The Ultimate Road Trip: Iceland
With months and months of planning and research; the time has finally come, and we came and we conquered! It’s hard to find a word to describe what Iceland really feels like. Most travelers reach the country expecting beautiful landscapes and scenic panoramas. Oh honey, you’ve got a storm coming.
Iceland is ALIVE, from top to bottom – from countless hot springs, majestic waterfalls from east to west, handsome sheep and horses, and valleys and peaks as far the eyes can see. Within minutes of your road trip, you will literally cry.
Many visit during the winter months to witness and experience the beauty of the Northern Lights. But honestly, you don’t want to drive in Iceland during their winter weather. One of my biggest pet peeves are places overcrowded by tourists. Maybe this has to do with living in New York, thus why we chose to go during September. Iceland is so close to the Arctic Circle that the sun doesn’t set during the summer months. So the most ideal time to do a road trip is late May to August where you get 24 hour days.
We planned this ring road trip around a tight budget but at the same time made sure we were comfortable. The itinerary I’m about to present is packed with activities that will knock your socks off. From hiking glaciers, to exploring lava fields and majestic waterfalls, bathing in natural hot springs, and walking along ocean view beaches.
We arrived in the beautiful Saturday morning of September 12, 2015. Had breakfast at Keflavik airport and quickly picked up our car. We pre-booked our car through Blue Car Rental. I found that they have the best price in the city. I recommend getting a car that has heated seats especially if you are travelling during the fall or winter. And another thing to keep in mind is to rent the most suitable car for the activities you are going to do. If you plan on travelling to Iceland in the winter or taking F-Roads (dirt roads) along the way, it is best to rent a 4X4 car or truck. Otherwise a car will suffice; the ring-road is well paved and easy to drive on.
From the airport we headed to Reykjavik, picked up our camping supplies and stocked up on food. Bonus and Kronan have the lowest price on groceries in the city. We then headed to the Ion Luxury Adventure Hotel for a spa day before we start our road trip around the country. This hotel is literally in the middle of nowhere so it was so relaxing to enjoy the view with no distractions.
We then drove to the first campsite at Þórisstaðir (an hour north of Reykjavik) and stayed the night.
From Þórisstaðir we drove to a cute little town called Akranes. You can actually take a bus from Reykjavik to Akranes for only a few Euros! We stopped by the campsite and took a shower, since the one at Þórisstaðir didn’t have any. We had breakfast and walked around the town for an hour and headed off to Thingvellir National Park. Make sure you visit Öxarárfoss, you will walk through a corridor of rocks and the pathway will end to a cute mini waterfall.
We wanted to tackle one more place before nightfall, so we headed to Waterfall Glymur. It is Iceland’s second highest waterfall, cascading at 198m. It is situated at the rear end of Hvalfjörður. The hike up to the waterfall is strenuous but not technical; bring lots of snacks and water!
We finished the hike at around 8pm. It was already dark out so we made our way to the next campsite: Hotel Eldborg. Located in Laugargerðisskóli on Snæfellsnes, which is close to the well-known Löngufjörur. By the time we got to the site, it was almost midnight and windy as hell! So we slept in the car haha.
We had an early start to the day; I started driving at 6:30 am towards the south coast of Snæfellsnes peninsula. There’s a village with only one hotel and a tiny black church called the Búðakirkja. This village sits among a field of lava rock. The first church was erected in 1703; it was eventually torn down due to the area's lack of parishioners. The current church was reconstructed in 1987.
After a quick breakfast in the hotel, we made our way to Ólafsvík. It’s a fishing port situated near the western end of the Snæfellsnes peninsula, on the north coast of the peninsula. We stopped by the campsite to cook lunch and take hot showers.
We were right back on the road after lunch. We headed to Berserkjahraun, a 3-4,000 year old lava field with scenery that ranges from moss-covered rocks to jutting spikes of hardened lava. We involuntarily stayed at this site for more than 3 hours. This is because I got the car stuck! Note to everyone, when you take the F-Road, park on the road and turn on your hazard lights! I had no idea that the gravel was so loose beside the road. We spun our wheels and had no way out. Many cars passed by but they didn’t have the proper equipment to pull us out. On top of that, there was no cell signal. So we had to endure a cold windy walk back to the highway hoping to get a signal. Anyways, long story short, I was able to get a hold of the police, they sent out a rescue team to pull us out and we were on our way! This was pretty much the most stressful experience I had in Iceland.
After that “strenuous” experience we decided to call it a day and find a place to sleep! We kept driving for hours and found Búðardalur, a village situated on the Hvammsfjörður in the north-west of Iceland. It was very windy so we tried to find a spot tucked away from the gusty wind. We pitched our tent in front of a factory hoping not to get kicked out.
A hard decision had to be made this day, we were planning on hitting up the West Fjords but in order not to feel rushed for the rest of the trip we had to skip it. Maybe with just a bit more time on our hands we could have explored this magnificent place.
We journeyed northwest to Vatnsnesvegur. Along the eastern shore of the Vatnsnes peninsula, there lies Hvitserkur. A 15m high basalt, the rock has two holes at the base, which gives it the appearance of a dragon who is drinking. The sun was shining and the view of the ocean at sunrise was amazing.
Húsabakki was our next stop. This campsite is located in Svarfaðardalur: 5 km from the town of Dalvik and around a 30 minutes’ drive from Akureyri and Siglufjordur. After we pitched our tent, had lunch and organized the car for a bit, we drove down to Akureyri.
Akureyri has been nicknamed as the Capital of North Iceland. It is the second largest urban area in Iceland. We roamed around the city by foot, and had coffee at Te & Kaffi. A local told us to visit the Christmas Garden, about a ten minute drive past downtown Akureyri. This cute winter wonderland is open year-round, and if you love christmas as much as I do, this place will not disappoint!
Our first destination today is one of Iceland's most spectacular waterfalls. Goðafoss (Waterfall of the Gods) is is located in the Bárðardalur district of North-Central Iceland at the beginning of the Sprengisandur highland road. We continued east and dipped our feet in Grjótagjá, a small lava cave near lake Mývatn with a thermal spring inside. We were going to take a bath but the water was unfortunately too hot.
Close by lies Hverir, this Icelandic thermal area looks like a Martian landscape. If you can't handle the smell of sulfur or in other words "rotten eggs" then you should probably skip this one. But this barren area with a marscape appearance feels like you're on another planet.
We continued east on highway 1 and took a left turn on F-862 (new tarmac road has been placed here) towards Dettifoss. If you're familiar with the 2012 movie Prometheus, this waterfall was featured in the opening scene. It is the largest waterfall in Iceland and the most powerful waterfall in Europe. Unfortunately we stumbled on such foggy weather that we barely saw the waterfall.
The next town we stopped by was Egilsstaðir. It has the largest settlement of the Eastern Region of Iceland with a population of 2500. We picked up groceries and gas and then drove up the mountain further east to Seyðisfjörður to set up camp for the night. This town is surrounded by mountains on all sides with most prominent Mt. Bjólfur to the West (1085m) and Strandartindur (1010m) to the East. If you are coming from Denmark or wanting to visit the Faroe Islands, the MS Norröna of Smyril Line comes to Seyðisfjörður, this is great if you have heaps of time on your hands and if you're wanting to bring your own car over to Iceland!
After breakfast we took a stroll around town and unexpectedly saw jelly fishes in the waters! At 11am, we were back on the road headed south. Most of the towns in the east are small fish villages so we skipped a few of them to save time and gas. From Egilsstaðir we took F-939 also known as the Öxi Mountain Pass. I recommend you to take this road, it reveals another beautiful terrain of Iceland. Nearing the end of the mountain pass, just before you enter highway 1 again, you will come across a vast layered valley terrain and Sveinstekksfoss. Please take a moment to park your car and enjoy the view!
We freshened up, washed our car and had lunch at Djúpivogur. Oh and another thing I forgot to mention is washing your car is free all over Iceland, you can find it in almost all major gas stops. We kept driving down south and came across the gigantic mountain views in Stokksnes.
We had planned on setting up camp in Höfn but we couldn't find a place. Almost everywhere in the town restricts from camping or parking over night. It was pitch black out and I was tired. So in the spur of the moment we decided to wild camp. Just under 30 min outside Höfn we drove off road. I had no idea where I was going. I couldn't see a thing past my headlights. Luckily we drove towards a moss field and ended up having the best sleep of my life. There was no wind, and the weather was mild, and the ground was so soft like memory foam.
On our itinerary, South Iceland had the most places marked to visit. With still 4 more days to kill, we took our time this morning to lay out our destinations on the map.
Next stop was Jökulsárlón and Fjallsárlón! This is a large glacial lake in southeast Iceland, on the edge of Vatnajökull National Park. Situated at the head of the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier, it developed into a lake after the glacier started receding from the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. This is probably one of the most popular tourist destination. It has also been a setting for the movies Batman Begins, Lara Croft: Tom Raider, A View to Kill and Die Another Day.
We continued on highway 1, looking for a place to experience the glacier field up close. Luckily we found one! Right before Skaftafell there is a dirt road called Svinafellsjokulsvegur. Follow this road till the end. Park your car in the lot and walk to the glacier field lookout! Again we were blessed with sunny weather so after lunch we "climbed" down to the glacier! YOLO!
I do not recommend this without any proper equipment, Nils and I almost died twice. There are loose rocks everywhere and you can easily loose your grip. It took 30 minutes to climb down 100 meters of rocks.
This event pretty much drained our energy so we decided to call it a day and drive straight to Vik to set up camp. The village is the southernmost village in Iceland, located on the main ring road around the island, around 180 km by road southeast of Reykjavík.
After a big breakfast we drove to and walked on Vikurfjara "Black Sand Beach". It has been counted as one of the ten most beautiful beaches on Earth. Its stretch of black basalt sand is one of the wettest places in Iceland.
We left Vik and drove west towards the DC-3 Plane Wreckage on Sólheimasandur. Further west on highway 1 we turned off onto F-242 and took a dip in Seljavallalaug. This is a protected 25 metre outdoor pool, it is one of the oldest pools in Iceland and was built in 1923.
We had time in the end to sneak in a visit to Seljalandsfoss, one of the best known waterfalls in Iceland. It is situated between Selfoss and Skógafoss, where the Ring Road meets the track going to Þórsmörk. It is big enough to stand inside, which is pretty incredible!
We set up camp near Hvolsvöllur and stayed the night.
We kinda didn't know what we wanted to do today. I felt like I've already seen enough waterfalls, but there was one more left that everyone recommended me to see. But it was way off course! But the sun was out and it was a beautiful day so why not! We got there in no time, in spite of the large crowd of tourists, the view of Gullfoss was priceless, you could feel the earth tremble as the water flowed down the bottom of the river. We headed over to Strokkur, one of Iceland's most famous geysers erupting about every 8-10 minutes,15 – 20 m high, sometimes up to 40 m high.
I think I just realized now how much driving we did in the trip so far! Holy! After the geysers, we stopped at Selfoss to fill up gas and grabbed a bite to eat. Not long after we were back on the road headed to Grindavík to set up camp!
The campground in Grindavík has been the best one we stayed at so far. In 2009, they built a state-of-the-art facility in Austurvegur 26. If you have the Camping Card, the stay only costs 100 ISK per night! Note to campers, if you are starting your trip in South Iceland, spend your first or second night in Grindavik. A lot of campers leave their extra food and left over supplies (propane gas, cutleries and more) at this particular campground. It will save you a ton of money before you embark your trip around the country!
We didn't really explore Grindavik, but if you have time there are museums here that might interest you. Our first destination today was to hit up the Southwestern edge of the Reykjanes peninseula. There lies the Reykjanesviti, Iceland's oldest lighthouse. There's a story behind this. The first lighthouse in Iceland was built on Valahnúkur in Reykjanes in the year 1878. By 1905 earthquakes and surf had damaged Valahnúkur so much that there was the risk of the lighthouse falling into the sea. Therefore a new lighthouse was built in 1907-1908 on Bæjarfell hill and the old one was demolished. According to the Icelandic Maritime Administration, this lighthouse was the most popular among Icelanders.
Further up road 425, you will find the bridge between two continents at Sandvik, commonly known as the Bridge America - Europe. According to the continental drift theory the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates are slowly drifting apart. The bridge was built as a symbol for the connection between Europe and North America. Neat!
We then drove to Keflavík to have lunch and went back to the campsite. Tomorrow we head back to Reykjavik so we decided to have an early day to clean up the car and organize our belongings.
Back to the capital! We reserved our last two days in Iceland to relax and explore Reykjavik. After dropping off the car, camping equipments and picking up more groceries, we headed our way to the apartment! Thanks to Airbnb for splurging us with a top floor suite in a newly built apartment right smack in the middle of downtown.
Honestly, you can't go wrong with the places you visit within the city. But I highly recommend visiting the Hallgrímskirkja. It stands at 73 metres high, being the largest church in Iceland. The church took 38 years to complete, construction began in 1945 and was completed in 1986. There are also plenty of great eats in the city and boutique fashion shops. Also if you are into working out, Nils and I went to Reebok CrossFit, about a 15-20 min walk from our apartment. Your first visit is for free! so take advantage of the opportunity of working out among the strongest and hottest people in Iceland.
Well this ends our epic Iceland journey. I really hope I sold you on the idea of packing up your bags in the near future and visiting this magical country. You may have already noticed that we've only tapped half of the places Iceland has to offer. So don't rush while you're here, if you end up skipping a few places, there's always a next time. Now that Iceland offers $100 flights from New York, Toronto and Montreal there's no excuse to not go!