Iceland is about the size of Virginia and the ring road circles the entire country, hugging the coast in most areas. Taking the ring road around the country is an excellent way to experience the varied scenery and countless natural wonders. If you have the opportunity to travel to Iceland, I highly recommend this road trip. We went in August 2015.
Here are some can't miss stops:
Here are some can't miss stops:
1. The Golden Circle
Probably the second most famous tourist destination in Iceland after the Blue Lagoon (which we did not go to), is the Golden Circle. About two hours from Reykjavik, the Golden Circle offers several amazing stops. You can drive the circle yourself or go through a tour company such as Reykjavik Excursions. The Golden Circle is literally a loop off of the ring road. Our Toyota Yaris had no problem handling the roads for Golden Circle. My personal favorite was the first destination, Thingvellir National Park. Here, you witness the rift between the North American tectonic plate and the Eurasian. The Earth seems to drop off into a great valley covered in rock and moss. There is no fee to enter the park, and a very short walk up to the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.
Your next stop is the geothermal area in Haukadalur where you can experience the geyser Strokkur erupt every few minutes. The geyser name "Geysir" is now dormant. As soon as you step out of the car the strong smell of sulfur and the view of steam rising off the water and out of the ground tells you that you're at the right place. You only have to walk a few minutes to get to the action.
There is something spectacular about watching water shoot out of the ground and reach the height of a skyscraper. Even when you anticipate it, the sound of each eruption can be a shock. Make sure not to stand too close or you might get wet!
Third on the Golden Circle, you see the Gullfoss waterfall. Iceland has a whole lot of incredible waterfalls, designated by anything + "foss." We joked that it should really be called Fossland instead of Iceland thanks to global warming. It's hard to get great pictures of Gullfoss from the ground since it plummets into a valley and you can't see the bottom. Basically, it's a really powerful multi-tiered waterfall. Go see it to get the true experience!
2. The Black Sand Beach at Reynisfjara
Disclaimer: John proposed on this beach so I may be slightly biased about how awesome it is. However, I have seen it listed as one of the most unique beaches in the world! The black "sand" is really small volcanic pebbles rounded by the ocean. They shine back at you in a kind of beauty that can't be completely appreciated in pictures. Additionally, there are these columns that you can climb on, kind of like life size legos. There are multiple warnings about being cautious around the water due to the strong current so I didn't check the temperature, but I'm sure it was absolutely freezing. The area is notorious for bad weather, and we were lucky enough to catch it on a day without rain.
3. Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon
Iceland has numerous incredible canyons. We stopped by the Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon early in the morning and enjoyed the place to ourselves. There is one unique spot where two waterfalls meet. We also enjoyed watching the sheep at the bottom of the canyon peacefully grazing despite the rushing water beside them. Consider this warning though: the road to get to the canyon was horrendous. The Toyota Yaris did make it, but just barely. I definitely recommend stopping by, but be very careful on the drive. There were some heavy duty tour buses that made it down to the parking lot, so if you don't want to risk the drive there are tour options.
There are several day hikes within Vatnajökull National Park. We chose to hike to Svartifoss, one of the countless picturesque waterfalls off the Ring Road. The famous Hallgrímskirkja church is apparently modeled after Svartifoss, apparent in the church's columns which mimic the waterfall's lava columns. Hiking to the waterfall takes about 40 minutes, and I recommend continuing to the glacier, about 30 minutes further. You can get such a good view of the glacier from the trail and feel the cool air blowing off the ice. The entire hike had some incline but was not overly strenuous and took about 3 hours in total to complete the loop.
5. Jökulsárlón Lake
There are large pieces of glacier floating in Jökulsárlón Lake. The breeze off of the lake is freezing, but the view is spectacular. You can park very close to the lake and walk a short distance down to the glacial lagoon. It's incredible to really be able to see parts of a glacier floating to the shore. So much of the ice was this pale shade of blue like a freezer ice pack; it almost looked fake. We didn't spend a lot of time here since it was so cold and there isn't much of a trail, but it was just a quick stop off of the Ring Road.
Another one of Iceland's remarkable waterfalls, Dettifoss is known as the most powerful waterfall in Europe. The sound of almost 200 meters per second is deafening and the mist off the falls produces an amazing rainbow on a sunny day. There is another waterfall, Selfoss, a short walk from Dettifoss. Both waterfalls are popular tourist destinations, so you may run into a crowd here.
7. Ásbyrgi Canyon
We enjoyed a four hour day hike at the Ásbyrgi Canyon. The climb to the top was moderately difficult, but someone had tied a rope for safety. Once you reach the top, the terrain is fairly flat and you can enjoy an incredible view for miles. We could see a soccer game in a park in the valley. We pretty much had the hike to ourselves since most other tourists don't venture this far east, and the somewhat tricky climb deters many.
If you've always dreamed of visiting Mars, Hverir is the destination for you. As long as you can stomach the overwhelming smell of sulfur, you can enjoy the volcanic landscape and bubbling puddles. We hit this area on a particularly cold and drizzly day, so while it didn't top my list as the best experience, it was a distinct area that I couldn't compare to anything I've ever experienced.