Iceland’s Ring Road: the ultimate road trip experience
As per legend, Gudmundur, Iceland’s patron saint, cast a spell around Iceland’s perimeter and whoever completes a circle around the country falls in love with Iceland, forever! Ring Road aka Route 1 has made it easier to travel around this Nordic Island. Okay, okay, I made it up, but it is true!
The ring road is 828 miles long road encircling Iceland and is an excellent way to experience the richness and diversity of Iceland at your own pace by driving, biking, or maybe even walking. We landed at Keflavík airport in early July to spend 21 days to enjoy the pristine beauty of Iceland. Eleven days were kept aside for hiking and ten days for the ring road drive (with some great detours of course!)
Here is the recount of our epic road trip made possible by a trusty little red Hyundai i10 driven by my husband and the contagious energy of two bouncy, fearless kids in the backseat. Also sharing some tips, must-see-do recommendations, and lessons learned to help you plan your Icelandic adventure.
Golden Circle (Day 1-2)
First on the list was the no-brainer touristy Golden Circle, not to be missed despite the crowds. Golden Circle is a perfect sampler of Iceland for those who are on a tight time budget. It gives a mesmerizing glimpse of primordial forces and a reminder of the impermanent nature of everything around us. It has a legendary soaring waterfall, the original Geysir (root word for all of them) gushing at regular intervals, two tectonic plates drifting apart, a sprinkle of history – the site of the world’s oldest parliament.
Impressive Gullfoss plummeting down with a thundering roar, a show of sheer power of the water, it was the opening act and took us by storm. We stood there mesmerized by its immensity, listening to its music and letting the rising mist drench us.
Two famous geysers Geysir and Strokkur spewing boiling water, powered by the fire under our feet. It is impossible not to get awestruck by the raw and relentless energy of our planet.
Alþingi is the oldest parliament in the world and was founded in 930 at Þingvellir, which is part of Þingvellir National Park a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park is slowly expanding as Eurasian and North American tectonic plates are pulling the country apart by a few centimeters every year. Nowhere in the world, you can see those two tectonic plates and the Mid-Atlantic Ridge above ground, and Silfra fissure in Þingvellir National Park is the best place in Iceland to see them up close. It is one of the most pristine places to dive and snorkel.
Reykjavik to Ísafjörður (Day 3-5)
The next day, we turned back towards Reykjavik and onwards for a two days detour to Ísafjörður, a town in Westfjords peninsula. Once we got off the ring road and entered Westfjords, it started drizzling, saturating the vast mossy landscape gently. Within half an hour drizzle turned into a torrential downpour slowing us down considerably and making raucous inside our tiny car. We reached our destination an hour past midnight.
We had planned to hike the remote Hornvik area for a couple of days, which is accessible by ferry or airplane only. Gusty winds rendered both options useless and we ended up spending an extra day exploring this little town and had one of the best dining experiences at Tjöruhúsið. An old tar factory cabin from 1781 is now a rustic, cozy, family-style restaurant, which serves the best fish soup, and fish-in-pan buffet. Fish is caught from the ocean and dropped off directly into the kitchen sink, giving a whole new meaning to “catch of the day”.
Ísafjörður to Akureyri (Day 6)
After three days, we were back on the road, weaving in and out of fjords, stopping every two miles to take photos, we reunited with ring road and inched towards Akureyri, the capital of the north. It is the second-largest city of Iceland with a population of about 20 thousand. A charming little town, perfect stop to get ready for the next adventure.
Goodnight rest, refreshing shower, hearty breakfast followed by a leisurely stroll at the world’s northernmost botanical gardens (just 50 km shy of the Arctic Circle), and we were in top spirit for the next detour Goðafoss waterfall. Spectacular cascades form an elegant 30-meter wide semicircular arc that rises in the center separating the waterfall in two. Kids ran about on the 7000-year-old lava field from the Trölladyngja volcano pretending to be on a strange planet in a galaxy far far away.
Húsavík – Myvatn (Day 7-8)
Leaving Route 1, we detoured towards Húsavík, nicknames the Whale Capital of Europe. It is also the oldest settlement in the country. We made it in time for a whale watching tour, though we missed the whale museum which closes at 6 pm. About 17 different species of whale can be spotted here depending on the season. We did not have to wait for long to spot a pod of four humpback whales eating krill. These enormous migratory marine mammals eat up to 3,000 pounds of food daily. Lots of Arctic terns and puffins also joined the feeding frenzy. Excitement on the boat contributed to the cacophony. We captured a few quick not-so-sharp photos while trying not to miss the fine display of tail (fluke) slapping and breaching.
Nia, our horse rider, has been reading aloud all about Icelandic horses from the backseat. She made sure that we fully appreciate the magical powers of Icelandic horses and gave us a primer on horse gaits (walks). Ordinary horses can walk just in three different ways, whereas only Icelandic horses have five ways of walking. Common gaits are – walk, trot, and canter and two unique ones are skeið (flying pace) and tölt. Tölt does not even have an equivalent word in other languages! It is the most elegant and fluid walk making the ride exceptionally comfortable.
Now, the time has come to experience the much talked about “tölt”. We spent rest of the evening tölting those elegant horses next to the ocean. Being a rider-in-training Nia was allowed to make her horse skeið, and she was ecstatic! With happy hearts and grumbling tummies, we made it to Silka, a small restaurant next to the bay with a delicious fish menu. We pitched our tent at a private campsite at Myvatn. Just when we thought the day was over, looking up at the star-studded sky made it even grander!
There is so much to explore around Myvatn lake, making it hard to decide. After some discussions, we chose the lake, Dimmuborgir (Dark Fortress), and Námafjall Geothermal Area. We walked around the lake admiring basalts columns rising from its water, hiked under looming dramatic lava rock formations at Dimmuborgir, explored fumaroles and mud pots in the Námafjall Hverir area, and hiked up the “Mud Peak”. In the evening, we celebrated yet another packed day by soaking at Myvatn Natural Baths, which are a smaller, way cleaner, and less commercial version of Blue Lagoon.
Myvatn to Egilsstaðir – Borgarfjörður Eystri (Day 9)
Time to pack the bags and take the next detour. This time for a wild and fierce waterfall – Dettifoss waterfall, the most powerful waterfall in Europe. It is an awe-inspiring sight to watch huge volumes of glacial water thundering over Dettifoss. If you have a little more time to spare, don’t miss nearby Selfoss, a beautiful waterfall. We roamed around for a long time, absorbing the wildness, contemplating the meaning of life, while kids were tending to their curiosities. This night, we pitched our tent at a beautiful private campsite at Egilsstaðir.
The next day we got off the ring road for a little town Borgarfjörður Eystri, a tiny fishing town of about 130 people. It is an extra special day for kids, who had fallen in love with those adorable, orange-beaked “sea parrots” at first sight in Husavik. Though these outrageous orange beaks changed into dull grey during winter months. These cute birds are known to locals as Lundi, to us puffins. If you love those awkward birds, Borgarfjörður is the place to observe them at a close. About 10,000 pairs of puffins nest every summer here. This is probably the easiest and safest place to watch puffins in Iceland. After two hours, we bid farewell to puffins, who were by now carefully named by our kids.
Back on the ring road, driving through the iconic untamed wilderness and winding black sand coastlines of eastern Iceland we rolled towards Hofn. We drove zigzagging in and out of fjords all day without any town for many miles. This part of the drive was very photogenic and especially irresistible.
Borgarfjörður Eystri – Skaftafell (Day 10)
Numerous photo-stops later we reached our destination, Skaftafell campsite, at Vatnajökull National Park. It covers nearly 14% of Iceland. Next time we will keep more days to explore it. We spent the morning exploring Sel farm that was built in 1912 and is just a short walk from the campsite. It is a complex of small sod and turf houses, and a part of Iceland’s heritage.
We hiked about 1.5 km to Svartifoss (black waterfall). Black hexagonal basalt columns beautifully frame this waterfall, lending it a sharp dramatic contrast. No wonder it is the inspiration for the columnar architecture of Hallgrímskirkja church in Reykjavík and many other buildings in Iceland. We hiked further up to reach Sjónarnípa, for a sweeping view over the mighty Skaftafell glacier and the surrounding mountains.
Skaftafell – Reykjavik (Day 11)
Before returning towards Reykjavik, we turned back to see much famed Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, created by the slow melting of Breiðamerkurjökull glacier. It is Iceland’s deepest lake, Giant blue-tinted icebergs that break away from the glacier and fall into the lagoon, slowly melt and drift out to sea marking the end of their journey. Polished by the waves, these glistening ice sculptures with a backdrop of jet-black volcanic sand is a jaw-dropping sight.
It started to drizzle again, as we headed back towards Reykjavik. We stopped near a coast village Vik where a couple of trolls had turned into stones, as per local folklores. Reynisdrangar needles are a striking landmark made of basalt. These are the remains of imposing sea cliffs poking out of the ocean.
Skogar was our last stop before we ended our road trip in Reykjavik, a cherry on the cake! Skógá river cascades down to a drop of 60 meters (197 feet) making one of Iceland’s biggest and most beautiful waterfalls – Skógafoss. It is visible from Route 1. We also spent some time exploring Skoga museum that has an excellent folk museum featuring artifacts dating back to the Viking age, an open-air museum to experience Icelandic architectural heritage and museum of transport.
When we started from Reykjavik, with lots of anticipation, as we rolled back to the capital our hearts were overflowing with deep admiration and awe. Iceland is not a trickle of emotion. It’s a roaring flood, a tidal wave of feeling that lifts you up and carries you along for a ride. Watch our Ring Road trip video here https://www.aspeckintime.com/videos/
Want to go on another road trip? How about Southern Hemisphere? Read a full account of our road trip exploring the South Island of New Zealand.
Highly Recommended Experiences along the Ring Road
Besides stopping frequently to admire the abundance of natural beauty, striking a conversation with local farmers, giving way to herds of fluffy sheep, here is a list of some of the best experiences while you looping around the island.
- Swim/dive/snorkel between the two tectonic plates and touch both of them in Silfra fissure, in the middle of Þingvellir National Park. Not to mention the incredible visibility of freshwater.
- Share wine, laugh, stories with strangers while enjoying the world’s best fish soup at Tjöruhúsið, Isafjordur.
- Hike one of the remote and pristine areas and watch wildlife up-close at Hornvik.
- Let the sheer beauty of nature wash over you at Goðafoss (waterfall of the gods).
- Contemplate the mystery of our planet at Ásbyrgi, a perfectly shaped horseshoe canyon.
- Listen to the hissing and gurgling sounds sound of the earth at Hverir.
- Time travel by hiking up to Námafjall mountain making your way through fumaroles, hot springs, and lava fields.
- Witness the power of nature by standing next to Dettifoss, referred by some as ´The Beast”.
- Say “hello” to adorable lundi (puffins) at Borgarfjörður and then enjoy a great cappuccino at Alfacafe, served in a clay jug.
- Visit the source of inspiration for Hallgrímskirkja church by taking a short hike to Svartifoss, the most spectacular waterfall.
- Watch the interplay of solid and liquid at Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon by either taking a boat ride or walking in the ice caves (not in summer)
- Immerse in Icelandic heritage at the Skogar Museum in Skogar.
- Stand beneth the most elegant waterfall, Skógafoss at Skogar.
- Get behind the scene at Seljalandsfoss, a breathtakingly beautiful waterfall and maybe catch a rainbow
Few Tips for the Ring Road Trip
- Keep at least 7 days to enjoy the trip.
- Keep an eye on the weather. It is very fickle in Iceland.
- Pack plenty of toilet paper, a shovel and trash bags.
- Carry your rain jackets with you to enjoy waterfalls without getting cold and wet.
- Keep a healthy stock of water and snacks in your car.
- Download maps on your smartphone before hitting the road.
- Remember to charge your camera batteries every night.
- If staying in hotels or hostels, book them in advance. People at hostels will ensure you will have the key to get in, in case you reach there at odd hours like us. I make bookings through booking.com, which are easier to change.
- Smile a lot, Icelandic people are super friendly and very helpful.
- Fill the gas, whenever you see a gas station, it may take a while to find the next one. I am sharing some lessons learned about gas here.
Lessons learned about the car-fuel
Petrol stations at far-flung are mostly self-serviced, and would not accept a credit card without a pin, debit cards work fine. In case your card does not have a pin, you may want to request your bank to issue one.
Pre-authorization charge is $250 vs. $1 in the USA to fill up your car tank, either don’t select “full tank,” or be prepared to see multiple $250 holds on your card.
You may consider buying some prepaid cards from N1. N1 has the most gas stations in the remote areas.