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A road trip through the Nordic nation of Iceland should be on everyone’s bucket list. The beautiful scenery is endless and is unlike anything else. The immense amount of natural attractions include waterfalls, glaciers, volcanoes, and black sand beaches. There is no better way to explore Iceland than by driving the Ring Road. Iceland’s Ring Road, or Route 1, encircles the entire country and is its one main road. It covers 1,322 km (821 mi) and connects most of Iceland’s inhabited parts. Renting a car and traveling independently is the best way to see everything the Ring Road has to offer; however, there are tours available throughout the country. The Ring Road is fairly easy to drive. Route 1 is well paved and has plenty of gas stations and rest areas, but the weather can vary greatly and can be challenging. A vehicle with 4-wheel drive is recommended in wetter months or if you plan on visiting more remote locations.
The weather should also be taken into account when planning the length of your trip. The entire length of the Ring Road can technically be driven in under 24 hours, but you can expect it to take at least a week when making stops along the way. There are so many incredible places to stop for photos that even a week is pushing it. During the summer months, 8-10 days is ideal and 2 weeks is recommended for winter months. You never know when you might have to unexpectedly stop and wait out a snowstorm during the winter. Many of Iceland’s most popular attractions are found along the South Coast, so I recommend making it the focus of your trip. The following is the perfect five-day itinerary for driving Iceland’s Ring Road and exploring its stunning southern coast:
Day 1: Reykjavik
Reykjavik is Iceland’s capital city and the main hub for international travel. Most travelers will either begin or end their journey here. It’s a great place to spend some time soaking up Icelandic culture. The small and artsy city is full of colorful houses, quirky cafes, and museums. Be sure to take in the views from the tower at Hallgrimskirkja Church and visit the world-famous Blue Lagoon. There are also many great day trips that can be done out of Reykjavik. The Golden Circle is one of Iceland’s top attractions and is an absolute must. It can be visited from Reykjavik or added to the beginning or end of this itinerary. You’ll need at least two days to explore the city plus additional time for any day trips you may be interested in.
Where to Stay in Reykjavik:
Kex is a trendy hostel in what was once an old biscuit factory. It’s conveniently located in the city center and is one of Reyjavik’s hippest places to stay. It has a great bar and patio area and is just a short walk from Laugavegur shopping street.
Fosshotel Reykjavik is a 16-floor hotel with modern and stylish rooms. It has an on-site restaurant and even a beer garden. The location is great and is within walking distance of many of Reykjavik’s attractions.
Day 2: Reykjavik to Vik
The drive from Reykjavik to Vik is 185 km (115 mi) and is about two and a half hours without stops. This stretch has some of the best attractions on the south coast so I recommend an early start.
Seljalandsfoss is the first stopping point and is a little under two hours from Reykjavik. It’s one of Iceland’s most visited waterfalls, mainly due to its location right off the Ring Road. It can actually be seen from the road and is nearly impossible to miss. Seljalandsfoss is fairly large with a drop of 60m (200ft). It may not be quite as big as some of Iceland’s falls, but it does have a feature that the others don’t. Visitors can actually walk behind it for a completely different perspective. Just be prepared to get drenched.
Seljavallalaug is a swimming pool tucked away in the mountains. It’s was built in 1923 and is one of the oldest pools in Iceland. The pool is built into the landscape and the secluded area is a great place to relax. To reach the pool, continue driving down Route 1 for about 40 min and then turn onto Route 242. From the parking lot, you will begin hiking north. The hike is short and takes about 20 minutes each way. The terrain can be a bit rocky and wet so make sure you have the proper footwear. The pool is free to use and there is a changing room on-site; however, there are no showers.
Another 20 minutes down the road is Skogafoss. Skogafoss is one of Iceland’s largest waterfalls. The waterfall is 62 meters tall (200ft) and 25 m (82 ft) wide. It sits on the Skoga River and the powerful waters flow from two different glaciers, the Eyjafjallajokull and Myrdalsjokull glaciers. A series of 370 steep steps can be found on the side of the falls. The climb is exhausting but the view is worth it. There’s an observation deck that sits over the waterfall and the coastline can be seen for miles. It’s impossible not to get wet, so visitors will want to dress in rain gear.
Solheimasandur Plane Crash
In 1973, a US Navy DC plane crashed on the black sand beach of Solheimasandur in Southern Iceland. It is said that the plane either encountered severe weather or it ran out of fuel. All the crew members survived, but the fuselage was abandoned. It remains there today, on a desolate stretch of beach, slowly deteriorating away. The site is easily accessible but is also easy to miss.
After departing from Skogafoss, visitors will want to pay close attention to the road. Not far on Route 1 will be a bridge with blinking yellow lights and an access road to Solheimajokull Glacier on the left. Continue driving straight for another 2 km (1.25 mi), until you come to another dirt road on the right. There will be a gate and a parking lot. If you go over a second bridge, then you have gone too far. Vehicles are no longer allowed to drive to the plane wreckage and visitors must walk. The walk is 4 km (2.5 mi) from the parking area to the plane and will take about 40 minutes each way, depending on the conditions when you visit.
Day 3: Vik
This day can be much more leisurely. Allow yourself to catch up on sleep before heading out to see the sights around the town of Vik.
Dyrholaey is a small peninsula located near the village of Vik. It’s famous for its giant volcanic arch, which the area is named after. Dyrholaey translates to “door hole”. The Peninsula is about 20 minutes from town and is accessed by taking Route 218 off of Route 1. The peninsula and is divided into an upper and lower portion. I recommend visiting the upper part first. From the 218, make a right and drive up the hill. An old lighthouse sits at the top and the views are wonderful. To the north is Myrdalsjokull glacier, to the east are the lava stacks of Reynisdrangar and to the west is the gorgeous coastline made up of black sand beaches. To continue to the lower portion, drive downhill on the 218. At the end of the road is a beautiful beach to explore.
Reynisfjara & Reynisdrangar
Reynisfjara & Reynisdrangar are located back near town. Reynisfjara is one of Iceland’s most stunning black sand beaches and has even made it on National Geographic’s top ten list of the most beautiful non-tropical beaches in the world. Large basalt sea stacks can be seen in the water. These are the stacks of Reynisdrangar. According to Icelandic legend, the sea stacks were once trolls. The trolls were in the process of dragging a ship from the sea when the sun rose and they became frozen.
If you look along the beach, you’ll see the mountain of Reynisfjall. At its base is a cave and a pyramid of tall basalt columns. The hexagonal-like columns are commonly formed near water when lava is slowly cooled over an extended period of time. The lava expands and contracts which gives the rocks their interesting shape. Just be mindful of your proximity to the water as the waves here are extremely powerful.
Village of Vik
The remote seaside village of Vik is Iceland’s southernmost town. Set aside some time to explore the small village and grab some lunch. Halldorskaffi is a great option for a meal. The restaurant serves locally sourced foods and is popular with both locals and tourists. It serves traditional Icelandic dishes as well as pizzas. A must-do while in town is the Vik i Myrdal Church. The traditional Icelandic church was built in 1934. It was built high on a hill during a time of depression in Iceland so when people looked up they would see the church and have hope. The surrounding views are breathtaking and you can even see Reynisfjara and Reynisdrangar.
Where to Stay in Vik
Icelandair Hotel Vik
Icelandair Hotel Vik is a modern boutique hotel. It’s located just off the Ring Road is conveniently located to many of Vik’s main attractions. The rooms are comfortable and they have a great breakfast buffet. The hotel can also arrange horseback riding and glacier tours for you.
Hotel Vík í Mýrdal
Hotel Vík í Mýrdal is a beautiful hotel not far from Vik’s black sand beaches. It’s made up of 78 hotel rooms, 15 self-service apartments, and five cottages. The cottages are made up of two twin rooms and are perfect for families.
Dream Guesthouse Vik
Dream Guesthouse Vik is a more budget-friendly option. The comfortable guesthouse has basic amenities and is also in close proximity to the beach.
Day 4: Vik to Skaftafell
The drive from Vik to Skaftafell is 140 km (87 mi) and takes just under two hours. Give yourself some extra time if you plan to stop along the way. I recommend getting an early start this day so you have plenty of time to hike around Skaftafell and take in all its beautiful sights.
Laufskalavarda is a lava ridge surrounded by stacked stones, called cairns. The stones are a long-standing tradition and have piled up over the years. At one point in time, travelers began stacking the stones for good luck before trekking across the desert-like plains of Myrdalssandur. Laufskalavarda is located about half an hour east of Vik and is an easy stop off of the Ring Road.
Eldhraun Lava Fields
Not much farther down the road is the beautiful moss-covered lava fields of Eldhraun. Eldhraun resulted from one of the most devastating volcanic eruptions of all time. The Lakagigar eruption took place in the 1780s and caused lava to spread over 650 km (404 mi). The fields can be seen from the road, but I recommend stopping at one of the turnouts to take some photos.
Skaftafell was originally established as Skaftafell National Park in 1967 but become part of the new Vatnajokull National Park in 2008. It’s a popular destination for hikers and favorite attractions include Svartifoss waterfall and Skaftafellsjokull glacier. Svartifoss waterfall is known for its spectacular black lava columns that surround the waterfall. There are plenty of hiking trails around and park rangers offer short tours during the summer months. Private companies are also located on-site offering glacier walks. To reach the park, continue on Route 1 and take Skaftafell Road. Follow it all the way to the visitor center.
Where to Stay Near Skaftafell
Hotel Skaftafell is located just ten minutes from the park. The three-star hotel has beautiful mountain and glacier views and offers a free breakfast. Staff is available to help arrange excursions and tours to the nearby glaciers.
Day 5: Skaftafell to Jokulsarlon
The Jokulsarlon lagoon area is 60 km (36 m) from Skaftafell and the drive takes about 50 minutes. This day isn’t packed with activities but I recommend getting on the road early to avoid the large tour busses arriving at the lagoon in the afternoon.
Fjallsarlon is about 40 minutes east of Skaftafell. It’s a stunning glacier lake that often gets overlooked. Many people tend to skip over it and go straight to the larger Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon. To reach the lake, make a left onto Fjallsarlon Rd from Route 1 and you’ll soon see a large parking area. The area is much quieter than that of Jokulsarlon and is a great place to relax and take in the scenery. Large chunks of ice from Vatnajokull glacier line the shoreline and a large mountain range can be seen in the distance.
Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon
Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon is located another 15 minutes down the road from Fjallsarlon. It’s the deepest and most incredible glacier lake in Iceland. Global warming has caused the size of the lake to quadruple in size since the 1970s. It currently covers 18 sq km (7 sq mi) and continues to grow each year. Ice breaks off of the Vatnajokull glacier and floats into the lagoon before eventually drifting out to sea.
To really experience the lake, I recommend booking a boat tour with Glacier Lagoon. They offer two types of tours. The first option is the amphibian boat tour which takes a medium-sized group out on the water. A guide shares information about the lake and you can sit back and relax as beautiful blue and black pieces of ice bob by. The other is a zodiac tour which is on a much smaller boat. It allows you to get closer to the ice and even pulls right up to the glacier if weather permits. Both tours are great. Make sure you are prepared with warm clothes and gloves.
Diamond Beach is not to be missed. It was my favorite stop on the south coast and one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen. The icebergs that escape from Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon are washed out to sea and eventually come ashore at Diamond Beach. The ice originates from Breidamerkurjokull glacier and the beach is actually called Breidamerkursandur in Icelandic. Tourists nicknamed it Diamond Beach after its glistening pieces of ice resembling diamonds on the black sand. The beach is just minutes from Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon. It’s located near the bridge on the opposite side of the highway from the lagoon.
I recommend spending this night near Jokulsarlon and departing in the morning. At this point, you can either turn around and head back to Reykjavik or continue driving the remainder of the Ring Road.
Where to Stay Near Jokulsarlon
Foss Hotel Glacier Lagoon
Foss Hotel is a modern hotel chain that can be found throughout Iceland. Foss Hotel Glacier Lagoon is fairly new and its great location makes it a popular choice. It’s located in between Skaftafell and Jokulsarlon. It is also a good option for the night near Skaftafell if you wish to move around less. The rooms are large, clean and many have beautiful mountain views.
Hali Country Hotel
Hali Country Hotel offers simple hotel rooms and apartments on a family-run farm. The apartments have a living room and kitchen. Rates are reasonable and the hotel is located just ten minutes east of Diamond Beach.
Tips for Driving Iceland’s Ring Road
- Request a vehicle with GPS and bring a physical map. I found that Google Maps wasn’t always reliable and didn’t recognize some destinations. The GPS in our rental car seemed to be much more on point. I also recommend bringing a physical map as you never know when you might be without phone service.
- Gas is expensive. Make sure you budget correctly. At the time this was written, gas was averaging around 228 ISK per liter or about $7 USD per gallon. If you find your card won’t work at the pump, just go inside the station. Many of the pumps won’t take foreign cards.
- Check the weather regularly and be flexible with your itinerary. The weather can change drastically from one day to the next. Winds can be extremely strong and you can even feel them push your vehicle while driving. Don’t let them catch you off guard.
- If you need a rental that is automatic or that has 4-wheel drive, make sure you request one in advance. They won’t always be available, especially during the high season.
- Pick up a SIM card at the airport or purchase/rent portable WIFI to save on phone costs. Rentals can be arranged prior to your arrival and delivered to your hotel.
Driving the south coast of Iceland’s Ring Road is an unforgettable travel experience and will be one of the most beautiful road trips you ever go on. The way the terrain dramatically changes from one element to another is truly amazing.
Have you visited Iceland’s south coast? What are your favorite stops? If you’ve enjoyed this post, please leave a comment or share using the social media buttons below. Spending a few days in Reykjavik is a must. There are so many terrific day trips within a few hours of the city. Continue to my post, “Six Easy Day Trips from Reykjavik, Iceland” for fun day trip ideas.