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Ring Road, Iceland
There’s nothing like a good road trip. Especially when driving past active volcanoes, blue icebergs, roaring waterfalls, and magical northern lights on Iceland’s Ring Road. Get ready for an adventure!
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 Icelandic landscape reveals itself.
Renting a car and self-driving Iceland on the Ring Road exposes you to bubbling geothermal springs, sparkling rainbows, beautiful horses, icy glaciers, massive waterfalls, and rugged mountains day after day.
If you’re lucky, you may even catch the magic of the northern lights too!
Now throw in the occasional ice cave or even 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 self-drive ring road adventure. Learn how to prepare, where to stay, and the best things to see in Iceland!
How To Use This Map
Above you’ll find a map of my itinerary for Iceland’s Ring Road. Click on the top left of the map to find separate layers marking the route and points of interest. You can hide and show different layers, or click icons on the map to see the names of places I mention in this travel guide. “Star” the map to save it to your own Google Maps, or open the map in a new window for a larger version. Enjoy!
Driving Iceland’s Ring Road In 2019
If you haven’t figured it out by the map above, Iceland’s Ring Road encircles 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 10 days in Iceland, with 7 full days to drive the Ring Road itself.
Looking back I wish I had made spent an extra few days on the Ring Road.
While 7 days is possible, you’ll be moving non-stop, and will miss a few highlights. Especially if you have a bad-weather day.
Because the weather is definitely a factor in Iceland, with sudden snowstorms common in the spring, fall, and winter.
Rental Car Or Campervan?
There are bus tours that drive the route, but a self-drive tour is the way to go in my opinion. You can stop anywhere you want, for as long as you want, giving you complete freedom.
I drove the ring road in Iceland while living out of a Happy Campers van. The major benefit to renting a campervan is that it covers your accommodation.
Traveling by campervan was perfect for maximizing 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.
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 In Iceland
Stock up on groceries before you leave for your road trip, because food in Iceland is expensive. There’s 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.
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 7-10 day itinerary with highlights you shouldn’t miss, good places to stay for the night, plus a few adventure activities that must be booked in advance.
My Iceland Ring Road Itinerary
The Golden Circle is a short 1-day road trip that starts from Reykjavik which I covered in a separate article. This 300 km (190 mi) route covers many beautiful Iceland landmarks in a short period of time, so it’s perfect for people on a long layover.
It’s a good place to start a longer ring road adventure too because the attractions are some of the most visited in Iceland. I’d recommend getting these out of the way first before heading out into the more remote (and less crowded) parts of the country.
Thingvellir National Park
The location of Iceland’s first Parliament, and where the North American & Eurasian tectonic plates are slowly splitting apart from each other.
Geysers At Haukadalur
An impressive geothermal area featuring two natural geysers that erupt on a regular basis. Churning boiling water that smells like eggs.
This wide & fast-moving river turns a corner and falls 100 feet into a huge waterfall, producing thick mist & frequent rainbows.
DAY 2: South Coast To Vik
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.
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. The plane has been used in a bunch of music videos making it famous.
You can park your car and hike out to the plane on foot and explore what remains. Check out my detailed directions if you’d like to see this famous spot first-hand!
Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach
Often referred to as the world’s most beautiful black sand beach, Reynisfjara is a must-visit location for travelers. This wild, rugged beach was created by lava mixing with ocean water. I wouldn’t recommend sunbathing on this beach, but you will get some amazing photo opportunities here. From the black beach itself to the cliffs, caves and basalt columns, Reynisfjara is very impressive.
Where To Stay Around Vik
DAY 3: Iceberg Lagoons & Ice Caves
This majestic canyon came to life approximately 9,000 years ago as a result of progressive erosion. I was thrilled by the opportunity to walk inside this narrow, winding canyon. However, if you want to avoid wading through water, I suggest enjoying its natural beauty from the walking path above Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon. Be aware that the path is steep, but the view is more than worth the effort.
Svartifoss Black Waterfall
The black basalt columns that flank the narrow flow of water from Svartifoss (aka the “Black Waterfall”) will make you feel like you’ve discovered an alien planet. Depending on whether you want to take the direct or more circular route, you can expect to walk for at least 2 miles to reach it. You can’t enter the actual waterfall area, but you’ll get close enough for great photos.
Jökulsárlón Iceberg Lagoon
Breiðamerkurjökull glacier is slowly melting, with giant blue-tinted icebergs breaking off and floating into a large lagoon called Jökulsárlón. The ice collects on its shores, while some pieces continue on and 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 beach nearby, where some icebergs get pushed on shore due to waves.
Hidden 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 ice caves can be difficult and treacherous to reach, so you’ll need to hire a guide. For safety reasons, you can only visit them in the winter too (starting in November) when the ice has hardened up and the risk of collapse is low.
Where To Stay Around Hofn
DAY 4: Egilsstaðir & The 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. Most people stop to spend the night in the town of Egilsstaðir.
Sheep & Reindeer Spotting
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 the sheep will be fenced in, but in the summer and fall, they roam free through the countryside.
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.
Where To Stay In East Iceland
Icelandic 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 a 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 [MAP] is the largest waterfall in Iceland (and Europe) by water volume. Imagine the visual and auditory impact of more than 132,000 liquid gallons rushing past you every second! It’s equally beautiful and overwhelming.
Most tourists go to the waterfall’s west side, but the east side is even better for photos. If you have the time, it’s definitely worth a stop. It’s very impressive, but also very dangerous if you get too close to the edge. Especially if the rocks are wet. Be careful!
Godafoss Waterfall is famous for several reasons, including its impressive width of almost 100 feet. More importantly, if you go here at night during the right time of the year, you can photograph the Northern Lights over the water.
It doesn’t originate from a very tall height, but Godafoss has width and power that reminded me of Niagara Falls. This attraction is known locally as the “Waterfall of the Gods” due to an Icelandic legend involving Norse statues and the area’s conversion to Christianity.
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.
Where To Stay Around Myvatn
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.
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.
Where To Stay Around Akureyri
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.
Snæfellsnes is where you’ll find Kirkjufellsfoss, the most photographed waterfall in Iceland just West of the town of Grundarfjörður.
Búðakirkja Black Church
One of my favorite things about Iceland is that’s it’s easy to leave the hustle and bustle of big city life behind. Búðir fully embodies this sense of wonderful isolation by having only two structures in the entire hamlet: a hotel and a tiny church named Búðakirkja. This black church sits inside a lava field, and it also has a lot of green space behind it. Be careful not to fall into any of the big holes that dot the grassy landscape.
Where To Stay On Snæfellsnes
If you made it back to Reykjavik and have a few more days to spare, there’s plenty to do in Iceland’s capital city! Reykjavik is a vibrant city full of cool street-art, great nightlife, modern architecture, and interesting things to do.
Iceland’s Hallgrímskirkja Church towers over Reykjavík and is the tallest church in the entire country. Naturally, this has made the expressionist architecture one of Iceland’s most popular tourist attractions. The two most noteworthy aspects of the church are the beautifully detailed statue of Leif Eiríksson and the huge, mechanical pipe organ. Make sure to take the elevator up to the top for some very cool views of the city.
Harpa Concert Hall
The glass facade of this modern Icelandic building is really impressive. Harpa Concert Hall is worth touring even if there are no performances during your visit. But if you’re lucky, you may be able to catch one of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra’s weekly concerts there. At night the whole building pulsates with colored lights, putting on a show of its own.
This natural geothermal pond in the middle Reykjavik attracts geese, swans and ducks year-round, along with picnicking families and couples looking for a romantic walk. Locals call the pond the “Biggest Bread Soup in the World” due to all the bread that’s offered to the birds. A little environmental tip is to offer seeds instead of bread, which is healthier for them.
The Blue Lagoon
While not technically in Reykjavik, you can’t visit Iceland without a dip in the famous geothermal Blue Lagoon. It’s located about an hour away from the city center, closer to the international airport. Visiting the lagoon is expensive, but worth it.
The Blue Lagoon is not REALLY a natural lagoon, it’s actually man-made using surplus water from the nearby geothermal powerplant. But bathing in the warm mineral-rich waters surrounded by Iceland’s dramatic volcanic landscape is still fun!
Where To Stay In Reykjavik
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 days so you don’t feel rushed and have time to relax, maybe spending a few days in one spot. I also recommend saving a day or two to explore Reykjavik too.
Best Time To Visit?
The best weather to drive Iceland’s Ring Road 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.
Checkout Strange and Interesting facts about Iceland for more details.
Bathrooms & Showers
How do you shower if you’re in a campervan? Well 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. Sponge-baths work too! Regular bathrooms are available at most tourist attractions, restaurants, and gas stations.
Checking 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 ever visited, I think you’ll feel the same way after spending a week driving the Ring Road! ★
Travel Video: Ring Road Adventures In Iceland!
Check out my travel gear guide to help you start packing for your trip. Pick up a travel backpack, camera gear, and other useful travel accessories.
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Rent A Car
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Are you planning a trip to Iceland? Any questions about driving the ring road? Drop me a message in the comments below!
This content was originally published here.