So you decided to take the plunge and drive the Ring Road on your own? Awesome! Just writing about its cinematic landscape gives me jitters of excitement. Welcome to Part 2 of my Planning a Ring Road Self-Drive Tour in Iceland series!
In this post, we are going to go over the attractions along the road and the scenic detours that I’ve personally taken and my experiences with each, including what to expect and how much time to allocate at each location. This is only going to cover the south coast up to Höfn – Part 3 will continue up through the east and north.
Important note!! I’ve done this drive once, in April, and drove the south coast again last month from Reykjavík to Höfn and back. All in all, I’ve spent about 15 days in Iceland. Not enough to make me an expert, but hopefully enough to get you started. By no means should this blog be your only source of information! As I was planning, I spent a lot of time reading other blogs like iheartreykjavik.net, tinyiceland, Be My Travel Muse (who wrote an awesome post about driving the Ring Road in a 4×4 camper van), and Young Adventuress, synthesizing all the knowledge and trying not to under-plan or over-plan. I also found the Lonely Planet guide (I prefer the physical version – the eBook is harder to flip through) very handy as I was looking for places to visit while on the road. But as I was planning the first time, I wish I had a more broken down version with visuals of how to decide which places to go to, and I also did not think about how the sunrise and sunset hours would affect my trip. But again, there are many itineraries out there, and mine is just one of many.
The Importance of Knowing Your Daylight Hours
February caught me off guard. I wasn’t really prepared for just how much fewer hours there would be in February vs April. I knew that the sun wouldn’t rise until after 9:00 AM, and it would set around 5:30-6 PM. That gave us about 8-9 hours of daylight. When you factor in the driving time, it’s not a whole lot of time to spend in daylight. Not having spent much time in the far northern hemisphere in the winter, it was an interesting experience. And when it’s dark out there in Iceland, it’s really dark. I’ve spent my entire life in largely urban areas, and according to the Dark Site Finder, I don’t really know true darkness unless I spend some time in the rural western United States, which I have in my childhood, but I was probably sleeping instead of stargazing at the time.
Keep this in mind, because you’ll need to make your estimates on what you can do each day based on the time of year you are visiting. Use this site to determine how much daylight you’ll have. I’m building this guide off of the assumption that you’ll start sightseeing around 9:00 AM and be done for the day around 5:00 PM.
In my first post, I mentioned that driving 150 km per day was a reasonable pace. HOWEVER…this did not include any backtracking or driving off of the Ring Road, so you after I added up the numbers, I found that I generally end up driving closer to 200-250 km per day. Daylight and weather will heavily influence this, so keep that in mind.
Day 1: Reykjavík to Skógar
Depending on where you fly from, you can consider taking it easy the first day and spend the first day relaxing in the city. The advantage is if you get delayed, you don’t have to worry about being behind your driving schedule. The disadvantage is, well…you don’t get a head start on your drive. If you’re going to Iceland, you’re probably going there to experience the scenery anyway, and you’ll want to spend more time away from Reykjavík. Seeing as my flights were both in the 6 hour range, I’ve concluded that for travelers from the US (unless you’re coming from the west coast), hitting the road right away is not a problem. Flights from the US typically arrive in the very early morning (think 4 or 6 AM Icelandic time), so you’re going to have plenty of time to go pick up your rental car, grab a coffee (or a “jökull” which is basically a delicious frappucino) from Kaffitar (opens at 7:30 AM), and get your Trawire if you reserved one. Maybe it’s just me, but as soon as I land at the airport of a new place, I get all excited and anxious, wanting to embark on my new adventure without delay. There isn’t much to do early in the morning before hitting the road anyway, and even if you are delayed a bit, there is so much to do in the Skógar/Vík region.
Cash: You will rarely need cash. I’ve only used cash once – to buy a hand-knit beanie at the Skógar guesthouse. But if you’re caught in a sticky situation, cash might still come in handy. I took out $100 USD worth from the airport.
Rental Car: If you land at 4 AM, you’ll probably be out of the plane and through customs by 5 AM. Heck, you might even already be at your rental car facility and talking to the agent by 5 AM – Keflavík Airport is tiny and pretty easy to navigate. The rental car area is a short walk across the road and through a parking lot from the airport entrance (though most people will take the 2 minute shuttle if they have a lot of luggage with them). But…you’re a minimalist traveler, right? Right?
I used Thrifty car rental for my April trip and Blue Car Rental for my February trip, both without incident. In my April trip, there was really no need for a 4×4, so we got by with a 2×2. You should only rent a 4×4 if you’re worried about driving in the snow or if you plan to drive on F roads (unpaved paids with little to no maintenance – these are usually only open in the summer). In February, my car from Blue Cars was a 4×4 Suzuki Vitara, and I was nervous while rolling down the windows because they made a really awful screeching noise. I know these cars take a beating from Iceland’s harsh climate, but the car felt like it had been well-used. I wasn’t given any strife after returning it though, so I didn’t have a truly negative experience. Still, just something to be aware of.
Trawire: After you pick up your car, if you rented a Trawire, make sure you know where you’re going to pick it up. Typically it will be at a gas station that you chose when you reserve the device (I picked N1 Lækjargata as my pick-up, which was just off route 40 on the way to Reykjavík). All you need to do is drive to the gas station and mention that you are picking up your Trawire to one of the workers inside the gas station store. They will give it to you in a small paper package. You can return it using the prepaid return envelope included in the package – just find a red Pósturinn mailbox somewhere in the city. If you aren’t navigating to the pick-up location with international data, you can either print out instructions or download an offline Google map (paper instructions are more reliable, I’ve found, but it doesn’t hurt to have both).
Kaffitár: I’m not a coffee drinker, but basically everyone I’ve travel with is, so head to Kaffitár to get some quality European coffee. They have some pastries too if you need some edible fuel.
Nothing like warm hot chocolate to start the day!
Stocking up on Groceries: There are several grocery store chains in Iceland and you can read about them here. There are some 24 hour Hagkaup grocery stores in Reykjavík, but I have personally not visited them. I built my itinerary around grocery shopping in Selfoss, but it’s really up to you whether or not you want to pick up food while you’re in Reykjavík. In general, grocery stores in Iceland open later than I’m used to – between 9 and 11 AM normally. If you’re flying in between 4 and 6 AM, it’s likely still too early in the morning to buy groceries in most places. In any case, you can also drive to Selfoss. The Krónan down in Selfoss (the next city on your way to Vík) opens at 9:00 AM and is considered a budget store. Bónus (similar to Aldi), is even cheaper, but opens later and has fewer choices. Also, if you have any special dietary needs (gluten-free, dairy-free, etc.), Krónan will have more options.
In general, I recommend buying non-perishables when you can. If you’re going to buy any perishables, plan to eat them the same day. You’re not always going to have a refrigerator where you’re staying, though you’ll usually have hot water (but not a microwave).
Seljalandsfoss: Continue along the ring road, passing through lots of farmland and getting a taste of the steep mountains that decorate your view to the north. The first main attraction on the south coast is Seljalandsfoss and it’s just off the Ring Road on the left. You can’t miss it because you’ll see it from miles away if the weather is clear. It is Iceland’s most iconic waterfall; you can really get behind it (literally).
I can’t get over its beauty.
I recommend spending an hour here is because Seljalandsfoss is just one of several waterfalls in the area, so an hour allows you to enjoy the other waterfalls tumbling down the cliffs. Going behind the waterfall is a piece of cake, but there is also a flat ~1 mile trail that takes you to the hidden waterfall known as Gljúfrabúi, where you can either scramble up a steep rock nearby to get a view from the top or wade through the rapids to get a view from the bottom (you’ll need to be in decent shape to get up the steep hill while keeping your balance!).
Also, don’t fall.
It gets very crowded here if you’re not there bright and early. If it is icy, authorities might rope off the path going behind the waterfall because the steps can get icy (this is one situation where if you followed my packing list advice, you’d be prepared to walk on the ice with crampons!). Even if it is not icy, you will almost definitely get wet from all the mist, and your shoes will probably take a nice, muddy bath. Forget having a clean car.
Mýrdalsjökull: A glacial outlet (or glacial “tongue”) from Iceland’s second largest ice cap can be accessed in this area. You’ll drive a-ways on an unpaved road and park at the trailhead and walk an easy 1 km to the base (or “snout”) of the glacier. The small cafe at the parking lot is usually jam-packed with tourists and the bathroom costs a small fee (these bathroom “fees” use the honor system if there aren’t turnstiles blocking the entrance).
There are some glacier walking tours that leave from this location. You’ll find that, depending on the time of year you’re visiting, that the glacier will look strikingly different.
It was foggy in February…but the blue ice is stunning!
If you’re never seen a glacier before, seeing it will be quite a sight, and it’s hard to get a sense of just how huge the glacier is until you see all the tour groups walking single-file on the glacier in the distance. You can see little mounds of volcanic ash from the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull peppering the ice and a little milky glacier lagoon. The meltwater creates braided streams that make their way to the outwash plains (I did in fact look up proper glacier terminology for this post). You can continue to walk to the foot of the glacier, but they don’t fence off any of the hidden crevasses that the melting ice and puddles can hide, so do exercise caution when approaching the glacier. They are truly formidable, dynamic things.
Mýrdalsjökull. See the little lines of glacier walkers?
This glacier is a good appetizer for what’s to come on day 2.
Sólheimasandur Douglas DC-3 Plane Wreck: Google maps has this marked already, but when I went, there were lots of cars parked on the side of the road with a fence in front of it to prevent people from driving to the plane wreck. It’s about 1000 ft east from the road to Mýrdalsjökull. It’s not marked as an actual attraction, but you can’t miss it if you look out for the parking spot with the wide gravel road/trail that goes off into the black sandy wasteland. The trail is super wide and gravelly, taking you through Sólheimasandur for about 2.5 miles. It is a long and boring hike that takes about an hour each way depending on how fast you walk and you’ll probably have plenty of company while you’re there.
People. People everywhere. In February.
As long as you follow the trail, you’ll eventually find the plane, not quite perfectly preserved (it lost some parts over the years) and covered in graffiti.
Why do people feel the need to ruin it?
I recommend 3 hours for this side trip. 1 hour to walk there, 1 hour to walk back, and 1 hour to get a photo without anyone in it. Good luck!
If you’re patient enough, anyway. You did walk a good while to get there.
In all seriousness, if you are going to make the long walk, you should try to get there before the sun rises and then get photos of the plane during sunrise. It used to be an off-the-beaten path treasure, but now it is hard to get any solitude there because everyone knows about it.
Skógar: Skógar is the perfect base for Day 1, seeing as it is not terribly far from all the attractions you visited. I’ve stayed at Hotel Skógar and the Skógar Guesthouse – the guesthouse is wonderful if you are okay with thin walls and shared bathrooms. The host, Sigga, is the sweetest lady and knows hospitality. Her guesthouse is wonderfully homey.
Sigga will make sure you’re adequately fed with pancakes, toast, deli meat, greenhouse grown cucumbers and tomatoes…a typical Icelandic breakfast.
Hotel Skógar only has 2-person rooms, so if you have 3 people, you’ll need to book 2 rooms. If you can tolerate shared bathrooms, I’d pick the guesthouse, though the hotel does have a restaurant.
Day 2: Skógar to Kirkjubæjarklaustur/Skaftafell region
Visit Skógafoss if you didn’t do so on day 1, then continue along the Ring Road. This is black sand beach day and there are lots of attractions to visit. When I visited in April, we drove all the way from Skógar to Höfn, and that was too much packed into one day. In this itinerary, I split one day into two to account for fewer daylight hours and more time enjoying the attractions. The difficulty lies in figuring out accommodations in the Skaftafell region. Most places are at least an hour of driving from Skaftafell (though Skaftafell has its own hotel). Definitely book your accommodation in this region as early as you can, keeping daylight hours in mind when booking tours.
Skógafoss: Both times I visited Iceland, I saved this for the morning of the next day. If you stay in Skógar overnight, you have the option of visiting Skógafoss before all the tour bus crowds come and ruin your photos.
Hope you don’t mind stairs.
Joking aside, there is a long staircase that leads to the top of the falls that will provide you with a nice side view. There are some scary small paths that branch off the staircase where you can get even better views, but they are not fenced, so I would not recommend bringing kids up there. One misstep and you will pretty much fall to your death.
View from a scary ledge.
Skógafoss is part of the town Skógar, where I recommend that you stay on your first night. This town does have a small folk museum which I personally have not visited, but if you do want to visit, take note of the hours. If you want to visit the museum, you should do this after visiting Seljalandsfoss.
Dyrhólaey/Dyrhólaey Lighthouse: You can spend a surprising amount of time here. First, it is a bit more of a detour off the ring road to get to the parking lots, and second, there are quite a few trails in the area that will net you breathtaking views of the black sand beaches, mountains, and ocean.
Eyjafjallajökull in the backdrop of an untarnished black sand beach. I won’t spoil the rest of the view for you.
The main parking lot has two trails in different directions. One trail leads east and gets you a far-away view of Reynisdrangar; the other trail leads west and gets you a view of the promontory and takes you to a unique basalt rock arch. In the past, you were free to explore the area, but it is now roped off to discourage tourists from accidentally falling into the water while scampering across the rocks.
Dyrhólaey (Cape of the Doors) itself is a majestic promontory that is usually swarming with birds. There is a natural hole at the bottom which makes the rock formation look all the more majestic. What’s even better is that you can’t access it (not without some risky/impolite walking off the trail, anyway), so your photos won’t have any people in it.
If you look in the direction of the promontory (east of the parking lot), you’ll see a steep gravel road leading up to the lighthouse. It is very much worth the slightly scary drive up the steep hill because you get fantastic views of the promontory, the lighthouse, and the black sand beaches below.
Getting up close and personal.
It was foggy, but you could see pretty far.
Allow an hour and a half to drive to and thoroughly enjoy these two attractions.
Reynisfjara/Reynisdrangar: The famous pipe organ-like basalt rock formations are most pronounced on this section of the black sand beach, and you’ll have plenty of tourist company. The Reynisdrangar are the three basalt sea stacks in the water that symbolize trolls in Icelandic legends. You can take a walk on the beach, use the bathrooms on the outside of the building (more honor-system bathroom costs), and enjoy the towering cliffs of pleasantly geometric rock. Beware of the “sneaker waves” – the waves here are very dangerous and can suck you in if you’re not careful. Tourists have actually died here just from being too close to the water.
Basalt makes interesting shapes.
I’d recommend about an hour to enjoy this area.
Vík: You are extremely close to Vík, where you can fill up on gas and maybe get a gas station hot dog. Then continue up north through the mossy, lumpy lava fields until you reach Fjaðrárgljúfur.
Fjaðrárgljúfur: This 100 meter deep canyon is *surprise!* not as packed of a tourist attraction because it is a bit off the beaten path. I don’t think a tour bus would be able to get to the parking lot easily, because the road is a loose gravel road with huge potholes. Small groups in vans will have an easier time. I’m sure this will change, because this is what I saw at the end of the trail that traverses the ridge of the canyon.
Construction of observation deck at Fjaðrárgljúfur
That’s right – they’re building an overlook. This is just one of many places where Iceland is in the process of building infrastructure to support the huge influx of tourists. This was probably the muddiest trail I walked on the whole trip, but I’m sure that will change soon. The canyon is next to a massive moss-covered lava field and the views are exquisite – worth the drive on the unpaved, pot-holey road. It’s no Grand Canyon, but it’s unique in its own way. From the parking lot, you can also walk to the bottom where the water is, but if you want to walk through it, you’ll need rubber boots or the willingness to get everything below your knees soaked.
Kirkjubæjarklaustur: This tiny town was the closest town I could find that was within a reasonable drive from Skaftafell, so I chose to stay overnight here on my second day. I finished up with all the attractions above around 2 PM, so I decided that it was worth spending the rest of the afternoon at Skaftafell which is an hour away. The drive back to Kirkjubæjarklaustur was very dark and scary though, so I caution you in advance to not take too much time at Skaftafell if you’re not comfortable with nighttime driving. If you manage to find accommodation close to Skaftafell, you’re in luck – that is the the next main destination.
Foss á Siðu: Along the way, you’ll pass Foss á Siðu, a thin waterfall that tumbles down a super high cliff. There are many like it, but this one is accessible from the road. It is next to a tiny town and you can drive closer to it to get a better look. It’s lit up at night by the town lights. Skip it if it’s not too special, but I like its uniqueness. My photos don’t do it justice, so I’ll let you google it instead.
Continue to drive past the huge outlet glacier of Skeiðarárjökull, which by itself is already quite a sight, and continue to the Skaftafell visitor center.
My first thought upon seeing Skeiðarárjökull for the first time: what the heck is that?
Skaftafell: This is more like Skaftafell part one. I love this area. I’d recommend spending at least an entire day exploring the area, especially if you have a glacier walk booked. There are so many hiking trails in this area and you can probably spend more than 2 days if you want to do them all.
Svartifoss: The hike to Svartifoss is the most popular and it does go uphill a bit. Fortunately, they’ve installed some really nice grippy trail sheets into the ground which makes the sloped portions easy to walk. You’ll enjoy traversing through glacier-carved valleys and excellent views of snow-capped mountains. Svartifoss is an easy 1.5 km hike unless you’re out of shape, in which case the trek uphill might be taxing. This is another area where crampons may come in handy if it is icy.
Lonely Planet describes this waterfall as “gloomy.”
Alternatively, you can take a “history hike” to the turf house farm Sel, which I’ll cover in the next section. It’s about the same hiking distance as Svartifoss.
Head to your accommodation for the evening in Skaftafell or Kirkjubæjarklaustur. Kirkjubæjarklaustur has basically one restaurant, Systrakaffi, and it serves decent food (think burgers and fries). There is a tiny grocery store in the gas station where you can replenish your food supplies.
Day 3: Hiking at Skaftafell; continue to Jokulsarlon & Höfn
Honestly, I’d be happy to come back here a few more times. Even with one full day of hiking, I still didn’t get to all the trails I wanted to do. You do have to be pretty fit to do some of them, so bring able-bodied companions if you want to spend more time here. Detail on the trails is available on the Vatnajökull National Park website, but you’ll probably get more insider information from people who have hiked the trails.
Sjónarnípa: This hike is actually not hard at all unless you’re horribly out of shape. Both times I asked the front desk about this hike, they discouraged me from walking it by telling me it was too difficult while dropping subtle hints that they wanted to stop tourists from damaging the area. When I did the hike, I honestly had no idea what they were talking about. The view of Skaftafellsjökull was incredible and was the best view of the glacier I could get.
You can walk right to the edge of the cliff, if you wanted to. Another one of those “exercise sound judgment” situations.
I should also note that the water here is so clean that if you ever traverse a stream, you can literally scoop some up in your hands and have a sip. Mmm, fresh glacial water!
Skaftafellsjökull: I didn’t include this in the itinerary because I don’t recommend this hike. You pretty much just see a towering wall of glacier not too different from what you saw at Mýrdalsjökull. The only reason you’d do this hike is if you want to walk on flat ground the entire time. It’s a boring walk through some high grass and your view is limited. Sjónarnípa is a way better view.
I mean, it is formidable too…
Svínafellsjökull: You can technically drive here yourself – it’s just outside of the visitor center area – but it’s mainly the access point for the glacier tour guide companies. Also, I should say that you shouldn’t walk on a glacier without a guide and proper crampons. If you don’t book a glacier tour, you can still get a pretty good view from the parking lot. I did a glacier walk with Icelandic Mountain Guides, but Extreme Iceland and Glacier Guides also do similar tours. Our tour was fantastic and I highly recommend Icelandic Mountain Guides for their no-nonsense professionalism and transparency. I’ll save the bulk of the review for another post.
Walking on a glacier is amazing, especially in the winter when they turn blue.
Sel Turf House Farm: If you choose to walk to Sel, you can also make a detour through the grassy area on your way back where various signs educate you about the farm life during the settlement of Iceland. You’ll be rewarded with an up close and personal turf house farm with an excellent panoramic view of the Skeiðarársandur.
So soft and cuddly!
Next time I come here, I will probably choose one of the more lengthy hikes. Apparently, you can also book a 12-15 hour ascent of Iceland’s highest mountain, Hvannadalshnúkur, with Icelandic Mountain Guides, but you can only climb it in April. It apparently requires no technical climbing skills, so it’s basically a really long hike. It’s a crazy 6k+ ft elevation gain though, so…you definitely need to be pretty fit.
Jökulsárlón/Diamond Beach: The drive to Iceland’s most famous attraction is my favorite drive. You pass all sorts of twisting glacier outlets tumbling down the steep mountains with unique jagged icefalls amidst snow-capped peaks and cliffs. Jökulsárlón is 45 minutes from Skaftafell and the views along the way are fantastic. You’ll be rewarded with Iceland’s crown jewel attraction right off the Ring Road.
Jökulsárlón in April 2016
Jökulsárlón panorama, February 2017. Stitched with Autostitch. A very different look.
Make it to Jökulsárlón around sunset and you’re in for a special treat, particularly if you’re the photographer type. Thousands of erratically shaped ice chunks drifting about in the lagoon before being sent off into the pounding ocean waves. Sunset creates a beautiful light reflecting off the crystalline ice chunks on Diamond Beach. You should definitely enjoy this area for at least an hour, but if you want to walk around it a bit or take lots of photos, add more time.
Just a beach full of ice cubes.
Keep in mind that there are effectively four parking lots in this area – two on one side of the bridge and two on the other. The lots by the ocean are for visiting Diamond beach and the lots by the lagoon are for gazing at the lagoon and walking the trail that goes around it.
Also, don’t drink the water here or you’ll be in for a salty surprise.
Höfn: Höfn marks the end of your glacier/black sand beach days and you’re on to the East Fjords the next day. There is usually plenty of accommodation in this area and the area surrounding it. Stay a little further from the city if you want a chance to glimpse northern lights.
This concludes Part 2! To me, this part of Iceland is a must-do – moreso than the Golden Circle. Stay tuned for Part 3, where I’ll cover the East Fjords and Lake Mývatn region. If you visited any other off-the-beaten-track attractions, I’d love to hear about them for my next visit!