10 Adventurous Activities to Check Out in South Iceland

Head to South Iceland with Travel Channel to explore ice caves, ride ATVs near an active volcano and hike to hard-to-reach waterfalls.

December 09, 2019

Photo By: Meredith Rosenberg

Photo By: Hotel Ranga

Photo By: Hotel Ranga

Photo By: Meredith Rosenberg

Photo By: Meredith Rosenberg

Photo By: Meredith Rosenberg

Photo By: Meredith Rosenberg

Photo By: Meredith Rosenberg

Photo By: Meredith Rosenberg

Photo By: Hotel Ranga

Photo By: Secret Lagoon

Photo By: Hotel Ranga

Get off the Grid

If you don’t want to emulate the majority of Iceland’s visitors who head to the Blue Lagoon and Golden Circle, a popular route close to the capital of Reykjavik that’s home to Thingvellir National Park, Geysir Geothermal Area and Gullfoss waterfall, then read on. While those attractions are impressive, head further east along the south coast for adventures that encompass hidden waterfalls, imposing glaciers, active volcanoes and black sand beaches. Driving around the region, you’ll notice how the landscape changes every 15 minutes or so, from springy, moss-covered ground to sheep farms to snow-capped glaciers in the distance.

Stay at Hotel Ranga

Base yourself at Hotel Ranga in Hella, the only four-star hotel in South Iceland. It’s a little more than an hour from Reykjavik, making it an ideal retreat for remote adventures, which the hotel can also arrange. Hot tip: Book the brand-new Icelandic suite to experience a freestanding stone tub, modeled after the owner’s, and a rotating dining platform.

Note that Wow Air went bankrupt in March 2019, making budget Icelandair the country’s main carrier. Conveniently, red-eye flights from the East Coast take less than six hours. For longer flights, consider upgrading to Saga Premium (business) class to get more legroom and better meals.

Watch the Northern Lights

Not only does Hotel Ranga provide a convenient base for South Iceland adventures, but it’s also an ideal spot for catching the northern lights in winter thanks to the area’s low-light pollution. Don’t worry about sleeping through this natural phenomenon, since room phones feature a northern lights wake-up call button — just don’t forget to press it before passing out. Good to know: Prep camera gear ahead of time in case the call comes in the middle of the night. The hotel will actually provide warm clothes and blankets for those who didn't take the time to prep outerwear.

While there’s no guarantee the sky will be clear enough for the light show, there is an on-site observatory containing two of Iceland’s most powerful telescopes for premium stargazing. A retractable roof and local astronomers (on hand during clear nights), aid with spotting everything from the Milky Way to Neptune.

Take an ATV Buggy Ride

Not all ATV tours are created equal. Putting safety first, Southcoast Adventure takes all the necessary precautions while you get to zoom up and down hills and through streams with its Buggy Adventure. Don’t worry, a helmet with protective face guard, gloves and even a waterproof suit are provided to keep you safe, warm and clean. One- and two-hour tours are available all year and traverse the land between Fljótshlíð, a remote farming district, and Eyjafjallajökull, an active volcano that last erupted in 2010. The impending eruption forced about 800 people to evacuate ahead of flooding. Tours also visit Gluggafoss, a tiered waterfall just shy of 145-feet high; zip across the black sand of Markaðsfljótaurar; and ascend to an overlook of Westman Islands (most accessible in summer due to the ferry schedule).

Explore an Ice Cave

Mýrdalsjökull glacier is part of a pristine landscape formed during the Ice Age that encompasses the black-and-white marbled glacier facing the plush green Hafursey mountain, with black lava in between. Adding to the adventure is the fact that the established Katla ice cave (pictured) is under Mt. Katla, an active glacier volcano that last erupted in 1918 — resulting in a massive flood and the area’s black sand moonscape. The dramatic scenery has unsurprisingly been featured in both Rogue One: A Stars Wars Story and Game of Thrones. As the glacier is located about 45 minutes north of Vik, the nearest town, reaching the area requires a tour in a specially modified super Jeep in order to navigate rocky ground, hills and rivers; Companies like Southcoast Adventure are a good bet for small groups.

Once there, you’ll find ever-changing ice caves to check out, but the aforementioned Katla cave is pretty established, complete with narrow wood plank bridges, carved steps and occasional hand ropes. After a short hike from the parking lot to the glacier, helmets and crampons (grippy spikes that slip over boots) are provided for exploring the cave and terrain on the other side, a wonderland of icy rivers and hidden waterfalls.

Ascend Reynisfjall Mountain

While black sand beaches are scattered throughout South Iceland. Tourists flock to Reynisfjara beach near Vik for its beauty and basalt sea stacks that were — according to local folklore — once trolls. The beach is also infamous for its unpredictable and deadly sneaker waves. That doesn’t deter visitors (and photo shoots), so avoid crowds by heading up to Reynisfjall mountain, topping out at 1,115 feet, for a grander view. The nerve-wrackingly steep road lacks a guardrail and is closed off to regular cars but is accessible with a tour in small super Jeeps. For more of an adventure, it’s also possible to hike to the top. While up there take advantage of the cliff walk and note the fulmar seabirds circling the water (they look like fatter seagulls). Fun fact: Fulmars defend themselves by essentially vomiting on predators. In other bird news, you can also spot puffins in summer.

As mentioned, the mountain and beach are just outside the small town of Vik, home to about 300, a church, a pool and a smattering of hotels and restaurants. After your excursion, head into town, accessible from the beach, for craft beer and burgers at Smiðjan Brugghús. (There’s even a small brewery on site.) We recommend a rhubarb pale ale and chicken sandwich.

Chase Waterfalls

Iceland is estimated to contain more than 10,000 waterfalls, and some of the most striking are found along the southern coast. Better yet, it’s not difficult finding ones where you can hike to the top or bottom of the falls or venture inside caves. Take hidden waterfall Gljúfrafoss, also called Gljúfrabúi (Canyon Dweller). It’s to the left of the more popular Seljalandsfoss (pictured), both near Iceland's main Ring Road, but easy to miss unless you know to walk through a narrow keyhole opening and along slippery rocks in order to reach it at the back of a cave. Expect to get wet, but it’s worth it. Seljalandsfoss, towering at 213 feet tall, grabs most of the attention and you can also walk behind it after navigating down slippery rocks. Skógafoss is nearby, with an equally impressive height that can be scaled thanks to more than 500 stairs to the top. Shoot for visiting during off-peak times since the waterfall has become heavily touristed after being featured in a 2015 Justin Bieber video.

You’ll find Gluggafoss, or Window Falls, further out along the south coast. This multi-tiered waterfall isn’t as crowded thanks to its location off of the Ring Road. For a major adventure, Háifoss (High waterfall), is Iceland’s fourth highest at 400 feet. It’s near the beginning of the Highlands (the remote, uninhabited interior marked by glaciers, hot springs, volcanoes and gorges), and harsh weather only allows super Jeeps to maneuver in winter. But Háifoss can be challenging to find any time of the year and without a 4x4 vehicle. (It’s off Highway 32 for those interested.) Once there, be mindful about standing too close to the edge due to high winds.

Summit Valhnjukur in Þórsmörk

The remote Þórsmörk natural reserve (pronounced Thorsmurk, and meaning Valley of Thor) is one of Iceland’s wettest regions and a favorite among locals and tourists alike for its various hiking options. In a continuing theme, Þórsmörk is extremely difficult to reach due to minimal signage, an hour’s worth of driving on bumpy gravel and a major river crossing (as in, driving through water). In fact, the latter has proved deadly for those without the proper car and experience. Super Jeep tours are the best way to reach the area (Midgard Adventure and Southcoast Adventure are among the top small group operators), and guides can choose the most suitable hike based on the group’s ability. For example, the Valhnjukur trail (pictured) is 1.5 miles to the summit. That wide trail becomes narrow stairs near the peak, but once on top you’ll have sweeping views of green mountains and valleys surrounded by the glaciers Eyjafjallajökull, Mýrdalsjökull and Tindfjallajökull. You’ll also gain a clear perspective of the expansive black lava plain you drove through, divided by continually changing glacial rivers.

FYI: More hardcore adventurers can continue from Valhnjukur on a multi-day trek to Landmannalaugar, famed for its hot springs and distinct mountains. Either way, the Valhnjukur trail is just past the Volcano Huts, the park’s main option for lodging and food.

Venture Into Stakkholtsgjá Canyon

Þórsmörk is also home to Stakkholtsgjá Canyon, with towering moss-covered walls bordering a rocky, river-bisected path. Spoiler alert: The mile-long canyon leads to a hidden waterfall. The canyon is a popular attraction thanks in part to Game of Thrones, but worthy nonetheless as the transportive landscape channels a world so magical, you might believe trolls live in its caves and elves are just around the corner. Budget at least an hour and a half to hike to the end and back, factoring in slippery rocks, narrow passages, wet weather and lots of photo opps. If you undertake the tour with a group like Midgard Adventure, you can also look forward to your guide preparing freshly grilled Icelandic hot dogs back at your super Jeep. If unfamiliar, hot dogs are highly popular in Iceland and made from lamb, pork and beef. Agree to have it topped with everything, traditionally meaning onions, ketchup, local pylsusinnep mustard and a condiment consisting of mayo, capers, mustard and herbs. You’re welcome.

Go Horseback Riding

Whereas most horses are only capable of three gaits (walk, trot and canter), the Icelandic horse is distinctive for performing five gaits. One of them is the unique tölt, meaning one foot always touches the ground, providing a bounce-free ride. (The other gait is called flying pace, which is faster than a canter.) While small, don’t offend locals by calling the breed ponies, especially considering how hardy they are. You can learn all this and more at Icelandic Horse World, part of Skeiðvellir, a horse breeding farm and training center just 20 minutes north of Hotel Ranga. Icelandic Horse World also offers year-round rides, even in snow, but winter (and beginner) rides are limited to an hour. Longer rides are available for more experienced riders the rest of the year. The ultimate is the five-hour Into Nature that runs June through September for those with some riding know-how. Expect to venture off the proverbial path along sheep tracks that lead into a remote landscape filled with rivers, mountains, glaciers, volcanoes and lava.

Swim in a Secret Hot Spring

If you want to avoid the Blue Lagoon’s crowds, head about two hours east to the Secret Lagoon in Flúðir. Yes, due to its name the natural geothermal pool is perhaps Iceland’s worst-kept secret, but you’re more likely to encounter locals relaxing on pool noodles than selfie-taking tourists. Not that you need an added incentive to visit, but a small neighboring geyser erupts every five minutes. And it’s possible to see the northern lights on clear winter nights. While it may be frigid outside, the pool remains a steamy 100-104 degrees year-round thanks to the surrounding hot springs that contribute to the constant mist. And though the Secret Lagoon is billed as Iceland’s oldest swimming pool, established in 1891, separate men's and women's changing areas with lockers and showers are new.

Know before you go: Icelandic culture expects bathers to communally shower naked before suiting up and entering hot springs, making this a real adventure for some. It’s also best to keep your towel in your locker (rented or borrowed from your hotel room) to prevent someone else from accidentally using it (based on a true story).

Eat Local Specialties

Fresh fish (salmon, Arctic char), local meat (lamb), greenhouse vegetables and a type of yogurt called skyr form part of the everyday Icelandic diet. But adventurous eaters can try more exotic local delicacies. One of those is hákarl, or fermented shark, which unfortunately smells like shark soaked in ammonia. It’s been described as something that will make you want to vomit the first few times you try it. But don't let that deter you. The brave wash this down with Brennivín (colloquially called black death), a strong distilled spirit made from potato mash or grain and tasting of caraway. It’s also possible to try puffin (often served smoked) and reindeer (carpaccio is another delicacy, pictured). You’re unlikely to find sheep’s head on any menus, but it is a traditional dish that just might be served if you happen to be invited to someone’s home for a special occasion. The real challenge for adventurous eaters will be getting past the entire-sheep-head-on-a-plate concept.

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