Driving Iceland’s Ring Road in one week can be done, but expect long days (and nights, thanks to the midnight sun) and very little sleep. I recommend 10 days for the ideal trip around Iceland’s Ring Road, but if you can only manage seven, here is how you can pull it off.
This series explores a trip around Iceland’s Ring Road in three parts:
Part 1: Days one and two, Reykjavik, the Golden Circle, and the south coast.
Part 2: Days three and four, the south coast continued, Skaftafell National Park, Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, the east coast.
Part 3: Days five, six, and seven, Krafla volcano, Hverir Geothermal area, Akureryi, and the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.
Your general itinerary will look something like this (or the opposite, if you decide to drive clockwise):
Day 1: Arrive and explore Reykjavik.
Day 2: Explore the Golden Circle and drive to Vík.
Day 3: Explore Skaftafell National Park and Jökulsárlón, and drive to Höfn.
Day 4: Explore Bakkagerði and drive to Lake Mývatn.
Day 5: Explore Akureyri and drive to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.
Day 6: Explore Snæfellsnes and drive back to Reykjavik.
Day 7: Depart.
Keep in mind this is seven days in Iceland, arriving early on day one and leaving on day seven. And this is a driving itinerary, meaning you will never stay in a location more than one night, and most of your time will be spent on the road, stopping (quite often) to see the sights. But you will not be based in a town and exploring from there. You will be based in your car and exploring whatever you see whenever you see it.
Driving Tip: There are speed cameras everywhere, and tickets are quite expensive, so be very careful of your speed. Luckily, cars in Iceland have a feature similar to cruise control (but better) called a speed limiter. Basically you set it to whatever speed you want (the speed limit) and it will not let you go above that, but otherwise you can drive like normal (you still use the pedal and control your speed), so you can drive slower if necessary, around turns, for example, but then speed back up easily, without having to abruptly turn off the cruise control like you would with American vehicles. Additionally, Iceland does have a few tolls near tunnels through mountains, so be sure to bring a little cash with you.
Below I will give you a taste of what your trip could be like, including the major highlights of each day’s drive, and the final destination where you will sleep. It is important to make it to the final destination each day. If you fall behind you likely will not make it all the way around the Ring Road in seven days and may have to turn back or just spend an entire day driving straight through without stops.
Planning Tip: When planning your trip, keep in mind that however long Google Maps tells you it will take to drive from point A to point B is the amount of time it takes when actually driving. In Iceland you will be stopping practically every five minutes to look at some amazing landscape or other, so it will take you far longer to actually reach your destination. The driving times listed below are the times actually spent driving not including stops.
So let’s get started!
Day 1: The Blue Lagoon & Reykjavik. 2 hours, 15 minutes total driving time.
Most flights from the U.S., particularly from the east coast, arrive very early in Reykjavik (around 4:00am). This will give you ample time to pick up your rental car, do a bit of exploring on the Reykjanes Peninsula, and then head to the Blue Lagoon for some relaxation in the morning before heading into Reykjavik for the day.
If you arrive well before your Blue Lagoon entrance time, I recommend you take the scenic route, which takes forty-five minutes and takes you along the coast with some beautiful scenery.
The long route also allows you to stop at the Bridge Between Continents, which is a small footbridge over a rift where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are being slowly pulled apart. Here you can literally walk from Europe to North America. Fifteen or twenty minutes is enough to explore the site and snap some photos of you standing between two continents.
If you do not have extra time before your Blue Lagoon entrance, you can take the direct route, which only takes twenty minutes.
Whichever path you take, plan to arrive at the Blue Lagoon a few minutes before your timed entry. You can technically enter at any time within the hour of your ticket, but the lines can get long, even in the early morning, so I recommend arriving on the early side. For more information and tips about crowds at the Blue Lagoon, as well as other important information about the spa and how to have the best experience, see my previous post here.
After spending a few hours relaxing in the beautiful warm water, drive the forty-five minutes into Reykjavik for lunch. While the vast majority of Icelanders live in and around Reykjavik, it is still a small city by international standards. I recommend you park and walk, and I recommend you park here:
There are two lots (see the red Xs) along the water here between the Harpa and the Solfarid (the boat sculpture). I’ve always been able to find a spot here, and its a great location near the heart of the city. Most of the parking in the city is metered and split into zones based on proximity to the city center. This spot is in one of the cheaper zones, but is still quite close to the main shopping/restaurant street, and as a bonus it is a straight shot to the restaurant Glo, which I highly recommend (for more details check out my recent post on some of the best vegetarian/natural food restaurant in the world here). You can pay with a credit card (be sure to put the sticker in your window and pay for enough time or you will be towed). Then you’re all set for a day of exploring the city!
After lunch make a quick stop at Iceland Camping Equipment Rental to pick up your camping gear. I’ve rented my camping equipment from them both times I’ve visited Iceland and had a great experience. They have everything you need at reasonable prices. They also offer 24 hour pick up in case you arrive outside regular hours. Once you have your car all packed and ready for the journey, spend the rest of the afternoon exploring Reykjavik.
At the end of the day, stop at a Bonus grocery store to stock up on food for your trip (don’t forget the ice), and then head out of the city to Þingvellir National Park. There are two campsites in the park. The Nyrðri Leirar campsite is situated near an information center, which is also the meeting location for snorkeling tours, so it makes a good choice. One thing to note is that during the summer the park is quite buggy. There didn’t seem to be mosquitos or other bugs that bite, just a lot of annoying gnats that will constantly buzz around your head. Get your tent up quickly and get inside. You can pay the small fee at the information center, or if you arrive outside the information center hours Park Rangers will come by your tent in the evening or the morning to collect the fee.
You’ll want to stay in the park tonight because tomorrow you will wake up early for your Silfra snorkeling tour!
Day 2: Þingvellir National Park, Silfra Fissure, Geysir, Gullfoss, Kerid Crater, Faxi waterfall, Dyrhólaey, and Vík. Approximately 4 hours total driving time.
Day two is jam-packed with classic Iceland must-dos. First on the list is snorkeling in Silfra Fissure in Þingvellir National Park. Your first thought may be: snorkeling in Iceland, won’t the water be freezing? The short answer is yes, practically, but don’t worry about that.
Snorkeling in Silfra is an absolutely amazing experience. There are only two reasons I can think of for not adding this tour to your Icelandic adventure: (1) you don’t know how to swim, or (2) you have a medical/health condition that prevents you from participating. Any other reason you might think of: finances, fear, cold, etc., put those aside now and book the tour! Even if you don’t like snorkeling: book it! This is nothing like warm water/ocean snorkeling. First of all, there is no animal life in the fissure, just vegetation. Second, you will be given a dry suit to keep you warm and dry while in the water, and they work quite well. Don’t get me wrong, its cold, but only your face is exposed to the full blast of the water, and the tour is only about 30 minutes and your body heat and movement will keep you fairly warm. Third, this is an absolutely unique experience you cannot get anywhere else in the world. And while you may think that the snorkeling without any wildlife to look at may be a bit pointless, that is far from the truth. There is so much color under the water it is almost unbelievable. And you’ll be swimming between two continents; how can you pass that up? And if none of that convinces you, perhaps these will:
For more information about snorkeling in Silfra, check out my post on the top things to do in Iceland here.
If you book a tour and have your own car, I recommend you stay in the park the night before. That way you can sleep in a bit and meet the tour at 9:00am at the information center conveniently located right next to the campsite. Otherwise the tour company can pick you up at your hotel in Reykjavik at 8:00am for the drive out to the park.
After your tour you can spending some time exploring the park. Then continue on your journey. Over the rest of the day you will visit several major sites on the popular Golden Circle. The Golden Circle generally consists of three major sites: Þingvellir National Park, Geysir Geothermal area, and Gullfoss waterfall. There are also several smaller attractions you can add to your visit if you’d like (I highly recommend adding Kerid Crater).
From Þingvellir, drive 50 minutes to Geysir Geothermal area and spend some time exploring. The name Geysir actually refers to a specific ‘geyser’ located here, the one after which all others are named. The original Geysir is inactive today, but a nearby geysir, Strokkur, shoots water between 60 and 130 feet in the air approximately every 10-15 minutes.
Geysir Geothermal area is a great place to grab lunch. There is a large tourist center with shops and a cafeteria with good food. From there, drive just ten minutes to Gullfoss waterfall. The waterfall is huge and the surrounding area tends to get wet from spray so I recommend waterproof clothing and non-slip shoes.
Once you dry off, hit the road again (heading back the way you came). Drive past Geysir and then turn off away from Þingvellir National Park towards Sellfoss. After about twenty minutes you will reach Faxi waterfall. This is a much smaller waterfall than Gullfoss, and does not draw many visitors, but it is quite beautiful in its own right, and is a nice place for a little picnic snack while enjoying the view.
From here, continue along your route. After about thirty minutes you will reach Kerið Crater. This is not one of the main sites on the Golden Circle, but I think it should be. We overlooked this site on our first trip so decided to stop on our second, and I am so glad we did. This is one of the most amazing and beautiful landscapes in the area. During the summer, the contrast of the colors are absolutely striking. The green vegetation stands in stark contrast to the rich red dirt, and both of these paint a beautiful canvass for the turquoise blue water at the base of the crater. Photos cannot do it justice. You must see this in person. If you have an extra thirty minutes to spare don’t hesitate. Keep in mind that if you arrive during business hours you will be asked to pay a small fee to enter (400 ISK, approximately $3.75 USD).
You can check out the other side trips you can take on Guide to Iceland’s post here. Once you’ve visited all of your Golden Circle sights you will begin the bulk of your day’s driving. You will now be on Route 1, the actual Ring Road itself, for almost two hours, making your way along the south coast toward Vík. There are multiple things to see (and to break up your trip) along the way, including two major waterfalls: Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss.
Just before you arrive in Vík you will see a small road off to the right leading to Dyrhólaey Peninsula. If you’re interested in catching a glimpse of the Atlantic Puffin this is the spot! Keep in mind that puffins are sea birds, and even while they are nesting they spend most of the day at sea fishing. The best hours to view puffins are in the early morning or late evening. The cliffs also overlook an amazing black sand of Reynisfjara Beach and impressive rock formations in the ocean.
After you get your fill of watching and photographing the puffins be sure to make the ten minute drive over to the other end of the beach. Here you can actually walk down onto the beach and view the amazing basalt columns of Reynisfjara.
The campground at Vík is just ten minutes back along the main road (you can’t miss it). Head there and get as much sleep as you can before continuing on your journey tomorrow (there will be a lot of amazing things to see)!
Details about many of the sights in this post can be found in my previous post: Top Things to Do in Iceland.
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