Iceland’s Golden Circle, Skogar, and the Black Beach

This is part of a set of posts on a trip to Iceland by our family of 5.

We flew out of Toronto on Icelandair on a flight that was probably 80% full.  It had enough empty seats that the crew let us spread out across a row.  This meant that two families – ours and another – each had a row.  Unfortunately, the family ahead of us was a total nightmare and various young members cried throughout the 5 and a half hour trip.  It’s a four hour time change so we landed at Keflavik International Airport at about 6:45 in the morning.  This was a brutal day because of the lack of sleep but we had a full agenda.

You hope to learn from prior mistakes so we emptied our water bottles so that I wouldn’t have to drink them at security, as I had to on two previous trips.  We cleared security in Toronto and it is a direct flight, so we filled the bottles.  In the end, we didn’t need much water as the Icelandair crew kept us hydrated – the youngest children also had their own meal.  We gathered our gear on the other end and immediately walked into a security screening room!  I’m still not sure why we had to pass through another security check but there it was.  And there I was, chugging 3 liters of water from our stainless steel bottles!  This is becoming a bad habit.

The airport is quite small so it was very shortly that we had gathered our two suitcases and duffle bag and were picking up our Skoda Octavia at the Hertz rental desk.  It is a station wagon, 4×4, and manual.  I’m not sure you can rent something that isn’t a 4×4 but going with a manual can often save you a bit of money in Europe.  This was plenty for 5 people and, as a diesel, had good gas mileage for our wanderings.

We headed out to the highway, towards Reykjavik and were quickly burning away the miles.  We passed the suburbs of the capital – there’s a token Kentucky Fried Chicken! – and then descended from the plain down to a valley just before reaching Selfoss.  It was interesting to go from lichen-coated lava fields to snow and then to a verdant farm country all in the space of about an hour.  This was a recurring theme.

The Golden Circle

This plant was coated in frosty wafers that had grown out as moisture blew from the hot springs and froze in layers.
This plant was coated in frosty wafers that had grown out as moisture blew from the hot springs and froze in layers.

We turned northeast to hit two of the three major tourist attractions.  The first stop was Geysir, where there’s a … geyser!  In fact, there are two and the one named Geysir doesn’t spout but the one named Strokkur does.  If you have seen Old Faithful, it’s a different experience.  It pops off about every 10 minutes but just a quick burst.

We arrived just before 10 am, so the restaurant and gift shop were still closed.  It was bitterly cold due to a wind that was whistling past us.  The wind remained strong all day long until we drove south and had the cover of a volcano.

The geyser was pretty to see but we had a quick peek, stopped at the restrooms, and hit the road again.    It was the only stop that really smacked of a tourist trap on our entire visit.


The next stop is the only golden part of the Circle tour, which includes Geysir and Thingvellir.  Gullfoss means “golden” (gull) waterfall (foss) and pours off the Hvita (White) river.  The wind was absolutely horizontal here and our hands turned red and ached after just a few seconds uncovered in order to take a photo.  It’s a beautiful waterfall and the frozen sections were quite dramatic.  It pours off into a gorge that, on a warmer day, would have been worth a look.

We were not going to the Thingvellir national park this day, one of Iceland’s most important sites.  Our route was taking us south and we would visit it later.  It was interesting to imagine these roads jammed with the tour buses of day trippers out to do the Circle.  We did see them at Thingvellir but missed them here.

Skogar Museum and Waterfall

We headed south to Skogar, a town near the southeast corner of Iceland.  My sister had visited it many years ago and it has a museum that is frequently mentioned.  The town itself is about 15 houses, a Hotel Edda (hostel) and the museum.

The interior portion of the museum is like an antique shop with a huge variety of things donated by Icelanders.  Keeping in mind that ships would have visited the island frequently and that it was heavily dependent on imports, I wasn’t that surprised to see artifacts very similar to any collection in North America covering the mid 1800s on.  There were were some truly local items though, and similar things are in the National museum in Reykjavik.  The standout item inside is the Petersey boat but don’t miss the animals in the basement and there is some needlework upstairs as well.

Outdoor houses at Skogar museum
Outdoor houses at Skogar museum

The jewel of the museum for me were the houses out back that were covered in sod and decorated in a traditional way.  This gave you a real sense of what the living conditions might have been like.  At Skogar, anyway, it seemed pretty comfortable.  We saw some sod-covered buildings driving around the countryside but they appear to mostly be livestock shelters.

One of the things I noticed was the lack of quilts in any of the houses.  That’s a craft that is common in North America but there was very little in the way of needlework or crafts visible in the museum.  Not surprisingly, it was more common to see tools related to converting wool into textiles.

Just up the road from the museum is the waterfall.  Unlike the Gullfoss, you approach Skogafoss from the foot of the falls.  It towers over you and, if you can visit, as we did, in the afternoon, the sun shining on the falls is quite spectacular.  Shortly after we arrived a beautiful rainbow appeared.

Skogafoss is the waterfall in Skogar. It pours down from the Eyjafjalljokull. There is a stair up to a lookout that you can see in the top right corner.

You can get quite close to the waterfall and the temperature dropped as you got under the splash of the water.  The wind we’d experienced earlier had diminished as we were in the lee of the mountain and the sun was shining.  The ice remained thick on the ground at the bottom of the fall though and we had to pick our way carefully to make sure not to slip.

Icy rocks at the foot of the Skogafoss waterfall
Icy rocks at the foot of the Skogafoss waterfall

We drove past our cottage to get to Skogar and it would have been tempting to head back to it.  But everyone was still doing well and we wanted to get a bit more done today.  It was now mid afternoon so we hopped back into the car and headed further south to Vik, where we wanted to walk on a basalt sand beach.

Vik and Reynisdrangar

Boot prints in the black sand of Reynisdrangar
Boot prints in the black sand of Reynisdrangar

The drive took about 45 minutes and took us past more waterfalls and always within view of the Atlantic Ocean.  It’s a pretty drive and the last stretch takes you through a narrow gap down to Vik.  There’s a church standing resolutely on a hill over the town and you take one of the few streets in town to the right and almost right onto the beach.  You can walk for hours along it but we just wanted to experience it and then call it a day.  The kids all wandered up and down the beach and watched the waves roll in.  The black sand looks very different when you consider that it’s a beach.  Someone in Iceland agrees, as they import golden sand for a community beach and swimming pool in Reykjavik, rather than using the basalt.

The water splashed up over the sea stacks just off the beach.  This area is known as Reynisdrangar but it appears to be just the bit of land between Vik and the ocean.  It’s pretty in the sun but I can imagine it’s grim in a winter storm.  There were hundreds of birds nesting along the cliffs high above us. I’m pretty sure they were kittiwakes but it may be some other type of gull.

The sea stacks are held in legend to be the masts of a ship sunk by trolls at Reynisdrangar.
The sea stacks are held in legend to be the masts of a ship sunk by trolls at Reynisdrangar.

We returned to Vik and stopped at a grocery store to get some food for dinner, breakfast, and to take with us on our day tomorrow.  Being avid tourists, we bought some dried haddock and the famous Icelandic pylsur hot dog, as well as getting the first of our regular stash of skyr for breakfast.  Vik also has a gas station so we made a note to stop off here the next morning as we would be going past Vik again on our way east to Skaftafell – and Svartifoss, the Black Waterfall – and Jokulsarlon.

Our cottage was near another waterfall (Seljalandsfoss) in Markarsvegur and had a lovely view of the plain that stretched off to the ocean.  We were also in the shadow of the recently active Eyjafjallsjokull volcano, which was also covered with nesting gulls.  The door was unlocked and we walked right in after checking in at the main farm house.  Everyone quickly unwound, kicked off shoes, and had a bite to eat.  It had been a long day but no one was wilting.  We’d have a relatively early night so that we could make an early start for the most arduous of our days during this holiday.

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