Driving Around the Ring Road of Iceland – What to See? What to Do?

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Road trips are at the heart of any vacation and we do not have to tell this to someone who is planning a vacation in the land where driving around is probably one of the most exciting activities that anyone would ever experience anywhere in the world. Especially when this particular road trip is going to be around the Ring Road, considered to be one of the top road trips in the whole world. Encircling some of the top attractions in the country, the ring road is the main connector road of Iceland which incidentally goes through almost all top destination of the country and connects even the most remote parts of the country to the mainland, the capital city, and the more urban areas around the country.  

Road trip to Skaftafell Nature Reserve

What is the Ring Road?

Iceland has a network of paved roads that is stretched all over the country. All these roads are numbered as route 814, 842, etc. The ring road or route 1 is the paved road that circles the whole country and serves as the main road to travel anywhere in Iceland. It is further connected to many smaller routes that lead to certain destinations. But the matter of fact is that if you want to get anywhere in Iceland, say from south to north or to the west or head east from the north, etc., then the ring road is the road that you will take first and foremost. The Ring Road is 1328 kilometers long,

Over 2 million people visitor Iceland every year which makes the tourist population almost six times the actual population of the country itself. Some of these visitors are long-term tourists planning to stay in the country for over a month or two while the others are there for a rather small amount of time, from 2 days to a week. No matter how long the stay is, the chances that you will be driving along the ring road are very high. Weather you are going to drive the full ring or just apart of it, depends on how long time you have in Iceland. We always recommend that you need at least 6-7 days to drive the full ring road. 

white jeep driving in a sunset in Iceland

Driving Around the Ring Road

Among many other things, driving around the ring road represents a certain appeal to the adventurers inside every traveler who come to the land of ice and fire in search of peace, thrill, and most of all enjoyment. The roads are much different than the ones to which most people are usually familiar to have driven upon. But, given some time and by understanding some tips and tricks, anyone can easily drive around the ring road. Since ring road is a paved road, the speed limit is 90 kilometers per hour or 55 miles per hour which is the highest speed limit that is allowed in Iceland.  So, even if you are thinking of covering the trip in lesser time, you won’t be able to for two reasons – the traffic laws in Iceland are extremely strict (as they should be) and it is very unsafe to ignore them and keep going on as one may please.

Driving Around in Summer

If you are on a tight schedule and cannot spare more than a couple of days for a drive around the ring road then it is wise to plan this particular trip in the summer since there is negligible to no chance that any road will be closed off due to storm or bad weather of any sort. Summer season is rather flexible with driving options and driving hurdles as well which means that even the narrowest and the most difficult to travel roads will not be a problem. Driving on the ring road in summer is quite pleasurable as well.

What About Winters?

The picture can be quite different when it comes to driving around the Ring Road during winters. The roads are sometimes covered in snow and many routes are often temporarily closed due to the snowfall. These routes generally get cleared within a few hours or a day but this means that you might need longer time to finish your trip around the Ring Road of Iceland. Not to mention the pitch-black darkness that comes with the absence of the sun and stays for over 21 hours during some of the winter months. You can check out the daylight hours in Iceland here. In short, the drive around the Ring Road is completely safe albeit it can be a little tricky to take. We recommend that you check the road conditions and weather forecast before you head out on a drive along the Ring Road of Iceland during the winter. 

Iceland in January, winter sunset in Iceland, winter road trip in Iceland

Some Tips that You Cannot Miss

Driving comes as easy as breathing to some people. Some find it quite challenging while others find peace when driving. Driving, especially long drives, is many different things to many different people but here are some tips and tricks to make it more fun and safer remain.

Choose Vehicle as per the Season

Ring Road or route 1 of Iceland is a paved road which means that any vehicle that is available with the renting agencies can be easily used to travel. The most common choice of vehicle to travel the ring road is a 2×2 car which is the most common car used to drive on paved roads of Iceland. Another option that you can weigh in on is 4×4 vehicles, the sturdier option when it comes to cars. The deal with 4×4 vehicles is that they do not do much good with the paved road since it is all the same when driving on them regardless of the vehicles. The place where these vehicles come in handy is the times when you take those small detours off the road to adventure roads and other difficult crossroads where a 4×4 vehicle is required to drive. A normal 2×2 car cannot be driven on F roads in Iceland which means that you will need a 4×4 vehicle. If you are going into the highlands of Iceland you will always need a 4×4 car. 

Super Jeep in the Iceland winter

Which Side is Yours?

Icelanders drive on the right side of the road. If you are planning to drive yourself on the ring road then you should practice driving on the right of the road first hand. Mind that traffic rules are very, very strict in Iceland, as they should be everywhere. So, ensure that you have great handling on driving on the right side of the road if your country happens to drive on the left.

Road Hazards are a Deal in Iceland

In a country where rain in any season is not really a surprise, road hazards can be and are a very real thing. Top all of that with snow, slippery roads, high winds, and the darkness (if you are traveling in winters) and you will have yourself a real sundae of troubles. Needless to say, if you are not careful and prepared, you are bound to run into some sort of trouble when driving on the ring road, or any other Icelandic road for that matter. For example, if you do not fill up on gas as and when you get a chance, you will take a turn later on the road and find the tank empty with no gas station in sight for miles. Towns and villages where these utilities can be found are located at quite a lot of distance in Iceland.

Although, the surprising thing is that road hazards become even more hazardous because it generally takes a lot of time for the help to arrive. Many parts of the ring road which travel through the north and the far west take you through some much-stranded places which are very far from even gas stations and small towns. The search and rescue team of Iceland is always on duty and ready to help people who run into some kind of trouble on or off the road. But the simple distance among the place makes it difficult for the rescuers to get to the place they are needed.

winter road trip in Iceland in snow and pink skies

Stocking-up Goes a Long Way

Building upon the previous point, stocking up on everything essential before you fire up the engine will be a real good deal for you. Be it fuel, snacks, or anything else that you may need on the road, stock up everything that you need as and when you get a chance. Do not forget to fill up your water bottles every time you stop by a tapped water source. Tap water in Iceland is drinkable. If you plan to survive on bottled water then we must tell you that you are in for a huge expense. Bottled water is very expensive in Iceland and may even throw you off your budget if you are running tight. So, always carry a personal water bottle that is reusable and urge everyone else in your party to do the same.

Off-Roading is NOT a Good Idea

Let us be very blunt here – off-roading in Iceland is strictly prohibited. There is no exception to this law and if a vehicle is seen anywhere it should not be, it is punishable by a hefty fine. This law has been made to ensure that the natural land and vegetation of Iceland is not harmed by motor vehicles. Not only that, it is very dangerous to off-road in Iceland since many of the paths have never been tended to and there is no telling where the soil has been eroded over a path or whether the rive that you plan to cross is too deep. Not that you need to do anything with off-roading when driving on the ring road, but if tempted, choose to drive away on the paved road instead.

Self Driving road trip in East Iceland

NEVER Park on the Highway

It is simply a road hazard to park on the highway for any reason whatsoever. Let us say that you were driving by peacefully, blasting your jam, dancing to the tunes, and then you suddenly spot some beautiful Icelandic horses on the private farm on the side of the road. What should be your next course of action? Should you just park on the road and take a few pictures with the horse. No. You need to drive and find a place on the side-lines to park your car, preferably near the farm itself, and then take the permission of the owner before finally approaching the horses. In any scenario, do not park the car on the highway as this is the main route that connects all the country so, naturally it sees a lot of cars, driven at a speed of 70-90 kilometers/hour. It is simply dangerous for both your parked vehicle and the oncoming ones.

Speeding is NOT Appreciated or Tolerated

Over-speeding is not a good idea, no matter the place concerned. Not only that it is unsafe, but it also comes with quite a hefty fine, according to the standards of the place. Iceland, for one, is very strict about speed limits. There are three kinds of roads in the country and the speeding limit is set according to the type of road. The ring road is a paved road that has a set speed limit of 90 kilometers/hour, also the highest speed limit allowed anywhere in Iceland. There are speed cameras at close distances all over the road so ensure that you stay within the limit to avoid the fine.

Traffic Laws

Apart from the speed limits, wearing the seatbelt, and driving on the right side of the road, there are a few other things that one must take care of. It is mandatory to keep the headlights switched on at all times when driving in Iceland, on or off the ring road. Older children sitting in the rear seat must wear seat belts while the younger ones must be put into a car seat. Needless to say, driving under the influence and using mobile phones when driving is prohibited in Iceland. A DUI will get you a fine of a minimum of 100,000 ISK along with a 4-month-long suspension of driving privileges. Roundabout traffic priority is given to the vehicles on the inner lane so ensure that you follow the priority rules when crossing roundabouts.

Keep Track of the Emergency Helplines

The national emergency helpline is 112. You can call it anytime, from anywhere, and be assured that help will arrive. Be it fire, theft, an accident on the road, a crime scene, a rescue call, or natural disasters, the 112 helpline is open for all kinds of emergencies that people in Iceland face. Know that it could take some time for help to arrive. The helpline is reachable via text, call, or voice messages.

Another option that you have is installing the 112 Iceland app. The app can help you in searching for routes and such and will also keep you updated about any possible mess-ups along the route, stops that you can make, etc.

General emergencies like the breaking down of vehicles can be dealt with by calling your rental agency. They will send along with the necessary help. In the meantime, stay beside your car and wait for help to arrive. If the problem is something as simple as a flat tire and can be solved by a second or third-hand on-board, try asking fellow passers-by for help. No matter what you do, do not leave your vehicle unattended in the middle of nowhere.

Extreme Weather Conditions are A Thing

Never let go of the possibility that weather can change in a matter of seconds in Iceland. It could be all sunny and pretty when you set out in the morning at 7 and it may start at 8. Extreme weather changes and conditions are common in Iceland so always be prepared for them. Keep a snow shovel handy if you have to – better be prepared than sorry after all.

Self Driving road trip in Iceland

Top Destinations Along the Ring Road

The Golden Circle

Gullfoss waterfall in Golden Circle Iceland

The Golden Circle is not located on the Ring Road, but we decided to write a short chapter on it because most travelers start with traveling the Golden Circle before they head on to the Ring Road. All top 3 locations of the Golden Circle of Iceland fall on the Golden Circle route with Gullfoss located on a little bit of detour. If you are traveling the road, make sure that you visit Þingvellir National Park, Geysir Geothermal Area, and the infamous golden falls – Gullfoss waterfall. There are some guided activities that you can add to your Golden Circle trip, like snorkeling between the continents in Silfra fissure which is located in Þingvellir National Park, or going on a snowmobile on Langjokull glacier.  If you wish to add any activities to your trip, you have to book them well in advance because of their popularity. If you have enough time on your hands, take a day and visit the three top locations properly, and even add some more locations that are to be found in the Golden Circle. 

Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss Waterfall

sunset and lupines at Skógafoss waterfall in south Iceland

Generally, the first stops on almost every tour that leaves for south Iceland. These two waterfalls are a part of the list of prominent waterfalls in the country. While Skógafoss is a unique entity with a permanent rainbow in sight in the gorge, Seljalandsfoss is known for the cave that it hides behind the cascading waters. Both these waterfalls are very close to the ring road and each other.

Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach

Reynisdrangar on Reynisfjara black sand beach in south Iceland

Located deep in south Iceland on the coast of the Atlantic, Reynisfjara black sand beach is one of the top tourist destinations in the southern part of the country. Along with the beautiful waters of the Atlantic, there are huge basalt columns at the beach that are the perfect addition to the surroundings of the beach.

Skaftafell Natural Reserve

Skaftafell National Park in south Iceland

Located at the base of the Vatnajokull glacier, Skaftafell is going to make a beautiful addition to the trip. The natural reserve used to be a national park but got turned into a natural reserve a couple of years ago and is now a part of Vatnajokull National Park. The reserve is full of lush green vegetation even though it is located right beside the largest glacier in Europe. 

Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon

Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon in south Iceland - south Iceland

Located in the Vatnajökull National Park, the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon is quite easily reachable from the ring road. Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon is known as the crown jewel of the country and all for good reason. Not far away is the Diamond Beach which is a unique entity in its entirety. Both these places are a great addition to your trip.

Vestrahorn or Stokksnes

lupine fields in front of Stokksnes and Vestrahorn

Vestrahorn is one of the three horny mountains of East Iceland and translates to the West Horn. The name was given for their horn-like appearance. A very popular spot among photographers, this beautiful destination deserves all the love it can get for being one of the most amazing remotes, but still pretty, often visited place of the country. Stokksnes is the black sand beach that most travelers visit when witnessing the mountain. 

Dettifoss Waterfall

Dettifoss the most powerful waterfall in Europe during summer

Another attraction of the Vatnajökull National Park, the Dettifoss waterfall is located on the other side of the park in the northeast part. The most powerful waterfall in Europe and the most powerful waterfall in the country. This is a beautiful wide waterfall and seems to disappear in the gorge after falling, which explains the name Dettifoss or “Collapsing waterfall”.

Lake Myvatn

Mývatn Dimmuborgir lava field in north Iceland

Also located in the northern part of the country, Lake Myvatn is a destination on the Diamond Circle. A one-of-a-kind entity, Lake Myvatn is a volcanic lake located on the northeastern shore of the country. It also features Myvatn natures Baths which is known for their exceptional spa services along with beautiful open-air hot baths made inside the lake. Other locations around Lake Myvatn are Dimmuborgir lava fields, Grjótagjá hot spring, Krafla Crater, and Hverfjall Volcano.

Godafoss Waterfall

Goðafoss waterfall in north Iceland

The waterfall of the gods, needless to say, this particular destination is a must-visit for everyone traveling the Ring Road. Godafoss waterfall is a part of the Diamond Circle of Iceland. This divinity of this waterfall can be seen in both historical and visual terms. Since it is located right off the Ring Road, you won’t have to drive too much on a detour.

Hvitserkur Basalt Stack

sunset at Hvítserkur cliff in north Iceland

Located along the east shore of the country, Hvitserkur is a 15-meter-high basalt rock that stands tall in the waters of the Atlantic Ocean. With two holes at the base forming an arch and the uneven formation of the top, the basalt rock looks like a giant animal standing in the water and drinking it. Some see it as an elephant, while others see it as a dinosaur or even a dragon.

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