Have you ever considered visiting Iceland? Well, why not? Seriously, it was on our travel list for a long time, but we never managed to get there for more than a quick layover. That is until last month when we spent two weeks in this surprising island nation, about the size of Washington State. So join me as we explore Iceland by the Ring Road.
This is the first of three blogs I plan to write about our fun trip to Iceland. Today I’m going to tell you about touring remarkable Iceland by the Ring Road, (Route 1) that circumnavigates this arctic island. Next week I’ll talk about visiting Reykjavik and after that I’ll write about the Icelandic cuisine. I hope to inspire everyone to go see Iceland.
Iceland by the Ring Road
But first, Iceland by the Ring Road – after three days in Reykjavik we picked up our camper van from KuKu Caravans. We rented the medium size camper van. I knew I would not be happy in the small size, which is basically a regular soccer mom van converted with a bed. Our KuKu was larger, about 17 feet long with a tiny kitchen and a table that folded down into a bed. We were able to stand up in the van, which was really important for us. It wasn’t very comfortable but we made do. It did not have a bathroom. You see some people on the road with small RV’s and many locals have trailers. But the self-drive camper van is very popular. Our van cost about $200 per day. Diesel runs about $7 a gallon.
Pros and Cons
Pro’s and Con’s – If I did it again I’d spend more time looking at the total cost of the camper van including petrol and campground fees (around $30 a night for two people) and doing some comparative research to renting a car and staying in a hotel along the Ring Road. In hindsight I don’t think the hotel/car option would have been all that much more. However, we did save money cooking in the camper van, which we did 7 of the 9 days.
Another thing I would do differently is stay a few extra days in Reykjavik and do the Golden Circle and the Snaefellnes Peninsula as day trips from Reykjavik with a car. This way you could do the Ring Road in 6 to 7 days. Although this would mean renting a car to do the day trips, but for what we paid for our transfer from the airport ($150!) it would have been worth it.
Also consider your clothing, no matter what time of year, nights are chilly. I slept in my fleece lined leggings or my silk long underwear each night. Some nights I even wore a stocking cap to bed. The camper van does have heat, but temps in the 30’s Fahrenheit overnight were brisk. We brought our own sleeping bags but you can rent them from the camper van company. Bring lots of layers, even on sunny days the wind can be bitter. My down jacket was a lifesaver and a stocking cap a must.
So, before embarking, figure out what is most important to you, what your budget is and what your comfort level is. Iceland is expensive, but with some planning, you can make it work. Use what we learned to help.
After three days in Reykjavik we headed to pick up our KuKu and were on the road about 11:00am. We headed first to the Golden Circle, the closest area to Reykjavik. I should mention we chose not to go the Blue Lagoon, because we have visited there on a quick layover a few years ago.
The Golden Circle offers some fabulous introductions to the wonders of Iceland and its geothermal magic. Here you will also witness the first of thousands (no seriously, thousands) of waterfalls throughout the country.
Golden Circle Highlights
I recommend these five things on the Golden Circle for your planning purposes;
Thingvellir Rift – where the North American and European continents are slowly being pulled apart. Walk through the tectonic rift where ancient Icelandic chieftains met for annual governance.
Church and Cemetery – an easy walk across the river also gives you a great view back to the rift.
Oxararfoss Waterfall – easy walk to a beautiful falls in the Thingvellir area.
Geysir and the Strokkar Geyser – the word Geyser comes from the town of Geysir, a village sitting on a geothermal hot spot. Right off the road you can walk to the Strokkar Geyser, to watch it spew every three to four minutes.
Gullfoss – meaning Gold Waterfall, Gullfoss’ thundering falls can be heard from a long ways away, and the mist can be seen well before you actually make it to the viewing area at the edge of the falls. Come prepared to get a bit wet.
South Island Highlights
We left the Golden Circle and drove south to the teeny town of Vik for our first night in the camper van where we stayed at the Vik Tjaldsvaedi (this word means campground, you’ll get used to seeing it!). On our first night we enjoyed some homemade chili then bundled up and walked to the beautiful beach to see the low sun in the sky and the lava formations. We spent two nights along the south section of the island and these are our favorite things:
Black Sand Beach at Reynisfjara is stunning with giant basalt cliffs raising up from the black beach. This is where you might see nesting Icelandic puffins. Caution – the surf here can be very high and dangerous.
Svartifoss (Black Waterfall) is a great little hike with about 850 foot elevation gain. We did the 2.5 mile round trip in a downpour, but we still were glad we did it as the 60 foot waterfall that cascades through the black basalt columns was beautiful.
Skaftafell National Park is where we spent our second camper van night…a very rainy and windy night. We got cozy and ate homemade tacos in the van and went to sleep early. We woke up to a bright sunny day.
Jokulsarlon Lagoon is one of the top sights in Iceland and it’s easy to see why. The glacier lagoon is full of floating icebergs the color of turquoise. Just beautiful. You can wander around and also visit the black sand beach known as Diamond Beach where the icebergs get “beached” in the sand before melting or floating away.
The drive from here continuing east and eventually north is full of a jaw dropping beauty. Each mile presenting bucolic views with sheep and horses and cliff side coastal vistas and mountain scenery.
East and East Fjords Highlights
Our third night in the East was spent in tiny Atlavik campground on Lagarfljot lake. It was a bit out of the way, with no services anywhere near, so I was glad we stopped and picked up a few essentials. Spaghetti on the menu this night. A very quiet campground too.
Hengifoss Double Waterfall Hike – we were up very early and the first ones on the trail for this beautiful hike, across the lake to Hengifoss Waterfall. It’s a two-fer waterfall and for me one of the prettiest hikes we did. Leaving we took the road on the other side of the long lake and enjoyed beautiful views of forests and fields of lupines.
Seydisfjordur was our next destination, about an hour detour off of the Ring Road. This tiny village is home to the ferry terminal to Denmark. Getting there you drive over the top of a mountain with a moonlike landscape then drop down into the stunning narrow fjord where Seydisfjordur sits peacefully minding its business. It’s a fun detour to see life in a small Iceland Village. We walked around and enjoyed lunch then drove back over the mountain to the Ring.
Fourth night we stayed in a campground that was on a farm called Modrudalur. It claimed to be the highest altitude farm in Iceland. Driving there we went through another moonlike landscape, sitting inside a vast gray crater. The campground was quaint and quiet. There was a tiny restaurant and some cottages, but we cooked a frittata for our dinner in our camper van.
We headed out early the next morning as we had a long drive today, but the sun was shining and the landscape was incredible.
As we swung to the west and north we were now at the furthest north section we would travel, only about 63 miles from the arctic circle. At this point we were having 23 hours of sunlight each day, and even during sundown it never got dark. At night we would black out the windows in the camper van with coats and clothing as it never got dark the entire time we were in Iceland.
Dettifoss detour – an hour on a gravel road we were wondering if it was going to be worth it as we bumped along rattling everything in the camper van. But oh yes. It was worth it. Only a couple of other people at this site, and on this crystal clear sunny day we not only got to see the spectacular waterfall but a glorious full rainbow over the falls as well. Stunning.
Namafjalal Geothermal Area is right on the Ring Road just as you approach the Myvatn Lake area. It’s kind of like a miniature Yellowstone. Lots of midge flies here too, so if you have netting wear it. It’s also very stinky. The sulfur fumes can be overwhelming. But it’s also interesting and unusual.
We learned a lot about the geothermal and volcanic history of this region with visits to both the Skutustadir Pseudocraters and the Dimmuborgir Lava Formations area. Easy hikes at both give you views to both the ancient and the ever evolving Icelandic volcano activity.
Myvatn Geothermal Baths is one of the best and most popular baths in Iceland. This is a great option to experience bathing in a geothermal pool. We had planned to come back to the baths the next day…but unforeseen weather kept us from it.
We arrived in Akureyri at the end of this day and we loved our large and beautiful campground called Camping Hamrar where we planned to stay two nights. We finally got to do laundry here so I was very happy about it! On our first night we ate Pesto pasta in the camper van and headed to bed early after our full day.
The next day we received an email from the Kuku folks asking us to not drive this day, and all of Iceland was under an extreme wind watch. The government was asking folks not to drive on the Ring Road until the storm passed. Luckily we had some flexibility in our schedule so we took this day to enjoy the town of Akureyri with a few fun activities that didn’t require a long drive.
Akureyeri Botanical Gardens – it was very windy, but this beautiful, free city-owned park was a highlight. So unexpected. I have seen a lot of botanical gardens in my day and it was one of the best. Highly recommend.
Bjorbordin Beer Spa – since we weren’t supposed to drive very far, and I was nervous about it, we only traveled about 45 minutes north of Akureyri to this beer spa. It wasn’t something we had planned to do, until we had a day with nothing scheduled so we took the “plunge”. At $80 a person it was extravagant for us, but it was also really fun. The price includes all the beer you can drink.
In the camper on this night we cooked a delicious dinner of local Icelandic scallops and couscous.
Day Seven dawned bright and beautiful and the wind abated. We started our day getting a Covid test at the local medical center…still required for our return to the USA. It was well organized and we were done in a jiffy. The windstorm had passed so we took a hike in the mountains outside of Akureyri before heading west. About a five mile hike on the Lambi trail gave us some of the most spectacular views we had anywhere in Iceland. And we didn’t see another hiker the entire time.
West Iceland Highlights
After our hike we spent most of the day driving west and south, as we headed to the Snaefellness Peninsula. The drive was so beautiful. We stopped at a tiny campground/hostel called Saeberg, right on the fjord, and enjoyed both a geothermal hot tub and a wonderful conversation with a local woman who was a guide for a group on horseback who were staying at the hostel. We ate in a restaurant on this night, enjoying wonderful local Icelandic lamb chops.
Day 8 we arrived on the Snaefellnes Peninsula. We spent a leisurely two days seeing the sights here, some of the most beautiful in Iceland. It would be easy to see the Snaefellnes in one day, but we were happy to not be in a hurry.
Stykkisholmur Fishing town – this tiny town is another great example of how the locals live. Most Icelandic homes are modest one story houses. Near the port are the majority of the historic buildings and we enjoyed a coffee and croissant in a sidewalk cafe in the sun. The port is home to the ferry that goes across from the Peninsula to the West Fjords.
Beserkjahraun Lava Fields – you will drive right through the middle of this vast ancient lava flow of unusual shapes covered in a pale yellow lichen. Formed more than 4000 years ago, Icelandic folklore tells a tale of Viking warriors going to battle without armor, that the lava fields are named for.
Kirkjufell View Point – Kirkjufell Mountain and the waterfall adjacent to it is one of the most picturesque views in all of Iceland. In fact, this photo often graces guidebooks and websites. Be sure to stop and see it, even if it’s not a good weather day. It’s stunning.
We stopped in the teeny fishing village of Rif where we had a delicious early dinner of Fish and Chips, Icelandic Potato Salad and Coleslaw.
Skarthsvik Yellow Sand Beach – worth a quick stop if only for the uniqueness of the color of the sand against the black basalt cliffs. This is the only beach we saw on the island that was not a black sand beach.
Saxholl Crater – is a nearly 400 foot crater that juts out of the landscape very close to the road. It’s red and black conical shape is impossible to miss. A set of rust colored steps lead you to the top where you can peek into the crater and enjoy a remarkable 360 degree view. If Snaefelljokull Mountain is out, this is place to enjoy it.
Our campground on night 8 was a tiny but brand new spot in the town of Hellissandur called Hellissandur Camping, with sparkling clean bathrooms and common area. It was a treat. We woke up in the morning to a crystal clear view of Snaefelljokull Mountain (the name means ‘snow mountain glacier’), which we never expected because it is usually hidden in clouds. Special treat.
Hellissandur Murals – the teeny village of Hellisandur is all residential with almost no services, but it is proud to be Iceland’s Mural Capital. If you have time take a stroll through the tiny village and look at the many murals.
Djupalonssandur Black Sand Beach – worth a stop and walk through the lava formations out onto the beach. This used to be a thriving fishing spot where hopeful fisherman had to do a strength test by lifting stones from the beach. You will also see the remains of a British fishing trawler that crashed in 1948.
Hellnar to Arnarstapi walk – this was one of the funnest things we did on our trip. A short four-mile round trip walk along the fascinatingly beautiful ocean side basalt cliffs. The cliffs are home to thousands of nesting seabirds as well as an abundance of wildflowers. If you start in Arnarstapi you can take a break at the tiny historic seaside cottage turned small cafe called Fjoruhusid at the halfway point in Hellnar. Enjoy a pastry with coffee of tea, or order the authentic and delicious Iceland Fish Soup which is what we did. With fantastic bread too. We splurged on the “cheesecake” made from Skyr, a popular yogurt/sour cream-like favorite of the Iceland people.
Rauthfeldsgja Gorge – A literal gash in the side of the mountain is a short walk from the parking lot. Crawl over a few boulders and across a tiny creek to walk into the mouth of this gorge and look at the green moss and beautiful light.
Budir Black Church – a tiny settlement is home to one of the most distinctive church landmarks in Iceland.
Gerthurberg Basalt Cliffs – fascinating interlocking row of basalt pillars that look like a row of black piano keys. Worth a quick stop for a photo, or with more time climb to the top.
We spent our final night in a facing the beach in the Akranes Campground about 45 minutes outside of Reykjavik. We returned the camper van the next morning and took the shuttle to the airport.
Final Thoughts Iceland by the Ring Road
We did not tour the West Fjords, which are off the Ring Road. With two to three more days you could add the West Fjords, but the roads are rough and winding and you can not be in a hurry.
The Ring Road can get crowded during peak season with camper vans, cars, cyclist, hitchhikers and sheep! This two lane road has no shoulder and certain sections of the road are gravel. You will cross countless small bridges, many of which are one lane. You just can’t be in a hurry. Take that to heart and plan some extra days for bad weather or potential mechanical difficulties etc. Take it slow when doing Iceland by the Ring Road.
We did not see everything…not even close, despite our 13 days. So good planning is important to see the things of most interest to you.
The photos don’t do it justice…one of the most uniquely beautiful places I’ve been. See it now before the word gets out. Check out Rick Steve’s Iceland Guide – we found it very helpful. And visit www.visticeland.com the official tourism website for Iceland.
Be sure to check in next Friday for our Reykjavik recommendations.
We welcome questions if you are considering visiting Iceland. Ask away in the comments. We promise to respond.
We love it when you pin and share our blog posts.