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Part 1 of our 4 part series on planning the ultimate road trip in Iceland. We will cover every aspect – itinerary, accommodation, packing, driving, shopping – of planning an unforgettable drive on Iceland’s Ring Road
As we watched a colossal rainbow originating from the gorge next to the waterfall, we wondered whether Iceland was the proverbial pot of gold we’ve been told to look out for all our lives
It’s hard to articulate what Iceland really feels like. Thanks to the endless information on the internet, most travellers reach Iceland expecting surreal landscapes and picturesque panoramas. But nothing, we repeat NOTHING, can prepare you for what lies in store on a road trip through Iceland.
The Earth is alive in Iceland – there are bubbling springs, effervescent rainbows, gurgling waterfalls, handsome horses, and stunning mountains at every step. Within minutes of starting your road trip, you will feel a bounce in your step.
A lot of people visit Iceland during winter months to catch the elusive Northern Lights but we think the best time to plan an Icelandic road trip is during summer. Iceland is famous for being The Land of the Midnight Sun – it is so close to the Arctic Circle that the sun almost doesn’t set during summer months (Late May – August). 24 hour days are perfect for a driving the 830-mile Ring Road that circles Iceland.
The adage ‘The journey matters more than the destination’ is nowhere truer than in Iceland. We spent long days driving around the country and slept at a different hotel every night. Here’s a suggested itinerary for a road trip based on our experience in Iceland. It can be very seductive because it involves exploring volcanic lava fields, marvelling at majestic waterfalls, hiking glaciers, bathing in natural hot springs, and dancing on snow-capped mountains, so consider yourselves warned 🙂
A Suggested Itinerary – Map for a Road Trip on Iceland’s Ring Road
Day 1 – Renting a car for your Iceland road trip
Our flight landed at Keflavik Airport and we proceeded to collect our rental car soon after collecting our luggage. We had pre-booked a sturdy 4X4 with SixT Iceland. It was a beast of a car and it served us in good stead. The folks at SixT’s office, especially Robert and Birgir, were so jovial that we spent a large part of our evening chatting with them (does that ever happen to you? 🙂 ). They gave us tons of tips about tiny offbeat gems that made our journey much more exciting.
A small car isn’t a good option in Iceland because any detours to offbeat villages or li’l waterfalls involve gravel roads. Here’s a few things to consider when renting a car in Iceland
Make sure you rent a car that includes snow and ash coverage. Iceland is notorious for its unpredictable weather (remember the volcanic ash disaster from 2010?), which could wreak havoc on your rental vehicle
Sleep – Spend your first night in/around the Keflavik Airport gearing up for the driving that lies ahead. We stayed at the Airport Hotel Smari. Make sure you stock up on groceries at one of the large supermarkets in this area because there aren’t too many of them once you set out on your drive.
Rent a 4X4 for your road trip in Iceland
Stock up at the supermarkets around Keflavik before you embark
Day 2 – The Ring Road fun begins at The Golden Circle
We saw vast expanses of untamed wilderness almost as soon as we left Keflavik Airport. We spent the day exploring the famed Golden Circle. The Thingvellir National Park, the site of the ancient Icelandic Parliament, is the first stop on this day. But what fascinated us more was the fact that the tectonic places of North America and Europe meet at the Thingvellir National Park. The rift is clearly visible and you can actually cross over from one continent to the other. How cool is that?!
Next up, the Geysirs hot-spring area of Iceland. The original Geysir, after which all other geysirs of the world are named, is dormant but there are a number of hot springs and geysirs in the area. Make sure you wait for Strokkur, the highest Geysir in the area, to erupt while you are there.
The third attraction on the Golden Circle Tour is the Gullfoss Waterfall. We’re not sure adjectives of the English language can do justice to the waterfalls of Iceland – it’s funny how something as simple as water falling off a cliff can create a thing of such immense beauty. Wrap up this extraordinary drive by stopping at a couple of other waterfalls – Skogafoss or Seljalandsfoss. It’s even possible to take a walk behind Seljalandsfoss to absorb its grandeur.
The best part? All attractions in Iceland are free. Parking is also free in Iceland, which is such a respite from overpriced parking lots all over Europe.
Sleep – Sleep in the Skogar/ Eyjafjallajokull area. We spent the night at Country Hotel Anna. The hotel is set in an amazing location, not far from the mighty Skógafoss waterfall.
If you look hard enough you can actually spot penguins at Gullfoss waterfall 😉
Day 3 – Hiking on a Glacier, say what?!
We spent this day pursuing something straight out of our wildest dreams. We went hiking on the Sólheimajökull Glacier with Arctic Adventures. It began pouring cats and dogs almost as soon as we drove to the parking lot of Sólheimajökull Glacier. The Arctic Adventures’ guides brought a smile back to our faces by telling us typical Icelandic weather is essential for a typical Icelandic experience 😉
The next four hours were spent hiking on the gorgeous blue ice of the glacier lightly dusted with volcanic ash. Seeing a glacier up close was such an incredible experience that we would highly recommend it to everybody. Make sure you’re wearing warm waterproof clothes because it rains over 200 days/year in this area. We had so much fun on the Glacier Hike in Iceland that we even made a video about it with our GoPro (which, by the way, was the best way to film our road trip shenanigans :-))
Sleep – Drive through the Icelandic countryside after the Glacier Hike and sleep in the Jökulsárlón area. We slept at the gorgeous Guest House Hali. Their freshly made meat soup was to die for.
Day 4 – Floating Icebergs at Jökulsárlón
This day was spent driving through majestic lava fields and the incredible Vatnajokull National Park. Glacial rivers, rugged landscapes, and towering mountains were the order the day. Vatnajokull is home to Europe’s largest ice-cap and the area offers a number of hiking opportunities.
The highlight of the drive on Day 4 was the Jokulsarlon Glacial lagoon. It is one of Iceland’s most visited landmarks and the highlight of a road trip. There are a number of floating icebergs at this huge lagoon and if you stand there long enough, you are bound to see a chunk of ice break from the neighbouring glacier to join other floating icebergs, big and small. Jokulsarlon is spellbinding – we stood transfixed for the longest time before reaching out for our cameras to try and capture this un-capturable (is that even a word?!) sight!
Next, we drove to Egilsstadir via the Eastern Fjords. Here narrow cliffs, jagged peaks, and hairpin bends are punctuated with tiny fishing villages. We frequently went without seeing a single person, car, or shop for dozens of miles in Iceland, so it was good to see slightly populated villages for once. Make sure you drive on the gravel road F939 after the fishing village of Djupivogur – it’s an adrenaline rush like no other. This was one of the best (and bumpiest!) stretches of roads we drove on. Do make sure you check the road conditions in Iceland before you set off every morning.
Sleep – Sleep in the Egilsstadir area. We slept at Eyvindara II, just 2 kms away from Egilsstadir town centre.
Icerbergs at the Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon
The two of us at Jokulsarlon – stunning landscapes call for jumping bunnies 🙂
Day 5 – Stunning Icelandic Waterfalls and Volcanic Craters
We continued our drive towards Dettifoss, a stunning waterfall. Even at the end of May, the road leading to Dettifoss was snowed under. We asked a farmer for an alternative route and took a longer (more scenic!) route to the waterfall. We parked our car and walked towards the twin waterfalls – Dettifoss and Selfoss.
Now these waterfalls have been compared to the Niagara Falls- that’s how big they are. But imagine the Niagara falls without information centres, raincoats, cameras, or fencing. Imagine being just a centimetre away from the falls. Imagine a colossal rainbow sprouting right in front of you, so close that you could almost reach out and touch it. Now imagine being the ONLY one to witness this spectacle unfolding right in front of your eyes. Yes, that’s Iceland. We were the only ones around at Selfoss Waterfall the day we visited and we spent over 3 hours just marvelling at its beauty
But that’s not all. Our next stop was the Viti Crater in the Krafla Volcanic area. The volcanic crater is famous for its turquoise lake in the middle. The lake was still frozen when we visited, but that didn’t stop the vibrant turquoise colour from peeking through the layer of snow covering the lake.
Sleep – Sleep in the Myvatn area. We slept at Narfastadir, a scenic country hotel
A stunning rainbow at Dettifoss
Frozen lake at Viti volcanic crater
Day 6 – Myvatn Area: Volcanoes and Sulphur Springs (Our favourite!)
One would imagine that days full of such extraordinary scenic beauty would make us numb. But this wasn’t the case because Iceland believes in surprising its visitors. The landscape changes so frequently that one can’t help but be stunned by what’s on offer. The glacial rivers of Southern Iceland give way to the red volcanic mountains and earthy sulphur springs in North East Iceland. The Krafla Volcanic area turned out to be one of our favourite places on our Iceland road trip.
The boiling mud pots, sulphur springs, and fumaroles at Namafjoll Hverir might be smelly (hydrogen sulphide is produced at these hot springs, so the area smells like a chemistry lab!) but it is still tough to tear oneself away from them. High temperatures produce such strong acids in the area that both rock and soil dissolve in the acid water at these springs.
You could go hiking to the Dimmuborgir area but we went hunting for Grjótagjá – alava cave with a natural hot spring inside. The inside resembles a giant bath tub with perpetually warm water. We’re not complaining!!
Sleep – Sleep in the Myvatn area. We slept at Narfastadir, a scenic country hotel
Bubbling sulphur springs near Lake Myvatn, one of our favourite areas in Iceland
Grjótagjá, a natural hot tub – now we’re talking!!
Day 7 & 8 Drive To North Iceland and Akureyri
Now we could pretend to be superhuman and tell you we went Whale Watching in Husavik (great place to spot whales) and explored Akureyri (it’s a small yet interesting town) while we were in North Iceland. But we would be lying. We stayed in this stunning cottage with Icelandic Farm Holidays right next to the sea, snow-capped mountains, and miles of greenery. The cottage was kitted with a private hot tub and a BBQ – as you can imagine not much sightseeing was done but a LOT of wine was consumed and the BBQ was used a fair few times. Look at the cottage, can you blame us?
Sleep – Sleep in the Akureyri area. We slept at Ytri Vik cottages aka heaven. This is a good place to stock up on groceries for the remaining duration of your road trip because Akureyri has quite a few large supermarkets and restaurants
Our cottage in Akureyri
Day 9 and 10 – West Iceland and the Snæfellsnes Peninsula
Snaefellsnes (pronounced sny-fells-nes) Peninsula is a long drive away from Akureyri. A majority of Day 9 was spent driving through snow-clad roads, gurgling streams, and woodlands. This route is lined with idyllic fjords – Grundarfjörður (a small town that even the orcas love to visit in winters 🙂 ) is so peaceful that it deserves a mention on any itinerary of Iceland.
We spent Day 10 driving around the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. It is possible to go for a short hike up the Saxholl Crater. This is a fun walk but it can get VERY windy, so be extremely careful. Make sure you visit the Hellnar Arch, a natural rock formation comprised of basalt sheets. The rock arches over a lagoon and it is populated with dozens of screeching birds. Have a meal/coffee at the cafe right opposite the Hellnar Arch as you contemplate this surreal natural monument.
Another place that is perfect for a meal is the Kirkjufell mountain. This famous mountain is the highlight of a drive around the Snaefellsnes area. Pack a picnic and enjoy it next to the waterfall by the Kirkjufell mountain – aah bliss!!
Sleep – Sleep in the Snaefellsnes/Grundarfjörður area. We slept at a working farm called Sudur Bar.
Hellnar Arch is a little known gem
Make sure you picnic by Kirkjufell mountain
Days 11 – 13 – Reykjavik : Urbanity, volcanoes, and whales
It was both disappointing and exhilarating to get back to Reykjavik (and civilisation) at the end of the long Icelandic road trip. It was good to see restaurants, people, and toilets (yep that ol’ essential is kinda non-existent on Iceland’s ring road 😉 ) but part of me just wanted to curl up with a book in a remote cottage with hundreds of wild flowers for company.
We tried reconnecting with nature by going for a whale-watching tour with Special Tours. It was so much fun donning those super-warm onesies. We felt like we were about to embark on a Arctic mission, no less! We spotted a few whales, monkeyed around a bit and had a great time.
Vid gets claustrophobic in closed spaces so I left him behind for the crazy Volcanic Veins tour with Extreme Iceland. I went caving inside lava tubes and magma chambers with a small group of people and saw stunning rock formations. There was a lot of crouching and crawling involved and I came out with a couple of bruises and cuts, but it was completely worth it. Seriously, how often does one get to go inside volcanic lava tubes? 🙂
If you don’t enjoy adventurous excursions, you could unwind at The Blue Lagoon, one of Iceland’s most famous geothermal spas.
Reykjavik has a dynamic culinary scene and vibrant night-life. We hit the pubs to make up for all the early nights in the countryside. Of course, no Bruised Passports itinerary is complete without a mention of speciality coffee. Reykjavik Roasters offer scrumptious third-wave coffee, according to Vid (our resident coffee geek!). Make sure you visit this cafe, tucked in a tiny by-lane of Reykjavik, for a fantastic cuppa!
Snug in hard-core onesies for a spot of Whale Watching with Special Tours
Exploring lava tubes and magma chambers with Extreme Adventures
Day 14 – Lake Kerid and Keflavik Airport
We couldn’t resist the temptation of witnessing just one more marvel of nature before we hopped on the flight back to London. Presenting Lake Kerid – yet another vibrant lake in the middle of a volcanic crater. The neon greenery that surrounds Lake Kerid, the vibrant blue colour of the lake, and flaming red lava rocks strewn all over the place ensure an unforgettable goodbye to Iceland. You can easily combine a visit to Lake Kerid on the day you drive The Golden Circle, but we wanted something spectacular for our last morning in Iceland 🙂
Neon green scenery, turquoise lake, and flaming red lava rocks at Lake Kerid
A road trip of Iceland is a once-in-a-lifetime experience
Where to stay on your Iceland Road Trip
Well, it’s a tricky question and the answer depends on your own personal choices and circumstances. On this trip, we stayed in local farm stays and B&Bs and each one of them is listed in the individual itinerary points above. If farm stays are not your preferred choice of accommodation, then you can find plenty of other options by comparing the options here.
If farm stays and local B&Bs pique your interest, then you can read a detailed description of each of the places we stayed at in our post on ‘Accommodation in Iceland‘.
As travel bloggers, we’re not allowed to play favourites. Over the years we’ve come to dread questions that involve picking a “favourite country” or “prettiest country”. But it’s safe to say that we’ve now found the definitive answer to that question and it’s ICELAND. If you’re planning to visit one new country this year, make it Iceland – you won’t regret it.
Photos can’t ever capture the beauty of Iceland. The land here emanates a smell that is hard to capture in photographs or on video – it’s the smell of raw, unexplored vistas. It’s places like Iceland that make travelling special.