Iceland: The Ring Road

At points in the drive, the only sensible explanation for the terrain is that somehow, we had teleported to the moon. At other points, we felt like we were in a scene from Game of Thrones. Either were feasible; Apollo astronauts trained here before their moon mission, and Game of Thrones (along with several other shows) has filming locations throughout the country. That’s how drastically diverse, and massive, Iceland’s landscapes are.

Random roadside stop somewhere in the northwest.
Hvevir mud pots in northeast Iceland
Lava fields against a mountain backdrop on the Leirhnjukur hike in the Krafla region.

If you recall from previous posts, I’d joined this trip on a bit of a whim. Two college roommates had been bugging me to go, and, to my pleasant surprise, flights to Iceland  weren’t all that expensive. And, its actually not all that far. After doing quite a bit of research on flights to keep the cost down, I found two, one-way flights on a budget airline out of Boston (and returning to San Francisco). I used credit card points to buy the connecting domestic legs; bringing my total flight cost (including a checked bag) to just over $500.

My trip preparation consisted of buying a map of Iceland, having a beer with a friend that had gone the year before, and downloading a podcast that I’d fall asleep listening to on the plane. Thankfully, my friends had done much more research; no hostel stays meant that meeting other travelers, and gathering travel advice, didn’t really happen. The Lonely Planet guidebook and that Iceland Adventure Map became our two other best friends in the car.

When telling folks back home about my trip, the two most common questions I got were: “Is it cold?” and “I heard that the vikings named Iceland Iceland so that people would go to Greenland instead but Iceland is actually green. Its all a big trick, is that true?” So, for starters, this is the first (and probably only) time that I’ve ever worn a winter coat, in the northern hemisphere, in June. Its also the only time that I’ve sported a winter coat with shorts and Sperrys (we are the epitome of fashion here, let me tell you) and been totally comfortable. The weather changes in a minute, and depending on the wind, rain and sun you can expect large swings in the temperatures. Layers are your best friend. As for the name, I’m not sure if the trick part is true or not, but I can attest that Iceland is surprisingly green, given its frigid name. Hopefully the pictures do this green land just a sliver of justice.

This hidden foss next to Seljalandfoss would end up being our favorite. So much so that we took Joel, Barb’s friend who came for just a few days, there to check it out a second time.
Camping in style, or ‘glamping’, as the cool kids call it, in Van-essa. Here she is at a random pull off from Route 1, somewhere in the west(ish).

Now, if you’ve ever planned a trip to or even considered going to Iceland, you’ll know that there is one road that circumnavigates the entire island, and that most visitors just drive that road, stopping at attractions along the way. Guided tours are also an option, as is hitchhiking. Most folks rent a car or a campervan, and then take 7-10 days to drive the Ring Road (aka, Route 1). Our trio chose the self-guided campervan route to explore the island in style.

Upon my 4:30am arrival (did I mention the budget airline?), I headed to pick up our campervan and collect my friends Kientz and Barb in Reykjavik. I can’t tell you how many curves I hit with our Sprinter-sized van on the small inner-city streets of the capital city, but fortunately Van-essa (the name we gave our trusty steed) remained unscathed despite my lack of truck driving skills.

On paper, Van-essa came with all the bells and whistles: sleeping accommodations for three, a fridge, an auxiliary heater for cold nights, interior lighting, small cabinets for storage, a sink, a table for dining, Wifi module, and a GPS. In reality, the sink and table were broken, but between my half catatonic state at 5am and the long line at the rental shop, I either didn’t notice or didn’t think it was a big deal. This was still glamping by anyones standards, and the convenience of being able to stop anywhere, without prior reservations, was well worth the cost split between us.

Barb and Kientz peeking through the back of the van. Van-essa also came equipped with a chaos inducing number of sleeping bags (six, for three humans).

After a short few hours in Reykjavik that included 5 hot dogs and a trip to the grocery store, we headed south, and were immediately awe-struck by waterfalls and the mountainous scenery. In the first two days, our attractions included several large waterfalls, one hidden waterfall, a downed Navy plane from the ’70s, a black sand beach, and several picturesque rock formations. The first days set the stage for what would be an action packed week of sightseeing and exploration.

Our first foss! Seljalandfoss has a walkway behind it that gives visitors a whole new perspective.


Site of US Navy plane crash from the 70’s, and a series of what I’ll call “jumping outtakes”. As much as I’d love to blame the timing of our volunteer photographer, more than likely it was our lack of ups that caused the problem. The plane is about an hours hike from the road in Sólheimasandur
Jökulsárlón, a glacial lagoon on the southern rim of Ring Road.
Little Barb at big Skógafoss.
Reynisfjara in the south sported crazy rock formations both in and out of the sea.
Colorful lake admist the lava fields on the Leirhnjúkur hike.

After being in Iceland for a week, our Icelandic vocabulary had expanded to the essentials: “foss” is some sort of waterfall, a “jokull” is a glacier, and a “fjord” is a fjord. “tak” is thank you, and “skal” (pronounced scowl) is cheers. Luckily, most everyone speaks English. Which is good, as given the number of constants in most Icelandic words and the frequency of the letter “j”, tongue-tied is an understatement describing our attempts at the Icelandic pronunciations of any of the locations we visited. I’ll keep you all updated as our trip progresses to the lesser visited portions of the Iceland.


Some tips for fellow travelers:

  • Hostels are crazy expensive! Don’t plan on them as a budget option; if there are a few of you in your party then Airbnb’s in Reykjavik are a good option for about the same cost. Outside the city, camping usually runs $10 per night, per person. BYO everything. :(.
  • Reykjavik Campsite was pricey for tent sleeping ($20/night) but had all the amenities and environment of a hostel: communal cooking, laundry, and other travelers eager to share their stories. It was one of our favorites.
  • Everything else is really expensive too. Maybe because its an island next to the Arctic Sea? We couldn’t find even a crummy sandwich for less than ten bucks…on the bright side this is the most I’ve cooked in years.
  • For all the hype around it…the cost alcohol wasn’t *that* bad. We scored a few bottles of wine for $16/each at the Vinbudin.
  • It’s Europe; 24 hour stores aren’t a thing. Places close. If you want to buy alcohol, most of the state run stores close by 6pm. Grocery stores (like Netto, Bonus, and Kronan) are closed by 8pm.
  • Most everyone speaks English. #win, because good luck learning Icelandic!
  • Before you shell out the extra $$ for a 4WD car that can drive on the “F roads”, check the status of the F-roads and closures. In early June, we realized most were still closed due to snow and it wouldn’t be worth the cost for the few we could traverse.



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