If you’re on the hunt for an incredible road trip, an Iceland Ring Road Trip should be at the top of your list. Driving along the Ring Road is an unforgettable experience that will not disappoint any traveller. With 1,400 kms of highway encircling the entire island, many of the sights and out-of-this-world landscapes are almost too easy to access. At times you’ll feel overwhelmed, at other times you’ll wonder whether you are the last living being on the planet.
The Iceland Ring Road, or Highway 1, is the main artery along the island’s perimeter. It is possible to drive the entire length in one day (for us Canadians, this wouldn’t be all that unusual), but in reality, it’s best to plan for a couple weeks for a nicely paced experience that allows for however many stops you’d like along the way.
READ NEXT: RING ROAD TRIP PART 2
A road trip is impossible without a car. Bus tours are available, but only to certain limits. We opted to rent a campervan rather than a regular car, not wanting to splurge on accommodation on top of car rental and gas. We rented a cozy, minimalist, perfect-for-us van from KúKúCampers, which not only comes with a bed in the back, but also storage for food, tableware, a small stove, etc. You also have the option of adding extras to your rental like a guitar, GPS (highly recommended!), a flashlight, a table and chairs, etc. With this campervan, we had the freedom to pull over and sleep pretty much anywhere we wanted (unless explicitly prohibited by nearby signs). Assuming things haven’t changed, we were able to use our Canadian driver’s license to rent the vehicle. Though we can’t speak to personal experience, Go Campers and Happy Campers offer similar services and may be worth checking out.
We booked an automatic camper van (look at us privileged North Americans who can’t drive stick) and it was pretty easy to drive. They also had 4×4 models, which are required for visiting the Highlands, but we decided to stick with Route 1 for most of our trip.
Here are some points to consider before heading out on an Iceland Ring Road Trip, based on our specific experiences:
- If you see a gas station, fill up. Stations can become scarce the further you venture away from Reykjavik. Especially if you turn off the Ring Road – maybe a couple hours each way – the last thing you want to do is run out of gas.
- Need to wee? Do it now. The one thing we didn’t consider when booking our camper is the lack of a washroom. At first it was a point of anxiety, not knowing where the nearest washroom would be, but you get used to it.
- You might also be wondering about where and when to shower. Just stop by any local pool where they will charge you $2 or $3 to use the facilities. Don’t quote us on this, but there may be more pools in Iceland than sheep.
- Stock up on groceries. Or at the very least, something to snack on. This may be less of an issue for people without dietary restrictions. But being vegetarian meant we could almost never stop into that lone restaurant in the middle of nowhere, so apples and peanut butter sandwiches were our go-tos.
- Even in the best of seasons, Icelandic weather is temperamental and can change quite quickly. Make sure to visit Vegagerdin or download the app Veðrið to help you track weather conditions.
Driving the Iceland Ring Road
Your Iceland Ring Road Trip is sure to start off with some time in Reykjavik followed by a tour of the heavily visited tourist trail known as the Golden Circle. These are experiences we’ve already detailed in past blog posts, so be sure to click the links if you’d like them fleshed out. We’d go over them again but, you know… kids these days, attention spans, etc. Give yourself three or four days for these, and then continue counter-clockwise along Route 1. Even we couldn’t see it all, but below are some of the highlights we think you should not miss.
After reading about Keldur, there was no question we would take the detour from the Ring Road. It was well worth it. You just need to take Road 264, between the towns of Hella and Hvolsvöllur. Some of it is a dirt road, but it was in good condition for our campervan.
More than twenty turf structures have been standing on this farm estate for almost a thousand years, including a hidden escape tunnel that was built into the hill. When we visited, we happened to be the only ones there. Well, the only tourists. A farmer was working on the adjacent farm, which had us worried for a moment that we were on someone’s private property. But we were not. We roamed the area for over an hour; taking dozens of pictures and admiring the landscape. Keldur was free to visit at the time, however, it appears like there is now an admission fee of $700 ISK.
Gullfoss, Seljalandsfoss, Gljúfurárfoss & Skógafoss
These waterfalls should be the first major bunch of falls you spot along your trip. We were impressed by so many that we made an entire post dedicated to the many falls that caught our eye. You can visit our ‘Iceland Waterfalls Aplenty‘ post to read more about them in a ton of detail.
Heimaey, which literally translates to Home Island in English, is the largest of Iceland’s islands at over 13 square kilometres and the most populated with around 4,500 habitants. You can get to the island either by ferry or by air (from Reykjavik), but seeing as how you’ll be driving, park your car in the port’s parking lot and buy a return ticket for the ferry ($1,260 ISK each way per person).
We spent the night in the parking lot, so that we could hop on the first ferry out in the morning. Would we do it this way again? Absolutely not. The winds by the water were so strong that we were kept up all night by the slamming of the wind against our campervan. Find another spot nearby and drive there first thing in the morning. Since we were only planning on doing a day trip, we opted to leave the car in the parking lot. You can bring your car with you, but it will cost you over $4,000 ISK for the round-trip.
The island’s history is littered with bloodshed, from killings and slaughters to volcano eruptions that almost wiped out the entire island. In fact, you can visit Heimaey’s ‘Pompeii of the North’ to see the ruins of houses and buildings destroyed by lava.
The weather was gloomy but relatively fine, so we made the most out of the island and walked almost everywhere. Sights are easily accessible, so long as you have a map. It’s very easy to get turned around without one. We visited the beautiful stave church. Although the architecture and building methods were meant to mimic those of the Vikings from the 12th and 13th century, it is in fact from the 21st. What we thought was an authentic old church turned out to be a gift from Norway that was consecrated in the year 2000 to commemorate Iceland’s conversion to Christianity.
Next was our climb up Eldfell, the volcanic cone that nearly destroyed the island in 1973. In fact, it provided geothermal energy to the island from 1976 until 1985. At only 221m high, it was a fairly easy climb. Well, the part we did was easy. At one point the path narrows and the perspective comes in and out of focus. Needless to say, a fear of heights sometimes trumps a desire for further exploration.
Heimay is one of several locations throughout Iceland where puffins are said to be in abundance. Throughout the day we wanted to find some and the map in our hand conveniently illustrated their supposed locations. We marched to every spot where they were supposed to be and each time were disappointed. Exhausted, we finally gave up and sat on the side of the cliff watching the ocean waves. We relaxed there until we had to take our ferry back.
One of Iceland’s oldest swimming pools, the 25-metre long Seljavallalaug was built in 1923 and is filled by a natural hot spring. This protected pool is located 7kms from Skógar into a hillside at Seljavellir.
Our lonely planet book directed us to park by the farm and follow the path upwards, which we did. We couldn’t find the pool so we followed a second, third, then a fourth path until we quite literally gave up. When we got back to the parking lot, another traveller was there with her parents and she suggested we join her to try and find it together. She had swum in it a couple of years back and hoped she could find it again.
Instead of walking ‘up’ the path all we had to do was walk. The pool is now even to the ground rather than elevated in the mountainside. Maybe there was some sort of change in the terrain because it’s not what we expected to see. After what we had been through, including a tumble down some rocks, we didn’t even swim or take a picture. So you can find this little gem on your own, or cheat by googling what it looks like. It’s still definitely worth finding, and could be quite magical in the right weather conditions.
While there is not much to do per-say in Vík, we still have fond memories of Iceland’s southernmost village. When we arrived, it was pouring rain. We had had enough of our peanut butter sandwiches, so we went on the hunt for a restaurant that would offer something we could eat. Low and behold, we stopped at the tourist office that shared the building with a restaurant called Halldórskaffi. A veggie burger was on the menu and just what we needed.
After our meal, we drove to Reynisdrangur to see the basalt formations, found at the western part of the black sand beach. Legend has it that three trolls dragged a three-masted ship to shore, but were caught by the sunlight at dawn and turned into rocks. This is a second location where puffins can be found on nearby cliffs; however, we weren’t able to spot any. We called it a night and parked our van near the beach in Vik and slept with the sound of ocean waves crashing on the shore.
Not so far away from Vík, this small peninsula is really interesting and worth stopping for at least a couple of hours. Drive to the parking lot, and then explore the rest by foot.
From the parking lot, you can walk marked pathways for some incredible views, including one of the glacier Mýrdalsjökull on one side. You can also climb the hill on the opposite side where you will once again get splendid views and see one of Iceland’s many lighthouses. It can get extremely windy up by the lighthouse, so dress warm and maybe even consider keeping your distance from the cliffside.
This canyon is located approximately 2.5kms off the Iceland Ring Road. The road is quite bumpy, but you will reach it before it turns into an F Road. You usually cannot travel on F Roads with rental cars, unless you rented a 4×4 vehicle. Signs will let you know once you have arrived at the canyon and you will cross a bridge overlooking the Fjaora River. That river is responsible for the creation of the canyon, which is now over two million years old. It is 100 metres deep and two kilometres long. There are hiking trails to reach the bottom of the canyon, but we decided to stay at the top knowing that the scenic views were better.
Referred to by locals as ‘Klaustur’, which translates to ‘convent’, this little village with a population of approximately 120 got its name around 1186 when a convent for Benedictine nuns was founded. A volcano in the area erupted in the 18th century, creating a lava field that is over 12m thick. You can visit some ruins of abandoned houses and farms in the area.
Religion is particularly important in this area of the country. You can visit a rock pillar named Systrastapi (Sister’s Pillar), marking the spot where two nuns were executed. It is believed that one of them sold herself to the devil and had relations with men while the other supposedly spoke terrible words of blasphemy against the Pope.
There are also two waterfalls in the village called Systrafoss (Sister´s Falls): two equal waterfalls falling side by side down the mountain. The source of these falls is found only a short climb up the mountain to a lake at the top named Systravatn (Sister’s Lake). This is also where the nuns would come to bathe.
Skaftafell is a preservation area in the south of Iceland. It used to be its own national park, but since 2008 it is now part of Vatnajökull National Park, Europe’s largest at 12,000 square kilometres.
Formed by the influence of volcanoes and glaciers, this park is filled with breathtaking landscapes. You will have the opportunity to see, from a distance, the tip of Skaftafellsjökull. The walk to it is extremely easy and only thirty minutes each way. It has been losing some of its mass in the past decades – as much as 1km in fifty years.
If you are lucky, you may even spot an arctic fox (we were not so lucky). You can also visit Svartifoss (Black Fall), a 20m-high waterfall in the park. It got its name from the basalt formations on top of which the water flows.
An iceberg lagoon. Right beside the Ring Road, this sight is easily accessible and should not be missed. We were there at night and it appeared to be the perfect time of day as the number of tourists was pretty low.
Breaking off the glacier of Breiðamerkurjökull, these icebergs float in this lake for up to five years. The glacier used to reach the Ring Road, but has been retracting for almost the past century, which means the lagoon is about 75-80 years old.
You may recognize the lagoon from Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Batman Begins or even the Bond film Die Another Day.
Enjoy some other snapshots along the Iceland Ring Road from the first part of our trip.
As always, thank you to our readers from all over the world! Feel free to comment below and share your own stories and experiences from Iceland.
Safe and happy travels!
– Adamo & Joey
The Gays Abroad