We all know that the Land of Fire and Ice is a special place filled with stunning landscapes. And because we are an island, we're completely surrounded by coastline and plenty of beautiful beaches. But if you know anything about our small, Nordic country, you know that we have to do things a little bit differently. That's why taking a trip to a black sand beach in Iceland should be on your list of things to do.
While some of the most gorgeous beaches in the world are tropical beaches with white sand, you'll encounter something new when you visit Iceland. Thanks to the special geological makeup of our island, you won't find normal colors on our shores. There are pink sand beaches in Iceland as well as golden hues. But perhaps what is most famous is the Iceland black sand beach, Reynisfjara.
What causes black sand beaches in Iceland?
Before we talk about the famous black sand beach in Iceland, let's first discuss what causes the unusual color of the sand. The midnight-colored hue of our shores is no accident. As you're probably aware, Iceland is a volcanic island with dozens of active volcano systems. We experience eruptions on a regular basis and volcanic ash clouds spew into the air. Magma flows from deep inside the Earth and emerges in the form of lava, which then cools and hardens.
Eventually, these large chunks of black hardened lava break down into the tiny pieces of sand and small rocks that we see on black sand beaches in Iceland. You'll see this phenomenon all over the island, but especially in the south where there's a high concentration of volcanoes.
One of the more unforgettable black sand beaches in Iceland is Sólheimasandur. This locale is special not only for its dark sand but also the US Navy Douglas DC-3 plane wreck that punctuates the skyline. The juxtaposition of the plane’s white fuselage against the dark landscape makes for a mesmerizing sight. If you have some time to stop here while exploring the South Coast in your Iceland car rental, it will be a highlight of your trip.
The most famous Iceland black sand beach
While there are numerous volcanic beaches scattered around the island, the most famous black sand beach in Iceland is definitely Reynisfjara beach. This black beach on Iceland’s South Coast close to the small seaside village of Vik. It's a popular stopover for travelers making their way around the country’s Ring Road. As the halfway point between the country's capital and Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon near Vatnajökull, it's easy to see why.
You can also visit Reynisfjara as a Reykjavik day trip if you don't have time to drive around the whole island. Reynisfjara black sand beach is located 180 km (112 miles) from the capital. It takes about two and a half hours to reach and you can either make a half-day of it or do a full day excursion. There are some other sites to visit in this area, like the Dyrhólaey promontory, and it makes for a nice day out.
A visit to Reynisfjara black sand beach
It's extremely easy to get to Reynisfjara beach as it's just off the Ring Road, or Route 1. Depending on if you're coming from Vik or Reykjavik, you'll either turn right or left onto Road 215, the Reynishverfisvegur. The turnoff is signaled by one of those blink-and-you-might-miss-it yellow and black Icelandic road signs.
Logistics: Parking and dining options
Keep following the road until you get to the parking lot close to the bistro and leave your car there. This is a popular place to visit when people come for a road trip, so you'll see other cars and even a few tour buses.
Here's a useful travel tip for you. The Black Beach Restaurant and Bistro is a convenient place to stop for lunch. But if you go, be prepared to battle the hordes of tourists from the buses; they also find it quick and convenient. Many visitors complain that the service is a bit rushed and that it's not the best place to eat. A smarter move would be to make a reservation at one of the restaurants back in Vik, which is less than 15 minutes away by car.
If you want to avoid the tourist traps, Restaurant Sudur Vik, Halldorskaffi, and Strondin Bistro and Bar are all wonderful recommendations. Tuck into some traditional and delicious Icelandic food such as Arctic char or lamb stew as you get warm and fill your belly.
The Black Beach
In 1991, Reynisfjara received the honor of being voted one of National Geographic’s top ten non-tropical beaches in the world to visit. Of course, due to the weather and Iceland's climate you won't be able to set up shop with a beach chair and sunscreen. Rather, this is a place where you come to take in the out of this world scenery and the general ambience. It's no wonder that the otherworldly landscapes here were chosen as a filming location for HBO's smash hit series Game of Thrones.
If the Northern Lights happen to be particularly active during your time in Vik, this could also be a nice place to come and view them.
Black hexagonal basalt columns in Iceland
Another striking feature of Reynisfjara black sand beach is the formation of basalt columns, known as Reynisdrangar. The chemical composition of rapidly cooled lava is what naturally produces a geometric shape. The volcanic rock has an unusual look to it and can be seen not only here but also along the Gerðuberg cliffs and at Svartifoss waterfall.
Long ago, Icelanders searched for answers before they had a logical, scientific explanation for unusual geological features like the basalt columns. Icelandic folklore says that columns were originally trolls trying to bring ships toward the shore. Supposedly they stayed out too late and when the sun came out at dawn, the trolls petrified into the stone we see today.
Birdwatchers will also be delighted to find many different species of nesting seabirds. Among others, you'll find Iceland's famous puffins, as well as guillemots and fulmars.
Beware the sneaker waves
When you visit the famous black sand beach, it's easy to get distracted by the mysterious dark sands, haunting rock formations, and beautiful scenery around you. You may even want to snap several pictures of a black beach in Iceland. While I highly recommend documenting your trip, I also want you to stay safe. There's a potential hazard that you need to be aware of when visiting Iceland’s black beaches.
You may or may not have heard of sneaker waves, which are exactly what they sound like. These are waves that quickly sneak up on you, seemingly out-of-the-blue, and can be quite dangerous. If you are caught unaware, you'll suddenly find yourself being dragged out to sea and not really knowing what happened. This happened recently to a grandmother posing for a picture on a block of ice at a different beach. Before she knew what was going on, she was swept out to sea and had to be rescued by vigilant coast guards who were luckily nearby.
This risky practice has become so common that The Icelandic Road Administration will soon install a warning sign. Red lights will come up if there are dangerous conditions. Such posts will be placed in the parking area, right before the path to the beach.
To avoid becoming a cautionary tale like the sweet grandma in our story, please keep a safe distance from the shoreline. No matter how tempting it is or how quickly you think you can outrun the waves, I promise it's better not to risk it. While our story had a happy ending, not everyone is as lucky and some tourists have sadly lost their lives here.
The black sand beach: Iceland's stunning Reynisfjara
Iceland volcanic black sand beaches are a must to do on any traveler's Iceland itinerary. So make the most of your trip, and come spend this time spend some time in this unique corner of the world. Just remember to stay far away from the shore and avoid those sneaker waves!