What to do around Vik i Myrdal
What to do around Vik Iceland: If you plan to visit Iceland’s spectacular South Coast, Vik makes a convenient base. It’s a little unusual – a seaside settlement with no harbour, the only one of its kind in the country. But the town’s surroundings offer dramatic coastal scenery, myriad birdlife and breathtakingly beautiful glaciers. Rather than drive by from Reykjavik, we’d recommend you stay at least a couple of days in Vik to make the most of the area’s attractions. Here are eleven nearby places you won’t want to miss if you’re staying in Vik.
Reaching 340 metres high at its tallest point and about 800 metres wide, the landform known as Reynisfjall was created in the penultimate Ice Age when a volcano erupted under a glacier. This mini-mountain, or hill, whichever you prefer, is made from layers of tuff, pillow lava and veins of columnar basalt. You only need to have a reasonable level of fitness to climb it and in summer, you’ll have a great vantage point from which to watch puffins, Arctic terms, fulmars and gulls. Remember: look but don’t touch!
But although it’s attractive in its own right, Reynisfjall is visited largely because of its more popular neighbours, Reynisfjara and Reynisdrangar. Together, they form part of the Katla Geopark.
Game of Thrones fans will be familiar with the sight of Reynisfjara, the black sand beach battered by the waves of the Atlantic Ocean just outside Vik. In the popular series, on this beach stood the castle at Eastwatch-by-the-Sea until it was destroyed. In real life, it’s one of Iceland’s wildest and most deadly beaches. With no land for thousands of miles, huge breakers can form and you’d be wise never to turn your back on the sea here – even on a still day. Likewise there’s a hidden rip current which presents a very real threat to anyone who enters the water. So why visit? Simple: this is one of the most rugged and most beautiful beaches in a nation blessed with remarkable coastal scenery. Towering cliffs of columnar basalt rise from the black sand forming a stunning natural backdrop to the view. At their feet you’ll find Halsanefshellir, a vaulted cavern on the black sand beach. The cave opens directly onto the beach so be very careful if you visit on a rising tide or when it’s windy.
Just offshore from Reynisfjara stand the sea stacks of Reynisdrangar. Like the cliffs, they’re basalt too but have been eroded by the waves over the centuries and are now separated from the coastline to form standalone pillars of rock. They’re home to nesting seabirds, including puffins, fulmars and guillemots. Of course, although there’ a perfectly sound scientific explanation for these landmarks, they also feature in the local folklore. So the tale goes, the rocks began life as trolls whose mission it was to drag unsuspecting ships from the safety of the waves under cover of darkness and wreck them on the shore. But the trolls got careless and left it too late to hide from the dawn. As the sun rose, they were turned into stone and remain so to this day. Whichever story you believe, there’s nothing more beautiful than the sight of Reynisdrangar in the sunshine, the soft light illuminating just the tips of these craggy outcrops of rock.
Nearby, the wave-cut arch at Dyrhólaey is one of South Iceland’s most iconic images and yet most people miss something: there are actually two arches. Standing side by side, the gaping hole in this rocky headland and its diminutive neighbour draw a crowd keen to see just what the power of the waves can do. Translating as “the hill island with the door hole” Dyrhólaey is best viewed at low tide when you can walk along the black sand beach without getting your feet too wet. In summer, colonies of puffins make their home in the basalt cliffs, just as they do at Reynisdrangar. Although, avoid nesting season in the spring if you’re planning to visit as the beach is off-limits to protect the chicks. It’s also well worth the climb up onto the adjacent headland where you’ll find a lighthouse perched atop the cliff. From there, the views along the coast are superb. From Vik, Dyrhólaey’s only a 20 minute drive east via Dyrhólavegur.
The DC-3 wreck at Sólheimasandur
In November 1973, a United States Navy Douglas DC-3 carried cargo for a radar station on the Stokknes peninsula, on course for Hofn’s Hornafjördur Airport. It might have run out of fuel when the pilot switched over to the wrong fuel tank, or it might have fallen victim to severe icing. Either way, the plane didn’t maintain altitude and the crew were forced to make an emergency landing on the black sands of Sólheimasandur. Luckily, rescuers from nearby Vik were soon on the scene and all seven crew members made it out alive. No one removed the fuselage, however, and this almost intact plane lies in the same spot to this day. Windblown sand litters the inside and wires spill like entrails out of busted compartments. The broken plane lies bleached and peppered with airgun pellets, cannibalised and left to the elements. Only tracks in the sand offer a clue that this is on the tourist trail. Head out on a gravel track by 4×4 and see it for yourself. Load GPS co-ordinates into your sat-nav or better still, take a guide – the plane can be tricky to find.
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
Forget Game of Thrones and the small screen: here’s a place which has appeared in more movies than it cares to mention. You’ll know it from Lara Croft’s Tomb Raider, Batman Begins and two Bond films. Best of all, it’s less than 200 kilometres from Vik. Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon tops many visitors’ must-see lists and it’s not hard to see why. Squeezed between the mighty Vatnajökull glacier and the even mightier Atlantic Ocean, it’s well worth the two and a half hour drive it takes to reach – and easily achievable as a day trip from Vik. In summer, huge lumps of ice calve from the glacier and float gently through the freshwater lagoon and down to the sea. They range in hue from milky white to the sharpest turquoise blue. The ocean waves bat them to and fro. Those that end up marooned on the beach are like sparkling gems, glinting in the sunshine against the dark black grains of sand. It’s no wonder that this place draws the crowds. In summer, hop on an amphibious vehicle or aboard a Zodiac for a close-up view of the floating icebergs. It gets busy, so pre-book to avoid disappointment.
Later in the season, the crowds thin as the boat operators pack up for the winter. Remember that chase in Die Another Day? The film crew dammed the stream to cut off the warmer sea water, making the lagoon freeze thick enough to drive over. So don’t get any ideas about recreating that scene with your hire car. Instead, the lake shore path offers a grandstand view over the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier, an offshoot of Vatnajökull that flows right into the lake. You’ve a good chance of seeing seals and of course, those famous icebergs on the beach with fewer people to photo bomb your shot.
If seeing Jökulsárlón’s icebergs has given you the taste for a glacial adventure, then you’ll find one closer to Vik as well. That hulking ice cap you can see looming above Vik? That’s Mýrdalsjökull. You can see it from the ring road, this, the fourth largest ice cap in Iceland covering almost 600 square kilometres and hiding an entire volcano. Yes, deep beneath your feet, under the cover of this thick and creaking slab of ice, Katla volcano lies dormant, awaiting her chance to erupt. Usually, Katla pops her top about every fifty years or so, but the last eruption was in 1918. It’s also normal for Katla to kick off not long after Eyjafjallajökull, which of course was the volcano which caused chaos for air traffic in 2010. But nothing is certain when it comes to vulcanology and it could be many years yet for Katla to wake up again. Scientists are monitoring Katla closely, so you can travel to the area safe in the knowledge that there’s no danger.
In the meantime, it’s a visitor favourite for accessible snowmobiling and helicopter tours. In winter, tourists can also head down into the ice caves on tours which depart from Vik. Hikers will be pleased to discover that the best views of the ice cap can be found from the Fimmvörðuháls hiking trail which links Mýrdalsjökull with Eyjafjallajökull. Treks last from one to three days, the longer walk taking in the complete route from Þórsmörk to Skógar.
Sólheimajökull Glacier is a ten kilometre long and two kilometre wide tongue of ice protruding from the Mýrdalsjökull ice cap. At its summit, it stands at an altitude of about 1300 metres, flowing down to about 100 metres above sea level. With its rugged appearance and glistening blue ice, Sólheimajökull is one of the best glaciers in Iceland for an ice hike. The ice that you see has been a part of Iceland’s landscape for over five centuries.
Don’t be tempted to hike the ice on your own, as deep crevasses riddle the icy surface making it a treacherous landscape for the uninitiated. You’ll need crampons which will give you the grip you need to walk over the slippery surface. A harness, helmet and ice axe are required. Warm clothes and gloves to protect your hands from being cut on shards of ice are also essentials, as is a knowledgeable guide who can lead you on a spectacular adventure no matter what – even first-timers can handle this trip. As you set off up to the base of the glacier, you’ll understand what a phenomenal sight such a body of ice can become. Ice climbing and ice hiking are addictive – once you’ve experienced the thrill of setting foot on the ice, you’re going to want to do it again.
Þakgil hiking trails
This hidden canyon’s name translates from the Icelandic to “roof canyon” and is located about half an hour northeast of Vik. The way through the canyon is scenic, passing a rock with the face of a troll, known locally as Tótanef after a man who lived in Vik. There’s a viewpoint a little further along from where you can see the River Múlakvísl and the south coast. And then, there’s Þakgil. On a windy day, the canyon offers respite from the elements. Its imposing rock walls are covered in brightly coloured moss, drawing hikers with its striking appearance. Deep inside the canyon, there’s a secret waterfall, hidden from sight just past the campsite in the belly of a cave. It’s the perfect picnic spot, so take a packed lunch. You’ll find plenty of other walking paths nearby. For a map of these hiking trails, click here.
Hjörleifshöfði is a headland that juts out over the south coast and the Mýrdalssandur outwash plain a short drive east of Vik. This rocky outcrop is easily spotted. It stands a couple of hundred metres high and takes its name from a Viking settler called Hjörleifur Hróðmarsson. There was a farm just west of the promontory from about 874AD which was washed away after the 1721 Katla eruption caused devastating flooding in the area – of course, nothing was understood about the dangers of volcanoes when the farm was established all those centuries ago. Beginning at Bæjarstaður, where that old farm was located, it’s possible to hike to the summit. Follow the Bæjarstaðagil canyon and onwards up the track, keeping Sauðafell on your left. The gradient flattens out a little as you ascend and you’ll soon be walking across grass on your way to the top. There are uninterrupted views across to the Mýrdalsjökull glacier, as well as Reynisdrangar sea stacks and the rest of the Vik coastline.
Viking Tomb hike
At the top of Hjörleifshöfði, you’ll find Hjörleifur’s burial mound, also known as the Viking Tomb. He was the brother-in-law of Ingólfur Arnarson, who himself was the very first settler of Iceland and the man who founded Reykjavik. The two men travelled together and when he came to Iceland, Hjörleifur settled near Vík. There was a slave uprising and Hjörleifur was murdered. Ingólfur returned to avenge his brother-in-law’s death and first buried him near his farm. Later, the body was moved and a proper Viking burial mound was created. For some Icelanders, the spot is almost a place of pilgrimage where they can be close to their Viking heritage. But even if you’re a visitor, it’s a powerful and poignant spot.
You can see why we’d be disappointed if you passed through Vik in your hurry to reach places further east. With such diverse scenery and a wide range of tours on offer, there’s plenty to reward those who linger for a few days. Will you be adding a stay in Vik to your Iceland itinerary?