Ever since I took a serious interest in photography in 2014, a visit to Iceland was at the top of my wishlist. The photos I’ve seen of the magnificent landscapes there were simply amazing. I needed to get there and capture my vision of Iceland. My wife cheerfully agreed to join me on the trip, and her dad was generous enough to fly to Minnesota to care for our four kids while we were gone.
Alas, months of careful planning couldn’t anticipate the worst snowstorm Minnesota had seen in nearly thirty years. Our flight out was canceled, and a second wave of snow the following day seriously threatened us losing another day in the Land of Fire and Ice. We made it to the airport thanks to the epic winter driving skills of a close family friend. We got to the airport and boarded the plane. After some intensive plane deicing, we were finally in the air and on our way.
Keflavík, Reykjavík and the Blue Lagoon
We landed safely at KEF Airport and made our way to Happy Campers rentals to pick up our ride. Our plan was to spend a day on the Reykjanes Peninsula, experience the Blue Lagoon and the southwest coastline before heading to Reykjavík for the night. I thought the Blue Lagoon was going to be an expensive tourist trap, but it was just what we needed after our daunting travels. Most flights from the states land early in the morning, and I highly suggest hitting the lagoon after picking up your rental. It’s only 20 minutes from the airport and you don’t want to be rushed trying to sneak the lagoon in before your return flight home.
Refreshed, we headed to Reykjavík. We had to rebook our Air B&B – luckily it was available the night after our original booking. It was a great flat so close to everything; especially Laugavegur, the hippest shopping street in Reykjavík. There were gift shops galore and amazing restaurants everywhere. We sampled the freshest fish and tried reindeer paté. Delicious. We finished our meal just in time to catch the best sunset of our trip at Sólfar, the Sun Voyager sculpture before heading to the B&B for a night of well-deserved sleep.
After a delicious breakfast in Reykjavík, we visited Hallgrímskirkja — the mighty church that towers over the easternmost capital city in Europe. The architecture was breathtaking. It’s definitely a stop you’ll want to make if you visit Iceland. The restrooms are closed to the public when services are not held. This was a recurring theme in Iceland – bathrooms and petrol stations are few and far between – so be sure you take advantage of them whenever you have the chance (especially in the off-season from October through May). We missed the opportunity to see the Puffins on Látrabjarg because we didn’t stop for gas when we had the chance (more on that later).
The Ring Road East
We made our way out of Reykjavík and hit the Ring Road in the early afternoon and the photographic exploration began. It was gloomy and rainy, so I focused on waterfalls. We passed all of the Golden Circle attractions and even skipped the Black Sand Beach and basalt columns at Vik, thinking that we could visit them on the way back to Reykjavík. We somehow completely missed Seljalandsfoss and saw the signs for Skógafoss so we pulled into the lot and explored. “Foss” is Icelandic for “waterfall”, and most of the big tourist spots were clearly marked with signs off the Ring Road. There are not as many places to pull off the road as I’d anticipated, and Icelanders hate it when tourists block traffic.
Skógafoss is massive. I tried shooting it with a 24-70 mm lens, but preferred the look when I switched to my 70-200 mm and moved far from the falls and zoomed in to 200 mm. Putting a person in the shot really helps give a sense of scale.
Sólheimasandur and the U.S. DC Navy Plane Wreck
We traveled east to the downed plane at Sólheimasandur. I was looking for the one-row parking lot that I’d seen in YouTube videos from 2017, but this spot must be a huge tourist draw now because when we got there the parking lot had expanded immensely. It was impossible to miss in 2018. We packed up our gear, water and snacks for the 45 minute one-way walk to the plane. It seemed like we were walking forever on an unchanging black sand dessert landscape with no sign of the plane on the horizon. Eventually, we saw the flat landscape dip down towards the ocean and there it was. My heart leapt with excitement.
Unfortunately, there was a clothing company there with a full camera crew and models shooting for an ad campaign. The back of the plane was packed with their gear (that’s actually the reason I chose to cut the rear of the plane off in the shot above)! It was disheartening; traveling this far for this moment and forced to compete with a 10+ person crew surrounding the plane. I pulled out my 10-stop ND filter and made them disappear the best I could. We stayed for an hour or so in the light rain then began the long walk back to the van.
Jökulsárlón and the Diamond Beach
After the hike back from the plane, we continued east on the Ring Road on our way to Vatnajökull National Park to camp for the night. Our plan was to hike to the Svartifoss waterfall for sunset, but we got there after dark. We also slept well in the van and missed sunrise. We cooked breakfast and decided not to attempt the hike to Svartifoss, a decision I regret but at the time we didn’t know how long the hike would take. Our focus was on the ice lagoon, Jökulsárlón, the Diamond Beach and Vestrahorn mountain.
We arrived at Jökulsárlón and went straight for the Diamond Beach. There are actually parking areas on both sides of the 1-lane suspension bridge. We stopped on the west bank, but it looked like there was better ice on the east bank. The ice ranged in size from footballs to large cars! It was difficult to get a good composition and the light was mediocre at midday. We realized it was getting late so we actually skipped Jökulsárlón to get to Vestrahorn.
Vestrahorn at Stokksnes
We passed a herd of caribou as we headed farther east. We also passed a gas station that we really should have stopped and filled up. If you’re traveling around Iceland, particularly outside Reykjavík and the Golden Circle area in the southwest, ALWAYS fill your tank when you see a petrol station. Most are self-serve and require a debit card or credit card that used a 4-digit PIN. Make sure your credit cards are set up with a PIN before you travel.
Following the Ring Road past the Hwy 99 turnoff to Höfn, just before the tunnel, there’s a service road that leads to the Viking Café and Vestrahorn. I heard that this is private land and when you get to the café they charge you 1100kr to get a ticket to a gate to drive out on the Stokksnes peninsula. I’d avoid the Viking Village movie set; it’s dilapidated and not worth your time.
When we arrived mid afternoon, the mountain was covered in a bank of clouds. We walked around and waited for them to blow off, but they never cleared. After 2 or 3 hours, we called it a day and decided to drive back west towards Vik for sunset. The drive was long and we missed the sunset by a few minutes. I wish I could have gotten at least one good shot of Reynisdrangar, the famous sea stacks at Vik, but we couldn’t find a place to park that was close to the beach. We ended up driving 10+ hours that night through crazy rain and weather until we landed the Búðardalur Camping Ground south of the Westfjords. It was 3 a.m., so we parked and slept for a few hours before heading on.
The Westfjords and Garðar BA 64
The plan for the day was to head out on a 4 hour drive to Dynjandi and then to Látrabjarg to see if any puffins had arrived for the summer yet. We did not plan for the vast expanse of nothingness the Westfjords had in store for travelers to the region in April. The drive through the fjords was crazy, scenic and terrifying. Dirt roads with sheer winding cliffs yielded breathtaking views but also white-knuckled driving. We arrived in the small village of Flókalundur and should have filled up at the N1 Petrol Station on our way west. We had booked an Air B&B in Grundarfjörður that night, and there’s a ferry in Flókalundur that we could have taken to shave some serious driving time off the trip back south. We arrived at the abandoned ticket office and called the number on the door but no one answered. Huge bummer. So, at this point we knew we had at least a 5 hour drive to get to the Air B&B which changed our plans again. Reluctantly, we skipped the mighty Dynjandi waterfall and opted for the puffins. On the way, we stumbled across Garðar BA 64 and stopped to eat lunch and get some photos. It was a stop I wanted to make this trip so that was a plus.
We almost made it to Látrabjarg. We were about 20 km away when we noticed that we were almost out of gas. With no gas stations anywhere nearby, we abandoned our goal and headed to Grundarfjörður. Always fill up when you see a petrol station in Iceland! You can easily get caught up in the excitement of getting to the next stop and hope there’s a place to gas up when you get there. That’s seldom the case, and you’ll probably end up missing some great locations if you don’t heed that simple rule.
The Westfjords are a nice change from the popularity of the south Icelandic shore and Reykjavík. The geology is beautiful and it felt like we had the entire place to ourselves. I highly recommend making time on your trip to give this area 2-3 days to explore if you’re able.
The Snæfellsnes peninsula is a great touristy area with paved roads and cute little villages. The western end is highlighted by Snæfellsjökull, a 4,744 foot stratovolcano that towers over the western landscape. We made it to Grundarfjörður in time for sunset at Kirkjufell. Our Air B&B was within walking distance from this epic location. In the hour we spent enjoying this iconic view – probably the most famous landmark in Iceland – the tide had come in and we needed to wade through 4-5 inches of water to get back to the parking area! Feet soaking, we were happy to get to our quaint little cabin at the foot of Kirkjufell and enjoy a Gull beer on the deck.
It may have been due to sleeping in a camper van for two nights, but the bed was the coziest thing I’d every experienced. I slept right through sunrise. We made a delicious breakfast with fruit and Skyr, eggs, and ham and made our way to explore the peninsula. We headed to the Black Church at Búðir. The area is so steeped in history and is just amazing. I wish we’d had more time to hike around the grounds and explore the unique photographic opportunities the area provides.
We wrapped it up at Búðakirkja and headed toward Arnarstapi. After a quick detour back to Grundarfjörður, we made it to Arnarstapi. There are beautiful basalt cliffs and tasty little restaurants in this adorable seaside town. We stopped at a waterfall and some churches as we circled back around the tip of the peninsula and headed back to our Air B&B. Our last night in Iceland I received notice that there was the possibility for aurora. We stayed out until around 1 a.m., but with 100% cloud cover we couldn’t see anything. The next morning we headed to the airport and back to Minnesota.
I think my wife and I both thoroughly enjoyed our time in Iceland. The people were friendly and kind, and the landscapes were remarkable. Although we had many things working against us, we did cover a lot of ground over the 5 days were fortunate enough to be there. We were told that there’s a postcard everywhere you point your camera in Iceland, and that certainly seemed true to us. It truly is a magical place.
Be sure to check out the gallery of my best images from this trip below:
Take-aways from the trip:
- Always fill your tank when you see a petrol station
- Always use the WC’s (toilets) when you have the opportunity
- Don’t sleep through sunrise!
- A camper van is the best way to explore Iceland
- Set up your credit card with a PIN before your trip
- Dress in layers
- Invest in a good pair of waterproof hiking boots