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  • Einar Páll Svavarsson

Ring Road drive is the best vacation trip when you plan a tour to Iceland


Jökulsárlón is right by the Ring Road in Iceland
Jökulsárlón is right by the Ring Road in Iceland

If you are planning a vacation or a visit to Iceland, and this is your first trip, you might be thinking about where to go and how to plan your holiday. Take the Ring Road, that is my recommendation as a local expert. Although Iceland is a small country, there is a lot to see and experience, and impossible to cover in one visit. A good option for a first trip is to drive the Ring Road, the road that goes around the island's shoreline so to speak, and connects all regions outside the Highland. The whole drive, with all the loops and secondary roads included, is around 1.600 kilometers or approximately 1000 miles. This road trip will give you a good idea of what Iceland is all about, both natural wonders and people. It is also the tour many Icelanders took in 1974 when the Ring Road opened, and it became possible to drive the “circle” with the construction of the bridge over Skeiðará river near Skaftafell. One of the most common questions in Iceland at the time was: Have you driven the Ring Road? And that is how the term Ring Road (Hringvegur) was integrated into our culture.


The Ring Road, your plan, and the weather

From my Ring Road travel camping tour in 1992

I love driving the Ring Road, and even though I have driven around Iceland many times, I still take the time to drive that road. Just recently, I took a Ring Road tour with my wife, Gunna. This time we stayed at hotels instead of camping. We took advantage of one of the good things that came with growing tourism. Only about a decade ago, nice hotels outside Reykjavík were few, and food was primarily available at roadside gas stations. This has changed dramatically, and the quality of accommodation and food around the shoreline is an advantage that we now have in Iceland after tourism flourished and the market for more quality grew. On this tour, we decided to stay at nice quality hotels, dine at nice restaurants, and visit places that we seldom visit or new places that, at least, she had never visited. I have also driven the Ring Road in every season, alone on a photographic mission, as a guide for private tours, and as a guide for larger groups. So, I have experienced this remarkable road in many ways. But like most Icelanders, we took our first Ring Road tour in 1984, a few years after the bridge was built. My wife Gunna was eight months pregnant, and we stayed in a tent in early August.


The time it takes to drive the Ring Road

The Ring Road drive will take you to many great places in Iceland
The Ring Road drive will take you to many great places in Iceland

It is possible to drive the ring road in two days if you are mostly interested in driving. In this article, on the other hand, I recommend six days to drive the whole tour. In my initial article about the Ring Road, I recommended five days, but after new interesting places around Iceland became more accessible, I found it necessary to boost the itinerary and add one more day. It is a reasonable time for you to get the most out of your vacation and see and enjoy as many fascinating natural wonders as possible. And by the way, this article is mostly about natural wonders. It also gives you the option to visit a few museums and some of the new geothermal baths.


What kind of rental car?


Before you start, make sure to read my article about driving in Iceland to understand better the roads and the road system and what kind of rental car fits best for you and the time you intend to travel. The roads are often different than in other countries and conditions can change quickly in different weather situations. Most of the time, when driving on the Ring Road, you are driving the official road defined as nr. 1. But keep in mind that the term Ring Road doesn't necessarily always refer to that road, as the Ring Road concept is a travel or tour concept and can incorporate other roads when you need to take a loop to go to interesting places.


The landscapes and natural wonders should be your main objective

Natural wonders like waterfalls, canyons, lakes and more
Natural wonders like waterfalls, canyons, lakes and more

Most visitors who come to Iceland seek to see as many natural wonders and magnificent landscapes as possible: waterfalls, hot springs, lava, black sands, icebergs, glaciers, canyons, mountains, fjords, charming towns and villages, volcanos, and even eruptions. For those who don't know the island, it can be pretty time-consuming and tedious to go through all the options regarding where to go and how to organize your tour to get the most out of your trip. So, hopefully, this article will help you speed up the itinerary and get you here as quickly as possible. When traveling in a rent a car on the Ring Road, you have the flexibility and control over your time which is necessary if you are serious about your travel, not to mention photography. Another option is to hire a private local driver guide who provides a vehicle and gives you a load of information about the history, culture, and geology to enhance your experience. You will be amazed by how much you can see and learn about this small island.


Starting the Ring Road in Reykjavík

Reykjavík is a wonderful small city and has a lot to offer
Reykjavík is a wonderful small city and has a lot to offer

I recommend starting your road trip in Reykjavík and driving east by the south shore, counterclockwise. When you start in Reykjavík, you drive the famous south coast, which is also one of the most popular day tours from Reykjavik, but instead of coming back to the city, you continue your drive towards the fjords in the east. You spend two days enjoying the magnificent landscape, waterfalls, and icebergs on the south shore all the way to the southeast town Höfn í Hornarfirði. From Höfn you head to the magnificent East fjords or Austfirðir for a spectacular scenic drive. After spending two days driving the scenic fjords and visiting waterfalls, towns and villages and natural wonders in the eastern and northeast Region, you drive through the beautiful Northern Region, visiting many interesting places and heading to the historically rich West Region. Your last stop is the tiny museum of Snorri Sturluson, the most interesting individual that has lived in Iceland, and then back to Reykjavík. It is a simple drive on an asphalt road, a drive that will take you to most types of the natural wonders in Iceland that people find interesting.

The day I discovered and photograped Stuðlagil in 2016 and made it world famous
The day I discovered and photograped Stuðlagil in 2016 and made it world famous

To get the most out of your trip, I suggest driving for six days and five nights. I also recommend the best time for this kind of Ring Road trip to Iceland from middle of May to the end of September. At this time, you can take full advantage of the blooming and colourful vegetation and daylight from early in the morning until late in the evening. Your day can easily be on the road from 7 AM to 9 PM which gives you a good time to stop at each place you visit, and you never need to be in a hurry. For a better understanding of other seasons or time to visit Iceland read our article about the best time to visit Iceland.


Accommodation, cell phone connection, fuel and practical things

 All the towns and villages by the ring road also have swimming pools, small convenient stores, and a gas station.
All the towns and villages by the ring road also have swimming pools, small convenient stores, and a gas station.

The Ring Road has multiple options for accommodations, from luxurious hotels and quality guest houses to simple campsites. Most towns and villages along the way provide excellent campsites if you prefer to take a tent or rent a camper. All the towns and villages by the ring road also have swimming pools, small convenient stores, and a gas station. If you are concerned about safety, the Rig Road has almost full cellular phone GSM coverage, and Iceland has one of the lowest crime rates of any country on the planet. It is a drive that offers much of the best in Icelandic landscapes, natural wonders, and spectacular photo opportunities, and it will provide wonderful memories.


Here is what you will see on the Ring Road in Iceland.


  • The first day: waterfalls, black sands, moss covered lava and ocean stacks

  • The second day: icebergs, glaciers and mountains

  • The third day: scenic fjords, interesting shoreline and charming small fishing villages

  • The fourth day: mighty waterfalls, spectacular basalt column canyon and geothermal activity

  • The fifth day: Spectacular waterfalls, the beautiful town Akureyri, and dip into a geothermal pool.

  • The sixth day: Sea stack, mountain climbing, museum about history and beautiful waterfalls


Day one, the south shore


The South Region of Iceland has more interesting places to see than any other part of Iceland. The drive on your first day from Reykjavík to Kirkjubæjarklaustur is about 260 kilometres or 160 miles. If you include the secondary roads leading to some of the natural wonders, you plan to see; you can expect to drive around 320 kilometres or 200 miles. This is approximately a four-hour drive, so you have a lot of time to enjoy the view and the natural wonders. The whole region is practically loaded with natural wonders. Fortunately, some of the most interesting and most visited places are right on the Ring Road. Before you start enjoying natural wonders, it is an option and a good idea to stop at the Lava Center in Hvolsvöllur village. It is an interactive museum that explains volcanic activity, earthquakes, and eruptions quite interestingly and gives you a good understanding of relevant underlying geological factors in Icelandic landscape.


Seljalandsfoss you can walk behind

Seljalandsfoss waterfall
Seljalandsfoss waterfall

The first stop is Seljalandsfoss, the beautiful waterfall that you can walk behind. It is about one-and-a-half-hour drive from Reykjavik, so it is a good first stop (or second if you stop at the Lava Center). The waterfall is also interesting because it is close to the volcano Eyjafjallajökull that many readers are familiar with since the volcano stopped all air traffic over the Atlantic Ocean in 2010. Close by is another interesting waterfall, Gljúfrabúi, only about 10 minutes’ walk north of Seljalandsfoss. A fascinating cave like waterfall and a stunning natural wonder. Both waterfalls are especially interesting for children. Service by the parking lot consists of a small snack bar and public toilets. Admission is paid in a form of parking fee.