Iceland’s Ring Road: A Road Trip for Hikers

 

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The Ring Road (Route 1) is a 1330 km highway which loops around most of Iceland’s perimeter. Ben and I drove all the way around it this summer— and were entranced. Below, you’ll find our week-long itinerary — with star-ratings, travel tips, photos, and short descriptions. You can access the Google map of places we visited or considered visiting here.

If you’re planning a vacation to Iceland, this post is for you — especially if backpacking sounds a little too intense, but “great photo opportunity five minutes from the parking lot!” isn’t what you’re looking for either. 

Our points-of-interest map.

Highlights

Read this section if you just want the “best-of” list. Otherwise, skip to the complete itinerary below.

  • Fimmvörðuháls Trail. Hike next to a gazillion (=27) waterfalls, then through a lava field left by the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull explosion. National Geographic calls it one of the world’s 21 best hikes. (25 km 1–2 day hike; doing just a small part is worth it.)
  • The S3/S4 trail in Skaftafell National Park. Pass right above a giant glacier, climb a mountain with 360° panoramas (further glaciers, jagged rocks), descend down meadowy hills with view over the sea, end by waterfall with basalt columns. (16 km; day long hike.)
  • Jökulsárlón. Giant glacial lagoon with icebergs, seals, and a hundred shades of blue. (Not a hike; just the definition of sublimity.)
  • Stuðlagil Canyon. A natural cathedral of basalt columns, with a roaring river at the bottom. Hike through grassy meadows with only sheep for company, pass a gorgeous waterfall (basalt columns again), find your way down to the bottom of the canyon. (8 km (two-way) hike.)

The Itinerary

Day 1: The Golden Circle

Overall: This requires driving off the Ring Road. If you’re in a hurry and more of a hiker than an attraction-check-offer, you can skip this day; the only thing you might be sad about missing is Gullfoss.

Þingvellir National Park: Site of the (10th-18th century) Icelandic Parliament.
3.5 stars: Lots of historical value (e.g. you see the place where alleged witches were drowned), not that much perceptual/aesthetic value. Beautiful cliffs and river, but you’ll see much better ones later in the trip. Very crowded.

Strokkur Geysir: Active geyser. 
3.5 stars: Definite “yes” if you haven’t seen a geyser before. If you’ve been to Yellowstone, you might be underwhelmed.

Gullfoss: Giant two-tiered waterfall.
4.5 stars
: Roaring sublimity, big chance of rainbows. Viewpoints both above and below the falls. Worth braving the (significant) crowd.

Kerið Crater Lake
3 stars
: There’s an entrance fee and the lake is quite small. The colors are probably better earlier in the day; when we got there, the lake was in shadow. Worth it if you’re new to crater lakes.

Campsite: Hamragarðar. 
Amenities: Includes kitchen.
Bonus: The waterfall right above the campsite is an explorer’s heaven in miniature. There’s a little cave, a view of the fall from between two slabs of rock, and an exhilarating scramble (with chains) up to (near) the top of the fall — all doable in ~20 min total.

Day 2: Fimmvörðuháls Trail.

Seljalandsfoss: Waterfall you walk behind. 
4 stars: Worth walking behind; not worth getting up at sunrise.
Details
: The internet recommended going there at sunrise. This was weird, since in August you can’t see the sun from behind the fall. (Sunset might have been better.) Then again, the complete lack of people at sunrise allows you to really appreciate the roar of water from behind the fall.

Fimmvörðuháls Trail. Hike next to 25 or so waterfalls, then through a lava field left by the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull explosion. (25 km 1–2 day hike; we only did a few km.)
Details: Start by the imposing Skógafoss waterfall. I recommend coming up close to it, to appreciate the height — but only if you wear waterproof clothes! The trail goes up to the top of the fall, and continues by the side of the Skóga river and its myriad waterfalls. (Sometimes the trail splits and you get to choose whether to come up close to a fall or appreciate it from afar.) 
5 stars: We only did the waterfall part, which is indescribably beautiful. (Waterfall after waterfall in ultra-green landscape, the sea behind you, snowcapped Eyjafjallajökull to the side.) Our biggest regret after the trip was not doing the full hike — since it’s not a loop, this requires catching a bus at the end of the trail.

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Skógafoss waterfall. (Eve for scale.)
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Fimmvörðuháls Trail. (One of over 20 waterfalls.)

Dyrhólaey Lighthouse: Viewpoint with rock arch over the sea.
3 stars: After Fimmvörðuháls trail, this was underwhelming (and we wish we’d stayed longer at Fimmvörðuháls instead). The drive up there is steep, narrow, and a little scary. The view is great… but not really appreciable after a day with 20 waterfalls. Might be more worth it earlier in the summer, when you might spot puffins.

Campsite: Skaftafell Campground (two nights).
Bonus: Glorious view of Skaftafell’s mountains and glaciers, which turn pink during sunset.

Day 3: Skaftafell Glacier Hike

The S3/S4 trail in Skaftafell National Park. Pass right above a giant glacier, climb a mountain with 360° panoramas (further glaciers, jagged rocks), descend down meadowy hills with view over the sea, end by waterfall with basalt columns. (16 km loop; day long hike.)
Details: Take the S3 trail counterclockwise from the park visitor center. (Unless you prefer starting with meadows and ending with glaciers.) You’ll have the magnificent Skaftafellsjökull glacier to your right for ~5 km. Then, take the (excitingly strenuous) S4 trail up to where an unnamed path goes up Kristínartindar peak. I definitely recommend continuing up this path — it’s about a half hour of fairly arduous scrambling, but you won’t forget the view from the top (which includes two giant glaciers). Retrace your steps to the S4, then keep following the S4 until it rejoins the S3. Follow the S3 through soothing meadows, until you get to signs for Svartifoss waterfall. Follow these; from the incredible waterfall it’s just a short descent back to the campsite.
5 stars: Two giant glaciers, jagged rock formations, a peak to ascend, green meadows, ocean view, basalt-column waterfall… all in one hike just long enough to be pleasantly exhausting.

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View from Kristínartindar peak.

Day 4: Glacial Lagoons

Hnappavellir: Cliffs for outdoor climbing. (Iceland’s largest rock-climbing area.)
4 stars (1 star for non-climbers): This was our first time outdoor bouldering, so we’re not reliable judges. We had a lot of fun, but found the routes very challenging.

Fjallsárlón Glacial Lagoon
3 stars
: In any other context, this would be 5 stars — but this glacial lagoon pales in comparison with the bigger Jökulsárlón, which it borders on. And it doesn’t have seals.

Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon
5 stars:
Giant glacial lagoon with icebergs, seals, and a hundred shades of blue. Leave yourself plenty of time to take in the view! (It took up all of my attention, so it didn’t even matter that there were a lot of other tourists.)

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Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon

Camping: Eyjolfsstadir Campsite
5 stars: This was our favorite campsite (and the only one which stood out to us on the trip). Inexpensive (by Icelandic standards), nestled between two cliff/mountain ranges, with a really friendly owner. You drive right by the fjords to get there.
Bonus: Sveinsstekksfoss is an easily missed waterfall marked by an “Enter at your own risk” sign a few minutes’ drive from the campsite. The marvelous view of the fall has the fjords as background.

Day 5: Stuðlagil Canyon

Klifbrekkufossar: Waterfall with view over the fjords.
2 stars: It’s a 25 km drive away from the #1, and indistinguishable from countless more easily accessible ones. (E.g. Sveinsstekksfoss is more exciting.) We were misled by this site, which calls it “one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Iceland.”

Stuðlagil Canyon: 4 km (one-way) hike to basalt-column canyon with river at the bottom. 
5 stars: You’ll find the sublimest part of the canyon at the end of a 4 km hike through meadows, with a basalt-column waterfall to rival Svartifoss halfway along the way. It’s possible to descend almost to the canyon floor, which I highly recommend. Few experiences compare to visiting this natural cathedral, with its geometric basalt columns, and the water roaring right next to you. The spot is almost entirely unknown to tourists. It also has a fascinating history: most of the canyon had actually been underwater until a dam built around 2006 affected the sources of the river! The hike itself might feel a little monotonous, but in the right mindset it’s completely idyllic (meadows! sheep! no other people!)
Warning #1: Don’t let Google maps guide you to Stuðlagil — that will take you to the wrong side of the river. Instead, turn off four kilometers earlier and follow the hiking instructions found here.
Warning #2: Finding the safe path to the canyon floor is tricky; descending down the safe path is not particularly tricky. Do not try scrambling down rocks to get to the bottom — there’s a safer way down, you just need to keep looking for it. (If you see a micro-waterfall in an area with reddish stones, you’re following the right path.)

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Stuðlagil Canyon

Goðafoss: ultra-wide waterfall.
5 stars: I was so tired that I didn’t even want to stop here, I’d already seen a million waterfalls, and I still managed to be impressed! (We were so exhausted from Stuðlagil that for once we were glad that the parking lot was right by the falls.)

Camping: Camping Tjaldstæďi
4 stars: Had a kitchen with a goat (!) that vacuumed the floor and accepted pettings. Buildings with borderline cute/kitsch thatched roofs.

Day 6: Lake Mývatn

The area around Lake Mývatn is full of post-volcanic attractions. There’s a lava field (Dimmuborgir), a volcanic crater (Mt Hverfjall), steam vents, and more. All the attractions are close together and have parking lots, so you can drive between them or, as we did, string them together into one of the hikes here.

Dimmuborgir — Hverfjall — Grjótagjá Hike
4 stars: All the attractions are wonderful, but quite crowded. 
Tip: There are several routes through the Dimmuborgir lava formations. The one marked “dangerous” is the only one worth doing if you’re in decent shape — it’s unpaved and less crowded. No dangers in sight. The estimated hiking time they give you for this is also way too high.

Day 7: Drive back and Reykjavik

The northwestern part of the Ring Road has relatively few attractions, so we decided to just drive back to Reykjavik on the last day, stopping only for a picnic and short stroll by a random river along the way. [Note that the northwest part of Iceland has plenty of attractions that aren’t along the #1; we left those for another trip.] If you prefer leaving best for last, you might consider going around the #1 clockwise instead.

When we got back to Reykjavik, we felt pretty done with tourism, so we decided to go indoor rock climbing instead.

Klifurhúsið: Bouldering gym in Reykjavik
4 stars: Typical bouldering fun! Around $13 entrance fee — by Iceland standards, this is really good value for money.

Practicalities

Ready to pack your bags? Here are some tips before you do.

Getting there: Iceland is the perfect place for a stopover on a flight between Europe and North America. Icelandair and WOW Air both let you stay in the country for a week (sometimes longer) between two legs of your flight without paying extra — but in my case, booking a separate Warsaw-Reykjavik flight with Wizz Air and Reykjavik-Boston with WOW Air turned out to be the cheapest option. So look around!

Getting around: All of the places on our itinerary were accessible by a two-wheel-drive vehicle — so you can still see amazing places if you rent the cheapest possible car.

Weather: Prepare for rain, wind, and cold temperatures, even in the summer.

  • Wind-management: Use your car to shield your tent from the wind at night. Also, a bandana doubles as a muffler for the howling and a face mask for the midnight sun.

Saving money: Iceland is fiendishly expensive. In order to not go completely broke, try:

  • Camping. Campsites are “only” about $20/person (as a psychological trick, we pretended that we were paying for a hotel room) — I’m not sure I want to know how much staying in a hotel room would have been. It’s legal — and free — to camp anywhere that isn’t a national park (or, presumably, someone’s backyard), so if you’re braver than us, you could try that.
  • Bringing your own food. We brought peanut butter and tortillas for lunch (this is a surprisingly good hiking meal — just bring a lot of peanut butter), dry dinner ingredients (red lentils, freeze-dried vegetables, couscous, powdered sauce) and a camping stove, oatmeal for breakfast (adding nuts/sugar/dried fruits recommended) and snacks.
  • Getting VAT refund forms for large expenses. We didn’t realize you have to ask for a special document along with your purchase to get a refund at the airport. (This only works for purchases over 6000 ISK (~$60).)
  • Using the bathrooms in gift shops. Though it’s not a lot of money in the grand scheme of things, paying $2 to use the bathroom is a little absurd. At a lot of tourist attractions, the gift stores will have free bathrooms.
  • Bringing your own data/phone plan. If you’re traveling from within the EU/EEA, your cellular plan will work in Iceland at your country’s rate.

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