Driving Iceland’s spectacular Ring Road is up there on many people’s travel bucket list. And if it isn’t, then it should be. Route One, or the Ring Road as it is known, loops around Iceland hugging the coastal areas in the most part. It is a beautiful drive from start to finish and one of the most scenic road trips in the world. Along the way you will cruise a two-lane road through some of the most stunning landscapes you’ve ever seen. With wild Atlantic black sand beaches, ice caps, volcanoes and waterfalls, expect to be dazzled. In this article we take a look at some of the most frequently asked questions about driving the Ring Road in Iceland. We also cover the highlights of the Iceland Ring Road from South to North and back again.
How long do I need to drive the Ring Road route?
The ring road stretches 823 miles right around the outer edge of Iceland. Route One mainly consists of a tarmacked two-lane highway. It is pretty and scenic and nothing like the busy main highways of most other countries. Sometimes it is a little wider and on a rare occasion it may drop to a single lane as it crosses over a bridge or two.
It would be possible to drive right around the country in a couple of days, but obviously this would defeat the object. A comfortable amount of time to explore Iceland’s ring road would be around seven nights. However, if you want to take your time then ten nights just for the ring road would be ideal. You could quite easily spend four weeks exploring it, but most of us don’t have the luxury of so much time.
How busy is the Ring road?
On the whole the road isn’t too busy although in the height of the tourism season (June to August) the southern roads can get busy. Guided tours often cover the South Coast portion of the ring road. So it is quite likely that you will come across several buses a day if you are driving at this time of year. As you head north the route becomes noticeably quieter and you may often have the road all to yourself.
When is the best time of year to drive the Ring Road?
The summer months and a month or two either side of them are the best time of year to drive Iceland’s ring road. So we are talking from about late April to early October. Driving and exploring Iceland in summer offers the best chance of calmer weather and hazard free roads. This is a good time of year to hire a camper van or rent a motorhome and make use of Iceland’s campsites. You might also choose to rent a car and tent camp during the high season.
The weather in Iceland is very changeable but the summer months are the most settled. Even so you might get a storm or two blowing in and hindering your plans, so it is always best to give yourself some extra time. The number of daylight hours in another big factor. In summer you will enjoy the midnight sun. So there will be plenty more hours to drive in daylight conditions and to see the sights. If you travel later in the year from around mid-October you will have the chance to hunt for the Northern Lights too.
If you visit Iceland in winter and plan to drive the ring road route then you will need to factor in plenty of extra time. The landscapes are breathtaking under a blanket of snow with those moody skies and a golden twilight glow. However, the driving is much more tricky and there are far fewer daylight hours both for sightseeing and for enjoying the scenery as you drive. If a storm blows in you might well be unlucky and the ring road could close at certain points. Your options then would be either to turn back or to sit tight and wait/hope for it to pass. Not so great if you have a plane to catch!
Time to explore! Highlights of the Iceland Ring Road
Before we get stuck in a note on some of the attractions in Iceland that are not on the ring road route. The Golden Circle and the Blue Lagoon lie in the south of Iceland close to Reykjavik. As such both could be enjoyed on independent day tours at either end of your trip. The Golden Circle includes three of Iceland’s top attractions, Þingvellir National Park, Gullfoss Waterfall and the Geysir Geothermal Area.
South Iceland Ring Road Highlights
Depending on what time you land at Keflavík Airport you could head straight out on your road trip. It is easy to arrange vehicle rental pick up at the airport. This way you can get straight out on the road and then spend a couple of days relaxing in Reykjavik on your return. At this point you might like to take an early detour to some of the sights of the Golden Circle before continuing on down to the South Coast of Iceland.
Seljalandsfoss Waterfall – This is one of the first important stops on the southbound ring road. Seljalandsfoss Waterfall is a huge cascading waterfall that visitors can walk all the way around. A path leads around behind the falling curtain of water and it really is a stunning sight.
Skogafoss Waterfall – This is another must-see. Even though you might have just seen a waterfall please don’t skip this one! Skogafoss is a beautiful and powerful single drop waterfall twenty-five metres wide and sixty metres high. Its location marks the former edge of Iceland’s coastline.
Vik and its Black Sand Beaches – The lovely little town of Vik makes a great base to spend the night as it has some really good campsites. Nearby you will find the black sand beach of Reynisfjara. This gorgeous beach has been voted one of the best beaches in the world by National Geographic. It really is a beauty with its wild waters towering cliffs, black sweep of sand and some interesting basalt rock formations.
East Iceland Ring Road Highlights
As you head southeast you will be entering the realms of theVatnajökull National Park. This is the biggest of the National Parks in Iceland and takes up around 14% of the country. As you skirt the west coast you will be driving between the ocean and the park.
Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon – This beautiful river canyon is an absolute must-see winding its way through the landscape. This is a great place to stretch your legs and you may like to take a few hours here for a walk.
Svartifoss and the Skaftafell Nature Reserve – Skaftafell Nature Reserve has now been incorporated into the Vatnajökull National Park. It is a seriously beautiful area where many travellers visiting Iceland will choose to spend a few days hiking. Within its boundaries is the impressive Svartifoss Waterfall or the Black Waterfall as well as glacier views and beautiful landscapes.
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon – This wide glacial lagoon forms a channel that carries ice from the Vatnajökull Glacier out into the ocean. Right across the surface of the lake visitors can observe beautiful floating icebergs of all shapes and sizes. In summer it is possible to take a boat trip across the lagoon.
Diamond Beach - The nearby Diamond Beach is another of the areas black sand beaches. This one though it is covered in pieces of ice that glint like diamonds against the dark sands. There are all shapes and sizes from tiny pebble-sized pieces to much larger rock-sized hunks of ice. It is a very photogenic spot!
The Road to Höfn – As you continue to drive up the east coast you will pass through dramatic landscapes of mountains and fjords. One of the most distinctive sights is the Vestrahorn Mountain with its spikey pinnacles. You will also pass through several pretty small towns. One of the nicest is the fishing village of Höfn where you can enjoy fresh seafood, including langoustine in summer. This whole section of route one is much quieter as it marks the end of the busier south/southeast area that tours often visit from Reykjavik.
North Iceland Ring Road Highlights
North Iceland is quite a mountainous area and includes many sights along what is often referred to as the Diamond Circle. Many of these natural wonders lie a little way off of the ring road and often are down some trickier roads. As such you will need to factor in more time to get to them. But rest assured it will be very much worth it.
Dettifoss Waterfall – This staggeringly powerful waterfall lies a little way off of the ring road down a gravel road. Do make the effort though. This is Europe’s most powerful waterfall in terms of flow and seeing and hearing it is an incredible experience.
Lake Mývatn – The area around Lake Mývatn has a lot to offer with hot springs and caves and some really interesting rock formations. The lake is lovely and a great place for bird watching if that is something that you enjoy. The next two highlights are nearby so the area makes a good base for a night or two.
Hverir Geothermal Area – A bubbling and water spouting geothermal area with mud pots andsteam fumaroles.
Lake Myvatn Nature Baths – The Nature Baths are centered around a natural hot spring in the lake. This is the Blue Lagoon of the North, but it is a lot less people-packed than its southern sister. Bathing in a hot spring is a right of passage on any trip to Iceland and this is one of the best.
Húsavík – Húsavík is a coastal town about a forty-minute drive from Myvatn off of the ring road. This is the place to come if you would like to take a whale watching boat tour.
Goðafoss Waterfall – The name Goðafoss translates as Waterfall of the Gods. It is a fantastically dramatic horseshoe shaped waterfall. Goðafoss Waterfall lies just a couple of minutes off of the ring road and is a must-see.
Akureyri – This is the biggest town of the North and the second largest settlement in Iceland. There are lots of cultural activities to enjoy here including museums and food tours. There is also a popular winter ski area nearby.
West Iceland Ring Road Highlights
The western portion of the ring road doesn’t have quite so many highlights. Many of the most beautiful sights lie quite a drive off of the ring road. Depending on how much time you have you might want to take some 3-5 day detours here. One popular option is to head west to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Another would be to head into the remote but beautiful Westfjords. This is a much less visited area of Iceland but has a wild beauty that you should see if you can.
Deildartunguhver – The Deildartunguhver Hot Springs are hot, hot, hot! This is one of the hottest thermal pools in Iceland and not one for swimming in!
Hraunfossar and Barnafoss – Two of the loveliest waterfalls in Iceland and both within easy walking distance of each other. Both are just a short 30-40 minute detour from the ring road.