How To Plan Your Own Ring Road Self Drive Tour in Iceland (Part 3 – East Fjords & North to Mývatn)

Welcome back! This post is a continuation of my Ring Road Self-Drive planning series. Part 3 will take you up the east and through northeast Iceland. There is so much to see and so many options for hiking and sightseeing that this itinerary will hopefully be more of an outline that you can use to fill in the gaps.

Day 3 (optional+1): Höfn to Egilsstaðir

Itinerary
Step
Description
Time (hours)
Distance (km)
1
Drive to Djúpivogur
1.5
104
2
Take a break in Djúpivogur/visit egg sculpture
0.2
-
3
Drive to Breiðdalsvík
1
64
4
Rest in Breiðdalsvík
0.2
-
5
Drive to Fáskrúðsfjörður
1
47
6
Rest in Fáskrúðsfjörður
0.2
-
7
Drive to Reyðarfjörður
0.4
22
8
Rest in Reyðarfjörður
0.2
-
9
Drive to Egilsstaðir
0.5
34
10
Rest in Egilsstaðir -or- continue to next step
0.2
-
11
If daylight hours permit, drive to Seyðisfjörður
0.5
27
12
Have dinner in Seyðisfjörður
2
-
13
Stay in Seyðisfjörður or drive back to Egilsstaðir
0.5
27
14
[option] If staying an additional day, explore Seyðisfjörður and Egilsstaðir region
-
-
TOTAL
8.4
325
Details

Driving the East Fjords is a pretty straightforward task. There aren’t many “attractions” to stop for per se, but you’ll probably end up looking for turnouts so you can capture photos of the majestic scenery. This section of the road is in a more remote part of Iceland, with small fishing towns dotting your route.

Before leaving Höfn, be sure to fill up on gas if you’re running low. The stretches of road are long and I wouldn’t risk getting an empty tank on these roads. Restock on groceries if you have to, then leave Höfn and continue on your way northeast. The glacier outlets crawling down the mountains slowly fade from view as you turn north, route 1 starting to hug the coast, a path that avoids cutting straight through the rugged wildness and endangering it from human contact. Instead of lava fields, hot springs, and glaciers, you’ll be bestowed with a superb, if not a little scary, coastal drive. I sincerely wish you the best of luck that weather is in your favor.

This photo look familiar?

Cliffs on both sides of you, you’ll drive through a couple of relatively shallow fjords with 180 degree views of steep mountains, carved by mighty Vatnajökull. I hope you have a wide angle lens here – otherwise, a panorama will do. I certainly have not mastered fjord photography.

But I can try, no? Also, look at how quickly clouds just come in to cast shadows on your photos.

Djúpivogur: The first town on your way to Egilsstaðir. There is a museum here and a strange egg sculpture called Eggin í Gleðivík. If you’re on an exceptionally relaxed pace with money and time to burn, consider a side trip to Papey Island – 4 hour tours leave from here. I think the Westman Islands would be a more worthwhile side trip, but not having been to either, I’ll leave it up to you to decide. Otherwise, outside of maybe scouting out a WC and a hot dog, continue on your way.

These are eggs of different bird species in Iceland!

Breiðdalsvík: After getting a taste of fjord driving, you’ll make it to the next town. Here, you have a choice of either continuing on Route 1 to Egilsstaðir or continuing through the fjords on Route 96 and optionally, Route 92. Either one you choose, there will be a part of the route that is unpaved. I originally planned to continue on Route 96, and my host at Höfn confirmed that it was the correct choice. Route 1 goes up a steep mountain pass that is rumored to be quite scary, being a gravel road with occasional lack of guard railings.

Not much to do in this town, though there is a hotel and a summer-only cafe, so continue on your way.

Fáskrúðsfjörður: If you have 5 hours to kill, consider hiking up the magnificent 743m high rhyolite mountain Sandfell before you get to this town. I haven’t done this hike personally, but judging from internet photos, it looks like a splendid hike. On that note – don’t be afraid of considering more hikes in the region – there are plenty of choices. I wish I could write about them here, but that brochure I linked should help you customize your trip to include some outdoor activities.

Continue on.

Tired of fjords yet?

Reyðarfjörður: King of the fjords, this town sits in the longest and widest fjord of the east. There is a war museum here and some options for accommodation. Not a bad place to stay for a night, but if you’re staying further north, continue on your way.

Fjord water

Unless you’re driving up through more fjords on Route 92, you’ll depart the coast and drive up through a mountain pass and eventually be rewarded with a splendid view of the valley Egilsstaðir sits in.

Egilsstaðir valley

Egilsstaðir: You made it! I booked accommodation at Kaldá Lyngholt Holiday Homes which rents out mini cabin guesthouses. Kaldá is a wonderfully hospitable host and the cabins are clean and super cute. If your trip includes more east fjord exploration, consider staying more than a night to cover as much of the region as you can, as there is much to explore.

If you have more daylight hours, I suggest making an extra trip to Seyðisfjörður to have dinner, nestled just over a mountain.

Seyðisfjörður: Seyðisfjörður has become something of a tourist-town, so there is plenty to explore, including shops, restaurants, and indoor hot tubs. I had the most scrumptious gluten-free chocolate cake of my life in this town at the restaurant Skaftfell Bistro.  The drive itself is super scenic and you’ll get a fabulous view of the fjord as you descend down the mountain. If you’re staying in Egilsstaðir, you do have to go in and out the same way. Alas, I don’t have much to say about this area, but I’m certain other blogs have more information.

It’s a work of art!

I do wish I had more time in Seyðisfjörður, because we arrived quite late and didn’t have a chance to walk around much. There are quite a few hiking trails, some of which lead to waterfalls. If you are visiting in the summertime, I  would recommend spending another day in this region if the weather is good just to partake in some of the hiking and having some more time to explore the region.

Day 4 (optional+1): Egilsstaðir to Mývatn

Itinerary
Step
Description
Time (hours)
Distance (km)
1
From Egilsstaðir: Drive to Dettifoss
2
128
2
Visit Dettifoss (depends on weather)
1
-
3
Drive to Krafla/Víti Crater
0.8
53
4
Visit Krafla/Víti
1
-
5
Drive to Hverir
0.15
10
6
Visit Hverir
0.5
-
7
Drive to Grjótagjá (turn left onto 860)
0.1
4.5
8
Visit Grjótagjá
0.6
-
9
Drive to Hverfjall (cont. on 860 to Rt. 1)
0.2
7
10
Visit Hverfjall
1.5
-
11
Drive to Dimmuborgir
0.15
4
12
Visit Dimmuborgir
1
-
13
Drive to Skútustaðagígar
0.12
11
14
Visit Skútustaðagígar
0.6
-
14
Stay in Mývatn area
-
-
TOTAL
9.3
218
Details

Before you read this section – there are a lot of ways to tackle this section, and because I traveled only in the shoulder season, a lot of the roads were blocked or partially covered in an impassable mixture of snow and mud – I can only talk about what I’ve experienced, but as I’ve researched, I’ve found other places I didn’t consider, so I’ve included options below that I have not personally gone to just so that you can be aware of them. I also did not put them in my suggested itinerary, so how you decide to fit them in is up to you. I’ve indicated those attractions with an “option” tag. More information and photos can be found here – an excellent site for your planning.

Today you will drive to Mývatn (vatn means “lake”), a geothermal region that is home to a Blue Lagoon lookalike, Mývatn Nature Baths, among a lot of other geothermal phenomena. The earth’s crust is thin here, which makes for a  gold mine of natural attractions. There are quite a few attractions in this area, so I’d recommend staying somewhere in the vicinity. Enjoy the scenery as you drive through the mountains – there is a lot of beauty here.

Not an attraction…but I stumbled upon this weird blockage of sorts while exploring the valley.

When I visited, the elevation definitely changed a bunch. Due to the recent snowstorm, I felt like I was really in the arctic.

Cooooooool

Check your map, but after about 100 km or so, start to watch out on your right side for the road that will lead to Dettifoss. There are actually two – 864, which is unpaved, and 862, which is paved. 864 will have a better view, but it is gravelly and more dangerous. Google automatically makes you take 862, but if you are blessed with great weather and clear roads, you may prefer 864 for its view.

Dettifoss: Dettifoss is the most powerful waterfall in Europe. It is fed by – you guessed it -the mighty Vatnajökull which colors the water gray due to the volcanic silt that it carries with it. During shoulder seasons, you may find yourself unable to walk much of the paths here. When I visited in mid/late April, the entire area was covered in snow and most of the trail was too muddy and slippery, so the authorities fenced it off so visitors couldn’t get too close. It was also super foggy due to the mist and there was not much to see.

What an unfortunate view…:(

From Route 1, there are two ways to get to Dettifoss: Route 862 and Route 864. 864 is the closer one if you’re going counterclockwise around the ring road. Which side is better is a debate that has been addressed. 864 is an unquestionably better view – you can see the entirety of the horseshoe part of the falls, where 862 will only get you a partially obstructed view. I was only able to take 862 at the time I visited due to snow obstructing the other road. On the other hand, 862 is also a paved road where 864 is gravel and a bit more dangerous to drive.

Dettifoss is reminiscent of Niagara Falls. It has an “American Falls” and basically its own Horseshoe Falls. No, seriously.

I mean, maybe without the vertical basalt walls.

Definitely a better visit in the summertime, in my opinion, especially because driving so far off the road (and back) is not worth it if you can’t see much of the falls.

[option] Ásbyrgi: If you plan to drive all the way around 862 and 864, you can’t really miss a visit to this gorgeous horseshoe canyon. I personally have not gone (probably something you can only access easily in the summer if you’re driving Route 1), but from what I can see in the photos, it’s worth a visit. Also worth noting is that this area (862/864) is all part of Jökulsárgljúfur. More information about things to do in this area – WAY more than I can provide you at this moment in time – can be found here. If you are traveling in the summertime, you might want to spend one day exploring this entire region and spending the next day in Mývatn, because the distance around 862 and 864 (and 85 at the northernmost part) is about 80 miles (127+ km). Considering the amount of stopping to sightsee and hiking you’ll be doing, there’s not a ton of time to get to Mývatn and do it justice. Also…if you are planning to go whale watching in Húsavík, then you will definitely need another day if you want to thoroughly visit Mývatn.

If so, continue driving north onto route 85, circling the coast, until you get to Húsavík.

[option] Húsavík: This town is popular for its popular whale-watching tours, though I personally did not do one. You would probably need to stay an additional day to be able to fit this in your itinerary, because the tours are about 3-4 hours long, and you’ll definitely want to be there earlier to find a place to park and settle in. You can also stay here overnight and then drive down Routes 85 and Route 87 to Mývatn.

[not optional, though I did not visit] Krafla & Víti (Hell): Regrettably I was not able to visit Krafla and its jewel blue crater lake as there was too much snow on the road and I would’ve had to walk a considerable distance to the trailhead. From all the sources I’ve read, people have recommended not to skip over Krafla, and some say that Víti is more stunning than Mývatn itself.

The road to the next attraction, the geothermal field Hverir, is only mere few km down the road.

Hverir: Right off the ring road are these walking paths surrounded by bubbly mud pots and boiling hot springs. Hverir is the hot spring region at the base of Námafjall. This highly active area is reminiscent of Yellowstone. It’s not too far off Route 1, so it’s worth a visit if you’ve never been to Yellowstone before. It’s pretty cool to look at the steaming mountain nearby. Don’t worry too much if you don’t end up visiting it – there are plenty of geothermal attractions in Reykjanes that are pretty similar – though I got a kick out of seeing these:

Not pictured: SSHHHHSHHHSHHSH

The pile of rocks is funneling the steam and making a loud hissing sound. You can walk right up to it – at the time I visited, it was not fenced off.

Not far from here is a place where you soak in a less crowded version of the Blue Lagoon.

[option] Mývatn Nature Baths: This is North Iceland’s version of the Blue Lagoon – it’s essentially a smaller version of the same attraction in a different place. I did not personally visit it, but I’ve heard that it is cheaper than the Blue Lagoon and less crowded (given how difficult it is to get entrance to the Blue Lagoon nowadays, this is a viable alternative).

There is a nondescript road to the next attraction that loops into route 848 that goes around the lake (I tried to outline it using the dotted line on my map), but if you want, stop by Reykjahlíð to stock up on groceries and gas first.

Grjótagjá: Google has trouble navigating here, so you’ll need to look for the sign closely. – it is easy to miss. The famous Game of Thrones season 3 sex scene was filmed in this little cave with a completely natural, absolutely stunning geothermal pool. When I visited, there were some other people taking a dip inside the pool. It is a bit tricky to climb  into the cave – you’ll definitely need to be careful not to slip and crack your head open on rocks. This cave was formed by a lava fissure and the water is still being heated to a bathing-friendly temperature by the lava deep underground. Definitely stop by this cave if you can and bring your swimwear!

Sorry…I don’t have good pictures…but look!

Continue driving south until you reach the entrance to the impossible-to-miss tuff volcano, Hverfjall.

Hverfjall: The road to Hverfjall is full of potholes, so be gentle with your 2-wheel-drive if you rented one. This was difficult to walk up in mid-April – the trail was difficult to find underneath all the slushy snow and mud (another situation in which appropriate footwear will earn its worth). But this adorable tuff ring volcano is a sight to behold – it’s not terribly tall, so you can still hike up the slope without too much trouble if you’re in decent shape. It’s quite gravelly though, so be prepared to get some rocks in your shoes if you’re not wearing proper boots. It’ll take you about 15-20 minutes to hike up, and over an hour to get all the way around it.

Mr. Donut Volcano is best enjoyed from the top or from far away.

Dimmuborgir Lava Fields (“Dark Fortress”): All sorts of shapes and sizes of jagged lava rock. It was hard to get to at the time I went, and roads were mostly muddy and gravelly. I skipped this one when I visited, but I would definitely check it out next time.  Don’t worry too much if you miss it – there are other areas with lava rock formations, especially just off the road!

Skútustaðagígar: There is a walking path around these funny looking pseudocraters. These are created when steam bursts through the ground during a volcanic event. Try to resist the temptation to walk over the fenced off areas.

In all honesty, seeing them from far away is cooler.

If you did everything up to this point, congratulations, that’s a lot of stuff in one day. If the weather is good and the roads are clear, I actually recommend that you only do some of them and then go back the next day to finish them off so you don’t feel rushed.

Continue around to Vindbelgjarfjall if you want to take a 2-3 hour hike to a splendid 360 degree view of the lake.

[option] Vindbelgjarfjall: Labeled as Vindbelgur on the sign, this is a 2.4 km hike to a fine bird’s eye view of Mývatn from the summit of an extinct volcano. I added this in for the active people out there. I didn’t hike this, but it’s another activity you can add to your itinerary if you’re out of things to do (which is unlikely).

A note about dinner: the Vogafjós Cowshed Cafe is AWESOME. It’s a farm-to-table restaurant here you can eat super fresh dairy and check out the cows you get it from.

“Geysir bread” – bread that is baked underground by an all-natural heat source…the geothermal heat!

Stay in the Mývatn area – there should be plenty of options for accommodation if you book early enough. If you’re visiting in the winter, I hope you get to see the northern lights, as they are quite stunning with the reflection of the lake.

Well…it’s supposed to be a lake, anyway. But we saw a lot of snow.

Stay tuned for part 4, where we cover more of north Iceland, including an epic drive around the monstrous Tröllaskagi peninsula.

How To Plan Your Own Ring Road Self Drive Tour in Iceland (Part 2 – South Coast)

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.

Driving Distance

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

Itinerary
StepDescription
Time (hours)
Distance (km)
TOTAL12.7 hr
222 km
1
Arrive at Keflavík; exchange for some Icelandic króna
1
0
2
Take rental car shuttle or walk to rental car area & pick up rental car
1
0
3
Drive to pickup location & pick up Trawire if you rented one like I suggested in part 1 (distance is to Reykjavík)
1
50
4
Grab coffee and/or breakfast at Kaffitár
1
0
5
Drive to Selfoss & pick up groceries if you didn't do so in Reykjavík
1.5
52
6
Continue on Ring Road
1
71
7
Visit Seljalandsfoss
1
0
8
Drive to Mýrdalsjökull
0.5
39
9
Visit Mýrdalsjökull
1.5
0
10
Sólheimasandur Plane Wreck (3 hours)
3
0
11
Drive back to Skógar
0.15
10
12
Stay the night in Skógar
0
0
Details

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

Itinerary
Step
Description
Time (hours)
Distance (km)
TOTAL
9.05 hr
250 km
1
Visit Skógafoss
1
-
2
Drive to Dyrhólaey
0.5
27
3
Visit Dyrhólaey and the Dyrhólaey Lighthouse at the top of the adjacent hill
1.5
-
4
Drive to Reynisfjara
0.5
20
5
Visit Reynisfjara/Reynisdrangar
1
0
6
Drive to Vík and refill your gas tank/provisions
0.15
11
7
Drive to Fjaðrárgljúfur
1
69
8
Visit Fjaðrárgljúfur
0.75
0
9
Drive to Skaftafell; but stop at Foss á Siðu along the way
0.3
21
10
Briefly visit Foss á Siðu
0.15
0
11
Continue to Skaftafell
0.7
57
12
Hike to Svartifoss -OR- Sel turf house farm
2
-
13
Backtrack to Kirkjubæjarklaustur if you are not staying overnight in Skaftafell
1
72
14
Stay the night in either Skaftafell or Kirkjubæjarklaustur
-
-
Details

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.

Drinking water!

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

Itinerary
Step
Description
Time (hours)
Distance (km)
TOTAL
10.8 hr
209 km
1
Drive back to Skaftafell
1
72
2
Sjónarnípa
2
-
3
Svínafellsjökull glacier hike
3
-
4
Hike to Svartifoss -OR Sel turf house farm
2
-
5
Drive to Jökulsárlón/Diamond Beach
0.75
57
6
Explore Jökulsárlón/Diamond Beach area
1
-
7
Continue to Höfn
1
80
Details

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!

How to Plan Your Own Ring Road Self Drive Tour in Iceland (Part 1)

Iceland is the perfect country for a road trip. The landscape is untamed and wild, but the Ring Road lies mostly flat. There are a few hilly/mountainous areas – particularly up north – and a few unpaved areas out east, but for the most part, the road is very easy to drive.  For the more adventurous road trippers, the Westfjords is more rugged terrain with steep cliffs and might be intimidating to urban drivers. Attractions are often just off the road; if not, you don’t usually need to drive more than a few kilometers to reach them.

This series is meant for someone who wants to travel Iceland using the Ring Road to get around the island  and does not know roughly how much time to spend at each attraction. The truth is, you could easily spend a couple weeks on the road if you want to venture off the Ring Road and explore some of the towns and off the beaten path attractions. That’s a lot of time, though, and most people have limited, precious vacation time.

TL;DR

  • Plan for at least 7 days on the road, preferably 9-10
  • Bookmark and check road.is and en.vedur.is every day
  • Booking a self-drive tour will save you planning time but be a little more expensive and give you less flexibility
  • Drive about 150-200 km per day – 100 km for a slower pace, 250+ for a speedier run (dependent on attractions within the route)
  • My suggested beginner’s route (will be reproduced later in this post):

How many days should I spend?

The Ring Road, or Route 1 (Icelandic: Þjóðvegur 1 or Hringvegur), is 1332 km or 828 miles total. Ambitious drivers will try to do this drive in 5 days, but I recommend at least 7 and preferably 9-10 to allow flexibility for going off the beaten track, resting, and unexpected weather conditions.  Iceland’s weather changes suddenly and without warning. You might be driving through bright sunshine for a while and then suddenly plunge into fog with 50 feet of visibility. In the winter, a storm could completely wipe out any chance of driving for several hours or even a day, leaving you stranded at your current location. Note the short daylight hours in the wintertime too – you need to be very comfortable with driving in the dark if you’re driving the entire road with 4 hours of daylight per day.

Foggy night visibility can be pretty scary. Most of the Ring Road has no lighting, so you’re relying on reflectors to see where you’re going.

What resources do I need to be aware of while on the road?

First, download the 112 app. 112 is Iceland’s 911.

Second, either rent a Trawire or some other portable hotspot through your rental car company so you have 3G or 4G signal at all times. That app can send your GPS location to the emergency authorities at the press of a button so they can initiate a search-and-rescue if you run into trouble.

Third, every morning before you do get out on the road, always check www.road.is and en.vedur.is for the day’s road conditions and weather conditions. It’s futile to check any more than 24 hours in advance because of the unpredictable nature of Iceland’s weather. You could also leave your itinerary with safetravel.is and follow their Twitter account for live announcements. All their websites have English versions and virtually everyone I’ve met there speaks English (though trying a little Icelandic is polite).

Screen capture from safetravel.is

Should I book a self-drive tour?

There are lots of tour companies offering self-drive tours. They will take care of the car rental, tour booking, and accommodation for a set number of days. You don’t have to worry about how to space out your trip as it’s done for you. You don’t have to stress about the prices of guesthouses and hotels, let alone the rental car. The itinerary is all planned out for you; all you have to do is follow it.  Prices aren’t off the charts expensive either – they’re generally in the $1,000 range for 6 days (for 2 people) and $1,500 range for 10 days. These prices don’t include eating or fuel and are for the bare minimum of every option (2w drive, shared bathroom guesthouses, and so on).

My last 7-day trip, including airfare (flying from Newark on WOWair), was about $1,700 per person. The cost also included accommodation at 3 star hotels or guesthouses, two tours (glacier hiking and ice cave), a 4×4 Suzuki Vitara, and all the food and gas for the trip. If I had been more skimpy on eating out and brought more companions, it would’ve likely been less than that. Booking everything yourself will give you more freedom to choose your accommodations and what kinds of side trips to take. If I had done the exact same trip using a self-drive service, I probably would’ve spent another few hundred dollars. For you, it may or may not be a huge difference. For me, even $100 in savings is totally worth it. After my first trip last year in April, I know I want to be able to choose how to spend my time. I like being able to choose between a guesthouse, hotel, and AirBnB. I like being able to design my own itinerary because maybe I want to spend more time in a specific region. Sure, it requires more upfront research, but you’ll know better how to navigate the country once you’re out there, and get the satisfaction of doing it on your own. I am sure you can figure it out, and I hope that what I write in this series will help you.

How far should I drive each day and where should I stay?

Along the way, there aren’t too many major towns. The limited accommodation in Iceland is a blessing in disguise – they’re spaced out just enough to allow you some flexibility in deciding where to sleep, but there aren’t so many that you get decision paralysis.

I’ve created this little map below to help you get a sense of which cities usually have accommodation available. Search these areas on Booking.com and AirBnB to find accommodation options. This is my suggested route for an average trip (excludes Golden Circle and Snæfellsnes) around the island:

Using a free template of the map, I drew the road, outlined the glaciers, and labeled everything myself, so use this map for approximation purposes only. Also, the east portion around the fjords is NOT Route 1, but is a very worthwhile scenic drive recommended by locals.

I included Skaftafell and Mývatn (light blue dots) because those are two areas with a cluster of attractions within its vicinity that you can spend a lot of time exploring. Otherwise, I’d recommend driving about 150 km (about 93 miles) a day for a relatively relaxed pace. You could drive 100 km per day for an even more relaxed pace and 200+ for a more rapid pace; again, this all varies based on what attractions you’d like to spend more time at, and I will provide some suggestions in a later part of this series. As an example, you could write an itinerary with the following places to stay overnight:

  • Day 1: Reykjavík/Golden Circle
  • Day 2: Skógar
  • Day 3: Kirkjubæjarklaustur
  • Day 4: Höfn
  • Day 5: Egilsstaðir
  • Day 6: Mývatn
  • Day 7: Akureyri
  • Day 8: Hvammstangi
  • Day 9: Reykjavík (city)/Reykjanes (southwest peninsula between Keflavík Airport and Reykjavík)

Note: I did go to Snæfellsnes in my first trip around the Ring Road, but failed to thoroughly explore West Iceland. The drive between Hvammstangi and  Reykjavík is a long 190 km and I think there are attractions along the way that I missed. #reasonstogoback

Again, scour Booking.com and AirBnB for guesthouses and hotels as soon as you have a rough sense of places to stay overnight, taking note of cancellation policies. Expect to pay at least $50 per person per night, though more bare bones places can be less and accommodations in smaller towns cost more in my experience. Rising tourism is driving prices up too and you’ll definitely want to book at least a month or two in advance, and maybe even earlier if you’re traveling during the summer.

That’s it for Part 1! Hope that can at least help spark some ideas on how to start planning your trip. Feel free to leave comments on anything I missed.

Stay tuned for Part 2 and possibly a Part 3, where we will cover:

  • Attractions and estimations of how long to spend at each
  • Tour companies I’ve had experience with
  • How to be a respectful tourist
  • Hotels vs guesthouses
  • Flying with WOWAir