Samantha & Eric’s Epic Ring Road Roundabout
Pun intended! So many roundabouts…
Hi there, my name is Samantha and I write to you from the comfort of my couch back home in Ottawa, Canada. For almost two weeks this past October I treated myself to a much anticipated 30th birthday adventure in Iceland. Originally I was supposed to go solo, but last minute one of my best friends, Eric, told me he was able to join me! My mother was thrilled, pretty much convinced I was going to end up falling down a waterfall if I went alone. *Spoiler alert* I remained upright for all waterfalls, but did have to cross a river to get to one of them. Mom doesn’t know yet!
So why Iceland you might ask? Or maybe you wouldn’t because you are reading a blog about renting camper vans in Iceland ha! It all started with some beautiful photos taken by two of my friends years ago, before it was trendy and cheap to fly to Iceland. I was captivated by the beautiful landscapes. I officially decided I needed to visit when I saw a third friend post a picture of Svartifoss, and thought the basalt columns were just incredible. Flash forward to now when I have both the time and money to go, combined with the fact that seeing the Aurora was on my bucket list, and you have yourself a reason to go to Iceland in the fall!
I was prepared for some terrible weather in October. If you do your research, almost everyone dissuades tourists from travelling the Ring road once October hits. I was expecting snow, rain, closed roads, terrible driving conditions, some inaccessible sights, cold, and I was worried some of the landscapes just wouldn’t be the same. There was also flooding between Höfn and Jökulsárlón the week before my flight, which washed out a bridge and made the Ring road impossible to complete at that time!
They have a saying in Iceland, that if you don’t like the weather, wait 5 minutes, because it will change! I didn’t find this to be the case while I was there, and really lucked out with the weather. I had no snow, and almost no rain! I was still very glad I had my waterproof jacket and pants, for when I was near misty waterfalls shooting up some spray and for what rain we did come across. The temperature was quite mild as well. It did get cold at night, but our camper van had a heater in the back and I had brought my down sleeping bag to help keep me warm. The coldest temperature during days was -1, when we were in high elevation crossing some mountains on the way to Mývatn. Most of the time it was a balmy 3 to 10 degrees! (Sadly, back home it was a super gorgeous and warm fall season with temperatures in the 20’s, but hey! not bad for Iceland end of fall, right?!). I will say, the winds in Iceland are no joke! One or two days we experienced gale force winds, and as a tip for future travelers, hold on to the door tightly when you open it, and try not to drive through sandy areas in high wind, so that you won’t damage your car. I would also suggest the extra insurance options – for peace of mind – like gravel damage. If you do the whole Ring road, there WILL be gravel. Just sayin’.
In October most sights are still accessible. F-roads close in October, with winter on its way, so even if you have a 4×4 camper, you won’t be allowed on those roads. This meant missing out on a couple sights, like Landmannalaugar, which I will simply have to come back at another time to see! Knowing this, I rented a 2 wheel drive camper van. Being from Canada I have winter driving experience, all rentals have snow tires, so I thought I would be fine with 2 wheel drive. Our VW Caddy was a champ, it got us everywhere we wanted to go, but I do think next time I would consider a 4 wheel drive because on gravel roads there can be a ton of potholes, giant rocks, muddy areas, and rough/uneven terrain, which we had to take much slower because I didn’t want to damage the car. People in 4×4’s could easily wiz by us! So as a tip for those visiting Iceland in the future, a 2 wheel drive is probably fine for your needs if you are staying largely on paved main roads, but a 4 wheel drive makes travel easier here in all other conditions.
October is also considered the off-season for Iceland. It is not full winter, so things like the Ice Caves aren’t open yet. But F-roads close, summer campsites close (the camping card would be useless at this time), many tours are finished for the season, the puffins are gone, the outdoor botanical garden was done in Akureyri ,etc.
Read more: All year around open campsites
Advantages to coming at this time are off-season prices – our rental was cheaper!; less people (Side-bar: there are still A LOT of people travelling. I was picturing more remoteness, considering it was the off-season in Iceland, but there were definitely still quite a few people at the main attractions, which made me cherish the ones I had to work a little harder to enjoy for a bit of solitude. Trying to get photos without people in them is a real challenge nowadays! I can’t imagine how frustrated I would have been going in the summer with EVEN MORE PEOPLE. If you are going to Iceland expecting it to be peopleless, you may be in for a shock! End rant.); the AURORA is easier to spot with more darkness; there is still enough light to do some decent sight-seeing (sunrise to sunset is about 8 AM to 6 PM); the fall colors are just beautiful (there is still lots of green, but also oranges, yellows, reds, purples – I kept commenting on how beautiful the fall colors were); and the temperature really isn’t THAT different from summer. As long as you know there are some sights you simply cannot do in October, the ones you DO get to visit won’t disappoint.
Some of the highlights of my trip:
The South is for waterfalls! Obviously there are the super photographed biggies like Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss and Gullfoss. But my favorites were the ones that were harder to reach or that you needed to hike to. Glýmur is Iceland’s second highest waterfall (although the highest one is on a glacier somewhere, so does it really count?!) and it involves a great hike to it. In the summer this hike probably isn’t that big of a deal, but they take away the log to cross the river when the summer is done. SOOO I had to wade across a river to get to the falls, which were spectacular, and then I waded between two of the tiers of the waterfall up top to get back to the path on the other side (SORRY MOM haaa!).
Eric and I were the first twosome to see the waterfall that day, others followed, but some had turned back once they saw the river and no easy way across. It made the view that much more sweet to know I had worked for it. I earned my waterfall experience! Kvernufoss was also a hidden gem. Just minutes from Skógafoss, which was overrun with tourists, we found this tranquil oasis with a gorgeous double waterfall at the end. Magical! Háifoss was absolutely stunning! The drive there, white knuckle slow, because the road was awful, but the sight at the end simply breathtaking. Svartifoss, the inciting waterfall to my Iceland dream vacation, did not disappoint, and the hike to it was really enjoyable as well! Gljúfrábúi was also a really neat almost enclosed waterfall not everyone takes the time to see. (Side-bar: not in the South, but Goðafoss really is quite stunning too – like a mini Niagara Falls, Dettifoss and Selfoss were also an excellent addition to our trip in the north). Oh I could go on…. the waterfalls really are amazing here!
Mývatn is for climbing! There is so much to see in Mývatn and it was another high point on my trip to Iceland, literally and figuratively haha (you first have cross through some picturesque snow topped mountains to get there 😉 ). You can treat yourself to some natural hot pools (which I enjoyed!), lots of geothermal activity to check out here, gorgeous cave systems (Grjótagjá was my favorite), lava fields to explore (Dimmuborgir was a great place to explore old lava tubes), and there are tons of hikes in this area. Eric and I hiked the trifecta, as I fondly dubbed it; climbing a mountain, a volcano and a crater all in the same day. I hadn’t planned to hike a volcano, but Eric and I climbed to the top of Mt. Krafla, a snow covered volcano essentially, on a whim. Of course, I did this not knowing it had last exploded for 9 years ending in 1984. The Viti crater at the base of the volcano is a lovely stop as well! Fun Fact: Hardcore Game of Thrones fans may recognize some of the scenery here in Mývatn, as many scenes “North of the Wall” were filmed here 🙂
Diamond Beach is for losing your camera! There are a lot of great sights in the south including Dyrholaey and Reynisfjara (gorgeous black sand beach with basalt columns, statuesque sea stacks, and insane waves), Fjaðrárgljúfur (which I will never be able to pronounce but will always remember as being a massive and breath taking canyon), and tons of waterfalls of course. You then come upon two Glacier Lagoons (Jökulsárlón is the one most people know of, but there is also a smaller one called Fjallsárlón, which was also lovely) and Diamond Beach.
Here is the saddest part of my trip. Diamond Beach is exquisite. Black sand beaches next to white, clear and blue mini icebergs that have washed up ashore from the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon before they melt or get taken back out to sea. I am a person who likes to take pictures of the scenery without me in it usually. But I do pose for photos or in front of sights on occasion, and I decided I wanted to pose for a picture on a mini iceberg on the beach. I have included this photo! While posing, Eric yells at me to run because a giant wave is coming in! The ocean had been particularly rough all day. I spring into action, jump down from the iceberg and run further inland. The wave rocked the iceberg I had been on, and did come over the tops of my boots as I ran. I was fine, but my camera, which I had stowed away in my pocket, had fallen out and been swept away by the wave. I looked around everywhere for it, hoping to find it somewhere salvageable on the sand. I got SOAKED as inevitably more waves, some other giant ones, crashed against the beach, and eventually had to give up and admit defeat. Sadly the Iceland ocean gods had seen fit to take my camera as a little offering, and I just had to deal with losing all of the first 3 days worth of photos. Luckily, Eric had taken most of the same shots, but there were enough photos only I had taken, that were then lost forever.
Tip for travelers: The waves are scarier than they look and they WILL steal your camera (or you) if you are not careful! Zippered pockets or a neck-strap for your camera are your friend. Luckily that night I saw the most amazing Aurora display in Höfn after dinner. It stole my heart! I could see the greens and even other colors like red to the naked eye, expanding over the sky, dancing right above me. It was the best display of the whole trip, and ALMOST made up for losing my camera. Iceland giveth and Iceland taketh away. I guess the Gods liked my photos 😉
SWIM IN ALL THE POOLS! I cannot stress enough how this was one of the best choices Eric and I made the whole trip. Every single night (except one because the regular pool in Mývatn was closed indefinitely and we had already done the more expensive nature baths the night before) we swam in either a natural hot pool, or city pools. Because Iceland sunset was around 6pm at this time of year, and we didn’t want to miss sights driving at night (while driving the entire Ring road, obviously the hours of driving include sight-seeing!), we decided that we would have a nice swim and soak to relax and enjoy ourselves after our jam packed days. It is also mandatory to shower before going into any of the pools, so it was the perfect way to have showers every day while travelling around in the camper van. Plus, we made some Icelandic friends in the pools!
First night, Secret Lagoon. Hottest natural pool we went into, and a great way to start off our new tradition. My favorite city pools were Kirkubæjarklaustur (we made friends here and the scenery is particularly amazing right outside), Höfn (they had an ice bath and the hottest hot tub we could find), Hofsós (infinity pool!), Húsafell (we met the men who put up the emergency bridge here in the hot tubs!) and Akranes (nice facility). All of the city pools we went to were outdoors and heated, plus they had a minimum of two to three hot tubs of different temperatures to choose from! Mývatn Nature Baths was nice, and would be particularly enjoyable after a day of exploring. We did also indulge at the Blue Lagoon on our last night with the camper van. After enjoying all of the much cheaper pools as much as I did, I was initially regretting having pre-booked our expensive Blue Lagoon stay. I’m glad I did though! The water temperature was perfect, even in the evening the water is a beautiful blue. We picked a package that had a drink with it, so this was a nice addition. The mud and algae masks, steam rooms, saunas and hot waterfall were really quite enjoyable as well. I thoroughly enjoyed my time at the Blue Lagoon and would definitely do it again, except this time I would add on a meal at LAVA, which is supposed to be divine.
Finally, I would recommend having a truly Icelandic experience of swimming in the Reykjadalur hot springs. It is kind of like a thermal stream or river that you can bathe in right out in nature! There is a nice hike leading up to the bathing spots as well, which means you earn your soak 🙂 I was very glad I managed to fit this experience in to my Iceland trip. Take-home message: SWIM!
A few more tidbits and advice for anyone who has made it through my diatribe so far!
- Alcohol is incredibly expensive here, if you drink load up at the duty free on your way into the country. A travel app called Appy Hour might also serve you well in the cities. Bars were open until 5 AM in Reykjavik so if nightlife is your thing, this would be the city to do it!
- Food is also expensive! You can save money by making some of your own meals in the camper van. I brought backpacker meals and protein bars from home to reduce eating out costs. I highly recommend Skýr yogurt!! It’s good for breakfast with granola, or even just as a snack, and it’s pretty cheap. BÓNUS the grocery store is the least expensive, stock up here 🙂
- Gas is expensive. Just know that and accept it, fill up whenever you can, just in case. You have to return the van full anyways 😉
- DON’T buy water! Tap water is delicious and you can even drink out of most streams. Save your money for everything else.
- DO take a city walk tour in Reykjavik. Run by history students and a nice way to get introduced to some of the history and culture in Iceland. We loved our tour guide Jo.
- DO indulge in at least one nice meal in Iceland. I went to Kol in Reykjavik for a 3 course meal (without the wine pairings $$$) and it was phenomenal. REYKJAVIK IS FOR EATING!
- DO have lamb, fish, and other seafood while here – it’s fresh and local and I found it delicious. I had a traditional cod fish dish in Akureyri called Plokkfiskur (at Akureyri Fish & Chips), which was very satisfying. I had free traditional lamb soup on the first day of Winter given out on one of the main streets in Reykjavik. I had langoustine in Höfn, the langoustine capital of the world, (at Humarhöfnin) yum! I also tried the hot dogs… I don’t see what all the fuss is about. Ha!
- Bakeries are also your friend! DO have bread or baked goods from a bakery. Delish! Also smjör or butter is a good pairing. TIP: They have the same coffee machines as everyone else, and they may be cheaper, plus they are open earlier than many other establishments in October if you need a coffee fix while on the road.
- Hvitserkur was cool! We saw seals there!
- DO look for the Aurora from the plane at night! I saw the Aurora for the first time from my window seat on the plane. I considered my trip a success before I had even landed
- The Golden Circle is alright, but do try to see beyond the tourist trap area. I was so glad I didn’t limit myself to this because my favorite Iceland adventures were the ones on paths (relatively) less traveled.
Hope you enjoyed my take on travelling the Ring Road in Iceland. I leave with a lot of great memories of my time there, and one item checked off my bucket list!
Read more: Walking on Lava
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