The plan was simple: a road trip around Iceland, sticking mostly to Route 1, but turning off when we wanted. It would be the classic Ring Road trek, a trip that I had yet to make after living here for two months. A visit from my friend Noah and a very favourable weather forecast made it clear that the middle weekend of July would be the perfect time to attempt this adventure.
I rent a nineteen-ninety-something dark green Subaru with a dented bumper, a slightly terrifying whirring noise and a brand new CD player. We only have the car for four days, which means that we have 96 hours to cover over 1,500 kilometres, while of course sleeping, hiking and sightseeing along the way. So Noah and I made two rules to survive this daunting adventure: no stress and no plans.
The first thing we do on our efficient, counter-clockwise speed-through of the Ring Road is inefficient, counter-intuitive and clockwise: we hit the Golden Circle. We spend half an hour following the pristine blue rivers, which run through Þingvellir’s dramatic rifts, and exploring the sites of the old Parliament. We hop in the car again and get get our fix of water in action at Geysir and Gullfoss. After this five-hour detour, we head south to catch the Ring Road and really begin our trip. Along Route 30, in Flúðir, we are pleasantly surprised to find Minilik, the original branch of Iceland’s only Ethiopian restaurant. We dirty our hands with injera and vegetable stews before continuing and reaching Route 1.
Our first stop along the coast is Seljalandsfoss, an impressive waterfall that you can actually walk behind (not without getting a bit wet). But even more interactive (and wetter, too) is Seljavallalaug, an abandoned swimming pool, just a little further down Route 1. The pool is warm, even hot in some places, and its floor is lined with volcanic ash left over from the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption.
Our next stop, Skógafoss, is impressive but by now we’re tired of waterfalls so we don’t tarry. We continue to Dyrhólaey, an immense promontory jutting into the Atlantic sea. We explore the whole cliff, all the way to the southernmost point where thousands of birds make their nests. The sun has set and it’s surprisingly dark for a summer night. We had hoped to get to Höfn, but I am too tired to continue. No plans, no stress! We drive into the campground at Vík and put the backseats of the Subaru down, throwing together a makeshift bed.
Waking up, I slowly remember where I am and what I’m doing; the thought of adventure (not to mention mild discomfort from the trunk’s rigid surface) immediately gets me in go-mode. We explore the town briefly, fuel up and head out.
After a brief stop in Kirkjubæjarklaustur, we drive into a flat wasteland of black sands through which brown rivers flow. At these points the road narrows into long, single-lane bridges. An outlet of Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest glacier, appears to the north—milky white and formidable. From the visitor’s centre at Skaftafell, we catch an easy, pleasant trail to Svartifoss, a waterfall that plummets over a wall of hexagonal columns. The gentle concave curve of the cliff wall gives it the feeling of a ruined cathedral built by giants of a bygone eon.
After the hike, our next stop is Svínafellsjökull, another outlet of the glacier. We admire the immense thing, listen to it cracking and moving. If yesterday was about waterfalls, today is about glaciers. Our next two stops are the glacial lagoons Fjallsárlón and the more famous Jökulsárlón. Blue-white icebergs, detached from the glacier, float in pristine water. I actually liked Fjallsárlón more. There are few tourists, no boats and an incredible view of the outlet glacier behind it. It’s a nice place to listen.
After dinner in Höfn we begin our trip north along the east coast, driving a stretch of seaside roads along deep fjords. At a fork in the road we choose a 60-kilometre gravel mountain path over the 120-kilometre fjord-side road.
The detour is enchanting and well worth the steep, bumpy climb. We’re on the road to Egilsstaðir and soon the multiple-storey apartment complexes tell us that we’ve reached the capital of the East.
We opt to drive 30 extra minutes to the more charming town of Seyðisfjörður, nestled in a snowy fjord. The streets are mostly empty at 1:00 AM. There are two or three cars of local teenagers driving around town listening to music and talking loudly. A friendly cat seems to lead us on a tour of the sleeping town. Something about Seyðisfjörður makes me want to call it home at some point in my life. But maybe I’m tired and delirious. We go to sleep.
My birthday. The car’s windows are covered in raindrops and there’s a constant light drizzle all morning. Noah and I grab brunch at Hotel Aldan. You can make your own waffles and sprinkle them with bacon bits. Happy birthday to me.
About an hour out of Egilsstaðir, farmland turns into a black desert. In the midst of this wasteland we turn onto a gravel road, heading north to Dettifoss, Europe’s most powerful waterfall. After such a long journey through a desert landscape, I’m shocked when I see the falls—the thundering, brownish-grey waters of the Jökulsá á Fjöllum river plummet into a deep, dramatic gorge.
We continue to Ásbyrgi, a horseshoe-shaped canyon created, supposedly by the hoof of Odin’s eight-footed horse Sleipnir. A pleasant walk through the forested park takes us to a pond at the bottom of the “hoofprint” and then up along the side edge, affording a stunning view over the entire area.
Our final stop for the day is Akureyri. The view from across the fjord is stunning: a glimmering town between rich green hills and deep blue water. It feels a bit weird to sleep in the car in a city, so we get a room at the Akureyri Guesthouse. We sample some beers from the nearby brewery Kaldi at Brugghúsbarinn before retiring for a good night’s sleep.
After a morning jaunt around the centre of town, we grab lunch at the Indian Curry Hut, a bright-yellow take-away restaurant on the main street. We’re both pleased to find that their curries deliver a good kick of spice despite the tendency for mildness in this country. Then we lose a couple hours antique shopping, strolling and eating ice cream dipped in liquorice shells from Brynja.
For our next leg of the trip, we turn off the Ring Road to explore Skagafjörður, the region where much of Grettir’s Saga unfolds. We follow the hero’s path through the area for the next leg of our trek. Nothing remains from Grettir’s time; he probably didn’t even exist, but for a medieval dork like me this is the equivalent of walking around Paris with a copy of ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame.’
A long gravel road from Sauðárkrókur takes us to Grettislaug, a naturally occurring hotpot in which the hero took a dip after swimming the cold sea from his home on Drangey Island. Refreshed, I get in the car for our last 300 kilometres through unremarkable farmland. We listen to Low Roar’s self-titled album quietly four or five times in a row, chatting intermittently as we make our understated, stress-free return into a Reykjavík that feels just a bit different than it was before we left it.
Distance travelled: 1,785 kilometres
Time spent driving: 25 hours
Money spent on car rental: 57,460 ISK
Money spent on gas: 25,000 ISK
Money spent on accommodation: 8,000 ISK for one night in Akureyri; slept in the car the other nights
-Don’t speed. Especially near Blönduós. The cops are particularly gruff with foreigners and I can tell you that tickets could cost you well over 50,000 ISK.
-There’s a card you can pick up for free at a number of visitor centres, which gets you get free coffee at any Olís gas station as many times as you need!
-Be careful of sheep in the road. They like to hang out there. Slow down. If they don’t move, honk.
-Iceland’s campsites have pretty swanky, with clean bathrooms.
-Bring a swimsuit. No matter the weather, you never know what you might stumble upon.