The Iceland’s Ring Road, also known as Route 1, runs all around the island. From crowded touristic spots to the places filled with dramatic Nordic solitude, it is a great way to experience the country. We took Iceland’s Ring Road by storm and squeezed the most out of it in just 4 days!!
DAY 1. REYKJAVIK AND NORTH WEST
GETTING THE CAR IN THE AIRPORT
It is mid summer but Iceland meets us with hale and cold winds. Wearing a warm waterproof jacket (that is my winter friend back in London) was not a bad idea after all. Airport is small, so we are through very fast. Car rental process is smooth and soon enough we are running in haling rain across the parking lot to our Volkswagen Polo.
We considered several options and opted out for this regular sedan. All motorways on our short summer route appeared to be perfectly passable by a regular car. However, if you plan to spend more days around Iceland, with more areas to explore, SUV would be the right choice. There are roads in Iceland – with F prefix – which you are only allowed to use in 4×4 jeeps. You get enormous fines if you do otherwise. And here is a website dedicated to road networks and infrastructure, where you can check all the details (even though some pages are working in beta mode). Google is not always catching up with the latest situation on Iceland roads tbh.
Another choice that comes along with car rental in Iceland is a range of insurance options, some being very specific – like those for volcanic ash, sand and gravel. We’ve chosen full coverage, including free road assistance be it required. You do need a complete peace of mind when you are trying to squeeze an extensive itinerary into a short period of time
First stop on our 4 day adventure around Iceland is of course Reykjavik. Quick check on the city centre doesn’t reveal anything surprising. Colourful houses, colourful glass of Harpa Concert Hall and loads of birds in Tjörnin pond – that is possibly as much sightseeing as you can get from the Iceland capital. Streets are empty but small cafes and restaurants abundant with locals and tourists looking forward for lunch. We are no exception and having recharged with traditional lamb soup and a mug of hot chocolate we are back in the car and ready for a long but picturesque ride to the North…
Dramatic grey sky hanging low over the road. Snow-covered mountains setting a backdrop for endless fields of mustard grass and moss, where gorgeous wild horses freely lark in herds. What a scenery for the day! We stop off the road to absorb the views from time to time. And we top up our caffeine levels at cafes settled along the motorway. Interestingly enough, there is no such thing as ‘services’ on Iceland’s roads. If you need a loo – you will have to buy something from the shop to get a door code printed in the receipt.
After a few hours we arrive to the suburbs of Akureyri – our layover for the night. We check into friendly family hotel and with no delay proceed to the outdoor hot bathtub with some lovely views. (You will find such hot baths in many hotels in Iceland. The smaller is the hotel the better are your chances to have it to yourself and not be bothered by other guests.)
It is a midnight sun time in Iceland, so we are curious to see how low the sun will set before bouncing back into the skies? Endless day just a few miles below the arctic circle.
DAY 2. WHALES AND WATERFALLS
I just love breakfasts in Nordic countries. All this selection of cold meat, cheeses, home baked bread and pastry and forest berry confits – mmm…Too bad we need to rush if we want to make it around Iceland in 4 days. In a few hours we have a pre-booked whale watching experience in Husavik 🙁
Pre-booking was not really needed by the way – there were a lot of walk-in people on our boat. They even delayed the boat departure and shortened our trip because of a large group arriving very last minute. There are several agencies next to the port. If one of them is fully booked for the nearest trip there is always a chance that another one will have seats available. Smelly overalls are on and the boat slowly casts off.
Weather prepared a truly magical moment for us. While we were leaving typical Nordic harbour of Husavik behind, the wind suddenly vanished, sun appeared from the clouds and water in the harbour turned flat, reflecting clear blue skies with white clouds like a real mirror. We enjoyed this peaceful appearance for 10 minutes or so, then sun was gone and waves were back.
As for the whale watching – it was not the best (just personal opinion course, I am sure some won’t agree). Our boat probably had the slowest reaction and worst luck out of all vessels that were around in the harbour. Even though we saw a few flippers and backs in the distance, it did not feel worth the pricetag. If we had more time to spend, it would prefer just to take a ferry from Dalvik to Grimsey island and back. Then, you never know what’s on whale’s mind another day…
Having recharged our energies with traditional seafood dishes in an old school restaurant we are leaving Husavik and heading to Dettifoss. Road that takes us north turns into a nice panoramic drive, resembling those of Ireland or Whales. It lies along the shore and exposes wavy line of steep cliffs. We stop at one of them to enjoy the views and discover a small group of puffins just a few meters beneath. It is pretty scary to stay on the edge because the wind is quite strong and seagulls start to show unhealthy interest, almost landing on our heads. Do not follow our example if the wind is gusting and blows towards the sea – standing on the top of the cliff in Iceland can be rather dangerous.
Back in the car we are. Waterfall should not be far now, based on the map, but as soon as we are off the main road it becomes clear that it will take a bit longer. Road is paved but has lots of holes, narrows to a one-way in some places and takes a detour over ruined sections in others. Shaking and wobbling we watch how all the colours fade in front of our eyes and grass is being replaced with huge rugged lava rocks of all forms and shapes. Some half an hour later we arrive to the car park and are ready to meet the most powerful waterfall in Europe.
Every traveller that plans to go to Dettifoss faces same dilemma – should I visit West, East side or both? There are lots of debates in the internet and no common opinion, with both options bearing pros and cons. Luckily for us, we did not have to do this choice. Taking to account the car that we had and very tight schedule, West side of the falls was the only reasonable option. East side can be accessed only by a gravel road that requires a better vehicle and also doubles the travel time. In the end we totally do not regret that. West side has quite a few astonishing view points allowing to enjoy this powerful phenomenon from different angles. Sun position in the afternoon provided for some great natural light shots and we even managed to take a glimpse of a rainbow. You can also take a walk to another smaller waterfall nearby, which we unfortunately did not have time to, since there was another three hours driving towards Egilsstadir ahead. We know, we know – plan to get around Iceland in just 4 days was a hassle 🙂
DAY 3. ICE LAGOONS, DIAMOND BEACH AND DRAGON’S CANYON
The morning is rushed again. We are leaving town of Egilsstadir and need to drive our Ring Road quite a while to get to one of Iceland’s most famous spots. Jökulsárlón – a lagoon filled with azure icebergs. The lake was formed in the 20th century from rapidly melting Europe’s largest glacier – Vatnajökull, and is probably one of the most obvious evidences of global warming.
Let’s get going then – our tickets for the Jökulsárlón boat are pre-booked, which again appeared to be not necessary even in the high season.
THROUGH THE FOG TO THE BLACK SHORES
Thick fog wraps Eastern highlands today. Road elevates and at some point just merges into the white cloud! The car is lost in milky mist and we cannot see anything 10 meters in front of us. Fog also absorbs all possible sounds and we are drowning in this mystic silence. There is noone else around and the whole experience feels surreal. I open the window to take some photos but camera cannot focus, while silence and mist quickly fill the salon.
Later road begins to descend towards the sea. We leave the creepy fog behind and are greeted by endless stretches of black volcanic beaches. This is the Iceland how I always imagined it!
Meanwhile weather has another surprise for us: by the time we arrive to Jökulsárlón it is haling and heavily raining. We wait for our boat departure in a small cafe. The place is bursting at the seams with all the tourists that use it as a shelter on this nasty day; drying their soaked up clothes. It smells some dirty socks here but well, at least it is warm and dry, and they sell local pastry and hot chocolate. Soon enough it is time to brace ourselves for a damp and chilly ride into the lagoon- rain has no intention to stop or at least to slow down. We should be grateful for the thick layer of clouds though, because on a sunny day one cannot fully admire this special azure colours of the ice blocks. We are told by the guide that when direct sun rays pass through – the colour fades away.
When we go around Iceland again – we will probably consider not getting Zodiac. Not sure if it is because you cannot see and enjoy much in such a bad weather or because we were much more impressed with the views we’d seen from the shore rather than from the boat.
Having thoroughly enjoyed majestic scene of Jökulsárlón, we are moving to another popular attraction of the area – the Diamond beach. Same as in the lagoon, there are quite a few people here, and curious seals pop their heads out from time to time observing the visitors. This place is special, chunks of ice are thoroughly polished by Atlantic waves, so they do shine like precious stones, and carbon black sand makes it all look even more saturated. Black and white perfection, see for yourself. The photo is done in full colour. It is just there are some places in Iceland where you feel like your suddenly became colourblind…
And yet there are more exciting things to see in the area. After just 10 minutes of driving, the road brings us to another viewpoint that uncovers the real majesty of the ice kingdom. Fjallsárlón lagoon exposes enormous size and quaint forms of the Vatnajökull glacier. They offer boat tours to get closer to the glacier here too, but we opted out for a simple walk along the shore
Now, that is enough of ice for today, time to find some place for late lunch and head towards the magnificent and almost fairy-tale canyon of Fjaðrárgljúfur. Canyon is now accurately pinned on Google Maps, so there should not be any issues finding it. At the time of our trip it was not that simple – just imagine yourself trying to pronounce ‘Fjaðrárgljúfur’ through the storm when asking locals for directions :D. Nevertheless we got there pretty easy and were rewarded with a beautiful walk. Even generous Icelandic skies were able to hold up all the water for the time of our hike.
Road from the canyon in west direction runs through wide area of lava fields covered with soft fluffy green moss. Another unearthly scenery which you can enjoy from the car or by stopping and taking a Scenic lava green walk that starts from Þjóðvegur Rest Stop.
Once damaged, moss takes years to regrow to the same volume, so it is advised not to walk on the moss directly and only use dedicated trails. They also say elves hide somewhere in that moss. We did not spot any, but was well worth a try 🙂
Perfect ending of a great travel day!
DAY 4. GLACIER WALK, REYNISFJARA AND FAREWELL SPA RETREAT
Right, so we saw a lot of ice already, different type of ice, close and far. But we never actually walked into a glacier, never been one-on-one with those ancient nature creations. And today we are definitely going to fix it thanks to Sólheimalökull, that is conveniently located next to Vik and easily accessible to any curious travellers. We parked the car at the dedicated area and took a stroll along the black shore of a mesmerising milky lake towards the huge ice lumps that were hardly visible in the morning fog.
Needless to say that they offer glacier walks with professional guide for a reason. Going into the glacier on your own like we did can be seriously dangerous. Ice moves slowly all the time, even though this movement is not visible to human eye. At some point raising pressure causes cracks or crevasses which happen in a split second, not leaving you any time to react. At the entrance of any glacier there are multiple signs warning tourists of the risks they are accepting by moving further on.
Still, our curiosity appeared to be stronger than our survival instinct at that point. We went off exploring and were so glad that we did it. There were many exciting moments on our trip to Iceland, but Sólheimalökull was one of the most memorable experiences.
Having enjoyed the glacier to our hearts content, it is finally time to visit one of the most famous landmarks in Iceland – Reynisfjara Beach. And it is clear from far away that we are not going to be the only ones here today. With Iceland becoming more and more popular each year, Reynisfjara in high season resembled more of a Time Square before COVID hit the planet. But even romance-deprived, the place remains incredibly beautiful and is definitely worth visiting at least once when you travel around Iceland. Being patient enough, you’ll get a chance to capture your own memorable mysterious-mood postcard without other tourists on it.
When taking your beach walk don’t forget that sneaker waves at Reynisfjara (as well as some other beaches) claim tourist lives almost every year. This happens because such waves suddenly surge up the beach far further than you expect and being incredibly powerful they can easily sweep an adult out to sea. Authorities even considered closing Reynisfjara several years ago to prevent ongoing tragic situations. As of now there are warning signs as well as rescue equipment placed on the beach.
It is worth mentioning that most of the southern coastal line of Iceland is covered with volcanic black sand and is dotted with intricate cliffs of all shapes and forms. There is plenty of secluded and truly majestic spots that easily outshine the famous Reynisfjara or Dyrhólaey: Stokksnes, Thorgeirsstadir, Vagnsstaðir, Solheimafjara (known for it’s nearby plane wrecks) just to name a few. So if you are looking to immerse into the severe oceanic scenery- just explore the South and South East of Iceland.
And we are moving West towards Reykjavik, admiring camouflage barns and playful horses and discovering random thermal basins on our way. The beauty of travelling in Iceland is in unexpected wonders waiting for you around any corner. All you need is to watch around, get out of the car and go exploring whenever you notice something interesting.
Tonight is the last night of this short and intense trip, so we are staying near the airport for a hustle-free morning flight. All that will remain for us to do tomorrow is return our car, get on the plane and leave a fairy-tale Iceland behind.
Meanwhile we booked last evening admission to the infamous blue lagoon. Despite of a desperate price and polarised opinions about this place, we decided that we will go there, see it with our own eyes and live one of the most famous Icelandic experiences. We actually got the whole range of impressions in the Blue lagoon- from aversion, discomfort and abashment to relaxation and enjoyment. Biggest cons are probably crowds of people everywhere and fairly poor level of amenities (like dirty floors, broken hair-driers or zero privacy in the changing rooms). And pros are pretty obvious – sipping bubbly while sitting in a hot milky-blue pool with a mud mask on your face and watching a surreal vapor rising in a slow motion- that’s what I call living 🙂
If you do not feel like getting a spa, but still curious to see how the Blue Lagoon is – you can have a nice walk among the milky cobalt lakes scattered here and there behind the main building. They are really cool, we’d recommend to spare some time to explore the area around Blue Lagoon. And, you can even get inside the facility for a few minutes to see how the pools and the territory are.
As for ourselves – we were glad to finally get out of the madness of their changing rooms and be on our way to the hotel. Late night sun came out from behind the clouds placing multiple rainbow pillars over the vast terrain covered in moss and stones. Already familiar but still unearthly Icelandic scenery. Kveðja, Iceland! We will definitely be around again, but hopefully for longer than just four days 🙂
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