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The best way to see Iceland? Without a doubt, on a road trip! And since I love road trips, I didn’t have to think about it for too long when it came to deciding how we’d spend our week in Iceland: we were going to drive the Ring Road.
The Ring Road, or Highway 1, is an 828 miles (1332 kilometers) long road around the country, basically circling the island. It passes everything that Iceland is famous for: stunning waterfalls, volcanoes, glaciers and glacier lagoons, geysers, lava fields and geothermal fields, and the country’s incredibly diverse scenery.
Since we only had six days (plus one day in Reykjavik, which I didn’t want to skip entirely) we opted for a self-guided driving tour, which was an excellent decision.While I was researching Iceland road trip routes I came across Hey Iceland!, a local tour operator who offers both self-drive and guided tours of the country. There are several self-driving tours available, depending on how much time you have and what you’re most interested in, and the tour that caught my eye was the ‘Highlights of Iceland’ tour. It would bring us around the island in six days, leaving the seventh day to explore Reykjavik. Perfect!Six days for the Ring Road is pretty ambitious and meant we would be spending a lot of time in the car – but if you don’t mind driving and are equipped with some good podcasts and/or entertaining travel companions, it’s not too crazy. In hindsight I have to say that I’ve driven longer distances on previous road trips, but if you want some time to hike or do some activities along the way, I’d recommend allowing ten days to drive the Ring Road.The advantage of a self-guided driving tour? I didn’t need to deal with any of the planning. Usually I am the one who maps out daily routes, determines where to break up the trip and where to spend the night, but my schedule had been so hectic in the weeks prior to the trip that I was glad for not having to spend too much time researching and organizing the trip. Instead, I headed from my gate straight to the Europcar rental car counter at the airport, where I was handed a detailed Iceland Road Guide (over 600 pages!) and a Welcome Pack which included a comprehensive day-by-day breakdown of the trip and vouchers for each of the hotels we would stay at along the way. Plus the most important item: a GPS system.We left the Loft Hostel in Reykjavik on a rainy September morning to start our drive – but not the Ring Road quite yet. Instead, we started with a detour: the Golden Circle. This one-day drive, easily reachable from Reykjavik, is the most popular day trip for Iceland visitors, especially those who don’t have time to drive the entire Ring Road.
The trip covers just under 190 miles (around 300km), normally looping back to Reykjavik, but since we would follow the Ring Road counter-clockwise, we took a shortcut and headed straight south towards Vik, where we’d spend the night instead of returning to the capital.
Highlights of Day I: Þingvellir, Gullfoss and Geysir
Þingvellir National Park is where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet, and one thing that I really wanted to do was snorkel over the rift between the two plates, which is something that I’ve been obsessing about ever since reading that you could do it. Sadly our itinerary didn’t leave enough time for it – but it means I’ll have to return to Iceland one day, which is totally fine with me!And even though I missed out on this unique (and icy!) Silfra snorkeling experience, our first day was already packed with stunning landscapes – and it was an indication of what our week would be like: a succession of waterfalls, geothermal fields, more waterfalls, fascinating scenery and lots of sudden ‘Pull over NOW!‘ photo ops.During the Golden Circle drive, we already saw two geysers: Geysir and Strokkur. Geysir used to be the biggest geyser in the country until it suddenly stopped shooting columns of water into the air. Luckily, Strokkur didn’t decide to stop and amazes the onlooking crowds with columns of water up to 98 feet (30 meters). The spectacle happens every six minutes, and it’s a breathtaking sight.We passed several horse farms with dozens of Icelandic horses, and sometimes they were standing right near the fence, as if they were waiting for us to come pet them. And how could we not pull over to say hi to these cuties? This was something that made me truly appreciate driving the Golden Circle myself instead of being ‘trapped’ on a tour bus: that we were able to stop whenever and wherever we wanted, and spend as much time as we wanted at each stop.
Another highlight of Þingvellir was Gullfoss, which is one of Iceland’s most popular waterfalls. Here, the Hvítá River plunges into a 105 feet (32 meters) deep crevice and creates the uniquely triangular shaped two-tiered falls. The roaring sound of the water gets louder and louder the closer you get, and you can really feel the enormous power of the falls when you are standing right next to them (plus, you were getting soaked, see picture below!). The next waterfall had a lot to live up to.But, this being Iceland, it did meet our expectations! Our next stop was Seljalandsfoss, which rises 200 feet in the air and you can even walk behind the falls. I don’t think you’re able to walk behind any other waterfalls in Iceland. I was in complete awe when I was standing behind the falls and the thick curtain of water was thundering down from a cliff right in front of me.From Seljalandsfoss, we had one more waterfall on our itinerary for the day: Skogafoss. While this one is about the same height as Seljalandsfoss, it is about twice as wide and it seems more powerful. Even though we started to get tired as our first action-packed day came to an end, I am glad that we headed up the wooden stairs to see the waterfall from the top, because the views over the lush green landscape and the ocean in the distance were terrific.The last two waterfalls, Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss, are not part of the Golden Circle, by the way. We passed them because we headed south towards Vik after visiting Gulfoss instead of circling back to Iceland. Even if you only have a short stopover in Iceland and can’t drive the entire Ring Road, I recommend this drive, no matter if you do it on an organized tour or drive it yourself. That way you can also add on Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss like we did.I suggest you allow at least six hours for the Golden Circle – you can drive it in less than four hours but you’ll want to stop and take photos every ten minutes or so (really, there’s a gorgeous view around every other corner!). It’s doable to also visit Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss and then circle back to Reykjavik, but allow a full day for this trip.We ended the day with our first farmhouse stay, which was a lovely farm just off the Ring road, about 15 miles outside of Vik, surrounded by green fields and mountains. It was the perfect place to end our first day of road-tripping and to recharge our batteries before heading further east.
- The Most Epic Iceland Road Trip, Part II (+ tips for driving in Iceland)
- The Most Epic Iceland Road Trip, Part III: Highlights Of Northern Iceland
If you’re planning your own Iceland road trip, check out: