The Ring Road: a 6 day itinerary with key tips, highlights and packing guide.
Most people prefer to take 10+ days to drive the 828 mile Ring Road in Iceland. My dear friend and I had 6 days and did we ever make the most of our time, seeing the majority of the sites without a sense of rushing, nor missing out (taboo to me). Along the drive you will see beautiful seaside towns, Icelandic country side, glaciers, volcanoes, jagged fjords, waterfalls and lots & lots of really cute horses.
We had our bookings separated by 3-5 hours of incredible scenic driving each day. No day was too long, and we had plenty of time to stop along the way. One day in the west, north, east, south east, south west, and Reykjavik before flying out the next day.
Ring Road Key Facts and Tips:
~ Pre-book your rental car well in advance and opt for the extra insurance that covers gravel and sand damage. A 4X4 vehicle is recommended, but not necessary if your staying on the main ring road. Driving the ring road will cost about $300-$400 in petrol/ gas. We drove clock wise on intuition, but either way is fantastic.
~ Also pre-book your hotel stays, in recent years the ring road has become a very popular route, we pre-booked about 9 months out and stayed in a combination of 4 star hotels, guesthouses and hostels at good rates.
~ Have a credit card that has PIN access, you will need it to get gas past business hours. If you don’t have a pin, you will need to sign for the charges. You can also buy gas cards from the gas station to use after hours. No need for cash in Iceland. In fact I never saw any local currency on either of my past two trips.
~ Most gas stations have an excellent selection of the take away sandwiches, coffee, etc. To save time we snacked during the day and went out for one nice meal each night, which was a nice way to relax and reflect on all the sites of the day.
~ Each major site is marked with ⌘ on a easy to spot road sign all along Route 1, The ring road. It’s good to read up ahead of time so you know what is a must see for you, and what to skip, like the plane crash site verses a beautiful waterfall. Easy win on that one for me.
~ In Iceland you’ll spend about $50 per dinner with a drink, draft beer runs around $9, and wine $20+ a glass. Consider buying duty free at the airport. Don’t be surprised to see traditional Icelandic dishes of horse, reindeer, whale and shark on the menu. Vegetarian options are offered too.
~ Keep in mind Iceland has a delicate and dangerous terrain, staying on the roads is strict law and good sense. Head warning signs, as they really mean it.
~ Bring: Water/wind proof clothes, waterproof hiking boots, warm pj’s, extra socks, a warm hat, scarf, swim suit, towel, water bottle, knife (for picnicking), guide book or download an “off line” google maps with sites saved, car charger, tunes, snacks, sunglasses, warm clothes of wool or fleece rather than cotton, camera with extra batteries, & shampoo/ conditioner (not all guest houses provide this).
~ Skip the bottled water. Iceland has some of the very purest water on the planet, fill your own along the way and save some plastic and some paper $.
~ Souvenirs: Wool sweaters (Lopapeysa), Lambskins, Reykjavik Rain Coats, hiking boots from Ellingsen in Reykjavik, local photography, craft Icelandic Himbrimi Gin, and outdoor gear from excellent Icelandic companies: Cintamani, Icewear, & 66 North.
Day One: Snæfellsnes Peninsula on the west side is said to be a mini Iceland, containing everything on this small peninsula that Iceland has to offer. Driving from the airport KEF took about 2 hours and on our first day we were able to see a lot. Our first stop was the seaside walk between the towns of Arnarstapi and Hellnar. Strolling along jagged rock coves you will see lots of bids, beautiful rock formations, crashing waves with mountains and waterfalls in the distance. From there we drove around Route 1’s most western side and alongside Snæfellsjökull Glacier. The glacier was mostly bogged down with heavy fog and cloud on this day.
Perhaps now is a good time to let you know, the weather is temperamental in Iceland. Keep an open mind and bring warm clothes. I plan to come back and to book one of the guided tours on to the glacier, maybe even to the top.
Instead we saw some really beautiful country side and the most photographed mountain in all of Iceland, Kirkjufell. For the famous waterfall-mountain combo view, walk up to Kirkjufellsfoss, *foss=waterfall, and watch the magic happen. This is also a well known place to watch the northern lights, best seen September to March . You will need dark, clear skies and luck. Check the Aurora forecast to increase your chances with the App Aurora. Also, unless you have professional photography equipment you won’t be able to capture the northern lights, if you only use a camera phone, use the App: Northern Lights Photo taker.
For dinner we stopped at Bjargarsteinn, a cozy, warm dining room with a view of Kirkjufell. They serve authentic dishes from Iceland, cod, horse, lamb, and also a vegetarian option.
Our hotel for the night was Lava Water Accommodations. Our room had two twin beds, a shared bathroom, & a lovely shared kitchen. The facilities were new, extremely clean and one of my favorites from the trip.
Day Two: Our next stop was 5 hours to the north at Lake Myvatyn. Along the way we saw beautiful mountains, horse filled pastors, views of the sea, floating icebergs and distant Fjords. Stop in Akureyri for lunch and have a look around the town, 30 minutes further you will find the walking paths and waterfall Godafoss, a main highlight. As you arrive in Lake Myvatyn drive around the southern side to Skútustasagígar. Stop to take the short walk around the pseudo craters and for hill top views of the lake.
Our stay here was at the Foss Hotel Lake Myvatn and was our favorite. The hotel has a beautiful sauna, viewing deck overlooking the lake, and includes a breakfast buffet. We finished our stay with a drive around the east side of the lake, walking the reflective lake side paths and watching the swans.
Don’t miss the Myvatn Nature Baths which rival the famed blue Lagoon. The hot springs facilities are new and clean and overlook the lake. The waters were very relaxing, therapeutic and had a nice variety of temperatures. Their excellent cafe serves soups, fresh salads, dinner entrees and look for the locally made Icelandic rye bread called Rúgbrauð , baked in the earth by geothermal heat.
Day Three: We set out early for our 3 hour drive east to Egilsstadir. Just over the first mountain pass is Hverarönd, a collection of geothermal pools of bubbling fumaroles that steam sulfuric steam. A beautiful, exciting stop and part of what makes Iceland so unique. Take care if you wear contacts, the acid can bind to the lens, as we found out.
Look out for the original highway erected by Viking settlers in the 800’s, these stone cairns showed travelers the safest route to follow. Locals will be upset if you make your own though, for good reason they are protective of the natural landscape.
Next is the must see waterfall Dettifoss. It is the most powerful waterfall in Iceland and one of my favorite stops. Take the first, western exit to arrive at my preferred viewpoint for this location. The is a double feature stop with nearby gorge and waterfall, Selfoss. The best place to photograph Dettifoss is high on the outlook platform looking down onto the waterfall. In Egilsstadir we stayed at the adorable Berta Guest House which was clean, comfortable, included a simple breakfast, comfy beds and was central to town. Don’t miss the local fable of the giant worm, Lagarfljótsormur, a lake monster seen several times over the last hundred years. The lake is beautiful and worth a walk while you look for Lagarfljótsormur. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lagarfljót_Worm
Day Four: We set out early and braved the foggy drive to the most eastern fjord, Seydisfjordur. A small fishing village just off the Ring Road with views of the fjords, waterfalls and town to explore. Don’t miss the rainbow walkway leading to the church. It was created by some local folks who originally could not make it to Pride in Reykjavík, so the made their own. The town and local businesses fully support the now annual parade and are surprised at all the attention that it draws to this small town.
Back on Route 1 we continued past vast fjords full of beautiful still waters, goat filled pastures, villages, fog and sun splashed vistas, arriving in Hofn 3 hours later. Hofn has a great look out point at the end of this small peninsula that gives views of the Skaftafell National Park and glacier tongues in the distance.
One of the most popular activities in Iceland is horse back riding. Even a beginner can feel comfortable since the Icelandic breed of horses are small, and cute as can be. We found a great riding company: Hlídarbergshestar í Borgarhöfn (+354 866 6242) or firstname.lastname@example.org to make a reservation. We booked a private 2 hr tour with the owner and rode to the fields, across the plateau, through three rivers and we also experienced the tölt or gait that is unique to the Icelandic breed.
Our stay that night was the new and modern, Lilja Guesthouse in Hella. A Scandic style hotel with beautiful views of the glacier, private bathrooms, included breakfast and had a excellent restaurant for dinner, try the Cod and local beer.
Day 5: Southern Iceland is full of highlights, try to make time for the glacier lagoon Jökulsárlón, diamond beach, a glacier excursion, the black sand beach, waterfalls, a hike, and the thermal river. From Hof and heading along the southern Ring Road and along side Skaftafell National Park is Svartifoss waterfall. A dramatic 20m waterfall flowing over hexagonal basalt columns.
Continuing on to Reynisfjara, the famous black sand beach. On a very low tide, look for the basalt columns on the southern face, it has the best columns for an easy but dramatic looking photo. The cave may also be accessible, however, take extra care to read the signs about sneaker waves and heed the warnings, the ocean is very unpredictable here.
Next you might consider booking glacier hike, guiding companies will provide you with the necessary safety gear. Sólheimajökull is beautiful glacier were you can take a easy walk up to the start of the glacier for a quick view, or book a longer tour up on to the ice. An hour and a half tour gets you a crampon lesson, tips for walking on the glacier, a historical narrative, and folk tales from the local guides as they take you up on to the ice for a look. Longer hikes are also available if you have more time or stamina.
Lots to see, next up the world famous waterfall Skógafoss. This 60x 25-meter waterfall will leave you in awe, plan on taking a while at this spot. The 500-ish step staircase to the top has a breath taking view of the waterfall, valley below and on to the ocean. Consider hiking further back to the beginning of pórsmörk, a hiking oasis. We hiked the first few miles into this hike and it left a profound impression. I plan to return to continue on to complete the rest of the highland hike to Landmannalaugar.
Next see the popular Seljalandsfoss, famous as the waterfall you can walk behind. Bring your rain coat as it’s very wet. For quieter scenery try Gljúfrabúi, a hidden waterfall with a narrow canyon and pools. Our stay this night was at the hostel style Riverside Guesthouse in Hella. Rooms were private, simple, with shared bathrooms and right in town. Nothing fancy, just a place to sleep, shower, & a full kitchen for use.
Up early and on the road. The thermal river in Reykjadalur Valley, has been on my hit list since my last trip. An easy 45 min hike up a mountain, past thermal bubbling sulfuric pools, you will arrive at a lush green valley with a beautiful river, walking deck and simple changing facilities. The water is warm, clean and beautiful making it a perfect spot to relax the day away with a picnic. Although, we had rushed off after a good long soak to see the capitol, Reykjavik, the last bit of our astounding journey. We arrived just in time for a mad dash shopping spree on Bankastræti street, followed by a happy hour tour. Our stops included the roof top bar in the Loft hostel (great city view), Kofi Tómasar frænda (happy hour deals), and the popular ROK (ambiance) near the Hallgrimskirkja Cathedral. Don’t miss the Sun Voyager sculpture as part of the sculpture and shore walk along the harbor, as well as Reykjavik’s many art murals. For dinner, the Reykjavik Fish Restaurant serves great seafood dishes, stews, salad and local beer. Also try the Hlemmur Food-hall for cocktails, dinner, & coffee in a lively setting (look for craft cocktails made with Icelandic Himbrimi Gin).
Our stay this night was at the Icelandicair Hotel Reykjavik. This modern hotel was spacious, has luxury spa facilities, restaurant, shops and free parking. It is also near Perlan, a landmark museum and architectural feat, which has a observation deck, revolving glass dome restaurant and rotating geological exhibitions. https://perlan.is
Feel free to leave a comment on the forum. Iceland is very special to me and is one of my favorite places on this earth. I plan to return many more time and would love to hear your thoughts, or answer and questions you have on this post. Happy Travels.