Along Iceland’s South Coast, you’ll find waterfalls, geothermal areas, black sand beaches, and glaciers. Highlights of the South Coast of Iceland include:
- Horseback Riding in Hveragerdi
- Reynisfjara Beach
Horseback Riding in Hveragerdi
After my first visit to Iceland, I knew I wanted to go horseback riding. Icelandic horses (not ponies) are native to the country and known for their smaller size and unique gait. Unlike most other horses that only have 3 or 4 gaits, Icelandic horses have 5. One of their ways of walking is called the tölt, where the horse can move at low and high speeds while ensuring that at least one foot is always on the ground. This makes for a smooth and comfortable ride, especially for new riders.
Though the weather was gloomy with some showers, the ride was magical. My horse was very patient and easy-going and the valley is beautiful. There’s a forest clearing at the beginning of our ride and I swear I felt like a fairy tale character wandering through an enchanted forest.
We chose to book our horseback riding tour with Eldhestar for numerous reasons. They had great reviews, offered short and long tours, catered to different experience levels, and had a reputation for taking great care of their horses and stables. By chance, it turned out that we booked our previous night’s accommodations with their hotel so we were immediately sold on the convenience of being able to walk from the hotel to the farm.
We chose Tour 3C – Horses and Hot Springs, which was a mid-day tour (about 2.5 hours) and took us through Reykjadalur Valley. The group was small – just me, my friend, a day traveler from Reykjavik, and our tour guide. While riding, our guide would share random facts about geography, Icelandic mythology, and agriculture. I will say that the tour itself was fine – it wasn’t especially amazing but it also wasn’t horrible. I enjoyed spending time in the back, trotting in silence and admiring the scenery. However, I do think William had a harder time because he had zero experience riding and had trouble finding ways to get more comfortable.
I imagine you won’t go wrong no matter where you decide to go riding. If you’re a rider with no experience or nervous around horses, I’d read reviews for specific guides and ask for an easy-going horse. If you’re also looking for an educational tour, then you may enjoy a different tour or another farm. All that said, the location, the tour length, and the horses themselves were perfect for our preferences and I would not have changed my decision on booking.
TIME SPENT: 2.5 hours
(~2 hours walking around the park, 2.5 hours earmarked for snorkeling)
Instead of exploring more of the valley, we decided to quickly grab pastries from a nearby bakery and drive an hour to Bruarfoss. I happened to come across a picture of Bruarfoss on Instagram and immediately knew I had to see its blue waters for myself. Though easy to miss (you cannot see the falls while driving), Bruarfoss is quickly becoming a popular Ring Road stop.
Note, as Bruarfoss became more popular, tourists littered and laid waste in the neighboring areas. There used to be a short path that would take you directly to the falls but has since been designated private property and closed to the public (this is an important reminder that when traveling, we are visitors in someone else’s home so it’s important to travel responsibly and conscientiously).
How to get to Bruarfoss
If you’re visiting, you’ll want to make sure you park in the right area and are on the path to get to the falls.
- Distance & Time. The hike is about 2.2 miles one-way and takes about 1 hour to walk (1.5 hours if you decide to stop and take pictures as we did).
- Parking. Make sure you navigate to “Bruarfoss Waterfall Official Parking Lot” (literally, this is what you’ll type into Google maps). Parking is free and you don’t need to worry about finding a parking spot, as the lot is quite large. We got there on Sunday afternoon and there were less than 5 cars in the lot.
- Navigating. There aren’t any trail markers along the way so you’ll need to assess whether you’re on the right track based on distance and on how many waterfalls you’ve passed. If you have an Apple watch or Fitbit, I’d highly recommend recording a workout to keep track of time and mileage. For example, my Apple Watch recorded 2.12 miles one way, starting from the first fall.
There are 3 waterfalls along the hike. You’ll encounter the first two falls pretty close to each other. When you get to the falls that look like the picture below, you’ll know you’ve made it.
For more information, here’s an extremely thorough guide I used when planning our visit.
TIME SPENT: 2.5-3 hours
(the hiking can be done in 2 hours, but we spent almost an hour taking pictures)
Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss are the first two major highlights when driving to the South Coast from Reykjavik. While the drive from Reykjavik is longer, we were only on the road for about an hour having left from Bruarfoss. We got to the falls around 7 PM but the sun was beaming down as if it were early afternoon (just goes to show how dramatically the weather can change around the island).
You can see a silver stream as you near the parking lot, but it’s not until you walk towards the fall that you can appreciate the height of its cascading waters and the lush greenery of the surrounding cliffs.
Though gorgeous from the front, the real magic of Seljalandsfoss is the experience of walking along the pathway behind the falls that encircles the whole cavern.
As you exit the falls, you can choose to walk 10-15 minutes along a short path that will take you to Gljufrabui (also known as Gljúfrafoss). When you enter the cave and walk through a small stream, you’ll see light pouring in from the cliff opening onto Gljúfrafoss and the surrounding cliff walls.
While some people really enjoy Gljufrabui, I was honestly underwhelmed having seen Seljalandsfoss. It’s only a 20-30 minute detour so I don’t regret going but I would have easily been content skipping this site.
TIME SPENT: 1 hour
(30 minutes if you’re only visiting Seljalandsfoss)
We arrived at Skogafoss – our third waterfall of the day – after driving half an hour. While Gullfoss is relentless and Seljalandsfoss is surreal, Skogafoss is in-your-face powerful with a cascade of 200 feet that falls undeterred and freely. You can get views from both the top and bottom of the falls but like many others, I prefer the view from the bottom.
As you walk towards the bottom of the waterfall, you get the full display. If you want, you can get extremely close to the base of the falls depending on your comfort level and gear (you will get wet). There is also a viewing platform at the top of the falls, which is accessible by a staircase. If you have a sunny day, I’d say it’s worth walking up the stairs just to see the view but don’t feel like you’re missing out on the falls if you can’t make the trek up. There is also a trail you can follow to see additional falls if you feel like venturing further.
I will say that Skogafoss didn’t take my breath away. Part of the reason is that the pictures I’ve seen of the waterfalls were all taken in winter so I had incorrect expectations of how dramatic the waterfalls would look. I definitely want to come back in the winter to see what the falls look like frozen in time.
TIME SPENT: <30 minutes
One unexpected highlight was the restaurant in Hotel Skogafoss that’s located right near the parking lot. Maybe it’s because we had very low expectations and were just eager to eat something before everything closed, but both my friend and I were very pleased with our dinner. I especially enjoyed the arctic char I ordered, which was filling and flavorful.
We stopped at our hotel to make our check-in time before heading to Reynisfjara Beach. Reynisfjara is a black sand beach located near Vik. We arrived at 11:00 PM, a perfect time to avoid crowds but still catch sunset hour. Even though it was late, we were so glad we decided to trek out. The black sand, basalt columns, and distant view of Dyrhólaey’s arch contrasted beautifully with the pink and orange hues of sunset.
While the trolls are part of Iceland’s folklore, the dangers of the beach are very real. The waves at the beach can come further up and more forcefully than expected, which can pull people into the waters. Unfortunately, tourists that don’t heed the warning signs to always face the waves and keep a safe distance of ~100 feet have died while visiting. As long as you’re careful, you should have a safe trip.
TIME SPENT: 1 hour
- Should I spend time hiking the Hveragerdi Hot Spring River Trail? Because we chose to do horseback riding, we didn’t have time to explore more of Hveragerdi or hike the river trail. Some travelers I met during our snorkeling tour said their favorite part of the trip was hiking the trail and bathing in the geothermal waters while drinking a beer. Since neither hot springs nor beer are really my thing, I didn’t feel any FOMO skipping this but it’s worth considering, especially on a sunny day. Besides, it was a gloomy and rainy day when we were there so it would have made for rubbish hiking but wasn’t too bad while riding.
- Should I visit Dyrholaey on my way to Reynisfjara? Dyrholaey is a small peninsula near Vik and is a frequent stop on the way to Reynisfjara beach. Dyrholaey translates to “the hill island with the door hole” and is famous for its arch with a hole. Walking up to the arch also gives you picturesque views of the black sand beach and the puffins nesting there during their breeding season. Since we were arriving at Vik quite late and only had limited time in the area, we chose to go to the beach and admire the arch from afar.