Editor's note: This is the second article in a two-part travel series about Iceland.
An island the size of Ohio with an 832-mile highway that circles the country, Iceland seems like the perfect location for a quick road trip.
Someone told me that you could make the drive in 24 hours. I'm sure you could do it, but experiencing Iceland is more than just clocking the miles.
Reykjavik is a great base camp if you're interested in taking day trips to scenic spots in Iceland and then returning to your cozy room and heated pool. I'm a fan of guided day tours for a couple of reasons: you get to meet new people, you'll get an informed explanation of what you're seeing and you're almost guaranteed that you'll get back to your hotel in one piece. If I'm taking a guided tour, it's for something that I'd rather not try on my own: ice climbing, caving, overnight hikes, etc. I spent a day learning to ice climb on Solheimajokull glacier, part of the Mrdalsjokull ice cap; another day was spent snorkeling through the American and Eurasian continents in Silfra (in the clearest - and coldest - water imaginable) and exploring Leidarendi, a lava cave in the Blue Mountains.
However, my preferred method of travel is at my own pace. There's so much to see in Iceland and, while I loved the tours that I experienced, I was ready to get out and do some exploring on my own.
I rented a car and headed toward one of the most talked-about areas of Iceland: the Golden Circle. You can see the entire Golden Circle loop on your own in about six hours round-trip with time for photos and some dallying from Reykjavik.
Though there are a million guided tours of the Golden Circle, I wanted to do this bit on my own, mostly because I wanted the freedom to spend as long - or as little - as I wanted at the three major sites: Thingvellir National Park, Geysir and Gullfoss.
Heading toward Thingvellir National Park, snow dusted vast plains of frozen lava blobs, rolling into grass-covered fields and small towns punctuated by clouds of steam billowing from the geothermal pools. The site of Althing, Iceland's parliament founded in 930, Pingvellir is more than just a historical site. Its borders are mostly unmarked, with lakes and wide stretches of plains and very few people. It's where the American and Eurasian continental plates are slowly drifting apart, the rift visible (and swimmable). Small herds of Icelandic horses graze in picturesque groups, and it seems I was stopping every few miles to take yet another picture. It's an area that invites long hikes when the sun shines all day.
The next stop on the circle is Geysir, the geyser first described in a printed source and namesake for all other geysers, including Old Faithful in Yellowstone. The steam rising from the earth is clearly visible as you approach, as are the many tour buses parked in the lodge across the street. While Geysir is what most visitors flock to see, its eruptions are sporadic at best. Strokkur, located just up the hill, is the best bet for actually seeing a geyser perform, as it erupts about every five minutes.
My geyser gawking fulfilled, I headed to Gullfoss, the last landmark on the Circle. "Golden Falls" in English, this massive double waterfall was even more impressive than I imagined. In the colder temperatures, the spray creates hoarfrost along the ground; snow and ice climbs up the canyon walls. Drawing on many years of experience living in Colorado, I chose not to venture out to the farthest point (the pathway was a sheet of ice) and contented myself with the awe-inspiring view and infinite rumble of the falls from a nonslippery point. There are many, many waterfalls in Iceland - Gullfoss is definite must-see.
Back on the Ring Road, I headed east toward Vik for the night. Located about halfway along the southern coast, Vik is famous for its black sand beaches and its proximity to Dyrholaey, a naturally formed arch in the cliff that's so big that ships can sail through it at certain tides. En route, I passed the infamous Eyjafjallajokull, the hard-to-pronounce volcano that erupted in 2010 and brought Europe to a grinding halt. There's a small museum there, but other than that, it's just another peak on a gorgeous stretch of snow-capped mountains.
Vik is known as a vacation spot during the summer, but it's extremely quiet in the off-season. It did, however, provide the perfect become the perfect spot for glimpsing the aurora borealis. I lucked out with a clear night and a fabulous viewpoint down a dark, unpaved county road outside of Vik. I sat in the car for almost two hours, mesmerized by the green band undulating in a leisurely wave over the mountains, a smattering of stars below and above.
The next morning, I hit the road again, heading west to Jokulsarlon, the glacial lagoon. The landscape changes dramatically along the southern coast. Highway 1 meanders from the coastline through plains of volcanic sand tufted with sea grass. It's a long road, with few towns and fewer cars, but the varying landscape keeps your attention riveted for the next waterfall or next craggy peak.
The sun peeped through the clouds as I got my first glimpse of Breidamerkurjokull, a glacial tongue of Vatnajokull, Europe's largest glacier - it looked a landslide of ice and snow. Several miles later, I saw Jokulsarlon on my left and the ocean on my right. The lagoon is massive, and there are opportunities to hike around the perimeter; I started up a small hill and got my first panoramic view. Large hunks of glacier studded the lagoon; great rafts of ice moved inexorably towards the ocean. The lowering clouds created an electric blue glow; a seal popped up for a moment, then continued on his way amid the cracking and moaning of the ice.
I headed over to the ocean side to get another vantage point of the lagoon and marveled at the bits of glacier buried in the black sand. Waves crashed on the ice and I noticed snow flurries starting to collect on the black sand. It was time to return to the road and Reykjavik.
In four days I traveled about 560 miles round-trip. I saw, according to my calculations, about an eighth of Iceland. I pulled over for a million pictures, learned about local folklore, watched two Jeeps herd sheep and hiked waterfalls. It was overwhelming and heart-expanding, leaving me yearning for more time.
Watching Iceland slowly disappear from my window seat on my way back to Denver, I tried to wrap my head around this land of volcanoes and glaciers, of long nights and new friends made over Brennivin. Seven-eighths of the island remained; I opened my calendar to plan my return.
Katie Coakley is an avid traveler and PR professional that splits her time between Florida and Edwards. Follow her adventures at http://katieonthemap.com.