Hey Woks of Life Travel readers. I just got back from Iceland!
We washed dishes in the frigid spray of gas station car washes, negotiated pee breaks in the unpredictable, often unrelenting Icelandic wind and rain, and diligently scarfed a magical snack known as Cheez Cruncherz (because S’s aren’t as good as Z’s) while trying not to get
cheese cheez dust on the front seats.
…it was so amazing that when I’m out walking the streets of New York City and spot any old van being driven by say, an exterminator…or a guy from Time Warner, I feel a twinge of deep longing and nostalgia.
In this Iceland Itinerary post, I have indeed included a detailed (yet flexible!) 10-day Iceland itinerary for wanderlusters, as well as a few anecdotes and lots of pretty pictures for those of you who just need a 15-minute armchair (or office chair) escape.
Iceland Itinerary: How to Drive Iceland’s Ring Road in 10 Days
So. It’s no secret that I love to travel and share our experiences with all of you to help fuel adventures of your own. But until today, you may not have been fully aware of just how into “planning” I can get.
A 10-day road trip. In a van. In a foreign country. Those parameters unleashed the planner in me like no other vacation has until now. Anyone I’ve traveled with will tell you that I always create a detailed Google Doc for every trip I go on (I very much hope this is an endearing quality), but my Iceland Itinerary doc surpassed them all. At 19 pages long, I included such minute details as driving times between individual locations (with contingency plans for bad weather), which exact grocery stores we’d be hitting, and the specific days we’d have access to a washer/dryer.
Iceland Ring Road Map
I also went full nerd and made this sweet map, marking everything from sightseeing spots and thermal baths to campgrounds and supermarkets:
Click here to get the map. You can copy it and download it on your phone, and even use it to navigate when offline in Iceland.
This attention to detail, it turns out, is very useful in Iceland, where the entire local population is ~300,000 people, and you can drive for hours without seeing anything but spectacular scenery and maybe a herd or two of very relaxed Icelandic horses.
I’ve included lots of detail in the following 10-day itinerary, and I’ll also be following up this post with another––a guide to traveling Iceland in a camper van, i.e. not so much the itinerary as the logistics involved. It too will be laughably thorough, don’t you worry.
So, without further ado, let’s start with Day 1.
Land in Reykjavik, pick up car/van/vehicle of choice.
Upon our arrival in Iceland at 6 AM, first thing was first. We made our way to the rental office to pick up our camper van. For our Icelandic road trip, we chose a rental company called Cozy Campers. I’ll go into more detail in that upcoming camper van post I mentioned, but I can’t recommend them enough (and they didn’t pay me to say that).
Justin and I are also now firm believers in the fact that a camper van is the ONLY way to see Iceland if you plan to drive around the country on the Ring Road. It’s your hotel, kitchen, and mode of transportation––all in one. There’s also something incredibly freeing about having everything you need with you at all times. It’s my favorite way to travel.
Stock up on groceries at Bónus.
Bónus. This grocery store’s logo is a seemingly drunk piggy bank with a black eye.
I do not know what this signifies.
Stock up on food here before you head out of Reykjavik. Eating in Iceland is expensive. A hot dog and soda can run you $12 at a gas station, and actual restaurants are even more expensive, not to mention few and far between. You’ll want the flexibility and freedom of cooking all your own meals––another reason why living out of a van is the way to go.
We got to Bónus an hour before the store opened (at 11 AM…weird for two people from New York, the land of 24-hour everything), but just pulled into the parking lot, popped out the bed in the back, and took an hourlong nap. God, I miss that van.
I’ll talk more about what we bought and how I did all the meal planning in my other post on camper van logistics, but my last bit of advice for now is, do not leave Bónus without these:
You’ll thank me later.
Drive to Þingvellir National Park (~45 mins from Reykjavik)
One of the most popular tourist destinations in Iceland, Þingvellir National Park is part of the Golden Circle, a sightseeing route close to Reykjavik that includes other sites like Gulfoss Waterfall and the Geysir geothermal area.
The advantage of this is that if you have limited time in Iceland, you can see a bunch of cool things that are all relatively close together––not far at all from Reykjavik, Iceland’s largest city.
Tour buses! Crowds!
There are countless tours that focus only on the Golden Circle, so while we did spend time here, we were in and out of these sites pretty quickly. We spent about 2 hours at Þingvellir, exploring the walking paths, checking out Öxarárfoss Waterfall and some of the historical sites.
Þingvellir is also the location of the Silfra fissure, which sits between 2 continental plates––North America and Europe. You can snorkel and dive there, if that’s your thing!
Hike to Reykjadalur (~1 hour from Þingvellir)
Iceland is full of hot springs and geothermal pools, the most famous of which is probably The Blue Lagoon in Reykjavik. In an effort to avoid *Tourists! Crowds!* we decided to skip the Blue Lagoon altogether and check out alternatives.
Reykjadalur is one such alternative––a hot springs river at the end of a very cool hike.
We were in Iceland in March, the tail end of winter, so we did have to negotiate snow and ice along the hike, as well as a wintry mix of rain and sleet that soaked right through our pants (I wore jeans on this hike, because it was my first day in Iceland and I was dumb. Get real rain pants, and you’ll be much happier AND smarter than I was.)
If you plan to go to Iceland in March (which is a great time to go, by the way), it’s not a bad idea either to invest in some crampons like these. They cost less than $30 and make hiking so much easier. I remember one particular instance in which I was literally sliding backwards along ice on a steep incline, and a girl in crampons just cruised on by me. Also keep an eye on the footing in general––what looks like a solid snow-packed path ahead could be hollow underneath!
Other things to bring on this hike:
- Hiking boots. The only shoe you will need in Iceland, trust me. Leave your fuzzy snow boots at home; they’ll just get muddy, and you’ll be upset.
- Rain gear. The weather in Iceland changes every few minutes, not an exaggeration. If you have any doubts as to whether or not that jacket in the back of your closet is *really* waterproof? Stop kidding yourself and buy a legit waterproof jacket.
- A swimsuit. Yes, you’ll have to get naked and change in front of other people. Be FREE!
- A towel. The worst part of the entire experience is going to be getting out of the water and freezing your buns off while changing back into your regular clothes. Your towel is your savior.
- A plastic bag to put your wet swimsuit in later. This is the grandma in me talking. Wouldn’t want to get your backpack wet!
- Oh, and don’t forget to bring water and a snack for when you get hungry, kids.
When you get to the river, test out the water before getting in, because the further upstream you go, the warmer the water becomes.
To Be Honest, the water wasn’t really THAT warm where we were. A fact that Justin was quick to point out whilst telling me that he probably wasn’t going in.
But we were in ICELAND, we had just hiked almost 3 miles, and I was going to sit in that geothermal river, darn it.
I convinced Justin to join me, though I’m not sure how happy he was about it.
All that said, my advice is just to keep walking upstream until you find a warmer spot. We didn’t have a ton of time, as we started the hike in the afternoon, and sunset was in 90 minutes. That said, if you’re here in summer, you’ll have a lot more daylight to work with.
Stay at Skjol Campground (~1 hour from Reykjadalur)
One of the weird things about Iceland is that many of the country’s “campgrounds” are smack dab in the middle of towns and villages. They’re just grassy fields to park in, surrounded by buildings and houses. It struck us as very “anti-camping,” and for most of the trip, we found off-the-beaten path places to park the van for the night.
(Icelandic authorities have recently cracked down on this kind of thing, but as long as you’re not on private property, close to a main road, or in a location that explicitly prohibits overnight parking, you probably won’t have any issues.)
But Skjol Campground is actually great option, especially after an afternoon of hiking and wading through a silty, mossy river. There’s a restaurant and hostel next to the campground, with bathrooms/showers and access to laundry, and it’s not surrounded by street lights or houses.
Gulfoss Waterfall (~10 minutes from Skjol)
Iceland is full of incredible waterfalls, just casually tumbling from cliffs along the road. Gulfoss is one of the most impressive when it comes to size. It’s quick stop to hop out of the car and take a look.
Haukadalur (~10 minutes from Gulfoss)
A valley full of geothermal activity, Haukadalur is filled with multiple geysers, including Strokkur, which spouts water every 5-10 minutes.
Gamla Laugin “The Secret Lagoon” (~30 minutes from Haukadalur)
We didn’t actually make it to the Secret Lagoon on our trip, but we DID receive a discount coupon for this place from the people at Skjol, and I love a good discount.
Unlike Reykjadalur, The Secret Lagoon natural pool has amenities, with showers, a bar, and food. The pool is surrounded by several hot springs, and stays at a temperature of about 38-40 degrees C throughout the year. It’s open from 11 AM – 8 PM, $28pp.
If you’re not into hiking or didn’t have enough time to do Reykjadalur the day before, you can also opt for The Secret Lagoon instead.
Kerið Crater (~30 minutes from Gamla Laugin)
There’s a small fee to get in, and you can walk down to the lake at the bottom (it was frozen when we were there), as well as around the rim.
SeljalandsfossFalls & Gljúfrafoss (~1 hour and 15 minutes from Kerið)
We ended up hanging out at this spot for several hours, as it features not one, but two waterfalls.
There’s a nice walking path between the falls…
And from Seljalandsfoss, you can get to Gljúfrafoss, a hidden waterfall just a short walk away.
By the time we were done exploring the area, it was around 6:30. We decided to make dinner in the Seljalandsfoss parking lot, with the waterfall as our evening view.
We were treated to a pretty great sunset too.
That night, we stayed at Hamragarðar Campground, just down the road. There was no one in the campground office, though the doors were unlocked, giving us access to a kitchen area, a bathroom (sinks and toilets only, no showers), and laundry.
In the wintertime, several campgrounds across Iceland remain open but unstaffed, and there are “honesty boxes” where you can leave money.
There was no honesty box in this particular campground, so the next morning, we made breakfast in the kitchen (Eggs, toast, bacon. We met a Brazilian couple who walked inside and immediately asked if we were American. “The bacon is a dead giveaway.”), and left the money under the door before heading out.
Skógafoss (~25 minutes from Hamragarðar)
Another beautiful waterfall, a quick stop on the way to our next stop…
Sólheimasandur (Abandoned DC Plane, ~15 minutes from Skógafoss)
This excursion will take about 2 hours to complete. Just minutes down Route 1 (i.e. the Ring Road) from Skógafoss, you’ll see a rather nondescript parking lot where this hike begins:
It’s a flat, somewhat monotonous hike, but if you stick it out, you’ll finally reach a black sand beach, with a view of the ocean and this:
An abandoned US Navy plane that crashed on the beach in 1973. :(
Though everyone in the plane survived! :)
Dyrhólaey Arch & Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach (~20 minutes from the plane wreck parking lot)
This black sand beach was crowded when we got there, so if abandoned plane wrecks aren’t your thing, you can skip that altogether and just get to this beach early. These spots are apparently great places to watch the sunrise.
There are two parts here. First, there’s Dyrhólaey Arch (it’s easy to drive right past the road leading to the arch, so keep an eye out). Further down the road, you’ll find Reynisfjara, featuring dramatic basalt columns and sea stacks.
Vik (~30 minutes from Reynisfjara)
One of the larger towns along the Ring Road. Stop for gas and maybe restock on snacks or groceries, but not sure why else anyone would linger too long here.
But that could just be the grizzled mountain man in me that rejects any sign of civilization on a trip like this.
Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon (~1 hour from Vik)
Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon is about 300 feet deep and a mile and a half long. You can get a good view down the canyon from a small bridge next to the parking lot. You can also walk along the canyon on a path above it, though the ground here was rather spongy and muddy, which made the journey difficult.
I’ve heard that you can also hike into the canyon, though it looked like you’d be wading into that river at some point. Looks like it could be very fun with the right gear.
Drive toward Skaftafell
Skaftafell is a wilderness area in Iceland’s very large Vatnajökull National Park. This was the one area where I wished we had spent more time. We had an Ice Cave/Glacier Hike Tour the next morning though, so it was one of the few instances during the trip when we were on a bit of a tight schedule.
On the way there, we drove past a series of dramatic glacier landscapes. We pulled onto the side of the road with a really great view of one, made some tea, and just hung out there for a while.
That night, we stayed at Skaftafell Campground, which had showers, laundry, and dishwashing facilities.
(It’s about an hour from Fjaðrárgljúfur by the way, because I’ve committed to this whole driving time between spots thing and I’m not gonna stop now.)
Main reason why I wish we’d had more time at Skaftafell. In pursuit of early morning Ice Caving and Glacier Hiking, we missed out on this short hike to a very cool waterfall, surrounded by basalt rock formations. The hike can be reached from Skaftafell’s campground, so definitely check it out if you have time.
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon (~45 minutes from Skaftafell)
Our next stop was Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon.
The lagoon was beautiful to look at, with the glaciers in view out in the distance, and a little rainbow peeking out from behind the clouds.
Ice Cave Tour/Glacier Hike/Kayaking
The Lagoon parking lot is also the meeting point for many of the ice cave tours, glacier hikes, and kayaking tours in the area.
Many of these tours last only a couple hours, but I chose a combination Ice Cave/Glacier Hike thing with a company called Ice Guide that would make up the majority of our day (all told, it lasted about 6-7 hours).
The Ice Caves and Glacier Hikes are only available in the winter season from November to March (another reason to go to Iceland in March!), but in the summer, they also offer kayaking in the lagoon.
We boarded one of these “Super Jeeps,” and were comically jostled around in it on a very fun drive down a dirt “road” that was basically just a series of boulders, ditches, and creek crossings.
Appropriately jostled, we reached Breiðamerkurjökull, an outlet glacier off the larger Vatnajökull glacier that the national park is named for.
We were given helmets, ice axes, crampons, and harnesses. (Tip: Leave your long coats at home or in the van. They kind of get in the way of the harness.)
And began the hike.
The highlights of which included crossing this very sketchy bridge:
Learning how to put on crampons:
Admiring the scenery:
And WALKING ON THIS GLACIER:
When we reached the cave entrance…
We hooked onto the ropes and made our way down a series of ice stairs.
Another delightfully sketchy bit of scaffolding and a delightfully wobbly ladder later…
We were in the cave.
We actually checked out two different caves on the tour, which was a welcome surprise. Since winter was nearing its end, the caves were dripping with melting ice. The water is so clean that you can fill your water bottles with it. It was all pretty amazing.
Fjallsárlón Glacier Lagoon
We didn’t manage to hit this spot either, but this little lagoon is located almost directly next to the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. It’s only about a tenth of the size of Jökulsárlón, but you can also get much closer to the glacier from the beach. You’ll also see fewer people in this lesser known spot.
In terms of where to spend the night, there’s a campground in the nearby town of Höfn, but we opted for a “side of the road” night.
Which turned out to be a very good decision, because we were treated to a Northern Lights sighting that evening, starting at about 8:30 PM. It began as a sort of vaguely green ribbon in the sky, and eventually turned into a full-on, green & purple show of dancing lights. It was the only night on the entire trip where we got that sweet spot of darkness, clear skies, and a promising aurora forecast.
We agreed that Day 5 was our favorite day of the trip.
Because Day 5 was one of those magical days you have on a road trip, when you don’t necessarily have any particular points of interest to see––it’s all about the drive.
It was also a perfect day, weather-wise. Relatively warm, sunny, and crystal clear, with ever-present views of gorgeous mountains and jewel blue water. It was like a wintry version of the Pacific Coast Highway trip my sister and I documented on the blog a while back.
Throughout the day, we stopped at picnic areas and pull-offs, just enjoying the view.
We were navigating from Höfn to Egilsstaðir, making sure to take the East Fjords route, rather than the inland route. That section of drive can take anywhere between 4-6 hours, depending on how many stops you make.
Always make sure to check road conditions and closures in Iceland, especially in wintertime.
Restock on food at Bónus
Since Egilsstaðir is a relatively large town, we of course decided to stop at Bónus to restock supplies.
We also picked up these:
The verdict: Good. But not as good as Cheez Cruncherz.
Seyðisfjörður (~30 minutes from Egilsstaðir)
After that, we decided to take a quick detour to see the artisan town of Seyðisfjörður. Definitely check the road conditions here, because the road leading to this fjord town can get snowy and icy. Seyðisfjörður is famous for its beauty, as well as (we later found out) a famous sushi restaurant called Nord Austur.
We skipped the sushi, but we did spend some time driving through this small town. There’s also a campground here if you’d like to spend more time walking around or having dinner.
We decided to head back out onto the road and look for a place to park the van for the night. We opted for the “random side-of-the-road sleep spot” approach for the rest of the trip. Have I mentioned how much I miss it?
Dettifoss & Selfoss (~2 hours and 30 minutes from Egilsstaðir)
Dettifoss is the most powerful waterfall in Europe. The most important tip I can give you here is to navigate not to “Dettifoss,” but either “Dettifoss Parking East” or “Dettifoss Parking West.” (We ended up at the West Parking Lot.) Otherwise, Google Maps will try to take you down this weird dirt road that was closed when we got there. In fact, you should try to navigate to a parking lot whenever possible as a general rule. Luckily, we saw another van turn off in a different direction, and just followed it.
From the parking lot, it’s about a 20 minute walk to Dettifoss, and you can also follow signs to a smaller waterfall, Selfoss. Two for the price of one!
Lake Myvatn (~1 hour from Dettifoss Parking West. The drive will be slightly longer from the East Parking Lot)
Lake Myvatn is a volcanic lake, surrounded by natural hot springs, lava fields, and other eggy-smelling sulfurous landscapes. There are lots of things to see in this area, all relatively close together.
Krafla, Leirhnjukur Lava Fields & Viti Crater
You’ll drive past a geothermal power plant, and get to the top of a hill, where you’ll see several parking lots. There are very few signs here indicating where you are in the Krafla area (we deemed all of Iceland’s supposed “informational” signs pretty useless), but the first parking lot on your left after the power plant is the one for Leirhnjukur trail.
When we arrived, it was incredibly muddy, so we decided to skip Leirhnjukur, lest we get the van stuck in said mud (always be careful where you put your car/van in Iceland. Get out and check the footing if you have to. We saw a car get stuck in the mud, and it’s not like you can expect help to come anytime soon in the middle of nowhere).
We did get to see Viti Crater, which was a quick stop. You can also hike around the rim if you like!
On the way in, we’d passed what looked like a random shower on the side of the road. Just spraying water in the middle of a snowy gravel lot.
After six days of living in a van, our priorities in life had shifted a bit. Justin and I were easily excited by a whole host of new things. For instance:
- The size and tensile strength of a Bónus grocery bag, the most high quality garbage bag in all the land.
- A good piece of string or cord, which, when tied up in the van, functioned as a clothesline that perfectly fit our bathing suits. Score.
- Clean dishes.
- By extension, any location where we could inconspicuously wash said dishes.
- And…the very-rare-and-almost-impossible-to-find dishwashing location where the water is warm.
So, when we passed that random shower on the side of the road with a load of dirty dishes in the back of the van, you better believe we pulled off to check it out.
And ya know what? It checked all the boxes. The water was heated by the geothermal activity in the surrounding area, and it was very warm. We later found out that this spot was called “The Perpetual Shower.” We’d done dishes in bathrooms, random campgrounds, hostels, and gas stations, but this was by far the coolest dishwashing spot ever.
It might be weird to call out a spot where we washed dishes to be a trip highlight, but like I said, different priorities.
Námafjall Hverir (~15 minutes from Krafla)
Walking into this geothermal area feels like walking onto another planet.
We saw pots of bubbling mud, fumaroles spewing warm steam and gas, and the barren yet colorful cracked ground in shades of red, yellow, orange, and white.
Myvatn Nature Baths (~5 mins away from Namafjall Hverir)
Kind of a smaller Blue Lagoon, Myvatn Nature baths is a man-made lagoon that’s naturally heated. It was a very cool spot, and it was definitely a lot less crowded than the Blue Lagoon would be. It’s open from 12 PM to 10 PM, so you could even making an evening of it or try to view the Northern Lights from the pool.
Like all public baths in Iceland, you have to shower before you get into the pool, so this is also a good spot for a shower if, ahem, it’s been a few days.
We arrived in what was basically blizzard-level snow:
But after 30 minutes or so, it turned into rain.
And then it cleared:
Icelandic weather, man.
Goðafoss (Waterfall of the Gods, ~45 mins from Lake Myvatn)
Another casually beautiful waterfall and a quick stop!
Akureyri (~45 minutes from Lake Myvatn)
The largest city in Northern Iceland. We stopped here for…what else? Bónus.
The verdict: Better than Cheez Ballz. Not as good as Cheez Cruncherz. Not sure why they’re Cheez Doodles and not Cheez Doodlez.
Scenic Drive through Northern Iceland
We drove from Akureyri to Dalvik (~35 mins), to Siglufjörður (~35 mins), and then to Hofsós (~50 mins). This drive is quite beautiful, but not as beautiful as the East Fjords, so if you’re short on time, you can skip it!
Stop at Hofsós Thermal Baths
One of the most impressive swimming pools in Iceland, this is probably the only attraction in the tiny town of Hofsós. The view from the pool is over the fjord, to Drangey island, and we were able to watch the sunset here. It was also another opportunity to get a good shower in, and at $9/person, it was very affordable.
We drove back Westward, headed straight for Snæfellsnes Peninsula––home of Snæfellsjökull National Park. I grouped together days 8/9, because I treated one of them as a buffer day––a comfortable 24 hour cushion to give us more flexibility throughout the trip.
Our first stop was:
Kirkufjell (~4 hours from Hofsós)
This is one of the most photographed spots in Iceland.
Not sure why.
It’s a nice mountain.
Took this casual drive-by photo:
Hotel Buðir & Buðir Church
We made a quick stop at this hotel…
They have a restaurant that you can make a reservation at as well.
And also checked out this historic black wooden church behind the hotel:
The driving through Snæfellsjökull National Park and the greater peninsula was beautiful, and we just followed signs and explored the area.
Here are some of the other things we saw:
Laugarbrekka Historical Site
Birthplace of the first European woman to bear a child in the Americas.
Djúpalónssandur Black Sand Beach
Reykjavik (~2 hours and 45 minutes from Snæfellsjökull National Park)
Depending on how long you’d like to stay in Reykjavik, you can head back to civilization earlier or later. On the way back, you can also opt to hike Glymur Falls, the second tallest waterfall in Iceland, and by all accounts a beautiful hike.
We didn’t make it there, opting instead to spend a few more hours walking the streets of Reykjavik and relaxing in our Airbnb on our last night in Iceland.
After a week of home cooking in the van, we also finally tried some Icelandic food at a place called “Icelandic Street Food.”
The menu is limited, but see that thing on the right of the menu board? The thing about the “1 free refill?”
It’s no joke. You get two full servings of each thing, for the price of one.
We ordered the Fisherman’s Favorite:
And the Lamb Soup.
Another perk? Free dessert:
We left Iceland very full and very happy.
I hope I included enough detail in this post to help you plan your own Iceland itinerary for however many days you plan to be on the Ring Road. It was an amazing trip, and if you’ve been considering Iceland for your next travel destination, don’t hesitate. Just go!
Stay tuned for my second post on my favorite topic: how to live out of a van for 10 days.