Iceland’s Ring Road: An Extraordinary Adventure
Updated: Dec 16, 2020
Located in the North Atlantic, Iceland is a Nordic island country that is a member of the European Union. Being one of the most sparsely populated countries in Europe, most of the population living in the capital city of Reykjavik located in the Southwest region makes it a great travel location for the adventurous heart. One of the best ways to see the stark beauty of this country is to travel Iceland’s Ring Road which circles the entire nation. While you could travel in either direction, most people find a counterclockwise direction the best way to go.
Iceland Ring Road length
At approximately 830 miles long or about 1,335 km, the Ring Road is the longest road in Iceland. As you leave the capital city of Reykjavik; very quickly you will enter open spaces and beautiful landscapes. A large amount of geothermal activity on the island combined with Iceland’s famous glaciers makes it a truly magnificent trip for anyone to enjoy. Guided tours and day trips are available, but the more adventurous often choose renting a car on their own and drive the Ring Road.
Because the Ring Road is the only road that circumnavigates the entire nation, it is a great way to visit many of Iceland’s towns and the best attractions Iceland has to offer.
Should I drive the Iceland Ring Road in winter?
It is possible to drive the Iceland Ring Road in winter, but unless you’re a high winter conditions driver you may want to plan your Iceland Ring Road driving itinerary to avoid this time of year. During the winter seasons, weather and road conditions can change very rapidly. It is then important to know that you need to check both the weather and road conditions before hitting the road. Your travel companions must check it also while on the road, this way you know what is exactly going on kilometers ahead.
When is the best time to drive the Iceland Ring Road?
While you can drive the Iceland Ring Road in winter, something to consider is how much light you will have during the day to see the many attractions available to you. While the weather can be unpredictable it is often best to travel between late April and October. During this time of year, you will have longer days in Iceland, meaning more daylight, to visit the many places available to you.
Planning your Iceland Ring Road itinerary
A lot depends on how fast you like to move and the length of stay that you’ll have in Iceland. The most traveled areas are in and around Reykjavík. The Golden Circle is where you will find most of the tours and starts and ends in the capital city of Reykjavík. At about 300 km long, you can pack in many of the natural wonders Iceland has to offer. You’ll be traveling from Reykjavík into the southern uplands and then back again.
There is a lot more to see, but the four top spots that all visitors want to take in are Þingvellir National Park, Gullfoss waterfall, Blue Lagoon, and Geysir geothermal area. Each offers unique opportunities to take in the natural wonders of Iceland at its best.
As this is the busiest tourist areas, having your own rental vehicle allows you to move at your own pace and avoid the sometimes crowds that you get when you travel on a prescheduled tour. All of the stops along your journey are free except the Kerio crater, so for those of you that are budget conscious, this can be a great way to start your Iceland vacation.
Golden Circle vs Ring Road
Even if you have a longer time in Iceland, beginning your trip by driving the Golden Circle can be an excellent experience. Then you can circumnavigate Iceland in a counterclockwise way to see the entire country. Along your route, you’re going to see many natural wonders, national parks, and have the opportunity to meet the friendly people of Iceland.
Having the ability to spend a minimum of one week traveling around Iceland is a good idea. If you have the ability to extend that time, this allows you to spend time at different locations that you find particularly interesting to yourself. You can venture off of the main road to stop it from many of the unique places that are not common to other places around the world.
Ring Road Attractions in South Iceland
The South coast is the most traveled part of Iceland for good reason. The crown jewel of Iceland is Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon and Vatnajokull national park. Also, you’ll have ample opportunity to traverse the dried lava fields, see the high cliff faces the plunge into the ocean, and visit small fishing villages throughout the day. For the adventurer, this is a great place to go hiking, paragliding, or even take mini Jeep tours.
Your first major stop on the Iceland Ring Road is the award-winning Lava Center, one of Iceland’s newer tourist attractions. You’ll have the opportunity to learn about Iceland’s volcanic history and what it is like to experience a volcano and earthquake.
This is a great place to start your trip as it will help you understand then titanic forces that have shaped Iceland so you better understand all the other locations you will be visiting as you continue your travels. The Lava Center also has a nice cafeteria-style restaurant, so you can grab a bite and some snacks for the journey ahead.
Your next stop is Seljalandsfoss. This is the first major waterfall you are going to be visiting on your drive. Foss means waterfall in Icelandic, so you are going to be seeing that name popping up a lot as Iceland has many interesting waterfalls spread around the country.
Seljalandsfoss is semi-unique in that you can walk behind it. Sometimes this part is closed due to weather conditions making it a bit unsafe, so keep your fingers crossed that you are lucky. Make sure to have the right shoes for slippery terrain and also something to keep you dry. Always a good idea to have a towel with you that you can dry off it you get wet while visiting outdoor sites.
Don’t forget to protect your camera or mobile phone also. Many stores now have those little waterproof, zip lock bags that you can drop your phone inside and protect them from the elements while still being able to use them as a camera. They only cost a few dollars, so you may want to grab one of those before you leave for your trip.
Southern Ring Road Attractions: Skogafoss
Your next stop is Skogafoss, another beautiful waterfall that is less than half an hour's drive from Seljalandsfoss. A vast amount of water pours over the sheer drop of about 60 meters. Standing near the base you call feel the raw power of mother nature as she works to sculpt the landscape. Remember that waterproof ziplock bag I mentioned above? Well, if you plan to visit the base of Skogafoss you will need it as the spray and mist will soon have you soaked! Be prepared with the right clothing and have a towel and backup clothes available in your vehicle.
The Skogar Museum is right next to Skogafoss. Here you can learn about the culture of Iceland as you view the over 15,000 artifacts and the 6 historic buildings. If history and museums are your thing, plan on a few hours to explore this one as they have a lot to see.
The Black Beach of Reynisfjara
Continuing your journey eastward, your next major stop is the beautiful black sand beach of Reynisfjara. Along the edge of the beach and out into the ocean you will see these large basalt columns standing like lonely sentinels guarding the shoreline. There is a serene beauty about the place that is hard to explain in words alone. It’s one of those places you must experience yourself to get the full impact of what you are looking at.
While this is a very popular location, and there may be a number of other visitors while you are there, always keep a wary eye on the ocean as the area is known for having “rogue waves” that sweep in and can knock you off your feet without warning.
Total Driving Time
During this day of exploration, you cover just over 200 KM or 124 mi and see a number of sites. As the day draws to a close you’ll want to have booked ahead reservations or have a place to stay near Vik or Kirkjubæjarklaustur. This will be a great jump-off point for the following day when you finish up the Southern Icelandic Coast and begin your visit to the East Icelandic coastline.
Southeast Attractions of the Ring Road
Your next destination as you continue along the Icelandic Ring Road is Fjaðrárgljúfur. Geologists date this at about a 2-million-year old River Canyon carved out of the landscape. Have your camera ready as this is an amazing place to visit and at only a five-minute drive off of the Ring Road you really don’t want to miss this. Make sure to take the short hike up to the main viewpoint overlooking the Canyon. From this vantage point will be able to look down the canyon and get a much better picture for your memories.
As you continue your journey you will soon be at the Eldhraun Lava Field. This is the world’s largest lava field formed in the 18th century when a year-long massive eruption happened. 565 km², the green moss-covered area makes for very striking photographs. Please stay on the marked trails as it is taken many, many years for the moss to grow and you’re walking on it can kill it very rapidly.
Vatnajökull National Park
When you’re back on the road and driving along you will see the Vatnajökull glacier in the distance. Covering 9% of the entire country it’s hard to miss. You’ll want to stop at the Vatnajökull National Park so you can get closer to the glacier which is in a protected area.
It would be easy to spend an entire day inside just this National Park. There are countless hikes that you can take to see many of the natural wonders of Iceland. Waterfalls, the glacier, ravines, glacier lagoon’s, and icebergs to name a few.
Stop at the visitor center so you can match your hiking ability with the best walks for yourself. Some are longer with steep grades while others are short and over relatively flat terrain, so the park offers something for everyone to be able to enjoy the natural environment of Iceland.
While the park is packed with very interesting and unique sites, one that stands out in the minds of many is visiting Diamond Beach. This is where the icebergs formed by the glacier wash up on the beach and create a spectacular view as if the entire beach is covered in these massive diamonds. If you catch it during the right time of day it’s a spectacular sight to behold.
You can end your day by staying in the seaside town of Hofn, where there are a number of places to eat and rest for the night.
Iceland’s East Coast Attractions
Most of what you saw the day(s) before is within a single day trip reach of many people visiting Iceland. As you continue your travels, you will notice a sharp falloff of the number of tourists you encounter.
Back on the Ring Road and leaving Hofn behind you, you will see the much-photographed Vestrahorn mountain. Unlike the flatter, glacier-covered mountains of the Icelandic South Coast, the Icelandic East Coast has a series of sharp spikey mountains that remind you of horns jutting up into the sky.
There are many marked places and pullouts along the roadside you can stop to catch the perfect shot for your scrapbook.
Bird watching at Djupivogur
About 100 km from Hofn is your first major stop at the town of Djupivogur. This is a haven for bird watchers with hides available so you can get more of those scrapbook mementos.
In town, they also have a display of “stone eggs” for the different types of birds found in Iceland. The town has a bit of a reputation for as an artist colony, so you will want to have a look around and explore a bit to see the different works.
As you continue on the Ring Road, your next two stops are both waterfalls, and both are worth seeing.
Eastern Iceland Waterfalls
First is Sveinsstekksfoss. This is just off the road and you want to drive up the steep road to the parking area so you can take the short hike to the viewpoint. From here you can get some great pictures of one of Iceland’s more beautiful waterfalls.
The second waterfall is Folaldafoss. It’s a short 5-minute trip (route 939) off the main road and you can get pictures from the car park and also take a short hike of a few minutes to get a different vantage point.
Head back to the Ring Road when you are done as staying on the 939 will take you into a very windy mountain pass that can be closed due to weather conditions.
Your drive on Route 1 will bring you to Petra’s Stone Collection. Petra died a few years back, but for many years she collected stones that people from around the world came to see and admire. You can learn a lot here about the minerals of Iceland.
The next stretch of road will have you heading for Egilsstaðir, the largest town in Eastern Iceland. To get there, you will pass through a long valley that has multiple waterfalls crashing down on both sides of the road. It is a beautiful place to see and you will want to make sure you have either lots of film for your camera or a spare storage device if you are using a digital camera.
Egilsstaðir is a good place to eat and grab some supplies for the road as it has a number of different places for you to shop at. After crossing so much treeless terrain, you may be surprised to see the largest forested area in Iceland. It truly is a remarkable place to stop in and visit. Make sure to plan enough time to stop at the East Iceland Heritage Museum so you can learn about regional history.
Egilsstaðir is also a great place to book a side tour to see the wild reindeer of Iceland. Most of the tours in this area are a minimum of 4 hours, so if you decide you want to add this to your plans, make sure to book early and have a place to stay in town.
SIDE TRIP: Time permitting, you may want to take Route 93 to the coastal town of Seyðisfjörður. It is about a 30-minute drive each way, but very much worth it to see the picturesque landscape packed with more waterfalls along the way. Seyðisfjörður is on the coast and a lovely little town to visit while you are in East Iceland.
Ring Road Attractions in North Iceland
With Egilsstaðir behind you, you are heading out of East Iceland and into North Iceland. About 40 minutes outside of town you will come to the Rjukandi waterfall. Parking is available and you can get out to stretch your legs and make the short, easy walk to the viewpoint for the best visual vantage point of the waterfall.
The Mighty Dettifoss Waterfall
Your next stop is the Dettifoss waterfall. Dettifoss is one of the main attractions of the Diamond Circle, a popular route of locations in North Iceland. The Diamond Circle has a number of attractions on it and if you have the time you may want to spend more of it visiting all the different locations. We are going to stick to the main attraction on the Ring Road for now.
Dettifoss is the most powerful waterfall in Europe with approximately 500 cubic meters of water passing over the edge every second. At 100 meters wide and 45 meters high, it is an incredible sight to see. Don’t miss this one.
SIDE TRIP: The town of Húsavík is one of the most popular places for whale watching in Iceland. If this is something you are interested in, you will want to book early to make sure a seat is available for you on the day of your stay.
Whale Watching in Iceland
Iceland is a great place to do some whale watching. In Reykjavik, tours run all year long, but it is thought that the best time of year to see whales is from April to October with the peak season being in June, July, and August. Most of the tours are either in the West or the North of Iceland. Visit Askja Tours in the North operate from March to the end of November. So if you plan on traveling to Iceland either early in the year or late in the year you may want to pre-book to make sure that you can get in on one of these tours to see the spectacular whales in their natural environment.
Lake Myvatn area in North Iceland
The next major stop is the Lake Myvatn area of northern Iceland, which is full of attractions, and where you could easily spend a few days exploring. A large eruption formed the lake a few thousand years ago. Today, it is a very popular spot for bird watching. There are a large number of rare duck species for you to try and capture with your camera.
The area has volcano craters, lava fields, and lots of geothermal activity. The Lake Myvatn Natural Baths are a highlight of the area. The blue water along with the raised position of the baths allows a very scenic view across Lake Myvatn.
Here is a brief list of just some of the more iconic things to visit in the area.
The Hverir Geothermal area
Hverir geothermal area is one of the most active parts of Lake Myvatn, and it’s really like stepping into a different world.
The smoking lava at Krafla
The lave flows from the Krafla volcano are accessible for you to walk on. Stay on the boardwalks and marked trails to be safe, but still a very interesting place to visit.
The Viti Crater
The Viti (which means Hell) crater is located in a barren but colorful hillside. Located at the center is a blue sapphire colored lake. Great for those shutterbugs!
Grjótagjá (or Jon Snow’s Cave)
Featured in the Game of Thrones tv show, Grjótagjá is a subterranean hot pool accessible via a small crack in a lava flow.
The Hverfjall volcano
Hverfjall is a dark grey cone rising ominously out of the surrounding grassland. From the top, you get unrestricted views of the surrounding areas.
The Dimmuborgir lava formations
Formed during a violent lava flow around 2000 years ago, the lava formations at Dimmuborgir are unique. Dimmuborgir translates as “dark citadel” and true to its name, this is like visiting some evil wizards castle.
The forest at Hofdi
Iceland doesn’t have many forests so this area is quite special for Icelanders. Höfði is on a rocky peninsula that juts out over Lake Myvatn.
Volcanic pseudocraters in Iceland
Formed by molten lava flowing over wet ground, the trapped steam exploded and the resulting craters were formed.
The Town of Akureyri
Your last stop in Northern Iceland is the town of Akureyri. You will feel like you have stepped into the museum capital of Iceland! Here you will find the Motorcycle Museum of Iceland, the Industry Museum, the Akureyri Art Museum, and Safnasafnið, the Icelandic Folk and Outsider Museum. Really a great place to learn all about Iceland, it’s people and culture that makes this country such a unique place.
There are also other activities available for you to choose from, food tours, horseback riding tours and just spending some time wandering around the town to absorb the Icelandic culture is always exciting.
Ring Road Attractions in West Iceland
From Akureyri to Borgarnes on the West Coast, you have just over 300 km to cover. Along the way, you will pass through a number of smaller towns to stop and rest.
Depending on your schedule, there are a number of side trips you can make that are worth the extra time and getting off the Ring Road for a little bit.
Close to the midway point, the Vatnsnes peninsula has some spectacular views and of special interest is the Hvitserkur rock formations. You can also visit Hvammstangi to visit the Icelandic Seal Center, take a boat tour to see the Seals in the wild, or even explore the shoreline to maybe catch a view of them basking on the rocky shoreline.
From Borgarnes to Reykjavik is just over 1 hour’s drive, so you can take your time and stop along the way as your journey of Iceland’s Ring Road comes to an end.
How long does it take to drive the Ring Road?
The ring road is 830 miles long or about 1,335 km; it will take approximately 12 hours, non-stop, and weather permitting, to circumnavigate Iceland. However, every visitor comes to enjoy the beauty Iceland has to offer, they will for sure make stops along the way.
If you follow the itinerary we detailed in this post, it will take 10 days of traveling approximately. And this implies taking enough time to enjoy each stop properly. No rush, no hurries. The more days, the better, however, 7-10 days is what we consider ideal. It will take the same time clockwise or counterclockwise. If you have less than a week, we recommend you to simply visit the South Coast of Iceland and leave the Ring Road on your bucket list.