Follow an arc from eastern to western Iceland via the north coast on this 12-day active self-drive adventure. You'll pack in many of the country's most iconic sites, from Godafoss waterfall and the volcanic wonders of Lake Mývatn to the dizzying Látrabjarg cliffs and world-famous Kirkjufell mountain. Plus, you'll thrill to mountain hikes, "Super Jeep" adventures, and even snorkeling in the Silfra fissure of the Mid-Atlantic Rift.

Highlights

  • Soak in the geothermal waters around volcanically active Lake Mývatn
  • Enjoy a "Super Jeep" safari to the remote Askja caldera
  • Hike the Látrabjarg cliffs to view the world's largest puffin colony
  • Snorkel the Silfra fissure in the Mid-Atlantic Rift

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Keflavik, Fly to Egilsstadir & Explore Egilsstadir
Day 2 Eastfjords: Explore Egilsstaðir, Hike to Waterfalls & Reindeer Safari Egilsstadir
Day 3 Stuðlagil, Explore Lake Mývatn & Nature Baths, Visit Grjótagjá Cave Lake Mývatn
Day 4 Dyngjufjoll Mountains & Askja Caldera Lake Mývatn
Day 5 Diamond Circle, Troll & Vatnsnes, Viking Fortress to Laugarbakki Laugarbakki
Day 6 Westfjords to Ísafjörður Ísafjörður
Day 7 Explore Ísafjörður & Surrounds: Kayak, Hike, or Visit Small Villages Ísafjörður
Day 8 Northern Westfjords & Dynjandi Waterfalls Patreksfjörður
Day 9 Southern Westfjords to Snæfellsnes, Látrabjarg Cliffs & Rauðasandur Snæfellsnes Peninsula
Day 10 Explore Snæfellsnes Peninsula, Guided Hike or Whale Watching Snæfellsnes Peninsula
Day 11 West Iceland to Reykjavik: Borgarfjordur, Waterfalls & Silfra Snorkeling Reykjavik
Day 12 Explore Reykjavik & Reykjanes Peninsula, Depart  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Keflavik, Fly to Egilsstadir & Explore

See reindeer in Eastfjords in summer

You'll begin your adventure in Egilsstaðir, the capital of the Eastfjords region in the far northeast of Iceland. If you arrive at Keflavik airport today, you'll transfer to a domestic flight to Egilsstaðir, beside the long, tendril-thin lake Lagarfljot. The region is unique in several ways, including having the warmest climate of any region in Iceland. Due to the environment, the area has extensive forests and meadows—one reason that wild reindeer introduced from Norway in the late 18th century have uniquely survived here (reindeer meat is a specialty of local cuisine). Keep your eye out for reindeer as you drive the region in the next two days.

After picking up your rented 4WD at Egilsstaðir airport, you can spend the balance of the day relaxing at your hotel. Or perhaps you want to explore the immediate area by driving through the emerald-green Hallormsstaðarskógur birch forest to the lake's southern end. Here, you can hike the 1.5-mile-long (2 km) uphill trail to Hengifoss waterfall before heading back to town to spend the night.

Day 2: Eastfjords: Explore Egilsstaðir, Hike to Waterfalls & Reindeer Safari

Hike the tiers of Klifbrekkufossar waterfall

Spend the day touring the Eastfjords, which boasts one of the most scenic stretches of the Ring Road that circles the island, with charming fishing hamlets tucked into scenic fjords cusped by towering mountains. Begin by driving east to the picturesque herring fishing village of Seydisfjörður, known for its ornate Scandinavian wooden architecture. Then head south into Mjóifjörður to view the World War II US Navy LCM washed up in the fjord and hike to the cascades that make up Klifbrekkufossar waterfall.

Continue to Fáskrúðsfjörður and snake through the glacier-carved fjords to the hamlet of Breiðdalsvík, set in a horseshoe bay formed by a rugged mountain crescent. Here, check out the old general store and the local heritage museum inside an old fish factory, and have lunch at the artisanal Beljandi Brewery. From here, loop back to Egilsstaðir through the beautiful Breiðdalur valley, with a brief hike to the Folaldafoss waterfall. Alternately, you might opt to join a group half-day reindeer safari offered from Egilsstaðir in summer.

Day 3: Stuðlagil, Explore Lake Mývatn & Nature Baths, Visit Grjótagjá Cave

Skútustaðagígar "pseudocraters"

Having seen how glaciers have shaped Iceland, today you'll head through the Northern Volcanic Rift Zone to see how volcanoes and plate tectonics have done the same. Head first to Stuðlagil Canyon, where a stunning blue glacial river flows between sheer walls of polygonal basalt columns. Then continue west the short distance to the volcanically active Lake Mývatn region, replete with bubbling and hissing geothermal areas and fascinating geological formations. Change into your swimwear for a long, soothing soak in natural geothermal pools at Mývatn Nature Baths, then enjoy lunch here.

After lunch, explore some of the area's top sites, starting with the mud pools and steaming sulfuric vents at Hverir. Heading south, next comes Grjótagjá cave, filled with a crystal-clear azure hot spring made famous as a romantic setting in the HBO series "Game of Thrones." Then hike amid the jumbled lava-rock formations of nearby Dimmuborgir before heading to the south end of Lake Mývatn to view the bizarre Skútustaðagígar "pseudocraters." These dimple-like cones were formed 2,300 years ago when superheated steam trapped beneath the surface bubbled up in gaseous explosions.

Day 4: Dyngjufjoll Mountains by Super Jeep, Askja Caldera, Return to Lake Mývatn

Lake Viti, in Askja caldera

Up the adventure quotient of your vacation today with a full-day guided tour by "Super Jeep" into the uninhabited Dyngjufjoll Mountains on the northern side of Vatnajökull National Park. You'll drive across deserted Odadahraun, Iceland's most extensive lava field, and pass by Herðubreið table mountain to reach Drekagil ("Dragon Gully") canyon. Here, you'll hike amid fascinating lava formations. The landscape is sufficiently Moon-like that astronauts trained here for the 1960s Apollo lunar missions program.

Your destination, reached after fording two rivers, is Askja, a large caldera pitted with smaller, nested craters. You'll hike to Öskjuvatn Lake, which occupies the main crater, and the recently-active Viti crater, filled with a turquoise geothermal lagoon and where you can bathe if current conditions permit. Finally, continue to the vast 33 square-mile (85 sq-km) Holuhraun lava field, which is still warm following its formation in a seven-month-long eruption in 2014. After hiking marked trails, you'll return to Lake Mývatn for your second overnight here.

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Day 5: Diamond Circle, Troll & Vatnsnes, Viking Fortress to Laugarbakki

Snap pics of the double-arched Hvitserkur sea stack

Head west this morning along the "Diamond Circle" route to Godafoss, the picture-perfect "waterfall of the gods." Then continue to the harbor town of Akureyri, with a charming downtown area, the iconic modernist Akureyrarkirkja church, and Lystigarðurinn botanical gardens. Or you can choose an "express" mid-morning, two-hour whale-watching trip in the Eyjafjörður fjord, returning in time to lunch before continuing west along the Ring Road with your sights on the Vatnses Peninsula. Your scenic coastal drive around the Troll Peninsula leads via Siglufjörður, with its Herring-Era Museum.

Further along is tiny Hofsós, with an equally small turf-roofed Grafarkirkja church that is the oldest in Iceland. Then visit Glaumbær Farm & Museum, with a fine collection of 19th-century houses. Reaching Vastnses, make an obligatory stop to view the surreal Hvitserkur sea stack (which many locals swear is a petrified troll) and, nearby, the ruins of the 10th-century Viking Borgarvirki fortress. It's a short drive from here to your hotel in Laugarbakki.

Day 6: Westfjords to Ísafjörður

Ísafjörður town
Ísafjörður town

Begin by visiting the Icelandic Seal Center in Hvammstangi to learn about pinniped ecology—a perfect primer, as seals are commonly seen along the local coastline. Today's scenic drive takes you along the shore of Hrútafjörður and Húnaflói Bay to enter the remote Westfjords region in the far northwest of Iceland. It's aptly named for its many fjords, which you'll snake in and out of en route to Ísafjörður, the regional capital, located on a spit within Skutulsfjörður fjord. First, stop for lunch at the turf-roofed Litlibaer former farmstead built in 1875 and today a café renowned for delicious waffles.

Ísafjörður boasts a rich maritime history and a well-preserved historic center of brightly-painted, gabled, tin-clad homes. Take the afternoon to explore the Westfjords Heritage Museum, focusing on Ísafjörður's fishing and whaling history. It's in the Turnhús (1784), one of four historic wooden buildings that include the Tjöruhús (1781), now an excellent seafood restaurant and a great venue to hear live music. By contrast, the town's modern Ísafjarðarkirkja church looks like a bunch of stacked cardboard boxes!

Day 7: Explore Ísafjörður & Surrounds: Kayak, Hike, or Visit Small Villages

Fishing cottages of Osvor across Bolungarvik Bay
Visit Osvor across Bolungarvik Bay to see old fishing cottages

Spend today exploring the region around Ísafjörður. If you're feeling active, slip into a kayak for a few hours, paddling the calm waters of Ísafjarðardjúp fjord with a guide. Expect to see Arctic terns, common eider ducks, oystercatchers, and other seabirds, as well as curious seals and perhaps dolphins and—fingers crossed—even whales. Or take a full-day guided boat trip to Hornstrandir Nature Reserve for hiking at the remote, uninhabited northern tip of Iceland. Hornstrandir is home to millions of nesting seabirds and a refuge for the Arctic fox, which preys upon the birds' nesting along Hornstrandir's towering cliff-faces.

Or, if you like to drive, you can explore the Eastern Westfjords, visiting such fishing villages as Bolungarvik, with the small Ósvör Maritime Museum (a replica of a 19th-century fishing station) and a natural history museum that even has a stuffed polar bear.

Day 8: Northern Westfjords & Dynjandi Waterfalls

Marvel at Dynjandi waterfall

You'll head west this morning through the Vestfjarðarvegur tunnel, then over steep mountain passes and through some of Iceland's most beautiful glacial valleys and fjords. At the head of Onundarfjörður, stroll the golden-sand "Golden Holt" beach curling into the fjord; and in Dyrafjörður, stop in the fishing hamlet of Þingeyri to visit the old Blacksmith's Workshop, a living museum where you can watch docents at work in time-worn fashion. You can also mount up here for a guided horseback ride along black-sand beaches and the Sandar Valley in summer. Or you might choose to hike Kaldbakur mountain

Nearby, and the highlight this morning, is the majestic triple-tiered Dynjandi waterfall, the icon of the Westfjords: the trapezoidal uppermost fall resembles a bridal veil. You'll end your day in Patreksfjörður to spend the evening in this charming fishing village.

Day 9: Southern Westfjords to Snæfellsnes, Látrabjarg Cliffs & Rauðasandur

Photographing puffins atop Látrabjarg

Today you'll explore the Látrabjarg cliffs at the westernmost tip of Iceland. A one-hour drive west of Patreksfjörður, these 1,450-feet-tall (442 m) basalt cliffs loom sheer from the sea and stretch south for 8 miles (13 km), offering fantastic bird-watching in summer. The cliff-face hosts the largest nesting colony of puffins in the world, as well as fulmars, guillemots, kittiwakes, razorbills, and other seabirds.

After hiking the clifftop, call in at the nearby Hnjótur Museum, displaying such historical relics as the remains of an Antonov AN-2 and Douglas C-117D aircraft, an old fishing trawler, plus an exhibit regaling how villagers scaled the Látrabjarg cliffs to rescue survivors after the British trawler Dhoon that ran aground in 1947. Next, head to honey-hued Rauðasandur, unfurling for 7 miles (11 km); you can hike to view a colony of seals that basks on the beach. Also, look for seals on equally lovely Barðastrandarsandur beach as you snake along the southern shore of Westfjords and turn south for the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.

Day 10: Explore Snæfellsnes Peninsula, Guided Hike or Whale Watching 

Lóndrangar

This morning, explore the peninsula—referred to as "Iceland in miniature." A counter-clockwise loop takes in the highlights, beginning with the iconic Kirkjufell mountain and Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall. Circle around glacier-clad Snæfellsjökull volcano (4,744 ft/1,446 m), stroll on windswept Djúpalónssandur black-sand beach, explore Vatnshellir (lava) Cave, hike Lóndrangar (with its clifftop basalt pillars), and marvel at the Gatklettur sea arch and other coastal rock formations between Hellnar and the hamlet of Arnastapi. Finally, visit the lonesome Búðakirkja black church, rising atop the Búðahraun lava field.

If you're feeling even more adventurous, you can trade some of your sightseeing time for a half-day guided hike on the Snæfellsjökull glacier. Or opt for a whale-watching trip out of Ólafsvík: Nowhere else in Iceland offers as good a chance to see orcas (killer whales) and sperm whales, two of the ocean's top-toothed predators.

Day 11: West Iceland to Reykjavik: Borgarfjordur, Waterfalls & Silfra Snorkeling

Diving in the Skilfra fissure

Depart Snæfellsnes and head south today through the Borgarfjörður region of West Iceland. You'll venture into the Hvítá River Valley to view the Hraunfossar and Barnafoss waterfalls, tumbling through a lava field perpendicular to the river. Exiting the valley, stop to explore Reykholt's medieval Saga heritage village, then continue south to Borgarnes to visit the Settlement Center regaling the history of Iceland's settlement, beginning in the late 9th century. Next, follow the shore of Hvalfjörður fjord for the hike up the canyon to the 650-foot-tall (198 m) Glymur waterfall—Iceland's second-highest.

It's a short drive from here to Þingvellir National Park, straddling the Mid-Atlantic Rift cleaving two tectonic plates. Hike the rift to the Öxarárfoss waterfall, which tumbles into the fissure and is accessed by a boardwalk. You can even don a wetsuit to snorkel (or scuba dive) the crystal-clear glacial waters of the Silfra fissure on an unforgettable guided 2.5-hours adventure as you swim through a narrow volcanic canyon. Finally, head into Reykjavik, where you can use any remaining time to check out such top sites as Hallgrimskirkja cathedral, the Harpa Concert Hall, and the waterfront Sun Voyager sculpture.

Day 12: Explore Reykjavik & Reykjanes Peninsula, Depart

Soaking at the geothermal Blue Lagoon

Depending on your departure details today, you might spend time exploring Reykjavik, including such world-class museums as the Maritime Museum, the Saga Museum, and/or Whales of Iceland, all situated at the Old Wharf. You can then head to Keflavik airport to drop off your 4WD in time for your flight.

Alternately, explore the Reykjanes Peninsula, one of the country's most volcanically active regions. Perhaps you'd like to end your adventure by soaking in the geothermal waters of the Blue Lagoon spa. Or head to Fagradalsfjall volcano, where an eruptive fissure poured out lava between March and September 2021. Then, continue to the geothermal areas of Gunnuhver or Krýsuvik and the nearby volcanic crater lakes of Grænavatn and Kleifarvatn; then walk across the Bridge Between Continents spanning the Mid-Atlantic Rift. 

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Looking for more inspiration for your trip to Iceland? Check out these other Iceland itineraries, explore different ways to experience Iceland, or learn about the best time to visit Iceland.

Map

Map of Iceland Off-the-Beaten-Path Road Trip: North & West - 12 Days
Map of Iceland Off-the-Beaten-Path Road Trip: North & West - 12 Days
Othman
Written by Othman A, updated Jul 20, 2022