My recent trip to Iceland was one of the highlights of my life. I had a wonderful travel companion in my mother, who made this experience something that I will always remember. Within the 9-day adventure, we took a 6-day road trip around the entire country on the “ring road.” The ring road, or Route 1, circumnavigates the entire country and connects the most populous areas in Iceland. But what lies in between these towns is pure, unadulterated magic. I shared this previously, but here is a map of my journey:
The drive each day was roughly 3 hours between each stop, with one day totaling around 4.5 hours. And this was good because we had around 8 hours of sunlight to work with. With so much to see and explore along the road, we used every second of sunlight we had. Mentioning sunlight however makes me laugh. Yes we did see sun, but it was quite spontaneous. For the most part, it was cloudy with rain showers coming and going every few minutes. There always seemed to be a constant wind, with some days gusting around 40 mph. We would hit rain, then sunshine with a rainbow, then snow, back to sun, and then more clouds would roll in.
Aside from the wild weather, driving the ring road (and around Iceland in general) was quite simple. The road itself is excellently maintained and all major sights and towns are very clearly marked. The road is just two lanes wide with one going in each direction. And the best part about the ring road was this: zero traffic ever. Actually, seeing others cars on the road in between our stops was a rarity. When you combine these factors with the prospect of seeing something topographically gorgeous every minute or two, driving the ring road makes for an ideal (and downright epic) road trip.
Day 1 Reykjavik to Vik
We left Reykjavik just after sunrise on the first day and headed south towards the town of Vik. The skies were cloudy and light rain came in short spurts. Known for its unique coastal landscape, Vik boasts black sand beaches with dramatic rock formations. After passing the town of Selfoss, the country really started to open up. Large grazing pastures filled with sheep that backed up to large hillsides. And then boom, we saw the first epic waterfall of the day pouring off the hillside- Seljalandsfoss.
And what made Seljalandsfoss so special was the fact you could walk behind the falls:
After Seljalandsfoss we hopped back on the road and continued on towards another big waterfall. But along the way, I remembered reading about a tiny hidden pool fed by geothermal water that was off the ring road, somewhere in between the two waterfalls. And somehow, I recognized the name of the turn off road from that blog post I read before my trip, and took a left toward a small farm. Just after passing the farm, we parked the car and packed up a small bag with swimming suits and towels. Out of nowhere, a dog ran down from the farm to come say hello to us. Without even thinking about it, the old brown labrador started leading us towards the pool. We hiked about 15 minutes into a small valley, crossing two streams. All the while we followed our dog sherpa. It wasn’t until we were 30 yards away that we saw the pool, sitting at the foot of a small mountain.
This place is called the Seljavallalaug pool, and it’s a real hidden gem. Luckily for us, we had the entire place to ourselves. The water wasn’t hot, just warm. This was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had. I can’t imagine anything like it, especially with the surrounding mountain valley. And the pup just sat there and watched us swim.
We dried off and made our way back to the farm where we parked our car. We got back on the ring road and continued towards Vik. Within 20 minutes, Skogafoss waterfall began to appear in the distance. Like Seljalandsfoss, the falls poured off the hillside in dramatic fashion. Except Skogafoss was much larger and powerful. Epic waterfall #2, check.
There was a large flight of stairs leading up to the top of the waterfall, which provided another great angle of the falls and surrounding landscape.
With two waterfalls and a hidden geothermal pool in the first couple hours of the road trip, we began to get a sense of how amazing this journey was going to be. Getting back on the ring road, we drove for another hour or so until we started to close in on Vik, and its black rocky coastline. We stopped at two major spots before getting to Vik, Dyrholaey and Reynisfjara beach. Both spots featured unique black rock features jutting out of and into the ocean. And it was windy, like holy shit windy. I could run full sprint into the wind and not move more than a couple feet.
And so, day 1 came to an end when we finally (took us a little while to find it) reached our guesthouse about 10 minutes outside of the town of Vik. I had never seen waterfalls this impressive before. I had never seen black sand beaches before. The journey was just beginning, and it was about to get even better.
Day 2 Vik to Höfn
We woke up on day 2 to the sounds of whistling winds and beating rain. It was actually quite intense just getting in the car. The gusts were so strong that opening and closing the car doors became hazardous. We were warned by the guesthouse owners that a car door could snap off in high winds if we weren’t careful. So we started our drive to Höfn in the cloudy and turbulent weather. As soon as we made our way out of Vik and slightly inland, the topography began to really change.
The rock piles, or cairns, you see here were placed by passerby’s to remember a farm that was engulfed in lava flow from the explosion of the Katla Volcano in the year 894:
And as we kept driving, the evidence of volcano eruptions began to appear all over in the form of mounds of black volcanic rocks covered in ancient green lichen. This was a truly unique landscape that I had never knew existed.
The old lava fields slowly began to fade into a grassier, more mountainous landscape as we pushed on down the road. We decided we needed some gas so we stopped in a small village called Kirkjubæjarklaustur. The town was nestled up against some steep cliffs that had a couple stunning waterfalls coming down. While getting gas, and a delicious hotdog, we learned from some American tourists (stopped for hotdogs as well) that we had just passed an amazing gorge just off the ring road not too far back from the town. They told us where to turn off and how to get there, telling us it was something to not miss. So we turned the wheels around and headed for the Fjadrargljufur gorge. And it was epic.
The Fjadrargljufur gorge was worth it. The 100m deep canyon was formed by glaciers that carved its way through the landscape, leaving a river behind. Lava flows then glacial flows. This juxtaposition of fire and ice was only just beginning. We flipped back around again on the ring road in the direction of Höfn.
Our next stop along the road was not even a stop at all (except we stopped a number of times to take pictures and gaze in awe), and that was the Vatnajökull glacier. The Vatnajökull glacier is massive, one of the largest in Europe, and covers almost 13% of Iceland. The drive towards this glacier, and the landscape surrounding it was breathtaking. We drove by, and very close to, this glacier for what seemed like hours. And at the right moments, the clouds began to part, and we got a little bit of sunshine.
You can see how tongues of this massive glacier ice cap would flow down in between the mountains all the way to ground. Something interesting that we saw was the remnants of an airplane that had crashed into the glacier years ago and was left behind as the glacier retreated back up the mountain. And also, a rainbow hitting the glacier:
The views from the road remained spectacular for a long while as the sun lit up the landscape. But of course, clouds and rain quickly moved in shortly there after, as we continued on towards another stunning feature in southern Iceland- the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon. Now, I hadn’t seen a glacier before, so driving along the Vatnajökull glacier was an eye opening experience for me. Then there was Jökulsárlón. Chunks of the Vatnajökull ice cap break off into this lagoon, causing it to fill with small icebergs and hunks of blue ice. These pieces of ice would then flow out of the lagoon, and into the ocean. Then the waves would cause the icebergs to crash into each other, break apart, wash ashore, and create an iceberg graveyard on the black sand beach.
After watching icebergs crash into each other on the black sand beach in the pouring rain, we pushed on down our final stretch of road to the small fishing town of Höfn. That night, we dined on langoustines and prepared for a drive the next day along the eastern fjords.
Day 3 Höfn to Seyðisfjörður
We left the fishing town and headed up the eastern fjords. Our final destination for the day would be Seyðisfjörður- a small port town situated on the end of a fjord inlet. We ran into some shitty weather straight from the get go. The drive along the east coast of Iceland was fairly consistent: mountain slopes to your left and large waves crashing into rocky ocean inlets on your right. We didn’t see too many people, cars, or towns for a majority of our drive. What we did see, was about a thousand waterfalls (and I’m quite sure this is not an exaggeration).
We drove through a tough bit of mountain road, in total fog, which kept my mom and I quite on edge. We almost couldn’t enjoy the hundreds of waterfalls pouring down the mountain slopes around us. From the mountain pass, we were lowered to the town of Egilsstaðir where we stopped for lunch. To get to Seyðisfjörður, we turned off the ring road in Egilsstaðir and headed back towards the coastline. We climbed over another mountain pass, with a hundred more waterfalls, then descended into the little fjord town.
Seyðisfjörður was a sleepy little town and most places seemed to be closed that evening. We stayed the night in a small cottage overlooking the fjord, hoping to see the northern lights, but the skies couldn’t clear enough.
Day 4 Seyðisfjörður to Akureyri
Day 4 started by climbing back over the mountain pass back to Egilsstaðir, where we would once again hop back on the ring road. We had a bit of clear weather that morning for the first hour or so of our drive out of town. As we headed away from the coast, more inland (and further north), the country once again began to open up. More farm lands began to appear with the usual sheep and horses. But these farm lands were different from any farm lands seen previously on the drive. The hills were turning into more formidable peaks and snow caps were seen in the distance.
And then before we knew it, we got caught in a little snow storm:
But soon, the snows subsided and we reached lower elevations. And just like the weather, the topography began to change dramatically:
And this was about the time we began our approach to the Lake Myvatn area. From snow to fire. Lake Myvatn was formed a couple thousand years ago by a large basaltic lava eruption. The surrounding area around the lake is filled with pock marks, called pseudocraters. Not to far off from the lake is the volcano Krafla, where volcanic activity and sulfury steam vents dominated the landscape. It felt as if we entered a different world.
From here we headed right towards the Krafla volcano, and climbed up to one of its huge explosion craters- Viti. The Viti crater means “hell” in Icelandic, and was flooded with aquamarine colored water.
We then stopped for lunch by the actual lake. Post lunch we drove around the lake, checking out the pseudocraters and climbing a 400m high ash covered volcano called Hverfjall.
After exploring the Lake Myvatn area, we hopped back onto Route 1 on our way toward Akureyri. We had one more stop before we reached the second largest city in Iceland- the waterfall of the gods, Godafoss. We drove another 45 minutes or so, through a brief rain shower. When we reached Godafoss, a rainbow appeared behind us, and the sun was beginning to set behind the waterfall’s mountain backdrop.
Godafoss was the largest waterfall we saw on the ring road. We missed the Detifoss waterfall, because we became so enthralled by the volcanic Lake Myvatn area. We pushed on a little further and made it to Akureyri before sunset. Akureyri felt like a mini Reykjavik, and we could have easily spent a couple days hanging around here. What a picturesque city on the northern fjords:
Day 5 Akureyri to Grundarfjörður
We struck out another night on seeing the northern lights. The conditions had been ideal, but the cosmos had other plans. On day 5 we would make our longest drive yet to the Snæfellsnes peninsula on the western coast of the country. The drive was rather pedestrian by our newfound standards, until we reached the peninsula. Yes, we did see many topographic changes, but there was nothing very dramatic until we reach Snæfellsnes.
At the town of Borgarnes, we turned off the ring road and onto the Snæfellsnes peninsula. It was interesting that we assumed our entire drive on day 5 would be lackluster based on the deficiency of major sights to see. But I picked the peninsula for a reason- its diversity. Within moments we began to see more mountains and small lakes. The colors were jumping everywhere. Bright greens, reds, black, snow white, and browns. We saw large volcano craters and more lava fields. As we began to approach our destination, Grundarfjörður, the sights became absolutely stunning.
And then we reached the tiny town of Grundarfjörður, situated right on the water between snowcapped peaks and the glorious Kirkjufell mountain. With perfect weather the entire day, and clear skies all evening long, tonight would be the night we saw the wonder that is the northern lights.
Seeing the northern lights is a memorable experience. It started as one small line of light, and began to move across the night sky and grow. The greenish color was captured here:
Day 6 Grundarfjörður to Reykjavik
After an unforgettable evening gazing at the northern lights, and witnessing a handful of epic shooting stars, we had one final drive back to Reykjavik. Our main attraction for the day was driving around the entirety of the peninsula through Snæfellsjökull National Park. The park had its fair share of ancient lava fields and diverse seabird wildlife. We drove along the coastlines of the peninsula through tiny seaside towns and beautiful ocean cliffs on our right hand side. All the while, we stared at this to our left:
This is Snæfellsjökull, a 700,000 year old stratovolcano covered in a glacial ice cap. This is the volcano featured in the Jules Verne classic A Journey to the Center of the Earth. We saw nobody in the national park, making it seem like we had this view all to ourselves. After leaving the peninsula, we hopped back on to the ring road towards Reykjavik. The sights the rest of the way down the western coast were minimal, and it was a time of reflection on everything we had experienced along the 6-day trip.
The ring road journey was epic. This was without a doubt the best road trip I had ever been on, and a fantastic (and efficient) way to see the entire country of Iceland and all of its glory. I hope this post can be a useful tool for anyone planning a trip to Iceland. Stay tuned for more on Iceland, including my time spent in Reykjavik, eating rotten shark, and a more in depth experience of my night seeing the northern lights.