Iceland: Adventure Under the Midnight Sun
Photos In Collaboration With Quin Schrock
Forged by fire and honed by ice, Iceland is home to some of the greatest wilderness areas in Europe. Small in population to begin with, the vast majority of people live in Reykjavik, leaving huge expanses undeveloped, practically free from human impact. The result is a visually stunning landscape with points of natural interest around every bend in the road. But it’s not just the lack of people that makes Iceland a nature lovers paradise. As one of the youngest landmasses on Earth, Iceland is alive with volcanic activity—from hot springs to steaming lava fields—producing a raw elemental appeal that sticks with you long after you’ve returned home. For those reasons and more, Iceland has become an increasingly popular destination for outdoors enthusiasts, adventure seekers, and landscape photographers. As a Worldwide Wanderer for Alaska Airlines I couldn’t help but be excited for this bucket list destination!
Quin and I boarded our flight to Iceland with a rough itinerary for our 5 day stopover. But neither of us has ever been very good at sticking to the plan. And as it turns out, neither is Iceland! Expecting the unexpected, we reserved a 4WDR car equipped with a rooftop tent for the duration of our trip. It turned out to be the best decision we made. Plagued by unseasonably harsh weather, our little home on wheels allowed us to change plans at a moments notice, and chase conditions across Iceland’s ever changing horizon.
After an easy 8 hour flight from California, Quin and I arrived in Iceland just in time for a full day of exploring. Our first destination was the Highlands - home to Iceland’s infamous “F-Roads,” and the whimsical landscapes of Landmannalaugar and Kerlingarfjöll. While the F-Roads weren’t nearly as bad as expected, the Highlands were everything they promised to be - remote, out of this world, and unlike anything we’d ever seen before.
What we didn’t expect was snow in June! Pulling into Landmannalaugar in the middle of the night we forced ourselves to set up the roof top tent and rest for a few hours before heading out to explore the area. Small snowflakes had begun to fall from low lying clouds, and as I fell asleep, I hoped that the weather would clear for the hikes we had planned the next day. Unfortunately, mother nature had other plans. When we woke up the mountains were completely obscured, the colorful striations that Landmannalaugar is so famous for were hidden under a fresh dusting of snow, and the possibility of a sunrise looked slim to none. Backpacks on we headed out anyway, but with increasing snow fall the trail quickly disappeared, and we were forced to turn back.
Our luck didn’t improve much over the next couple days. Each attempt to penetrate into the Highlands was met with increasingly harsh weather, low visibility, and road blocks. But even under the worst conditions the Highlands left me wanting more. The land was rugged, new, and full of mystery. We rarely ran into other people, and when we did, it was with a silent acknowledgment that we were all just visitors to this remote and uninhabited land. After two days of exploration, Quin and I decided it was time to return to earth, and we set our sites on the south coast.
Heading south, it didn’t take us long to understand why Iceland’s southern coast is so popular. From crashing waterfalls, to towering mountains, and glowing ice-burgs, it’s a visual feast. We took full advantage of the midnight sun, shooting well into each night before heading to one of the local camp grounds, and waking up to do it all over again a few hours later! Despite forgoing sleep on multiple occasions, time flew by. Before we knew it we were due back in Reykjavik. But not without one last adventure!
On our way to the airport we stopped at the iconic Blue Lagoon Geothermal Spa. From a mile away, we could see the blue tinged steam rising from the black rocks stretching out in every direction around us. The perfect goodbye to a country that can only be described as out of this world.
In the spirit of full disclosure, Quin and I were in Iceland during the last week of June, and took full advantage of the fact that it never got dark. We drove a lot and rarely slept. But we wouldn’t have had it any other way! If you are short on time, or visiting during the winter, I would suggest skipping the Highlands and spending some time in Reykjavik instead, or heading up to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.
It’s also important to note that although the below itinerary covers the major destinations that we stopped at, some of our favorite moments, and photographs, were taken during the in-between - somewhere between here and there, along one of the many long stretches of lonely road. As with any travel, make sure to leave yourself enough time to get off the beaten track. To head down the road less traveled. And to make your own adventure. You never know what you’re going to find!
I’d be lying if I said that our experience at Kerlingarfjöll was anything short of miserable! I’ve been in all sorts of inclement weather, but the storm we got caught in at Kerlingarfjöll was next level. Think pellets of ice blowing so fearfully that it feels like shards of glass hitting your face. Visibility so low, you’re not sure where you are. And temperatures so low, that your hands forget how to hold a camera.
All that being said, I would go again in a heart beat. Sulfur and boiling water vent to the surface throughout this unique landscape - creating a particularly eerie atmosphere on cool days when huge clouds of steam rise out of the many small fissures in the ground. Combined with the colorful earth, the entire sight is hypnotizing.
Bláhylur, also known as the Hnausapollur Crater, was one of many happy accidents we stumbled upon during our stopover. On our way to Landmannalaugar, we decided to explore a faint dirt road veering off from our intended destination. Imagine our surprise when we found this stunning crater lake at the top!
The crater is absolutely beautiful to behold. And nothing about the approach can prepare you for the view at the end of the road. Bright blue water, vivid green plant life, and dark volcanic soils all fight for your attention. The contrast of colors is truly stunning.
Landmannalaugar, is a vast area of stunning and unique beauty in the heart of Iceland's southern Highlands. Throughout the summer, it is one of the most popular places for day hiking, multi-day backpacking trips, and natural hot spring bathing.
The area is comprised of windswept mountains showing off a full spectrum of vivid color. Shades of red, pink, green, blue and golden yellow make for an ethereal location.
Unfortunately, another fluke snow storm struck while we were there, and the beautiful colors were covered in white. We were forced to leave without much to show for the journey. But that's just another reason to return!
Skógafoss is one of Icelands largest waterfalls, and also one of it’s most accesable. Clearly visible from Rout 1, it’s an easy stop on any tour of Iceland’s South Coast. If you’re not worried about getting wet, you can walk right up to the formidable wall of water to give your photos some perspective. Alternatively, Skógafoss can be viewed from the top by ascending a steep staircase that leads to an observational platform above the cascade.
Due to Seljalandsfoss’s close proximity to the Ring Road and impressive natural features, it is one the country's most visited and photographed falls. But as the saying goes, it’s popular for a reason! Seljalandsfoss is unique in that it can be fully encircled. And standing behind a waterfall of that magnitude is something you don’t want to miss!
Often overshadowed by its more famous neighbor, Seljalandsfoss, Gljúfrabúi waterfall was one of my favorites.
Gljúfrabúi literally means "the one that lives within the canyon,” and it definitely lives up to its name! Given the name and the surrounding landscape, you half expect to find a dragon lying in wait as you forge the river surrounded by narrow canyon walls. And while there weren’t any dragons, at least when I was there, the view inside the canyon walls was no less magical. Prepare to get wet if you want the full view at this one!
Jökulsárlón & Diamond Beach
Heading east along Rout 1 you’ll eventually reach Jökulsárlón. The drive is breathtakingly beautiful and it's worth taking your time to get there. Created by huge blocks of ice breaking from the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier, Jökulsárlón is one of Icelands natural crown jewels.
Eventually the icebergs melt and float out to sea, where the Atlantic tides artfully arrange the remaining ice, depositing its seemingly curated collection on the nearby black sand beach - hence the nickname “Diamond Beach.”
Just over an hour’s drive east from the incredible glacial lagoon Jökulsárlón, lies Vestrahorn. A natural wonder amongst natural wonders, this breathtaking mountain on the Stokksness peninsula is a place you have to experience to truly appreciate. Surrounded by black sand beaches, and reflective water, steep cliffs rise abruptly from the the isolated coast line. The resulting effect is a stunning visual display that is both awe inspiring and surreal to witness.
Note: The beach at Stokksnes is private, and there is a small entrance fee to access the beach.
Svartifoss & Skaftafell National Park
A short, roughly 3 mile hike into Skaftafell National Park brought us to Svartifoss, where magnificent hexagonal black basalt columns, were formed by slowly cooling crystalized lava. How cool is that!
It’s a good thing the lava is crystalized, because Skaftafell National Park offers a number of fantastic hiking opportunities. It’s also a great place to join a glacier tour, if you are so inclind.
The Blue Lagoon Geothermal Spa is touristy, expensive, and unlike many of the other hot springs in Iceland, it is actually not a natural phenomenon. For all of these reasons, I’ve read some reviews that suggest that the Blue Lagoon is overrated, and not worth the time or money. I however, am of the firm opinion that it is!
I honestly can’t really imagine a trip to Iceland without visiting the Blue Lagoon. Natural or not, it’s an iconic experience, and the spa itself is beautiful. It’s also just a really nice way to end any trip to Iceland - especially if you spent the entire time camping like we did! The Blue Lagoon is only 15 minuets from KEF airport, so Quin and I made our reservation for a time slot a few hours before we were due to check in for our departing flight. After our time at the lagoon, we arrived at the airport relaxed, clean, and ready for the next leg of our trip!
A huge thank you to Alaska Airlines & Iceland Air for partnering with us to make this experience possible.