9 days on the Iceland Ring Road

About two months ago, we started talking about a fall trip to Europe. Some of the destinations thrown around included Italy and Switzerland. During that time, a friend was in Iceland and was posting snapchat stories everyday. We made up our mind that Iceland was where we wanted to be, and started planning our trip. This post is an effort to document our experience and itinerary, in the chance that it may turn out to be useful to someone.

Logistics

We wanted to see as many places as we could in Iceland, and decided that 9 days would be a good length. The Ring Road (also known as Route 1) goes around the island and most of the attractions are located on, or close to it.

We flew Wow Air, which offers direct flights from San Francisco (SFO) to Reykjavik (KEF). Wow Air is a low-cost carrier, and charges for every little thing — — from a second piece of carry-on to bottled water to food. We were fine with that though. The flight itself was as comfortable as it could be. As we were getting close to Iceland, the captain announced that we could see the northern lights from the cabin. This resulted in people running around a bunch, and we got our first glimpse of the famous aurora borealis (we would get two more chances, but more on that later…).


On landing, we purchased two Nova sim cards from the duty free shop. Each card was for 2000 ISK, which at the time of writing is roughly 17 USD. This gave us free cell-to-cell calling and also 1GB worth of data (which was enough even for 9 days even with prolific use of email, whatsapp, facebook, twitter and snapchat). The coverage throughout the country was awesome. There was only a couple spots where we did not have service, and most places had 4G.

Speaking of currency, we brought minimal cash with us and did not exchange anything at the airport. Throughout our trip, we were able to use our credit card, even at the littlest of shops. Everyone also spoke English very fluently, so language should not be a bar for anyone.

We had booked a rental car on northbound.is It’s pretty easy to use. Word to the wise: if you don’t know how to drive stick-shift/manual, make sure you select automatic. Northbound is an aggregator like priceline, so our rental was through a company called autorental.is. Personnel from the company were waiting for us in the arrival hall, and showed us to our 4WD SUV.

Food: Because we don’t eat meat or fish, our food options outside were rather limited. Luckily, we were well stocked with ready-to-eat meals from home, which was just as well; eating out in Iceland is very expensive! In a couple places, we bought pasta and pasta sauce at the supermarket (Netto) and cooked at the airbnb. This worked out quite well for us. Bonus and Netto are two supermarket chains that are ubiquitous throughout the country.

Itinerary

We describe our itinerary, organized by the day below, but we have all spots mapped out in a shareable google map — leave a comment here if you would like it. Happy to share!

Day 1 — KEF →Vik

After picking up the car, we decided to get some shut-eye in a parking lot (we landed at 4AM, which was 9PM in California, so by the time we picked up the car, we were ready to sleep!). We then started driving towards Vik, which is one of the southernmost towns in Iceland. The drive to Vik is beautiful (we soon discovered that beautiful drive was a recurring theme throughout our time in Iceland), dotted with numerous waterfalls and lush green hills on one side and beaches on the other.

Seljalandsfoss (left) and Skogafoss (right)

We stopped at Uridafoss, a tiny waterfall and proceeded to Seljalandsfoss, a waterfall you can walk behind(!). Skogafoss was not too far. Both are absolutely breathtaking. There is a small hike next to Skogafoss that one can take to the very top of the fall. Lots of people at both places — if you go there early in the day, or very late in the evening, you may find it relatively sparse.

The next stop was the famous black sand beach at Vik, Reynisfjara. We were too tired to walk to the plane wreck, but that’s a pretty popular attraction too.

For the night we stayed at the HI Hostel, Vik. We shared a room with 4 other people. The hostel is small, but very nice. The facilities were very clean, and we were able to get a good night’s sleep after a long day.

Day 2 — Vik →Höfn

The next day took us to Höfn. The weather was not great — very rainy, windy and overall gloomy. Thanks to the weather we had to skip Skaftafell National Park, which was a bummer. We stopped at Fjadrarglijufur — a beautiful canyon through which the Fjardra river flows (for Game of Thrones fans: this is the path to Eyrie). There’s a short hike to get to it, but we couldn’t get too far because we got soaked. We then drove to the tongue of the glacier Skaftafelljökull.

Jokulsarlon

The main attraction of the day was Jokulsarlon — the glacier lagoon, but one of our roommates from the Vik hostel said that they had stumbled upon a better lagoon. He didn’t know the name or the directions, but had the coordinates for the point from which we had to take a left turn! Turns out that this lagoon also has a name — Fjallsarlon. Unlike Jokulsarlon, there was no one here, and we could get a lot closer to icebergs. Jokulsarlon, which was about 10 minutes away, was also breathtaking — big icebergs, which had broken off the glacier. We also got lucky and saw a family of seals dipping in and out of the water close to the beach!

Diamond beach

Across the street from Jokulsarlon is the diamond beach, which has countless pieces of icebergs just sitting on the beach. Like most beaches in this part of the world, this one too is a black sand beach. While we were there, many people were taking pictures of, with and on iceberg fragments!

Our abode for the night was the HI Hostel, Höfn. This one is a lot bigger than the one in Vik, but just as nice. Once again, we shared a room with 4 other people. There were multiple kitchens and bathrooms in the building.

Day 3 — Höfn → Myvatn

Most of the day was spent in driving from Höfn to Myvatn. Myvatn is really a lake in north Iceland, but the area around the lake is also known by the same name. Especially known for the geothermal activity and the numerous craters that dot the area, it is also home to Krafla, the power station and it’s namesake volcano. We started off our visit to the area by checking out the geothermal fields. These fields are an oxymoron from the nature — visually appealing with its vibrant colors, yet full of the horrible stench of hydrogen sulphide emnating from the ground below. It was fun to hang out around the steam vents and the bubbling mud pools.

Bubbling mud pool at Myvatn geothermal field

Following this we walked the beautiful trail at Hofdi (great for fall colors), and ended the day at Myvatn Nature Baths, the north’s answer to Blue Lagoon.

Myvatn Nature Baths are basically a naturally heated pool where you can relax for hours at a time. The hot water felt especially nice on a cool fall evening after a long day’s drive. We met other travelers from around the world and exchanged travel stories from Iceland and elsewhere.

On the drive to our lodging for the night, we noticed a faint white glow in the north sky. A long exposure on our camera showed a green streak — confirming our suspicion that this was indeed the famous northern lights. Very faint, but present nonetheless.

Horses at CJA Guesthouse

We stayed close to Myvatn, in a town called Laugar at the CJA guesthouse. Highly recommend it. It’s a house with 3 rooms that are rented out by this awesome couple who live next to a farm. They own three horses who we were able to befriend the next morning!

Day 4: Myvatn → Akureyri

Hverfjall Crater — picture does not do justice :(

We started off the day with some sights in Myvatn that we wanted to cross of our list. First on the list was Hverfjall — a giant crater that you can hike to and walk along the rim of. We decided to circumnavigate the entire rim, and it was a lot longer than expected (the diameter of the crater is about 1km). Great fun though, and the view of the crater was awesome. About a couple kilometers from the crater is the Grjótagjá cave, made famous by the Jon Snow/Ygritte scene on Game of Thrones. Pro-tip: we walked there from the crater, but the cave has its own parking lot now, so you might want to save time by just driving there.

Following this, we spent some time at the Dimmuborgir field — an area full of natural, volcanic formations and also checked out the Krafla power plant. Our time in Myvatn ended with a visit to Viti crater, similar to Hverfjall, but smaller and filled with turquoise water.

It was time to drive to Akureyri, a city billed as the capital of the north. It was bigger than any other Icelandic city we had been to so far, and yet had the charm unique to small cities (well, Akureyri, in spite of being the second biggest city in Iceland, is still tiny; in 2001, there were 15150 residents). The drive was pretty easy, and took us through the mountains to the banks of Eyjafjörður, the longest fjord in Iceland on the banks of which Akureyri is situated.

Day 5: Akureyri

We started off the day with a trip to Husavik for a whale watching expedition. Husavik is about an hour away from Akureyri and is known for the numerous whales that inhabit its coast. We went with a company called Gentle Giants, and during the three hour trip, we spotted about 4–5 humpback whales. The sea was very choppy that day and most of us got completely soaked. The hot chocolate served to us afterwards was very welcome!

That evening, we decided to hang out in Akuryeri. We walked around the main street, checked out a few shops and ate ice cream at the famous Brynja store (highly recommend eating ice cream here, with the hot fudge!). One of the shopkeepers recommended we check out the Christmas house about 15 minutes out of Akureyri, so off we went! It’s a pretty cute house, decorated with Christmas trees, ornaments and toys.

Day 6: Akureyri

This was a low-key day for us; we didn’t do that much (the excitement was reserved for the evening — read on). We drove to the heavenly Godafoss (literally means Waterfall of the Gods). Probably my favorite waterfall in the country. You can get pretty close to the waterfall and take pictures.

Godafoss: Waterfall of the Gods
Northern Lights!

We were supposed to drive to west Iceland this day, but there was a prediction for very high aurora activity that evening, and the weather forecast showed a heavy cloud cover over the western parts, while Akureyri was shown to have clear skies. We decided to cancel our plans for Western Iceland and stuck around Akureyri, and boy was that a good call! The Northern Lights were bright enough to be visible from within the city, and were even better when we drove to the hills outside the town. For about four-five hours, we witnessed the magical spectacle of the green aurora appear in different parts of the sky, moving slowly like a curtain gently dancing around in the breeze.

Day 7: Akureyri → Reykjavik

Longest drive, and the last big one. We didn’t stop much on the way. Once we got to Reykjavik, we decided to check out the city, and specially the eclectic street, Laugavegur (literally, the street to the hot springs). It’s a fun little lane, with streets, restaurants and bars on either sides. We also checked out the church Hallgrimskirkja.

Day 8: Golden Circle

The Golden circle is a loop close to Reykjavik, known for a bunch of cool touristy attractions. Some say it can be done in 2–3 hours, but we took our time in enjoying every attraction (we ended up skipping a couple though) and spent an entire day here.

The day began with a visit to the Thingvellir National Park. It’s very picturesque, and is house to many fissures along the divide between the Eurasian and Northern American tectonic plates. In fact, one such fissure, the Silfra is filled with glacier water and visitors can scuba dive or snorkel in it! The national park is the site of the original parliament which assembled there in 930AD (in fact this is the oldest existing parliament in the world).

Strokkur geyser in Geysir

Geysir, a geothermal field with a number of geysers, some active and some dormant was next. Of these, Strokkur erupts periodically, about once every 6–10 minutes and is a feast for the eyes.

Gulfoss; people for scale

Gulfoss, or the Golden Waterfall is a breathtaking waterfall, shaped like a slice of a pie. Like some other waterfalls in the country, you can get pretty close to it. This was our last stop on the Golden Circle, and we made our way back to Reykjavik (and once again to Laugavegur). After soaking in the evening Reykjavik atmosphere one last time, we retired to our room.

Day 9: Reykjavik → San Francisco

We had the morning to spend in the city before we needed to make our way to the airport, and we decided to take a City Walk tour. Best decision ever! Our tour guide, Marteinn was amazing with facts and figures about Reykjavik and Iceland in general. He led us through a few different parts of the city and gave us a taste for the history, and also the culture of the country. He also had an amazing sense of humor. If you’re ever in Reykjavik, and you have time for one activity, this should be it!

After the tour, we drove to the airport, dropped off our car, bought chocolate at duty-free for friends and family back home and boarded the flight to San Francisco.

We left Iceland with great memories. We hope to be back sometime, hopefully in summer so we can see more whales in Husavik, travel through Westfjords and see puffins in person.

Northern Lights

Because a lot of people travel to Iceland solely, or at least principally to watch the northern lights, here’s our take. First off, everyone we talked to recommends that you should not go to Iceland just for northern lights. We concur — Iceland is super pretty and even if you don’t get lucky with aurora, your trip would still be worth it.

Having said that, you can check out the predictions for aurora activity here. You usually want an activity >=3, but most importantly, no cloud cover in your location. Like us, if you can modify your travel plans to be in clear area when the activity is high, you would maximize your chances of seeing the spectacle.

Other interesting links

Weather forecast

A travel blog

Visiting Iceland Subreddit

If you are planning a trip to Iceland, good luck! You’re in for a treat! Don’t hesitate to reach out if you have questions. Happy travels!