Iceland is not the kind of place you visit to relax on the beach or lounge by the pool. Sure, there are an abundance of natural hot springs here, but they’re more for recovery after a day of adventure or mountain hiking. Instead, The Land of Fire and Ice is where you go to undertake adrenaline activities, get uncomfor table and delve into the extreme.
With so much open space and so many incredible natural features, Iceland’s the country where you’ll be challenged to push yourself and overcome your fears. Let’s look at the best destinations for your Iceland adventure travel itinerary.
Where to Go for Adventures in Iceland?
First, it’s important to note that the activities you’re able to do will depend on the time of year. In Iceland’s winter months, between October and April, some parts of the country are completely inaccessible. On the other hand, some activities, i.e., those snow and ice-related, are only available in this season, which is why Iceland has become a popular destination for international winter vacations.
Think about what you’d like to do on your Iceland adventure travel before deciding on the time of year. Of course, the weather will be much warmer and calmer in summer, and there’s much more daylight (up to 22 hours in June!). The summer is more conducive to hiking and road trips, but if you want to ski, snowboard, or explore glaciers, winter is the time to do so.
The National Parks
Iceland boasts in three huge national parks: Snæfellsjökull, Vatnajökull and Þingvellir. As their names suggest (jökull=glacier), the first two contain glaciers. They’re beautiful, pristine and full of challenges. Each offer unique experiences, so let’s review them individually.
Snæfellsjökull: this park is located at the tip of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, in West Iceland. The peninsula is often referred to as “Iceland in miniature” because it contains many features the country is known for.
Along with the glacier, you’ll get the chance to admire natural rock formations, black sand beaches, dormant volcanoes and plenty of hiking trails. Test your strength with the lifting stones at Djúpalónssandur beach and visit the “Arrowhead Mountain” from Game of Thrones.
Vatnajökull: the site of Europe’s largest glacier, the park itself is also Iceland’s largest. It encompasses a big chunk of the south coast and is the best destination for ice-related activities in Central Iceland. If you book an ice cave or glacier hike tour, it often takes place on one of Vatnajökull’s outlet glaciers. For hiking routes, visit the Skaftafell area of the park, and be sure to check out Svartifoss waterfall. In the park you’ll also find Iceland’s deepest lake, Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon. Take a slow boat ride or a thrilling Zodiac tour in a powerful dingy.
Þingvellir: the Thingvellir National Park contains no glaciers, but it does have other incredible sites. Here, you can stand in the rift that is being created as two tectonic plates move apart. Again, the park is full of challenging hiking trails, but the highlight has to be snorkeling or diving in Silfra. This is a fissure filled with pure, cold glacial water, with visibility of up to 100 meters. Book yourself a tour and smile wide- you’re about to experience the clearest water in the world!
This is Iceland’s wilderness: an almost barren expanse in Iceland’s center, with zero inhabitants. For most of the year, no one visits the highlands as they are unreachable. Between June and September, however, they become a popular destination for committed hikers.
Note that you must have a 4x4 vehicle to drive into the highlands, and they’re only accessible via unpaved F-roads. Many of these roads involve river crossings, so the drive into the interior is not for the faint of heart. The views alone on the way up make the journey worthwhile. Nevertheless, there’s plenty to see once you reach the campsites too.
The two places to use as bases from which to explore the highlands are Landmannalaugar and Þórsmörk. There are campsites at both and basic hut accommodations, as these are the starting points for major hikes.
The Laugavegur Trail, Iceland’s most famous hiking route, begins or ends at Landmannalaugar, and generally takes 3-4 days to complete. The Fimmvörðuháls trail, on the other hand, begins or ends at Þórsmörk and takes 1-2 days to complete.
The highlands are truly wild, with only basic facilities and supplies available. You’ll come across natural hot springs, multicolored rhyolite mountains, extinct volcanoes, relatively new lava fields and more. Be sure to bring everything you’ll need with you, including plenty of food, water and warm, waterproof clothing. Don’t expect any shopping or supply store way out here!
A journey into the highlands makes for an authentic adventure on an Iceland vacation.
This is Iceland’s largest forest, located in the east of the island. Along with numerous walking trails and two campsites, you can also explore the forest via ATV. With a guide leading the way, you can traverse the backcountry trails of Hallormsstaður in the best, most rugged fashion. Note: you must be over 17 and hold a driver’s license to operate an ATV here.
There are a number of great waterfalls to see in or near Hallormsstaður, most notably Hengifoss. This waterfall is a 2.5 km uphill hike from its nearest car park. There’s also a lake next to the forest, Lagarfljót, which is said to hold a monster.
The forest is a beautiful place to visit and offers equally challenging opportunities. Additionally, the nearby town, Egilsstaðir, contains a company which offers an axe-throwing experience from May to September. Get your adrenaline flowing with some Viking axe target practice!
Winter Thrills in Iceland
Iceland is a great destination for extreme sports, and the best adventure travel in Iceland isn’t limited to the summer months. As mentioned above, the snow and ice-related activities are best completed in winter. Aside from ice cave tours and glacier hiking, you can also take part in snowmobiling, skiing or snowboarding.
Snowmobile tours operate on several glaciers, so just keep your eyes peeled for the tour that’s on your route. Skiing hills, on the other hand, are less frequent. The two most popular are:
Bláfjöll, a 30-minute drive from Reykjavík.
Hlíðarfjall, a short distance from the town of Akureyri in the north
At both hills, you can buy a half-day or full-day pass, rent ski and snowboarding gear, and pay for lessons. Since most of the trails are fairly mild, these mountains are friendly for beginners, a great introductory place for snow sports.
Iceland's adventure travel ideas
Perhaps the most thrilling of all, although it just involves standing still and looking up, is viewing the Northern Lights. Once you’ve seen a good show, it will quickly go on your list as one of your most thrilling life experiences. The lights can be seen from anywhere in the country, but the view is better if situated away from artificial lighting.
Book yourself on a boat or coach tour, or drive yourself to a rural area, and cross your fingers. If the lights come out, great. If not, try again the next night. The aurora borealis can be seen from September to April, but October to January is best.
These are just a few ideas for your Iceland adventure travel. However, the country is so full of thrilling experiences that you’ll never run out of things to try even if you plan a long-term trip. Pack your hiking boots and get yourself in shape- The Land of Fire and Ice awaits. Start with booking your rental car, the perfect mode of transport for your great adventure.