On the road through Iceland’s lava land

A camper van in Iceland. One week to explore a new destination, in a way we’ve never traveled before as a family. My colleague sold me on the idea after he visited the country twice, each time making daily excursions from Reykjavik. He told me it would be cheaper and more fun for us to hire a camper van because we planned to go for a full week. He sent me a link for the van rental, and I looked at the map and then read about the Ring road. In just a few minutes, I was hooked. Then I sent an email to my teenage daughter and son. They went for it straight away. As I said, this would be a new travel experience and destination for us. I booked it.
We just got back, and wow! What an incredible trip! The sights, the driving, the camping, the friendly people we met along the way…

Getting Ready

We started in Reykjavik, where we collected the 4×4 VW California van at the airport and got a thorough explanation of how everything inside works. Then we set off. The first day we intended to go easy, so we went shopping for food as our first outing, getting what we’d need for breakfast, lunch and dinner for a week on the road. Pasta, bread, cheese, potatoes, eggs, cucumbers, coleslaw, grapes, etc. and cookies! I’d read a blog about the importance of road snacks. Anyway, no hotels, no set meals, no fixed schedules – the thought of it all was liberating. Total flexibility.

We’d read about a campsite not far from the center of Reykjavik, so we went there to base ourselves for the rest of the day and night. How cool to find a green space in the city, and we parked at the edge of one of the two fields. And from there came our first pleasant surprise. We heard “people noise”, what sounded like kids playing, coming from what looked like a stadium behind the trees. This turned out to be the Laugardalslaug swimming pool complex, including a geothermal pool. So we grabbed our swimsuits and walked toward the sounds, out of the campsite through the trees and around to the entrance. We paid the fee, showered and then jumped right in. We soaked ourselves happy in the hot pots to get relaxed and in the mood for the week ahead. It was the perfect starter activity, and so unexpected. On our way out of the building, we stopped at a stand just outside for a hot dog, the first of many on the trip. More on hot dogs later.

That night we got to know the van, setting it up for eating and sleeping. We decided to use the campsite’s “kitchen” for cooking. It was extremely busy in there, and we realized later we would have been better off using the equipment provided with the van. Live and learn.

Camping in Iceland in a Camper
Getting comfortable at the Reykjavik campsite

The next day we got rolling, but not before our next surprise, a funny one. While shopping for food we had bought cereal and a small carton of what we thought was milk, because it was shaped like the milk cartons we find at home. When our first pour for breakfast came out a little too thick, my daughter and I looked at each other, tasted and smiled. It was vanilla yoghurt – and tasty! So we continued pouring and enjoyed our cereal. For our next milk purchase, though, we asked in the supermarket to make sure, lol!

OK, back to the van, and we headed first to Hveragerði about an hour away for a relatively easy hike over a volcanic mountain to a valley with a thermal stream, where we sat and soaked some more, this time in beautiful nature. We were really starting to like things now, getting a feeling of what was to come. From there we set off for Flúðir, where we settled for the night at a large campsite and enjoyed a basic camper van meal of potatoes with cheese and boiled eggs. We were getting the hang of the van now, with my kids sleeping in the pop-up tent “upstairs” while I slept “downstairs” on the fold-back seat. We were snug in there every night, with plenty of space. The van had window shades for privacy and a heater that runs even with the motor off, for those colder moments overnight.

4x4 VW California Beach Iceland
A boy and his camper van

Secret Lagoon

As we were already in Flúðir, we started the next day with a soak in the “Secret Lagoon,” formally known as Gamla Laugin and the country’s oldest thermal pool. Calm, peaceful and replenishing, this was another recommendation, from a friend’s son whose advice to me a couple months ago was this: “Skip the Blue Lagoon, go to the Secret Lagoon.” At the time, I had no idea what that meant, but in my research for the trip I concluded it was perhaps right for us, as the latter sounded like less of a circus than the more touristy and more expensive larger cousin near Reykjavik. We were happy with our choice, and perhaps on a future visit we will visit the Blue Lagoon.

The Secret Lagoon
The Secret Lagoon

Out of the “Secret Lagoon,” we then visited a couple of do-not-miss sights in the region: the mighty, roaring Gullfoss waterfall and Geysir. Just wait for it, and it’ll blow. With my phone I took a slo-mo video of the geyser popping. Post the pics to Facebook, and you will get tons of Likes.

Gullfoss waterfall - The Golden Circle Geysir - Strokkur

Gullfoss and Geysir

Lunches everyday were sandwiches we’d make by the side of the road somewhere. The ring road is full of stopping points with benches where you can park and take a break, and the scenery is usually almost always incredible. One night we made pasta out of the camper van pot at one of these turn-offs surrounded by a fossilized lava beach. The eruption in question: circa 1789…

Driving to Skaftafell
Lava beach break on the road to Skaftafell
Cooking on the road
Water will boil

The Glacier

This was on the way from the Golden Circle to Skaftafell, the most accessible point to the large glacier at the center of Iceland. We settled at the campsite right at the foot of the glacier and decided to take the guided glacier walk in the morning. This was not cheap for the three of us, but what a thrill – another must-do. Our guide was fantastic, we learned a lot and got cold, yes, even in August. From there we stopped a little way down the ring road at another lagoon, this one with icebergs floating in it. We kept our bodies out of this one but I froze my hand holding an ice block for the photo op below! Makes again for unforgettable images and incredible pictures.

Walking on Glaciers Glacier Ice

Glacier walkers                                                                                    Cold as ice

If you’re following this on the map, you’ll see that we set out to cover the south and southeast of the country, based on what my colleague suggested. But he never went further than this on his own visits, so after that we were just going to wing it. Here’s the part where we discovered first-hand that the beauty of the camper van is you can go where you want when you want. We didn’t know how long visits would take, so we just played it by ear about where we’d end up each day.

At the end of this day, we made our way along the black-sand coast to Vik, where we had a little debate – and another hot dog, this time at a petrol station (you find hot dogs at gas stations all over the country, and they make for a great pick-me-up around 4-5p.m.). The debate was about whether we’d stay in Vik for the night or push on. We had a quick look at the local campsite and read a review online, and we weren’t feeling the vibe so we agreed to keep going.

Road to Nowhere

So, so glad we did, because my daughter and son guided me to our next surprise. The drive turned north up the coast, passing cute sheep and horses in fields while spectacular mountain scenes unfolded at each turn. Then we took this long, slow drive along a fjord that seemed to go forever. As we approached the inseam, we turned onto a gravel road and up the hill to what seemed like nowhere. We rolled for two kilometres, up and up. From there we arrived at a grassy campsite nestled in a valley surrounded by craggy mountains. On this night, it was overcast but not raining, and the mountains were pulling in wispy fog-laden clouds. This for me was the best place we visited, both for its natural beauty and the unexpected discovery. The owner of the campsite was so warm and welcoming to this remote place where she grew up. She advised us to explore beyond the rocks a short walk from the campsite, to where she used to play as a child. There was a raging waterfall on the other side that you couldn’t see or hear from where we were based. We went over there in the morning before leaving and we were wowed again. I didn’t want to leave… Eyjólfsstaðir, it’s called.

Eyjólfsstaðir Campsite
Our favorite campsite
Camping in Eyjólfsstaðir
Tucked in for the night
Exploring around Ejólfstaðir campgrounds
Go beyond the rocks, she said

Heading North

The owner there gave us tips for things to do on our last two days of the ring road, so we set off for Dettifoss in the north. This is another raging waterfall, but unlike the white waters of Gullfoss, this one is tinged by black silt. You can walk on the rocks right up to the fall-off point. Very raw and impressive. There’s a 28-km bumpety bump gravel road across a dry, dusty plain to get there from the ring road.

Dettifoss in the North
Dettifoss up close

Looking down Dettifoss Black sand by Dettifoss

On the edge                                                                           Black silt

Just Pack Up and Go

With the van, we enjoyed the routine of setting up the sleeping format and taking it down in the morning, getting our cooking going with the gas canister and setting up the portable table and chairs. Then just pack it up and go. Catching scenes like these within a couple of hours of each other:

Desert in North Iceland
Moonscape of the north
Gorgeous Lake Mývatn
Mývatn: Looks like Hawaii, feels like Iceland

We saved our final day before flying home to explore Reykjavik, so the last real day of driving the ring road was mostly that, driving through winding valleys, stopping for breaks and lunch and, guess what, more hot dogs! With mustard and both raw and fried onions, that’s how they go down so well on a crisp sunny day. Looking on the map for a campsite close to Reykjavik, we settled on the town of Mosfellsbær… and our next surprise.

Lunch in Mosfellsbæ Horses in Mosfellsbæ

Road stop for lunch                                                                                                           A Mosfellsbaer horse, of course

End of the Ring Road

We could see on the map there was a campsite just outside of town but didn’t see the tent symbol anywhere as we approached. We did find one very basic campsite next to a school and a sports center, and we were prepared to spend the night there, but the woman at the sports center where we tried to pay told us there was another, much nicer site indeed a little bit out of town, on the road leading to the Golden Circle. So we went there and found another bit of camping heaven. A friendly proprietor at Mosskógar campsite greeted us and we settled into a very pleasant greenhouse common kitchen next to outdoor garden rows of fruits and vegetables and trees. The outdoor showers were refreshing and brisk. We liked it so much we returned the next night after spending the afternoon in Reykjavik. That meant going back about 20km in the opposite direction of the airport, but we didn’t care. It added about 15-20 minutes to our ride to Keflavik airport in the morning, but it was done easily.

Maps of Iceland
Campsite tickets, maps, travel guide

As for Reykjavik, we were feeling good from our incredible drive around the Ring road and happy to explore the city center on foot. We had lunch and dinner at two good value-for-money restaurants, the first a vegan café called Vinýl (you can browse and buy records and listen to Bonnie Tyler’s “Nothing But a Heartache” while you eat) and the second a fish restaurant called, Reykjavik Fish (we had classic fish and chips and an Icelandic fish pie served in a hot skillet called Plokkari). We also enjoyed the exhibits at the contemporary art museum, Listasafn Reykjavikur. In between all this, we had to try, you know it by now, the hot dogs at the famous stand where Bill Clinton once ate. Just say “eina meo ollu” like I did and you’ll get “one with everything”! It’s right next to the Radisson Blu and it’s called Bæjarins Beztu.

The whole trip was amazing. We came back refreshed from camping for a week, spending almost every night in a different place and discovering Iceland’s natural beauty. What we loved most about driving is that everywhere you go is an unspoiled landscape – almost no human encroachments like property developments or billboards or unsightly road stops. This makes for long horizons and a close-up view of the Earth doing its geological thing, right before your eyes at a near-constant 90km an hour. Way cool!

On the road in Iceland
On the Ring road in Iceland


Read more: Chronicles of a road trip in Iceland

Happy Camping!  #CamperStories

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