Dramatic Landscapes on the Ring Road in Iceland
After a number of years of wanting go to Iceland I finally just bought the ticket this summer and decided to go. I had delayed mostly because of the high costs. But, I also found it to be a destination more challenging than most to plan for, particularly when doing it last minute as I did. With just eights days I initially figured I would just pick a couple spots to focus on but after a little research I decided I should instead circle the island on the Highway 1, or the Ring Road. I didn’t know when or if I would get the chance to go back to I wanted to see as much as I could.
I will start by describing some of the highlights and some of my experiences and I will also include some practical suggestions for anyone reading who might be considering going to Iceland or tackling the Ring Road. My itinerary consisted of landing early in the morning the first day, spending three nights in different locations on the south side of the island, three nights in Akureyri in the north, and then one night in Reykjavik. After the night in Reykjavik I had another entire day before departing on my plane at 1am. Iceland is that it is a country very diverse in landscapes that are simultaneously impressive and dramatic with weather, climates, and terrain that change rapidly from time to time and place to place. In some ways Iceland reminded me of Hawaii with the interior volcanic mountains and cliffs overlooking black sand beaches on the outer reaches.
If you like waterfalls then Iceland is the place to be. I saw waterfalls that people weren’t even looking at that would be major attractions in most countries including the US. I started the first day seeing an impressive one on the Golden Circle route that is very near Reykjavik. The Golden Circle route is probably the most popular tourist draw in the country and so you get a bit of a Disneyesque feel with hoards of tour buses and souvenir shops at each site. The route consists of three major attractions including the Þingvellir National Park, the geysir field, and the Gulfoss waterfall. I walked the popular route with the many tourists at Þingvellir and found it to be moderately interesting. It is distinguished as an important geological site at which the North American and European continents divide. I enjoyed the geysir field, with one geysir going off every 3-6 minutes or so. It was interesting just approaching the area with steam coming out of the ground in many different locations with a unique smell (and not a particularly good one) accompanying it. And it is almost as interesting to watch the other tourists trying to time their cameras to capture the eruption, as it is to see the geysir itself. The Gulfoss waterfall was the highlight of Golden Circle for me. It’s hard not to be impressed as you approach the major waterfalls in Iceland as they typically appear out of nowhere making their appearance with steam rising above the horizon. And then it’s also hard to not say “Wow” under your breath as you first lay your eyes on each waterfall . . . even if you’ve just seen an equally impressive one the day before. Gulfoss is in this class of impressive waterfalls and is great to view both up close and also from the path above it.
Both a highlight and regret of mine on this trip was staying at homestays. My only regret is that I didn’t stay at more, particularly on the north side of the island. My first night I stayed at a place called the Skalatjorn Homestay about 15 minutes from Selfoss in a location that many might describe as being ‘in the middle of nowhere.’ The couple was very nice and accommodating and it was a pleasure to talk with them and have a first night introduction to real Icelandic life. I also really enjoyed Max their border collie and their home-cooked dinner and breakfast the next morning.
The next day I continued on the south side of the island to spend some time hiking around Skogar. This was really a day of waterfalls. It started after the owners of Skalatjorn recommended a stop not too far up road just south of the Ring Road to see Urriðafoss. The sign posted near the falls said that more water flowed through these falls than any other in Iceland - and that is no small feat. What’s more interesting is that it seemed that very few people even knew Urriðafoss existed. No hoards of people, no tourist buses, no selfie sticks, and no write up in the guidebook (at least mine). So, it was nice to have a giant waterfall all to myself for a few minutes.
At the opposite end of the spectrum was my next stop at the Seljandsfoss waterfall that was easily seen (and quite impressively I might add) from the Ring Road and was a stop for nearly everyone on the island. This isn’t a waterfall known for its volume but rather it’s beauty and the ability to walk behind it. I can understand why it is regularly considered to be a favorite of many visitors. I also found the smaller waterfall at the other end of the dirt road from Seljandsfoss to be interesting and worth climbing the rock formation in front of it to get a good view. I also saw a number of people who had climbed up to the plateau above Seljandsfoss and I imagine that they had great views of the surrounding area from there.
Skogarfoss is the large, impressive waterfall at the mouth of a beautiful canyon ending at Skogar. I was unable to do the famous Laugavegur hike with the extension to Skogar because of practicalities so I took advantage of the opportunity to hike for a couple hours starting from Skogarfoss. From here it is waterfall extravaganza. I walked approximately 3-4km out before turning around and I saw countless beautiful waterfalls in the canyon. A couple hikers from the US who were just finishing the entire Laugavegur hike with this Skogar extension told me that I saw the best part. So, if you can’t do the full trek this day hike plan might work for you.
That night I headed for the interesting little town of Vik. It was extremely cold and windy the night of my arrival and so I just took quick stops at the ends of Routes 218 and 215 just west of town to see the black sand beaches. At the end of 218 I was able to see puffins close up on the cliffs and it was comical to see the ones flying as they were blowing around out of control above me. At the end of 215 I saw the black sand beach again but this time with the cylindric columns fronting the beach. The columns are indeed unique and I am glad that I stopped and endured the heavy winds. The waves coming in over the black sand had an ominous and dramatic feel that I really enjoyed. I would recommend both stops, particularly on less windy days, and I would have liked to have lingered a bit longer.
The next day I struck out for Vatnajökull National Park and the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. Vatnajökull is a vast area with many hiking opportunities, particularly the Skaftafell Park. A big draw here is the opportunity to get views of two large glaciers that protrude through the park. I took a couple hours to hike one of the more popular routes that gave me great glacier views of Skaftafellsjökull during the first half and then a couple nice waterfall stops (including Svartifoss) on the second half. Then about another 45 minute drive east on the Ring Road was Jökulsárlón. Nearly all of the trip reports that I had read listed this as one of the favorite things to see in Iceland. I took the advice of some of those reports and took one of the tours on a zodiac boat. This allowed for an hour zipping in and around icebergs of many different sizes and shades of blue on the lake. I happened to get a bright and sunny afternoon that made for beautiful views and photo opportunities. Also, be prepared for the dive-bombing birds who are protecting their nests near the shoreline. I would have to agree with others that this was a highlight of the trip.
My stay that night at Adventura, another homestay near the little village of Djúpivogur, was my favorite place to stay on the trip. The owners were so kind and welcoming that I can’t recommend them enough. I happened to be the only guest that night because they had their children back to visit and I was offered delicious pizza and chocolate cake soon after entering the house. Here I also got all kinds of Icelandic culture particularly from Gauti who even took me out to a nearby island because he needed to fix an ATV. Much to my surprise this also became a highlight of my trip, as I was able to watch the strange defense mechanisms of the fulmar birds (throwing up at you causing a terrible stench) and also observe a colony of seals that eventually surrounded the boat as we were leaving. It is quite interesting to be sitting still in a boat looking around at about 20 seals’ heads risen up curiously looking on to see what you are doing. I soaked up some great perspectives on life in southern Iceland from Gauti on that short excursion. Last but not least, I was treated to an amazing Icelandic breakfast including Skyr (yogurt-like food), smoked trout, homemade bread, and many other treats.
Then it was off the next day for my longest drive. I decided to skip a night’s stay on the east coast and instead land for three nights in Iceland’s second largest “city”, Akureyri. I purchased a couple souvenirs and grabbed an ice cream cone in Djúpivogur and got on my way around noon. Outside of Djúpivogur I took Route 939 that connected back later to the Ring Road. There were some good views on this road and a number of sheep hanging around alongside or on the road. I think I made a good decision to continue on to Akureyri. As you near Lake Mývatn the topography changes noticeably to an almost lunar landscape. I veered off on Route 862 for a side trip to the massive Dettifoss waterfall. This massive waterfall is overwhelming and seems to emerge out of nowhere. As I was approaching in the car and looking around at the barren landscape I was wondering how one of Europe’s largest waterfalls could possibly be located there. I spent some time at the falls from different vantage points and then almost left without walking down to see the smaller Selfoss waterfall. That would have been a mistake as Selfoss is beautiful and very scenic when viewed from down the canyon walls as you approach. These are definitely sites not to miss.
Back on the Ring Road I made another quick stop at Námafjall Hverir, a quirky, smelly geothermal area just east of Lake Mývatn. The stench of sulfur and other chemicals emerging from the ground along with the steam rising out of the ground in numerous locations makes for an otherworldly experience. You can take a short walk in and out of the various bubbling and steaming holes. One particular pile of rubble was steaming and gurgling at an unnaturally loud and constant rate. This is definitely worth a stop just don’t linger too long or else you might pass out from the smells. The geothermal steam continues as you approach Lake Mývatn and I particularly remember the image as you come over a crest and see the lake for the first time. It is almost as if it is fronted by newly minted battlefield with various steam pots filling the sky.
The small city of Akureyri is picturesque as it located on one of the largest inlets in Iceland so you are treated to good views across the water as you approach from the east. I stayed at a guesthouse with about nine guestrooms centrally located just behind the Akureyrarkirkja. My regret is that I didn’t do a homestay - so no more yummy Iceland breakfasts and no more discussions and inside information from the locals. I spent one day exploring the area around Lake Mývatn and another day at Hrisey Island. Akureyri is a nice town as an excursion base but I wouldn’t set aside too much time for sites in the city. The Akureyrarkirkja is interesting for a quick stop as is the botanical gardens just up the hill. The city is a good location to hit up the Bonus store for groceries and also has a number of restaurants. Even though I didn’t eat out I did enjoy going over to Kristjans bakery in the morning to grab a roll or donut with caramel topping . . . something I would recommend that others do as well!
The best place to start at Lake Mývatn is probably the information center in Reykjahlíð. There are a number of sites and short hikes to see and do around the lake. I was limited on time so I didn’t get to visit the Nature Baths, Krafla Lava Fields, or Mud Pots. On the east side of the lake I climbed up to the top of Hverfjall Crater and this was ok for a 15-20 minute excursion but I didn’t walk around the top. Next up was Dimmuborgir that had paths leading through large volcanic rock formations. Also on the east side was Hofdi that I found interesting with the volcanic formations out in the lake. On the south side of the lake the area around Hotel Gigur was great for a short walk and views across the lake. Probably my favorite activity around Mývatn was the Vindbelgjarfjall hike on the west side of the lake. From there you can climb up the mountain for a view of the entire lake and a 360-degree view of the area. The estimate is an hour for the way up but I hustled up and down in one hour. In between Akureyri and Mývatn is the must stop of Goðafoss. This is another of the top tier waterfalls of Iceland. I was lucky to stop on a sunny day, actually going and coming to Mývatn, and I was treated to beautiful views and excellent colors.
Hrisey Island was an afternoon trip for me from Akureyri. To get there you travel north out of the city on the Ring Road and then turn on to Route 82 following along the inlet all the way to the little village of Árskógssandur to catch the ferry (runs every 2 hours in summer). I got really lucky on my visit because the weather was outstanding. If you happen to go with good weather I would highly recommend the longer version of the hike (red route) on the eastern side of the island. It can be done in an hour and a half and you get great views of the coastal cliffs, wildflowers, and the sea. I think it was a national holiday the day I was on the island so there were no cafes or restaurants open so things were even quieter than normal. The village itself is very quirky. Some of the locals use tractors to get around and you will see a number of them parked either as decoration and functioning means of transportation outside the houses. The houses themselves come in many different vibrant colors. I spent three hours on the island and I think that was about the right amount of time.
I was then off to end my trip in Reykjavik for a day and a half. I made one major detour on the way going up Route 74 to Skagaströnd and then continuing on the gravel road 745 to the Kalfshamarsvik Lighthouse. The lighthouse sits on a coast that has very unique rock formations similar to that of the black sand beach near Vik. The views were great and it’s a nice detour from the busier Ring Road but it is a bit of a commitment going an hour each way out and back.
I found Reykjavik to be similar to Akureyri but on a larger scale. I would probably recommend to travelers to spend just one day there and move on to other more interesting places on the island if you are limited for time. The Harpa concert building is a modern design wonder and certainly worth seeing both from the inside and outside. The other big architectural draw is the Hallgrímskirkja church that dominates the sky around the city. I didn’t go to the top but heard that it offered good views of the city. I did like the statue of Leif Erikson fronting the building. Also, the organ inside is massive and worth a look. Other than this, you will mostly find tourists going up and down Laugavegur Street that is lined with shops selling Icelandic clothes and other items. Probably my favorite activity was taking a two-hour walking tour with Reykjavik City Walk. I had Erik as a guide in a large group of about 35 people who he kept together and entertained. I learned many interesting and historical facts about Iceland and had a good chuckle learning about The Book of Iceland App. This app is apparently wildly popular amongst the Icelanders and is used for incest prevention as they can just bump phones to see if they are related (or how related).
In terms of food I wasn’t impressed with the fish and chips from Icelandic Fish and Chips. Everybody talks about eating hotdogs as a cheap food alternative. Indeed they are popular in Iceland but I wasn’t impressed even at the famous Baejarins Betztu stand in Reykjavik. But, I would recommend a stop for Ice Cream at Valdis I couldn’t find a lot of flavors that I wanted but those that I did try were good. Just make sure to take a number when you arrive. When I was there Dunkin Donuts were having their grand opening on Laugavegur Street and had lines down the block to get in.
Other than the sites there are some practical things to consider when going for a short visit to Iceland. I loaded my extra luggage space with food and berries and also went to a Bonus grocery store as soon as I arrived. Eating out in Iceland is very expensive and instead I actually enjoyed trying some of the foods at the store. Skyr, a healthy and very popular yoghurt-like food is good for breakfast and I would recommend the blueberry flavor. Driving is straightforward in Iceland so you feel confident in renting a car to get around. However, gas is expensive and you should fill up when you have the opportunity because outside of Reykjavik facilities are fewer and farer in between. Watch out for the speed radar cameras around the island to avoid steep speeding ticket fees. Enjoy all of the Icelandic horses and sheep that you will see along the way. Housing is expensive (see a trend here) in Iceland. I would definitely recommend homestays or possible Air BnB as alternatives to traditional hotels. In hindsight I would probably spend another night or two exploring the south coast. And if I were to go back I would probably spend most of my time in the West Fjords and on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula.