Secrets Of The Ring Road: Iceland’s Epic Road Trip
By Matthew Karsten Date: 4th February 2018 Location: Ring Road, Iceland Car Rental: Happy Campers Useful Notes: The Ring Road is paved, so four-wheel drive is not needed unless you head off-road. Actual driving time may vary. These are only a few of the activities & landmarks you can find on the Ring Road. Recommended Guidebook: Lonely Planet Iceland Suggested Reading: The Little Book Of Hidden People There’s nothing like a good road trip. Especially when driving past active volcanoes, blue icebergs, roaring waterfalls, and northern lights on Iceland’s Ring Road. If you’re searching for an unforgettable adventure travel experience, a road trip around Iceland’s Ring Road will not disappoint. The country is visually captivating in a way I’ve not seen elsewhere. Lurking around every bend a stunning new landscape reveals itself. I traveled the Ring Road at the end of October and early November on a project with LifeProof, testing their awesome waterproof iPhone cases in harsh environments like Iceland. Driving Iceland’s Ring Road exposes you to bubbling geothermal springs, sparkling rainbows, beautiful horses, tumultuous waterfalls, and rugged mountains day after day. You may even catch the magic of the Northern Lights a few times too! Now throw in the occasional glacial ice cave or an erupting volcano, and you’ll start to appreciate what traveling in Iceland is actually like. However, you must experience this country for yourself to understand! In this travel guide I’ll help you get the most out of a Ring Road adventure. Driving Iceland’s Ring Road If you haven’t figured it out by the map above, Iceland’s Ring Roadencircles the entire country covering over 800 miles on Route 1. While you could technically drive the whole thing in less than 24 hours, the reality is it will take you at least a week with stops on along the way. This is because you’ll be stopping a lot. Like every 5 minutes! The photography opportunities in Iceland are unbelievable, and you’ll find yourself constantly pulling over for photos. I gave myself 7 days to drive the Ring Road and almost didn’t make it back to Reykjavik in time. Weather can also be a factor if you are traveling in the fall or winter, as sudden snowstorms are common, and roads can be treacherous or even impassable. Camper Van Rental Renting a car for your Iceland road trip is essential. Sure, there are bus tours that drive the route, but a self-drive tour is a way to go. You can stop anywhere you want, for as long as you want, giving you complete freedom. I drove the ring road in Iceland with a Happy Campers van. The major benefit of renting a camper is that it covers your accommodation too, enabling you to pull over and sleep pretty much anywhere. It was perfect to maximize my time exploring & photographing landscapes. My van was equipped with a fold-down bed, sink with running water, electric cooler, gas grill, battery powered heating system and a large solar panel. The vans are modern & easy to drive, fitted with studded tires which came in handy for a few icy mountain passes I encountered on the route. They also have 4×4 models available. Planning An Iceland Road Trip Gas Stations Gas is expensive in Iceland at $2 USD per liter ($7.50 per gallon). Gas stations are easy to find around towns, but in the countryside, they are less frequent. Some foreign credit cards may need to be used inside rather than at the pump. Fill up whenever you can, especially in winter, just in case you’re stuck in a snowstorm overnight. Gas for the entire ring road journey cost me about $300 USD. Groceries Stock up on groceries before you leave for your road trip. Iceland has a famous budget supermarket called Bónus that’s perfect for this. You can’t miss it — the logo is a giant cartoon pig. Many gas stations along the ring road also offer pre-made sandwiches, hot soup, and basic groceries for sale too. So you can buy some general food supplies along the way. GPS & Mobile Phone If your cellphone is unlocked, you can buy a local prepaid Icelandic SIM card from the Vodafone store at Kringlan Shopping Mall in Reykjavik. This gives you access to GPS maps, internet data, emergency services, and local weather reports. Accommodation If you aren’t camping or sleeping in a van, you’ll probably want to pre-book your accommodation in advance depending on the season. Try browsing guesthouse or hotel options on Booking.com. What Should You See? I’d recommend picking a few highlights and loosely planning your journey around them. Most people start their Ring Road adventure from Reykjavik or Keflavik Airport. Below you’ll find my suggested itinerary with highlights you shouldn’t miss, plus a few adventure activities that must be booked in advance. DAY 1: The Golden Circle The Golden Circle is a short 1 day road trip which I covered in a separate article. It’s a great place to start your adventure. Some of the highlights include Thingvellir National Park where the Earth’s tectonic plates are being ripped apart, exploding geysers, and the impressive Gullfoss Waterfall. After driving the Golden Circle, a good place to spend the night is around the town of Árborg. From here you can get back onto Route 1 and the main Ring Road route in the morning. DAY 2: Rainbows & Glaciers Seljalandsfoss Waterfall Your next stop is perfect for incredible sunrises, so wake up early! Seljalandsfoss Waterfall [MAP] rises some 200 feet in the air, with a short hiking trail that takes you behind the waterfall itself. Shooting photos behind the waterfall at sunrise can be difficult with all the spray though. Another good photo location is from a hill on the right, just be careful because it’s slippery climbing up. Skógafoss Waterfall After that you can drive to Skógafoss [MAP], another massive & beautiful waterfall only minutes away. About the same height as Seljalandsfoss, but much wider and more powerful. Colorful rainbows are a common occurrence here. A wooden stairway brings you to a viewing platform on the top. Hiking Sólheimajökull Glacier One activity you can’t do on your own is hiking glaciers. If you’ve never hiked a glacier before, I highly recommend it! The guys at Arctic Adventures have a few different glacier hiking trips that include ice climbing. If you’re driving the Ring Road, you can book a trip and just meet your guide at the glacier. Sólheimasandur Plane Crash The abandoned airplane wreckage on Sólheimasandur Beach is one of Iceland’s most iconic photography locations. Back in 1973 a United States Navy DC-3 crashed on the beach here. You can drive out to the plane and explore what remains IF you know where to look. Luckily I wrote up detailed directions for you! If you’re not camping out, the next best place to spend the night is in the coastal town of Vik. There are a few guesthouses, a hostel, small grocery store, and a restaurant. DAY 3: Icebergs & Ice Caves Jökulsárlón Iceberg Lagoon Breiðamerkurjökull glacier is slowly melting, with giant blue-tinted icebergs breaking off and floating into a lagoon. The ice collects on the shores while some pieces drift out to sea. Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon is such a cool place (pun intended) that you can easily spend most of the day here. Don’t forget to visit the ocean nearby, where icebergs wash up on shore from the waves. Crystal Ice Caves If you’re traveling in Iceland for photography, you can’t miss the crystal ice caves under Vatnajökull glacier. Meltwater creates these intricate natural ice tunnels, with sunlight filtering through the ice giving them a blue tint. Iceland’s crystal caves are difficult and treacherous to reach, so you’ll need to hire a guide. You can only visit them in winter (starting November). The fishing village of Höfn is a good place to spend the night if you need a hotel or guesthouse. There’s also a HI Hostel in town. DAY 4: Rugged Eastern Fjords Driving The Coastline Ok, now you’re officially in the middle of nowhere. Eastern Iceland is an untamed wilderness of rocky mountain peaks, winding black-sand coastlines, and quickly changing the weather. There’s a lot of driving here without many towns (or people). You’ll be weaving in and out of fjords all day. Pump up the jams and enjoy beautiful Icelandic views. Beware Of Sheep & Reindeer While it may not have many people, Eastern Iceland is home to many sheep & reindeer. Yup. Reindeer! Make sure to keep your eyes on the road, because a herd can suddenly cross your path without warning. Pay special attention at night or in bad weather. In the winter sheep will be fenced in, but in the summer and fall, they roam free. Hunting Northern Lights You should be searching for the Northern Lights every evening while driving the Ring Road, however, on the East coast they were especially good for me. During my 7 day adventure, I lucked out with 3 nights of strong aurora activity and clear skies. Night driving will actually improve your chances of spotting them. Here’s a post I wrote with tips for finding & photographing the Northern Lights in Iceland. DAY 5: Myvatn Geothermal Area Snowy Mountain Passes Fáskrúðsfjarðargöng tunnel (I dare you to say it out loud!) is 4 miles long and seems like it will never end. When it does, you’ll eventually be in the Highlands of Iceland. A barren stretch of high plateau. In the winter it’s covered in snow, and Route 1 is the only safe road to travel on. In the summer you can explore more with a 4×4. Dettifoss Waterfall While I didn’t have time to visit this waterfall on my Ring Road adventure, you might. So I wanted to mention it here. Dettifoss [MAP] is the largest waterfall in Iceland (and Europe) by water volume. I totally regret not making the journey up here, and won’t make that mistake again on my next visit. Námafjall Hverir Pulling back onto Route 1 you’ll soon get to the Myvatn Lake area in Northern Iceland. Volcanic activity is high, with some fun hot springs & other geothermal features to explore. One such place is Námafjall Hverir geothermal area [MAP]. You can get up-close-and-personal with boiling blue mud pits or steaming fumaroles. Spend the night in Iceland’s 2nd largest city and capital of the North, Akureyri. Or if you have a camper van like me, pull over anywhere. DAY 6: Erupting Volcanoes Holuhraun Volcano Flight Akureyri has tons of activities to keep you busy, but one in particular was pretty special. Flying over Iceland’s most recent eruption at Bárðarbunga Volcano (also called the Holuhraun eruption). On August 2014 lava broke through the surface there and was spewing huge rivers of molten rock. Flying over an erupting volcano had been on my bucket list for years, and I’m so happy I got to witness the power and fury of nature up close like that! For scenic flights over the volcano I used MyFlug.is. Booking a small plane is MUCH cheaper than a helicopter. UPDATE: The Holuhraun Eruption ended February 2015. There are currently no erupting volcanoes on Iceland, but that will probably change in the future. Whale Watching Because I was waiting for the weather to clear up for my volcano flight, I didn’t have a chance to go whale watching in Iceland. But it’s a very popular thing to do at the fjords around Akureyri. The whale season is from June to October. Apparently, you can spot bottlenose, humpback, and minke whales. You can learn more about whale watching in Akureyri here. DAY 7: Snæfellsnes Peninsula Kirkjufellsfoss Waterfall Depending on how much time you have left, you’ll either want to head straight for Reykjavik or drive around the Snæfellsnes Peninsula (sometimes called “Little Iceland”). I drove all night in order to make time for the peninsula. It’s where you’ll find Kirkjufellsfoss, the most photographed waterfall in Iceland just West of the town of Grundarfjörður. Tips For Driving The Ring Road How Long Does It Take? Seven days is the minimum, but you’ll be pushing it. In fact, I’d recommend 10 so you don’t feel rushed and have time to relax, maybe spend 2 days in one spot. When Should You Go? The best weather is during the summer, July & August. But the shoulder season of September & October can be a good time to visit too as prices are lower, fewer people are on the road, and days become shorter, increasing chances to see the Northern Lights in good weather. Bathrooms & Showers How do you shower if you’re in a campervan for 7-10 days? Well luckily most towns have heated public swimming pools that you can visit for $3-$6 USD. Or, you can pay to use a shower at one of Iceland’s many campgrounds. Simply heating water in your campervan and taking a sponge-bath works too! Regular bathrooms are available at most tourist attractions, restaurants, and gas stations. Check The Weather Speaking of the weather, it changes quickly in Iceland. A sunny morning can easily turn into a whiteout blizzard. Bookmark the website Vegagerdin.is for real-time road conditions. There’s even a smartphone app. Iceland is one of the most amazing countries I’ve every visited, I think you’ll feel the same way! Traveling To Iceland Soon? Don’t forget travel insurance! I’m a big fan of World Nomads for short-term trips. Protect yourself from possible injury & theft abroad. Read more about why you should always carry travel insurance here.