Day 1: Driving the Ring Road in Iceland | Keflavik to Vik
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Immediately upon our arrival in Iceland, we loaded up our rental car and set off on Route 1. Iceland's Ring Road, or Route 1, is the main highway that circles around the island. It connects all of the small towns dotted around the coast and is the most popular route for tourists hoping to explore the country. Our first day was extremely ambitious, especially after coming off a sleepless red-eye flight. Might as well start off the trip with a bang. We drove counter-clockwise on the Ring Road, starting with one of our favorite region's of Iceland: the South Coast. Our first day included countless waterfalls, puffins, black sand beaches, and lupines as far as the eye can see.
Most flights from North America arrive early in the morning (5 - 8 am), and our 6:30am arrival was no different.
Our first priority upon arrival was getting a SIM card. We bought a 1GB Vodafone SIM card from the duty free shop (across from baggage claim) for $15. We were slightly worried about 1GB not being enough data or how expansive the coverage of Vodafone was around Iceland, but neither were a problem. We only used 675MB in 11 days despite having google maps directions going at all times and the occasional google searches. We likely would have needed more data if we didn't have Wifi at all of our Airbnbs. Upon researching Icelandic carriers, most recommend Síminn SIM cards for its cost and coverage. Síminn was not available at duty free when we went. We still had pretty great coverage, even in remote areas where there isn't a house for miles. We only had one instance where we needed to make a call but had no service and other carriers did have service. If you can find it, choose Síminn, but the others will likely not cause an issue.
We booked our rental car from Blue Car Rental, a local Icelandic company that includes extra insurances in their price. The only insurance they do not include with the price is Sand and Ash. Check the weather on Vedur.is before you pick up the car, but most people will not need this coverage. Sand storms are rare and only in certain regions. However, you will need gravel insurance. Parts of the Ring Road, especially in the east, and popular side roads are completely gravel with a speed limit of 80 km/h. We had a great experience with Blue Car Rental. Since they are an Icelandic company, they know what the cars go through: extreme weather and unfinished roads. We returned the car with quite the dirty interior (tracked in a good amount of mud) and perhaps a few extra minor scratches and they said it looked great.
Only about 45 minutes after landing in Keflavik, we were on the road. We were saving Reykjavik for the end, so we bypassed the capital and had a lengthy drive to our first stop. We did have to stop to pick up gas cards from the N1 station in Selfoss. Since all of our credit cards are Chip & Signature and many gas stations are unmanned, we would not have been able to buy gas at the pump. N1 sells prepaid gas cards that work at the pump like credit cards do in the United States. We bought 2 10,000isk gas cards at this first station. If you have a Chip & Pin card, this will not be an issue.
Seljalandsfoss & Gljúfrabúi
A 2 hour drive from the airport, Seljalandsfoss and Gljúfrabúi was an impressive first stop. No two waterfalls after was able to impress us as much. While Seljalandsfoss is beautiful, the real charm comes from the experience of walking behind the falls. The rocky and muddy path behind the falls might be a challenge for the older visitors, but it is so worth it. As you very well should expect, you will get wet. Like all of Iceland, waterproof outerwear is a must.
The highlight of this stop is not Seljalandsfoss, it is actually Gljúfrabúi or Gljúfrafoss. Good luck pronouncing that. This waterfall is not nearly as popular and you will have a good chance of experiencing it by yourself. It is just a short walk from Seljalandsfoss (to the left if you are looking at it). The waterfall is behind a cliff and you will have to walk in a stream in the cliff opening to get to it.
We thought we got wet walking behind Seljalandsfoss, but the mist from Gljúfrabúi felt like a full-on shower. I would gladly get wet again. Not to be too hyperbolic, but it was the best waterfall in Iceland. The rich green moss surrounding the waterfall. The secluded feeling of the high cliff walls surrounding you. The perfectly situated rock right by the falls. It is right next to the most touristy waterfall in the country and had it all to ourselves. Be careful getting off of said rock, I am currently sporting a couple rock fragments in my hands from trying to jump off of it.
Parking: 700isk, $7
Time spent: 1 Hour
25 minutes away, Skógafoss is another breathtaking waterfall. You can get a great view from the bottom of the waterfall, but it is stunning from above. There are stairs to the right of the falls that take you up to a viewing platform and trails. The trails lead along the river, which has several more smaller waterfalls for you to enjoy. It was raining during our visit and the stairs were steep and slippery. It must be quite the challenge of climbing up icy stairs if you are visiting in winter.
Parking is free, but if you want to use their bathrooms, they request a donation. There are a few restaurants around for lunch. We ate a granola bar we packed and waited for a full meal until we stopped at a grocery store.
Time spent: 45 minutes
Dyrhólaey is a promontory with picturesque views of the volcanic rock along the coast and black sand beaches. Don't know what a promontory is? Neither did I. A promontory is essentially a small peninsula or piece of high land that juts out into a body of water.
After you get off Route 1 onto road 218 to Dyrhólaey, a bit up ahead there is a fork in the road. To the right is a gravel path with tons of potholes that winds up a steep mountain to actually be on the promontory (Yes, I will keep using that word). There is a unique lighthouse up there as well. We did not make it up there. With our 2WD car, we got just a couple feet into the road before we turned around. We instead, took the left at the fork. While not as high up, there are fantastic views. Better yet, from this spot, you can actually see the arch in the promontory.
Dyrhólaey is closed at certain times during the day in puffin breeding season. Puffins go out to eat during the day and come back to their nests in the cliffs at night. While Dyrhólaey is open you likely won't see puffins, but there is a chance. If you do see Puffins, let them be. They were recently put on the endangered species list and need to be protected, especially during breeding season.
Time spent: 45 minutes
While all of South Iceland was busy with tourists, Reynisfjara beach was the most crowded. Just off the coast of this black sand beach, is Reynisdrangar, basalt stacks jutting from the sea into the air. According to legend, they were trolls that were frozen into rock while dragging a ship to shore. Nearly all weirdly shaped rocks in strange places in Iceland are said to be trolls.
The beach and surrounding basalt cliffs are truly magical. There are shallow caves to explore. Just do not go near the water and the dangerous sneaker waves. Unfortunately, there have been several cases of tourists dying from being caught up by the waves. The waves may look harmless, but it is not worth the risk.
If you are staying close by, this may be a place to visit either very early morning or late at night to avoid the crowds. Some of the magic and mystic of the place is lost when large groups of tourists are bused in from Reykjavik.
Time spent: 30 minutes
Vik is one of the largest villages in south Iceland located right on the ocean. And by one of the largest, I mean it just has a population of 300. Vik is a great place to stay for the night or for a quick look around. You can walk onto the beach or drive up the hill to Vik's church, Vikurkirkja. It will likely not be open, but there are great views of the village and the ocean.
Time spent: 15 minutes
Sufficiently tired, we got groceries for the next couples days from Krónan in Vik and drove another 30 minutes to our Airbnb (use this link for $40 off your first stay). We stayed in a tiny house in between Vik and Kirkjubæjarklaustur. The property had 5 houses of different sizes, all with spectacular views of the landscape.
So now that you know what we saw, why don't you watch it:
What we skipped:
Solheimasandur Plane Wreck
Abandoned on a black sand beach in the south coast, a 1973 DC-3 plane wreckage is quite the popular spot to visit and photograph. While the dramatic photos enticed us, we skipped this attraction. Getting out to the wreck is a bit of a hike. 45 minutes each way on gravel. Most likely, you will also be battling strong winds and rain. In total, it will likely take up 3 hours of your precious time in the south. 3 hours just to get a picture of a striking object that has been degraded into a jungle gym. You won't even be able to get the picture you dream of getting, because there will be a good crowd of people hanging on it ruining your shot. When we drove past the parking lot late in the day we counted at least 30 cars and 4 buses. If you are still determined to see it and want a people-free shot, you will likely have to go in the middle of the night (which isn't a problem in the midnight sun summers).
Seljavallalaug Swimming Pool
We skipped this mainly due to timing and priorities. Seljavallalaug is one of the oldest pools in Iceland and is situated between two beautiful mountains. It is warmed by a natural hot spring and is only a 10-minute hike to get to. It used to be more of a local secret, but it has become quite popular. The pool is cooler than most other pools in Iceland and dirtier. There is a changing room – just not a well-maintained one. If we had more time, it would have been neat to visit, but no regrets to driving right past it.
How can you explore the South coast without a rental car?
The south coast has some of the most beautiful scenery in all of Iceland. It is also an easy area to visit as a day trip from Reykjavik. We saw several bus tours along our drive that allowed visitors to see the sights without worrying about a car. One of the best tour companies in Iceland is Iceland Travel. They have many tours or special excursions all around Iceland.