Intro: WhereverYouLand's Guide to Ring Road
Since we left in late March, a guide to Iceland has been by far the most requested item from folks back home. Iceland is HOT right now and after we visited in March, we can certainly understand why (take a look at our photo gallery for proof)! The beauty, diversity, tranquility and truly wild landscapes make this place unique. You really cannot have a bad trip to Iceland, no matter how long you go or what you decide to see. We believe there is NO wrong way to do Iceland, but here are some of our thoughts on how to enhance the experience and cover a lot of ground. Hope you enjoy it!
General Notes on Iceland
Before we get into the nitty gritty, there are a couple of takeaways we have from visiting Iceland that need to be addressed:
1. You will be stopping to take pictures…A LOT. But don’t be stupid!
Everywhere you look is gorgeous. If you are driving yourself, you will want to stop a lot to take photos. However, much of Ring Road is a single lane, without a shoulder and people fly (speed limits are a loose guideline). We saw plenty of tourists who just stopped in the middle of the road to take pictures. Don’t be that person! Not only is it dangerous, but there are plenty of places to pull off safely and get your shot…
2. Iceland is a land of extremes, mainly extreme WEATHER.
One minute you will be in a lush valley, the next you will be in snowy mountains. However, if you want to see extreme: get ready for the weather. We had stretches of a few hours where we literally encountered all four seasons. The weather can change drastically in minutes. Be prepared and just know there is no reliable forecast. Just be patient and hope you get some luck when you are out and about.
3. The country is expensive.
You can do Iceland on a budget, but the country is expensive. Food & gas were elevated (even for us who were coming from New York City), but alcohol is on a whole other level. If you want to have a glass of wine or beer with dinner, we would urge you to hit the duty free in the airport when you arrive. Food for thought: we bought 4 beers one night at a bar and spent over $60. Yes, over $60…
4. The people are extremely kind (but again see point #1).
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. The people we encountered were extremely friendly and even though language barriers could be problematic at times, everyone seemed willing to help. We even met a few who went above and beyond, showing us the way to a hidden hot spring or helping us navigate in a town. But remember, the Icelandic people love their country and care for their land. Don't be a bad tourist. Respect the land, respect their rules and leave this place just as perfect as it was when you got there.
How to Tackle Ring Road
While you could explore every inch of this country and not get bored, we decided to circle the iconic Ring Road. The road basically circles the entire country and in totality measures nearly 1800km. We decided to break this up into eight days (seven nights) and we found this to be about right.
We also decided the best way to explore Iceland was via Camper Van. Iceland is a truly wild place and there are tons of opportunities to park your car safely and camp for the night. Furthermore, the country is extremely friendly to campers and has tons of clean, safe sights that are established just for that purpose. We loved doing Iceland this way and would highly recommend it. We met a ton of folks who had similar ideas and the “camper-van community” was lovely and made us feel right at home. It is not for everyone, but if you want to get out of your comfort zone DO IT!
Specifically, we decided to go with HappyCampers and they were wonderful. They will pick you up at the airport (or elsewhere) and take you to their headquarters where you can gear up, get tips on outfitting your trip, as well as get familiar with the country before taking off. Our van came complete with a sofa that converted to a bed, a small sink with running water, a cooking burner, a fridge, all the utensils you would need and tons of space for us and our gear!
If you are not going the camper route, but are still a free spirit, we would highly recommend renting a car (preferably with 4WD). There are plenty of lodges to stay along the road and having a car gives you the freedom to get lost. There are tons and tons of side roads and there is no way you can do them all, but the ones we did revealed hidden treasures like untouched waterfalls, natural hot springs and beautiful landscapes we had all to ourselves.
A quick note: Iceland has some roads called "F" roads and these are roads that are not paved and tend to be very rough. There is a lot of incredible terrain to explore via the F's, but Happy Campers cannot travel on these since they do not come with 4WD. So if off-roading is your fancy, perhaps choose the right vehicle for you...
Hunting for those Northern Lights
Before we get into our itinerary, we should take a moment to talk about the Northern Lights. Iceland is a great place to try and catch a glimpse of the incredible aurora borealis. In the winter, the nights are long and light pollution in much of the country is non-existent. In Iceland, the best time to try and see the lights are between late August and mid-April.
We should note though that seeing the lights in Iceland requires a bit of luck. Not only are the lights unpredictable, but as we noted so is the weather! On many nights the cloud cover will make it impossible to see them. Iceland does do an aurora forecast, which can be accessed here and it will be helpful in giving you your best shot at seeing the lights. We were introduced to this website the first day from a friendly gas station attendant and had we not followed it, we would have missed the lights altogether. If you are lucky enough to see them, they are spectacular in every way.
Day 1 – Blue Lagoon and the Snæfellsnes Peninsula
We took WOW Air’s incredibly cheap flight from BWI that landed early, at 5:30am! It seemed to us that most flights land early in the morning. In our opinion, there is no better time to grab an airport coffee, stock up on necessities at the duty free (see above) and get a taxi to the Blue Lagoon to shake off the flight. You can even eat breakfast here when you are done.
The Blue Lagoon is very touristy but if you arrive right as the door opens at 8am, you can have some peace and quiet there before the masses of people arrive via tour bus. Just note – you need a ticket and this needs to be booked weeks in advance at their website. Full disclosure: we did not know this so were not able to go on this trip. Nolan has been before and practiced what we are preaching. If for whatever reason you miss the famous Blue Lagoon, there are plenty of other options so do not fret! If you need to check the box, do it now.
After the Blue Lagoon, arrange your pickup with Happy Campers and head to their headquarters when you are ready to get the intro to your new home. They will walk you through the full map, the gear and everything else you will need for your journey. They also have a free pantry with stuff leftover from other campers – we found a few hidden gems in there, so take advantage!
After you are on your way, head to the grocery store to stock up. In fact, there is a great grocery store right on the same street as HappyCampers! Stock up on the essentials for your first few days. The campers come with a mini fridge, so there is plenty of space to store food. We would just say to organize carefully because stuff will bounce around on those rough Icelandic roads…we are looking at you eggs!
After you are settled in your van, head two hours north to the Snæfellsnes peninsula and in particular go visit Kurkjufell aka Church Mountain. It is a gorgeous place to catch the sunset and to see the iconic waterfalls (Kirkjufellsfoss). Moreover, there are plenty of spots to park the van right beneath the mountain so you can have dinner with a view. If you have the energy and want to stay for darkness, the night photography here is spectacular and if you get lucky like we did, the northern lights will put on one hell of a show!
Note: Since the Snæfellsnes peninsula is a bit of an offshoot in the northwest, it is technically backtracking from the rest of our itinerary. If you are too jetlagged to do the drive north, do not fear, you can hit it on your way back into Reykjavic, it will just add some time to your drive on that day…
While there aren’t any campsites directly at Kirkjufell, you still could probably sleep there if you wanted. We opted for a site about 30 minutes south on a farm. HappyCampers will provide you with a full map of van-friendly campsites, so it should be easy to navigate. Again, if you would rather relax on your first day, there are TONS of options around Reykjavic. Besides, you will want to be good and rested for Day 2.
Day 2 – Golden Circle
Get up early and get some coffee and breakfast going. Since we are two people who NEED coffee in the morning, we used the French presses that Happy Campers provided us. However, we would also recommend our favorite travel companion, our Aeropress. Gas stations are present, but in the middle of Iceland they can be few and far between.
Once properly fueled, head back south to commence the Golden Circle route. This is easily the most touristy one-day loop in Iceland, but is jam packed with sights. If you only had 2-3 days to spare, this would be a must.
Start the tour at the Þingvellir National Park. Here, you will get to see crazy landscapes including huge gorges formed by the tectonic plates under our earth’s crust.
Next, head for Strokkur Geysir, which erupts every few minutes and then go check out the world famous Gullfoss Waterfalls. These two stops will probably be the most crowded, but the good news is that both have really nice restaurants so you can get some food and coffee, if needed to survive the tourists.
After Golfoss, head back towards the south passing by Skalholt Cathedral and onwards to the kerið crater to catch the afternoon rays. It is only about 20 minutes to walk around the entire crater, but just be careful there aren’t exactly fences along the trail.
Head to the quaint town of Hella to spend the night at the amazing Arhus Campground. The campground is great for spending the night and has a common building with an amazing kitchen, showers and wifi. Another nice bonus is the town of Hella has a great pizza restaurant that also does takeout. If you are already missing food from home (as we were) grab a pie and bring it back to the campground for dinner!
Day 3 – Waterfalls, Vik and a Plane Wreck
If you are missing a nice espresso drink, wakeup and drive 20 minutes back to Selfoss to stop at Bókakaffið for your morning fix. This super cute café has tons of books, seating and amazing coffee. We started a day here and caught up on internet things before taking off on another busy exploration.
Get back on Route 1 and start your exploring at Seljalandsfoss. Before you arrive though, pull off and take in the vast array of black sand lagoons formed by the glacial runoff. It is quite a sight to behold. Then, head to the falls themselves for some amazing photos. If you are feeling like getting wet, you can even walk behind the falls for unique perspectives.
Back on the road, head towards Vik. Yes, you will pass a few things along the way such as Skogafoss and our plane wreck, but do not fear, you are coming back! Drive to the top of the town and take in those views! Insane Icelandic coast, crazy rock structures and a beautiful town below. It is a gorgeous spot for lunch.
Start backtracking and stop to park at the Sólheimasandur Plane Crash site. These days you can google the crash and it should get you to the parking area. It is located on a remote stretch of road between Vik and Skogafoss. You should see some cars parked.
The Sólheimasandur Plane Crash is the left-behind wreckage from a November 24, 1973 crash of a Navy DC-3 aircraft. Thankfully the entire crew survived and the main fuselage was left behind. The crash site is 4 km one-way from the parking area but the path is flat and well-marked. Bring everything you will need because you will be gone for a few hours and if you are going near dark, make sure you have flashlights!
Once finished at the site head back to Skogafoss and camp for the night. There is a parking area right under the falls where you can park the van for the evening. If you are lucky the northern lights will be out and will be insane as this stretch of Iceland’s coast has almost no light pollution. Or, if you are super adventurous take them in back at the plane wreck…
Bonus: if you have time stop by Seljavallalaug, a hot spring that sits on the side of a mountain. You can find more info here.
Day 4 – Glacier Beach & Djúpivogur
Get up early and take in Skogafoss in the early morning before the crowds have arrived. Not only will you get some amazing light, but you will also be able to get right up to the falls for pictures without any people in them!
After you are ready to roll, head straight for Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon and Iceland's Diamond Beach. Here, you are in for a treat. Park the van and start hiking around the lagoon. It will be full of floating chunks of glacier that will eventually make their way into the ocean. If you listen closely, you will be able to hear them running into one another. Also, if you are real lucky, you will see some seals swimming in the lagoon as well.
Cross the street and walk along Diamond Beach, which is a black sand beach covered in shards of glacial ice. It is awesome! Head back to the van for some lunch with a view of the beach and then continue north to the tiny town of Djúpivogur.
Djúpivogur is a cute fishing town with a population of 450 in the northern part of Iceland. If you are in need of some refuge from the van, stay at the Hotel Framtid. If you are loving the Camper Van, stay at the town’s amazing campsite, also run by Hotel Framtid (either way you need to go to the hotel's front desk). We did the campsite and were greeted by an incredibly friendly hotel employee who showed us around the site including the amazing kitchen, showers and common area. He also pointed us to a hidden geothermal hot tub 5 minutes down the road. We will not share the secret here since it is meant for locals, but if you find yourself at the hotel definitely ask ;)
Hopefully, you can enjoy the hot tub and enjoy a nice hot meal before retiring for the night. You will want the rest because tomorrow is a long driving day full of more sights!
Day 5 – Fjords, (optional waterfall), Myvatn & Akureyri
Get up early and continue further north along Ring Road. This stretch of road is easily the most uninhabited and will take you further along Iceland’s dramatic Eatsern Fjords and eventually through deep mountain passes. For us, we hit a lot of snow up here so the drive was a bit treacherous. However, it was gorgeous and crazy to think we were just in a green valley a few hours ago!
Assuming you got through the mountains OK, take a quick detour on route 864 and check out Dettifoss. This is not only Iceland's largest waterfall, but it also said to be Europe's most powerful! You will drive ~20 minutes off route 1 and eventually hit the parking area where you will need to hike another ~10 minutes. When we were there they were building new viewing decks, which will be wonderful for viewing this giant.
Have lunch in the parking area before eventually arriving in the Myvatn area sometime in the afternoon. Here, you will be treated to an insane geothermal area full of steam vents, mud pits and one of our favorite hot springs (The Myvatn Nature Baths). The baths are just like the Blue Lagoon, but way less expensive and way less crowded: win win.
For the evening there are a lot of campsites around Myvatn, but if you are ready for some civilization (as we were) head to Akureyri for the evening. If you play your cards right you can even grab an expensive drink and have dinner in a restaurant. If in Akureyri spend the night at the Hamrar campsite, which is lovely.
Day 6 – Akureyri to Reykjavik
Grab some coffee in town and then start heading back towards Reykajavic. Assuming you don’t stop, the drive should take you about 4.5 hours. If this is your last day, you can easily be in Iceland’s capital by lunch with plenty of time to explore. If you aren’t in a rush, take in the drive and arrive sometime in the afternoon. This is preferable because on your way back you will get views like this (and it is hard not to stop):
Camp at the Reykjavic Campsite and hostel. Here you will find a great spot to park the van with lots of amenities such as laundry, wifi and a store. Or, if you are tired of the van you will find plenty of hotel options as well as an abundant supply of Airbnb’s.
Day 7 - Reykjavic
If you have a full day in Reykjavic, head right to Reykjavic Roasters to start your day. This shop has incredible coffee and a great atmosphere where you will likely meet fellow travelers and be asked to put on a vinyl. If you are in need of more indulgence head just down the street to Brauð & Co for a cinnamon bun (they are insane)!
While in Reykjavic hit the Hallgrimskirkja for photos, the amazing shopping street of Laugavegur and of course catch the sunset at the Viking Sculpture down by the water. Furthermore, there are tons of museums, galleries and boutiques to satisfy anyone. The best part is the Reykjavic is super compact, so it's totally walkable! You can conquer this city in a half a day if needed.
If you are looking for some authentic Icelandic cuisine, now is your chance. Head to any number of amazing restaurants here and you can likely sample local fare. We actually went for Tapas Barinn so we could share a bunch of small plates including whale, puffin and a plethora of local fishes, etc.
Day 8 - Heading Home :(
Assuming you made it this far, it is sadly time to head home. Drive to the Happy Campers HQ to return your van, donate some supplies to the pantry and get driven back to the airport. Now, take a deep breath and reflect on what an amazing experience you just had!
We sincerely hope you enjoyed this guide. It is the first we have ever done and if you have any feedback, please comment below. We would love to hear from you! If you want to see more guides like this, let us know either below or by contacting us here! Thanks for reading!