The land of fire and ice is a hot tourist destination right now. In fact, it's so hot that the number of American visitors in 2016 is on track to surpass the country's population of 332,000!
It’s easy to see why Iceland has been attracting a record number of visitors. People are intrigued by its adorable puffins, explosive geysers and towering basalt columns. Not only that, but carriers like WOW air and Icelandair are making round-trip flights as affordable as ever for Americans.
Iceland is a gorgeous country to visit any time of year – whether you go when the sun doesn’t set in the summer or the Aurora borealis are dancing in the winter. If you want to make the most of your time there, a road trip is the best way to see the country and explore all that it has to offer.
Iceland is a small island – about the size of Ohio – that is easy to traverse by car. The Ring Road encircles the island and "Ring Road 2" snakes along the Westfjords. Many of the country’s picturesque sites are just off of these roads, but others can only be accessed by crossing over rocky terrain and therefore require four-wheel drive to reach. If you don’t want to limit your sightseeing capabilities, it’s highly recommended that you opt to rent a 4W-drive vehicle.
If you’re going to be off-roading or just want to know where you’re headed and what’s around, then a GPS navigation system is an invaluable tool for your road trip. Iceland is sparsely populated, so while you can pull into a gas station to ask for directions, you may not come across one for many, many miles (Fill up your tank whenever you’re at the pumps for that exact same reason!).
Like any road trip, you want to be prepared with basic supplies like water, snacks, a first aid kit and a camera with plenty of battery life (and a portable charger just in case). Iceland’s location just below the Arctic Circle makes it chilly year-round, so pack a jacket, wool socks and other cold-weather gear if you don’t want to crank the heat for the entire drive.
Quick Trippers and Winter Visitors
Weekend warriors won’t have time to drive around the whole island. While you have to be selective about where you go, there is still plenty to see on the west side of the island where the international airport is located. Likewise, those who visit in the winter will have limited access since the Ring Road isn’t fully open all year due to snow, ice and unsafe conditions. The itinerary that follows is a good starting point for quick trippers and winter visitors – go as far as you can until you’re forced to turn back!
The Ultimate Road Trip Itinerary Around Iceland
You don’t want to be tired before heading out on an epic road trip. To get over jet lag and adjust to the time zone difference, spend your first day in Iceland exploring the capital city of Reykjavík. Your next adventure is a rite of passage: Everyone who visits Iceland for the first time must see the sites in the Golden Circle. The main highlights include: Þingvellir National Park (tectonic rift separating North America from Europe), Gullfoss (a mighty waterfall), Strokkur (an active geyser) and Kerið (a stunning volcanic crater lake). If you were only driving the 186 miles between these sites, it would take about three hours, so with stops included you’ll want to devote a majority of the day to exploring. You could also stay longer and dive or snorkel in the Silfra fissure in Þingvellir.
Next, you’ll drive about two hours south toward Vik. Along the way, there will be sheep, roadside waterfalls, a ferry to the Westman Islands and other worthwhile natural attractions. You’ll be tempted to stop, and you should, but only if you aren’t on a short trip and can spare time. You don’t want to miss the really great stuff to see the good stuff. Once you reach the Vik area, you should visit Dyrhólaey (a promontory with a large arch and a puffin hangout), Reynisfjara Beach (a black sand beach) and Reynisdrangar (basalt sea stacks).
Continuing along Ring Road, you’ll next want to stop off at Kirkjubæjarklaustur to see Kirkjugólf ("church floor"), a collection of in-the-ground basalt columns that look like a tiled floor. Then head to Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, where you can take a boat tour, go on a glacier hike or go ice caving (all are seasonal, so check availability in advance).
From Jökulsárlón you’ll want to stop at Vatnajökull National Park to hike around and see the not-to-miss Svartifoss (waterfall tumbling over basalt columns) before continuing through the majestic east fjords.
As if your road trip hasn’t already been interesting enough, the north half of the island has even more natural wonders. Stop at Jökulsárgljúfur, which translates to glacial river canyon, where you can also see the impressive Dettifoss (waterfall). Next, go north to Ásbyrgi (a horseshoe-shaped canyon) to hike around before driving to the picturesque waterside town of Húsavík to go whale watching.
The landscape in the Mývatn area in northeast Iceland is incredible. There are the pseudo craters of Skútustaðir, the impressive Góðafoss waterfall, geothermal activity, Höfði (a promontory that goes into Lake Mývatn) and so much more to explore by foot. Nearby, Akureyri is Iceland’s second largest urban area and a great town to stay the night and relax for a day.
Moving into the Westfjords, you’ll see more Icelandic horses, which look a bit like ponies with punk rocker hair, roaming in vast fields. If you haven’t seen puffins yet, head to Iceland’s westernmost point at Látrabjarg Cliffs. You’ll see puffins flying around and perched on the edge of the cliffs, but be careful that you don’t get too close. While they are light enough to sit on the edge, the weight of a human could cause the earth to give way.
Driving through the Westfjords is a picturesque journey. The drive along the fjords’ sheer cliffs can be harrowing at times since there aren’t roadside guardrails, so go slowly, stop often and enjoy the scenery.
Coming back south toward Reykjavík, the Snæfellsnes peninsula also offers gorgeous, otherworldly vistas. Don’t miss the basalt columns at Gerðuberg and Arnarstapi, Vatnshellir cave (an 8,000-year-old lava tube), Snæfellsjökull glacier (which sits atop a stratovolcano) and the golden beaches near Langaholt.
Continuing south, drive past Reykjavík to the geothermal area of Krýsuvík, where you can walk among bubbling mud pools and colorful hot springs with rising steam. Finally, catch a glimpse of the nearby fishing town of Grindavík before ending your epic road trip with a relaxing soak in the hot waters of the Blue Lagoon. Once rejuvenated, you can spend more time in Reykjavík or head home. Your journey around the island is complete!
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