Iceland’s Ring Road
Driving the Ring Road is a classic pastime for locals and referred to as “going the circle”. It’s a 1,322 km paved road that circles the coastline of Iceland with the exception of the Westfjords. While it has been done in one go or even in just two days, it’s best to give it at least a week to enjoy this trip to its fullest. Check out our handy guide to a perfect circle along Route 1.
In Iceland, preparations are key to any excursions. Check out our safe travels blog and our driving blog for information about preparation and more details about driving in Iceland. An additional preparation for the Ring Road is to check out the weather forecast for your selected days and decide then which way to go. It is after all a circle. The north has more mountain passes and is more prone to road closures in difficult weather while the south is more prone to extreme winds along the south and southeast coastline. You might luck out and get perfect weather, but you probably want to avoid fog or heavy rain and cloudy skies, so you’ll get the most out of the views. This guide goes south-east-north-west but you can just as easily take the other way around. Let the weather guide you.
As soon as you leave Reykjavik on the southern part of Route 1 you’ll find yourself in the magical setting of Svínahraun or the Lava of Pigs. This is the most traversed highway in Iceland but it doesn’t make it any less magical. Heading up to the moors of Hellisheiði just 20 minutes from Reykjavik you’ll catch a sniff of sulfur but don’t point fingers at your fellow passengers. This is the natural odor of the geothermal waters in these parts. Drink in the views from Hellisheiði where you can spot the Westman Islands, Eyjafjallajökull and as you pass Hveragerði (the aptly named “Steamville”) you’ll see volcano Hekla, standing proud to the north of Eyjafjallajökull. Stop at Seljalandsfoss for an obligatory Instagram shot of you behind a waterfall, drive on and stop at Skógafoss for an obligatory Instagram shot of you in front of the world’s most picturesque waterfall and try to remember where you’ve seen it before (Thor, Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Game of Thrones, etc.). Reynisfjara beach with its black sands, columnar basalt cave and crazy waves is a must as well as Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and its companion, the Diamond Beach below. But the biggest star in this southern show has to be the vast planes of sand stretching out between huge glaciers on your left and the Atlantic Ocean on the right with dramatic mountains and cliffs in between.
Pro tip: Fill up your gas tank at Kirkjubæjarklaustur. You won’t see another gas pump for a while.
When you leave the southern part for the eastern part there’s a clear shift in the landscape. Suddenly you’re driving through narrow fjords with tall and dramatic mountains and everything just seems older. That’s because it is. The eastern fjords along with the western fjords are the oldest parts of Iceland. The landscape is different and so is the earth in these parts. There’s less, if any, geothermal activity here, earthquakes are rare and no active volcanoes. Iceland is settled here, there’s a clear sense of calm and as you pass through fishing village after fishing village with a glimpse of islands out at sea, you realize this is the land of trolls as opposed to elves. Detours up to Seyðisfjörður (a beautiful village just outside Egilsstaðir) and Hallormsstaður (a gorgeous forest next to Lake Lagarfljót) are highly recommended. This entire part of the Ring Road is both picturesque and challenging as you drive in and out of narrow fjords and long valleys.
Pro tip: Take it slow and enjoy the awesome scenery.
As you leave the long valley of Jökuldalur and head up to Möðrudalsöræfi that leads to Mývatnsöræfi you’re officially in the wild. “Öræfi” after all means “wilderness” or “the uninhabited part” and that’s exactly what this is. For a couple of hours, you’ll see very little sign of humans except for the occasional passing car. But what you will see is some of the most spectacular views in the country. The views from these parts are phenomenal and the crown jewel here is Herðubreið, the Queen of the Mountains, sitting proudly south of Mývatnsöræfi. We highly recommend a stop at some of the viewing points along this way to drink in this part of Iceland and to take pictures that will never fully capture that sense of wonder you had when you took them. Mývatn brings you back into the land of geothermal heat, complete with a bright blue lagoon and the Nature Baths. Next stop is Goðafoss, a glorious waterfall which played a huge part in the Christianization of Iceland in 1000 AD. You’ll soon arrive in Akureyri, the capital of the north and a proud home to Iceland’s sharpest pronunciations. Driving along the northern coast you’ll see gorgeous ocean views and rolling country hills and more horses than you can count. The north is home to some of Iceland’s most ambitious horse farmers, heaviest snowfall, and toughest people.
Pro tip: If the weather is good, skip the Vaðlaheiðargöng tunnel and opt for the more scenic route over Víkurskarð. Also, fill up your tank at Skjöldólfsstaðir in Jökuldalur. You’re gonna need it.
As you roll down the Holtavörðuheiði moor, you’ll be greeted by the lush, green valley of Borgarfjörður. Driving through this lava wonderland you might take slight detours to visit Deildartunguhver hot spring, the largest hot spring in Europe. And since you’re there, why not check out the luxurious Krauma Natural Geothermal Baths and the magical Barnafoss waterfalls, all gorgeous and unique destinations. The town of Borgarnes is a popular gas station stop, not just because of its convenient location but also its glorious setting. Marvel at the sight of Hafnarfjall looming on the other side of the bridge and keep in mind that if there’s any wind at all, you can bet its nowhere as strong as on the road under Hafnarfjall. As you drive south, a spectacular view of Reykjavik and Faxaflói bay will open up in front of you with Reykjanes peninsula in the background. Enjoy the rest of your drive and give yourself plenty of time to get to know Reykjavik. She’s worth it.
Pro tip: If the weather’s nice, take the scenic route through Hvalfjörður fjord instead of the tunnel.
We’re excluding Iceland’s most popular locations Þingvellir, Gullfoss and Geysir, AKA the Golden Circle, because they’re a slight detour off the Ring Road in the South of Iceland. Check out our blog about the Golden Circle if you want to add it to the mix (and we highly recommend that you do).