Skógar feels more like an outpost than a village, but it's been continuously settled since the 12th century. It is best known for its waterfall and folk museum, and as a launching point for the 2-day Fimmvörðuháls trek to Þórsmörk.
For a wonderful day hike -- especially if you like continuous and varied waterfalls -- walk north from Skógafoss waterfall along the Fimmvörðuháls trail for about 2 hours, then head back along the same route.
Clearly visible from the Ring Road, the powerful, 62m (203-ft.) Skógafoss waterfall looks ordinary from a distance but rewards closer inspection. Walk as close as you can on the gravel riverbed to be enveloped in the sound and spray and refracted light. A metal staircase leads to the top, where you can look down at nesting fulmars.
The prolific and affecting Skógar Folk Museum (Skógasafn) (tel. 487-8845. www.skogasafn.is) is all the work of Þórður Tómasson, who has been gathering artifacts from local farms for almost 70 years. Since Þórður started the museum in 1949, countless imitations have sprung up all over Iceland, but none match the inspiration of the original. A pair of ice skates with blades made from sharpened bones. A dog bowl made from a whale vertebra. A barometer made from a cow's bladder, which shrivels at the approach of bad weather. Most displays are annotated in English, but guided tours are free with admission. Þórður prowls around the museum most days and may sing for you while accompanying himself on an old harmonium or dulcimer.
Admission to Skógasafn is 750kr ($12/£6) adults, 500kr ($8/£4) seniors and students, and free for ages 15 and under (June-Aug daily 9am-6:30pm; May and Sept daily 10am-5pm; Oct-Apr 11am-4pm). From Rte. 1, on the eastern side of Skógar, follow signs for "Byggðasafnið í Skógum."
A short distance east of Skógar, Rtes. 221 and 222 provide the easiest Ring Road access to Mýrdalsjökull, the country's fourth-largest glacier. Sólheimajökull, a projectile of Mýrdalsjökull, just 5km (3 miles) from the Ring Road via Route 221, is a worthwhile diversion if you are not bound for greater glories farther east at Skaftafell and Jökulsárlón. Sólheimajökull is retreating up to 100m (328 ft.) every year, a vivid demonstration of the effects of global warming. Some visitors walk atop the glacier, but taking a tour is much safer. Watch out for quicksand at the glacier's edge.
Icelandic Mountain Guides, Vagnhöfði 7b, 110 Reykjavík (tel. 587-9999; www.mountainguide.is), leads daily tours of Sólheimajökull in summer, with explorations of crevasses and an introduction to basic climbing techniques. A 90-minute tour is 3,900kr ($62/£31) per person, and a 3-hour tour is 6,900kr ($55/£30), not including transportation from Reykjavík or elsewhere.
Arcanum Adventure Tours (tel. 487-1500; www.snow.is) is based at the Sólheimaskáli hut, 10km (6 miles) from the Ring Road on Route 222, and offers snowmobile, ice-climbing, and Super Jeep tours of Mýrdalsjökull. A snowmobile for two costs around 10,900kr ($174/£87) for an hour. Road conditions on Route 222 vary, so ask if you'll need a ride from the Ytri-Sólheimar lodge at the base of the road.
Dog Steam Tours (tel. 487-7747; www.dogsledding.is), also based at Sólheimaskáli and Ytri-Sólheimar, leads 50-minute dogsled tours on Mýrdalsjökull from December through early September with their adorable husky-type Greenland dogs. The cost is 10,900kr ($174/£87) for adults and 5,450kr ($87/£44) for children under 12.
Perhaps the most beautiful southern hiking routes to Mýrdalsjökull are from the Þakgil campsite east of Vík.
This coastal bird sanctuary, whose name means "doorway hill island," derives its moniker from a massive sea archway that photographers -- and daredevil pilots -- find irresistible. Dyrhólaey is not an island but a promontory, with a shallow inland lagoon full of wading birds, clifftops rife with puffins, and grassy slopes full of ground-nesting avian species. It's ideal walking territory, with some eye-catching sea stacks offshore. Dyrhólaey is closed during nesting season, from May 1 to June 25, though you can still take a guided tour with Dyrhólaeyjarferðir .
Route 218 leads to Dyrhólaey from the Ring Road, crossing a narrow isthmus and rounding the sanctuary. Consider parking at the far end of the isthmus and walking clockwise around the perimeter to the lighthouse, then cutting through the middle back to the shallows. This circuit takes about 3 hours and has fabulous views in all directions. Those who want to cut to the chase can proceed directly to the famous doorway arch on the south side of the sanctuary.
Dyrhólaeyjarferðir (tel. 487-8500; www.dyrholaey.com) offers a choice of 75-minute land or sea tours in amphibious vehicles. Only the sea trip passes through the arch, but the land trip -- the only option in rough weather -- includes refreshments. Tours cost 3,500kr ($56/£28) for adults and 2,500kr ($40/£20) for ages 7 to 13.
Exploring Vík & Environs
Almost at the southern tip of the mainland, the town of Vík (also known as Vík í Mýrdal) is quaintly poised between mountains, sea cliffs, and a long, beautiful black-sand beach. Vík's visual trademark is Reynisdrangar, a row of spiky basalt sea stacks that looks like a submerged stegosaurus and has long served as a navigational point for sailors. Lore has it that Reynisdrangar was formed when two trolls were unable to land their three-masted ship before dawn and turned to stone -- as will happen when trolls are caught in sunlight. The pillars reach up to 66m (217 ft.) in height and have their own bird populations. In good weather, the coastal walk along the Reynisfjall cliffs west of the town is spectacular.
Katla: The Next Big One? -- The notorious Katla volcano, just 25km (16 miles) north of Vík and submerged beneath Mýrdalsjökull, is showing signs of unrest. Since 1721, it has erupted five times at 34- to 78-year intervals, but there hasn't been an eruption since 1918. Subglacial volcanoes are often the most dangerous. The weight of the ice creates a pressure cooker, and the eventual burst launches a mushroom cloud of steam and rock. The steam plumes can be a conductor for near-continuous bolts of lightning; the 1918 eruption killed hundreds of heads of livestock by electrocution. But the greatest dangers are jokuhlaups: sudden flood bursts of melted glacial ice mixed with ash, mud, ice, and toxic chemicals.
Iceland's volcano monitoring systems may be the most sensitive and fine-tuned in the world. Plans have been drawn up for a full evacuation of the Vík area within 2 to 4 hours of an eruption.
On a clear day or summer evening, the cliffs along Reynisfjall mountain west of Vík make for the most beautiful walk on Iceland's southern coastline. The most common approach is from Vík, where the ascent must be made inland along the 4WD road that winds its way up. If you have a 4WD vehicle and want to drive up, the road junctions with the Ring Road at the village's western border. In a regular car you can shorten the trip a bit by driving to a parking area at the base of the ascent; turn off the Ring Road right next to the "Velkomin Til Vikur" sign.
To make the most of your trek, allow 3 hours in total so you can round the cliffs far enough to take in the views north toward the mountains and glaciers and west toward Reynisfjara Beach, Dyrhólaey, and the Westman Islands. The vibrant bird life includes a good many puffins. Reynisfjall can also be climbed from its western side, by driving south on Route 215 and following the trail that leads up from the Reyniskirkja church, near the power lines. You could also use this route to descend from Reynisfjall and extend your walk from Vík all the way to Reynisfjara.
The black-pebble beach of Reynisfjara at the southern end of Route 215 forms a 2.5km (1 1/2 miles) spit, extending from Reynisfjall almost to Dýrholaey, that divides the ocean from Dyrhólaós Lagoon. Reynisfjara is even more beautifully situated than the beach at Vík, but less frequented. On the eastern edge of the Reynisfjara, at the base of Reynisfjall, is the phenomenal basalt sea cave Hálsanefshellir. It's inaccessible at high tide, so time your visit accordingly. For tidal schedules, ask around, call the Icelandic Hydrographic Service (tel. 545-2000), or use the "Marine Reports" link at www.myforecast.com.
Þakgil & Mælifell
Four kilometers (2 1/2 miles) east of Vík, Route 214 extends 15km (9 1/3 miles) north from the Ring Road to the Þakgil campground, situated in a sheltered enclave amid dramatic mountain scenery near Mýrdalsjökull Glacier. Route 214 itself is a fantastic drive, rough but passable in a regular car. At a high point halfway to Þakgil, the road passes some primitive wood shelters built for the movie set of Beowulf and Grendel (critics loved the scenery). A crude but serviceable hiking map is available at the campground or online at www.thakgil.is. One great hike follows a rough 4WD track, built for rounding up sheep in September, to the base of Mýrdalsjökull in a 4-hour round-trip. Another recommended 4-hour loop includes the viewpoint at Mælifell. Two long but rewarding trails -- about seven hours apiece -- lead to Þakgil all the way from Vík; the one farther east, through Fagridalur and Bárðarfell, is slightly more picturesque. Útivist (tel. 562-1000; www.utivist.is) leads a Jeep tour from Þakgil in July; call for other organized tour possibilities, including trips onto Mýrdalsjökull.
Mýrdalssandur & Hjörleifshöfði
Shortly east of Vík is Mýrdalssandur, a vast expanse of black-sand desert. As you enter Mýrdalssandur, a 221m (725-ft.) mountain, just south of the Ring Road, rises eerily from the surrounding wasteland. This is Hjörleifshöfði, named for Hjörleifur Hródmarsson, who wintered here around the year 870 before being murdered by his Irish slaves.
Hjörleifshöfði makes for a memorable short climb. A rough gravel road leads south from the Ring Road along its western edge to an indentation where the trail ascends. The cliffs, which host a fulmar colony, show evidence of shoreline erosion. A farm was on Hjörleifshöfði until 1937, but all that remains are the farmers' gravestones.
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