The landscapes of Iceland are defined by their volcanically active geology. This relatively young Nordic island sits on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge formed along the tectonic fault line between the North American continental plate and the Eurasian plate. The island attract millions of visitors annually that look to experience a taste of Iceland’s infinite landscapes, stunning volcanic and geological attractions, and excellent wildlife.
Skaftafelljökull glacier at the Skaftafell area of Vatnajökull National Park, in the Eastern Region.
The highest elevation of the island is 2,110 m (6,923 ft) and the interior of the island consists mainly of a massive plateau that features ice caps, glaciers, lava fields, rivers and canyons, waterfalls, geysers, volcanic mountains and often moon-like landscapes.
Map of Iceland and Route 1 (the Ring Road) with selected attractions [Credit: Jan Haenraets | explearth.org]
The lowlands have areas of fertile land and dramatic coastlines with steep volcanic cliffs and fjords, and with several glaciers dropping to the sea level from the elevated ice caps. About two-thirds of the country consisting of tundra.
Iceland Vegetation map and Land Utilization map.
Þingvellir National Park consists of a rift valley surrounded with volcanic cliffs and mountain sides with lava fields. Þingvellir National Park was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2004. At Þingvellir (pronounced Thingvellir) the heritage of the Althing can be found. The Althing was gathered as a type of an open-air community assembly from the tenth to the eighteenth century. It set laws and settled disputes, and represented the whole of Iceland.
At Þingvellir National Park the visual evidence of the movement of the North American and Eurasion tectonic plates can be observed at the Almannagjá gorge. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge, seen as the longest mountain range in the world, cuts through Iceland and has at a Rift Valley that mars the actual tectonic fault line between the North American continental plate and the Eurasian plate. The inter-continental drift created here at Þingvellir the Almannagjá gorge, with cliffs, canyons, waterfalls and fissures. The Silfra fissure at Þingvellir at the rift between the two continents, is seen as one of top diving or snorkeling sites in the world, in what is described as possibly the cleanest waters in the world.
Þingvallavatn lake and the Almannagjá gorge in the foreground, at Þingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Iceland’s latitude keeps the average Summer temperatures low, while the presence of the Gulf Stream means that its average climate remains temperate. A factor that much influences its weather and outdoor temperatures is the ever-present wind.
Öxaráfoss waterfall in the Almannagja gorge, at the Þingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Almannagjá gorge, the eastern boundary of the North American tectonic plate. On the Golden Circle.
Iceland has a population of almost 350,000 and a size of 103,000 square kilometers (40,000 square miles). This is just over Scotland’s 80,077 square kilometers, and approximately the same size as South Korea, or twice the size of Costa Rice, and over three times the size of Belgium. Iceland’s population density of 3.2 per square kilometer (8.3/sq. mi.) make Iceland the least densely populated country in Europe. For instance, the United Kingdom is about 271 per km2 and Belgium 372 per km2. About two-thirds of the population lives in the Capital Region of Reykjavik. The volcanic activity means that much of the island can run on geothermal power.
Haukadalur geothermal valley, the Geysir and Strokkur geysers, on the Golden Circle.
Its road systems consist of a number of asphalted main roads, with a major part of the roads consisting of gravel roads. Since 1974 the Ring Road or Route 1 fully encircles the island. For overseas visitors this 1,332 kilometres (828 miles) Route 1 has become a main causeway to explore the country. Once visitors hit the Route 1, they will predominantly cross paths with the impressive portfolio of rental cars, campervans, four-wheel vehicles, and the occasional hardened cyclists.
Gullfoss waterfall, on the Golden Circle.
The Route 1 allows for experiencing a number of impressive attractions and landscapes around Iceland, and gaining an unforgettable impression of the island’s natural and cultural heritage. Depending on the season visitors can wander away from the main Route 1, and access some of the more remote areas. For a large part of the year many of the secondary roads, such as the F roads, remain closed for traffic, and even when roads are open visitors during Summer, they will require mandatory 4-wheel drive vehicles.
View from the town of Höfn in the Eastern Region to the glaciers between the towns of Hof and Höfn that reach down to sea level from the Vatnajökull glacier.
The above images show several impressions of selected attractions on the Golden Circle, which can be explored as a day-trip from Reykjavik and is the most crowded tourist area.
The images below give impressions of selected scenic sites along the Route 1 during the Spring season. These images have been organized by the regions that are passed along the Route 1, in a counter-clockwise order.
The Southern Region – Along Route 32 & 26
Hjálparfoss at the confluence of the Fossá and Þjórsá rivers
Landscapes around Sultartangi hydropower station
The Southern Region – Around Vik
The black sands of Reynisfjara
Southern Region – East of Vik
The Eldhraun lava field
Stjórnarfoss in Kirkjubæjarklaustur
Eastern Region – East Coast Glaciers
Svínafellsjökull glacier at the Skaftafell area of Vatnajökull National Park
Breiðamerkurjökull glacier and the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon
Eastern Region – East Coast
Eastern coastlines, bays and fjords
Mt Bulandstindur between Berufjörður and Hamarsfjörður bays, and Breiodalsheidi valley
Lava landscapes along the Þjóðvegur Route 1
Dettifoss and Selfoss waterfalls in Ásbyrgi canyon, Jökulsárgljúfur region of the Vatnajökull National Park
Northeastern Region – Lake Mývatn geothermal area
Mt. Krafla and Kröflustöð (Krafla) Power Plant
Námaskarð Pass and Námaskarð geothermal area
Dimmuborgir, the ‘Dark Fortress’, and Skútustaðagígar pseudo-craters
Northeastern Region – Mývatn to Akureyri
Laufás Heritage Museum
Northwestern and Western Region
Reykjafoss and Fosslaug hot spring, near Varmahlio
Capital Region – Reykjavik
The Harpa Concert Hall
Hallgrímskirkja church tower
Text and photography by Jan Haenraets
Jan Haenraets is a Director of Atelier Anonymous Landscapes Inc., Vancouver, BC, Canada, and a Professor in the Preservation Studies Program, at Boston University
Websites of interest
An endless number of websites provide information on visiting Iceland and Route 1. A number of music videos also provide atmospheric impressions of the landscapes around Iceland.
sigur rós, Icelandic band, movie Heima (often available for viewing on You Tube).
sigur rós also made a movie Route One, which was broadcasted as a 24 hour slow TV event. “On the longest day of summer 2016 sigur rós drove the whole way round iceland’s ring road, broadcasting the entire 1332km journey live on youtube.”
Bon Iver, USA band, music video for their song Holocene, filmed in the Vik area.
Inspired by Iceland, Official Iceland Tourism Website
Hiticeland, Route 1.
Guidetoiceland, Best Attractions by the Ring Road of Iceland.
Þingvellir National Park, UNESCO World Heritage site.