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Exploring Iceland by traveling the Ring Road has become a bucket-list experience. The approximately 828-mile-route takes about 13 hours if you were to do it all non-stop, but you’ll want to enjoy the attractions along the way so if you can plan for at least a 10-day trip. Fantastical surprises await around nearly every turn, from roaring waterfalls and black sand beaches to the famous glacial lagoon and so much more.
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Landing at Keflavik Airport will put you just a short drive from the famous Blue Lagoon, perfect for a soak after that long-haul flight and right off the Ring Road. Filled with mineral-rich, milky turquoise waters and surrounded by black lava rocks, enjoy its healing properties and perhaps an in-water massage before continuing to the capital city of Reykjavik for the night.
It’s worth spending a couple of days in Reykjavik. Start by heading to Hallgrimskirkja Church which sits atop Skolavorduhaed Hill. The most iconic landmark in the capital, and Iceland’s largest church, take the elevator to the top for a panoramic view over the town and well beyond. In front of the church, you’ll see a statue of Leif Ericsson, the early explorer who discovered North America in the year 1000, centuries before Christopher Columbus. You’ll find lots of great street art throughout downtown, unique shops and outstanding museums, including a rather unique institution, the Phallological Museum. Don’t miss sampling one of Iceland’s signature foods, a hot dog at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, the world’s most famous hot dog vendor.
Gullfoss Falls, also known as Golden Falls, sits along the popular tourist route known as the Golden Circle. As you begin to make your way around the Ring Road, it’s the best place to start. One of the best waterfalls in Iceland, it has two distinct drops in succession at right angles to each other and spans the entire width of the Hvítá River. On a summer afternoon, rainbows frequently appear in the mist. There are a variety of paved walking paths that provide different perspectives of its stunning natural beauty and you’ll also find a visitor center, gift shop and cafe.
The Geysir Area is just a short drive from Gullfoss, a geothermal field with bubbling springs and geysers. Strokkur geyser erupts once every four to eight minutes, skyrocketing as high as 65 feet, although it once measured in at over 120 feet. Either way, it’s a spectacular sight not to be missed, and the most reliable geyser so you’re guaranteed the experience. Just like clockwork, the water starts to gurgle and bubble, growing and growing, until it suddenly shoots up into the sky while the crowd below is mesmerized.
Heading toward the south coast, one of the first waterfalls you’ll reach is Seljalandsfoss, and it’s spectacular. Right off the Ring Road, this is one of the most photographed falls in the country, plunging nearly 200 feet into a pool below, but what makes it especially unique is that you can walk behind the cascades. Some of the more fortunate have even watched the northern lights through the mist.
Less than 30 minutes down the road is Skogafoss. It’s been featured in a number of films and TV series like the History Channel’s “Vikings” and the Marvel movie “Thor.” As the powerful volume of water flows, it produces a thundering sound and a rainbow-yielding mist that makes it a photographer’s dream on a sunny day. Climb the 370 steps to the top of the falls which plummet nearly 200 feet, and you’ll be rewarded with a breathtaking view of the coastline. By making the short walk along the river to its base, you’ll be enveloped in a cloud of spray, the roaring sounds and refracted light.
Just 10 minutes from Skogafoss, you’ll find the parking lot where the approximately one-hour, 2.5-mile trek to Sólheimasandur begins. This black sand beach holds a plane wreck that’s become famous among military history enthusiasts and Justin Bieber fans, after being featured in one of the pop star’s music videos. The US Navy DC3 crashed here in 1973 after running out of fuel. While all survived, the jet was abandoned and left to rot on this remote coastline, creating an eerie scene that’s been splashed across Instagram countless times.
Located near Vik, Iceland’s southernmost village is the black sand beach of Reynisfjara. Along the shore are stunning basalt columns, while majestic sea stacks rise out of the Atlantic. Known as the Trolls of Vik, legend tells that the unique rocks formed when trolls attempted to drag three ships ashore. Enjoy capturing photos, but don’t turn your back on the ocean as the powerful waves can be dangerous. While the village itself has a population of just 300, it’s become a popular overnight stop.
You won’t want to miss the astonishing natural beauty and outdoor adventure in Vatnajokull National Park. One of the top things to do here is to hike Falljökull Glacier, an outlet glacier of Europe’s largest ice cap, Vatnajökull, the largest ice cap in Europe. It’s best to go with a guide to walk right on top of the glacier, exploring its incredible ice fromations and crevices, with Iceland’s highest mountain, Hvannadalshnúkur providing the backdrop. It’s possible to do year-round, with multiple outfitters supplying crampons and offering certified glacier guides that will explain the science and history behind it as you make the trek.
The shimmering Jökulsárlón lagoon is one of the top highlights on a tour of the Ring Road. Europe’s largest glacier looms above, while seals relax on brilliant blue icebergs floating across the still water. It’s continuing to grow rapidly with the polar ice cap melting. Icebergs frequently break off the glacier and drift through the short river into the sea. The waves turn some back to the black sand beach nearby where they lie scattered across like gems, giving it the name “Diamond Beach.” The lagoon itself has been featured in many hit films like “A View to a Kill” and “Batman Begins,” as well as HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” From here you’re just an hour from the town of Hofn, perfect for your next overnight stop.
Jokulsargljufur, which literally means Glacial River Canyon, is a hoof-shaped canyon that forms a number of magnificent waters, including Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe, with more than 132,000 gallons of water plunging over the edge. It’s about a 4.5-hour drive from Hofn, but the scenery is magnificent the entire way and you’ll find plenty of charming towns to explore too. Be sure to stop for a photo of Vestrahorn, one of the most photogenic mountains in Iceland, with its spiky peaks rising from the landscape like horns on a bull.
Just an hour from Dettifoss is Lake Myvatn, a shallow lake that was created by a large basaltic lava eruption that occurred over 2,300 years ago. The area around it is especially fascinating with geothermal caves, bubbling mud pools and desolate craters. If you’re up for a trek, the rim of Hverfell Crater, an immense, charred crater that soars over the landscape on the east side of the lake, can be reached in just 10 to 20 minutes depending on your fitness level. There are plenty of geothermal features to discover throughout the region, and this is also where you’ll find Lake Myvatn Nature Baths, northern Iceland’s less crowded answer to the Blue Lagoon.
Godafoss, located right along the Ring Road just 30 minutes before you reach Akureyri, the “Capital of the North,” is another one of Iceland’s most awe-inspiring waterfalls. Known as the “Waterfall of the Gods,” the turquoise tinged horseshoe-shaped falls are nearly 100 feet wide and 40 feet high. There are walking paths all around it bringing various perspectives of the cascades.
Akureyri is a laid-back city near the northern coast, lying beneath the snow-capped peaks at the head of Iceland’s longest fjord. It’s the center of culture, services and trade in the northern region, offering art galleries, shops, restaurants and more. Take a stroll through the world’s most northerly botanical garden which showcases nearly every plant that grows in the country, and pop into some of the unique shops and interesting museums that run along its oceanfront main street. You’ll find multiple eateries with menus featuring some of the more unique Icelandic fare like smoked puffin, along with fresh seafood.
As you make your way southwest back toward Reykjavik you’ll have the chance to enter the enchanting Snæfellsnes Peninsula, which is well worth your time. Often referred to as “Iceland in miniature” the landscapes are a sample of the best Iceland has to offer with some of its most sought-out natural wonders existing side by side. You’ll see all of its breathtaking natural elements, from jet-black lava fields and cascading waterfalls to towering volcanoes, glaciers, black and white sandy beaches, rocky coves with nesting seabirds and a dramatic coastline that includes the country’s most photographed mountain, Kirkjufell. Grundarfjordur is near its base and is one of the best for taking a whale watching tour, with orcas following the herring in the waters that surround the peninsula.