In the middle of the wastelands stands something resembling an airplane crash or modern sculpture, but it´s actually two warped, iron girders from the road that used to run through the sands. They stand in testament to the immense power of the glaciers, coyly hiding beyond the mountaintops, but peeking out with greater frequency as the road continues east. Up the road is the turnoff for Skaftafell national park, but I suggest stopping here on your way back to Reykjavík, because Jökulsárlón is very popular and becomes unpleasantly congested by noon.
Jökulsárlón is truly a spectacle unlike anything you’ve seen. A host of icebergs and ice floes drift in a lagoon of oddly blue water. It’s possible to walk around the shore of the lagoon, but it’s best to take one of the amphibian vehicles into the water. Each piece of ice presents its own striking sculpture: some are completely black, covered in silt, while other pieces glow blue. The tickets for the boat are very expensive, 2000kr per person. Our guide, Helga the scowler, barked commands at us like a cattle dog while we cowered in fear wearing our Day-Glo orange life vests. Halfway through the tour the driver killed the engine and the scowler regurgitated five minutes of stats and stale puns. She pulled a piece of ice out of the water and crushed it so all could try a piece of 1000-year-old ice. It tastes like ice, but it’s a pretty novel thing to do all the same. Helga proved to be as chilly as the bergs, but the ride through the lagoon is one of the most dazzling views in Iceland so shell out your 2000kr and enjoy your ice cube.
There´s even a tree
On the drive back there is plenty to see. Sandfell is one of the first markers after leaving the lagoon. It’s the site of an old farmstead and church. All that’s left of the church is the cemetery with mysteriously lumpy graves. A stately tree (by Icelandic standards) stands at one corner of the old farmstead. Remnants of turf houses can be seen at the other corner. A nice, short stop if you have food for a picnic. There is also a pull off in the lava fields meant to serve as a scenic view of one of the gullies formed by the glacier. However, if you climb the small hill behind the information placard you’ll gain access to a vast, moss-covered lava field. You’ve been seeing them from your car windows all this time, now you can finally satisfy your urge to frolic in nature’s astro-bounce. Still further up the road is another turnoff filled with cairns. Laufskálavarða stands on the site of an old farmstead. It’s tradition to stop and add a rock to one of the cairns the first time you stop there, and provides a fantastic backdrop for a weird photo op.
One the return visit Skaftafell, a national park which boasts the highest point in Iceland, Hvannadalshnjúkur, countless hiking trails, and views of the glaciers. Hike to Svartifoss, a waterfall flanked by columnar basalt, which is the rock that inspired the facade of Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavík. But if you enjoy hiking, consult the information center for a hike that suits you. Be warned – during the weekends the camping grounds here become quite raucous, but if you’re looking for a party…
There are a number of other small turnoffs marked by red signs on your way home. One recommendation I have is to turn towards Eyrabakki on route 34 and take the Þrenglsi road back to Reykjavík instead of driving over Hellisheiði on route 1. This will take you past Hafið Bláa, one of the southern coast’s best kept secrets, where you can have a bowl of seafood soup or sit and watch the ocean on the black beach at the mouth of the Ölfúsá River–a moment of southern coast peace before returning to Reykjavík.