Route 1, the so-called Ring Road, circles Iceland and connects most of its cities with two lines of mostly well-paved awesomeness. It’s 1,332 km long, and in theory, you can drive it in just one day. In practice, however, between chasing clean skies in hope of seeing the Northern lights and stopping every 5 minutes to take a picture, you should allow at least a week for a wholesome Ring Road experience. Our editor Kate has done a 10-day Ring Road trip on a budget (see tips here) in September 2017 and is now sharing an itinerary that will help you plan your own perfect car trip and not miss out on anything along the road!
Day 1: Reykjavik & the Tectonic South
What with renting a car and grocery shopping, the first day can be a bit hectic, so don’t plan much for it. Start by taking road 41 towards Keflavík and stop to enjoy the Viking World museum with a life-sized replica of a Drakkar ship. Nearby is a picturesque traditional 1800 fisherman’s house also worth seeing.
Turn left on 44 which will later become 425 to drive along the south coast of Iceland. It’s a very tectonic area, and here you can see the place where Atlantic rift pushes Europe and America further apart by approximately 2sm every year. You can walk over the rift on the Bridge Between Continents that symbolically connects the Europe with America.
Along the coast, there are many places to enjoy the waves cracking on picturesque cliffs, Valahnúkamöl being the most epic of all.
There is a big hot spring area called Gunnuhver closeby which is also interesting to visit.
If you have time in the evening, drive to the Blue Lagoon resort to celebrate the start of your adventure in style! A great place to camp for the evening is in the town of Grindavík. Or you can get back to Reykjavik, as it’s still close.
Day 2: The Golden Circle & Waterfalls
Prepare for awesomeness today, as you’ll see the most talked-about sights in Iceland, collectively known as the Golden Circle.
Start the morning in Þingvellir National Park, where Icelandic parliament has been gathering since 10th century among striking rock formations, a byproduct of the tectonic rift. If you’re into diving, you can dive in one of the two submerged rifts in the National Park: Silfra and Davíðsgjá.
From Þingvellir, follow roads 36, 365, 37 and finally 35 to get to the biggest geyser in Iceland, called – you’ve guessed it – Geysir. Actually, the Geysir itself is dormant now, and the erupting one is called Strokkur, but it’s easy to get confused with all the crazy Icelandic names :)
Continue on road 35, and it will lead you to another highlight of Icelandic nature – Gullfoss waterfall. The sheer mass of water falling from the height of 32 meters would be amazing enough, but Gullfoss also bends picturesquely and allows a lot of different views from various standpoints.
If one waterfall is not enough, Iceland has much more in store for you today! By following road 30 and then 1, you will pass by Urriðafoss, Seljalandsfoss, Gljúfrabúi and finally Skógafoss. I wouldn’t be surprised if you find a couple more on the way :) It’s a good idea to camp in Skógar for the night to be as close to the start of tomorrow’s hiking path as possible.
Day 3: Hike to the top of Eyjafjallajökull
Put on your hiking boots and pack water, snacks, and some warm clothes in a small backpack for today – you’re taking a day-long hike to the Fimmvörðuháls pass between Mýrdalsjökull and Eyjafjallajökull glaciers (take a cookie if you can pronounce any of these names). This pass is famous for being the location of 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption.
The hike is 23 km long and the elevation is about 1 km, so start early as it can take you up to 10 hours to hike there and back, depending on how fit you are. After you hike up, you can either return to Skógar, or you can continue walking to Þórsmörk.
In summer, there are buses from Þórsmörk to Seljalandsfoss Waterfall in the evening at about 20.00. Then you can take a bus from Seljalandsfoss Waterfall back to your Skógar camp where you can spend another night.
There is only one path leading up from Skógar, and it starts to the left of Skógafoss. Higher up it will split into two trails: one marked with blue posts and another with red ones. Both will lead you to the top. At the top, you’ll find huge recent lava fields and in the middle of them, the two mountain peaks formed during the eruption – Magni, and Móði.
Leading you down on the other side are also blue and red trails, the blue one being much easier.
Day 4: Glaciers and Icebergs
After yesterday’s challenging hike, today will be much more relaxed to let your legs recover. Start from your camp in Skógar, follow the Ring Road and then turn to 215. It will lead you to the magnificent Reynisfjara Beach, a place for a relaxing stroll with the view of Reynisdrangar Cliffs and the huge Hálsanefshellir Cave. Beware of the waves, inattentive tourists die here all the time!
The next highlight along the Ring Road is Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon, which will mesmerize you with its irregularity. Another point of interest is Kirkjugólf – a field of columnar basalt structures, shaped by cooling lava.
If you follow road number 1 from here to Vatnajökull National Park, you will pass a monument to a bridge that was destroyed by spring floods. Wow, nature in Iceland is indeed rough! Take the hint and dress warmly.
If you don’t want to make a day stop at Vatnajökull to climb to the top of the glacier, you can just explore the outskirts of this huge national park. The short road 998 will lead you to a parking lot right below two beautiful waterfalls: Svartifoss and Hundafoss.
While circling Vatnajökull on road 1, you’ll see two lagoons where the massive glacier ends its life in many icebergs. In both Fjallsárlón and Jökulsárlón glacier lagoons boat trips among icebergs are offered in summer.
Camping in Höfn is strategically located right where you will find yourself in the evening.
Day 5: Eastern Fjords
Starting in Höfn the Ring Road comes to its most beautiful part, where it follows the coastline of the many fiords on the eastern shores of Iceland. Road 1 leaves the shore at Breiðdalsvík, but it’s nice to continue along the coastline and follow 92 to Egilsstaðir.
Even if you stop a lot to take pictures of the fiord along the way, you’ll be here early in the afternoon, so make a detour to Seyðisfjörður via road 93. 93 will pass by Gufufoss – a very picturesque waterfall where water has cut out a lot of windy caverns in the stone.
After this, the road will lead you to a precious little town if Seyðisfjörður where a stroll along a colorful paved road will make you feel like Dorothy on her way to the Wizard of Oz. Or to one of the best sushi bars in Europe – your choice.
It’s a good idea to return to Egilsstaðir this evening and camp somewhere by the lake – you’ll have an early start tomorrow!
Day 6: Askja and Mývatn Hot Springs
You’re already accustomed to driving in Iceland so it’s time to take it off-road! Driving on unpaved roads is really fun, but note that you can only do so if you have a 4WD vehicle, otherwise you have to stay on paved roads.
We’ve plotted our route from Egilsstaðir to Askja along the roads 931 – 933 – 910 – F905 – F910 – F894 and we were not disappointed. Among other things, you’ll cross Kárahnjúkavirkjun dam on the way, and it’s simply grandiose!
After parking close to Askja, you’ll have to walk for about 20 minutes to get to the huge (12 km²!) volcanic crater filled with water. There is another small hot crater called Víti nearby that literally smells like hell because of all the sulfur fumes. The water temperature inside Víti is about 30°C and you’re welcome to take a dip if the smell doesn’t bother you! The surroundings are so surreal, that the place was used during Apollo training program to prepare astronauts for life on the Moon.
From Askja, the easiest way to get back to the Ring Road is by following roads F894 – F910 – F88. Once you are back on 1, you can take a detour to Selfoss and Dettifoss waterfalls via road 862. To end this perfect day in a perfectly glamorous style, spend the evening at Mývatn Nature Baths – you’ve earned it! Camping in Reykjahlíð on the shores of Mývatn lake is just a short drive away.
Day 7: Mývatn lake and Akureyri
There are a lot of interesting places to see around Mývatn lake, and in our experience, it’s really difficult to get up before 12.00 after the baths… so let’s get it going :)
The first exciting thing to see here is Hverir geothermal spot. It’s full of bubbling mud lakes and smelly fumes – just perfect to wake you up!
The next cool location is Grjótagjá – a secluded cave filled with geothermal water that was once used for bathing. It’s so cozy, that one can’t help but wish it still were, but the water temperature is now over 50°C, so better not. If you’re a fan of Game of Thrones show, you’ll recognize the cave as the place where Jon and Ygritte had some out-of-firs fun.
From the nearby weirdly geometrically regular volcano Hverfjall you can enjoy a great view of the lake, and a stroll through the Dimmuborgir national park will let you admire some really surreal rock formations. Dimmuborgir is also home to Icelandic Jólasveinar (Christmas Lads) and their parents, Grýla, and Leppalúði. Try calling out for them if you’re in the park around Christmas!
If you still have time until the evening, you can enjoy the beauty of the lake from other great viewpoints: Skútustaðagígar, Höfði, and Vindbelgjarfjall.
Follow the Ring Road past the mighty Goðafoss waterfall and end your day in Akureyri – the biggest city in the northern part of Iceland.
Day 8: Whale watching
If you’ve never done a whale-watching tour, Akureyri might be your chance. The tours are organized every day by many different companies located in the city, and in the unlucky event of not spotting a whale, you’ll get a full refund.
If a boat trip seems too expensive for you, spend the day exploring Akureyri, Húsavík and Vatnajökulsárgljúfur National Park.
Day 9: Snæfellsnes Peninsula
While you’re driving along the Ring Road from Akureyri back to Reykjavik, take a detour to Snæfellsnes Peninsula via roads 60 and 54 if you have the time. This peninsula is called Iceland in miniature, as you can find all of the Icelandic nature represented here in a relatively small space. Some of the highlights of the peninsula are Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall, Snæfellsjökull glacier volcano, and Kirkjufell mountain (also featured in Game of Thrones as Arrowhead).
After returning to the Ring Road, another small detour will lead you to Reykholt, which is a birthplace of Snorri Sturluson – the famous author of Prose Edda – and to Deildartunguhver – yet another hot springs location. Another 30 min drive further down road 518 will bring you to two stunning waterfalls – Hraunfossar and Barnafoss.
You can finish your epic tour with a stunning view of Reykjavik from the top of Esjan mountain. That’s it, you’ve done it!
Day 10: Freebie
Add a flexible day to your itinerary in case you encounter something that you had no idea you wanted to do, but realize you absolutely must do. You can spend it, for example, climbing Vatnajökull glacier or driving further into the highlands or exploring the surroundings of the breathtaking Langisjor lake… or just enjoying the nightlife and restaurants in Reykjavik! Share your favorite thing to do in Iceland in the comment section!
Still have questions about organizing your trip to Iceland? Fire them out in the comments, and we’ll do our best to answer :)
Photo courtesy: Dmitrii Chilikin