Unique Geographical Features of Iceland

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geothermicarea_haukadalur
Haukadalur geothermic area.

Iceland has a plethora of geographical features to offer and remains one of the most unique and beautiful places I’ve ever visited. But really, Iceland is where you see different forms of ice and different forms of earth in various states.

tectonicplates_map
Credit: USGS (U.S. Geological Survey)

Iceland is known as “The Land of Fire and Ice” mainly due to the fact that it is very geothermically active due to its location above a hotspot amongst tectonic plates (hence fire) and proximity to the North Pole (ice). The hotspot is the primary reason for its existence as the large island was created by a series of underwater volcanic eruptions, similar to the Hawaiian islands. And these geological interactions between the Earth and water is the cause for the beautiful landscapes, states of water, and types of rock.

Fun Fact:

11% of Iceland is covered with permanent ice cap. (National Geographic)

We visited many of these sites of earth and ice during our trip to Iceland and we were absolutely amazed by how unique, seemingly every day, states of water and different types of rock could possibly look.

We’ll take you on a walkthrough of the sights we saw and how they relate to ice-land!

Ice (Water)

As you know, there are three main states of water: ice, liquid (water), and gas (or steam). Iceland’s definitely got all three.

 

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Svinafellsjokull Glacier.

Glaciers

Since a good amount of the island is covered in permanent ice cap, I guess it makes sense that there’d be a bunch of glaciers, right? Iceland is famous for having glaciers spread out over the island.

We visited Vatnajökull, the largest of all of the glaciers in Iceland. It also happens to be the glacier where the largest amount of tourism and movie filming occurs; Batman, The Martian, and Game of Thrones were all filmed here. The famous glacier lagoon (Jökulsárlón), glacier hiking, and the Black Diamond Beach are all located within this general area.

We were lucky enough to book a tour to hike up it’s outlet glacier, Svínafellsjökull, it’s name means “pig mountain glacier.” But that’s a story for another time so I’ll do a write up of that experience in the future 🙂 However, I will say that I have never seen such a large field of ice in my life, it was insane!

But it’s still necessary to mention… ALWAYS book a tour to hike a glacier, otherwise you might die, seriously, like fall into a crack and die.

Learn the Language:

“Jökull” in Icelandic means “glacier.”

dettifoss
Dettifoss is the most powerful waterfall in Europe and is located in northern Iceland.

Waterfalls

Waterfalls abound in Iceland in a way that is unimaginable! Coming from California, where we were in a years-long drought up until this past winter season (2016-2017), I had no idea that it was possible for water to just drip from a random mountainside by the freeway.

The source of Icelandic waterfalls tend to originate from glacier melt and frequent precipitation (rain and snow). Due to snow melt, the waterfalls also tend to be more powerful during the summer.

This is just a snapshot of one of the amazingly beautiful waterfalls you can see in Iceland, there are many many more. For more on waterfalls, see Chasing Waterfalls in Iceland.

 

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Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon.

Glacier Lagoon

Jökulsárlón is the glacier lagoon you’ve seen all over your Instagram and is one of the best representations of the in-between of ice and water. The floating icebergs on this lake make it a sight to behold! The water flows from the Breiðamerkurjökull outlet glacier out to the ocean, mixing saltwater with freshwater along the way.

In fact, this lagoon was also the set of the movie, 007: Die Another Day. In the movie, James Bond drove a car over the frozen lagoon. They actually had to build a barrier (or wall, LOL, Game of Thrones reference ;p) to prevent the saltwater from getting in so that the lagoon could be frozen solid.

Despite its beauty, I learned that this lagoon did not exist 80 years ago and is now the deepest lake in Iceland. It was created from glacier melt due to global warming. After seeing this lagoon, it made things very real for me… the guides mentioned that global warming hits Iceland hard throughout our tour but it definitely hits the nail in the head once you see it for yourself.

 

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Haukadalur geothermic area.

Geothermal Areas

There are 2 main geothermal areas frequented by visitors to Iceland: Haukadalur and Hverir geothermal fields. Both of these geothermal areas are similar in that they have steam vents and mud pools. However the main difference with Haukadalur is that it is famous for its geysers.

By definition, a geyser is a hot spring where water intermittently boils and sends a tall column of water and steam into the air. (Dictionary.com)

Geysir is actually THE geyser for which all geysers are named. Doesn’t that make Iceland seem so much more insane? Unfortunately Geysir no longer erupts on a regular basis as people were using it as trash disposal. It does erupt occasionally but for the most part it looks like a pool of mud.

strokkur_geyser
The Strokkur geyser spooked me a little when it exploded.

Nearby Strokkur is the geyser you want to see when you visit, it’s only across the way from Geysir but erupts about every 6-10 minutes and can erupt to heights of up to 40m, though 10-20m is the norm.

hverir_selfie

Hverir is the field with every other type of geothermal activity; there are mudspots here that bubble, steam vents that blow at intervals, as well as other steam vents that have a continuous flow of steam.

Note: If you don’t enjoy the smell of sulfur (I’m not sure anyone does TBH), but if you REALLY hate it, like it makes you sick, then you’ve officially been warned. It’s a lot stronger there than at Haukadalur.

 

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Kerid in the morning sun.

Crater Lakes

Aside from the glacier lagoon, there are also lakes often created from precipitation and glacier melt collecting within volcanic craters. The crater lakes in Iceland are Kerið, Viti, and Askja.

We visited Kerið on our road trip around the Golden Circle, it was an interesting crater with colorful vegetation in the area. It’s also privately owned property for which the owner charges an entrance fee of 400 ISK (~$3.67 US) per person.

 

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Lake Myvatn shortly after sunrise.

Lakes

The lakes in Iceland formed as a result of volcanic activity, but that doesn’t mean all of them are crater lakes.

Lake Myvatn is one of the more famous lakes in Northern Iceland due to the Diamond Circle scenic road trip route. It was formed over lava fields and as a result has very unique lava formations within the lake as well as on the lake’s shore. It is also one of the most beautiful lakes I’ve ever seen. 

Land (Rocks)

Iceland is also famous for its different types of geological features aka rocks, sand, and dirt.

 

hverfjall
Panoramic view of the Hverfjall crater.

Volcanoes

Due to the intense geothermal activity on the island, there are more than a few volcanoes in Iceland. The most famous Icelandic volcano is, Eyjafjallajökull, which exploded in 2010 causing massive delays and flight cancellations in Europe.

One of the few volcanoes that you can actually visit in Iceland is Hverfjall, an extinct volcano that you can hike up and around the crater. It is also located along the Diamond Circle route, so it’s a great stop on the way to other sights.

 

blacksandbeach_seastacks
Sea stacks off of the Black Sand Beach in Vik.

Black Sand Beach

The “sand” on this beach is black because it is made of tiny pebbles of lava. The beach was created as lava flowed into the ocean and cooled. Other geological formations can be seen from this beach, including the sea stacks of Reynisfjara (“The Sea Trolls”), the Dyrholaey (“The Arch Cliff”), and the basalt columns.

The Reynisfjara sea stacks were formed through exposure to the elements, primarily wind and wave erosion. They continually pound the stone until it becomes one large stack of rock.

The Dyrholaey was formed during an underwater eruption and as an important bird nesting site it is closed during several weeks in May and June.

The basalt columns on this beach were formed when lava cools into stick-like forms, in a process called columnar jointing.

Fun Fact: The most recent season of Game of Thrones, season 7, was also filmed on this beach. 😉

 

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Black Diamond Beach with sparkly, clear, glacial ice.

Glacier Beach

This beach, the Diamond Beach, is your combo of earth (sand), ice (glacier “diamonds”), and water. The sand here is BLACK and with the crystal clear white chunks of ice of melting glaciers, it definitely looks like a beach full of diamonds!  

 

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Moss-covered lava fields of Berserkjahraun.

Lava Fields

There are many types of lava fields in Iceland, some look more like hardened lava flows, others have moss growing on it, and still more have creepy-looking geological features.

Berserkjahraun on the Snaefellsnes peninsula is the type that has moss growing on its rock formations. It makes for a unique and cool landscape in your photos, adding some soft texture to the rough lava rocks.

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Famous Dimmuborgir window to the world.

Dimmuborgir area in northern Iceland is a great example of the creepy, rough looking lava rocks. These structures are similar to those hiding under the moss covered lava fields, except the ones at Dimmuborgir are MUCH larger structures. You can even take photos while standing in the rock windows!

 

psuedocraters

Pseudocraters

The name says it all right? Pseudocraters, meaning fake craters… is that what they are? Well, kind of… they look like volcanic craters, but no lava has actually erupted from them. They are formed when hot lava crosses over a wet surface, like a lake or a pond, causing steam explosions which break through the lava’s surface, creating geological formations that resemble craters.

Learn the Language:

“Kirk” in Icelandic means “church.”

kirkjufell
Kirkjufell is a mountain located on the Snaefellsnes peninsula in western Iceland.

Mountains

Iceland is full of mountains, insanely beautiful and picturesque mountains. And large rocks and dirt make up mountains right? ;p There are the mountains in the Highlands and all over the place that are super beautiful. 

We drove about 4hrs out of our way to visit was Kirkjufell. In Icelandic, it’s called “church mountain” and was also featured in the latest season 7 of Game of Thrones as the “arrowhead mountain.”

Honorable Mention

Aurora Borealis

We all know that the Aurora Borealis isn’t really unique to Iceland, since it can often be seen in Alaska, Canada, and Scandinavia (Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark), hence the honorable mention. However due to the climate, it is one of the best locations to view it, even if Tromso is considered to be located in the optimal viewing latitude and longitudinal area.

I’ve done a ton of research on this prior to visiting Iceland. Iceland is in an great location for viewing the aurora due to its cool climate with many clear winter nights. The aurora forecast is the website through which you can track clear winter nights perfect for getting a view of the aurora. Aside from providing an expected timeframe for the aurora, it also includes information about cloud cover throughout the entire country.

The aurora can have different colors, usually green, purple, and red. The colors appear when charged particles from the sun interact with different atmospheric gases, such as oxygen and nitrogen. A green hue is emitted when the sun’s particle react with oxygen in the air. Red appears when nitrogen reacts with the particles and purple if it is ionized nitrogen. Green is the most common, then purple, and red is seen least often. 

It’s sad to say that I don’t have photographic evidence (I know… pix or it didn’t happen, right?) 🙁 of my views of the aurora, since the best aurora we saw was in the middle of Akureyri, Iceland in October 2016. We were enjoying our dinner (at Strikid, one of THE best Nordic restaurants EVER) when all of a sudden we looked out the window and saw vibrant curtains of green and purple dancing in the sky. It was pretty amazing! But we don’t have photos due to the glare of the window and us wanting to just take the time to enjoy the experience. During that trip, we were also able to see the aurora a couple more times, but unfortunately none of them were as beautiful as that first time since we only saw small bands of green cross the sky. We’re spoiled now, sorry, not sorry. Icelanders joked that we’ve become like them and are no longer amazed at the tiny bands of green. :p

In all honesty, when I went to Iceland I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. Specifically in terms of understanding all of the natural and geothermal sights I was visiting and I hope this post helps you all in figuring that out!

47 COMMENTS

    • Yeah it’s super cool and picturesque. While other countries have these elements individually, like geothermal areas and volcanoes, I love how Iceland combines all of those features together to make them even more beautiful!

  1. More than a land it looks a poem, a poem of water and fire. I do not know what to say more, as I read I got so contrastanting emotion that I end it up breathless.

    • If you ever get the chance to go that means you’ll be even more breathless! Everything I saw there was jaw-droppingly beautiful!

    • Haha have you heard of how Greenland and Iceland have mixed up names? Because Greenland is mostly ice and Iceland is mostly green? I’d say it’s true for the most part, but the southern areas of Greenland are green as well 😜

  2. I am not a fan of cold weather, but these pictures make me want to add Iceland to my list of places to travel. I love the insight into all of the movies and shows filmed in the area. Great article!

    • Thank you for the compliments and support! I’m not a huge fan of the cold either because I’m always freezing. But I went to Iceland last fall, so it was cold but not too bad. Alternatively you could go in the summer when temperatures are warmer 😊 I’d love to go back during other seasons like summer and winter to experience it in other ways and see the same sights with a coat of snow or a bed of flowers.

  3. beautiful photos! I love Iceland, the landscapes are so incredible… and Jokulsarlon is definitely one of my favorites. I’m also a Californian and was totally blown away from all that water… I didn’t even know there could be so much in one place, haha

    • Thank you! Jokulsarlon was insane and super sad that it all melted into THAT much water within the last 80 years. Did you know it’s also now the deepest lake in Iceland? It’s kinda sad, but so beautiful at the same time!

  4. Love your article and your pictures are stunning! Haven’t been to Iceland yet, but it’s on my list! I’ll definitely use your article as a guide before I head there!

    • Yay, I’m excited for you! You’re going to love it! I’ll be continuing to add Iceland-related posts from my trip, stay tuned! 😊

  5. Wooow! Your photos are so gorgeous! I love the one of the crater lake, looks like a magical portal or something:) I really like that this post is about something other than the aurora, because that way, we can find out so much more awesome stuff about Iceland that we didn’t know before:) Thanks for sharing, super informative! Plus, as a GoT fan, I’m jealous that you got to visit a filming location:)

    • Thank you for the compliments! I’m glad it was educational and informative for ya, I try! 😜 There are tons of GoT filming locations in Spain that you’ve probably been to that I’m pretty jealous about! 😊

  6. I bet Iceland is the most beautiful country in the world – it’s my dream to visit but since I’m a budget traveler I know it would be difficult to organize. Your pictures are amazing – the island is so diverse and lucky you – I bet Aurora Borealis is on everyone’s bucketlist!

    • Yeah Iceland is pretty expensive, we did Airbnb/cheaper hotels so it was more on the lower side of mid-range. The cheapest route would probably be to take a budget flight via Wow Air and rent a camper van to see everything. Most of the natural sights are free so the majority of the cost once you’re in Iceland is food and lodging. You can always eat hot dogs and fish and chips from the gas stations 🙂 Hot dogs there were super good, I didn’t try the fish and chips so I can’t 100% vouch for that.

  7. You have listed some interesting place sand plenty of facts too. I haven’t been to Iceland yet which is a bit disappointing as I grew up so close in the UK. I hear there is some great natural wonder s to see but, yeah I’m not a big fan of the cold!

    • Oh wow you are super close! But honestly, the world is just too large. Surprisingly it wasn’t as cold as I thought it was and I went in October so it was already starting to get chilly. You could always go in the summer when it’s warmer 😊

  8. Volcano, lava, glaciers, pseudocraters.. wow ! What else can a nature lover ask for. Iceland is beautiful and I loved the way you got into the cience and geography of it. Seriously such posts teach you a lot. You must write to educate. Thanks !

    • Thank you for the compliments and support! Iceland is, indeed, full of natural eye candy and that’s exactly why I loved it so much! Glad you enjoyed the science lesson 😊

  9. I’ve only visited Reykjavik, but would love to return and explore more of Iceland. The waterfalls there are absolutely amazing. Didn’t realise the black sand beach was in Game of Thrones. Your pics are amazing!

    • You definitely need to go back! Reykjavik was cool, IMO, but what really did it for me was the natural sights. I need to go back and see more!

  10. what a stunning an unique landscape. there is so much to see and explore. great tips on booking a tour, the landscape and geology of the place seem to change all the time so it’s best to be safe. it’s beautiful.

    • Most of the sights are fine exploring on your own. It’s mainly glacier hiking that requires a tour since you could fall into a crack and die. (It’s difficult to know where you should be stepping in on the glacier unless you’re with a guide.) The other areas it’s more about common sense and not doing dumb things 😅

    • Glad I’m inspiring you to visit Iceland! I appreciate the support and hope you’ll get to visit in the future and see all this nature in real life 😊

    • I’ve heard New Zealand was amazing and kind of similar as well, it’s definitely on my list! I’m glad you enjoyed the post! 😊

  11. This is such an amazing post! Iceland has always been on my travel list. Your post has inspired me to plan my trip soon. The pictures are simply breathtaking.. glaciers, waterfalls, crater lakes, geothermal activities, everything is so fascinating. Looks like a magical fairy land. Thanks for sharing! Saved it to my favourites. 🙂

    • I’m glad you enjoyed my post! Iceland is definitely worth at least 1 trip if not a few and the things you are able to do there vary with the seasons which is super nice. There’s no “bad” time to go!

    • We went in mid-October so it was chilly, but not horrible as long as you’re prepared for the weather. Technically it’s possible to view the northern lights from August-April, you just need dark skies (which are lacking in the summer) and clear skies (which gets difficult when it’s snowing). In November you’ll definitely be there for the beginning of winter, it might be snowing there by then depending on where and when you go. There are also seasonal activities that might not be as available in the winter, like hiking will be difficult if it’s too cold (obviously this is different depending on the person), however you’ll be able to do some other things, like see ice caves. We weren’t able to see ice caves because it wasn’t cold enough yet unfortunately, so we’re trying to go back in the winter someday. Hope this helps! Enjoy your trip! 😊

  12. Iceland has unforgettable landscapes. Everyone talks about northern lights and glaziers, but there is so much more to see! You have done very well in showing what makes the Iceland so unique! Thanks for a good post!

    • Glad you enjoyed it! My goal was to showcase more things to see that aren’t as easily seen all at once elsewhere, since one can go to Alaska to see the lights and glaciers as well, but probably not those lava fields 😉

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