Iceland Ring Road Adventure
Colin & Liza’s 2016 Iceland Ring Road Adventure
Planning the Iceland trip
Day 1 – July 16th
Of course, technically, our adventure began long before we actually left for Iceland. You might say it began in 2004 when I (Colin) visited Iceland for 3 weeks on a business trip. During a long weekend on that trip, I and 9 of my colleagues packed into 2 rental cars and drove around the ring road in about 30 hours with limited stops along the way. As you can imagine, this wasn’t an ideal way to see the country. There just wasn’t enough time to slow down and enjoy the experience. We stopped for food, bathroom breaks, gas, and at a few waterfalls, but other than that we just kept driving. Since that trip, I always knew I wanted to return and experience Iceland the right way.
About a year ago, Liza and I began discussing going on a big vacation together. We’d been dating for about 6 months at that point, and we both have a passion for travelling and seeing the world. But it wasn’t until early this past spring that we settled on Iceland. The truth is, you can only resist for so long after following several Iceland-related Instagram accounts and seeing gorgeous landscapes being posted on a daily basis. We’re only human!
In the months leading up to the trip we, of course, planned what we wanted to see and where we wanted to stop along the way. (Full disclosure: Liza is a much, much better planner than I am, and nearly all of the credit for this vacation and the pictures and videos we got as a result go to her). This naturally led to a discussion about what kind of car we wanted to rent.
We talked about renting a small car and staying in hotels/guesthouses along the way. But both of us were intrigued by the idea of renting a camper van and spending a least part of our trip camping. Right or wrong, something about camping made the trip feel a bit more authentic to us. We ended up settling on a hybrid approach. We’d get the camper van, and spend about every other night in it. Looking back, this was the perfect decision for us.
This brings us back to July 16th. Our flight left New York City at midnight and arrived in Keflavik at around 9:30am local Icelandic time. We both got around 3 hours of uncomfortable airplane sleep on the way. In spite of that, we arrived excited and ready to begin our vacation.
Looking tired but ready to hit the road!
Our first day was pretty slow. But this was by design. We knew we’d be tired from the trip and that we’d probably need a day to adjust. We drove to Reykjavik and spent the whole day there sightseeing at our own pace. The first thing that put a smile on my face was how easy it was to find parking in the city! A part of me was a little concerned that we’d get there, and I’d be driving a camper van around in circles looking for a spot I could barely squeeze into. Well in that respect, Reykjavik is not New York City. Thank goodness!
After we got settled in, we headed back out and started walking around the city. We saw Hallgrimskirkja of course, and we enjoyed a good stroll down Laugavegur.
The Golden Circle!
After getting a great night of sleep, we woke up early feeling refreshed and ready to hit the road. We made a couple quick stops before leaving Reykjavik. The first was at a bakery for coffee and breakfast (the bread was fresh out of the oven…delicious!) and then we made a quick stop at Perlan, a gorgeous building and famous restaurant that’s a little bit outside of the downtown area of the city. We had driven past it on our way into Reykjavik the day before and wanted to see it before we were on our way. Of course, not much was going on at 9 in the morning, but we were able to look around and get a great view from the balcony.
But before long, we were back in the van and ready for the next adventure. Our first stop was Þingvellir National Park. The hiking trails and Þingvellir Church were beautiful, and we got our first taste of Icelandic waterfalls at Öxarárfoss. Needless to say, there were many more to come during this vacation!
From here we drove to Geysir and watched in awe as the geyser erupted every 5 – 10 minutes. We must have watched it 3 or 4 times. Getting close was worth taking a little bit of spray! Our next stop was Gullfoss. It’s hard to overstate the power and beauty of the scenery at this waterfall. We were able to witness green mountains, rocky landscape, crushing water, and a rainbow, all in one view.
Eventually we forced ourselves to move on and enjoyed a quick stop at Kerið, a volcanic crater that’s several thousand years old. It’s quite picturesque, especially from the top ridge.
At this point in the day/evening, we were both starting to feel a bit tired, and we agreed it was probably time to head for our campsite in Stokkseyri for the night. After a stop in Selfoss for towels and a few groceries, we pulled into the campsite and claimed our spot.
We enjoyed dinner at a nice restaurant called Fjöruborðið that was right on the water in Stokkseyri. After the meal I asked our waitress, “What does the name of the restaurant mean?” Notice I carefully phrased the question in a way that didn’t require me to try to pronounce it myself! She responded, “Fjöruborðið?”, and gave me a look, if only for a split second, that said “Isn’t it obvious?” She went on to explain that the name means “the seashore” as well as “a table with four legs.” She must have enjoyed the confused look on my face as I left!
Stokkseyri to Vík
Our first night at a campsite and in the camper van was a great success! The shower facilities in Stokkseyri were more than adequate and we successfully blocked out most of the light from Iceland’s midnight sun. We stopped at the town’s gas station for a cup of coffee on our way out of town (a morning requirement for Colin) and were on our way. We didn’t know it yet, but this would end up being one of our busiest days on the whole trip.
Shortly after turning back onto the Ring Road heading east we saw a sign for Þingborg Wool Shop off to the side of the road. We decided to stop in briefly. It was interesting to see the wool get spun into garments like mittens and sweaters. We were both impressed with the pride the people take in their work.
A few miles down the road, we stopped again, this time at Urriðafoss. While this wasn’t nearly the tallest waterfall we’d see on this trip (or even today), the width of the river and sheer volume of water passing by were very striking up close.
After about 30 more minutes on Route 1, we turned off onto 261 and made a stop at Gluggafoss in the Fljótshlíð area. It ended up being well worth the detour. The area was almost completely free of other tourists and we got great views of another beautiful waterfall. Just down the road on our way back to Route 1, we stopped and saw a monument to Þorsteinn Erlingsson, an Icelandic poet who lived over a hundred years ago and was born right there in the local area.
Our next stop was at one of the most famous waterfalls in Iceland. Visible from the Ring Road, there’s a reason Seljalandsfoss is such a popular destination. Its beauty is undeniable and being able to walk around behind the waterfall was the icing on the cake. Of course, we were sure not to miss the slightly more hidden waterfall about a half kilometer away. This one ended up being a highlight of the entire trip. You can walk on the rocks into a cave and get a view of the waterfall from the inside!
Seljalandsfoss…the view from behind the water!
So far on our trip we’d stuck pretty close to our itinerary. Of course there were small, unplanned stops, like at the Þingborg Wool Shop. Or, for example, when Colin desperately needed another cup of coffee or Liza needed her 8th bathroom stop of the morning. But in all seriousness, we had stuck to the script pretty well up to this point. But both of us noticed that Landeyjahafnarvegur was only a short drive away down towards the coast. We hadn’t planned on a taking a ferry to the Westman Islands, but it was still early afternoon at this point, so we thought it couldn’t hurt to go down there and see if a short trip made sense and fit in our schedule. Well as luck would have it, the next ferry was leaving within 20 minutes of when we got there. We knew this would mean we’d have a bit of a later night than we’d planned, but we both agreed the adventure would be worth it. After the 30 minute ferry ride, we spent several hours on Heimaey, and were rewarded with great landscapes and even a puffin sighting!
When all was said and done, we were back in our van by 7pm and headed toward Skógafoss. This is undoubtedly one of the most photographed waterfalls in all of Iceland. And there’s no question why. It’s easily accessible, tall, powerful, and very visually impressive. On the path to the top of the waterfall, there are multiple side paths that allow to get a little closer to the side. The view is almost as amazing from the top as from the bottom!
Our last stop of the night was at a US Navy DC-3 aircraft that crashed on the coast in 1973. The US Navy and the Icelanders have left the plane in relatively untouched condition (which is almost unbelievable considering it’s been resting there for over 40 years!). After parking in a small lot off the side of Route 1, it’s a 4km walk (each way) to the DC-3. We got there pretty late (close to 11pm), and the fading light provided us with great photos.
At this point in the evening, we were pretty tired and had been on our feet the entire day. We finished up our drive to the campsite in Vik, pulled in before midnight, and were asleep quickly. Tomorrow would be another day of adventure!
Vik to Höfn
How could we possibly top a day like yesterday? Well the truth is, it’d be tough, and the weather wasn’t exactly cooperating. It was pretty cold and rained most of the day as we made our way from Vik to Höfn. First on our list of things to see was Reynisfjara, the black sand beach near Vik. We had originally intended to see this yesterday, but we ran out of time and energy. We made it this morning, however, it was so windy when we got there, that we only managed to stay outside for a few minutes. The view however, was impressive. But we’re mostly glad we didn’t get picked up and blown away!
We warmed up in the van and made our way to Kirkjugólf. This is a natural rock formation that looks as though it’s a man-made church floor. Just down the road we saw Stjórnarfoss, another impressive waterfall, but without nearly as many tourists as we’ve become accustomed to seeing.
After jumping back in the car, we prepared ourselves for about another hour on the road. The 4G puck that came with the van made keeping ourselves entertained very easy. We were able to stream music from our phones and enjoy a good background soundtrack to the gorgeous scenery. Before we knew it we had made it Vatnajökull National Park. We enjoyed a great view of the glacier and made the hike up to see Svartifoss. Word to the wise: the hike is listed as “easy”, but it was pretty steep uphill for almost 2km to get there. Fortunately, it was drizzling out, so it wasn’t so obvious how much I was sweating when we got there!
We enjoyed sandwiches in the van (being able to keep lunch meat cool the refrigerator was a godsend!) and once more hit the road, this time with Jökulsárlon as our destination. When we arrive it was cold, raining, and overcast. We were a little disappointed to miss out on the view we’d seen in so many pictures, but as you can see, we made the most of it!
This was our last stop of the day, and after turning up the heat in the van and doing our best to dry off, we set out for our last leg of the day. We were in Höfn by early evening.
Höfn to Seydisfjörður
After spending a couple of days hiking in the rain, we decided that doing a bit of laundry would probably be a good idea. First thing in the morning, Liza found a full service laundromat that would have our clothes ready within an hour.
In the meantime, we walked over to the Netto grocery store and stocked up on lunch and dinner supplies for the next couple of days.
After the clothes were clean and refrigerator restocked, we set out on our way. Almost immediately we saw a red chair perched on top of a rock on the side of the road. So, of course, we stopped and took pictures sitting in it!
Our next stop was also a little random (and unplanned). At this point, Colin was getting dangerously low on coffee. We passed by a sign that had a drawing of a cup of coffee on it and an arrow pointing to make the next left turn. We stopped in and found a little café that had been built in a small barn. The place was Havari Farms and we enjoyed homemade rhubarb pie, coffee, and hot chocolate. The owners are a husband and wife. Apparently he is an Icelandic recording artist that goes by Prins Póló. We found a few of his songs on youtube after we got back on the road (Thanks 4G internet puck!).
We made it to Hallormsstaður Forest by lunchtime and enjoyed a nice picnic near one of Iceland’s biggest forest. After filling up we went on a short walk through the woods before deciding it was time to move on.
Just down the road from the forest is yet another, incredibly impressive waterfall. We got a good view of Hengifoss and the surrounding scenery. The weather was a lot more cooperative today!
From Hengifoss, we made the hour and half drive up to Borgarfjörður eystri. After seeing a few puffins in the Westman Islands, we were hoping to catch a glimpse of a few more up here in the eastern fjords. The drive into the town took us a down a winding dirt and gravel road. The views during that drive were worth the trip by itself! Once we got there, however, we saw hundreds of puffins, beautiful landscapes, and a fun little house with a grass roof!
After successfully surviving the winding, bumpy drive back up the mountain, we headed for Seydisfjörður, where we planned to stay the night at the campsite. We were both almost tempted to stay at the campsite in Borgarfjörður eystri for the night. The town was so beautiful and it had been a long day of driving already. But our camping card didn’t cover that campsite, and we had originally planned on moving on to Seydisfjörður. So we stuck with the original plan.
And as it turned out, Seydisfjörður was just as gorgeous as Borgarfjörður eystri. We were both happy we made the decision to continue on. We cooked pasta at the campsite and fell asleep, looking forward to whatever surprises tomorrow had in store.
Seyðisfjörður to Akureyri
It was tough to leave the Eastern Fjords. If we could plan it again, I think both Liza and I would schedule an extra day in this region. But it was time to move on and we wanted to be in Akureyri by that night. We stopped at Dettifoss and Godafoss on our way there.
During the 1960’s when NASA was preparing to send men to the moon, the astronauts did part of their training in Iceland. It was thought that the volcanic conditions on Iceland would provide a good geologic training environment. With that in mind, Liza and I wore matching shirts for some of our pictures today!
The views were incredible! We also stopped by the Jarðböðin Public Bath. The water was bright blue and gorgeous, but the sulfuric smell was difficult to withstand! Eventually we made it to Akureyri for the night. We enjoyed a nice dinner and a couple of drinks and went to bed looking forward to the next day.
Today we planned on taking a flight to Grimsey Island to see puffins and cross into the Arctic circle. Unfortunately, however, the weather didn’t cooperate and our flight was cancelled. We were able to reschedule for the next day though, and we took the opportunity to have a slow, relaxing day in the city. We did venture out for a few hours in the afternoon. We drove up to Ólafsfjörður and saw the Herring Era museum. There was a one-lane tunnel (with traffic going both directions) on the way up there. That was exciting (and slight terrifying at times). Cars going north had small pull-off areas every hundred meters or so where they pull over to the side and wait for oncoming traffic to pass. We’d never seen a tunnel like that before!
Akureyri to Grímsey to Ólafsvík
Another busy day! After having to postpone the flight to Grimsey Island, we knew today would be jam-packed. We made it there by late morning and had a couple hours to explore before the flight back to Akureyri. Talk about puffin heaven! Those cute little birds were everywhere!
Both Liza and I loved our trip to Grimsey. We both crossed into the Arctic circle for the first time in our lives, saw more puffins than we can remember, and sent postcards home. It was well worth the trip.
After we got back to Akureyri, we quickly hit the road. We made stops at turf houses, Hvítserkur, and of course Kirkjufell on our way to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.
By the time we got to our campsite in Ólafsvík it was late, but the timing was perfect to enjoy a beautiful sunset!
Ólafsvík to Reykjavík
Our 2nd to last day in Iceland was pretty leisurely. We made the drive back all the way back to Keflavik and explored the town for a couple hours. We had tickets for the Blue Lagoon in the afternoon. Despite being quite touristy, the Blue Lagoon is a great attraction! It was lightly drizzling that day, and we enjoyed the warm water with the cold rain lightly falling overhead. That night we drove back to Reykjavik and spent the evening souvenir shopping. The next morning we (sadly) flew back home!
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