The Ring road in 4 days
It’s no secret that Iceland’s ring road is considered one of the ultimate driving experiences in the world. Throw in the temptation to see ancient craters, a volcano or two, ocean giants, a spectacular coastline, birdlife, a few film locations and a chance to glimpse the elusive Northern Lights, and it’s an overwhelming mix of must sees and Instagram opportunities
In theory, you can drive around the ring road in 24 hours. But, that wouldn’t make much of a holiday, unless all day drive-a-thons are your thing. Most of the travel guides recommend 7-10 days minimum for a ring road expedition. However, if, like us, you are more pushed for time and stretched for budget, you may be wondering if it is possible to do it in 4 or 5 days instead and still have a meaningful holiday, rather than just a drive-by. Well, we thought we’d give it a go…
Day 1: Keflavik to Hvammstangi via Golden Circle
Sights: Gullfoss, Geysir, Þingvellir (Golden Circle)
Distances and driving times:
Keflavik to Gullfoss = 180km / 2hrs 20mins
Gullfoss to Geysir = 10km / 10mins
Geysir to Þingvellir = 61km / 50mins
Þingvellir to Hvammstangi campsite = 212km / 2hrs 35mins
TOTAL = 463km / 5hrs 55mins
The plane lands and we drag our suitcases straight to the campervan hire at Keflavik airport. Met with a friendly smile, a helping hand and camper van keys, we come face to face with what will be our home for the next four days…and it doesn’t disappoint: a sizable double mattress, the most cozy sleeping bags imaginable, two chairs and a table, pots, pans, cutlery, a gas stove, a heater, Free WiFi and the all important sat nav.
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With no time to spare, and stocked up with supplies from the local Krónan supermarket, we hit the ground (and the crowds) running and head straight for the famously well-trodden Golden Circle:
a chance to see one of the most popular natural attractions in Iceland, the mighty Gullfoss waterfall, before a ten minute drive to line up and grab a quick photo at Geysir. It’s a hectic introduction to the island, battling through coach tours and selfie sticks, but enjoyable enough to bask in the spectacle of it all. There’s still plenty of space to enjoy the experience with these famous Icelandic natural wonders. Savouring the human bustle and chat while we can, peace and isolation are just around the corner.
Away from the crowds, it’s a change of pace. We take a tranquil early evening stroll around the ancient landscape at Þingvellir park, meeting place of two tectonic plates, and take in the scene: formations of Greylag geese flying overhead, breathtaking panoramic views, Iceland’s most photographed church.
We buckle up for the final drive of the day, reaching the quiet and comfortable Hvammstangi campsite just as the sun sets.
Day 2: Hvammstangi to Mývatn via Húsavík
Sights: Whale watching in Húsavík
Distances and driving times:
Hvammstangi to Blöndós = 60km / 45mins
Blöndós to Húsavík = 235km / 2hrs 50mins
Húsavík to Vogahraun guesthouse, Mývatn = 57km / 45mins
TOTAL = 352km / 4hrs 20mins
After a refreshing night’s sleep tucked up in the camper and fueled on a bellyful of porridge, we head northwest towards the small town of Blöndós, where we get our first taste of an Icelandic swimming pool. A leisurely chat and poolside coffee with a local resident, and a few lengths in the pool leaves us revived and ready for the extraordinary day that awaits. As we wave goodbye to this pretty coastal town, there’s just enough time to take in the unusual church, it’s modern design inspired by the surrounding mountains and landscape.
Booked onto a 3pm whale watching trip, we head excitedly up to Húsavík, a hot spot for whale tours and home to The Húsavík Whale Museum. A quick stop overlooking Akureyri to stretch our legs, we soak up the picturesque scape and continue on, arriving for our allotted slot with twenty minutes to spare.
There’s no mistaking that Húsavík is fishing territory. The harbor activity fills our senses with the sounds and smells of the day’s catch.
Kitted up and decked out in Icelandic knits and thermals, we head out onto a calm North Atlantic Ocean. A harbor porpoise darts across our sight line; a rare treat. After an hour on the sun-soaked water, Maria, our guide, excitedly announces the arrival of two humpbacks, the blow visible, close on the horizon. Tears and hugs are shared. The humbling sound of a humpback taking a breath will stay with us forever; the sight of a tail fluke, magical. After some quality time with the cetaceans, the boat turns and we head back to shore, sharing a welcoming hot chocolate and warm cinnamon buns, still soaking up the sea views.
Leaving the aquamarine waters and white washed buildings of Húsavík behind, we journey on, hitting the black grit of Route 87. A moon-like horizon unfolds before us; a diverse geological feast. Bubbling mud cauldrons, vast craters and crystal clear waters dot this alien landscape.
We settle in for the evening at the outstanding Vogahraun campsite, at Lake Mývatn, rewarded with clear skies and an unexpected appearance of the Northern Lights, dancing over the campsite.
Day 3: Mývatn to Egilsstaðir
Sights: Grótagjá, Hverfjall, Sigurgeirs Bird Museum, Mývatn Nature Baths, Leirhnjúkur, Viti
Distances and driving times:
Vogarhaun to Grótagjá = 4km / 5mins
Grótagjá to Hverfjall = 6km / 8mins
Hverfjall to Sigurgeirs Bird Museum = 13km / 14mins
Sigurgeirs Bird Museum to Mývatn Nature Baths = 12km / 10mins
Mývatn Nature Baths to Leirhnjúkur/Viti = 12km / 13mins
Viti to Egilsstaðir campsite = 168km / 2hrs
TOTAL = 215km / 2hrs 50mins
A day to take the foot off the pedal and get our walking boots on. We head for a spot of telly tourism, following a 2 kilometer gravel track to Grótagjá lava cave, a Game of Thrones fan’s must see. No sign of a Jon Snow today though, just ten other couples crowded around a small unassuming entrance, waiting for their photo opportunity. Despite the crowds, it offers a surprisingly tranquil experience. Well worth the short detour.
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Hverfjall, the result of a volcanic eruption, dominates the Mývatn landscape. An imposing jet black bowl of tephra, it’s hard to compute at first glance. Under the blazing sun, we hike up an ascending footpath and reach the crater rim to be rewarded with the most spectacular vista. It’s probably the nearest we’ll ever get to feeling like astronauts on the moon.
Treating ourselves at the local Cowshed Cafe, we stock up on a delicious platter of salmon, local hverabrauð (Geysir rye bread), rich mozzarella and the most incredible blueberry compote, before a spot of bird watching at the Sigurgeirs Bird Museum.
Having given the Blue Lagoon a miss, we pack up our swimsuits and towels for much needed rest and relaxation at the Mývatn Nature Baths. Muscles massaged and our skin soaked in the natural thermals, we sit back and take in the majestic backdrop.
After an already packed day, we just have time to get a feel for the Leirhnjúkur hiking trail. A quick evening stroll over the wooden decking, which weaves it way through the bubbling ochre and icy blue lava field, leaves us wanting to explore more, but time is against us. We swing by Viti, a crater filled with blue water, then with a heavy heart, wave goodbye to the Mývatn region.
The day finishes on a high, with quite possibly the drive of the holiday: desolate, barren, isolated; our first taste of the interior region, the only sign of life being a pair of sheep crossing the road and a Whooper swan couple gliding on a small isolated lake. Huge rainbows fill the sky and an unexpected view of Herðubreið, the ‘Queen of Icelandic mountains’, appears on the horizon.
Day 4 (part one): Egilsstaðir to Vik
Sights: Djúpivogur, Jökulsárlón, Svínafellsjökull
Distances and driving times:
Egilsstaðir to Djúpivogur = 146km / 2hrs 6mins
Djúpivogur to Jökulsárlón = 173km / 2hr 8mins
Jökulsárlón to Svínafellsjökull = 57km / 45mins
Svínafellsjökull to Vik campsite= 141km / 1hr 50mins
TOTAL = 517km / 6hrs 49mins
It was bound to happen! A busy and noisy campsite makes for a terrible night’s sleep. Tired and grumpy, we set off from an underwhelming Egilsstaðir, hitting our first rainstorm of the trip. Navigating the unsurfaced grit roads at 30mph, the vast expanse of the Eastern Fjords stretches out before us cloaked in a thick mist.
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Battling the elements, we can barely see what has been described as one of the most beautiful drives in Iceland. A snapshot through sheets of rain reveals enormous craggy cliff faces, with hardy seabirds parachuting off and taking flight. Jagged rocks peep out from beneath the heavy cloud-cover. Plunging waterfalls carve trails towards the sea. Signs of the human footprint are few and far between, with only a couple of farmer’s crofts dotted over the landscape for company. A wrong turn here and a wrong turn there and the camper’s very welcome sat nav soon gets us on the right track.
After a tough morning, our spirits are more than lifted as we take a break at the side of the road with a group of Icelandic horses for company.
We’re grateful to finally see the sign for Jökulsárlón. From Route 1, we feel instantly invigorated by our first glimpse of the much photographed glacial lake. It, without doubt, makes the long drive worthwhile.
Like the Golden Circle, some three days before, the banks of the lake are bustling with day trippers and their coaches. Some take advantage of the boat tours, others simply watch the otherworldly, aquamarine ghostly giants’ slow procession towards the open water.
It’s hard to turn your back on the scene, but the daylight is fading and we have one last stop to make.
After hours spent driving in splendid isolation, the ring road suddenly seems relatively busy. But the real action is to our right, as one by one the mighty glaciers begin to reveal themselves. An impromptu drive down an unassuming winding grit road leads us far closer to Svínafellsjökull glacier than we could’ve possibly hoped for without crampons and a 2 hour hike. Coming up close to centuries old waves frozen in time certainly makes you ponder your place in the universe; and there’s not a visitor’s center in sight, just you and Mother Nature.
The last push, and we make it to Vik for our final night in the camper. Exhausted, we watch the golden sun set from the comfort of our sleeping bags.
Day 4 (part two): Vik to Reykjavík
Sights: Skógafoss (from the ring road!)
Distances and driving times:
Vik campsite to Reykjavík rental office= 188km / 2hrs 23min
Another early start and Reykjavík is in sight. It’s only three hours or so before we have to say goodbye to our camper. The clear skies are out again and it’s a lovely last drive down Route 1. Passing the sign for Skógafoss waterfall, we catch a glimpse from the road. Time is against us and we have to continue on. We hit Reykjavík at rush hour, queuing to get into the city, quite a contrast to the vast, isolated expanse of the last few days. We say a quick goodbye to the camper van and a hello to our city break in Reykjavík.
Get a real feel for driving the ring road in only 1 minute 14 seconds (22 hours, 15 minutes and 42 seconds shorter than it took to drive around the real thing!)
There were many highlights on the trip but some of the best were the least expected.
#1 Pulling into the lovely swimming pool in Blöndós for an impromptu shower, swim and chat with the locals. Free coffee was provided too!
#2 Cruising off the coast of Húsavík with North Sailing and getting up close with two magnificent humpback whales coming up for air and diving several times.
#3 Driving from Húsavík through Hólasandur (The Sand of the Hills) on Route 87 to find a stunning panorama of Lake Mývatn and the surrounding region open up beneath us; it felt like we’d landed on the moon.
#4 Arriving at the delightful Vogahraun campsite on a clear night and being treated to a spectacular display of the Aurora Borealis.
#5 Soaking in the Mývatn Nature Baths whilst taking in the epic scenery.
#6 Being awestruck by Herðubreið, the ‘Queen of Icelandic mountains’, dominating the skyline as we travelled from Mývatn to Egilsstaðir.
#7 Stopping to hang out with Icelandic horses by some misty mountains on the way to Höfn.
#8 Pulling off the ring road, onto an old farm track and getting within touching distance of the mighty Svínafellsjökull glacier- no wonder it was used by Christopher Nolan for both Batman Begins and Interstellar
Drawings of highlights before each highlight
So, can you do it in four days?
Total distance covered = 1735km (1078 miles)
Total driving time = 22hrs 17mins
We would definitely say, yes! Well, we made it all the way round for a start. But, was it a meaningful holiday? Absolutely! Our Icelandic adventure was all about getting from A to B, and the journey itself became the holiday:1735 kilometres, 4 days, roads of grit and sand, burning sun, chilling wind and sudden downpours of rain. There were plenty of moments to soak up the experience, whether we were in the car, on foot or in water, as the highlights hopefully show. We really got a sense for the varied terrain of the different regions, the ‘fire and ice’, of the country.
Of course, we would have loved to be able to spend longer exploring many of the incredible places that we could only hurtle past. At the same time, we were also lucky, as we had beautiful sunshine for three days and though the fourth day was wet and misty it was not too bad; we certainly didn’t have to drive through a sandstorm or worse. So, our itinerary was not affected by the conditions. In different weather it would undoubtedly have been a completely different experience. And there are certainly other challenges to consider. So, if you are thinking of doing your own 4 day ring road trip, we’d offer these final thoughts…
1. Enjoy the driving. It goes without saying really, but you must enjoy driving, given that you’re going to be spending at least four hours on the road most days. If you do, Iceland is a truly beautiful country to drive around and the ring road gives you plenty of opportunities to experience the diversity of the landscape.
2. Prioritize and be prepared to miss things. You won’t be able to do everything.
3. Be very aware of the weather. The Vedur app or website is brilliant for staying aware. The weather can change dramatically in Iceland and you have to factor that in, which brings us to…
4. Have a plan B, and C and D. If the weather changes will you be able to change your plans?
5. Be cautious of the gravel roads. You’ll travel through some stunning scenery but you may not be going as fast as you had planned. Despite being classed as unsurfaced roads with a speed limit of 80km/h, there were plenty of occasions when we were only going at 30km due to the pot-holed and rutted nature of some of these roads; and you definitely don’t want to go too fast and do damage to your lovely camper! It also goes without saying that in bad weather this can be worse (see points 3 & 4 above). It isn’t an issue for most of this trip but the section of route 1 past Egilsstaðir to Breiðalsvík is unpaved, so take that into account for your itinerary.
6. Stock up on supplies right away in Keflavik at the Kronan supermarket. It’ll save you $€£s
7. Cook simple. The camping stove and eating accessories that come with the camper are fantastic. Just remember, you’re on a tight schedule so you’ll want something quick and easy to cook.
8. Fuel up at Olís. The Olís discount card provided by Campervan Iceland was brilliant. Not only did it save us money, but it also gave us a map of the petrol stations, so we always knew where we could fill up. You can also get the famous Icelandic hotdogs (pylsur) from them, which are about the cheapest food you can buy, and best of all you get a free coffee!
9. Know the route, don’t just rely on the sat nav. The sat nav is brilliant. However, often it will try to send you the quickest way, even if it’s on worse roads. And it really helps to know the exact spelling of where you’re going to, including the correct accents. After all, you don’t want to end up like Noel Santilian, who thought he was driving to a hotel on Laugavegur in Reykjavik and ended up on a six hour diversion to Laugarvegur instead – because of one extra ‘r’!
10. Stretch to as many days as you can! However long you take, you’ll always want longer!
11. Choose one place you are particularly interested in and stay there longer. We found it a good idea to plan a ‘rest’ day in, with a little less driving on that day, rather than spreading the driving completely evenly. This meant we could spend more time in Mývatn and felt more refreshed for the rest of the trip.
12. Avoid Egilsstaðir, if you can. We were hoping to drive a little past Egilsstaðir to camp in Reyðarfjörður, location of Sky Atlantic’s Fortitude. Unfortunately, the weather intervened and cut that drive short. However, if you get the chance, do it. It’ll be quieter and prettier.
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