Ok, you’ve seen the introduction, it’s time to get down to business.
American Airlines lands at Keflavik Airport (about 30 minutes outside of Reykjavik and close the famous Blue Lagoon) pretty late in the morning compared to other airlines so there was basically no wait at customs. My checked bag arrived after a short wait (yes, I checked a bag, come at me) and I made my way to the rental car shuttle, picked up my rental car (a hideously small VW up!) and it was time to hit the road!
Many of you know I went to Texas A&M University. As I was making my way into Reykjavik I realized there was a group of Aggies in Reykjavik through our alumni association’s Traveling Aggies program. I used to work for that travel program and knew the tour leader well so I made my way into town to see her and catch up a bit. It was great seeing her and some other Texas Aggies, after that it was time to hit the road!
My overall plan
I landed on Saturday morning and had until the next Sunday morning on the ground in Iceland. My goal was a bit ambitious: I wanted to drive the entire Ring Road. Iceland’s Highway 1 circumnavigates the entire island and is in great shape. 8 days to do the Ring Road is completely doable. But I also wanted to see the Westfjords, which are remote, sparse, and feature some really crazy roads. Doing the Ring Road AND the Westfjords in 8 days would be a little aggressive. Then again I’m the moron who drove for 50 hours roundtrip once just to see a bridge (I just realized I’ve never posted that story! Oops) sooooo this was actually pretty reasonable by comparison.
Another thing to bear in mind: I knew that such an ambitious schedule meant that I would miss out on tons of amazing sights. I’ve always believed in traveling as if you’ll return someday so I wanted this trip to be about hitting the high points of Iceland and finding an area to which I’d love to return and drink in deeply.
Plan for the Day One
My plan for the day was to make my way up Iceland’s west coast to the Snaefellsness Peninsula. There are tons of great things to see there but I was targeting two things: a remote black church and the iconic Kirkjufell. My hotel for the night was on the north coast of the peninsula in the town of Stykkishólmur.
Driving in Iceland
Iceland is relatively easy to drive in for Americans with one exception: most rental cars have manual transmissions. I very much prefer driving a manual transmission vehicle to an automatic so that’s a bonus for me but if you need an automatic make sure you request it in advance with your rental agency.
Icelandic road law is similar to the United States with one exception: you cannot turn right on a red light. Get ready for low speeds as well. The speed limit on most of the Ring Road is 90 kilometers per hour (roughly 54mph), which is generally slower than most speed limits in the USA. Do not speed, there are speed cameras all over the place. Waze did a good job of pointing the speed cameras out for me but I generally tried not to speed anyway.
If you want a quick tip for converting kilometers to miles, multiply kilometers by 6 and drop the last digit. 90 kilometers per hour, for example, multiplied by 6 would be 540, drop the last digit (the zero) and I get roughly 54 miles per hour.
Another facet of Iceland driving that people aren’t used to are the enormous amount of single-lane bridges. At certain points on the Ring Road you’re basically driving up and down fjords, which means you’ll cross a river at the top of the fjord. Single-lane bridges are pretty easy: slow down, see if there is another car coming, and then proceed. The first car to get there has right of way, if you get there at the same time be generous and flash your lights to let the other person proceed first.
Generally it will take you much longer than you think to get from place to place. I found Google Maps and Apple Maps to be dreadfully inaccurate. Waze, as always, was incredibly accurate, so I recommend Waze for directions and/or for estimating when you’ll arrive at a place.
Búðakirkja, the isolated black church
I’ve always wanted to visit this little church. The setting is absolutely beautiful, it’s remote and isolated out near the coast. Like all things I was worried what the reality would be compared to the pictures I had seen, which was a common concern elsewhere in Iceland. I drove for a few hours, turned off the Ring Road and onto the Snaefellsness Peninsula. After some more beautiful scenery along a volcanic plain I reached the village of Budir. And really when I say “village” I mean there was a decently-sized hotel and that was pretty much it. Behind the church was a parking lot with a bunch of people with tripods, which meant I was at the Búðakirkja!
A quick rant about working among other photographers
A quick note about the volume of photographers you’ll see in Iceland. They’re simply everywhere. Sometimes photographers can be pretty dang inconsiderate of other photographers. I can only speak for what I try to do: I’m observant of where their cameras are pointed and do my best to walk around the back of their cameras so I don’t accidentally get in their shot. There are some shots you have to wait patiently to get for people to clear out. Wait patiently! And have some self-awareness, if you see a bunch of photographers lining up to get similar shots don’t just walk up to what their cameras are pointed at and spend five minutes working on the Perfect Selfie. And thus endeth the rant. Back to Búðakirkja.
The church was lonely, isolated, and was situated next to an old graveyard (quick bit of trivia: it’s called a graveyard when it’s next to a church and a cemetery when it’s not).
It was originally built in the early 1700s but was torn down because, well, no one lives nearby. It was rebuilt in the late 1980s by a single parishioner and now hosts weddings (a friend of mine has actually shot a wedding here). There was actually a wedding party walking around taking pictures before their ceremony when I was there.
As you can see above, they look cold, because it was cold and holy crap it was windy. I’m a bit overweight at the moment and am roughly 6-feet tall and it was hard for me to stand up at times without being knocked over by the crazy winds! Anyway, I turned my lens back to the church for a few more pictures as the other photographers and I worked out who was shooting where to stay out of each other’s shots.
Much of Iceland has low-lying coastal plains leading up to dramatic cliffs. Those cliffs used to be the coast of Iceland thousands of years ago and the plains were once the seabed. I wanted to get the church against the cliffs in the distance so switched to a telephoto lens for some nice compression, which I thought made for a nice parting shot of the church.
Kirkjufell (Church Mountain, in Icelandic) is said to be one of the most photographed mountains in Iceland. And most of the photos look the same. There’s a great reason for that though. Kirkjufellsfoss (some waterfalls near the base of the mountain) form a literally perfect foreground element for a shot of Kirkjufell. I fully intended on flying my drone around Kirkjufell but the wind was still completely insane so unfortunately I couldn’t. I went to the parking lot, walked up to Kirkjufellsfoss, and got the classic Kirkjufell picture.
The wind scared away most people so I only had to photoshop out 4-5 people from this picture. I love this view of Kirkjufell but was sad I didn’t have more time to explore more compositions (it was getting late and I needed to get to my hotel). I hadn’t really seen the sun much that day so wasn’t expecting much of a sunset so I packed my gear up, made my way back to my car, and started driving over to Stykkishólmur.
Suddenly, though, I saw the sun break through the low cloud layer as I was driving away from Kirkjufell. It’s illegal in Iceland to pull off the road (there aren’t really many shoulders) for pictures so I really needed a parking area to appear. I was looking in the rearview mirror and literally screaming to myself when I finally saw a turnoff. Before the car had even come to a stop I had jumped out with my camera (the car stalled out since I left it in gear, oops!).
I had just a few moments to capture this epic scene before the sun crept behind Kirkjufell. It was a moment I’ll never forget because I truly felt like a photographer: I knew the exact settings I needed to be at to show the scene how I wanted and nailed the shot. It immediately became one of my favorite pictures of all time and I’ve spent hours looking at it since. The combination of the sun rays and the hazy luminance coming off either side of Kirkjufell was simply astonishing.
Hotel Fransiskus Stykkisholmi
This was one of the cheapest hotels during my entire trip. For only 70 euros I got a small single room close to the bathroom (many hotels in Iceland have shared bathrooms). The hotel was attached to a Catholic church which I thought was random but they had great wifi, a decent breakfast the next morning, and were cheap so I was happy. They directed me to a burger joint up the road where I spent $45 USD on a burger, fries, and a beer. After a long travel day battling jetlag though it was just perfect and I slept like a log that night.
Up next: a slight detour that turned into an 11-hour ordeal!