Iceland – Driving The Ring Road
When we first heard about the “Ring Road” in Iceland, we immediately knew it was something we wanted to do. After all, who can resist the promise of adventure when active volcanoes, massive glaciers, black sand beaches, snow (lots of snow), geysers, natural hot springs and violent wind gusts of up to 300km/h are part of the package?
Iceland, which is an island in the North Atlantic, was described by a friend of ours who also happened to be a frequent traveler, as one of the most amazing places he has ever visited. He told us about the “Golden Circle” and the “Ring Road” experience, and immediately we fell in love with the idea.
The “Ring Road” in Iceland is the main route of approximately 1 500km tar road, which takes you right around the island. A well planned trip will let you complete the circle in about 7 days, while allowing you to also visit most of the major attractions. If you have more time, then longer is better.
On this page we have documented our experience of this unforgettable trip. Be sure to check out our other related posts for valuable information on how to plan your trip to Iceland, what mistakes you definitely don’t want to make, and what attractions you absolutely don’t want to miss.
Arriving In Iceland
If you are a traveler on a tight budget, you most likely know that the late night flights are always the cheapest. This is great for cutting down on costs, but that usually comes with other problems of its own. Our arrival at Keflavík International Airport around 11:00pm made the logistics of finding a taxi and checking in for the night unnecessarily complex. However, we were truly blessed to be able to find accommodation at Geirland Guesthouse, which is only about 10 minutes away from the airport.
Siggi and his wife Anne were amazing hosts. They went out of their way to assist us with transport from the airport to their cottage, even at such an unruly hour. As soon as we were checked in, Siggi called us in to his house where he showed us a map of Iceland with important information we needed to know. He also allowed us to connect to his Wi-Fi and advised us to download MAPS.ME from the App Store, together with a map of Iceland. The advantage of MAPS.ME is that the app makes use of your cellular location instead of GPS services, which means you save data!
The warm tap water in Iceland smells a bit like Sulphur and is something to get used to. The cold water is invigorating and refreshing – also straight from the natural resources. After a refreshing shower and a quick breakfast we were ready to go. Unfortunately strong winds prevented us from leaving early. We had to wait a couple of hours for the wind to calm down before Siggi and Anne drove us to Reykjavik where we collected our vehicle for the trip. They are great hosts and were really helpful (it is amazing how far a bottle of Vodka can get you in Iceland).
The most popular way to drive the Ring Road is by Camper Van. We, however, opted for a 4 wheel drive SUV instead. We are not advising against Camper Van’s, but the SUV is our preference for windy months because of the size/weight ratio.
Living out of an SUV instead of a Camper Van definitely has its down side, but we had agreed early on that it wasn’t for luxury that we were visiting Iceland. With the SUV we were able to drive off road. We were also more comfortable with the SUV in the strong winds than we would have been with a Camper Van.
After collecting our vehicle, we headed for the heart of Reykjavik in search of a grocery shop. Reykjavik is the capital and largest city of Iceland. It is also the world’s northernmost capital of a sovereign state, with a population of over 120,000. Buying your groceries in Reykjavik is ideal, as you will find pretty much anything you could need for your trip in the city. We were also able to buy a sim card for our cell phone with enough data to last us for the week.
About an hour later and we were all set and good to go. From Reykjavik we headed towards the first attraction on our list: Thingvellir National Park (Þingvellir). The Thingvellir area is situated on the tectonic plate boundaries of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The area is popular for the visible split of the earth’s crust. Lake Thingvellir is popular because the lake consists of water that drains through an area covered by lava.
The drive from Reykjavik to Thingvellir takes less than 45 minutes on Route 36. Unfortunately we had really bad weather and decided to leave the National Park for another, more suitable time.
From Thingvellir we headed to our next stop: Geysir!
It takes about an hour to get from Thingvellir to Geysir. We continued on Route 36 and stayed on the main road which, after about 20 or 25 minutes became Route 365, which became Route 37 and then Route 35.
However, on your way to Geysir there is one stop that you must make. About 20 minutes before you get to Geysir, there is a farm hotel on your left called Efstidalur. Here we had what was probably the best ice cream and best coffee of our entire trip. The restaurant offers cuisine made from local ingredients, prepared by expert chefs. The Ice Cream Barn has windows from where you can see the livestock that are kept indoors for a large portion of the year to protect them from the cold.
We wish we knew about this place before we planned our trip, so we could have lingered a bit longer. If you can afford it, we would also highly recommend staying over for the night. It is the perfect stopover on your way to Geysir.
The name Geysir is derived from the Icelandic verb geysa, which means “to gush”. A geyser is a hot spring from where boiling water which is under pressure gets pushed up into the air. It is said that eruptions at Geysir can hurl water up to 70 meters high. However, it has been noted that eruptions may also be infrequent, and have even stopped altogether for years at a time. When we were there we timed the eruptions to be about 8 minutes apart, varying in height.
Entrance to Geysir is free, as the last owner of the property donated it to the people of Iceland.
This was our first day, and our visit to Geysir finished at around 9pm. We were extremely tired. We looked for the first decent place to stop next to the road, and retired for the day in the back of our car.
We slept for about 10 hours straight. After we got up we had some eggs, instant oats and instant coffee for breakfast. Making breakfast took much longer than anticipated. We struggled to boil water in an ice cold wind, but after burning a lot more gas than what would have otherwise been necessary, we excitedly headed for our next destination.
Continue on Route 35 for another 10 minutes and you get to the amazing Gullfoss Falls. Considered by many to be the most famous waterfall in Iceland, it is definitely one of the top attractions to see.
From Gullfoss Falls we wanted to get back to Route 1, which is the main road that takes you around Iceland. We headed back the way we came on Route 35, and a few minutes before Geysir we turned left onto Route 30. It is about an hour’s drive to get to Route 1, but we took about 4 hours to get there. The reason? We got distracted by horses…
On this stretch of road we saw the most amazing scenery combined with the most beautiful of Icelandic bred horses. Although they have originally been bred from ponies in the 9th and 10th centuries, the official registries refer to most of them as horses, and not ponies.
We intentionally wandered of the main road from time to time in pursuit of these free spirits. Don’t think they are intimidated by strangers. With one encounter we were surrounded by horses and they started to chew on the wiper blades of our car.
It is also on this stretch of road where the Secret Lagoon is. This is another one of those must see attractions. Unfortunately we only heard about this place the day before. As we were looking for it, we struggled to understand the local farmers in the area. Not all of them speak English, and we were unable to figure out exactly where this place is on the map. The good news is there are plenty reasons to return to Iceland, and this is one of them for us.
To make sure we get there next time, I was able to locate the GPS location for the Secret Lagoon:
64.1378° N, 20.3099° W
We turned left onto Route 1 and headed towards Vik. If you were not going to make any stops it would take you about 90 minutes to the southernmost town of Iceland. However, the 115km stretch has enough to keep you busy the whole day.
There are literally hundreds of waterfalls in Iceland. Eventually you will just drive past most of them, but in the early stages of your trip you will most definitely want to stop and admire them. Seljalandsfoss Waterfall is one of the early ones you will see.
There is a hiking trail that takes you up close and personal. Be sure to have enough time and a raincoat to explore.
There are in the region of 130 active and / or extinct volcanoes in Iceland. Eyjafjallajökull is probably the most famous of them all, especially since its eruption in 2010 disrupted airline traffic between America and Europe.
It has also received a lot of attention due to the pronunciation challenges it gives to Westerners. It even made it into the Ben Stiller movie called The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
Watch this video for a pronunciation lesson from a true Icelander.
From Eyjafjallajökull, continue on Route 1 towards Vik. Turn onto Route 221, which can be found right after crossing a bridge. There is a sign that says Sólheimajökull (5km) to the left. This is a well-known glacier due to the ease of access, but if you don’t know about it you will easily drive past it.
When we arrived we were the only ones as it was a bit late in the afternoon already. This added to the almost sinister atmosphere, which could be attributed to the fact that you can “hear” the glacier ice crackle in the otherwise completely quiet environment.
If you know about this place beforehand, you can book a ‘glacier walk’ in advance. These are arranged by local tour companies and promise to be worth the cost.
Sólheimasandur Plane Wreck
It is said that in 1973 the pilot of a United States DC Plane switched over to the wrong fuel tank which caused the plane to crash on the black beach of Sólheimasandur. The wreck was never removed and has since become a major tourist attraction, and a wedding photo session was in place when we got there.
The car park from where you can walk to the wreck can be found shortly after the turn off that takes you to Sólheimajökull Glacier. Like real rookies we decided to stop and walk in the same direction as everybody else, not knowing what we were going to see.
It is a 4km walk (about 2.5 miles) from the car park to the wreck, an 8km walk in total, and took us more than an hour to get to the site. Since we had no idea what we were doing there, we were not prepared at all. We didn’t have water, and there are no bathroom facilities either which made the walk a bit uncomfortable.
However, the one thing that is amazing about this walk is the vastness of the black beach. There is no experience like it, and you feel like you are walking somewhere on another planet.
When we finally made it to Vik, we were exhausted. However, the excitement of the ever-changing landscape kept us going.
From Reyniskirkja, which is a wooden church dating back to 1929, to the offshore rock formations which have become a distinguishing landmark, Vik is another highlight of the Ring Road.
After our walk on the black beach at Vik, we went looking for the local public pool. Unfortunately, to our dismay the local pool had already closed for the day. We were truly disappointed as we had looked forward to cleaning up in the showers after two long days on the road (in Iceland it is mandatory to take a shower and wash with soap before entering any of the public hot pools).
We found a comfortable spot, shielded from the wind and retired for the night. Sleep came quickly.
After a quick breakfast we refueled and continued on our journey. We were advised by Siggi from Geirland Guesthouse to fill up at Vik, since fuel pumps become more scarce from this point onwards.
We started the day with more beautiful scenery which included a landscape made up of moss-covered volcanic rock. From the main road you can see Stjórnarfoss on your left, just one of the many beautiful attractions.
Jökulsárlón, or Glacier’s-River-Lagoon, is situated in the South East of Iceland about 193kms after Vik. The lagoon is right next to Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest glacier. Chunks of ice fall from the glacier, and drift out to sea. Many of the ice blocks land on the nearby beach, which has been nick named the Diamond Beach due to the glistening of the ice in the sun.
Glacier Lagoon is one of the highlights of the Ring Road tour. There aren’t really any words to describe the insane beauty of this place. You have to see it to be able to appreciate it.
We continued to drive on Route 1 for a few hours more. The coastline took our breath away.
However, before we knew it dusk was upon us and we realized our planning wasn’t the best. We needed to get sleep but there were no proper facilities in sight. It was just after Djúpivogur on the other side of the bay where we decided to stop next to the road for a timeout. We were exposed to the elements and strong wind gusts rocked our vehicle throughout the night.
One thing we learned: plan better!
We were on the Eastern side of Iceland and started to make our way to the North. As we headed for Egilsstaðir, we decided to take a bit of a detour. Route 95 is to your left, shortly after Breiðdalsvík. The scenery became rugged and there was snow everywhere. One should check the Iceland Weather Website to make sure this pass isn’t closed.
When we got to Egilsstaðir it felt like an answer to prayer. For a nominal fee we were able to wash up – finally! After a good shower and late breakfast, we got back onto Route 1 and headed for Húsavík in the North. We decided that on a next visit to Iceland we would time our trip better so we could overnight at Egilstadir. Ideally we would stay a bit longer as there are things to do in the area, including some amazing hikes.
We strongly advise that you fill up and have supplies for the journey ahead. You end up driving for hours without any chance of filling up, and you also won’t necessarily find a shop that is open either.
On this stretch of road we also experienced four seasons in one day. The weather changed from blue and clear skies into a snow blizzard in a matter of an hour, and then to overcast for the rest of the day.
Shortly before the blizzard, Hank got lured by the amazing scenery that begged for a picture to be taken. He violated the number 1 rule for driving in Iceland and pulled over at a non-designated spot next to the road. While the earth appeared to be flat, it was an illusion created by the amount of snow. Instead of stopping on a flat surface, we drove over the shoulder breakpoint of the road and sank away in the snow and became stuck. It was only then that we discovered that the side slopes of the roads are pretty steep, which is the reason for rule number 1 in the first place…
It was around this time when we tried to hit the undo button of life, but there was no Ctrl + Z in sight. Thankfully though, a local stopped and arranged for a nearby farmer to come and pull us out of the snow. To our delight, the person who was on his way to help us had the name of Thor. Yes, we got helped out of a difficult situation in Iceland by Thor! Not a moment too soon either, as the blizzard was upon us within that same hour.
On the way to Húsavík you will drive past a volcanic lake called Mývatn. We first stopped at the Hverir car park, a hot-springs area with boiling mud pots and fumaroles. A fumarole is an opening in or near a volcano from where hot Sulphur gas emerge. The place reeks and if Mother Nature ever had her own place where she blew off steam then this must be it…
Lake Mývatn and the surrounding area is unique but beautiful. At Mývatn Nature Baths you will find a man-made but naturally heated lagoon, with mineral-rich waters which could be good for your health.
In the nearby town we saw more horses, combined with the lake and beautiful scenery of volcanic rock.
From Mývatn we took Route 87 and then Route 85 to get to Húsavík. Húsavík means ‘the Bay of Houses’, and it is said that this quaint little town was settled even before the official settlement date of 930 AD.
Húsavík is a must. The view over the Skjálfandi Bay is simply amazing.
It is also said that Húsavík is the whale watching capital of Europe, due to the fact that tour operators claim to have 100 percent sighting rates, even during the summer time. We regret that we didn’t go for whale watching here, but this is more reason to return.
In Húsavík you will find a local camp site. However, we were in town just before the busy season starts and the campsite was closed. We could still sleep there for the night, but the facilities were locked so we couldn’t make use of the bathroom or shower. Nevertheless, we were grateful for the shelter from the cold weather. We were able to boil some water and make something to eat.
Secret Hot Pot
Just around the corner from the campsite, you can find a “secret” hot pot called Oskakarið (N66º03.324 W17º21.079). There is a shower (all people who make use of hot pots in Iceland must shower first) and beautiful baths where you can soak and relax. It doesn’t really matter how cold it is outside, jumping into a hot pot in Iceland is as popular as having a barbeque in Australia.
Timing is everything though, as the baths are emptied on a daily basis and take about 4 hours to fill up again.
We left Húsavík wishing we had more time to explore the area. We took Route 85 and headed back towards Route 1.
When we got to Route 1 we first took a 5 minute drive back towards Mývatn to see another waterfall. Godafoss is Icelandic for “waterfall of the gods.” The river Skjálfandafljót falls at the point where the river is over 30 meters wide, and falls for about 12 meters in a gorgeous display of nature.
Akureyri is only about a 45 minute drive from Godafoss, but the beautifully snow covered landscapes distracted us too often. Our failed attempt at building a snow man without a shovel turned into a snow fight instead, and we just had so much fun playing in and connecting with nature.
Akureyri is Iceland’s second largest city, although it is more like a town in size. Our first glimpse of Akureyri took our breath away, and for a moment it felt like we were in a fairytale.
After we explored the city for a bit, we headed towards Varmahlíð which we reached by night fall.
On the morning of Day 6 we took a slight detour on Route 752. While a bit of a mission to get there, visiting Fosslaug Hot Spring is a rare but wonderful find. Instead of trying to explain how to get there, you can use this GPS location for direction:
This hot spring is raw and right next to the ice cold river. Not only is the hot spring worth the visit, the scenery is really beautiful with another waterfall nearby.
The remainder of the Ring Road takes you through the Western part of Iceland, which consists mainly of farm lands. We were less impressed by this section of the tour, but probably only because we were tired. Where most people do the Ring Road in 7 to 9 days, we managed to be back in Reykjavik in 6 days flat.
Nevertheless, we still had many stops along this stretch of the road. We had more amazing interactions with horses; we were mesmerized by snow covered landscapes; we visited extinct volcanic craters; we saw even more waterfalls.
We did about 1 500km in total in 6 days. Our only regret is that we didn’t have more time. Ideally you should have 9 to 12 days to do the circle, maybe even more. That is, to do the circle. If you want to discover everything Iceland has to offer, it might take a lifetime of regular visits.
The reason we were pressed for time was because we had another flight to catch. After a well-deserved and good night’s sleep, we headed off to the airport to catch our next flight. We were off to a place voted as the favorite island destination in the world by National Geographic Traveler in 2015: Faroe Islands!