Must-Sees in Iceland without Spending a Fortune
Exploring the island in a camper van and creating your most adventurous vacation ever!
By Stephanie Byrnes
It’s here, it’s here! The one millionth blogpost you’ve ever read about Iceland itineraries! With the increase in tourism the last few years to this chilly island, there are countless sources out there telling you exactly how to have the best Iceland experience there is!
However, when I was looking for information, I actually became very overwhelmed with the wealth of knowledge available. I wanted concise details, itineraries for using a camper van for stays and travel, and as many FREE offerings as would feed our appetite for adventure without draining our vacation savings on one week trip.
So I did what I do: rented a camper van for a week and totally winged the whole experience once we landed. Hopefully our off the cuff experience can help someone else experience the most epic Iceland adventure yet without feeling scheduled to death or vacation poor.
Here are my top 7 stops with an all-in budget of $2300 for two people, including airfare, camper van rental, and all campground stays, food, and gas. We didn’t do ANY paid for tours or spa experiences (that’s right, we skipped the Blue Lagoon, but feel like we still got our natural hot spring fix for FREE). Absolutely it was one of our most epic adventures as a price point I think many can afford. And if that number is actually below budget for you, there are countless incredible tours and spas you can add to beef up the experience even more—so long as you don’t over schedule yourself and miss the gift of spontaneity to soak up the scenery longer.
1. Reykjadalur Geothermal River
Reykjadalur Geothermal River: Don’t miss this! Ok, this was actually the last thing we did on our trip, and I’m SO GLAD WE DID IT. I had read reviews that it was crowded and not even all that warm, but that did not turn out to be our experience, at all! At just over a half hour from Reykjavik, this may even be a good first stop off the plane, or perhaps a way to end the trip like we did with a good soak after several days of hiking.
The hike to the river valley is what I would consider pretty moderate. Getting there is steep, and while we saw several children on the hike, we definitely were winded by the time we made it to the top. Along this hike you experience the most amazing sites: bubbling mud vents, a gorgeous gorge and waterfall, and hot springs and geothermal pools that are too hot to touch! There’s even a point where the steam from the hot spots cover the trail, making it difficult to see in front of you. It is absolutely a hike worth making!
And once you get to the river, prepare to be dazzled! The water is so hot and the further up the river you go the warmer it gets. As you walk along the river, bend down periodically and test the waters to see where your sweet spot is before it gets too hot to handle. We arrived at the parking lot here about 9:00 pm and there were perhaps 50 people in the large river. We had plenty of space to ourselves and quickly found a little cove to enjoy and soak. There are no changing areas, but some little walls to stand behind to block the wind. We wore our swimsuits under our clothes there, and when it came time to leave, Anthony held up a towel for me to undress and put on my clothing. People just do the best they can to cover themselves, but privacy is limited. Like I said, we did this on day 6 of our journey and it was the perfect way to enjoy our trip.
2. Seljalandsfoss & Skogafoss Waterfalls
Seljalandsfoss & Skogafoss waterfalls: While not as popular as Skogafoss just up the road, Seljalandsfoss is a smaller waterfall just before you get to Skogafoss if coming from Reykjavik on HWY 1. Seljalandsfoss draws people because of the ability to actually walk behind it. It’s a very short hike and easily accessible by many. This was our first stop after landing in Iceland and picking up our camper van at CampEasy Iceland, who we absolutely recommend for camper van services. One of my top tips for traveling in Iceland if you are from the U.S.A., is continue to function on your home time zone in the summertime while in Iceland. Because the sun stays up until around midnight, we often went to popular locations when tourists had cleared for the night. We arrived at these falls around 5 p.m. Icelandic time, which was after most of the tour buses were gone, and there were only 6-10 people out in the middle of summer.
Skogafoss is undoubtedly one of the most popular waterfalls on the island, and it’s absolutely breathtaking! Not only can you get as close as you can manage on the bottom, but you can also walk to the top and get views from above. This was my favorite waterfall in Iceland, and being as there are 10,000+, you will see your fair share. If staying in a camper van, there is also camping at the base of Skogafoss, which makes for incredible views to wake up to. We paid about $30 USD for two to camp here for the night, which included hot showers. While I didn’t wash my hair on this trip, we did shower off dirt and sweat from hiking daily, but If you can forgo the shower, you’ll save some money at some campgrounds.
3. DC Plane Crash
DC Plane Crash: this is going to be more of a photo opportunity than perhaps a moving experience like so much of Iceland, but we still loved this spot. This plane left on the beach is completely accessible to you and set on black sands and a beautiful ocean. The history is less than thrilling in my opinion, but you can walk in the abandoned plane and truly engage with it, making it a more unique experience. The hike out to this site is rather long and boring, but completely flat. We arrived at this spot around 9pm because (again) we were still functioning on Central Time. There was a group out at the plane taking fashion photos of some sort, but we didn’t let that stop us from sharing the experience.
4. Reynisfara Black Sands Beach
Reynisfara Black Sands Beach: the black sands of this area are absolutely unbelievable! Aside from the color, the coastline and rock formation in the water has to be one of the more moving places we visited. In some ways this area reminded me of the Oregon coastline in the U.S., but the dark sands set it apart as unique and stunning. Another aspect we love about Iceland is its rich folklore! The legend of the three trolls is such fun one you can read more about here , and makes exploring this area that much more fascinating. My one tip in this area as it was the most crowded area we visited is to either go very early or late in the day, and be sure to venture out across the rocks. We went as far left down the beach as we could, and on the other side of the rock formations we had the beach entirely to ourselves and prime viewing of the three trolls themselves!
5. Diamond Beach & Jokulsarlon (Glacier Lagoon)
Diamond Beach & Jokulsarlon: this was Anthony’s favorite spot. The glaciers come down the mountain and begin to melt in this lagoon before setting out into the ocean like ice cubes in a glass. The fragments of the glaciers wash up on the shore of Diamond Beach, making it look like diamonds scattered on the black sand. The juxtaposition of the blue waters, black sand, and white ice is remarkable!
And while completely distinct in themselves, Diamond Beach and Glacier Lagoon are just across the street from each other, making it easy to park and walk to both locations if desired. Jokulsarlon is the Glacier Lagoon and was a bit of a spiritual experience for me! It is just totally unlike anything I had seen before. The glaciers are larger in the lagoon and the water bluer. We even saw a small seal swimming about the waters. Boat tours are a popular option here, and you will see some small boats of people in the lagoon to experience the glaciers up close. If you have the budget, that is one tour Anthony would have liked to have done!
6. Arnastapi land bridge, coastline, and lava fields
Arnastapi’s land bridge, coastline, and lava fields: This was MY favorite area in Iceland. Snæfellsjökull National Park is less trafficked by tourists than more popular options on the South Coast. But these West Peninsula gems are not be skipped! Dramatic coastlines get me every time, and having so many interesting rock and lava formations in one place made for easy exploring! I almost didn’t cross the land bridge here because I’m terrified of heights, but so thankful I did! This is also a popular areas to bird watch, and we even spotted one of Iceland’s arctic foxes here!
The moss covered lava formations in the park were one of the most magical parts of the island to see up close. We spent over half a day in this area seeing as much as we could. The town of Arnarstapi itself is precious, and we snagged fresh fish and chips right off the coast at a little food truck there! There is a small campground in this town, that’s nothing to write home about, but it would fit the bill to stop and sleep for the night in your camper van.
Landbrotalaug: a remote hot spring. I’m throwing this one in here because it was just another happy spring we stumbled upon while we were in the West Peninsula. As mentioned above, the West Peninsula isn’t nearly as traveled with tourists as the South Coast, so campgrounds are more sparse. We had to go way out of our way to find a campground, but were able to hit this spring along the way. And because this natural hot spring is in the middle of nowhere, it made for a fun experience! There’s no hike involved, and it only fits 3-4 people. When we arrived there was a couple there, but they quickly left and we had the cove to ourselves for at least a half hour before giving our spot to some new arrivals. There’s nothing incredibly special about this place except that it’s warm and secluded with a significant other!
Costs & Campgrounds
We stayed in Iceland 7 days, and these spots are just the tip of the iceberg (pardon the pun…) of what we actually visited. We also did the Golden Circle, which is the most traveled tourist spot on the island. But to be honest, there is nothing in the Golden Circle that I would recommend to fellow travelers if you have already seen the likes of Old Faithful in Yellowstone, Niagara Falls in New York, or the actual Grand Canyon in Arizona. If limited on time, instead see the unique to Iceland areas above! I didn’t go into detail on the campgrounds we loved, but our favorites were at Thingvellir National Park, at the base of Skogafoss Waterfall, and at the Svartifoss trailhead (another great waterfall, but just didn’t make the list as there are SO many waterfalls to choose from). The other campgrounds we stayed at were in Arnastapi and at the base of the Reykjadalur Geothermal River. All campgrounds ran us between $20-30/night for two people with shower access.
Our final budget for this adventure of a lifetime is:
$850 plane tickets
$900 medium sized camper van through CampEasy Iceland
$120 eating out/coffee out
$112 campground stays
Total: $2325 USD
We absolutely hope this is helpful to anyone looking to travel Iceland via camper van and to experience the island at a price point that many can afford! Let us know if you have any questions, and if you haven’t already, move Iceland to the top of your must-see bucket list!