ICELAND'S RING ROAD: THE ADVENTURERS DREAM
Iceland is like a nature IMAX film on steroids that is also the supermodel of life’s landscapes.
It is simply stunning, almost to a point where I forgot I was actually living. It's where that 200ft waterfall to your left is suddenly going unnoticed because it probably doesn’t even have a name on the scale of “Icelandic Coolness”. Where my phone is turned off and even when I had the option of Wi-Fi, I never considered connecting to it…and that’s saying a lot for a blogger, whose job kind of depends on the internet.
The Ring Road is a single highway that circles the entire country of Iceland. It spans 830 miles and encompasses fjords, volcanoes, waterfalls, glaciers, craters, more waterfalls, black sand beaches, sheep, deep valleys, northern lights, and a couple more waterfalls. Travelers typically spend anywhere from 5-15 days adventuring the route. However, 3 months is not enough time to stop for everything along the way. If you’re considering this journey, prepare for a couple heartbreaks for the stops you wanted to make, but had to dismiss due to time.
For my journey, I spent 6 days on the ring road with my boyfriend and a group of 4 strangers. On a rainy Monday morning, we took off; heading clockwise with one car and one camper van-to begin one hell of an adventure.
It began on the western Fjords, with the van being a sassy diva, and camping at the base of the mountain in the town of Akureyri. One of the first things we discovered is that Icelanders love their syllables. Braeoraborgarstigur is just another common street name. How do you pronounce it? No idea…the only word I learned to pronounce while there is ‘franskar’, which means french fries. God, I am such an American.
The fjords are beautiful and drastic. It slightly reminded me of the mountains in Hawaii, only more vivid and without any plants (because in case you haven’t heard, Iceland lacks vegetation). Cliffs loom hundreds of feet above small farmhouses and a plethora of sheep dot the tundra landscape. Because there are so many waterfalls, people tend to build their houses so they have their own private foss in their backyard. Basically, in the front, they get stunning views of mountains, and the back is a standard 100ft waterfall. I mean, I thought the tree in my backyard was kind of pretty…but maybe not.
On night one we stopped along the ring road for dinner and a sunset after the clouds had finally broken. Food in Iceland is expensive…I LOVE cheese but refused to buy it because it cost upward of $14 for a small block. So my meal consisted of condensed canned tomato soup with some bread to dip in it. That’s what I call fancy livin’.
The van that housed our friends decided it didn’t enjoy the lights being left on during dinner, so it threw a hissy fit and died on us, which led to 6 people on a road-side flagging down every car with hopes of jumper cables. A kind Icelandic gentlemen came to our rescue, and we arrived in Akureyri at dusk to camp under one of the biggest moons I’d ever seen.
I especially enjoyed the northern section of Iceland, because it was rather rural and less accessible to tourists who are spending a day or two on a layover. Those who venture this way are usually also vying to complete the Ring Road, and usually, try for something more than a sorority girl pose in front of an attraction sign. The area of Lake Myvatn is full of lava fields, bubbling mud pits, craters, and hot spring baths.
Krafla contains one of two best-known Viti craters in the country. It last erupted in 1984, and the caldera is currently filled with water to form a small lake. Hikers can venture all the way around the crater ring, and enjoy a 360 view of the area and ash field left by the eruption. “Viti” translates to “Hell”, and if you’ve seen photos from the eruption, you’ll realize it was rightfully named.
Myvatn nature baths is an oasis. If you’re a tourist, please skip this section and go to the Blue Lagoon. If you are a traveler, boy do I have a secret for you.
I’m sure you’ve heard of the Blue Lagoon, probably the most famous hot spring pool in the world. It’s conveniently located about 20km from Keflavik International Airport, so those even with a 6-hour layover can hop on over for a couple hours of relaxation.
Well, relaxation comes with a price. Blue Lagoon costs about $75/person without a reservation and $50/person with a reservation. Some of the travelers we met had said that it is crowded and outlined with gifts shops and overpriced cafeterias. Gag me.
Myvatn is smaller, quieter, prettier, and cheaper option. Located almost on the complete opposite side of Iceland, it is designed for travelers and natives. With a student ID, the cost is around $18 and I’m not even sure they accept reservations. It is also open until midnight, which beats Blue Lagoons 10:00pm closing.
I recommend soaking in the evening, where you can watch the sun slowly set over the horizon and the steam gradually thicken as the night air cools.
Curving around the eastern side of the island and towards the south will bring encounters of more vast mountains, more waterfalls and welcomes the first sight glaciers. Iceland is home to Vatnajӧkull, which is Europe’s largest glacier. In this portion of the country, some homes have a waterfall and a glacier in their backyard.
Really?! That’s just unfair.
Around every turn is a pull off attraction or road that leads to a waterfall or a valley or a mountain. Any land that isn’t privately owned is free game, and that rocks my world.
The thing about Iceland is how relaxed they are. Especially if you’re American, you’ll understand my annoyance of the “do not cross” fence lines. I’m sorry, but if I choose to stand on this edge and I fall and die-it’s my problem, but I should at least have the chance to go stand on that edge. Nature doesn’t have any fences.
And that’s definitely how Iceland feels. They’re like “Hey, yeah you can climb this waterfall. Have fun but don’t be a dumbass.”
After having an epic camping experience along the shores of an iceberg lagoon named Jӧkulsárlón, we ventured onward, hiked a bit and ended up at the foot of nature’s fury. A glacier so massive we barely could make it up the edge, and so dangerous that one slip in the wrong spot could send you plummeting down a crevasse.
That’s when Josh found an ice cave. A couple of travelers we had met previously had told us that the tours of ice caves were booked out a year in advance and that prices were in the $200 range. And here on our exploration, we created our very own personal tour.
We were the only souls for miles, just us and this cave that had a power far beyond our control. It was more than a trip highlight, it was a life highlight.
There was something about the place, the risk, and the pure beauty of earth.
A majority of the day was spent here, and upon returning the car we were dirty, wet, scraped up and starving. In the best way possible, of course.
A little later on, we found ourselves picking up some hitchhikers. Then we watched sunset at the world’s most majestic valley of Fjaðrárgljúfur and pitched camp on the black sand beaches near Vik.
If camping on a black sand beach wasn’t wonderful enough, we received the surprise of a lifetime with a display of northern lights that was UNREAL. I think I need to emphasize the UNREAL portion again.
Northern lights aren’t normally seen in Iceland during the summer months, so we weren’t expecting anything. But then here we were, standing on the beach when we look up and watched the sky dance from every end. It changed from green to purple, and streaks shot down so far I swear they were just above our noses. It lit up the entire sky. I had always thought the northern lights were exaggerated in videos…nope. Just as magnificent, if not more.
The glacial adventure paired with a northern lights show and a sunset over a valley was the recipe for one of the best days in the history of days. Hands down.
Vik is also where we discovered the love of gas station hot dogs. If looking to eat out, I would call you a liar if you said you had a decent meal under $25. Their food is delicious, but if you're a traveler on a budget, it cannot be done every night. You must live for the gas station hot dogs, along with the gas station ice cream, where the large size is bigger than my head, for only $4. I am a lover of ice cream, and Iceland has by far the best soft serve—especially with hard-shell chocolate topping. Get it, eat it, but bring some back to share (please).
Towards the end of the trip, we hit the “Golden Circle”, which is supposed to be a smaller day trek around a ring in the southwestern side of the island. It is where larger crowds gather, protective fences sprout, and tourist shops thrive. For being some of the most famous places in Iceland, the spectacles were lacking compared to the epic week we had just lived, where much of the time we were almost completely alone.
For example, Geysir is one of the tallest geysers in the world and one of the largest tourist locations. We pull up, jump out of the car, and roll up to a muddy hole only to find out it only erupts when there is seismic activity.
Wait, what? Sigh. Can’t determine nature I suppose.
But, there is no such thing as a sucky view in Iceland and even the letdowns are filled with views that are worth it. Plus, I can’t argue with the waterfalls in the area…every single one will take your breath away. In all honesty, there’s not one place I would tell you NOT to visit in Iceland. Well, except the bathrooms they charge 200 kronor for. Just pee outside.
Truth is you’ll have to pee outside at some point anyway. There just isn’t enough of a population to have a bathroom accessible every time you need one. Toilet paper is your friend, and so are gas stations.
I will never be able to fully describe the experience I had in Iceland. I still have so much to explore in this world, but something in my heart tells me this place will always be my #1. I would be lying if I told you I didn’t cry watching dusk settle over the North Atlantic Ocean while maneuvering through massive pieces of the glacier that had been scattered along the shore. Or that the northern lights brought me flat-to-my-back-speechless, and made me more spiritually connected to life than ever before.
I ran along cliffs with the love of my life, became a pact with strangers, and managed to go unshowered for 6 days with no regrets. Although, I do feel bad for the nice German couple I sat next to on the plane. I think the man stared at my hair and questioned whether I was attempting dreads or am just disgusting.
Both my friend, both.
Soulful adventurer. Probably lost. Definitely eating ice cream.
In her late-teens, Shalee drove out of her small hometown watching the sunset behind her along the two-lane highway. Her ventures began in Michigan, where she taught herself to travel on a budget. Today, Shalee shares her tips and stories to thousands of readers interested in adventure, budget, and outdoor travel. Learn more about her here.