Discovering Iceland's Famed Ring Road: Part 1

September 30, 2018


This week you can follow along with Southern Departure contributor, Jody Bowman's trip along Iceland's Ring Road.



Let’s start off by saying I’m an avid traveler, but I would describe myself as someone who likes places a little off the beaten path, who’s also ballin’ on a budget. I’m savvy enough to rent and drive my own car, make my own reservations, and plan my own itinerary; although, you won’t see me wearing a GoPro, driving off-road in a 4-wheel drive, or clinging to the side of a mountain making friends with timberwolves. If your travel style is more like mine, here’s a few tips and spots I recommend visiting in Iceland.


The Basics:

  • Currency: Icelandic Krona (Debit/Credit Card, preferably one with no foreign transaction fees.)

  • Language: Icelandic, but English is a widely spoken second language.

  • Getting there: You’ll fly into Keflavik International Airport. Airport code KEF.

  • Flight: Ticket purchased through American Airlines via the app Hopper

  • Suggested Car Rental Company: Compact 4-door car from SAD rental cars


Here’s a brief backstory about me and Iceland:


I’ve always wanted to go to Iceland since way back in high school. My sister-in-law mentioned going on a cruise there — she never went — but I couldn’t stop obsessing over it. I even went as far as getting an Icelandic Viking Compass tattoo, which is said to have the magical powers to guide one through journey and difficulty. I kinda give up on that dream during undergrad, where I majored in Spanish and delved into learning as much as I could about Hispanic cultures and the Spanish language. Flashforward to 2016, I was watching Sense8 on Netflix when I saw that the character Riley Blue was running away from her home island of Iceland.  I continued to see snippets of Iceland on the next show and in January 2018, I looked for tickets to go. The tickets were $900. Disheartened and with wanderlust in my heart, I set an flight alert on the app Hopper to notify me if they ever went down. As fate would have it, Hopper sent me an alert on flights to Iceland from Charlotte, NC that were $452. I don’t think I’d ever whipped my debit card out as quickly as I did right then. In three minutes, I was all set to fly to Iceland in August. Midnight sun here I come! (Queue the 7 month wait until my trip!) Back to the main event — what y'all came here for:


1. Thermal Bathing Pools, Reykjadalur


Most tourists head directly to their reservations at the Blue Lagoon for $65+/person after the flight to Iceland. Not me! I got in my rental car and headed straight to the Thermal Bathing Pools. It’s a whopping price of free fifty. There’s a coffee shop at the small parking area if you’re really dying to spend some money. And you may need some energy to get up the mountain to the pools, so maybe order two. I’d call this an intermediate travel spot for three reasons:


  1. You’ve got to be physically prepared for a two-mile medium/strenuous hike each way to visit the Thermal Bathing Pools. (You’re definitely going to need a warm soak after all that walking.)

  2. You’re going to need some hiking-type shoes to avoid slipping on the gravel trail.  

  3. You’re going to have to change in and out of your bathing suit in front of God and everybody. There’s some dividers on the platform, but I’d still make sure you're prepared. 

Tip: I like my bathtub water hot so I walked all the way up to the last platform, which is where to go for the hottest water coming off the geothermal reservoirs in the mountain. The further you go back down, the cooler the water is going to be. You can easily get out, cool off in the brisk summer air, and take another dip. Bring a towel to dry off with so you can change back into your hiking clothes.


2. Skógafoss Waterfall 


The stop for the Skógafoss waterfall is replete with a restaurant, coffee shop, ample parking, and easy access of the Ring Road. Here you'll want to walk to the base of the Skógafoss waterfall. Then walk up the million+ stairs to the observation deck — and just when you’re wet and out of breath, now it’s time to level up, y’all! Kick it into high gear to hike the rest of the trail, where you’ll hike along a river canyon that’s got an Instagrammable photo op at every turn. I walked around two more miles up the trail, most of it being an easy to moderate hike, because the views were so breathtaking! I could see the Atlantic Ocean in the distance behind me, then turn to the see lush green hills, snow-capped mountains, and waterfalls in front of me. Going here will not only make you IG famous but you’ll also close out all your rings on Apple Watch.   



3. Reynisfjara Beach, Vík í Mýrdal


This is the part of Iceland where the crowds begin to thin out. You’re almost to the less travelled part of  Ring Road, but you might as well stop here and enjoy this popular spot on your way. Reynisfjara Beach is a gorgeous black pebble beach, with a spacious parking lot and restaurant to pop into for a coffee and Icelandic cheesecake. Wait…did someone say cheesecake? That means I get a slice before and after walking along the beach, right? The Instagram photo ops are endless out on the beach. There’s Icelandic sheep, basalt columns, and roaring North Atlantic waves. Shimmy up one of the basalt columns to get a nice photo of yourself.


4. Drive to the town of Seyðisfjöður to see Rainbow Road


Now you'll take a detour off of Ring Road and take a more direct path to the town of Seyðisfjördur. The 939 to 95 shortcut will save you around 2-3 hours of driving, which is fantastic because you’re on a mad mission to get a shot of Regnboga Vegur (Rainbow Road), which leads to a striking blue church with Seyðisfjarðarkirkja in the background. The 939 is not an F-road (Four-wheel drive necessary road), so you can handle the drive in a standard rental car. It’s mostly a dirt road with potholes until you are about 12 miles outside of the town Egilsstaðir and then you’ll hit pavement on 95. It can be a little eerie driving through fog on a mountain out in the middle of nowhere, but the exciting thing is that you’ll see so many waterfalls of all sizes traveling to Seyðisfjöður and Lake Heiðarvatn. Since it was gloomy, foggy, and rainy; I was terrified along the drive, but you may have a nice, clear day. Though you still might be terrified while driving over Lake Heiðarvatn, which has minimal guardrails and is about 10 miles out from the town of Seyðisfjöður. Once you get to Seyðisfjöður, it’s gorgeous and well worth the challenging drive. Sit down and enjoy a well-deserved beer at Hotel Aldan while looking down the Rainbow Road.


5. Loneliest Chair in Iceland, North Iceland


A curious site in the middle of a barren landscape in North Iceland at a scenic overview.  There’s a primitive craft type white chair, one like  imagine the Amish making, placed in the middle of nowhere near the town of Fljótsdalshérað at a scenic overview off of the Ring Road that I couldn't pass by. I sat down in the chair to think about how barren everything was that surrounded me. It was also 33 degrees F and sleeting and it felt like I was one with a more rugged, unforgiving Iceland. It was just enough adventure before hopping back in the car to warm up, while a bus load of people swarmed the chair for their pictures too. They left as quickly as they came. I settled in to the heat of the rental and had a picnic.


6. Krafla Lava Fields, Reykjahlið


I didn’t initially plan to go here. I was just looking for the bathroom. I didn’t find the bathroom, but I discovered so much more, y’all. This beautiful lava filled landscape shows you the progression of how volcanoes changed the landscape of the area in the most breathtaking way. Dress for cold weather, rain, sleet, and wind. Iceland’s landscape wasn’t shaped by kittens and rainbows. It was shaped by lava and cold weather! The Krafla Lava fields are in an area of geothermal activity and extinct volcanoes. There are guided and clearly marked paths around the lava fields. I walked around the geothermal pools (they smell like rotten eggs) and a dead volcano. Then, I climbed across remnants of lava flow. Ne’er a breath of danger in sight, but far enough away from Reykjavík and rigorous enough to keep the timid traveler at bay. Here you can look out across the landscape and capture the essence of what Iceland’s highlands would be like.


While Jody explored Iceland on his own, here are some tour companies to choose from if you would rather go that route. Prices for guided sightseeing tours average around $170.


Continue on to Discovering Iceland's Famed Ring Road: Part 2.


Suggested packing for Iceland's cold and rainy weather:



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