Your Questions About the Ring Road – Answered!
What is the Ring Road?
Last updated in November 2022. Original post from January 2017.
The ring road is what we call route 1, the highway in Iceland that takes you all the way around the coasts of Iceland. This circular route allows you to see some of the most popular sights and attractions Iceland has to offer, starting and ending in Reykjavík (or anywhere, really, it’s circular!).
Does the Ring Road cover all of Iceland?
No, it does not. The West Fjords are left out of the loop (because it’s very sparsely populated and difficult to traverse), and it completely avoids the highlands(which are even more difficult to traverse and not populated at all). If you would like to explore these areas, please contact our Reykjavík tourist information and we will guide you further.
Is the Ring Road the same as the Golden Circle?
No, it is not. The Golden circle is what we call another popular route from Reykjavík which takes you by some of the most popular sights of southern Iceland. Read more about that on our self-drive tour of the Golden Circle.
How long does it take to drive the Ring Road?
We recommend at least 7-10 days. Some people do it in less time, but it’s a lot of driving – 1.332 km (828 mi) of driving, in fact – and we’re guessing you don’t want to spend the majority of your vacation sitting in a car. If you don’t have enough time to do the Ring Road properly, we suggest exploring smaller areas instead, such as the Golden Circle, Snæfellsnes, west Iceland, Reykjanes or the south coast.
What is the road like?
Well, it’s not the autobahn, let me tell ya that. These days almost all of route 1 is asphalt, although it’s probably narrower than what you’re used to. I say “almost” because hilariously enough there’s still a tiny stretch of road in the east fjords which is still a gravel road, and it’s been on the agenda for years to remedy.
Before you start judging Iceland and its roads for being backwards, remember that this is a nation of less than 350.000 living in a country bigger than Scotland. There’s a lot of road to maintain “per person”!
In general, the road is perfectly fine. Most of it is one lane in each direction, but sometimes you have bridges that are only one lane wide, so you have to take turns to drive across.
What kind of car do I need to drive the Ring Road?
As we said before, the road quality should be fine for the most part, so you shouldn’t need a 4WD vehicle. However, you might need one for your self-drive tour if…
• You’re travelling in the winter. In the wintertime, the roads can get snowed out on short notice. A 4WD is essentially a basic safety precaution under these conditions. Also, make sure to check the road authority website and the weather forecast before taking off.
• You also might not need a 4WD for the ring road itself, but if you intend to stray from that route (to check out a natural wonder, for example), taking a 4WD is safer.
• Finally, you might not NEED one, but you might PREFER one. For safety, comfort, and not least style. A lot of the roads in the Icelandic countryside are gravel roads, and you will be happy for the sturdier bumper system on a lot of larger cars.
What To See And Where To Go
For the purposes of this article, Iceland can broadly speaking be broken up into 6 different areas: The North, the West, the West Fjords, Snæfellsnes, Reykjanes, the South coast (usually meaning the south-west coast), Golden Circle and the East.
The Ring Road itself takes you through 4 of them; the South Coast, the East, the North, and the West. We will focus on those, but as we go around, we will talk about how you can detour to the other parts. Let’s go through them as you would drive from Reykjavík, and mention some of the main sights and activities of each area.
From Reykjavík: To get onto the Ring Road from Reykjavík, you just drive on Miklabraut (route 49) east until you get a choice between route 1 N or route 1 S. To drive south, make a right-hand turn, or to drive north you just stay on the road. We will assume you’re starting south, so turn onto route 1 S towards Vík.
The South Coast
Usually when people say the “south coast,” they mean the south-west coast between Reykjavík and Vík. In this area, you drive with a mountain range on one side and the ocean on the other, with black sands visible throughout. You will see Eyjafjallajökull volcano and Mýrdalsjökull glacier from a distance (and maybe up close, depending on what you do). Main towns include Hveragerði, Selfoss, Skógar and Vík.
The major sights of this area include Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss waterfalls, Dyrhólaey, Reynisfjara black-sand beach by Vík along with the famous rock formations of that area.
Off-the-beaten-track destinations in this area include the highlands north of Mýrdalsjökull, such as Þórsmörk and Landmannalaugar (very off-the-beaten-path, you have to ford rivers to get there).
Major activities include glacier hiking and snowmobiling on a glacier.
Read in more detail about the South Coast in our south coast self-drive tour.
East Iceland and the East Fjords
The east of Iceland refers roughly to the area from Vík to Egilsstaðir and includes the east fjords.
Major sights of this area include Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon and Skaftafell national park. Major towns in the east include Höfn, Egilsstaðir and Borgarfjörður Eystri.
Major activities include a boat ride on the glacier lagoon, hiking in Skaftafell and glacier hiking on Vatnajökull. In the winter you can go ice caving in Vatnajökull.
Less known but still popular places to visit include Seyðisfjörður village. Also worth checking out are Hallormsstaðaskógur, one of the biggest (and one of the only) forests in Iceland.
Off-the-beaten-track destinations in the area include Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon and Dverghamrar rock formations. A lesser-known alternative to Jökulsárlón is Fjallsárlón, another glacier lagoon nearby.
There is no shortage of amazing sights in northern Iceland and you can easily spend two or three days here without covering everything. You might have to pick and choose. Some of the major sights are centred around Mývatn, a lake with an amazing variety of birdlife. Near Mývatn, you will find cool rock formations, hot springs and lava caves.
Other major sights of the north include Dettifoss and Goðafoss waterfalls and Ásbyrgi nature reserve and nearby Lofthellir cave. Major towns of the area include Akureyri and Húsavík.
Off-the-beaten-track destinations in the area include Krafla and Víti volcanoes and the Holuhraun lava field, which resulted from the 2014 eruption of Bárðarbunga.
Western Iceland is chiefly characterised by two fjords, Borgarfjörður and Hvalfjörður, as well as a huge mountain range on the western side. The major town in the area is Borgarnes.
Favourite sights include Grábrók volcano, Deildartunguhver hot spring, Glanni and Hraunfossar waterfalls, as well as several lava caves.
Off-the-beaten-path destinations in western Iceland include Langjökull glacier and Kaldidalur highland route.
Before the fjords
Grábrók, Glanni waterfall and Paradísarlaut are all situated along the main road as you drive from the north.
- Grábrók – Graypants the Volcano! About 2 hours from Varmahlíð, you will be able to take a right-hand turn to see Grábrók. Grábrók is an explosive crater which you can walk up onto. Grábrók means “Graypants” for reasons I don’t need to understand in order to enjoy. There is a wooden platform all the way around the crater to protect the mountain, which is made of very loose soil, having exploded violently some time ago. Please stay on the wooden platforms, you damage the mountain if you go outside them.
- Glanni waterfall – Literally 2 minutes further down route 1 after Grábrók, you will have a chance to turn off to the left, with a sign saying “Glanni.” Glanni is a beautiful little waterfall. “Glanni” is what we call someone who is reckless or a little cavalier, and I don’t know if the name comes from the waterfall or the other way around. There’s nothing particularly cavalier about driving down the little road here, parking, and walking the little trail down to the waterfall.
- Paradísarlaut – Paradise Grove, or Paradísarlaut, is a beautiful little grove with a serene little pond in it. It’s just down the same trail that Glanni is on.
Borgarfjörður – In Borgarfjörður, popular destinations include Deildartunguhver hot spring, waterfalls Hraunfossar and Barnafoss, and lava caves Surtshellir and Víðgelmir. At the bottom of Borgarfjörður is where you go on the Inside the Glacier tour, and also where you would take the Kaldidalur mountain pass if you were driving a very serious 4WD vehicle in the summertime, or on a super-jeep tour. We recommend guided tours for the caves, for safety and comfort.
In Hvalfjörður, favourite destinations include a museum dedicated to the US occupation of Iceland during WWII and the hike to Glymur waterfall, one of the tallest waterfalls in Iceland. We can only recommend the hike in the summertime, though.
You have now returned to Reykjavík, after many twists and turns – congratulations! You must have had an awesome time!! Now just enjoy everything Reykjavík has to offer, rest, bathe in pools and eat at the excellent restaurants. Tomorrow can be a new adventure, for instance to Reykjanes?