This is part two of The Winter Ring Road: our five-day ring of Route One—and the people we met, and places we saw—in Iceland’s dark season. You can start at the beginning and read part one here.
217 km, Fáskrúðsfjörður to Mývatn
When morning comes, we start out northwards under a glowering sky. The eastern fjords are held under blankets of deep snow, creating a relief effect on the steep, eroded slopes of the mountains. The road cuts inland over the Vatternes peninsula, passing the unexpected factories and apartment blocks of Reyðarfjörður before traversing the notoriously windswept Fagridalur valley all the way to Egilsstaðir.
The capital of the east is mostly closed down on this cold, grey Sunday. The streets are empty as we cruise around, taking in the rows of houses and copses of skinny, shivering trees between jutting outcrops of rock. We fill the car’s petrol tank on an icy automated forecourt and head out of town, crossing a long bridge over the frozen lake Lagarfljót.
The last building is the local airport. It’s eerily deserted, with rows of identical hire cars lined up in the car park. Inside, the luggage belt is still and the reception desk empty until Guðgeir Einarsson emerges from the back office. “I’m a station agent here,” he says. “The winter has been the same as always—cold, nice, sometimes calm and sometimes stormy. I like living here, but it would be nice to get away sometimes.”
Guðgeir tells us that planes out of Egillstaðir are delayed or cancelled around thirty days each year. “Tourists tend to get the idea of delayed flights,” he says. “The Icelanders less so—they sometimes think the pilots aren’t tough enough because they have to get to a meeting, or a birthday, or something like that.”
In Guðgeir’s lifetime, he’s noticed the weather getting warmer. “But I remember once, it snowed on the 4th of June,” he says. “School was over, and everyone was excited, and we woke up to ten centimetres of snow. You could see flowers popping out of the snow. It was really sad.”
From Egilsstaðir, Route One swerves inland, rising towards to the high Jökuldalsheiði plateau. The ground is white to the horizon, and the road a clear black ribbon that slices through the land. We speed over another frozen lake where two people stand ice-fishing far out on the surface. The colourful cabins and occasional farms peter out, and we enter a frigid highland tundra.
The road to Lake Mývatn is the longest stretch of undisturbed nature we’ll cross. Over the course of four hours, we pass wide, snowy plains, long valleys lined with frozen waterfalls, and a seemingly never-ending torrent of mountains. Man-made intrusions are few, other than the occasional Route One road sign bearing the 90 kmph speed limit. The nature is tangibly loud, and the road a thin strand of civilisation whose influence ends at the edge of the tarmac. We fall into a wordless trance watching the wild landscape flow by.
The sky is darkening as we reach Lake Mývatn. Telltale geothermal steam plumes indicate that we’re back on the tectonic divide, this time in the northern part of Iceland. We check in at the hotel and drink a cold beer overlooking the frozen lake with the last glimmer of daylight, turning in for an early night after an unforgettable day.
393 km, Mývatn to Húsafell
The next morning, I sit studying Google Maps as the bright sun rises over a shining Lake Mývatn. Today’s drive is the longest of the trip, clocking in at 393 km, and there’s a yellow weather warning in place later in the afternoon. We reluctantly decide to take the most direct route possible, eschewing a detour around Mývatn’s picturesque southern shore and heading straight for Akureyri.
On the way there, we pause briefly to investigate the village of Laugar. In the swimming pool lobby, we meet a group of school teachers—Olga, Guðmundur and Hallur—who are midway through a morning coffee meeting. “We’re planning to do something fun with the staff,” says Hallur.
“We’ll play cards on Thursday,” adds Olga. “And we’ll go to the theatre in Mývatn. It travels the country, and it’s coming in March. Other than that, we just take care of our kids. We watched the Superbowl last night, and made hamburgers for the kids at school. We do lots of fun stuff. Just give me a moment to think…” she pauses, furrowing her brow for comic effect. “Darts!” she exclaims. “We play darts, too.”
It turns out that the school, Framhaldsskólum á Laugum, has been there for ninety years. “We have students from all over Iceland,” says Hallur. “It’s a boarding school. There aren’t many—it’s one of two boarding schools left in the countryside.”
The three are, like most Icelanders, somewhere between resigned and stoical on the subject of the winter weather. “It’s not so bad here,” says Guðmundur. “We don’t get a lot of wind. But we do sometimes get heavy snow.” They reminisce about instances of unseasonal two-metre snowfalls, and times when the power was out for several days at a time, with local farmers scrambling to dig out sheep trapped in the mountains.
“The last president, Ólafur Ragnar, came to visit after that one,” says Olga. Guðmundur continues: “A lot of farmers lost sheep that year. There were rescue squads going out to rescue them. The sheep were still out because it was so early in the fall.”
Leaving them to their meeting, we continue, dropping by to view the natural frozen sculptures of Góðafoss before cruising down over the bridge into Akureyri. We stop for lunch at Café Berlin, and run into the owner, Sveinn Sævar Frímansson. “I’ve lived here most of my life, but I was born in Neskaupstaður,” he says. “I’ve been here for twenty years, but you never know when you become a full Akureyringur.”
Café Berlin opened in 2015. “I was doing nothing, and saw this space was empty,” he says. “I talked to the owner at the beginning of October, one thing led to another. We opened in November. When we opened, I’d never been to Berlin,” he laughs. “But people were always asking “have you been to Berlin?” And now I can say I have.”
Sveinn laments the warm winds coming from the south in the recent days. “I like it when we have snow because I do a lot of skiing and so forth,” he says. “When it’s blowing like this, the snow melts. When I was a young kid, the winters were different. There was so much snow, you could jump and hang from the streetlights. In Húsavík, we’d take our skis to school, and go skiing every day. But in the last 15 years, the slopes have been open maybe ten times. The weather is always changing.”
The weather map doesn’t hold much good news, so we’re soon heading south once more, streaking through the wild countryside. In the Öxnadalur valley, the sun is blotted out, eclipsed by a towering mountain peak. We’re soon enveloped by a dramatic whiteout as we pass through one last Highlands pass, with the wind tearing powdery snow from the surrounding mountains creating an odd, silky mist in a quite otherworldly landscape.
Night falls fast, and brings with it the promised snowstorm. A violent barrage of snow and sleet reduces visibility close to zero. After a nerve-wracking hour spent driving through the stormy darkness, the twinkling lights of our final hotel in Reykholt are a welcome sight.
108 km, Reykholt to Reykjavík
In the morning, the tyre tracks have already vanished, subsumed by a bed of fresh snow. On the way back to Route One, we pull over at an improbably located convenience store called Hönnubuðin, or “Hanna’s Shop” in English.
Inside, we find the storekeeper, Johanna Gunnarsdóttir, who opened the shop in 2010 after moving back to Iceland from Norway. “I live on a farm next to Reykholt,” she says. “I grew up here. It’s changed since then in that there are fewer people here. We have an ageing population, like in most rural places in Iceland. I think it’s changing though. More young people are moving back home. We need people here. There’s plenty of work, and it’s nicer here than in the city. But we need more houses—they’re all full. It’s difficult for young families.”
Johanna, like Sveinn, has noticed the weather evolving over her lifetime. “When I was a kid there was snow every winter,” she says. “We’d ski, or skate on the river. My oldest son is 14 years old now, and he’s only been ice skating once. The conditions just haven’t been good enough.”
Johanna now keeps her shop open all year round, mostly due to increased tourism. She cites the opening of the Langjökull ice tunnel, Hotel Húsafell, and the recently open Krauma baths as reasons for the increased winter traffic.
Just down the road, we meet with the managing director of the Krauma development, Jónas Friðrik Hjartarson. He walks us through the smart, shining black baths, pointing out the five outdoor hot pots, a cold plunge pool, a scented sauna, a steam room, and a lounge area with an open fire and a circle of reclining loungers.
“The hot water from the Deildartunguhver spring is mixed with cold glacial water from Rauðsgil, which originates from Ok, Iceland’s smallest glacier,” he says. “It creates the perfect bathing temperature. The baths can hold 140 people, at capacity, but we’re doing a soft opening to make sure everything is just right.”
We linger in the spa, trying out the hot pots and steam rooms and watching the steam from Deildartunguhver pour over the barren white fields of Borgarfjörður. It’s a perfect final stop on this vastly enjoyable, educational, and invigorating journey.
Even in a relaxed post-spa state, the home straight back into Reykjavík feels oddly deflating. A sparsely populated island Iceland may be, but as we pass our starting point and seal the circle, I’m left acutely aware how much there is left to discover.
See more pictures at the #WinterRingRoad Instagram hashtag.
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