Updated: Nov 11, 2020
By geological standards, Iceland is a young country. Formed by lava spilling from between two tectonic plates, it rose over the ocean only 18 million years ago. Most of the rocks and sand in Iceland, then, are still black and red, remnants of volcanic activity. These eruptions led to some impressive rock formations, spread everywhere throughout the island. One of the most famous formations is Reynisdrangar, or ‘Reynir’s Pillars of Rock’.
What is Reynisdrangar?
Reynisdrangar is a series of basalt columns off the south coast of Iceland. They can best be seen from Reynisfjara beach, one of the most famous black sand beaches in the country. At their tallest, these stacks are 66 meters high. They did not sprout from the ocean independently but were once part of the main island. Through long periods of weathering, they disconnected and appear to be separate now.
There is a mythical story about how these stacks were formed; the story concerns two trolls and a three-masted ship. It is said that the trolls tried to drag the ship to shore at night. They were not quick enough, and when the sun rose at dawn it turned them to stone. A second story says that two trolls murdered a woman, and her husband took revenge. He tricked them into coming out at night and ensured they remained outside long enough to turn to stone.
How Much Time is Needed for Reynisdrangar?
Reynisfjara beach, where the columns can be seen from, is near to the village of Vík. This is 187km (116 miles) from Reykjavík, counter-clockwise along the ring road (Route 1). So, you’re looking at about a 2 ½ hour journey each way to reach this spot. Reynisdrangar isn’t the only thing to see there, however. This area is famous for several reasons.
For one, it was used as a filming location for season seven of Game of Thrones. Those fans of the show may well recognize it as a shot of Eastwatch by the Sea. Additionally, Reynisfjara is a popular bird-watching location, being home to many species including puffins. But Reynisdrangar isn’t the only set of rock formations at this spot. On the beach itself, the cliffs were moulded into hexagonal shapes by lava flows when they formed. They were formed by basalt cooling and contracting rapidly when it flowed to the surface and was exposed to air. The phenomenal pattern is now visible for all to see, a wonder that it’s hard to believe nature created.
With all the bird watching and admiring of the scenery, expect to make this a full day trip. If you are particularly keen on the area, there are places to eat at and stay overnight in, in Vík.
One thing you should avoid doing at Reynisfjara is swim, or approach the water at all. This area of the coast is known for sneaker waves that travel much further up the beach than you’d expect. They are unpredictable and extremely dangerous; fatalities have resulted from standing too close to the shore and being swept away. At all times, stay at least 30 meters from the water and face it, so you can see waves coming.
Trolls are significant in Icelandic folklore. They were said to live in the mountains and only venture outside at night (sunlight would turn them to stone). There are many well-known trolls among Icelanders, with different personalities and roles in Icelandic culture.
The best known is Grýla, the mother of the Yule Lads. She is said to eat naughty children; this works in encouraging young Icelanders to behave themselves. Her children are the thirteen Yule Lads, who are Iceland’s version of Santa Claus. They are mischievous tricksters, but in recent decades have been the ones who deliver presents to children. Thirteen days before Christmas, each Icelandic child leaves their largest shoe out before bed. If they have been well-behaved, they can expect to find a present in the shoe the next day. This process continues for thirteen nights, until the 24th of December.
Other Famous Rock Formations
Another example of the hexagonal rock formation can be seen at Svartifoss (translation: Black Falls). The stunning waterfall is framed by these astounding formations, and the best part is you have to earn a sighting. It’s a 3km return hike from the nearby Visitor Centre in Skaftafell, in Vatnajökull National Park. To get to Skaftafell is a 327km (203 mile) journey from Reykjavík, taking just over four hours along Route 1.
In the east of Iceland, this landmark became visible when the river running through it was utilized for hydroelectric power. As the flow of Jökulsá á Dal reduced, a canyon of rock formations appeared that had never been seen before. The canyon can be accessed from both sides, both via Route 923. Depending on which side you approach the canyon from, your journey will involve little or a lot of walking. The west side route is a walk of around 250 meters from the car park. The east side route involves a walk of 10km (6 miles).
This is another waterfall cascading through basalt rock. The rocks on either side of Aldeyjarfoss are actually in two different patterns. There are the hexagonal columns previously mentioned, and the less uniform, swirling lava patterns. The rocks here are not purely black like many of their cousins. Red and yellow shades, resulting from sulfur and iron deposits, can be seen amongst the black and grey. This landmark is found in north Iceland, 41km (25 miles) into Bárðardalur valley.
Unlike some of the other places I’ve mentioned, these rocks are not located at a waterfall. They are on the coast, in the north of the country. The hexagonal rock columns actually run horizontally, so you can walk over them. Kálfshamarsvík is near the tip of the Skagi Peninsula, 287km (178 miles) from the capital. Take your rental car in Iceland and head there! It used to be the site of a small village but was abandoned decades ago.
It’s worth noting that these rock formations, and their accompanying waterfalls, look just as beautiful in winter. Seeing them covered with snow and ice is a different experience entirely.
The land of ice and fire is incredibly diverse and with so much untouched nature. Exploring it fully is an adventure that could last years, but you could see a good amount in a week. Just grab your rental car, head onto the ring road, and stop at the places that spark your interest. Nature has done the work, now it’s here waiting for you to show up and enjoy it. But please, enjoy it responsibly. Consider your impact on the environment. Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.
Samuel Hogarth, Reykjavik Cars.