Winter in the Wild
The South Coast’s magical waterfalls, glistening ice caves, black-sand beaches and glacial volcanoes
Words by Angela Caraway-Carlton
“There’s nothing usual in Iceland. Every day, every minute, is completely different,” proclaims our guide Einar with Southcoast Adventure, as our jacked-up super Jeep that’s been specially designed to traverse the area’s challenging terrain, shakes and grumbles to climb snow-packed hills. “We make a plan, but it all changes with the weather.”
It’s our first full day on Iceland’s breathtaking South Coast, and for the moment, the winter sky is robin-egg blue and the sun is brightly shining. We’re inching our way to Eyjafjallajökull—the glacial-capped volcano that famously erupted in 2010—to hop on snowmobiles and rocket up the natural wonder.
Reaching the base, our guide runs through a safety lesson, and soon we’re carving our way up the glacier, racing like giddy kids set free at recess and gawking at the jaw-dropping surroundings. The morning’s good visibility allows us to get close to the top, and stepping off the snowmobiles feels as if we’ve invaded another planet. It’s completely silent, and the terrain is draped in glistening snow yet dotted with protruding, rugged black rocks that create an otherworldly effect. Walking to the glacier’s edge, the blue horizon extends before us—the sky so close it’s almost as if we can reach out and touch it—and the vast southern coast and nearby Westman Islands spectacularly unfold beneath us.
Gazing at the beauty below, my excitement starts to build. As if on cue, by the time we descend the glacier, the weather drastically shifts, bringing heavy winds and whiteout conditions that cancel any afternoon activities.
While many vacationers base their trip in Reykjavík, Iceland’s popular capital, a two-hour drive to the picturesque South Coast opens up a world of adventure and access to some of the volcanic island’s most awe-inspiring attractions that are all outside. Southern Iceland’s untamed terrain changes every few feet, and its wide-open spaces offer plenty of room to socially distance, even with an influx of visitors.
During our five days on the South Coast, we stop at countless epic waterfalls—our favorite being Gljúfrabúi—a “hidden” waterfall concealed by a cliff that often sits unnoticed next to the tourist-favored, 200-foot Seljalandsfoss waterfall. Getting there is part of the fun, as you’re forced to wade through a shallow stream into a mossy cave, where like a scene painted in a mystical tale, gushing water theatrically cascades into a small pool as daylight dreamily floods through the opening above.
We experience the powerful force of Mother Nature on the volcanic black-sand beach of Reynisfjara, where towering sea stacks dramatically jut from the Atlantic Ocean, powerful waves thunder ashore, and tales of battling trolls come alive. With its foreboding appearance—which offered the perfect backdrop for “Game of Thrones,” “Star Wars,” and more—the beach is a treat for the eyes and camera with its looming jagged basalt cliffs meant for climbing to snap Instagram-worthy pictures. Signs warn not to get too close to the ocean, though, as dangerous sneaker waves have swept away unsuspecting visitors.
Winter in southern Iceland presents the rare opportunity to visit ethereal ice caves, and the unforgettable highlight of the trip is exploring two ice caves that formed on a glacier covering the Katla volcano, one of Iceland's largest volcanoes.
Led by a guide with Southcoast Adventure—it’s extremely dangerous to explore ice caves on your own—we hook our harnesses onto a rope to enter the opening of the first cave, where we are met with walls of ice dressed in brilliant hues of blue, its magnificent curves carved by the wind. The cave’s colors and shapes are ever-changing as we walk, crawl, and sometimes slide on our bellies through narrow passageways. When our guide turns off his flashlight, the ice twinkles like stars. “What I love most about the ice caves is that something new either opens up or breaks off, so each time you always see something different,” he says, as we sit in an area that was inaccessible the week before because it was flooded.
A much larger neighboring cave offers a completely different experience—its icy veins cloaked in volcanic ash for a black-and-white ombré effect. To exit, our guide presents the best way down: slide down the glacier wall on your bum. And like gleeful children, laughing and screaming, that’s just what we did.
As we drive, gorgeous Icelandic horses pepper the fields of roadside farms. Some stand as still as statues, trying not to burn precious energy during the cold winter, while others playfully tussle in the snow. For a chance to ride one of these beauties and experience one of their five special gaits, make reservations at the horse breeding farm, Skeiðvellir. Scenic tours take riders through meadows and past snow-cloaked volcanoes and glaciers, which feels like a winter fairy tale.
Luxury in the South
Situated in the middle of southern Iceland’s action is Hotel Rangá, a small luxury hotel perched along the East Rangá River in a rural location perfect for viewing the elusive northern lights. The countryside retreat fashioned after an elegant log cabin feels like a home, with the owner, Fridrik, wandering the communal areas to make sure every need is met. (If the hotel sounds familiar, it could be because the Kardashians stayed there.)
Each of the 52 guest rooms and suites have its own unique style, with seven suites grandly themed after the continents, with curated decorations and handmade furniture shipped in from its respective place. Most rooms boast soaking tubs, balconies and heated floors in the bathrooms, which are a welcome luxury after wet, cold days of exploring.
You haven’t experienced serenity until you’ve run through the snow in the hotel’s provided robes to jump in one of the geothermal heated hot tubs, where you’ll listen to the snow crackle and watch the wind ripple across the river as you soak. In the evenings, the hotel is romantically aglow with flickering candles as guests sip cocktails in the cozy lounge and feast on Nordic cuisine such as crispy arctic char, reindeer carpaccio, and puffin (if you dare) at the restaurant.
Besides its close proximity to many of southern Iceland’s attractions, the hotel makes peeping the northern lights from September through April a priority for its guests. If the colorful lights begin dancing in the area’s dark skies during dinner, guests in the restaurant are rounded up to slide into complimentary snowsuits to watch from the hotel’s observatory fitted with high-tech telescopes; in case the lights appear overnight, guests can schedule a wake-up call, so they don’t miss the show. We spend four nights at the hotel, but in true Iceland style, the northern lights elude us. But after all the incredible things we’ve seen and experienced, we can’t grumble; it only leaves us with a strong reason to return.
Insanely beautiful and utterly unpredictable, plans in Iceland are often just suggestions. But if you embrace the destination’s capriciousness, you’re in for the winter adventure of a lifetime.