Lost in the sands of Sólheimasandur in the far south of Iceland lies the wreck of a US Army plane. This carcass is in fact a Douglas R4D-8, or Super DC-3, that once flew for the US Navy and has now become one of the most photographed sites in southern Iceland.
Located on the black sand beach between the Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull glaciers, visiting this plane wreck has become a rite of passage of sorts for all travelers heading to the south of the island.
The wreck of the DC3 plane in southern Iceland in Sólheimasandur
The story begins in November 1973, on the 21st or the 24th depending on who you ask. The aircraft, leaving Höfn in the east, found itself caught in a storm at the late afternoon and was forced to perform an emergency landing on this beach. All 7 crew members survived, in fact, escaped unscathed from this crash-landing in the black sand desert. They were rescued an hour later by a US Navy helicopter that flew in from Keflavik airport.
Although the reasons for this crash remain unclear, some theorise that it was simply a fuel issue. Others have suggested the bitter cold (-10° with 100 km/h winds) could have frozen the engine and caused the crash. In any case, the DC-3, otherwise known as Dakota C-117, has since experienced many harsh winters and braved numerous storms, and its carcass is now deeply weathered by the sea air.
For a long time it was just a forgotten feature of the landscape, but in recent years it made an appearance in a number of video clips with several celebrities, and countless photos online attest to its popularity. In 2007 the Icelandic band Sigur Rós captured the DC-3 in their video "Heima", and even more recently Justin Bieber had a music video filmed on the site. The plane wreck has turned into a unique and quite famous "Kodak moment" for photography lovers.
Sólheimasandur beach is massive and the path to the wreck is located between the Dyrholaey Arch and Skogar. There are no signs leading to it, but it's rather easy to find, as can be seen on the map above.
When driving from Vík on your way to Reykjavík you will find a small car park on the left, but be warmed it's often completely full. From Skogar you can reach the car park after a mere 8 km on the road. On site, you will find a small plaque that points to the DC-3 and gives visitors a quick historical summary, and from there it's a short walk to the plane!
On the map above, the car park is just to the west of Hólsá and marked “Solheimasandar Parking”.
The wreck of the DC3 aircraft in winter
The wreck is can be visited in winter and summer, but we strongly recommended going when the weather is on your side. To really appreciate it you need good light and clear skies as it's a remote location with not much around, so count 2.5 hours return-trip with the photo stop.
Tourist numbers are increasing, especially in summer, so you won't be the only one photographing the plane wreck. So we recommend whenever possible to go very early in the morning or in late evening in summer when the days are long. But keep in mind that even if the car park looks full, the crash site may be deserted. Given how long the walk is, when you start from the car park to the site other visitors may in fact be on their way back, and you could have the place to yourself by the time you get there.
Photographers who know the tricks of the trade will try to get there early in the morning to catch the sun rising behind the plane, or late in the evening to capture the old fuselage in the soft pink light coming from the west.
The endless hike in Sólheimasandur to the wreck
For many years, you could drive almost all the way to the plane. But as unscrupulous tourists began venturing off the track and causing damage to the beach ecosystem, along with a number of accidents, the owner closed the road in 2016. Now, only guided tours will drive up to the site, but the vast majority of tourists who go it alone will need to get there on foot.
The small sign at the entrance to the car park indicates the distance, 4.1 km one way or 8.2 km in total to admire the plane. The path is very well marked with yellow posts and on a clear day it is pretty much impossible to get lost. It's a straight line with almost no difference in altitude and easily accessible to children if they can handle the distance. It'll take you about 45 minutes to an hour to get there, and most visitors stay about 30 minutes on site.
You'll be walking on that runway for what feels like ages and won't see the plane, all of a sudden, it appears in the last 200 meters when the runway curves slightly downhill and the wreckage rises before you. This is a northern coastline so expect a lot of wind with no mountains, trees, or constructions to break the wind. On the other hand, this black sand has a heavy grit and won't be flying into your eyes too much unless the wind gets serious. It's a monotone walk, with absolutely nothing to look at all the way there, so just power through and try to get there as quickly as possible. The beach itself however is magnificent once you get there, the superb Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull glaciers dominating the horizon.
The walk has a reputation for feeling endless and many have cited a meditative aspect to this rail as it sets the tone of this remote and mysterious crash site. Walking towards the wreck of the Douglas DC-3 in the middle of Sólheimasandur is something of a rite of passage, confronting you with your own solitude.
This moment of meditation really adds to the mystique, putting the visitor in receptive state of mind by the time the dramatic wreckage appears like a dream.
The DC3's carcass is in poor condition
On site, there is nothing for miles around and the sense of isolation can be truly poetic. You can of course take photos of the 20m-long plane, or rather what's left of it, given the elements have already stolen its nose, tail, and wings. Looking south is the expansive ocean just 500 meters away with glaciers to the north.
The fuselage is a beauty in itself but given it's full of holes, you can see the insides, what is left of the cockpit and its innumerable electrical cables dangling like vines. But you can't climb in or on this wreckage, as indicated on an information message. Rusty cables are bad enough but the damaged carcass is studded with very sharp corroded metal panels that can fly off in the wind, so avoid shaking them loose.
During the day, especially in summer, you'll struggle to find a moment without other tourists near the plane in your photo frame, which is why we recommend a visit in the evenings and early mornings.