Last Updated on September 14, 2020 by Jeremy
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When it comes to an Iceland road trip, you would think that driving around the Ring Road would be a simple thing to plan. The country is an island, the Ring Road is the only road that goes around it in its entirety, and generally speaking everyone goes on the same tried-and-true path around the country.
All of these things are true, except for that last point.
While it is true that all Ring Road travelers do circle the country, the amount of time you spend on the Ring Road will vary. You could blast through it all in about five days without leaving the Ring Road at all. You could add on one detour (perhaps our favorite detour to Borgarfjordur Eystri to see the puffins) if you have limited time. Or you could spend up to a month exploring all the back roads and highlands- all while only barely touching the Ring Road at all!
As such, planning your dream itinerary will end up being a lot more difficult than you might have previously thought and we have three important tips to keep in mind when planning a visit based on our recent experience in Iceland.
Why You May Want to Plan to a Counter-Clockwise Journey
Now it is time for us to bring up a topic that is all a matter of opinion, and is one I'm sure a lot of people may disagree with. Most guide books you read will lay out their routes of Iceland for those who are driving in a clockwise direction. This is all well and good and would certainly work just fine, but we have one point to bring up that is in favor of the opposite plan: you're going to be exhausted by the end of your trip.
Why is this important? Well, if you head out on an itinerary like ours, this means your last day on the Ring Road is either going to be exploring the Snaeflessness Peninsula or will be at the Iceland waterfalls found between Vik and Reykjavik.
By the time we reached the last day of our journey around Iceland we found ourselves getting to the point where we were quite tired, skipping select attractions here or there, and not pushing ourselves nearly as much as we did at the beginning of our trip.
Snaeflessness was the perfect end for us because the landscape was varying such that we got to see something different at every stop, but was not totally unique when compared to what we'd already seen such that we could skip a viewpoint or hike here or there and not miss something we'd later regret. The waterfalls on the southern coast, on the other hand, were some of the most beautiful in the entire country and are worth stopping for a while to appreciate and explore.
If you are like us in that an outdoor adventure like this will leave you more exhausted than when you started (that's a good thing, we're not complaining), you may want to consider what you want your last day to be ahead of time (especially if you add on the Golden Circle at the end, too!). We were certainly glad to have the busy day full of many gorgeous waterfalls at the beginning of our trip, because not being at our top shape at the end would have detracted from the experience considerably.
It certainly isn't much in the grand scheme of things, but for the right kind of travelers this may be incredibly important.
You know who you are.
You're Going to Miss a Lot of Iceland No Matter What
No matter how you plan your itinerary to Iceland, odds are good you're going to have to miss a few things you'd otherwise see (unless you have that month to visit them all like we mentioned above). As our trip was planned around a good flight sale, we had to make our itinerary work with the dates we were given- nine days in the country and eight on the Ring Road.
This allowed us to check out many highlights, including the Golden Circle, Snaeflessness, the puffin colonies at Borgarfjordur Eystri, whale watching in Husavik, the thermal baths in Lake Myvatn, and so much more. But had we been able to swing a few more days (or weeks, even), we would've likely considered adding on the following to our journey:
- Taking the day trip to Grimsey, an island in the Arctic Circle, while visiting the northern city of Husavik.
- Taking a flight detour to Greenland in the summer (or for those visiting in the winter, a northern lights viewing trip).
- Spending a few days driving around the north west fjords.
- An Icelandic horseback riding tour.
- Eat a lot of amazing and traditional Iceland food.
- Adding on a few day tours of the highlands in an SUV.
- Hiking on a glacier at Vatnajökull National Park.
- Oh, and spending more than one day in Reykjavik, too!
The key here is to simply not get your hopes up on seeing it all, and remember that you can always go back. We spent a good portion of our trip in Iceland lamenting the fact that we had to miss some of the above attractions, but realized as we went that most of the misses were unavoidable.
We simply didn't have enough time.
Out of all of the detours we mentioned above, visiting Iceland for the northern lights is one of the trickiest- not so much for the viewing opportunities (you're at the mercy of the weather there), but rather for reaching unique spots around the country to try and enjoy the show. Traveling the Ring Road and off-roads to some of the country's most beautiful spots is dangerous enough at the best of times, and the added weather and darkness of winter can make simply getting to your destination a challenge.
As such, this brings us to our final point to keep in mind- you may not want to drive at all!
A Tour is Not a Bad Idea
While we drove around Iceland's Ring Road on our own, we have to admit that exploring the country in a rental car is not for everyone.
As the country is focused on maintaining its natural state, the infrastructure outside of the “major” cities is rather lacking and driving presents several challenges even for the most seasoned international driver. Think hours without seeing other cars, gravel roads with potholes, and ample chances to break down with miles between you and any infrastructure what-so-ever (and good luck with cell service).
It is beautiful scenery, this is true, but horrible driving.
This means that those who are not ambitious enough to do the Ring Road on their own are presented with a struggle, and a guided tour may be a good option that is the best of both worlds.
We are already planning a return visit to Iceland in the winter for the northern lights, and already know that we're getting in over our head if we want to drive around the country on our own as we simply do not enjoy winter driving. This is where tours come in to play: you can put all of these concerns behind you while in the comfort of a coach manned by a trained driver and a guide who respect the beauty and pristine conditions of the country and understand the challenges of the journey.
We're definitely considering this option for our winter trip to Iceland, and northern lights tours have caught our eye as a means to cover great distances without driving on our own, but also to rely on experts who know about winters in Iceland more than what we can research online.
Add this all together, and you have a really impressive option to consider. While you may never be able to see everything Iceland has to offer in a single trip, you certainly can make the best of whatever time you have available. If you follow any of these above tips, we're certain your experience will be a good one!
Looking to book a room in Reykjavik? Check out these great options!
- Northern Comfort Apartments – Great Value
- Hilton Reykjavik Nordica – Where We Stayed
- Freyja Guesthouse – Best rated on Booking.com
Looking to rent a car in Iceland? Check out Auto Europe to find a great deal. We almost exclusively use them when renting cars in Europe!
Visiting Iceland soon? Be sure to check out our review of the Hilton Reykjavik where we stayed during our first day in the country!
About the Author: Jeremy is a full-time travel writer based in Pittsburgh and primary author of this site. He has been to 70+ countries on five continents and seeks out new food, adventure activities, and off-the-beaten-path experiences wherever he travels.