Iceland: A Trip Around the Ring Road - Hilary Lex
Upper Godafoss | September 2018

Iceland has really been a popular travel hotspot the past couple years. And deservedly so. The geographic landscape of this relatively small island is wildly diverse. I had one Instagram post soon after my trip that I think still perfectly sums up my overall feelings about traveling in Iceland:

"Iceland's Ring Road really was such a conflict for me. I wanted to just sit. Sit longer. Sit and soak it in and meditate on the beauty of what was so vibrant and rich right in front of my eyes. Beauty you don't come across often. But I also wanted to get going! I want to see what was next... what waited around the next turn. There was this conflict to sit & wait but to hurry & go see so that we wouldn't miss any of the beauty."

That's the hard thing about planning a trip to Iceland. There really just is not enough time to see all there is to see. We were there for 9 days (including the days we arrived and flew out). So I'll share our itinerary and resources, but also do my best to mention the compromises we had to make. IE places I wanted to see or hike to, but we simply ran out of time to do it and had to keep moving. 

Note on Lodging: When booking accommodations, we always looked at Airbnb FIRST. If we couldn't find a good option, then we would go through booking.com. We used physical map of Iceland to circle all the places we wanted to see so that we could plan our nightly stays accordingly. Also, I was lucky enough to use American Airlines airline miles to book my airfare at no cost to me. This was a major plus! We got a direct flight out of DFW.

Note on Food: Food is Iceland is incredibly expensive! This is where the bulk of your $ will go quite frankly. So in order to save a bit of cash throughout the week, I bought 10 freeze-dried camp meals from REI and packed them in my checked bag. My favorite brand is Good to Go Foods for their flavor! I brought my Snow Peak camp stove and we bought a gas canister from a gas station once we arrived. We almost always had lunch on the road this way. Plus buying camp food in the US was also much cheaper. 

Note on Rental Cars: Skip the GPS and definitely get the WIFI jetpack! So worth it and not that expensive for the day. It gives you full access the entire trip to all apps on your phone. Also, for the activities we did, 4WD was not necessary. For every single thing I mentioned, we did not use 4WD one time. Even to access Thingvellir National Park (which we skipped sadly), you can just park your car in the parking lot and hop on the park bus to get you through the tough parts.

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Day 1 : Arrival, Blue Lagoon, Selfoss

Arrive at Keflavík International Airport at 8:30 AM. Pick up rental car from Geysir and head straight over to The Blue Lagoon for some post red-eye flight relaxation and rejuvenation. Most folks will hit the Blue Lagoon either upon landing or prior to departing Iceland due to its proximity to the airport. 

Definitely make your reservation for the Blue Lagoon prior to arrival. It makes check in quicker. I know some people will skip the Blue Lagoon but gosh, we really loved our time there. We opted for a package that included robes and a lunch time meal. Lunch was expensive, but delicious and served with Prosecco. But here's the key y'all, after a long flight, this experience really launched us right into the perfect mindset and set us on the path of vacation mode right! I am a major advocate of hitting the Blue Lagoon - plus it's clean and they have all the amenities for you to get a shower and feel fresh for the next leg of your trip, whatever that may be. 

After the Blue Lagoon, we decided to take it relatively easy the remainder of the day. We made our way to our first stop for the night, Selfoss and caught up on sleep so we could avoid any evidence of jet lag the rest of the week. In Selfoss, we stayed at this lovely Airbnb, called Poets House, right off the main road. The hosts were lovely and the room was big and comfortable! Oh and pretty much every location we stayed had waffle mix made up and ready in the fridge for your self-serve breakfast the next morning! This was great because with as expensive as Iceland food is, to have free breakfast every AM certainly helped. Even if it was only a waffle :) 

Day 2 : Hot Spring River, Seljalandsfoss, Skógafoss, Dyrhólaey

Day 2 is a big day! Get up earlier than we did. We woke up around 8 AM in Selfoss, got ready for the day, packed the car back up and back tracked 15 minutes up the road to Hveragerdi. DO NOT MISS THIS!!! I repeat, DO NOT MISS HVERAGERDI! This was both mine and my mom's favorite morning of the entire trip.

In Hveragardi there is a Hot Spring River Trail that takes about an hour to hike up. To get to the trailhead you just drive down the main road in the town, keep left once you get to the end of that road and park your car anywhere at the end. The trail is straight-forward, wide and fairly simple. It takes about an hour to reach the river. The first half of the hike you have some incline to conquer, then just as it starts to flatten out, look left and you'll see this massive waterfall in a valley. You walk past some bubbling hot pots and then you approach some wooden platforms along a river. You've made it! There are a few wooden walls set up for changing. Biggest recommendation is go to the farthest possible spot on the river. The higher you go, the warmer the water. Those lower spots just aren't that warm and will leave you feeling unimpressed. 

You guys, I did NOT want to leave this spot! This was a perfect example of a place that I had allotted maybe 2 or so hours for and we ended being there for over 3 hours. It was raining a bit once we got to the top, we already had a swimsuits on and just stripped down and hopped in the river. We found some rocks to rest our head on and felt like we'd found a version of Heaven on Earth. Getting 'dry', taking off a wet swimsuit, and getting dressed in drizzly weather was not easy, but OH SO worth it! Again, my favorite morning of the whole trip. 

We had a camp meal in the car once we got down from the hike. And then we headed on to Seljalandsfoss. Seljalandsfoss is nice because it is literally right off the highway. It was pretty packed, but it's still a beautiful spot not to miss. The fun thing about Seljalandsfoss is that you can hike behind this waterfall and get a super interesting perspective.

While at Seljalandsfoss do NOT miss walking 500m down the dirt path (directly to the left of the falls as you face them). This path takes you over to a very small slot canyon leads to Gljufurarfoss. You have to walk through the slot canyon on rocks in a little creek - be sure to have your waterproof shoes on! Gaiters would even be a nice thing to have here. Also have your waterproof jacket with you for this one. You WILL GET WET! But that's the adventure of it all. Turn the corner around the slot canyon (not even 10 feet) and BAM! Waterfall! It is so magical, y'all. Please, please do yourself the adventurous favor of popping back there. This is one of those little spots that not as many people take the time to walk over to, but 100% their loss! These spots are what Iceland such a magical, jaw dropping place to visit. 

Alright, next we made our way down to Skógafoss. Skógafoss is significantly larger than Seljalandsfoss and another one that is on the coastline just off the highway. Park the car, walk right up - as close as you want to get! This was a fun waterfall for practicing my long exposures and my epic tripod-selfie game! Apparently you can hike UP Skógafoss, but again it was raining while we were there, so unfortunately I didn't look super hard for that. But just getting up as close as you can to this fall and capturing the perspective of it's ginormity is pretty awe-inspiring. 

Next, we continued to make our way towards Vík. Before checking into our Airbnb for the night, I wanted to make a stop at Dyrhólaey for sunset. Dyrhólaey is a prominent peninsula right before you pull into Vík. During the right time of year, apparently you see puffins here. Alas, we saw no puffins. However, the landscape was beautiful. I wish I would have had a bit more daylight there. We got there at sunset so the good lighting had already subdued. Certainly worth a stop. Not far off the highway and just a very unique coastline perspective. 

We finally got to our Airbnb in Vík around 8:30 pm or so. Our host had called worried about us (we missed our check in time), which I totally appreciated! This was a very cozy place. Not as much 'room' for our bags, but a large shared kitchen and living space. Only 1 bathroom though for 4 rooms so that was a minus. Still very clean and very comfortable. 

Also, we spent $0 on food today! Camp meals for the win.

Day 3 : Black Sand Beach, Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon, Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon, Höfn

Woke up in Vik and went straight over to the famous Reynisfjara Beach, also known as Black Sand Beach, for early AM shooting. Thankfully we were there well before the crowds. Unfortunately, I was not super inspired by many of the images I walked away from this morning. A testament to the complexity of composition and light and the need to continually learn. 

Next, we hit the road and let me take a pause here to note that while you're driving in Iceland there are just so so many opportunities to stop on the side of the road for all sorts of beautiful view points. The ones I mentioned are certainly NOT all inclusive! Mostly our high points. 

We took a detour on F206 to check out Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon. I read great things about this stop. But I'm going to be honest, I feel like this is one I wish we would have skipped. It was beautiful, there were lots of people, and much of it has been roped off for preservation purposes. And rightly so! We did see a couple folks get in trouble for stepping over the ropes just so they could get their 'epic' Instagram shot. Friends! PLEASE please Leave No Trace. Those ropes are there for a reason. The signs even explain those reasons! And the rangers do not take kindly to people that think they are above having to mind the rules. It's a basic respect thing, y'all. Do your part to ensure the next people that come can enjoy these sights just as you had the opportunity to do. 

INSTEAD, I wish that we would have gone to Svartifoss (Black Falls). Svartifoss is a 1.5 hour hike to this beautiful, basalt stack waterfall. I also would have loved to do an ice cave tour this day, but we just didn't make it happen. 

We hit the road for a long stretch through volcanic lava fields (so interesting!) to get to Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon and Diamond Beach. Jökulsárlón's parking lot right off the road is PACKED. Understand though that many of those cars are parked for ice cave and glacier hiking adventures. So do not pass! This is still a very worthwhile stop. The glaciers are beautiful, there are seals in the water, and birds flying everything. If you're there when the lighting is good - that's a bonus. You can also do a $53 USD zodiac boat tour to get up close and personal to the glaciers. We opted out of this, but I could have gone either way. Though I still regret not opting for an ice cave adventure. Again, skip Fjadrargljufur Canyon, go ice caving instead! 

Diamond Beach is directly across the street from Jökulsárlón Lagoon. So take advantage while there. It's also magical. But certainly more epic in the spring instead of the fall (when the glaciers on the beach are larger!).

We enjoyed sunset at Diamond Beach and finally made our way to Höfn for dinner. Höfn is known for it's fresh langoustine lobster. We ate at Humarhöfnin and it was simple and delicious. There are other great options in Höfn as well. But you definitely stop in Höfn for the lobster. After dinner we had to get over to our one and only Farm Stay of the trip (late for check in, again!), BUT this is where one of my other regrets lies. I wish we would have made it over to the Hoffell Hot Pots. I really think we needed two days in this general area looking back. The hot pots were a mere 15 minutes from our lodging outside of Höfn. A true travesty that we didn't go. Heck, even if we would have gone for a late night soak and some astrophotography, it would have been just as magical! Even more so I'm sure. Other bonus is there is a changing hut here. And I've heard it is never very busy. Apparently a place many people skip over. Back to the Farm Stay though... Dynjandi Farm was just lovely! It was a fantastic little spot with a bath house, great views, and horses all over the property. The breakfast was bountiful and the host was a wealth of knowledge. I wish we also would have had a bit more time to just enjoy the farm here.

Day 4 : Vestrahorn, Gufufoss, Seyðisfjörður

Today is an easy day. And after the last couple days of feeling rushed and like there just wasn't enough time to fit everything and checking in late two nights in a row, we. needed. today. But bonus, this was also one of our favorite days of the trip for a couple reasons I'll fill you in on below.

First stop, just about 10 minutes from Dynjandi Farm is the absolutely not to be missed Vestrahorn! Vestrahorn is stunning. This is the spot that you see all over social media of videos and pictures of people walking on water in front of a mountain that seems to shoot straight up out of the ocean. It costs around $6.50 USD to enter - do not let an entry fee deter you. It's privately owned land so with all the tourism, it helps these folks maintain it. They also have a lovely little cafe there. So you can stop ANYWHERE on the side of the road and just park, get out and walk. WALK ON THE WATER. In reality, of course, it's just a thin layer of water over sand that was left from the tide. But guys, this is so magical. We were out there in the morning and people were not on the water or walking out there to get the MOST INCREDIBLE reflection shots! Do it. It was so much fun. And we spent a decent amount of time there. Then, once you're done there you can go a bit further down and walk onto Vestrahorn Beach. Also a gorgeous perspective. Could have easily spent more time there.

We had at least 3 hours of driving this day with not a lot in between to see. We headed onto Seyðisfjörður in the East Fjords. If you go the route up through the mountains, apparently there's a healthy chance you'll see reindeer. Though we were told the roads are significantly thrilling and certainly not advisable without 4WD. We opted for the more coastal route. We stopped at Havari Farm around lunch time for their vegan sausage (called Bulsur) and a hot chocolate! Highly recommended quick and cheap lunch stop on the road!

And a bit later we caught our turn to Seyðisfjörður. We wanted to get there early to enjoy our house for the evening and walk around the little artists village. Most of the artist galleries and studios we unfortunately closed by the time we got settled in, BUT our host was a local artist himself and he gave us a personal, private tour of his little studio. So that was a plus! 

The drive to Seyðisfjörður alone is quite spectacular. We made a couple stops on the way down to the fjord. There was a canyon along the road that we wandered around for a bit (no one else was stopped, but we were intrigued) and then we stopped at Gufufoss. It's easy to miss as you come down, but we you come back up from Seyðisfjörður you can't miss it. It was a beautiful waterfall and I had a lot of fun climbing around that one! Only a couple other people were there while we were. That's what's fun about getting into the fjords - less people around. South Iceland is quite packed everywhere you go, but not as many people venture out east or north of the island.

Lastly, if you do decide to stay in Seyðisfjörður (which we HIGHLY recommend), you MUST MUST stay in this Airbnb!!! It is beautifully crafted and the VIEW is incredible. It was by far our favorite lodging of the ENTIRE trip. The reviews on Airbnb will mention that it's right next to a scrap yard and not directly connected to the little town. You guys... yes, it's next to a scrap yard but who cares and there was zero noise. Also, it's an extra 5 minute walk over to the main strip of the town. This little town is so incredibly tiny and the house is still within walking distance. Just trust me on this one - the stay here was simply wonderful!

Day 5 : Sænautasel, Dettifoss, Krafla Crater, Grjótagjá Cave, Myvatn Nature Baths, Húsavík

Day 5 we were headed to Húsavík. Our first stop today was Sænautasel. We heard of this spot from a couple we met at our Dynjandi Farm Stay that had just been there a few days before us. Sænautasel is a 20 minute drive up an F road off the Ring Road. You can easily find the location on your Google Maps GPS. It's a couple of classic Icelandic turf houses in the middle of sheep country. The draw is their fresh, hot pancakes and coffee. The couple mentioned it was one of their favorite stops of the entire trip. So we were super thrilled for this stop! Wellllll it was sheep herding day, so the pancake house was closed! But it was still a beautiful detour and we got to snap some fun photos of all the sheep sprinting around. 

Next, we headed on to Dettifoss. Dettifoss is known for being the most powerful waterfall in all of Europe. The falls are a bit of a detour off the Ring Road - about 30 minutes one way. We parked and it's a bit of a walk to get to these falls as well. But it's quite impressive. There are two roads to get to Dettifoss off the Ring Road and frankly it doesn't matter which one you take. It just lands you on one side of the falls or the other. It was impressive to see just how much water was flowing over this thing, but it wasn't my favorite waterfall of the trip if I'm being honest. I think I could have skipped this one truthfully and not felt like I missed much. 

Next, we made a spontaneous stop at Krafla Crater. Slight detour (10 minutes) and the drive there reeks of sulfur (heavy with the geothermal activity) and it was SUPER windy at the crater. This is one of those spots that would have been better to visit when the light was hitting the water in the crater just right. It was late in the afternoon and it was all shaded so we didn't get the beautiful blue/green that you see in the photos. Also, a place I could/should have easily skipped.

We went a tad further down the Ring Road (5 minutes maybe) and pulled off to see Grjótagjá Cave. I had read a blog that recommended soaking in this cave. Alas, there are many signs up now that indicate this is not allowed. And there were a decent amount of people there. So clearly this spot has become more known over time. But this is still a worthy stop. You get to crawl down into a cave with geothermal water. Soak your feet in it, get some cool photos, or just sit there and enjoy the peacefulness of this unique cave. 

We didn't spend TOO much time there, and decided to hop over to Myvatn Nature Baths. The original plan was to skip Myvatn and just soak at Grjótagjá. But since that wasn't a possibility (and the water in the cave was PIPING HOT), we decided to go ahead and give the Myvatn Nature Baths a try. And boy are we SO glad that we did! It was a nice, little stop. They even served us wine once we were already in the hot spring. We soaked for about an hour and cleaned up before making our final push into Húsavík. 

Once in Húsavík, we checked into our hotel for the night and found a spot down the road for dinner. We caught the most beautiful sunset in Húsavík and got to bed a bit earlier tonight. Our lodging was the Post Plaza Guesthouse. Super clean, comfortable and we had our own bathroom!

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Day 6 : Goðafoss, Akureyri, Siglufjörður

We spent a lot of time today walking all around Goðafoss. Goðafoss is stunning. The colors are rich and dynamic and you can pretty much wander all throughout the falls without certain areas being roped off (yet). We must have been here for 2 hours or more. 

We then went to Akureyri for lunch and coffee. Akureyri is a quaint town worth stopping in if you need a rest along the way. We stopped at Akureyri Fish & Chips for lunch. I'd recommend the stop if you're hankering for some solid fish and chips. We also stopped at a coffee shop someone recommended to me called Blaa Kannan Coffee. It would have been a very nice place to sit down with a good book or laptop for a couple hours. Super cozy. We got a couple of sweets for the road and went on our way.

The drive to Siglufjörður was pretty long. And honestly y'all, this was probably our least favorite stay of the entire trip. SKIP IT. There was nothing interesting, it wasn't particularly beautiful and the accommodations were subpar. Only linking it here so that you know this is the exact place we do NOT recommend. This is one of those rare Airbnbs in which the photos look MUCH nicer than when you actually arrive to the accommodation. 

Day 6 felt a bit like a fail aside from our morning at Goðafoss. 

Day 7 : Glaumbær, Snæfellsnes Peninsula, Arnarstapi, Rauðfeldsgjá Gorge, Kirkjufell

Today was a long driving day. But also probably one of my favorite full days because we added the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. We started by making a stop at Glaumbær which is a turf farmhouse said to have stood on the hill since 900 AD. This was a fun stop directly off the side of the road. Worth wandering around! 

We then made it to Borganes and checked into our room at the Icelandair Hotel. This was our 'fancy' stay of the trip. It was only about 11 am at the time so we rested for a bit then decided to head out to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula for the rest of the day. Which turned out to be an excellent choice. 

Snæfellsnes Peninsula is known for its beauty. And it certainly lived up to the hype! This was also the first place we were able to get up close and personal with some gorgeous horses. We just pulled off the on the side of the road, got out and talked to them and pet them over the fence line for a while!

Our first stop was towards the end of the peninsula at a little village called Arnarstapi. Here we snapped some photos of this beautiful cottage at the end of the road. Side note: there is a trail that you can walk from Arnarstapi to a couple other nearby villages. We would have enjoyed that if we had gotten there earlier in the day. However, we instead decided to stop for some fresh (and most delicious!) fish and chips from a food truck near the center of the village. Hit. the. spot. 

After Arnarstapi, we decided to head on to Kirkjufell. On the way we noticed all these cars parked at a canyon so we also decided to stop. Turns out it was Rauðfeldsgjá Gorge and oh my! How beautiful! You hike up to the top of this hill to the entrance of the slot canyon/gorge. Once you're up there you climb into this gorge and it is quite incredible. Apparently you can continue to hike back up as far as you wish, but there was some water flowing and we weren't really prepared for it. However, I think this would be an incredibly fun adventure if time permitted.

Next, we made our way over a super interesting mountain pass to get to Kirkjufell. And then I had a blast for about 45 minutes taking some long exposure sunset shots of Kirkjufell with the small falls in the foreground. This is a pretty well-known spot in Iceland for landscape photographers. I was incredibly proud of what I walked away with! This evening was a fun one for me. 

After sunset,  we started to make our way back to Borganes. There was some pretty insane fog on the way back that made driving a bit nerve-wracking. But once back at our hotel, we got some robes and slippers, changed into our swimsuits and went out to their geothermal pools with some wine to end our long day! Oh man... what a wonderful way to top off the trip!

Day 8 & 9 : Reykjavik & Departure

We slept in today.  We really hadn't done so the entire trip so we took advantage. Also, we originally intended to explore the Golden Circle, but having seen so many wonderful things to this point, frankly we were just tired and ready to head on to Reykjavik. So we opted for a day in Reykjavik to take in some of the city's most popular sites downtown. I'm definitely the type of person that feels like every international city is just another big city with a slightly different flavor. And that was also true for Reykjavik. I wish had something secret and wonderful to tell you here, but nothing outside of the typical recommendations like checking out Hallgrimskirkja Church. Our Airbnb in Reykjavik was just okay but it was cheap. Nothing super lovely or cozy about it. 

Our flight was at 11 AM the final morning, so we truly only had time to pack up, shower and head to the airport.

Final Words About Iceland

We were there in Early September and that was still way too early to see the Northern Lights. Everything I had read online led me to believe we should be able to see some though we knew it was in fact the shoulder season. So we were certainly bummed to miss this key draw to that part of the world. But now it just means I'll have to hit up another part of the arctic circle when the season's right! 

Also, we didn't see any puffins. And that would have just been the cutest thing to experience. Similarly, I'm just not sure it wasn't the best time of year for that. Though, we did see the largest herd of reindeer I'll probably ever see in my life! It was hunting season (wait is there a hunting season in Iceland or is hunting just an all the time thing in that part of the world?) so it made sense that they were all hustling in a pack together. Also, the herd was a significant distance away. Too far for my 200mm zoom lens to capture with any clarity at least. 

We soaked in geothermal pools 4 of the 9 days and could have at least one more day, if not two! Enjoy this feature of the country for sure! 

I absolutely enjoyed my time in Iceland. I would certainly go back for the diversity of the landscape alone and I'd love to go back to tackle some of the things that we had to compromise - ice caving, glacier hikes, and some of the longer hikes definitely being a few. We also didn't get out to the West Fjords at all and heard magnificent things. It's safe to say that if you want to hit it all, just plan more time. Otherwise, you have to be ready to make some hard choices!

Whatever you choose, Iceland will not disappoint! Soak up every moment you have there. Take the opportunity to sit a little longer, breath in a little deeper and sink into the gratitude of how beautiful our earth truly is.

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