My husband and I have been driving around Iceland for six days now, and are returning to Reykjavik tomorrow to drop off our rental vehicle. We didn't get through the entire loop of the Ring Road (the main highway, Route 1), as many tourists decide to do. After much discussion, we decided to head east from Reykjavik, take the road low and and slow and not worry about 'doing the loop'. We wanted to stop and see whatever tickled our fancy, and not feel pressured to adhere to some maniacal timeline that forced us to 'just keep driving, just keep driving, just keep driving'. And I'm so glad we did.
|Enjoying our journey on Route 1 in Iceland.|
We drove from Reykjavik to Skogar, then from Skogar to Vik, then from Vik to Kirkjubaejarklaustur, and finally from Kirkjubaejarklaustur to Hofn. Then we turned around again and went back west, hitting up all the stops we'd missed along the way (like Skaftafell National Park, which had been shrouded in mist, clouds, and heavy rain when we'd passed it on our way east).
During our journey, we learned many things about road-tripping it through Iceland. Since we'd spent a lot of time online looking up tips and tricks, reading through forums, and grilling our Golden Circle bus driver about the ins and outs of driving through Iceland, we thought we'd compile a handy-dandy list of what to expect when driving in Iceland for all you potential Icelandic travelers. Please enjoy, and if we've missed any helpful hints, please add them below in the comments section!
1. Rules of the Road
Our Golden Circle tour bus driver provided us with an overview of the rules of the road in Iceland. You MUST have your headlights on 24/7 in Iceland - no matter what the weather is like, or how bright or sunny it may seem. From our experience this week, we know that the weather in Iceland can change at the drop of a hat, and a previously sunlit field can turn grey and misty in seconds. Always have your headlights on when driving.
|Our rental vehicle, a Ford Explorer, which treated us very well!|
As well, speeding is taken quite seriously in Iceland. Our tour bus driver noted that though Iceland is 'under-staffed' when it comes to police officers, one of their main jobs on the island is to catch and ticket speeders. Stick to the speed limit, which is by the way, quite a bit slower than the roads of North America. The average speed limit is either 90 or 70 km/h depending on the section of the Ring Road you are on.
Finally, despite what several websites claim, 'off-roading' in the North American sense is not allowed. When I say 'North American' style off-roading, I mean our habit of making a road or trail where there was previously none, barreling over vegetation and through mud holes at random. In Iceland, off-roading has a totally different meaning. Due to the fragile nature of the island's vegetation, it is expressly forbidden to create your own trails. Off-roading in Iceland means you stick to a trail and do not go off of it - even if the trail is faint, made of pebbles, or even just ruts. There is no 'make your own trail' allowance in Iceland, and punishment can be a heavy fine or even jail time.
The Ring Road is a surprisingly narrow road considering it is Iceland's main highway. It is a single-lane highway with literally zero shoulders. There are lots of curves and hills, and passing can get a bit tricky. This is another reason to really stick to that speed limit. To make matters even more complicated, the sheep in Iceland tend to ignore those pesky fences and congregate wherever they please, often right along the side of the road or even directly on it. Make sure you as a driver are paying attention to the road (which is often hard since it is very tempting to just gawk out the window at the beauty of the nature surrounding you). Joey and I teamed up and I kept my eyes peeled for sheep while he watched the oncoming traffic and narrow shoulders. A couple of times we had to swing around some very unconcerned sheep who were loitering on Route 1.
|Sheep on the road in Iceland. Photo via.|
There are also tons of gorgeous Icelandic horses along the sides of Route 1. We had read about the beauty of these 'wild' Icelandic breeds, but were informed by our tour bus driver that there are no more wild horses on the island. Each and every horse will be accounted for by a farmer or tourism corporation, although it is possible to visit the horses if you safely pull your car into a pull-out spot and wander down into the ditch to say hello. Tourist operations allow you to rent a horse and go on a trail ride as well. (We didn't do this.)
|Saying hello to a beautiful and friendly Icelandic horse.|
3. Alien Landscapes
One of the highlights of renting your own vehicle and driving the Ring Road yourself, versus joining a tour and cruising along on a tour bus, is that you can stop whenever your heart desires to explore Iceland's amazing nature. Joey and I began joking that if we'd missed pulling over to explore a beautiful waterfall, there'd be another one about 30 seconds down the road (and there usually was). Often the waterfall areas had little picnic spots nearby, encouraging tired drivers to stop and enjoy the world around them. I can't even begin to count how many waterfalls we took some time to investigate.
|Yet another breath-taking waterfall along Iceland's Ring Road.|
|A picnic area near an unknown waterfall, made out of natural rock.|
Hot springs bubble and steam in ditches, and in most areas you can pull over, get out, and go for a hike to explore them (they are typically roped off and safe areas to hike clearly marked - I found everywhere in Iceland was really good about making things safe). We stopped about 20 minutes outside of Reykjavik near a geothermal power plant and discovered these amazing little hot pots, near the town of Hveragerdi.
|A hot spring bubbles and boils near Hveragerdi, alongside Iceland's Route 1.|
|Joey and I enjoy the sulfuric steam of a natural hot spring just off the Ring Road.|
Perhaps one of my more favorite aspects of the Icelandic landscape were the massive and expansive lava fields. These were the most 'alien-esque' features of the island, in my opinion, because of the way the rocks have solidified, and the distinct and unusual vegetation that grows on them. Thick, spongy moss grows on all of the rocks, covering them with a green hue (when moist - when dry, the moss turns grey). This moss is very fragile, and random hikes through the lava fields is discouraged. However, many vehicle pull-out points have trails that take you through the lava fields and allow you to examine the moss more closely without actually damaging it.
|The unusual yet eerily beautiful lava rocks in Iceland's lava fields.|
|Can you spot me hiding in the lava field? Don't worry, I was on a path!|
4. Camping Areas
When planning our trip back in March, I had some difficulties finding available hotel rooms. Worried we wouldn't have anywhere to stay on our journey through the country, Joey and I decided to take a backpacking tent and some sleeping bags as back-up. The 'back-up camping' idea slowly formed into the idea that we'd camp purposely around Iceland, saving money and getting to know the true nature of Iceland as we did so. (Then we found out I was pregnant, and the camping idea went back to being a 'back-up' plan, but not after we'd gone out and purchased a lot of back-woods camping equipment.) Regardless of our plans, we did end up camping for several nights through Iceland, under the roar of waterfalls and in the pouring rain. We didn't end up with superb camping weather this last week.
|Our first campsite outside of the Skogafoss waterfall. Doesn't get much prettier than that!|
What we didn't expect was that there is no 'camp anywhere' attitude in Iceland. We'd read on several websites that it is totally cool to just plunk down camp wherever you please and get back to nature on your own terms. Not so. Camping is only allowed in designated camping sites, and if you do decide to camp on the side of the road where it is not clearly a campground, you run the risk of having the Icelandic police knocking at your tent door and asking you to leave. We DID see a few campers just setting up shop on the sides of the road in vehicle pull-out areas, but I can't vouch if they were allowed to stay the whole night or not.
Better safe than sorry. The campgrounds are very cheap - they charge per person, and per tent. Two people in one tent is about $20 CDN, give or take due to the exchange rate. Much cheaper than a hotel room (hotel rooms run about $180 - $220 and hostels and guesthouses run at about $115 - $150 for two people in one room). Our favorite campground was the one in Kirkjubaejarklauster, which had well-kept facilities including laundry, a camp kitchen with a stove and microwave, and lots of privacy.
|Our campsite outside Kirkjubaejarklauster - with a much smaller waterfall.|
In general, I highly recommend driving around Iceland yourself rather than signing on with a bus tour. We did the Golden Circle bus tour, which was fun and highly informative (our tour bus driver knew her stuff, to say the least), but it was also rushed and easy to space out on what was going on around you. When you drive, you have the control to stop and explore, to stay where you want, and to go at your own pace.