Iceland Beaches: Scary Sneaker Waves And Eerie Black Sand

Sneaker Waves and Black Sand Beaches in Iceland
Iceland is home to scary sneaker waves and dramatic black sand beaches

It might not come as much of a surprise to learn that Iceland was one of the last places in Europe to be inhabited by humans. Early settlers would have had to navigate the treacherous North Atlantic Ocean in little wooden boats, and many would have died or given up in the attempt.

And when you look at the Iceland beaches, you can understand why. Forget white sands and gentle lapping waves – here, volcanic fury paints the shores with black sand, and the North Atlantic unleashes its raw power in mesmerizing, yet treacherous, sneaker waves that reach up to grab you.

The black sand beaches are dark and threatening, and the sneaker waves are tricky and deceptive. Fall in, or even stand a bit too close, and you won’t last ten minutes.

But while this might sound a bit scary, it also makes the beaches in Iceland rare and beautiful, and one of the highlights of any visit. So read on to find out more about these stunning places, where to go, what there is to see, and most importantly, how to stay safe…

A photographer takes black sand beach Iceland photos (and gets far too close to the sneaker waves)
A photographer takes black sand beach Iceland photos (and gets far too close to the sneaker waves)

About my visit to Iceland beaches

Before I travelled to Iceland, I’d heard about its famous black sand beaches, but I didn’t know much about them. And I’d never heard of sneaker waves before and had no idea what they were.

I visited Iceland for work, filming some content for Lonely Planet, and when we finished I was able to stay on by myself for another week. Since I was alone and didn’t have a car, I booked small group tours along the Iceland Ring Road – both south from Reykjavik as far as Jökulsárlón, and north up to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula.

If Iceland is a clock face, that’s from nine round to about four, going anticlockwise. Along the way I saw Icelandic horses, did a glacier hike, and I also saw of Iceland’s most famous black sand beaches, and came close to quite a few sneaker waves.

Even on a calm day, the views are spectacular. Enormous waves crashing furiously onto the rocks, seething foam, spouts shooting up through blow holes, forbidding black sand, the whole shebang. You could watch for hours and not get bored. These epic landscapes are definitely one of the many many reasons to visit Iceland.

But beyond the beauty, the Iceland beaches can be a bit sinister…

The author standing on a small iceberg on a black sand beach Iceland
Fortunately this Iceland beach isn’t known for its sneaker waves, otherwise this would have been very dangerous!

About Iceland’s black sand beaches

The black sand beaches in Iceland are formed from volcanic activity.

Iceland has around 130 volcanos, many of which are still active and erupt from time to time. Over millions of years, these volcanoes have erupted over and over, throwing scalding molten lava into the sea.

When the boiling lava hits the near-freezing water, it immediately solidifies into tiny pieces of rock and black sand. The eruption from single volcano could create a whole new black sand beach in just a few hours.

The relentless waves and winds then batter the volcanic debris, grinding them down into finer and finer particles. They also continuously wash new fragments ashore, ensuring a constant supply of black sand. This erosion also reveals hidden treasures like fossils, offering glimpses into Iceland’s ancient past.

Another beach in Iceland with black sand and powerful sneaker waves
Another beach in Iceland with black sand and powerful sneaker waves

The Black Sand Beach in Iceland

The most famous and accessible black sand beach in Iceland is at Reynisfjara. When people talk about the best black sand beach in Iceland, this is the one they’re referring to.

Its name is said to come from a Norwegian Viking called Reynir, who was the first settler brave enough to come here. The name, translated, means ‘Reynir’s beach’. Nearby you will also find his mountain, Reynisfjall, and his pillars, the Reynisdrangar.

Just like other black sand beaches in Iceland, Reynisfjara was formed by a volcanic eruption. It’s situated close to the volcano Katla, which is one of the most active volcanoes in the country and has erupted nearly 20 times in the last 1000 years.

The last major eruption was in 1918, and apparently another is overdue. At some point in its history, Katla spilled molten lava into the sea, forming the black sand beach we see at Reynisfjara today.

Reynisfjara black sand beach and basalt columns with sneaker wave in Iceland
A sneaker wave pounds Reynisfjara black sand beach Iceland

The beach at Reynisfjara is blacker than at almost any other black sand beach in the world because it’s almost always wet. At other black sand beaches, the sand sometimes dries out and fades to a light grey.

But this area is one of the rainiest parts of Iceland, which, together with the force of the sneaker waves constantly smashing on the shore, means the black sand never has a chance to dry out. It remains damp, and therefore a deep, dark black, almost all the time.

How to get to Reynisfjara black sand beach Iceland

Reynisfjara black sand beach is easily accessible by car or on a day trip from Reykjavik.

To get there from Reykjavik, you can take the Ring Road (Route 1) which is the main highway that circles Iceland. The drive is about 190 km and takes about 2 and a half hours by car.

Basalt columns at Reynisfjara beach Iceland
Basalt columns at Reynisfjara beach Iceland

Basalt columns at Reynisfjara beach Iceland

As well as pure black sand, Iceland’s beaches are famous for their dramatic cliffs and rock structures, which have been sculpted over millennia by the sheer power of the sea.

A great example of this is also at Reynisfjara, where as well as the gleaming black beach, there is also a stunning cliff of basalt columns.

These are the Reynisdrangar, or the pillars of Reynir, and they’re one of the most photographed places in the whole of Iceland. People love climbing on the columns to have their picture taken. As you can see they are very scenic, and make a great background for a photo!

A tourist poses on top of the basalt columns at Reynisfjara
A tourist poses on top of the basalt columns

The basalt columns are also the result of Katla’s volcanic activity. They were formed when molten hot lava from an eruption cooled down quickly. The rock contracted and cracked, creating these vertical, geometric fractures in parallel lines. The columns here at Reynisfjara black sand beach measure about half to one metre across, and up to 20 metres tall.

According to legend, these individual stones used to be trolls, which tried to drown some sailors by dragging their ship onto the rocks. But the sun came up, and as it did so it turned them all to stone, and here they stand for ever more.

Or at least, for now. Because thanks to their exposed position on the shoreline, they’re constantly battered by the wind and waves. They are being eroded, and over time pieces fall off into the sea. One day, millions of years into the future, they may be washed away entirely.

Iceland's churning seas are powerfully atmospheric
Iceland’s churning seas are powerfully atmospheric

Vik black sand beach and basalt stacks

Another amazing formation is the basalt stacks near the town of Vik, also the south coast. This is right next to Reynisfjara beach so many people confuse them or think it’s all one beach.

Actually, Vik has its own small separate beach, but if you see references to a black sand beach at Vik, it’s likely they’re really talking about the main black sand beach of Reynisfjara.

At Vik, the cliff line used to be much longer, but it’s been battered to pieces because there is literally no landmass at all from here all the way south to Antarctica so the Atlantic rollers can attack with full force. It’s left behind these weird and majestic basalt stacks that are a huge draw for landscape photographers.

Black sand beach and basalt stacks at Vik, Iceland
Black sand beach and basalt stacks at Vik, Iceland

When you stand on the beach watching the huge waves crashing ashore, it really does make you feel small and insignificant. This is definitely not the sort of beach where you might be remotely tempted to take off your shoes for a quick paddle.

Instead, for me, it was all about trying to get that perfectly-timed shot of a powerful breaker smashing onto the black sand beach with the basalt stacks standing dramatically behind. It’s thrilling to capture the powerful waves as they crash onto the black sand beach.

But it’s very easy, when you’re peering down the lens, to stop noticing what’s around you. And that’s when the Iceland sneaker waves can get you…

Tourists take photos of the sneaker waves at Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach in Iceland
Tourists take photos of the sneaker waves at Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach in Iceland

What are sneaker waves?

As you arrive at Reynisfjara black sand beach there are several warning signs reminding people to take care and especially to beware of ‘sneaker waves’.

A sneaker wave (sometimes they’re referred to as sleeper or king waves) is a disproportionately large wave that appears without warning. They seem to come about every 5-7 waves, and they’re not just a bit bigger than the other waves, they’re colossal.  

You can be standing well back at a safe distance from the tideline, but when the sneaker wave arrives, you suddenly find yourself having to turn and run.

Signs warn of sneaker waves at Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach in Iceland
Signs warn of sneaker waves at Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach in Iceland

The dangers of sneaker waves in Iceland

We were reminded several times of the dangers of standing too close. Iceland sneaker waves can come up and grab you without warning, and once you’re in the water, you don’t stand a chance. 

It’s icy cold, the waves are unbelievably powerful, and the floor shelves sharply so once you’re in the water you won’t be able to stand up.

Nevertheless, plenty of people totally ignored the warnings and happily posed for photos with their backs to the boiling sea, apparently oblivious to the extreme dangers of Reynisfjara sneaker waves.

I even saw a couple of people stand too close and end up with wet feet, though fortunately nothing more serious than that.

It is very easy to get carried away though. The scenery and the waves are simply spectacular. If I hadn’t been on a group trip I could have stayed and photographed the cliffs, the rocks, and the sea for hours, and might have got distracted.

You do have to be incredibly careful.

Sneaker waves at Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach in Iceland
These tourists at Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach in Iceland are standing FAR too close to the water

Iceland sneaker wave deaths at Reynisfjara

About two weeks before I was there a Chinese tourist died in this exact spot where I took these photos because he got caught by a sneaker wave, was dragged into the water and drowned. A year later, the same thing happened to a German tourist at Kirkjufjara beach, which is next to Reynisfjara.

In 2021, another tourist drowned on Reynisfjara beach due to deadly Reynisfjara sneaker waves. And someone else, a Canadian man, died in 2022.

So please, please, take this warning seriously. People can and do regularly die due to sneaker waves at Reynisfjara black sand beach. Don’t let the next news report be about you.

Two tourists at Reynisfjara black sand beach Iceland. Turning your back on the Iceland sneaker waves can be deadly. Don't do it!
Turning your back on the Iceland sneaker waves can be deadly. Don’t do it!

Iceland beaches: Shipwrecks

Another very poignant reminder of the deadly waves at Iceland’s beaches lies on another black sand beach at Djúpalónssandur on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula.

Here you can see the remains of a British fishing trawler from Grimsby named Epine that ran aground just offshore in March 1948. The conditions were so bad it took rescuers over 2 hours to get a line out to the wreck.

Five men survived but 14 died, either from exposure or drowning.

Wreck of the Epine at Djúpalónssandur on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula
Wreck of the Epine at Djúpalónssandur on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula

Bits of the wrecked vessel are still scattered across the shore as a memorial, their rusty orange bones standing out against the gravely black sand of the beach.

So remember, while you enjoy the Iceland black sand beaches, remember to stay alert, beware the sneaker waves, and stay well back from the water’s edge.

Wreck of the Epine at Djúpalónssandur on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula
Parts of the shipwreck Epine lie scattered across the black beach in Iceland

My Iceland sneaker wave video

If you still need convincing, here’s a short video that demonstrates perfectly how, even when you’ve been watching the waves all day, and you KNOW they can be tricky, and you think you’re standing a safe distance away, a monster sneaker wave can still leap up and try to grab you…

Iceland beaches, black sand and sneaker waves: some FAQs

Does Iceland have good beaches?

That depends on how you define ‘good’! If you’re looking for soft white sand and a tropical paradise, then it’s a hard no. But in my opinion Iceland beaches are great, just in a different way.

With shining black sand, rugged coastlines, unique geological formations and dramatic waves, Iceland’s beaches are exhilarating and captivating, they’re just not the place to relax with a cocktail in your hand.

Can you swim at Iceland beaches like Vik and Reynisfjara?

As you should know by now, while the black sand beaches of Iceland, particularly at Vik and Reynisfjara, are stunningly beautiful, swimming is strongly discouraged and considered dangerous.

The Atlantic Ocean here is known for its unpredictable and powerful sneaker waves, making it easy to get swept away. Additionally, strong rip currents can pull even strong swimmers out to sea. Added to all that, the water temperature in Iceland is always freezing, even in summer, and can quickly lead to hypothermia.

So, while you can definitely enjoy the weirdness of seeing a beach with black sand, it’s best to admire the ocean from a safe distance and avoid swimming altogether.

Rock formations and black volcanic rock in Iceland
Rock formations and black volcanic rock in Iceland

Can you see sneaker waves coming?

Unfortunately, predicting or accurately identifying a sneaker wave before it hits is extremely difficult, if not impossible. Sneaker waves appear without warning, often after periods of calmer waves. They can surge far up the beach, catching unsuspecting people off guard. And they might not be significantly larger or different in appearance from normal waves until they break and rush ashore.

Is the Black Sand Beach in Iceland worth visiting?

Yes, absolutely! While the Iceland black beaches are not your typical tropical beach, they are amazing to see. And the black sand beach at Reynisfjara and Vik is one of the most fascinating of all. With dramatic scenery, glistening black sand, towering basalt columns, and powerful Atlantic sneaker waves, it’s a truly awe-inspiring sight unlike anywhere else in the world.

Powerful waves break over a rock at an Iceland beach
Powerful waves break over a rock at an Iceland beach

Where to next?

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