Extended Iceland Layover? The Best Adventures for 12, 24, and 36 Hours
Let me tell you about the best way to travel to and/or from Europe, a little adventure hack that involves a semi-secret, yet seldom-done flight maneuver: make an epic stopover in Iceland.
As a professional photographer/videographer, I have been traveling through Iceland on my way back and forth from mainland Europe for years, and the extended layover to this wildly beautiful country has become a staple of my trips. I’d arrive at Keflavik (airport), snag my bags, and tour the land for a day or two before grabbing my continuation flight to Milan, Paris, or Munich. As many well-versed travelers know, which only requires a little extra time at the beginning or the end leg of your trip, this is the way to experience Iceland in a flash.
This remote North Atlantic island is highly dependent upon tourism, which led to the development of its famous "extended layover" program more than ten years ago to help increase visits and exploration with ease. With so many beautiful sights within a few hours of the airport, this addition to anyone’s overall itinerary allows travelers to exit Keflavik International Airport outside of the capital Reykjavik, spend a day or two exploring the country, and then hop back on a flight to their “final destination.”
Since the program's successful implementation, the Iceland tourism board reported that international visits nearly quadrupled over six years, from about 490,000 visitors in 2010 to almost 1.8 million visitors in 2016.
Now that extended layovers to the country have become more and more popular, many of my friends and family have begun to ask me what the best spots are to see during their stopovers. What I tell them is often surprising, but is guaranteed to instill adventure and produce some incredible photos and stories for years to come.
My advice is simple: with your precious time, instead of driving all around the island to hit as many locations as possible, find a trail and go out for a run (or a hike)! Avoid the waterfall crowds or the black sand parking headaches; you'll see much more of the real Iceland on foot. One trail run can take you from super technical volcanic scrambling to snowfield and glacier trekking to massive canyons, alpine scrub, and verdant grasslands.
The following are some of my favorite trail runs to take in the sights of Iceland on your next extended layover, regardless of fitness level or if you have only 12, 24, or 36 hours.
Some notes on this guide: If you take the time to go to Iceland, you want the best of the best. Iceland can be expensive, but quality often comes with a price, and these recommendations are based on overall experience and scenery over budget. Additionally, hiring a guide or a shuttle service is highly encouraged. They can aid in lodging, food, and other services such as pick up and drop off from airports or even hitting up a hot spring to rinse the sweat. Finally, Icelandic roads are narrow and windy, so it is not advised to try driving after a long day out on the trail. Best to relax and take in the view with someone else behind the wheel.
If you have 12 hours:
If you only have a 12-hour stopover in Iceland, the best location for a trail run is just north outside of Reykjavik at the trailhead for Esja Peak. The network consists of trails that wind in and out of Esja and the surrounding mountains, contouring through alpine scrub, small forests, waterfalls, scree fields, and tall grass. The elevation gain can match a Rocky Mountain-type summit with views that stretch along the island's western coast.
I have run this trail a few times, and each time I have enjoyed small rain showers, multiple rainbows, and amazing sunshine and clouds. The variety of weather matches the mix of terrain. This trail run is moderate to difficult depending on the length and summits you approach. As you get closer to the summits, reading trail markers is required, but most are well marked traditionally with painted cairns or posts, and it is relatively easy to navigate. On nice days, it may be crowded on lower elevations with families picnicking or out for a stroll; however, you’ll mostly have the trails to yourself towards the top.
If you have 24 hours:
If you have 24 hours in Iceland, I recommend heading over to Midgard Base Camp to use their guiding outfits to run Fimmvörðuháls and enter the Valley of Thor. This is regarded as one of the top trails in all of Iceland, and clocking in around 16 miles with 4000 ft of elevation gain, it is a more significant endeavor. Because it is a point-to-point trail, you can work with Midgard to have a shuttle drop off, pick up, and return you to their lodge.
Fimmvörðuháls is a breathtaking trail running between the glaciers of Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull. The path starts at the famous Skógafoss waterfall and heads straight up, displaying some of the most dramatic scenery Iceland has to offer, from a series of canyon waterfalls to a volcanic moonscape to a snowy mountain hut at the Top of Fimmvörðuháls. The downhill trek to Thórsmörk valley is amazing, with 26 waterfalls, snowfields, volcanic scree, tall grass, mud, rocks, and breathtaking scenery.
Pack prepared to be out all day and ready for various weather changes. Additionally, trekking poles could come in handy for the downslopes and the snowfields, along with Gore-Tex running shoes or running gaiters. This trail is better attempted during summer, as the snow comes early and often to this part of the island. Basic map and trail reading skills are necessary, but the trail is also well-trafficked and clearly marked.
If you have 36 hours:
If you have 36 hours available, I recommend taking a short flight to Akureyri in the northern part of Iceland. From there, hire a shuttle service to take you into Vatnajökull National Park with Europe’s largest waterfall by volume, Dettifoss. Here begins the Jökulsárgljúfur trail.
Welcome to a 20-mile point-to-point trail that follows one of the most beautiful canyons in Iceland. This run is considered moderate to easy, depending on how wet the area is and how many streams you have to ford. However, it is primarily flat with a few small hills, and the trail is well maintained without a lot of scrambling or navigating. The most challenging aspect is the distance. The books say it's 20 miles, but after I completed the trail, with a few detours for vantages, I recorded closer to 26 miles.
Since this trail is nestled in a large national park, you will most likely encounter the least amount of foot traffic compared to the other two trails mentioned. I recommend downloading maps, having GPS ready, and hiring a shuttle service that knows when and where to drop off and pick up. Many locals come in and out of the campsite at the end of the trail, and the waterfall is a significant attraction, but the wilderness in between is much less traveled.
All-in-all, Iceland is brimming with options for every type of stopover and adventurer.
Before your trip, in addition to accommodations near Reykjavik or the airport, remember to thoroughly research shuttles, guides, and the trails for current conditions and any guiding packing recommendations. The trails are calling; what are you waiting for?!
Posted on Mon 23 May 2022 · by Aaron Colussi