8 Day Iceland Road Trip - Iceland's Ring Road in One Week
Driving Iceland’s Ring Road in One Week
Iceland is the perfect vacation destination for those seeking a thrilling adventure in a fairytale land crafted by volcanoes. Summer is the ideal season for a road trip in Iceland, with July and August being the key months for exploring the raw beauty of the Highlands of Iceland, also known as the interior. Many of the F-roads (mountain roads) are closed off until these months due to the abundance of snowfall that creates dangerous river crossings during Spring melt. Spring and Fall, meanwhile, offer visitors a chance to catch glimpses of the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) while still having access to most or all of the Ring Road attractions. Winter shelters Iceland in a near permanent darkness, but provides perfect conditions if you’re an avid Aurora Borealis hunter or you’re a heavy drinker (or planning to become one). Regardless of when you go, the country is super easy to travel in due to its shape and the road that loops around the exterior.
Also, Icelandic gas station hot dogs are the best food item on earth.
Three of my great friends and I found a spectacular mid-June flight deal to Iceland on the now extinct WOW air a few years ago. Virtually all international flights arrive at Keflavik International Airport (KEF), a confusing scenario since Reykjavik has its own domestic airport much closer to city centre. Rent your car at KEF and not at RKV unless you fancy a 51 km bus or taxi ride while your trip begins on a terrible note. Also be sure to rent a 4x4 if you plan to drive into the Highlands at all because it is required. Just note that rental car companies will not cover water damage should you submerge yourself during a failed river crossing (river crossing for context).
For updated information on all mountain road conditions, go to www.road.is. As we learned from experience, most roads don’t open until July, so don’t plan any nights there before then.
Mid-June is the best time to visit if you want to maximize daylight hours (21 hours with no real darkness!), while avoiding the massive swarm of tourists that arrive in later months. You’ll also have better luck with accommodations or camping. If you’re planning to camp the whole time like we did, one option is to pick up the Icelandic Camping Card which covers two adults and four children at nearly 40 campgrounds around the country. The card, valid for 28 nights, is around $170 total before the additional 333 ISK (under $3) overnight tax you must pay per night at each site.
Iceland Road Trip Day One - Blue Lagoon, Bridge Between Two Continents, and Reykjavik
Depending on where you’re arriving from, most international flights (particularly departing the US) seem to arrive to Keflavik in the early morning hours before anywhere else opens. Keflavik is situated on the Reykjanes Peninsula in southwestern Iceland, about 45 minutes from downtown Reykjavik, so you might as well see some sights and visit some nearby places first.
The first stop after picking up your rental car is the Bridge Between Two Continents to the southeast. This little foot-bridge stands between two tectonic plates and gives you an experience to brag about to friends in situations that have nothing to do with the topic. This whole area of Iceland is filled with volcanic rock, so this is an opportunity to see it up close. Just please don’t ever venture off the roads or footpaths in Iceland because the fragile landscapes will be impacted for decades, even by the smallest of feet.
After this, loop around and visit the popular Blue Lagoon geothermal spa and douse yourself in the enchanting relaxation. Reserve an early time slot well in advance to guarantee availability. Depending on the package you book, you’ll receive various muds and other treatments that you can put on your skin. I’m not a dermatologist, so I don’t how effective they actually are, but at the very least you’ll look like a total goofball lounging with a mud mask. This was the perfect way to relax after the overnight flight.
Once done, head to Iceland’s capital city of Reykjavik for some cultural excursions.
There are heaps of restaurants, shops, and museums to check out in Reykjavik, but two of the most popular attractions are Harpa Concert Hall and the Hallgrimskirkja cathedral. Reykjavik is pretty absurdly expensive, so expect a hefty bill if you treat yourself to any cuisine. Seafood and lamb are considered by many to be the best foods to try in the capital. If you’re a poor recent grad like we were at the time, might I suggest you try the delicious sweet and savory crepes from Eldur og Ís.
Iceland Road Trip Day Two - Thingvellir, Geysir, Gullfoss, Háifoss
Let me start by saying that this whole trip works in reverse. If you’d rather head west around the country first, you can totally do that. We designed our trip in a counter clockwise rotation because the southern coast and east fjords were our top priorities and we were willing to skip other parts in case of bad weather. Luckily for us, the weather was great and we got to see just about everything.
Kick off your day driving through Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park to the east of Reykjavik by way of the northern section of the Golden Circle tourism route. Thingvellir is a Rift Valley that is naturally beautiful due to the unique geology of the area. Spectacular fissures are seen where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are somewhat rapidly separating. The lava fields offer a really cool perspective as you pass through on your way to Geysir, an active geyser that sprays water 100+ feet in the area. You can walk around Geysir and up an incline to gain a full 360 degree view of the frequent eruptions.
Just beyond Geysir is the massive Gullfoss, an iconic waterfall split in two sections and cascading more than 100 feet (32 meters). Pack a rain jacket or a poncho because the roaring falls are sure to cover you in a cool mist. There is a path to the left of the falls that lets you get nice and close should you adamantly wish to be a damp mess. Like most of the Golden Circle locations, there is a cafe and bathrooms if you need a stop.
We called it a night after Gullfoss and camped at Skjòl Campgrounds within earshot of Geysir. I must say it was soothing listening to the geyser as we slept and as a bonus there are some beautiful Icelandic horses that hang out across the street from the campsite.
We were working on a delayed schedule because the airline lost our luggage on a direct flight and couldn’t deliver them until the next day, so had we had time, we would have also traveled the 1 h 30 to the 400 foot tall Háifoss and probably camped elsewhere.
Iceland Road Trip Day Three - South Iceland: Vestmannaeyjar, Seljalandsfoss, Skógafoss, and Dyrhólaey
Day three is the first look at the south of Iceland where many of the country’s iconic waterfalls sit. But first, I urge you to take a ferry ride to Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands). Vestmannaeyjar is home to two large, hike-able volcanos, and vibrant colors that will shock you. The islands were devastated by a 1973 eruption that destroyed hundreds of buildings on the main island. They’ve since rebuilt, but the natural ruins are a sight to see. I’d venture to say this was my favorite spot in Iceland despite not expecting to even visit it. Be sure to hike one of the volcanoes if you’re fit for it. You might even spot some puffins on the island! Be aware that it is a bit of a detour from the road, so you may need to juggle your schedule some.
Once back from the Westmans, the first waterfall on the docket is Seljalandsfoss, a 200 foot waterfall just off of route 1 (Ring Road). This waterfall is especially cool because of the footpath that takes you behind the falls, giving you gorgeous panoramic picture of both the waterfall and the distant coastline. Just note that the parking gets pretty absurd once tour buses start rolling in, so plan accordingly.
Twenty-five minutes past Seljalandsfoss is my favorite waterfall in the world, Skógafoss. At nearly 200 feet, this is a beast of a waterfall that seemingly appears from the sky due to the shape of the cliffs. Some of the most notable Icelandic travel photos are of this waterfall. To the right of Skógafoss you can take a staircase that brings you to multiple overlooks for some really cool perspectives. There’s a campsite at the base of the falls for people with campers or tents. I don’t think it’s included with the camping card, but it’s definitely worth the price for the view.
We didn’t get there unfortunately, but one place to stop for sure is Dyrhólaey to get an amazing view of the black sanded south Iceland coastline. I’m sure you’ll have to wait in line behind all of the instagram modeling, but it looks awesome nonetheless.
We opted to spend the night in Vik near the black sand beaches. There weren’t really any places around here eligible for the camping card, so we paid separately.
Iceland Road Trip Day Four - Sólheimasandur Plane Wreck, Vatnajökull Glacier Hike, Fjallsárlón, and Jökulsárlón
If you have time on day 3, I’d try to fit this in. Otherwise, on day four, backtrack on route 1 a bit then take a 2.5 mile (4 km) one way hike across the black sands to the Sólheimasandur Plane Wreck. Double that distance to get back and you’re looking at 5 miles of flat, exposed terrain. Basically, bring your sunscreen. Sólheimasandur Plane Wreck is a DC-3 plane abandoned in 1973 by a US Navy pilot forced to make an emergency landing on Sólheimasandur’s black sand beach. It used to be easier to reach, but in typical tourist fashion, people drove their vehicles off-road and all over the fragile black sand and rare plant species to leave a lasting path of destruction. Since then, the private land owners have banned vehicle access.
Next up is a glacier hike! Leaving from Skaftafell, you can embark on an epic guided tour of part of Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Europe. We went for a shorter 4-hour tour with Icelandic Mountain Guides and it was so worth it even in heavy rain. Prices weren’t outlandish and the tour guides were professional, yet entertaining. They have different tours depending on comfort and experience levels.
If you choose a glacier hike, you’ll probably want to condense the next two places down to brief stops since there aren’t really any campgrounds or accommodations between here and Höfn. The two places i’m talking about are Fjallsárlón and Jökulsárlón glacier lagoons. These are stunning locations filled with icebergs. Jökulsárlón is the far more vibrant lagoon and offers boat tours for those inclined. Jökulsárlón has expanded rapidly with retreating glacier and its subsequent melt. Previous measurements list it at over 800 feet deep.
From Jökulsárlón we drove to Höfn for the night and camped near the center of town. If you need to restock on food, this is really the last opportunity for a while until you get into some of the tiny east fjord towns.
I’m sure some people would be interested in seeing Vestrahorn near Höfn, but you should be aware that a fee of close to $10pp is charged to gain access.
Iceland Road Trip Day Five - Road to Seyðisfjörður and the Eastern Fjords
In early stages of planning, we had thought to turn around somewhere along the east fjord to the northeast of Höfn and return along the south coast to Reykjavik. However, we discovered that it’s actually shorter distance to finish the entire ring road than to backtrack. So, onward we went. We made day five the drive and then relax day.
There are several east fjord towns you can stay in, but we chose Seyðisfjörður because our card covered a campground there. It was so worth it because the east fjords are incredibly peaceful and far removed from the hectic tour groups that stay to the south coast. Seyðisfjörður had a bunch of really cute shops in it, a grocery store, and a surprisingly delicious pizza place. For anyone familiar with the tv show Fortitude, it was filmed in Reyðarfjörður — the fjord immediately south.
En route to this region, I highly recommend trekking off the Ring Road at Breiðdalsvík and taking 95 inland a bit. There’s an awesome waterfall called Flögufoss on the route and you’ll climb a pretty terrifying series of switchbacks with your car up into the mountains. Atop the mountain it plateaus into a really mind-bending scene of natural beauty. The landscape completely changes and it takes a while to grasp the scale. See for yourself.
Follow 95 to Egilsstaðir and then take 93 to Seyðisfjörður. Check out Gufufoss on the way in.
Iceland Road Trip Day Six - Selfoss, Dettifoss, Lake Mývatn, Goðafoss, and Akureyri
Disclaimer: For the first three destinations mentioned above, you better be wearing a fly net or a ton of bug spray because the swarms of black flies blot out the sun. I didn’t believe people’s warnings. I will never make that mistake again. This is the only place in Iceland you’ll come across any bugs for the most part.
Hopefully you got some rest on day five because day 6 is a full-day of activities. Turn off of the Ring Road at either 864 or 862 to visit Selfoss and Dettifoss (double-check which one gets you to Selfoss because I can’t fully remember and it’s quite a drive out). If I recall, you need to hike to Selfoss, but it’s a rather short albeit buggy as hell hike, so we skipped that portion. Dettifoss is considered by many standards to be the most powerful waterfall in Europe. The thunderous road is near impossible to talk over without shouting. It’s a long drive on beat up roadway to get here, so a 4WD vehicle is preferred.
Drive through the Lake Mývatn area and experience both the beauty of the lush landscape and the horrors of suffocating on flies if you leave your car. Again, I urge you not to get out. There are some sweet looking volcanic hikes in the area, but it’s not worth the risk of having your last moments be as graphic as they nearly were when I exited the car for 30 seconds at a trailhead.
Hurry your way out of the danger zone and onto Goðafoss, another amazing waterfall. I’d rank this one a close second to Skógafoss for my favorite falls in Iceland. They form a bit of a horseshoe shape and really gleam on a sunny day.
Afterwards, continue onto nearby Akureyri for another burst of Icelandic city culture. Akureyri is Iceland’s second largest city with just under 19,000 residents. Honestly, this town was awesome and I wish we’d had another day here. If you have a 9th or 10th day on your trip, try filling it with a full day in Akureyri. We arrived on a Friday evening and experienced some performances and a small market in the town square. There are numerous cafes and shops to check out and a bunch of whale watching tours depart from here. In the winter, there are a number of northern light tours.
We camped just north of Akureyri in a really cool spot across the street from the fjord.
Iceland Road Trip Day Seven - Kirkjufell and back to Reykjavik
I have somewhat mixed feelings about this one. In some ways I’d almost suggest visiting Kirkjufell and the Snæfellsnes peninsula at the beginning of the trip because it feels like it is a natural progression into the epicness of Icelandic landscape. Hitting it up on the way back is tiring because it’s so far out of the way and we’d been working on 5 to 6 hours of sleep per night with only 2 people driving. If you can tie this in with a trip to Iceland’s largest waterfall, Glymur, or with a trip to the West Fjords, I think that would make it a lot more purposeful. Regardless, it is a beautiful place to see.
Kirkjufell and Kirkjufellfoss are both icons of Iceland and commonly get featured on guidebooks. Kirkjufell is supposedly the most photographed mountain in the country. On the way in, be sure to stop at the gas station and pick up some gas station hot dogs so that you can make the moment even more memorable. There’s a pathway opposite Kirkjufell that leads to Kirkjufellfoss and offers one of the most recognizable angles of the mountain. When you’ve had enough time there, stop back at the gas station for another hot dog and then either continue to Snæfellsjökull National Park on the coast or drive the 2 hours and 30 minutes back to Reykjavik for a nice dinner on the eve of departure.
Your camping card should cover a large campground close to Reykjavik, but double check because the options are always changing.
Iceland Road Trip Day Eight - Reykjavik and Fly Home!
On day 8, you spend the entire morning devastated to be leaving this awesome country. Yeah, day 8 is basically the worst day you can possibly have in Iceland because you’re guaranteed to be stressed while buying travel gifts and trying to get your rental car returned.
Take in the last moments of this great country and try to enjoy any attractions you missed at the onset of the trip. Then fly home and starting planning your next trip back.
I put together a drone video of the adventure if you wish to see it all in action :)
If you’re interest in any other week long trips, check out my blog post about Switzerland in October!