Meanwhile in the Central Highlands Despite the rapid growth in tourism Iceland still has more than enough spots where you can be the only person for miles in any direction. Photo/Vilhelm
One of the biggest stories in Iceland in recent years has been the growth of tourism. The number of foreign visitors has gone up from just 485,000 in 2007 to 2,225,000 ten years later, an increase of 360% in just ten years. If you were visiting places like Seljalandsfoss waterfall or Reynisfjara black sand beach in South Iceland in the middle of summer ten years ago you wouldn't have been surprised to discover you had the whole place to yourself. Today you are lucky to find a parking spot during busy hours!
This dramatic change has led many, both locals and returning visitors to worry that there are too many tourists in Iceland. We at Iceland Magazine have heard this complaint time and time over, although we have never run into the problem ourselves. Why? We simply avoid the rush hour at the most crowded spots and follow a few simple steps get the most out of the great outdoors.
Gullfoss waterfall One of the stops on the "Golden Circle". Photo/Ernir
1) Be realistic: Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is that you cannot expect to be the only person at any popular tourist destination. This is as true at Gullfoss or Geysir in Iceland as at Niagara falls or the Grand Canyon. The top sites where the package tours stop will always have crowds.
The most important step you can therefore take is just to slow down and give yourself time to take in the view and don‘t let frustration with other travelers get in your way of enjoying the experience!
2) Put things into perspective: The second most important thing to keep in mind is that the crowds are really restricted to a handful of the most popular spots: You can still hope to be the only person at Brúarfoss waterfall, a once „hidden“ waterfall on the Golden Circle, which has seen an explosion of visitor numbers in recent years. (When visiting Brúarfoss you absolutely MUST walk the extra steps. The parking lot for the waterfall is located on the main road. You are NOT to drive closer to the waterfall by turning onto the holiday home areas: If you do, be aware that you are trespassing on private property.)
The point is perhaps that you need to put the talk of „crowds“ into perspective. To locals, who grew up having all this natural splendor all to themselves, with not a soul in sight, the addition of a handful of rental cars and a tour bus constitutes a traffic jam and a couple of small groups feels like a "crowd".
Brúarfoss One of the most beautiful waterfalls in South Iceland. Photo/Kristján Már Unnarsson, Stöð 2
3) Walk an extra few minutes: Walking a few paces usually allows you to find a spot where you can enjoy the view in peace, listen to the thundering of the waterfall or just the soothing sound of the wind and birds. Just as all roads in Iceland are scenic, so are all walking paths: See where the path takes you and what sights await on the other side of that hill!
Even at the most popular spots, like Skaftafell visitor center in Vatnajökull National Park, or Þingvellir National Park, you will only meet a handful of people on most of the hiking trails. An early morning or late evening hike at these sites will almost certainly guarantee you will have the whole experience to yourself.
Remember that Iceland is wet and rainy. You should expect to encounter mud and water on any walking path, so you should always wear good hiking boots. Ugg boots, flip flops, crocs or other such things which are considered footwear in some countries are not appropriate while traveling in Iceland.
Krossneslaug pool Norðurfjörður in the Strandir region is the destination for travelers who are seeking the feeling of remote isolation you get at the world's end. Photo/Anton Brink
4) Go off the beaten path: Most visitors take the popular Golden Circle and South Coast tours. This is understandable, as they pack together a number of spectacular spots into an easy daytrip. But there are other options: The Reykjanes peninsula, West Iceland and Snæfellsnes peninsula are all perfect alternatives for day trips out of the capital.
Consider visiting the Eastfjords or Westfjords, regions which are ignored by the vast majority of travelers. Drive to the Strandir region on the "world's end", take the ferry to Vestmannaeyjar islands or visit the puffins in Borgarfjörður eystri.
5) Do some independent research: One of the greatest challenges locals are faced with when foreign visitors ask them to name their favorite spot in Iceland is that there are just too many such spots to name one or two. There are countless spectacular waterfalls and breathtaking mountains, cliffs and canyons. Yet, most foreign visitors seem to focus on the list of top sites.
Do a little research to come up with destinations which are not included on all the "must see" lists.
Rauðafeldargjá The road along Snæfellsnes peninsula is dotted with one spectacular stop after another. Photo/GVA
6) Take your time: Another common mistake people make is cramming too many of these must see spots into their schedule, rushing from one spot to the next, ticking one destination after another off their bucket list, while frantically snapping a few photos for instagram. A far better approach is to limit yourself to fewer stops and budgeting more time for actually taking in the experience. Listening to the wind, smelling the flowers and immersing yourself in the view (see point 3 above).
7) Arrive early: If you have a rental car you should take to the road early to avoid the crowds. Gullfoss or Skógafoss are just as spectacular at 7:00 in the morning, when most other travelers are still drinking their morning coffee, as they are in the afternoon when the tour buses arrive.
Rising early and beating the morning traffic should permit you to avoid crowds at even the most popular spots. Just keep in mind that you might have to pack a snack and plan your bathroom stops strategically as gas stations and visitor centers might not have opened!
Eyjafjörður fjord The midnight sun adds a whole layer of beauty to the landscape Photo/Vilhelm Gunnarsson
8) The midnight sun is your friend: Alternatively you can do your sightseeing late at night! During summer the midnight sun provides us with 24 hour daylight. If you have a rental car, or if you are exploring Iceland in an RV or a camper van you should consider scheduling some late evening stops.
A midnight visit gives you a taste of what spots like Gullfoss, Seljalandsfoss or the Black Sand Beaches of South Iceland were like before the onset of tourism.
The midnight sun is also a spectacular sight in its own right: Drawn out sunsets with otherworldly red, pink and purple colors are one of the things which make traveling in Iceland in the summer an unforgettable experience: Nothing beats Þingvellir National Park bathed in the Midnight Sun.
Landmannalaugar Don't litter and don't leave anything behind, preferably not even footprints! Photo/Vilhelm
9) Be part of the solution not the problem: It‘s not just the presence of loud tourist crowds which can diminish the quality of your experience. The trash, trampled down vegetation and trails of destruction left by off-road driving are far more frustrating.
Too many people leave leave a trail of destruction, either due to thoughtlessness and ignorance, or sheer selfishness. But off-road driving, ignoring signs and instructions, littering or vandalism are all problems we can work together to eradicate.
It is our duty to leave these sites in a better condition than we found them: don't litter and pick up trash others have left behind. By treating nature with respect and staying on marked paths we can ensure others can enjoy everything Iceland has to offer.