Iceland – The Ultimate Ring Road Roadtrip

On the scale of travellers, I’m somewhere near the middle. I don’t need the luxury of five star suites (or any star suites) but I do need a hot shower and comfy bed, less I lose it in some public place and poor Rod has to deal with a crying wreck of a travel buddy. It’s pretty fun.

So when we were thinking about how we were going to travel around Iceland, a campervan seemed to be the logical, but somewhat daunting prospect. We read about ‘must have’ travel items including trowels (to dig up the frozen Icelandic soil) and the possibility that we may not shower for the duration of our time in the van – nine whole days. And who knows, maybe that’s how a lot of people see Iceland, but camping around Iceland actually turned out to be a pretty luxurious experience.

After a few days in Reykjavik, we were ready to hit the road so Go Campers picked us up and kitted us out with a campervan that would get us around the country in style. We had a kitchenette, lounge room / bed as well as heating and electricity – even running water. I was feeling pretty fancy, until i realised I’d be the one driving the beast around Iceland for the next week and a bit.

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Our home on the road

Our first stop was to the supermarket for supplies – not very glamorous I know but Iceland is stupidly expensive so we lived off a steady meal of sandwiches and pasta. Frankfurts with tomato sauce was for treat night only.

After stocking up, we hit the road. And promptly arrived in Þingvellir (pronounced Thingvellir) National Park about half an hour later — a bit of an anticlimax and our road trip playlist was only a quarter of the way through. That was a surprising thing about Iceland – for such a big country, so many amazing sites are only a short drive from Reykjavik, in the aptly named Golden Circle. Happily established at our first campsite for the night, we were treated to dinner and a show, with the Northern Lights appearing shortly after sun down (which in Iceland equates to about 10pm in April).

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The Northern Lights dance just for us in Thingvellir

Day Two – The Golden Circle

On Day 2, we woke early (you know, because we were sleeping in a van), and set out to explore the National Park. Thingvellir is the site of Iceland’s first parliament and is incredibly interesting to understand from their country’s historical perspectives, but equally so are the unique natural features within the Park. It is the meeting point of two tectonic plates – Europe and Asia that are actually pulling apart – so much so that you can walk, or even dive (not that we were brave enough!) between the two plates. Very cool.

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Snorkellers brave the cold water to swim between the tectonic plates

About half an hour from Thingvellir are Geysir and Gullfoss – two other amazing Icelandic sites. Geysir is a town built around just that, the Strokkar Geysir which erupts every five or so minutes, sending soaring hot jets of water into the air to the delight of the many tourists who wait around the base. A little further down the road from Geysir is Gullfoss, one of the most impressive waterfalls I’ve ever seen, made only more stunning by the curtain of snow and ice still lingering on the waterfall’s banks. There’s a story about the waterfall, that a sheep herder fell in love with a woman who lived on the other side of Gullfoss. Desperate to be with her, he risked his life to cross the river but he managed to make it to the other side. Pretty romantic, but Gullfoss has the water capacity to fill something like 100 shipping containers per second, making this love story even more impressive.

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The magnificent Gullfoss waterfall

Our busy second day wasn’t over just yet – we spent the evening in Reykholt where we slept in a bubble and floated among the stars. I’ve already written about these experiences here – but if you’re ever in Iceland I can highly recommend both of them.

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We loved our night in the Bubble Hotel

Day Three – the 3 Ss

Day three arrived and it was time to finish off the Golden Circle loop and take on the rest of the country. On our way out of Reykholt, we picked up an Icelandic hitchhiker who took us to Kerið Crater Lake on our way to Selfoss. The crater is a reminder of Iceland’s very active volcanic past – not that you’d know it with the ice crust frozen over it. A beautiful site and no doubt even more beautiful in the Summer months.

Dropping off our mate in Selfoss, we carried on to Iceland’s most famous waterfalls – Seljalandsfoss and Skogáfoss. These sister waterfalls are only 20 minutes or so apart, but Seljalandsfoss seems to get overlooked by tourists a bit more, making it a quieter visit than the iconic Skogáfoss (which holds the title of Iceland’s most photographed waterfall).

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Seljandsfoss waterfall has less tourists for uninterrupted views

Between the waterfalls sits the Sólheimasandur plane crash site. I haven’t seen this in any of the Iceland guidebooks but the deserted US Army aeroplane is widely known as one of the main stops along the Golden Circle route. Previously open to tourists, a bad few have ruined it for the many so its now closed for cars although many travellers still seem to walk to the site. To get there, you literally pull up alongside a paddock fence and climb over a gate that has a huge ‘closed’ sign hanging on it. From there, it’s a simple 4km walk out towards the ocean (you’ll know you’re on the right track by the smattering of tourists coming and going along the roughly marked path). A detour for sure, there’s something so cool about one of Iceland’s most iconic sites being largely word of mouth. It kind of speaks to Iceland’s unwillingness to be tamed by tourists – both the wilderness and the locals.

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Off the beaten path – Solheimasandur plane wreckage

We wanted to enjoy Skogáfoss without all the snap-happy visitors so we camped there for the  night – Iceland’s laws means you can set up camp anywhere for the night, barring national parks and private farms (you just have to ask the farmer for permission). This amazing rule means that you can wake up meters from some of the most amazing natural sites Iceland has to offer – and have them all to yourselves before the tour buses roll up.

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Skogafoss at Sunset

Day Four –  A short Höfn

After a few obligatory sunrise shots at Skogáfoss (for Rod, I stayed in my warm sleeping bag) we packed up the van and hit the road, aiming to drive to Höfn (pronounced ‘Hop’). This would take us past Vik’s moody black sand beaches and get us to the bottom righthand corner of Iceland by nightfall.

On our way, we stopped off at Vatnajökull National Park and enjoyed a short walk to Svartifoss – by no means the biggest or most impressive waterfall in Iceland but unique in that it is surrounded by perfectly square basalt columns, making it appear more like a carefully constructed design installation than a natural wonder.

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Nature inspired design at Svartifoss

One of the absolute highlights of our journey around Iceland would have to be the amazing Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and surrounding areas. Nestled at the base of the Vatnajökull glacier – a behemoth that covers almost a quarter of Iceland’s total landmass, Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon is an absolutely stunning sight, with mini islands of ice floating along the water’s surface. The lagoon itself peeks out at you from the road as you approach it, with pops of blue ice appearing in between the hills as you drive along the Ring Road. We stopped at multiple points to admire the glacier breakoffs, the surrounding mountains and the curious seals who play away the days in the ice. Along the coast, the black sand beaches are dotted with ice sculptures, washed from the lagoon to the ocean and then dumped on the sand by the ranging tide. Of all the sights in Iceland, this was the most awe-inspiring, just to see the sheer magnitude and roughness of Iceland’s natural elements.

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Icebergs ahead at Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon

We arrived in Höfn by early evening and had a truly indulgent Tuesday – a $200 lobster feast. Humarhofnin is one of the most popular restaurants in Höfn, a harbour town famous for Icelandic lobster, or langoustine. We knew Icelandic prices were steep but we splurged – and it was definitely worth it. Our main course consisted of 8-10 langoustine tails served with bread, salad and traditional sauces. In Sydney, you’d pay that much for one lobster tail, so we were happily surprised by our delicious dinner. Fair to say we rolled out of the restaurant!

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We don’t normally do food photos but look at that lobster!

Day Five – So much snow!

Up until day five, we’d only had a smattering of snow on the streets or up in the mountains. We had assumed that the snow was long gone, relegated to the winter months rather than the glorious Spring days we were enjoying. Of course, we were wrong.

Driving from Höfn to Egilsstaðir in the East Fjords was an experience in an of itself – there weren’t waterfalls every 5kms (there are still a few good ones though) but instead you’re given an amazing view from your front window – soaring mountains, winding cliffs, great fjords carved from glaciers of many, many years past. You may not be getting out of the car as frequently but there is just as much to see. This area is known for being the home of reindeer – which we did see but assumed we could get photos of later! There were also so many friendly Icelandic horses, goats and sheep – we stopped by the roadside to say hello and were swarmed by all three, curious and eager to investigate the new arrivals.

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Making some four-legged friends

The biggest task for day five was climbing a mountain, literally. Iceland’s Ring Road (or Highway 1) will take you the whole way around the island, but that includes scaling a few mountains. This stretch also features the most gravel roads though, so combining the two was a challenge, to say the least! When in Iceland, definitely pay for the optional gravel insurance!

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So happy to have made it over the mountains

Finally, we arrived in Egilsstaðir and found an isolated area to check out the Northern Lights. We had to be patient, but we were rewarded for it with a cool, clear night and a spectacular light show that danced across the night sky.

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Shapes and shadows of the Northern Lights in Egilsstadir

Day Six – Smells like sulphur

The journey from Egilsstaðir to Akureyri was quite similar to the day before – endless miles of snow, winding hills and steep mountain climbs.

About half an hour out of Akureyri or near Lake Mývatn is where the fun begins, with fumaroles, mud pools and sulphur vents bubbling and steaming in the ground. This was an incredibly cool sight to see and the air was considerably warmer than the day’s -2 degrees, warmed by the hot, sulphurous steam.

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Steaming sulphur vents outside of Myvatn

At Mývatn, we stopped at the Nature Baths, similar to Reykjavik’s famous Blue Lagoon but without the crowds or the crazy costs. Here we spent a few hours, moving from the hot to the slightly less hot pool and back again.

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Myvatn Nature Baths are a much quieter way to enjoy Iceland’s hot springs

On the road to Akureyri, we stopped in to see Godafoss, a smaller but no less impressive waterfall, almost suspended in ice as the north of the country defrosts slightly more slowly than its southern counterparts.

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Freezing Godafoss waterfall

Akureyri is Iceland’s second largest city, so a great place to stop off for a few days. You can do skiing (which I desperately wanted to do, but didn’t have the gear), dog sledding, whale watching and scenic flights – its well set up for exploring Iceland’s north.

Our mission was to catch the last of the Northern Lights before they disappeared as the days quickly lengthened and the sun set just a little bit later each day. We stayed in a campsite in the middle of nowhere to make sure we could see the lights unobscured by the city lights. And for one last time, we weren’t disappointed with ribbons of green and pink dancing before our eyes and swirling across the sky.

Day Seven – Snaefellsnes

It was about to get cold in the north – and fast – with a blizzard coming for Akureyri. Not wanting to drive the beast through any more snow, we decided to head down south and check out the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, otherwise known as Little Iceland for its stunning array of sights all packed into one small headland.

We didn’t manage to miss all of the bad weather, but we got to see Snæfellsnes it all its moody brilliance with monochrome churches and fierce waves battering the coastline. Along the way, we stopped off at Lava – an incredible lava tube that stretched more than 30 metres and we braved the elements the check out Kirkjufell Mountain – the most photographed mountain in Iceland as well as Kirkjufellfoss (yes, another waterfall).

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Kirkjufell and Kirkjufellfoss in the Snaefelsness Peninsula (try saying that five times fast!)

Day Eight – wild and windy

We stayed close to home on Day Eight because even though we missed the worst of the weather, we still weren’t totally in the clear. Winds of up to 15m/s made for difficult driving and it snowed on and off throughout the day; a beautiful sight but not ideal for highway driving! We were incredibly lucky to escape Iceland’s notoriously fickle weather and were treated to mostly sunny skies. The last few days of our trip really highlighted how challenging Iceland could be, particularly out of the cities.

Hoping to escape the cold, blustery day, we headed to the Blue Lagoon in the afternoon, expecting stunning, warm blue waters as far as the eye can see. Instead, we huddled in the corners of the lagoon trying to avoid the wind that swept across the water and cooled the 39 degree temperatures to lukewarm in seconds. While still beautiful, I would recommend holding out for a nice day if you’re going to shell out the 40 euros for entry to this iconic Icelandic site.

Day Nine – making new friends

Our last day swiftly approached and I had one more item on my bucket list – riding an Icelandic horse. We’d met briefly on Day Five but I knew I couldn’t leave without making a new four-legged friend. Icelandic horses are the friendliest horses and will eagerly approach new visitors, even without food incentives. I met my new pal, Silver and we headed off into the lava fields just outside of Reykjavik for a few hours exploring. Silver knew what she was doing and show me around the fields, a nearby lake and the surrounding mountains. She showed me the ‘tolt’, similar to trotting but significantly harder to master (or at least I thought so) and we finally farewelled with a hug and a roll in the dirt (her, not me).

After the morning’s horsing around, it was time to return the beast to its rightful owners and get used to life without wheels once more. It was sad saying goodbye to our kitchen, living room and bedroom on wheels, I’d gotten surprisingly comfortable with our routine of driving – exploring – eating – chilling – sleeping each day. And in the freezing cold weather, having a moveable living room to sit and enjoy the sights with a blanket was an absolute luxury.

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We heart Iceland!

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