Iceland Road Trips: The Absolute Best of the Ring Road
Driving the Ring Road in Iceland is one of the world’s ultimate road trips. With its sublime landscapes showcasing the beauty and power of the natural world this is real bucket list material. Fire and ice have conspired to create a land of dramatic vistas and awe-inspiring sights. There are few places on earth where you can witness such a range of raw natural beauty in a relatively compact area. But by driving Iceland on the Ring Road you will see sight after incredible sight. The landscapes here feel very primeval and unmediated too. There are few fences, fields and urban settlements and very little to interfere with the grandeur of nature.
Driving in Iceland is an incredibly rewarding experience. With its clear roads and fantastic views you’ll be able to turn up the play list and cruise to your heart’s content. Hiring a motorhome or campervan really adds to the experience. You’ll be able to sleep under the stars (or the Midnight Sun!) and see the changes of light and weather over the landscapes. In this article we will take you through some of the many highlights of the Ring Road route. We have written another article covering the practicalities and how and when to drive the Ring Road. Visit our Complete Guide to Driving the Iceland Ring Road for all the details.
Getting Started on the Ring Road Route
Most people that drive the Ring Road in Iceland begin their road trip from Reykjavik. This makes good sense as it is where the Keflavik International Airport in located. So it is most visitors’ arrival point and where many rental company offices are based. From here road trippers will generally head to South Iceland first. There are many amazing sights in this part of Iceland and they are all relatively close together. So it does make for a good start to a road trip. You certainly wouldn’t want to rush it at the end. You will have full days of sightseeing in the south so you will need more time in this part of Iceland.
The roads in the South are also very well maintained and there are plenty of gas stations and amenities. This all makes it a good introduction to driving in Iceland. As you head north the roads get less busy and much wilder. There are far fewer towns and gas stations and the road conditions are a little rougher. So with all of this in mind we will begin our Ring Road tour with Iceland’s South Coast. From there we will explore the east coast before heading into the mountainous north and then looping back around to the west.
Highlights of the Ring Road in South Iceland
This is one of many beautiful waterfalls in Iceland. Each one has its different characteristics that make it unique and special. Seljalandsfoss Waterfall is no exception. This single drop waterfall cascades over a high overhanging cliff. Erosion has created a cave like space all the way behind the falls. So visitors can follow a path all the way around the falling curtain of water. It makes for some incredible views and it is seriously photogenic. The waterfall is lit up at night so the play of light on the water creates some lovely effects. Seljalandsfoss is set amidst stunning scenery, of course.
This is another waterfall but it offers a completely different experience to Seljalandsfoss. Skogafoss is a high single drop waterfall that cascades over a sixty-metre cliff. This impressive cataract lies on the edge of Iceland’s former coastline. So the cliff edge here would have marked the boundary between ocean and land. Today its black sand and pebble surroundings are testament to the prolific volcanic activity in Iceland.
Vík í Mýdral and its Black Sand Beaches
Much of the landscape in South Iceland is volcanic in its origin. And the black sand beaches around the small town of Vik really demonstrate this. Lava fields and volcanic rock are all around. Basalt columns rise up from the sea and high cliffs create striking vistas.
The beach of Reynisfjara is the most impressive with its three basalt columns said to be trolls frozen by magical forces. The cliffs around here are home to puffins and other seabirds in summer. The waters of the North Atlantic are particularly wild here. So always be aware of how close you and your group are to the shoreline. There are sometimes freak roller waves that rise up much higher than the rest and can catch you unawares. So be mindful and respect the power of the ocean!
There is a great campsite close the town of Vik and it is a lovely friendly village. Many of the South Iceland sights are within a short distance and there is some good hiking to be enjoyed. All in all Vik is a great place to base yourself for a few days of camping and sightseeing.
Vatnajökull National Park
The huge and beautiful Vatnajökull National Park is the largest of the national parks in Iceland. It takes up an incredible 14% of Iceland’s landmass and was formerly several parks that were combined into one. Its Southern tip is very close to Vik and we highly recommend that you spend several days in the area. Here you will find beautiful landscapes and some of the best hiking trails in Iceland.
Skaftafell Nature Reserve & Svartifoss Waterfall
The Skaftafell Nature Reserve is now a part of the Vatnajökull National Park and is a popular place for hiking in Iceland. Within its boundaries you will find the lovely Svartifoss Waterfall. This waterfall is said to have inspired the design of the Hallgrímskirkja Church in Reykjavik. A horseshoe shaped series of basalt columns frames the waterfall. If you’ve seen the famous church in central Reykjavik then you are sure to note the similarities.
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
This large lagoon sits just on the edge of the Vatnajökull National Park. The mouth of the lagoon opens onto the ocean and carries icebergs large and small out to sea. It is connected to the huge Vatnajökull Glacier ice cap. In summer it is possible to take boat trips out across the lagoon and see the floating icebergs up close. Their glowing blue and glassy shapes are a joy to see.
This glacier is part of the much larger Mýrdalsjökull Glacier. It is quite easily accessed and really popular for ice hiking and ice cave tours.
Diamond Beach is just along the coast from the mouth of the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. Its black sands are covered in pieces of ice that wash in and out with the surf. Depending on the flow of ice these pieces might be large boulder shaped piles that you can climb on top of (carefully!). Or there might be a lot of smaller ice pieces glinting like diamonds across the dark sands. Seeing ice at the beach is a really unusual sight for most people. The contrast of the ice, the black sands, the light and the water make for some stunning photo opportunities.
The Ring Road Heading East
We now continue along the Ring Road east of Diamond Beach and the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. This is where most of the tour buses heading out of Reykjavik will stop and turn back. The roads become noticeably quieter very quickly. You may well have the road to yourself here over some lengthy stretches. As you drive up the east Icelandic Ring Road you will be driving between the Vatnajökull National Park and the ocean.
This is a beautiful and dramatic landscape made up of lonely mountains and fjords. The Vestrahorn Mountains rise up in rocky pinnacles and there is a scattering of small coastal fishing villages. Höfn probably has the most going on with some good Icelandic restaurants specialising in delicious fresh seafood.
Highlights of the Ring Road in North Iceland
Dettifoss is the most powerful waterfall in Iceland. It is in fact one of the most powerful in all of Europe in terms of its flow. Seeing, hearing and feeling the tremendous force of the falls is a transformative experience. Getting there will take a little time. In this mountainous region the roads are a little rougher. The road to Dettifoss is a detour from the paved Ring Road that takes you down a long gravel road. You’ll have a slow and careful drive of about half an hour to reach the parking area. But once you experience this incredible waterfall you will be in absolute awe. So don’t shy away from the drive, just make sure that you arrive with plenty of daylight to get there and back to the main route.
Lake Mývatn makes an excellent place to park up your rental camper for a few days and explore. There is a lot to see in the area and a great campsite on the shores of the lake. The lake has surrounding wetlands and it is a haven for birds. If bird watching is your thing then add a little extra time for a guided tour.
Lake Myvatn Nature Baths
This beautiful natural hot springs is North Iceland’s answer to the Blue Lagoon. It is often referred to as the sister site to its famous South Iceland sibling. Here though there is no need to book your time slot in advance. There will also be far more space for you to swim and stretch out. Lake Myvatn Nature Baths are no less special than the Blue Lagoon. It is simply that far fewer visitors travel up to North Iceland. Bathing in one of Iceland's hot springs is an essential element of any Iceland travel adventure.
Hverir Geothermal Area
This volcanic area is fascinating to discover. Lava fields have created bizarre rock formations and bubbling craters release plumes of smoke. This is geothermal activity in action complete with smoking fumaroles and a Martian like landscape of red soil.
The coastal town of Húsavík is another detour from the Ring Road but on a smoother road this time. It is well worth it if you’d like to take a whale watching tour out into the bay. The town is known as the whale watching capital of Iceland and there are all manner whales and dolphins to see in its surrounding waters.
The Waterfall of the Gods! This is a dramatic name for another very dramatic waterfall. This expansive horseshoe shaped waterfall has a legend surrounding it concerning the beginnings of Christianity in Iceland. It is just a minute or two from the Ring Road so an absolute must-see as you head west.
Akureyri is the capital of the north and the second largest urban area in Iceland after Reykjavik. It is a great town with lots going on including nightlife, restaurants and cultural events. If you feel like an urban fix then head into the city for the day and look around. If you’re all about the outdoors you might prefer just to stock up at one of the bigger supermarkets and drive on by.
The Ring Road Heading West
The western stretch of the Ring Road doesn’t have as many sights to stop at. Depending on how much time you have left you might head straight back to Reykjavik for a few days before your flight home. You could also take a tour of the Golden Circle if you haven’t already. These are three South Iceland sights that you won’t want to miss.
If you have more time then you could take some detours from the Western Portion of the Ring Road. The Snæfellsnes Peninsula lies all the way to the west and is a fabulous place to spend 2-3 days or more. This is a popular place to see the Northern Lights in season. There is so much to see here that it is often referred to as a microcosm of Iceland. You might also head to the remote Westfjords. This is a far less visited area of Iceland and it has a wild and stark beauty.
If you’d like to make just a few quick stops on your way south there are a couple of interesting sights. Deildartunguhver Hot Springs are about as hot as it gets. These pools are certainly not for swimming in! It is interesting to see why many homes in Iceland don’t need to heat their water. Finally there are two very lovely waterfalls Hraunfossar and Barnafoss both within walking distance of each other. They lie about a half hour drive off of the Ring Road. They make a good easy day trip or half day to round off your Ring Road adventure.
So there you have it - the highlights of Iceland’s incredible Route One road trip. We have another article covering the low down on when and how to drive the Ring Road and all the practicalities. Visit our Complete Guide to Driving the Iceland Ring Road for all the details