Driving Iceland’s Ring Road is one of the best trips I’ve ever taken. The first three days of the trip is covered here. Now we’re rounding the corner on the Eastern coast and heading up towards Iceland’s Capital of the North: Akureyri.
Day 4: Eastern Fjords
This morning started with a long drive to the town of Egilsstaðir in the East. At this point, the Ring Road starts to follow the coast and the coast turns into one fjord after another. Meandering along the coast is not the quickest way to get somewhere, but it’s hard to complain when you get views like this:
Iceland's East Coast
Once you get past Selfoss, the towns in Iceland are tiny. Each one is announced with a city sign, and then you pass a couple of buildings and suddenly there’s a sign announcing that the city is over. I got used to small towns and seeing houses scattered in precarious places on the hillsides. We stopped at the town of Djúpivogur simply because it was the only town on the East coast for miles and miles. We ate at a cafe there where the local townspeople had been having coffee with delicious Icelandic meringue since the 1800s. We explored the town and surprisingly found out that we were NOT the only ones here.
Nat Geo is Everywhere!
Playing Behind Djúpivogur's Cafe
After Djúpivogur, we continued into a valley that reminded me of my favorite place on the planet: Glacier National Park. Except, this was way better (the former Park Ranger from Glacier and I both agreed).
Just another beautiful valley we had to drive through. This road sucks.
Although the Ring Road is the main road around the island, it’s not even paved the entire way. Signs like this would sneak up on us consistently.
Photo Credit: sciamanna.com
Once we reached Egilsstaðir, we broke away from the main road and took Route 93 to an amazingly picturesque town called Seyðisfjörður. It is nestled into a lovely fjord and the drive toward the water is riddled with beautiful views and waterfalls. We ate reindeer pizza at a small cafe that had board games and crayons. I even figured out where the Dread Pirate Roberts is currently stationed - he was our waiter!
We saw some art based on sheep parts (weird!) and walked up to a beautiful waterfall cascading over the town. Then we admired the fjord from a small harbor in town.
We returned to Egilsstaðir, visited the Nettó grocery store and made our own meal that night. The food in Iceland is very expensive! A typical meal out for us, a family of four, was usually around $100. We bought soup and some apples at a tourist road stop once: $68. We took advantage of grocery stores whenever we could, but it’s hard to cook when you don’t have a cooler. This trip, I discovered that Cheerios just doesn’t cut it for breakfast, not even when they come in a familiar box with cryptic words.
Honestly not sure if this is Icelandic or Danish
Day 5: Whales & Water
Day 5 was epic. We drove two hours to see Dettifoss, Europe’s largest waterfall (by volume).
Then we found Hverir, a large geothermal area with steam vents and mud pots. This is one thing that the US has over Iceland. Yellowstone’s geysers and thermal features are far better, but it’s still amazing to see the Icelandic ones.
Sulfur Smells Great
One of the best experiences of the whole trip was eating lunch at a cowshed right on the banks of Lake Mývatn, Vogafjós. The food was all from the farm itself (burgers, lamb soup, ice cream) -- so good. I had the best glass of milk of my life and all with a beautiful view of an amazing lake. The girls even got to pet a cow!
After lunch we snaked our way to Húsavík, the whale-watching capital of Iceland. In the summer they have a 99% whale-spotting success rate on their ships (we went through North Sailing) and an insane number of species you might be able to see (orcas, blue whales, humpback whales, etc). I had been nervous that the girls wouldn’t be able to be on a boat for three hours without going crazy, but they loved it!
Iceland gets creative with its street signs
Hello from the top deck!
They gave us warm pullovers (which were necessary) and we set off into the bay with the most glorious views of snow-covered peaks. It didn’t take long before we spotted two humpback whales. By the time we were done, we’d seen at least four and a group of white-beaked dolphins. This was a highlight for most of us. The girls liked it not just because they got to see some whales, but because they fed us cinnamon rolls and hot chocolate on the way back!
My Best Photo of a Humpback Whale
Whale with a Rainbow | Photo Credit: Nathan King
Whale Tail | Photo Credit: Nathan King
They're on a Boat (and Are Giant Goofballs)
The day was fading fast, but in a world where the sun never sets, you’ve got a lot of time to fit extra activities into your days. Since the first thermal bath was such a hit, we decided to visit Mývatn Nature Baths before going to bed. The Nature Bath was a huge, warm, rocky pool with milky water and a wonderful view of Lake Mývatn. I enjoyed jumping from the pool to a small hot tub to the steam room again and again, but we didn't stay long. The photo below was taken when we left at around 10pm.
Mývatn Nature Baths
Day 6: Driving
A relaxing Ring Road trip is really a 10-day affair and we were doing it in 8 days with one of them spent on the Golden Circle (not technically part of the Ring Road), so we had to play catch-up somewhere! We slept in and started the long drive around Lake Mývatn toward the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, but didn’t get far.
We HAD to stop at Grjótagjá, which, in and of itself is a really cool cave. It also happens to be the place where Jon Snow and Ygritte...do some stuff...in Game of Thrones.
Grjótagjá from Above
Nathan found a birding museum and we stopped for an hour to look at dead birds and learn that more species of duck nest on this lake than anywhere else in the world.
Then we stopped at my favorite waterfall of the trip: Goðafoss. To get to a good viewpoint, we followed the throngs of tourists across precariously slippery stones over waterfall runoff. People had to randomly help the kids across, but it was completely worth the danger of falling in to see this.
On the way back, a German guy took a huge spill off one of the rocks and knocked Alison over. She took it like a champ.
We hit Akureyri, Iceland’s Capital of the North around lunchtime. We needed something fast because we had six more hours to drive that day. The guidebook called Hamborgarafabrikkan (Hamburger Factory) the closest thing to fast food that the country had (it also said it was WAY better than our fast food chains), so we tried it. First off, their version of “fast food” is a full service restaurant (probably the closest thing in reality are their hot dog stands). They had 15 different kinds of specialty burgers, a delightful kids’ menu that included Octopus Hot Dogs, and a cupcake that looked like a burger.
It was surprisingly good! They have the best milkshakes ever (so good that we went back to another Hamburger Factory in Reykjavik only a day later because Nathan wanted to try it).
After that, we drove and drove on roads that were sometimes paved, sometimes not until we got to Stykkishólmur, a beautiful town on the North side of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. It is surrounded by islands of every size and shape dotting the ocean as far as the eye could see. We trekked up to the top of a viewpoint overlooking the bay to see this:
Our Airbnb for the night was nearby in Grundarfjörður, right at the base of perhaps the second-most-photographed mountain in Iceland: Kirkjufell. There was a hot tub with an amazing view. It was just perfect.
View from the Hot Tub
Day 7: Maddie’s Birthday
Madeline turned four today! She was such a great traveler the entire trip -- so laid-back, so funny, such an all-around wonderful kid. I’d mentioned her birthday to our Airbnb host months ago, but they remembered and had cake, cold milk, a card, and homemade necklaces for both girls waiting when we got there. This was the best place we’d stayed in the whole country (stay there)!
After a short celebration, we hit the road again. At this point, we’d felt like we’d seen the country. The everlasting sun and constant driving were wearing on most of us. If I had to plan the trip again, I’d skip this final day and just go straight to Reykjavik, but the Snæfellsnes Peninsula is many people’s favorite place on the island, so I didn’t want to miss it. It turned out to be a recap of almost every feature we’d seen on the Ring Road.
There were amazing waterfalls and mountains.
The famous photo everyone gets | Photo Credit: Nathan King
Rocky coastlines with views of amazing Glaciers.
Skarðsvík Beach | Photo Credit: Nathan King
Snæfellsjökull Glacier (and the entrance to the center of the Earth)
We traveled through Snæfellsjökull National Park, where Jules Vernes’ Into the Center of the Earth is set. We saw black sand beaches with spires and a shipwreck.
We stopped to admire bird cliffs and amazing views. We tried to eat at a cute seaside fishing shack, but they’d just lost power.
Bird Cliffs in Hellnar
Maddie on her first horse | Photo Credit: Nathan King
But we were beat, so we trudged on toward Reykjavik to find some food and souvenirs. I took the family to a place I’d eaten with a new friend last trip: Svarta Kaffið. It’s a small cafe that serves two types of soup a day in a bread bowl and beer/cider. I can’t imagine a better mix of foods for a country whose summer temperatures hover in the 50s.
Maddie had a good birthday. There was only one last thing we needed to do before leaving Iceland.
Day 8: The Blue Lagoon
There’s an iconic place in Iceland that most people doing stopovers see because it’s right by the airport. The Blue Lagoon is the “Disneyland of Thermal Spas”. It is a gigantic complex with a huge, warm pool with blue-green water filled with silica, which gives it a milky look and makes your skin feel silky soft, but your hair feel like a witch’s fingernails for a week. There is a facial bar, a drink bar, an hydraulic waterfall, steam room, sauna, a couple of restaurants, a massage area, and a hotel. This place is HUGE and all set in the middle of a lava rock-filled landscape that could be from another planet. You can walk around in the pool and relax for hours.
Entering the Lagoon
Iceland is a dream. It reminds me of what this planet could be if we hadn’t already overpopulated most of it. It has miles of dramatic and ever-changing landscape, and is one of the most unspoiled places that we have left on Earth. I am torn between my desire to go back again and again and the need to keep it pristine for others to see. You should go. And when you do, take me!