upstream. Walking up there for an hour or more – it will probably become more because you just have to stop all the time to take pictures – is well worth it and I greatly recommend it.
I reached the top of yet another waterfall called Skálabrekkufoss and had a little snack in the shade of a huge boulder. The wind had picked up the further I made up the path and now grey clouds were coming closer. The first drops of rain started falling. Time to head back.
Luckily, I made it down almost dry. Time for lunch and then to continue to drive to Vik and the Black Sand Beach. Sadly the rain really came in this time. Refueling in a self-service gas station during strong winds and cold rain was quite unpleasant but had to be done. After having a look at the weather report on vedur.is the decision was made: I would keep driving to cover distance during the bad weather and hope the rain would stop when I came the way back.
So I kept driving to the next sight. A canyon named Fjaðrárgljúfur – If you are wondering, I’m just copy-pasting these names from Google maps. While I took the turn off the main road onto a gravel road to the place the weather decided it was a good time for snow. Well, okay.
Once I arrived the snowy landscape was very romantic, but also very cold and very wet. It had slightly above 0° celsius, so the snow became slush on the pathways very quickly.
Time to keep going. The weather made the thought of camping not very appealing today. So I started to look for hotels and hostels. I found one that offered cabins called Ferðaþjónustan í Svínafelli. That would be my next goal. While driving over the large plains of Kálfafell the glaciers in the distance could be barely seen below the low-hanging clouds.
A row of parked cars beside the road caught my attention. Turns out this was the parking space for the Svínafellsjökull glacier. After a 2km walk, you could have a look at this glacier’s lagoon. Since it was still a bit too early to check into the hostel, I decided to add it to my bucket list. It was only slightly raining now and the wind was not as harsh anymore.
When I made my way back birds had started singing. They were sitting on the top of big boulders and their melody followed me on the way down. I met only a hand full of people the whole way. The combination of off-season and subpar weather took its toll, it seems.
When I arrived at Ferðaþjónustan í Svínafelli, I got told that the cabins are the only thing currently for rent, and the kitchen building was being renovated. But they had an actual house with rooms they were renting out. It was still raining and should continue for the coming hours at least. A wet roof tent and cooking on my portable gas stove in the wind and rain was not a pleasing thought, so I took them up on that offer. Having a warm shower and a proper bed would be nice.
Day 3 Route
- Hellishólar Cottages (Campsite)
- Seljalandsfoss & Gljufrabui (That waterfall you can walk behind and waterfall in caving)
- Skógafoss Waterfall (Hike)
- Black Sand Beach Vik
- Fjaðrárgljúfur (Canyon)
- Svínafellsjökull Parking (Glacier, and 2km walk)
- Ferðaþjónustan í Svínafelli (Hostel)
Day 3 Gallery
After a last look around if I hadn’t forgotten anything, I was on the road again towards Eystri-Fellsfjara, also called Diamond Beach. Sadly the weather should stay this rainy for the day, but the forecast said it would get worse later. Time was of the essence again.
I was completely alone when I reached Diamond Beach. Not a single person in sight. The beach was deserted but beautiful. I can only imagine how the crystal clear shards of ice must look like in proper sunlight.
On the other side of the bridge lies the lagoon of the glacier. And I was very surprised by how many birds there were. I even saw groups of seals peaking out of the grey waters between the blocks of ice. Only two other cars arrived during the time I spent taking pictures and admiring the view. Eventually, I had seen enough and started my journey back. There was only one more day left before I wanted to be in Reykjavik.
The weather forecast was perfectly right. During my drive back the rain had picked up. Puddles on the road. And it did not get better when I arrived back at Vik. It seems like the rain clouds really got stuck between the glaciers. And no step-wind the help them out… 😬
So I decided to spend my lunch break at the Lava Bakery and Coffee shop, which was housed in a classic mall right beside the main road. I did a little shopping for souvenirs. As always, the items sold were mostly useless. But next to the souvenirs was a shop for outdoor equipment. I ended up with a foldable backpack and a new pair of hiking socks from an Icelandic brand. Cool.
The weather was still terrible when I left the mall. During lunch, I looked up what sights might be worth visiting on the way back. Something indoors would be great, and I found the Skógar Museum. That would be my next stop. I probably spent like four hours total in this partly open-air museum and can wholeheartedly recommend it. There are some creepy stuffed animals displayed in the cellar of the main building too. With the ticket to the Skógar museum, you also get entry to the museum of transportation in a hall next door. Lots of old cars and tech from centuries ago.
Since the rain wasn’t as strong anymore I added a little detour to the Kvernufoss waterfall one can reach from the museum’s parking lot before I continued to drive to the campsite in Selfoss. It had stopped raining when I reached in the evening, but it was still the most unpleasant night I spent on an Icelandic campground. The place is right in the middle of the town and you can hear the traffic on the main road quite well at the campsite. Also, the wind did not die down during the night and kept flapping my roof tent. I ended up sleeping in the backseats of my car instead. The cabin kept more noise out than the thin layer of tent fabric.
Day 4 Route
- Ferðaþjónustan í Svínafelli (Hostel)
- Eystri-Fellsfjara / Diamond Beach
- Lava Bakery and Coffee (lunch break, and sitting out bad weather)
- Skógar Museum
- Selfoss tjaldsvæði (Campsite)
Day 4 Gallery
After a not overly restful night and breakfast during which I gave some tips to two chaps from England, the travel continued. The so-called Golden Circle was on my bucket list for the day.
First stop: The Kerid Crater – where they charge per person so you can walk down to the water or the circle around it. It was a nice view, but after all the sights I had seen, I can not recommend it for the 400 ISK price paid.
After that experience, I was a bit cautious when arriving at Faxi waterfall where it turned out that they want 700 ISK for parking. With a raised eyebrow I continued on. I had seen many beautiful waterfalls already. Thanks but no thanks.
Next stop: Gullfoss. I took a bit of a different route. From the Faxi waterfall, there is a bridge over the river. The little part of the road is called Kjarnholt and leads over a rather narrow bridge. Regular cars and vans will do well, but if you have an actual camper or even caravan, I’d not recommend taking it. The bridge leads over to road 358, which is a wide gravel road that leads past the Torfhús Retreat. A hotel whose buildings are held in the old Icelandic style. With the mountain ranges in the background, a pretty view on the roadside. The road itself has some funny hills in it too. So if you have your own car and are confident to drive a gravel road with it, I recommend it for the little extra adventure. Soon after you will arrive on asphalt again.
Gullfoss is indeed an impressive waterfall. Still, bring a waterproof jacket as the mist coming from the lower gorge may get you wet quickly. My aw-o-meter however was already filled to the brim from all the beautiful nature, and the comparably many tourists felt disturbing to me, after all the loneliness. That made me continue on towards the Geysir place soon. The name-giving Geysir was actually dormant during my visit. But there was a neighboring hot spring that exploded almost every five minutes in the impressive fountain of hot water. You really got what was advertised there. If you have the time, I can also recommend following the path up the hill for a fabulous view of the landscape.
The day was still young and I had a hike planned to visit a waterfall called Brurafoss. A parking place was beside road 37 with a hiking path leading about 3km upstream. Along the way, you get to see three very impressive waterfalls from very up close. The canyon the floods flow through was incredibly deep. Even in the very clear glacier water, I could not make out the river bed which must have been over five meters deep. This gave the water a mix of dark blue and truly aquamarine colors, mixed with the white from the bubbles of air. The sights truly made up for the initial muddy trail leading through low-growing birch trees and past some modern and expensive-looking houses. You reach the official end of the trail at Bruarfoss waterfall, with two falls before it. But you can venture on a little bit further: Follow the signs called MIĐHUSASKOGUR to reach a beautiful little clearing where two creeks unite. You’ll find yourself surrounded by birch trees, snow-covered peaks in the distance, and silence, only disturbed by the occasional birds chirping. I can only imagine how beautiful this place must be during the short Icelandic summer. This was one of the spots that can make one believe in fairies and trolls.
For the last night before heading to Reykjavik, I had planned to stay at the Hostel Úlfljótsvatn. From road 37 it took a turn over to road 365, which made me drive into a beautiful setting sun and a landscape looking down on the Lake Þingvallavatn. If you are on the way back from the Golden Circle and have time for the little detour, I can recommend going via road 365.
Sadly the Hostel was still closed. Apparently, it was too early in the year, despite tjalda.is claiming it would be open. The next campground was Selfoss. But since I had an unpleasant experience there, I decided to give the one in Hveragerði a chance instead. Which turned out quieter and more relaxing. Not the newest facilities, but the staff was very friendly and the cooking area is nice where you almost naturally get into conversations with other campers.
The next day I drove into Reykjavik to check into my hotel and get ready for fanfest. You can read about that story here.
Day 5 Route
- Selfoss tjaldsvæði (Campsite)
- Kerid Crater (400 ISK entry per person)
- Bruarfoss parking (Waterfalls + Hike)
- Hostel Úlfljótsvatn via Road 365 towards Lake Þingvallavatn (sadly was closed)
- Reykjamörk Hveragerði Campsite
Day 5 Gallery
Can I recommend visiting Iceland? Absolutely. And when I make it up there the next time, I plan to visit the north towards Snæfellsjökull National Park. But there are a couple things I learned along the way:
- Iceland is expensive. If you have space left in your luggage, bring prepared food to cook when you are camping.
- Iceland uses “Type C” plugs for power outlets.
- A camper van is more comfortable than a roof tent. Not only because you may be able to keep it warm with a built-in heater, but mostly because of noise dampening. If there is wind or, as the campground in Selfoss, noisy cars, sleeping inside a somewhat muted car is nice.
- Tap water is perfectly drinkable everywhere. Bring your bottle and refill.
- Having long underwear saved me during the trip in early April. Study the weather forecasts and consider carefully the clothing you bring.
- Weather: vedur.is has great maps that let you help plan accordingly.
- tjalda.is is an okay help to find campgrounds, but not 100% reliable off-season.
- You almost never need cash. Credit card payments are possible pretty much everywhere.
- The speed limit on Iceland’s roads is 90kph, 80 on gravel roads.
- Talk to other travelers. You often get really good tips from those.