I just finished leading an amazing trip to Iceland, one of the most unique places on our planet. It was a fantastic trip filled with waterfalls, fall color, mountains, volcanic landscapes, rugged coastlines, and of course, Northern Lights.
Iceland is one of those places that keeps calling me back.
Iceland is located between North America and Europe and is the most sparsely populated country in Europe. The island is approximate 40,000 square miles (that is about the same size as New York), but only about 360,000 people live on the island. Iceland is known as ‘The Land of Fire and Ice,’ and is a geologic wonder that is home to both massive glaciers and over 125 volcanoes.
Two things make Iceland extremely unique. Most islands either occur over a divergent boundary of tectonic plates, or they are on a volcanic hot spot. Both are true of Iceland. It lies on the border of the North America and Eurasia tectonic plates, and it hovers right over the Iceland Plume hot spot. The plume is responsible for creating the island 16-18 million years ago. So, take all that volcanic activity and combine it with Iceland’s relative Arctic location and you get an unbelievable landscape. On average, a volcanic eruption occurs every four years in Iceland. The last eruption happened in 2010 so Iceland is due for another eruption soon (hopefully during a future Backcountry Journeys workshop so we can get some photos).
For our Best of Iceland: Autumn tour, we mainly focused on locations around the iconic Ring Road. The Ring Road circumnavigates the entire island. It is around 830 miles long and includes jaw-dropping sights. We also visited some more remote areas and drove some ‘F-roads’. F-roads are known as mountain roads and require high-clearance vehicles. Speaking of vehicles, we were equipped with a customized super truck with massive tires.
The vehicle provided the utmost comfort and luxury on the interior, and the power to drive anywhere in Iceland. Here is our day by day report of an amazing trip around Iceland. Definitely, consider this workshop next year if you want to experience one of the greatest landscapes on Earth.
The first day of our workshop included travel to Reykjavik and checking in to Hotel Klettur, where we spent one night before starting our adventure. Reykjavik is the capital of Iceland and a quaint little city. Many in our group spent the day strolling around town.
We met as a group for orientation at 6 pm. I introduced myself and Aron Reynisson (our Icelandic guide) did as well. We chatted a bit about our general itinerary, what the average day looks like, and typical sights to expect…and, of course, an icebreaker. After orientation, we walked down the street to a local restaurant. It was our first Icelandic cuisine experience and all were satisfied. The first night is always great to meet everyone, but we were all excited to start the workshop on day two and get a glimpse at the Icelandic countryside.
I met the group for breakfast at our hotel on the morning of day two, and then we were off. We left the charming capital and headed north. The first locations on our agenda were many of the famous spots found on the Golden Circle. The Golden Circle is a popular day tour from Reykjavík, and for good reason. The circle includes three of the best locations near the capital – Thingvellir National Park, Gullfoss, and the geothermal area of Haukadalur. The entire loop that contains the Golden Circle is about 190 miles. Our first stop was at Thingvellir National Park. The park has great historic and geologic importance. The park sits in a rift where the two divergent tectonic plates of North America and Eurasia meet. From the park, you can view both the North American tectonic plate and also the Eurasia plate on the other side of the valley (they are moving away from each other at 2cm/year). It is one of the few places in the world where you can see tectonic plates.
Historically, Thingvellir represents the place where Iceland declared independence in 1944 and where the oldest, longest-standing parliament was started by the Vikings in 874. It is also Iceland’s first national park. It was a great first stop on our trip. We photographed the plates and spent some time at nearby Oxarafoss. You will see a lot of things I write about in this report end in -foss, which means waterfall, in Icelandic.
After Thingvellir, we continued on to Gullfoss. Gullfoss is a towering 100-foot waterfall that drops down into the canyon of the Hvita River. It is one of the most iconic waterfalls in all of Iceland. There are numerous vantage points to photograph Gullfoss, we visited them all and got soaked by the spray…but we had a blast shooting. We continued on the Haukadalur and walked around Geysir before grabbing lunch at a nearby cafeteria. With that, we had completed the Golden Circle and we started to head into the Highlands of Iceland. The Highlands is located in the south and represents the most beautiful area in Iceland, in my opinion. We stopped at lesser-known Hjarpafoss and photographed before venturing out on some F-roads (mountain roads). After some driving and a few stops here and there, we arrived at our place of lodging for the night, The Highland Center at Hrauneyjar. The rain had started to become very heavy so we grabbed dinner and called it a night. It was a full day and we were hopeful the weather would clear in the morning.
Day three was another action-packed day, actually, every day was, but day three was special because it was our main foray into the Highlands of Iceland. The Highlands are mesmerizing and are one of my favorite regions on the island. We started the morning by traversing some F-roads to an incredible overlook on the Sigöldugljufur Canyon. The canyon has waterfalls coming out of every crack and crevice. The light was absolutely amazing for sunrise, we got some awesome clouds and eventually, the sun broke the horizon allowing us to capture some sun stars too.
From there, we headed back to the hotel for a quick breakfast and packed up to head into the Highlands. We took the iconic F-208 road with our final destination being Landmannalaugar. We were also immediately greeted with a winter wonderland once we got deeper into the interior. Snow-covered the mountains and the roads. We made a few spots along F-208 and shot some of the great mountains and lakes that litter the path to Landmannalaugar. It is rare to catch the Highlands covered in snow, as all F-Roads close for winter, so we were pretty fortunate.
The weather did not stay nice very long though and by the time we reached Landmannalaugar a combination of rain and snow was coming down. We spent some time visiting the natural hot pools and photographing the sheep nearby. We had lunch at the nearby hut and continued on our way. On our way out of the Highlands, we passed numerous people who were stuck in rentals…many facing thousands of dollars in towing and rental fees, yikes. There were most likely envious of our super truck! Once we got back out on the main road, we made a stop at Haifoss, the fourth tallest waterfall in Iceland. It is my favorite waterfall on the island. We shot it during a constant flux of storms. It would hail one minute, clear up for 15 minutes, then hail and rain again. All in all, we got some really nice shots. The fall color was really popping around the waterfall. Another waterfall was on our agenda after Haifoss, iconic Seljandafoss. It is one of the most popular waterfalls on the Ring Road and for good reason. We hiked behind the waterfall to snap some pictures and even captured a rainbow breaking over the falls. We did not spend much time at the falls, as we were in a hurry to make sunset at Dyrhólaey. We did finally make it to the coast and shot from an overlook with views of a black sand beach reaching for miles. The light was extremely moody and we were able to withstand high winds to capture a few shots with the light shining through. After our shoot, we headed to a quaint little farmhouse to stay for the night, day three was fantastic.
We headed back to Dyrhólaey for sunrise on day four. This time we were looking east, towards the Reynisfjara basalt stacks far in the distance. It was a surprisingly clear morning and we had great views to the east, as well as great views of the Mýrdalsjökull Glacier to the north
The wind was relentless again, but we managed to get some great shots before heading back for breakfast. We ate quickly and continued along the south coast. We stopped at Reynisfjara, the beach was closed due to rock slides, but we were able to walk pretty close to the basalt sea stacks. They are really amazing to see and the added wave action makes them even more impressive. It was so windy at times that it was hard to walk, but we found some sheltered spots that allowed us to capture some shots. After Reynisfjara, we headed to Vik. Vik is a picturesque town on the south coast with one of the most iconic churches in all of Iceland, so of course, we stopped to shoot it!
We grabbed lunch at a local spot and again continued along the south coast. Our next stop was at Núpsstaður, which is an old abandoned farm with turf farmhouses, a really interesting place and a look back at Icelandic history. We then continued on to Skaftafell National Park. Skaftafell houses many great hikes and glacial lagoons. We stopped at one of those lagoons called Svínafellsjökull. We did a short hike next to the glacier and photographed some of the mountains nearby. One of those mountains nearby happens to be the tallest in Iceland. Hvannadalshnúkur is just under 7,000 feet and is the tallest in Iceland. After the lagoon, we headed to some ephemeral ponds that offered a nice reflection of the mountain. We had gorgeous weather all day on day four, it was our only day with really clear skies so we made the most of it.
Our next stop was Jökulsárlón, another glacier lagoon and the most famous in Iceland. We spent some time at the lagoon and photographed the sunset. Some huge icebergs were floating near the entrance and seals were all over. We did not get a great light show, but this lagoon is always a special place. We finally arrived at our hotel for the night and had dinner aroun 9 pm – only to see that this was probably our best chance for Northern Lights. So, we ate fast and headed out towards Hofn. And sure enough, we spent an hour watching the Northern Lights dance in the sky. They were faint, but we could definitely see them and our cameras picked up the green hue. We finally headed back and went straight to our beds. day four was probably our busiest day, but man, did we do and see a lot!
Our plan for sunrise on day five was to head back to Jökulsárlón and shoot either Diamond Beach or the lagoon again. However, we could easily see that a storm was hanging over the area while there looked to be a clearing to the east. So, we decided to head towards Vestrahorn, an iconic mountain near Hofn. We made it just in time and were able to enjoy a blazing sunrise. The light was simply incredible. We shot long into the morning before finally breaking to grab breakfast. We then went past Hofn to shoot another famous peak called Estrahorn. We had beautiful light on the morning of day five and shot pretty much up until lunch. We did not have to move hotels on day five so we were able to get in some much needed rest time after lunch.
Rain moved in during the afternoon, but it actually made for good conditions at the lagoons. The icebergs and glaciers take on a blue tint on overcast and cloudy days, you usually lose that color when its sunny out. Thus, we went to Fjallsárlón lagoon. One of my favorite lagoons because the two featured glaciers are very impressive. There were nice icebergs in the lagoon, as well as on shore so we were able to grab some nice photos. After that, we headed to Diamond Beach for sunset. The light never beaked through so we decided to do some more intimate abstract shots of the icebergs lined up on the beach. A shutter speed around 1 second yielded some really nice results with the incoming tide and the icebergs. No Northern Lights on day five, so we called it a day after dinner.
On day six we slept in for sunrise, forecasts had projected a large storm moving in and we awoke to heavy rain. We got breakfast, packed up, and started our travels to the east fjords. We drove through Hofn, past Vestahorn, and past Estrahorn…each had looked very different the previous morning and we were glad we were able to take advantage of the light.
We did make a stop at an unnamed mountain in the Sveitarfélagið valley. A river sweeps through the valley and provided many great compositions to work with. We spent about an hour shooting in the rain. It was a really nice scene and it was easy for us to lose track of time, even in the rain. Soaking wet, we piled back into the truck and headed for Djúpivogur, where we’d be spending the night. We arrived in town and the rain still had not let up. We toured the fishing village on foot and resorted to our hotel for the rest of the evening. We were able to make use of a 32 inch TV so we did some basic processing and previewed some of the images that we had made as a group during the week.
The storm looked to be clearing for sunrise on day seven, and we headed to a pyramid-shaped mountain called Búlandstindur. The clouds were incredible for sunrise, but we just never quite got the light to peak through. The sky has a little bit of residual light peaking through, but a little more and it would have been a sunrise for the ages.
Lake Mvyatn was our end goal today so we packed up after sunrise and breakfast to head north. Next stop was Folaldafoss. A nice little waterfall off the beaten path. The falls was littered with great fall color and we had perfect light for photography. We spend probably 2 hours shooting many of the numerous scenes.
On our way to Myvatn, we passed some photogenic horses, so we stopped. This was our first opportunity at photographing them. The Icelandic horses are always a must-see on a trip to Iceland and we found a few extra friendly individuals hanging out on some farmland near the side of the road.
After the horses, we continued weaving between the east fjords and then headed inland. We planned to stop at Dettifoss for sunset. Dettifoss is the most powerful waterfall in all of Europe and definitely one of the most impressive Iceland. It is a long, rocky walk down to the edge of the falls, but when we got there, WOW, it is quite the scene. The pure power of the falls shocked the group and it is always an amazing thing to witness. We spent plenty of time shooting and then headed to our hotel in Myvatn. Another great day!
We were rained out again for sunrise on day eight, so we got a later breakfast and headed out to explore around Myvatn. Our first stop of the day was Godafoss. It is another one of the best waterfalls along the Ring Road. We shot from two vantage points, above the falls and stream level. It was rainy, but we had some interesting fog moving around.
We headed back to Mvyatn for lunch after the waterfall and then spent time shooting around Lake Mvyatn. There are not a lot of forests or trees in general on the island, but Mvyatn actually has some deciduous life. It was peak color when we were there and we ran into some incredible groves of fall color.
We shot reflections, abstracts, and wide landscapes. The color was really great, orange, yellow, green, red, simply awesome. We spent way more time shooting than expected. After the fall color show, we headed to the gnarly lava rock structures at Dimmuborgir. We again had more great fall color, but also some lava caves and arches to pair with it.
We were hopeful that we would get a sunset at Lake Myvatn and we tried our best. The light never cooperated and we did not get a clearing. We did however, have another full day of shooting. The fall color was definitely the highlight of day eight.
For sunrise on day nine, we went to Námaskarð and Hverir. The area is a geothermal area with mudpots, steam vents, and hot springs. We found some accessible mudpots with steam coming off and set up. The light was already good about an hour before sunrise so we knew this morning would be special. The sun eventually rose and we had a perfect combination of elements – atmosphere and light. The sky lit up and the sun lit up all the steam rising in the area. It was one of our best sunrises of the trip for sure. We were able to shoot late into the morning, but eventually went back to the hotel for breakfast.
We were beginning to make our way back south, but not before visiting Aldeyarfoss. This waterfall is situation in a beautiful canyon and features basalt columns that border the falls. We again had nice light to work with and made the most of it.
With most of the hot spots covered in the north, our last destination was Akureryi. It is the second largest city in Iceland. We had an excellent lunch and explored the city a bit, mainly to shop and check out some of downtown.
After that, we passed through some mountains in the west fjords. We stopped along the road next to some jagged peaks and shot for a while. The light was nice, but eventually faded. By the time we made it to Laugarbakki (our destination), it was downpouring. The forecast looked good for our final sunrise though so we crossed our fingers and went to bed.
It was hard to believe it was our last day already. We all wondered where the time had gone. It looked like it hadn’t cleared in the morning, but we still headed out to Hvítserkur. Hvítserkur is a 15 meter high basalt stack that sits just off shore on the norther coast. It is sometimes referred to as ‘dinosaur rock’ because of its shape. We continued to shoot, hoping the light would break, but it just never happened. We did get some moody clouds with the sea stack though. All in all, it was a fantastic trip and all of us were worn out from shooting non-stop for 10 days. We made our way back to Reykjavik after a final lunch together, and eventually arrived at Hotel Klettur back in the city. We said our good byes and as I said, we all were thankful for such a great trip. The next day I had breakfast with some of the group and we reminisced on some of our favorite moments. Waterfalls, glaciers, mountains, Northern Lights, and seascapes…we photographed a lot!
Thanks for reading and we would love to have you join our Iceland workshop slated for next autumn!
Matt Meisenheimer is a photographer based in Wisconsin. His artistry revolves around finding unique compositions and exploring locations that few have seen. He strives to capture those brief moments of dramatic light and weather, which make our grand landscapes so special. Matt loves the process of photography – from planning trips and scouting locations, taking the shot in-field, to post-processing the final image. Matt is an active adventurer and wildlife enthusiast as well. He graduated with a degree in wildlife ecology and worked in Denali National Park and Mount Rainier National Park as a biologist. He also spent 6 months working in the deserts of Namibia before finding his path in photography. Matt’s passion for the wilderness has taken him to many beautiful places around the world. As a former university teaching assistant, Matt is passionate about instruction. It is his goal to give his students the technical and creative knowledge they need to achieve their own photographic vision. He truly enjoys working with photographers on a personal level and helping them reach their goals. You can see Matt’s work and portfolio on his webpage at www.meisphotography.com