The Ring Road, or as it’s officially known Route 1, is your ticket around Iceland. It’s the only highway that circles the entire circumference and is the route to the main highlights: Vik and towns on the South Coast, the East Fjords, Akureyri and Lake Myvatn. The total route is about 2,200-2,400km (1,400-1,500 mi), and if you drive nonstop should take you roughly 30-32 hours. But hopefully, you’re going to make detours to see some of the spectacular glaciers, fjords, and waterfalls on the way.
The road is also your gateway to the plethora of natural wonders that lie waiting at the detours: Snaefellsnes Peninsula, coastal East Fjords, Húsavik, Westfjords, Thorsmork and the Highlands, and of course the Golden Circle.
When is the Best Time of Year to Drive the Ring Road?
Iceland has roughly two seasons: summer and winter. In the summer, visibility is high and the weather is favorable, with sunny and rainy days, prolonged sunlight, green hillsides and easy hiking paths. This is the time that’s easiest to drive around, with most areas accessible with a standard vehicle. On the flipside, it’s also the most popular, more expensive, and accommodation and attractions can be crowded or booked up. If you’re aiming to avoid the worst of it, stick to the less popular but equally stunning North--or do a 10-day itinerary of Northern Iceland, including the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, Westfjords, Lake Myvatn, and Akureyri.
Winter has its considerable challenges, thanks to the unpredictable weather. Far-flung places like the East Fjords and West Fjords are difficult to access and require more time. Days are also shorter, and light is dimmer, unfavorable to your cameras. If you don’t know your way around Iceland’s roads, it’s generally best not to risk the slippery roads and snowfalls. At best, September, October and May are the lightest months in terms of weather. For a less challenging itinerary, perhaps spend 7-9 days in the West and South Coast of Iceland, a bit closer to Reykjavik.
What Type of Vehicle Do I need to Drive the Ring Road?
The Ring Road is paved in most places, accessible to even 2WD vehicles. If you expect to do any detours or highlands exploration, however, you’re better off renting a vehicle with 4WD. If driving in Winter months, car rental companies will outfit your vehicle with proper snow tires, but we still recommend the upgrade to 4WD in this case for added safety. Certain roadways called F-Roads are only open to 4WD (and several require extra-high clearance). A Camper Van is a great recommendation, especially as you don’t have to worry about accommodation which gives you added flexibility.
Which Direction Should I drive the Ring Road: Clockwise or Counter-Clockwise?
Should you drive the Ring Road clockwise or counterclockwise? The North and Snaefellsnes Peninsula tend to be less crowded, so heading north first may give you a better impression of Iceland’s beautiful landscape without an audience at first. In Fall or Winter, the difference in daylight can be quite different between the North and south, and it may be best to plan your time in the north when there is more daylight. In the Spring, the reverse is true, so you may want to start in the South and circle back through the North when it’s a bit warmer.
Ring Road Route Overview & Popular Stops Along the Way
Stops are listed in order as you would approach driving clockwise starting from Reykjavik. Common additions and detours (such as the Snaefellsnes Peninsula) are listed below.
First on your itinerary is the small town of Borgarnes, gateway to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Drive north about 1 hour from Reykjavik, through the Hvalfjordur tunnel. Make stops at the picturesque, multi-tongued Hraunfossar, haunted Barnafoss, and Glymur Falls, Iceland’s tallest waterfall. You can stop at Reykholt, where some of the greatest Icelandic literature was penned by poet-scholar Snorri Sturluson, before heading to Borgarnes to lay your head down for the night. The harbor town is also home to an interesting Settlement Center, which introduces you to the feats of Viking Egil Skallagrímsson.
Return to the Ring Road for your 4-4.5 hours’ jaunt up to Akureyri. Make sure to stop on the way at Godafoss, a low-lying but stunning waterfall just off the highway. Another detour worth visiting is Grettislaug hot spring, 40 minutes off the road.
Continue on to Iceland’s second largest city (18,000 people), the ideal base to explore the North. Iceland’s North is stunning, often overlooked, but has a wealth of activities and sights to offer the visitor. There’s excellent horseback riding, golfing, whale-watching from Akureyri. Kaffi Ilmur redefines the phrase “cozy café,” set in a traditional two-storied house and serving some of the best brunches and coffee around.
Check in at Akureyri Backpackers and explore the bars, restaurants and cinema at leisure. Be sure to explore the Akureyrarkirkja church on its steeply inclined hill, or wander down the old harbor for a glimpse of the gorgeous fjord. The city is also home to one of the best swimming pools the side of the country.
Depart from Akureyri early in the morning for a day exploring the otherworldly North. The region is home to Asbyrgi Canyon, the horseshoe-shaped canyon said to be stamped in by Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged steed. The canyon measures 0.5 miles (1 km) wide, 2 miles (3.5 km) long, and its precipitous edges towers around 300 ft (100 m) high in certain places. Complete your day with a brief drive and hike to the magnificent Dettifoss, Europe’s most powerful cascades. From there, it’s a quick hike upstream past basalt cliffs to the elegant Selfoss. Need more of challenge? Hike on 5.5 miles (9 km) to Hafragilsfoss.
Drive southward to Lake Myvatn. Here you’ll find many hikes over volcanic terrain, the Dimmuborgir lava formations, cinder cones, pseudocraters, hot spring caves, mud pits, steam vents, and the geothermal Myvatn Nature Baths that overlook the valley. Particularly notable hikes include the 30-minute Krafla/Viti Crater Hike, past the Krafla power station, and the 1-hour Leirhnjúkur Lava Fields and Geothermal Area.
Depart early from Myvatn and drive east. Take a 40-minute detour to see the Hengifoss and Litlanesfoss waterfalls, then continue along the Ring Road to Egilsstaðir. With an extra night, take a detour to Seydisfjordur, one of the most picturesque towns of the region and a great base for hiking trails up in the mountains. After Egilsstadir, you have the option here to drive on Route 1 to Breiðdalsvík or 92 to 96. While Route 1 is shorter, the scenic road comes alive with picturesque fjords.
Next up is Djúpivogur, a great fjords town to spend the night. Take a short walk along the shore to the lighthouse on the rocks. Eat your fill of homemade cakes at Langabúð, or enjoy the fish dishes at Hótel Framtíð.
Höfn and the Gateway to the South Coast
Hofn can be seen as the gateway to the next phase of your trip: the south coast packed with Glaciers, Black Sand beaches, and unique cliff formations. In Höfn, the Pakkhús restaurant is famous for its langoustines and lobster. The local visitor center is packed with information on your next destination, Vatnajökull Park.
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach
From Höfn, drive another hour to Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, where you can admire the exquisite blue icebergs as they drift out to the ocean. Follow the river under the bridge to the ocean, and you’ll see so-called “Diamond Beach,” where the ice has been beached out on the black sand beach. If you’re lucky, you may just glimpse seals, porpoises, or small whales that sometimes hang out in the lagoon or near the shore.
Fjallsárlón Glacier Lagoon
A few minutes further south from Jokulsárlón, you’ll find another glacier lagoon, just 10 minutes from its parking lot. Here you are much closer to the glacier than at Jokulsarlon, and you’ll have better views of all the cracks and crevices.
A quick trip off the main road will bring you into Hof where you can check out the Hof Turf church. The practice of covering the roof with turf dates back to Medieval times throughout Europe to protect from the harsh weather.
Skaftafell National Park
Skaftafell National Park is a treasure-trove of scenic hikes and beautiful panoramas. The most popular hike (just 3 miles) leads to Svartifoss, a thin waterfall haloed by black basalt hexagons. Pick up a map from the Visitor’s Center to view all the trails if you have the time.
The rock formations in Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon look like they’re from another world. Hike less than a mile from the parking lot along the ridge of the canyon where you will find some amazing viewpoints where the river curves around this strange rock cliffs.
Fortune Stones at Laufskálavarða Lava Ridge
Between Kirkjubæjarklaustur and Vik, you will find the lava ridge Laufskálavarða with hundreds of small piles of rocks. These piles or rocks were intended to bring good luck to travelers crossing the Mýrdalssandur desert. Get out of your car here to walk around and explore the piles before continuing on to Vik.
Vik and Reynisfjara Beach
The tiny harbor town of Vik offers a great base to explore the southern coast of Iceland. Just before the turnoff on the town’s west side is Reynisfjara Beach, famous for its black sand beach, large caves, basalt columns, and the Reynisdrangar Columns, two huge basalt towers reaching out from the sea.
Continue along the black sand beach or drive over to Dyrholaey, just west of Reynisfjara. Dyrholaey is a natural arch where seabirds perch during mating season. There are 2 parking lots from which you can see the famous arch, but the one high on the hill affords a better view. Take the dirt road to your right as you enter, or better yet hike a short trail 15-20 minutes up to the summit. From the top, you can see a lighthouse and a stunning view from all sides.
Crashed DC-3 Plane on Sólheimasandur Beach
The US Navy airline, a Douglas Super DC-3, crash-landed on the beach on November 24, 1973. It’s no longer accessible by car; park off on either side of the road and walk around 2.5 miles (4 km) to the shore.
Driving west along Route 1, you’ll find the iconic Skogafoss Waterfall. You can admire the rectangular waterfall from the bottom or climb up the stairs on its right side for a different perspective over the lowlands. At the summit of the falls is the beginning of the 16-mile (26 km) Fimmvörðuháls Trail to Thorsmork.
Next on the road is Seljalandsfoss. You can walk behind and stand in a cave under the cliff to watch the water pour down 20-30 feet in front of you. Wear a rain jacket, as you’ll get wet for sure! You’ll also find two smaller waterfalls to the right, visible from behind Seljalandsfoss.
Top Ring Road Detours and Extensions
The Snaefellsnes Peninsula is sometimes referred to as “little Iceland,” as here you can sample a little bit of everything that Iceland has to offer: basalt columns, tiny fishing villages, coastal cliff walks past arches and other rock formations, lava fields, volcanic craters, black sand beaches, waterfalls, caves, and more. Explore the Gerðuberg Basalt Cliffs, Budhahraun’s moss-covered lava fields, and rock formations at Arnarstapi. In Hellnar, stop at the small Fjöruhúsið cafe near the water to taste their delicious fish soup and enjoy the setting.
Coastal Route along East Fjords
Driving north on road 94 from Egilsstaðir will take you to the cute town of Borgarfjörður Eystri. The coastal village is a paradise for hikers, with its many hikers. Climb up to Stórurð, a tranquil hiking area full of mossy meadows, gigantic tuff boulders, and sea-green ponds. It’s no wonder that this area is populated with tales of elves and hidden people who live in the rocks! Take Road 94 or hike 2-3 hours from town to reach the trailhead. Climb past a short steep ascent on Geldingafjall and it's smooth hiking for 6-8 hours in otherworldly surroundings.
If you’re an avid fan of whales and seabirds, drive up around 30 minutes to Húsavik in Iceland’s whale-watching capital. Join a tour on some newer, carbon-neutral ships that are quieter (nicer for whales) and don’t pollute the environment (nice for everyone) We recommend North Sailing, right on the harbor (the entire building, restaurant, and cafe was made from recycled wood).
Highlands / Thorsmork
The king of hiking trails, Thorsmork is a mountain range nestled between major glaciers Tindfjallajökull, Mýrdalsjökull and Eyjafjallajökull. It’s a dramatic landscape of misshapen peaks, glacier rivers, black deserts, birch forests, mossy gulches and ice-caps.
Start early in the morning to see the highlights of the Golden Circle before the crowds arrive. Check out the double-tiered Gullfoss waterfall, then continue on to Haukadalur Valley to see the Strokkur geyser, mud pools, shimmering blue hot pools. Explore the UNESCO heritage site Thingvellir National Park and learn about the laws and traditions of medieval Vikings.
The Westfjords are a stunning, remote region of Iceland that many tourists never see. Due to the winding driving routes and zigzagging fjords, you’ll need to dedicate it takes a few days to give it justice. Hop on a car ferry from Stykkishólmur to Flókalundur in the southern Westfjords (about 3 hours). Explore at leisure the Látrabjarg Bird Cliffs, Rauðasandur Red Sand beach and Breiðavík Golden Beach. Walk around the Gardar BA 64 Shipwreck, beached on side of the road. Walk around several waterfalls below the massive Dynjandi waterfall in a beautiful fjord setting. Finish your drive through Iceland’s longest tunnel, arriving in Isafjordur to enjoy one the best fish meals in the country. From here you can catch a boat and explore the remotest reaches of the fjords--Hornstrandir.
Top Ring Road Activities & Where To Do Them
Whale Watching in North
In the summer, whales collect to the cooler parts of Iceland, so the North is a perfect base to go whale-watching. Húsavík, a short drive from Akureyri, with their whale-watching tours and whale museum, is the prime destination for whale enthusiasts.
Glaciers in South
Glacier-hiking and ice-caving are extremely popular, especially in Vatnajökull National Park, with its glaciers galore. Note that hiking on a glacier is only recommended with a certified local guide who can provide you with all the suitable gear. Ice caves are a winter activity, with tours typically starting mid November. There are also "into the glacier" tours that operate more year round, where you enter a man-made tunnel into a glacier.
Top Hiking Locations
Iceland is a playground for hikers, and awards both amateurs and experienced trailblazers with breathtaking views no matter where you go. The best locations are in the South, however, at Thorsmork, Landmannalaugar, and Skaftafell--but there are some incredible vistas in the Westfjords and Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Learn more about Iceland's Top Hiking Regions.
Top Volcanic Areas
If steam vents and mud pools draw your interest, other than the Golden Circle, head up to Myvatn area, which is alive with volcanic activity. The Snaefellsnes Peninsula is also a great place to explore lava caves, craters, lava fields, and unique rock formations along the shoreline.
Tiny Fishing Villages in West
Drive up through Borgarnes and head west through Snaefellsnes for adorable fishing villages and seabird cliffs.
Common Questions about the Ring Road
"How many days does it take to drive the ring road?"
The Ring Road should take you around 8-14 days, depending on how many stops you make along the way. Akureyri makes a great base to explore the North; you can easily spend at least 2-3 nights here. Another option to prolong the trip is to stop in a few villages of the East Fjords, which are charming and provide excellent accommodation. Read our 2-Week Ring Road Self-Drive Itinerary, 8-Day Ring Road Itinerary, and 10-Day Best of the West and North Itinerary.
"Where should I Stay/Camp along the Ring Road?"
Iceland has fewer accommodations than it does guests, it's best to reserve places in advance (especially along the south coast, which can fill up months in advance during the peak seasons). the more popular areas have newer 4-star hotels in places, but in some of the more remote areas, you will find guesthouses more common. These places are quite nice and simple, and great options for a more budget-friendly trip.
Another option is to rent a campervan, from where you can cook dinner and sleep without worrying about finding accommodation. You can park these in public parking lots or campsites, depending on what’s available.
Camping is popular, especially in the summer months. There are 170 registered campsites in Iceland, open from June until late August or mid-September. It's unlawful to pitch your tent anywhere else, unless you receive special permission from the landowner. Inspired by Iceland keeps a list of camping sites and other accommodation options.
Note that’s it’s forbidden to do any off-road driving or camping; trespassers may incur a hefty fine.
"Where should I Eat along the Ring Road?"
Fresh fish is generally great everywhere you visit. In the north, you may find more lamb meals, and in the east, you may have a chance to taste the local reindeer if you're so inclined. Hofn is known for its lobsters and langoustines. If you're looking for a memorable experience, try the Hakarl (fermented shark) at the Bjarnarhöfn Shark Museum along the Snaefellsnes Peninsula.
There are a number of restaurants, gas stations, and guesthouses that provide cold and hot meals on the Ring Road in the towns that mentioned above. However, in some areas, you may drive for a while without seeing many towns (such as the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, Lake Myvatn, or parts of the East Fjords). As it can be a few hours between meals, stock up on snacks at grocery stores or gas stations while you're in larger towns.
“Where can I Fill Up Gas?”
Gas stations can be few and far between, depending on where you’re on the Ring Road, but major towns listed above will have a local station (Borgarnes, Akureyri, Egilsstadir, Hofn, Vik). Pick up a map of all the gas stations before you go. A good rule of thumb is to fill up when you hit about half a tank, just to be safe. Make sure you have a chip and PIN credit card with you, as most automated pumps only accept these kinds of cards.