Driving around Iceland's Ring Road is fairly easy. You get yourself to highway 1 and then you drive along it until you get back to where you started. It is that simple. It also isn’t that far. You can drive the entire circumference in a little over 16 hours, but you'd be a bit strange to do it like that, much like people who try visiting every country in the world in as little time as possible. I mean, I’ll give you a high five, but I’ll also wonder why you bothered.
There are a huge number of things to see on Iceland’s Ring Road. Here are some of them, as well as a couple of things I wasn’t able to see but are still on my wishlist. I have had to leave out dozens of equally amazing things though.
If you don't know where to begin, here's some more information I put together to help you out.
Let me start by saying, better than any one particular thing, the best of the Ring Road was seeing Iceland’s landscape. First, mountains. They’re everywhere, of course. I mean it’s a big volcano island. Then there are massive wide flat plains which used to be mountains but gigantic glaciers have ground them down into gravel and sand, leaving the remains of mountains, with sheer sides and giant cliffs. Falling from the cliffs are waterfalls. Some are small. Others are spectacularly large enough to attract busloads of tourists whose only function appears to be standing awkwardly as many stranger's photos as possible. Amongst all of this are lava fields. You can see where the lava has spilled down across the plains, just like you’d expect lava to do, and frozen into this strange alien landscape.
Seljalandsfoss and Gljúfrabúi
Assuming you're driving anti-clockwise, the first main tourist waterfall is Seljalandsfoss. 'Foss’ in Icelandic means ‘waterfall’, so calling it “Seljalandsfoss Waterfall” sounds kinda silly, much like "ATM Machine" and "AUT University".
Seljalandsfoss is hard to miss as you can see it pouring from its 60 metre cliffs a kilometre up the road. You can also see the carpark full of tourist buses which all stop for a reason. It is quite impressive to look at, but you have the added bonus of being able to clamber over the wet, slippery rocks and walk behind the falls. Yes, you will get wet from the spray, but do it anyway.
A quick walk or a quicker drive up the same road is Gljúfrabúi. Though lesser known, this was my favourite waterfall in Iceland. Not only because I’m a fan of the underdog and like being contradictory, though those are excellent reasons, but because this waterfall requires a bit of effort to see properly. In order to get the full experience, you have to walk up a shallow stream. The moment you enter the cave, you start getting wet from the spray. That continues until you exit the cave. But it is worth it just to look up and see the water pouring over the cliff. I like having to work a little for my experiences. I recommend having a change of clothes on hand.
A short drive along the Ring Road is Skógafoss. Yet another impressive waterfall visible from the Ring Road. These cliffs were originally the coastline, however the ocean has receded a few kilometres. While an impressive view from the ground, there are also stairs leading up to a platform close to the top, from which you can watch the water going over the cliff while you breathe heavily through your nose, pretending you’re not puffed from the climb.
Legend has it, there is treasure buried behind the falls, however I have no idea how to get there to check it out. It seems the kind of place a person would bury treasure. I grew up watching the Goonies, so I maybe there's a water slide somewhere in there too.
Sólheimasandur Plane wreck
November 24 1973, a U.S. Navy DC-3 is forced to crash land on a black sand beach in Iceland. Everyone survives. Rather than bothering to recover it, the U.S. Navy decides to leave it there, probably hoping it would just go away. It has now become a tourist attraction.
While you used to be able to drive to the wreck in early 2017 the landowners, sick of tourists driving like jerks all over their land, decided to cut vehicle access and force everyone to walk from the main road. If you have a couple of hours to kill, then maybe do it. I can't tell you if it will be worth it or not. It depends how much you want to see it.
There are a number of glaciers you can go hiking on in Iceland. I would recommend going on at least one, and to go with a tour group for the simple reason that you are less likely to die by falling into a crevasse and never being seen again. Vatnajökull glacier was my pick because during winter there is an ice cave that is accessible when the river freezes.
Unfortunately we missed out on Vatnajökull, so we tried a different one at Skaftafell. We were fitted with crampons, a helmet, and given an ice axe to pose with and generally look more badass. After being ushered onto a bus and asked to put on our seatbelts, a very apologetic looking man clambered on and informed us that our trip had been cancelled because the weather had turned. We did eventually get onto a glacier on our last day, but be aware how changeable the weather can be. These things happen.
Jökulsárlón and Diamond Beach
At the head of the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier is a glacial lagoon called Jökulsárlón. The glacier calves off into the water creating large icebergs which float around looking pretty. Cold, but very pretty. There are tourist boats that will take you out on the lagoon to see the icebergs, or you can park in the carpark and walk around the beach. We opted for walking around the beach and were still rewarded with great views of the icebergs.
Close by is Diamond Beach where the same icebergs float down the river towards the sea and wash up on a black sand beach. The contrast between black sand and large chunks of blue ice is quite amazing. It is called Diamond beach because of the icebergs, obviously. Not because there are diamonds there.
There aren’t the same kind of tourist “must-see” attractions along Iceland’s eastern coast, however it is still a great place to stop and meet the locals. One of the best parts of travelling is talking to the local people about the place you are visiting and the place you're from, preferably in roughly equal parts.
If you are driving the east coast, I would recommend stopping in Borgarfjörður eystri, for the simple fact that it is a nice small town and I talked to some good people there. Plus you might see puffins. The only puffins I saw close up were served to me at a tapas restaurant, which I promptly ate before I could imagine their cute little faces staring at me with disdain. They were perfectly delectable.
Hverir is a geothermal area at the base of Námafjall. It is easy to see why people thought hell existed under volcanic areas. Hot mud, boiling water and the constant stench of sulfur. As you wander around, you will hear the fumaroles, which pump out a steady stream of steam, screaming as they do. Yes that sentence was fun to write.
In many other countries, you wouldn't be allowed near them, however in Iceland, warning signs are generally only erected once some dull-witted idiot has died. The areas where you might get hurt are roped off, but it would pay to be careful where you’re walking anyway. There are no rails, only ropes. The dangerous parts are the bits that look like they're boiling. If you wander into a pool of bubbling mud, you really only have yourself to blame.
Dimmuborgir Lava Formations
Mývatn is an area in Northern Iceland and if you are driving the ring road, this is a goldmine of cool volcanic history. If you're a geology nut, and the thought of giant volcanoes wreaking havoc and chaos throughout an entire country, leaving behind large pillars of solidified lava, then you'll love the Dimmuborgir Lava Formations. It is an area where lava has flowed and cooled, appearing to form sculptures and pillars from the volcanic rock.
Mývatn Nature Baths (Jarobodin Nature Baths)
By now, you will probably be tired of sitting in a car and if you're camping, it may have been a while since you were clean. The Icelandic love their hot tubs; it is a national pastime and you wouldn't want to offend anyone by not taking part. Welcome to the Mývatn Nature Baths. There are three pools here of varying temperatures. Soak away all the stress. Of course, you shouldn’t have any as you’re on holiday in Iceland. If you’re stressed, then maybe there is something wrong with you. Maybe you should relax a little.
I preferred Mývatn to the Blue Lagoon simply because it wasn’t as crowded and the view was a lot prettier. The only downside was the lack of swim-up bar and no silica facial scrub which, according to the young lady who welcomed me at Blue Lagoon, would make me look fifteen years younger. I have no way of knowing if it worked.
Skútustaðir pseudocraters - Mývatn
Pseudocraters are formed when lava flows over wet ground. The ground is forced down and the pressure rises. The steam eventually erupts, forming these weird craters. The are dotted around a small lake here and are really interesting to see up close.
There is a walk around the lake which take about an hour and should give some great views of these craters. Be aware, the area also attracts midges in summer.
Goðafoss is one of the most spectacular waterfalls in Iceland. There isn’t much more to say about it, other than go. If you’re driving around the Ring Road anticlockwise, then you may already be a little jaded at the sight of yet another amazing waterfall, but do your best to appreciate it a little. It is a damn good one.
Feel free to throw one of the photography students over the rails as by now you will have gotten tired of trying to take photos around them. Maybe you can convince them they do not really need to take up all the room along the rails.
Ring Road Extras
There are a few small towns to stop in on the way back to Reykjavik on the official ring road, however, there are two extra loops that also hold some more of the famous landmarks.
Kirkjufell and Waterfall
This is the most photographed volcano in Iceland. I took a photo of it, but I’m not going to put it up in a protest for all the other volcanoes who have been unfairly underrepresented in the media.
In actual fact, when we got there, it was snowing so hard we could barely make it out. It looks cool though.
Bjarnarhöfn Shark Museum
This is an interesting place to visit. Not only will you learn about traditional icelandic shark hunting and see an interesting museum, but you will get to try kæstur hákarl. You will get a guided tour of the museum and learn how they prepare this traditional Icelandic dish. It does not sound pleasant, however the meat itself is not as bad as it smells.
In the distant past, Icelandic people discovered the Greenland shark is toxic to humans if eaten normally because of a high amount of urea and trimethylamine oxide. At some point though, someone discovered if you bury it under the ground for several months, then hang it to dry for another couple of months, you can eat it.
Again, it smells worse than it tastes. It smells like ammonia though, so you will have to battle that before you can get it into your mouth.
Lóndrangar rock pinnacles
Driving around the Southernmost part of the peninsula, you will pass the Lóndrangar rock pinnacles. They are basalt volcanic plugs, which I have always found interesting. They’re formed when magma hardens into a plug while inside a volcanic vent, then the rest of the volcano erodes away, leaving the plug behind.
As the story goes: “There once lived a half man, half troll called Bárður Snæfellsás who lived in the ravine with his voluptuous and handsome daughters…” I was sold and wandered up to see if there was any truth to the stories.
Unfortunately there were no daughters, nor any half man, half trolls. There was however a poor American girl who fell over in the stream in front of me. I shouldn’t have laughed, but then I’m always doing things I shouldn’t do.
The Golden Circle is the tourist hotspot of Iceland, as it is close to the capital of Reykjavik and a great many tour buses head down to show the highlights along this easy loop. If you are driving your own car, you can easily complete this in a day.
Thingvellir (Þingvellir )
Within the Thingvellir (Þingvellir ) National Park lies the continental rift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. You can quite easily see where the two plates are slowly pulling apart. You can do this from the shore of Iceland's largest lake.
Of course you can also see it from under the water in the Siflra Fissure, which grants a person a much better view. Diving the Silfra Fissure is definitely an experience you will not forget.
You may recognise this name from the English word geyser. This is where the word is derived from. Geysir was the first geyser written about in print and the first known to modern Europeans. Thus, almost every geyser in the world is named, in part, of Geysir.
Erupting every ten minutes and hilariously soaking anyone standing downwind, Geysir is worth stopping to watch. Keep your eyes open, as it throws water into the air only for a few seconds.
A huge amount of water falls down two levels before plunging into a narrow canyon. Our visit to this waterfall was only marred by the drones buzzing around. Sometimes I really wish I could throw rocks better than I can.
There is still some work going on at Gulfoss, building several new platforms and stairs to the best places for viewing this great set of falls. The sheer amount of water that rushes over these falls is rather staggering. It is fed by a glacier too, so I can't imagine it is warm.
Kerið is a lake in the caldera of a volcano. It is one of the most recognisable crater lakes in Iceland. As one of the must-see items on the Golden Circle, you will find photos of it on the internet. The land owners charge a 400ISK entry fee to see the lake. You can walk down, to the water if you feel inclined. Or you can spend all your time trying to get the perfect panorama from the lip. The choice is yours.