The Natural Wonders of Iceland
There aren’t many true wildernesses left in the world to explore. Human activity and development have encroached on many of the natural wonders around the world, and national parks, preserves, and designated wildernesses are some of the few pockets which still hold a bit of the magic and wonder of the dynamic and living planet.
One very notable exception, however, is Iceland. Moored in the North Sea, just below the Arctic Circle, Iceland is a geological wonderland, full of volcanoes, glaciers, waterfalls, and mountains. Though a popular tourist destination, its isolation has meant much of the land has escaped overdevelopment and remains a rugged and untamed world.
The beauty of Iceland is unmatched and famous across the globe. Each year, many make the journey to this sub-polar sanctuary to experience the alien and breathtaking landscape. The country has become especially popular with photographers, with stunning views in every direction.
For those visiting for the first time, deciding where to go and what to see can be a bit overwhelming, and since it’s not the easiest place to get to, you’re going to want to see as much as possible while there. In this article, we’ll outline what Iceland has to offer and list some of the must-see attractions and locations for both photographers and casual tourists alike. Seeing everything in one trip may not be feasible, but this way you’ll be able to pick and choose the places which speak to you the most and make your visit a life-changing and unforgettable experience.
Though Greenland may be icier and Iceland greener, the little island nation is home to some of the largest ice fields in the world. From the high peaks and plateaus in the center and south of the country, behemoths of ice the size of small cities rumble slowly towards the sea. This process takes tens of thousands of years, and for now they stand as huge jumbles of blue and white ice shards towering above the tranquil valleys.
Glaciers are impressive for their sheer size, but also for the way they have sculpted the land around them. Mountain faces have been shorn smooth by their weight, and their underbellies hold networks of ice caves and let loose rivers that carve the valley floors into tangled creek beds and moraines. Where they touch the frigid waters of the sea, they release icebergs—fragile sculptures feared by ships yet usually seen calmly drifting out over the horizon like strange and beautiful works of art.
Vatnajökull Glacier is the biggest in Iceland (and Europe), with around thirty separate branches and a large network of caves to explore underneath. Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon is one of the places where glacial ice meets the sea and is filled with flocks of magnificent icebergs. Other glaciers include Hofsjökul and Langjökull, and the collection of smaller glaciers at the southern tip of the country are spectacular as well. Really any high place in the country will prove a great vantage point for these ancient frozen rivers.
The glaciers are only around because of the ridges and peaks of Iceland’s mountain ranges. Gathered mostly in the center of the country, they may not be the highest in the world, but they are among the most beautiful.
Iceland’s mountains offer expansive views of deep valleys, volcanic plains, rocky crags, and even the faraway ocean. Their slopes are blanketed in brilliant green moss and grasses and are thriving with wildflowers of every imaginable color. The elevation also creates dynamic weather patterns which can be dangerous, but also powerful and beautiful demonstrations of our planet’s climate. The Icelandic ranges are also a great place to witness alpenglow, the magic golden hour when the sunset sheds its fiery hues on the snow caps and glaciers of the high peaks.
The mountains are also destinations for winter sports like skiing and snowboarding. Resorts and lodges are scattered around the country and can be found wherever there is snow and an incline.
Major mountain ranges are huddled around the glaciers mentioned above, mainly Vatnajökull, Hofsjökul, and Langjökull. The highest is Hvannadalshnjúr at 6992 feet. Some of the most picturesque peaks include the conic monolith of Kirkjufell on the west side of the island and the jagged aretes of Vestrahorn in the southeast.
Not all of the mountains in Iceland are static, immovable statues. Many of them are active vents—outlets for the roiling seas of molten rock hiding just beneath the surface. Volcanoes built Iceland and are responsible for much of the unusual formations and colors which mark the landscape. Many are dormant now, but are still worth visiting for their fascinating geology, rainbow mineral deposits, and thermal features.
Hot springs, geysers, and even rivers of lava are all part of the attraction of these tumultuous landscapes. Though some may not be fans of the sulfur and brimstone odors, relaxing in the heated turquoise pools, seeing sprays of water shoot hundreds of feet into the air, and watching boiling rock tumble down hillsides are all unforgettable experiences which shouldn’t be missed.
Volcanic hot springs can be found in the mountainous landscapes of Landmannalaugar and Kerlingarfjöll. Strokkur is the most impressive geyser in Iceland, near the dormant but even more fantastic Geysir. Both are part of the so-called Golden Circle which also includes such marvels as Thingvellir National Park and Gullfoss waterfall. For a real taste of the fiery fury beneath Iceland’s ice and rock, a trip to the country’s newest volcano, Fagradalsfjall, located on the Reykjanes Peninsula is a must. Erupting for the first time on March 19, 2021, it’s still brimming over with lava, fresh from the Earth’s mantle. Regulations about visitation are changing, but this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and well worth the research.
Much of Iceland’s beauty is found along its 3000-mile coastline. Black sand beaches, impossible rock formations, and of course, the eerily majestic icebergs are just a few of the wonders which lay along the perimeter of the island.
While the North Sea is too cold to swim in, one can still spend hours walking along the barren shores, and photographic opportunities are abundant. Large swaths of the coast are also dominated by precipitous cliffs, where one can carefully peek over the edge at the frothing surf below or gaze out at the far horizon and watch the clouds pass over the horizon.
The pitch-black sands are best experienced on the southern Vik Beaches, and nearby can be seen the needle-like rock formations of Reynisfjara Beach. In a similar vein, the zoomorphic formation at Hvitserkur also is also a must-see. The Reykjanes Peninsula, where dwells Kirkjufell, is a good place to witness a more raw and rugged side of the Icelandic Coast. Finally, the Ring Road, which circles the whole island, is a perfect option for anyone wanting to experience the full scope of Iceland’s dynamic shores.
Besides hot springs, geysers, and the ocean, Iceland also offers a variety of incredible waterfalls. Some of these falls are mere trickles, winding down mossy glades into clear pools, while others are huge cascades which roar down sheer cliffs, throwing off storms of spray and producing rainbows as they go.
The Gullfoss, part of the Golden Circle, is nestled in a deep canyon and tumbles down several times at various interesting angles. The Seljalandsfoss is unique in that you can actually climb beneath it and witness the white wall of water plummet down from directly above you. Skógafoss is a more classical waterfall—an enormous veil of white crashing down from a high plateau into a bottomless emerald pool. There are thousands of magnificent waterfalls in Iceland, and even if you can’t make it to any of these more iconic locations, you’re bound to see a few wherever you go.
Cities and Towns
Iceland is a natural wonder, but visitors and photographers shouldn’t ignore its more populous areas. The capital of Reykjavik is a gorgeous collection of brightly colored houses huddled together on the southwestern shore. Its Hallgrimskirkja church is an art deco-styled wonder of architecture which inspired the design of Asgard in the popular Marvel movies. Other attractions there include the Harpa concert hall and the Sun Voyager statue—an abstract representation of the kind of medieval ship which brought the first people to Iceland.
Arrayed across the island’s coastline are a number of other smaller settlements, each styled in the same quaint and colorful style as the capital. Here you can experience a more ancient and secluded Iceland, reminiscent of the country’s early days and origins. You can also sample the cuisine, local art, and meet some of the country’s people.
Finally, Iceland is home to one of the most incredible natural phenomena to be found anywhere on the planet: the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights.
Between the months of September and April, the night sky is illuminated by vast ribbons of green, red, and yellow which ripple, vanish, and reappear before your eyes. There are few places on Earth where this event is visible, and Iceland’s location near the Arctic Circle makes it the perfect viewing destination.
The auroras happen all over Iceland, so all you really need to do to see them is find somewhere away from the light pollution of towns and cities. The lights don’t appear every night, so if you’re determined to see them for yourself, set aside a few days where you can dedicate the evening to sitting outside and watching the stars. Make sure you bring a tripod!
Iceland is teeming with natural wonders and stunning scenery. This list should serve only as a guide to make sure you visit the sights you don’t want to miss. Once you’re there though, you’re bound to find a million more things you had never even dreamt of, and any trip to this isolated and mesmerizing place is one you’re sure never to forget.