Icelandic Road Trip

On the brim of the Arctic Circle lies an otherworldly island which emerged from the ocean millions of years ago; a divergent from the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. Throughout the landscape you’ll find everything from 125+ (30 active!) volcanoes and hot springs around every corner to frigid glacial lagoons and vast snowy peaks. Sunsets last for more than an hour and waterfalls pour out of every cliff. The Isle of Fire and Ice is by far one of the most diverse terrains on earth and the closest I’ve ever felt to being on a different planet. If you are looking for a unique destination for your holiday that will leave you with unforgettable memories, look no further than Iceland.

Unbeatable prices provided by Iceland’s low-cost WOW air throughout the year makes Iceland a perfect destination for those traveling on a budget, especially when looking to stop over on the way to Europe. If you decide to travel during the off season, which is highly recommended, everything from the airline ticket to rental vehicles will be significantly cheaper. Whether you are a hiker, photographer or a family looking to vacation Iceland has something to offer everyone. The first week of May is a dream: Sunny and relatively warm weather, helpful off season discounts and very few tourists.

Before You Go:

Plan Ahead of Time 

Buy plane tickets in advance for cheaper prices. The best times of year to go are May or September. If you are planning on staying more than 1 day it is essential to have a vehicle. There is a major lack of accommodations and it is unrealistic to guess where you’ll end up at night. There is so much freedom in stopping wherever and whenever you want so don’t miss out on that. Camper Van Iceland was a reliable source for rental vehicles and they took the time to answer any questions.
How to choose the right vehicle for your trip:
How many people need to sleep inside or are you planning on tent camping?
How much can each person can contribute to the price?
Is comfort a priority?
Are you traveling with someone minimally 21 years old?
How do you plan on storing/cooking food?
Do you need a 4×4 or an automatic?

In my experience the bigger the vehicle the better the experience. We rented an RV which required someone over the age 25. 4 people in a “6 person” RV (2 beds, 1 bathroom, storage space, full kitchen with fridge included) was absolutely perfect and having anything smaller would have been uncomfortable. For a 10 day trip we decided to contribute $500 USD each towards the vehicle, about $50 USD a night which is very reasonable for traveling in Europe. Budget for gas costing over $7 USD per gallon. It is essential to buy an internet (wifi) package when renting your vehicle, this is the only way to research and use navigation apps to find your way around so don’t skip out.

Helpful Advice: Don’t go to the Blue Lagoon. Advanced reservations and a $75 USD fee are required. Opt for any of the other free, less tourist filled hot springs around the area. Check out HOTPOT ICELAND to find all the hot springs around Iceland. This was a very helpful resource. If you are set on taking pictures with that iconic baby blue water, go to Myvatn Natural Baths in the Northern region.

There are many places to camp throughout Iceland. Official campgrounds only charge a small fee to stay overnight. Be respectful to the locals and nature by not sleeping in places you aren’t supposed to and don’t use public places as your personal toilet!

Day 1 – Day 2

 The Golden Circle

After arriving at the Keflavik airport and acquiring the rental vehicle, drive around 45 minutes to Reykjavik. Depending on your interests, spend time exploring the city or skip it to maximize your time seeing other parts of the country. Before leaving the city make sure to stock up on groceries. Try Icelandic yogurt, it’s the best! Once you are ready to leave Reykjavik, head towards the Golden Circle. Regardless if you have 5 days or 14 days, the 300km Golden Circle route is worth the trip and it’s a convenient place to begin your adventure. The route takes 3 hours but plan for 6+ hours minimum to give yourself time to explore.
The first stop of the trip is taking a dip at one of the oldest swimming pools in Iceland: Secret Lagoon (Flúdir road number 30). The temperature of this natural hot spring pool is 40 °C year-round. There is also walking paths surrounding the pool so check out the geothermal activity. Entrance fee required.
Next stop is Gullfoss, one of Iceland’s most popular attractions. The wide and rapid Hvítá river dramatically drops 100 feet into a crevice creating a glorious waterfall of thick misty rainbows. Turn off the main road and once you’ve reached the parking lot, descend the long staircase and follow the concrete path bordering the edge of the ravine to the cascading waterfall. Explore the alternative trail from the parking lot up a steep staircase to get a different view looking down upon the falls. This area gets windy so bring a waterproof jacket and pants if you plan on getting up close and personal.
Haukadalur Geyers
Haukadalur is a geothermal area famous for it’s geysers Geysir and Strokkur. Geysir no longer erupts but Strokkur erupts 100 feet in the air every 10 minutes or so. The smell of sulfur fills the air as steam permeates through underground vents. Mineral deposits and mud pools surround the geysers making a playground for anyone with an interest in geology.

The Geyser is about 60 km away from Pingvellir National Park which is also worth a stop on the Golden Circle. This is the location where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates separate to form deep fissures in the ground. The tectonic rift travels through the national park creating an epic waterfall with well made walkways throughout the park. Close by is Silfra, the diving location filled with clear, icy glacier water.
Last stop on the Golden Circle route is Brúarfoss (GPS: 64° 16’01.6”N 20° 31’17.8”W). The incredible blue color is not enhanced, the only explanation for this would be bubbles from the waterfall are trapped within a deep crevice creating a tunnel-like enclosure for the rushing water.
Simple directions: From Mosfellsbær you’ll be looking for Brekkuskógar camping area. Turn onto road 36 to pingvellir. Next take road 365 toward Laugarvatn. Turn onto road 37 and cross road 355. Roughly 3 km after road 355 there will be a large summer house area, take the third road into this area and continue driving straight. Follow this gravel road until you reach a path with two tracks. Turn left and drive until you find the end of the road; there will be a small parking area. A small trail will lead you over a small bridge, take a left to stay on the trail. You’re in the right place if the area is covered in orange bushes. After walking 5-10 minutes you will find Brúarfoss.

Day 3

The Ring Road

Begin heading south east on the Ring Road. One of the best geothermal pools in Iceland is along this route. It’s called Seljavallalaug and is well worth the journey down a long, bumpy dirt road.

Continuing east, stop at Seljalandsfoss during the evening to avoid flocks of tourists. This is a magical location to watch the sun set located only a few minutes off of the Ring Road. There is a picturesque footpath that will lead behind the 60 meter waterfall to the base of the cliff. Other waterfalls including Gljúfurárfoss can be seen along this cliff but they are often overlooked in comparison.

Further to the east you will find Skógafoss, the most popular waterfall in Iceland. 25 meters wide, 60 meters high and constantly jam packed with tourists. The waterfall is extremely misty which creates a double rainbow on sunny days. The Skógá River flows over the cliffs which mark the former coastline. This is also a popular place for camping.

Road trip traditions: Make sure to stop and grab a gas station hot dog. It sounds funny but if you’re traveling on a budget and looking for something unique, tasty and cheap it adds to the experience!

Day 4

Glacier Lagoon and Eastern Iceland

There are many opportunities to stop along the south coast of the Ring Road but in order to see the whole island in a small amount of time you must prioritize. If possible do not stop often between Vik and Höfn. Head to Jökulsárlón (Glacier Lagoon) one of Iceland’s most popular attractions near Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest glacier. The lagoon gets larger as the glacier gets smaller each year, demonstrating the extreme effects of global warming. Each time you visit Jökulsárlón will be unique because the landscape is ever-changing. Check out Diamond Beach to see the glistening ice washing up from the Atlantic Ocean onto the black sand. If you’re lucky you might even see a few seals swimming around the lagoon! If you are interested in a boat tour, glacier walk/caving expedition this is the place to do so. The lagoon is accessible all year round weather permitting.
-The lagoon is around 5-6 hours away from Reykjavík so if your trip is only 2-3 days this is the turn around point.
After Jökulsárlón head north east in the direction of Akureryi.

Day 5 -Day 6

Myvatn and Dettifoss: The Diamond Circle

Once you’ve reached the northern region make an essential stop at Dettifoss: the most powerful waterfall in Europe averaging 96,500 gallons of water falling per second. The translation of Dettifoss is “collapsing waterfall” with bone shattering drops surrounding the 45 meter behemoth. Dettifoss was showcased in the opening scene of Ridley Scott’s 2012 Alien prequel Prometheus. The forceful waterfall creates mist that can be seen from miles away. Located in Vatnajökull National Park, the waterfall is runoff from Vatnajökull glacier which causes the sediment rich water to be grayish white in color.
Directions: From the Ring Road turn onto road 864. Check road conditions before beginning the drive because the road is closed during the winter and does not open until early May.
If you have extra time hike upriver in the Jökulsárglijúfur canyon to Selfoss, another beautiful set of waterfalls which are often overlooked in comparison to Dettifoss.

Myvatn: The Iceland you’e always dreamed of: serene volcanic landscape
Lake Myvatn is a best kept secret in the north with many worthy places to visit. Filled with otherworldly terrain including steam vents, bubbling mud pits and volcanic craters. This is the closest you will ever feel to being on Mars.
Myvatn Natural Baths is a must-visit naturally heated lagoon filled with blue water comparable to the Blue Lagoon but without the tourists and half the price!

Where to Eat: The Cowshed
The Cowshed is a local farm-to-table restaurant where the animals are raised with love, dignity and respect. From an American perspective this high standard of living is rare. Most US meat products (unless otherwise stated) are filled with harmful pathogens and antibiotics and they are raised in extremely cruel, fear inducing conditions.
On the bright side, wonderful places like the Cowshed exist that place a priority on the wellbeing of the animals to get a highly nutritious result. Before you even walk inside the restaurant you can see the living conditions of the livestock and say hello! These are some of the most friendly cows I’ve ever met, they were so happy to receive attention. Needless to say I was quickly covered in their saliva from nonstop licking.

Grjótagjá
Grjótagjá is a small hot spring cave in the Lake Myvatn area. Heated by volcanic activity, the cave is currently too hot to swim in but is worth a visit to admire its beauty. It is also prohibited to take a dip in an attempt to preserve the pristine conditions within the cave. The hot spring cave was used as a film location in the popular television show Game of Thrones season three episode Kissed by Fire. The secret love nest where Jon Snow lost his v-card to Ygritte is a fantasy destination for any fan of the series.

If you aren’t done chasing waterfalls check out Godafoss.

Day 7

Akureyri

Spend some time visiting Iceland’s second largest city, Akureyri. The city is small but full of charisma with good places to eat and nice shops.

Day 8 – Day 10

Reykjavík Bound

After passing through Akureyri, you are officially heading back towards Reykjavík. Continue on the Ring Road through the fjords along the coast. Depending on the time of year, the sun doesn’t go down completely in this area so don’t plan on getting much sleep. The fast pace of the trip can begin to slow down depending on how many days you have left. Plan ahead accordingly. Remember to check the hot pot map to see if any hot springs align with your route along the way. Enjoy your last few days in the wonderful country of Iceland!