The 200km stretch of Ring Road from Kirkjubæjarklaustur to Höfn is truly mind-blowing, transporting you across vast deltas of grey glacial sand, past lost-looking farms, around the toes of craggy mountains, and by glacier tongues and ice-filled lagoons. The only thing you won’t pass is a town.
The mighty Vatnajökull dominates the region, its huge rivers of frozen ice pouring down steep-sided valleys towards the sea. Jökulsárlón is a photographer’s paradise, a glacial lagoon where wind and water sculpt icebergs into fantastical shapes.
The bleak coastal deserts of glacial sand are remnants of calamitous collisions between fire and ice. Further inland is the epicentre of Iceland’s worst volcanic event, the Lakagígar fissures. With so much desolation on display, it’s not surprising that Skaftafell is so popular. This sheltered enclave between the glaciers and the sands throbs with life and colour, and the footfalls of hikers.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Southeast Iceland.
A sign off the Ring Road indicates Fjallsárlón – this is an easily accessible glacier lagoon, where icebergs calve from Fjallsjökull. There are Zodiac tours among the bergs, plus walking trails around the lagoon, and it's a good alternative to busy Jökulsárlón, 10km further east.
Heading east on the Ring Road from Skaftafell, a sign points the way to the glacier Svínafellsjökull. A rough, potholed dirt road leads 2km to a car park, from where it’s a short walk to the northern edge of the glacier and some fine photo ops. Don't be tempted to stride out onto the glacier unaccompanied – join a guided walk.
This darkly picturesque canyon, carved out by the river Fjaðrá, has been well and truly discovered, thanks to Instagrammers and one Justin Bieber (who filmed a video clip here). A walking trail follows its southern edge for a couple of kilometres, with plenty of places to gaze down into its rocky, writhing depths, and to take in the gorge's gorgeousness and the emerald-green surrounds. The canyon is not far west of Klaustur, 3km north of the Ring Road via Rte 206.
At the Jökulsá river mouth you’ll see ice boulders and bergs resting photogenically on the black-sand beach as part of their final journey out to sea. Tourists have dubbed the site 'Diamond Beach', and the name has stuck. There are car parks on the ocean side of the Ring Road, on both sides of the bridge over the river.
Skeiðarársandur, the largest sandur in the world, covers a 1300-sq-km area and was formed by the mighty Skeiðarárjökull. Since the Settlement Era, Skeiðarársandur has swallowed a considerable amount of farmland and it continues to grow. The area was relatively well populated (for Iceland, anyway), but in 1362 the volcano beneath Öræfajökull (then known as Knappafellsjökull) erupted and the subsequent jökulhlaup (flooding caused by volcanic eruption beneath ice) laid waste the entire district. After the 1362 eruption the district became known as Öræfi (Wasteland).
This cleverly crafted museum (its inspired exterior looks like a shelf of books) pays tribute to the most famous son of this sparsely populated region – writer Þórbergur Þórðarson (1888–1974). Þórbergur was a real maverick (with interests spanning yoga, Esperanto and astronomy), and his first book Bréf til Láru (Letter to Laura) caused huge controversy because of its radical socialist content.
At the western end of the village, the lovely double waterfall, Systrafoss, tumbles down the cliffs and a sign outlines three short walks in the pretty wooded area (Iceland's tallest trees grow here!). The lake, Systravatn, reached by a leisurely climb up steps cut into the hill beside the falls, was once a bathing place for nuns. A marked 2.5km walking path leads from the lake to descend near Kirkjugólf and takes in glorious views.
Fláajökull is 8km off the Ring Road on a gravel road (signposted just east of Hólmur guesthouse) that leads to a small car park with pit toilet. A suspension bridge here (which gave walkers front-row views of the glacier) was washed away in 2017 floods but there are plans to rebuild. Glacier walks, led by Glacier Trips, are operated on Fláajökull – this is a great alternative to Skaftafell-area glacier walks, as the area sees few tourists.
Lómagnúpur towers over the impossibly photogenic old turf-roofed farm at Núpsstaður. The farm buildings date back to the early 19th century, and the idyllic chapel is one of the last turf churches in Iceland. It was once a museum, but at the time of writing the farm was closed to the public. You can’t drive onto the property, but you can park by the road and walk up to the buildings to check them out and take photos.