Iceland's Ring Road by Camper Van
February 13, 2019 , Travel
If there’s one thing that really brings out the romantic in me, it’s traveling. I love a good road trip. This past fall, Ross and I decided to take a big vacation and drive Iceland’s Ring Road by camper van. The Ring Road (Route 1) spans around most of the country in a giant loop over 800 miles, and we spent seven days driving and soaking in all this incredible country has to offer. Ring Road is not to be confused with the Golden Circle, which is a more compact loop in the southwest part of Iceland.
I’ve been obsessed with Iceland since my high school days when I discovered the music of Sigur Rós, along with their documentary Heima, meaning “home.” Thanks to credit card points and an unusually flexible September schedule, away we went! Iceland was both nothing like I expected and everything I thought it would be all at once. There were places that took my breath away (Diamond Beach), and places I had been dying to see that completely underwhelmed me (Reynisfjara/Vik). A lot of it’s probably dependent on weather and how many people are there. However, I’m sure if I were to go back, I would have a completely different experience entirely.
We loved our experience with KúKú Campers, and would recommend them to anyone. We saved money and time by cooking almost all of our own meals, aside from things we were told we MUST try, like Icelandic hot dogs (made with lamb), and fish and chips (usually caught and cooked by the same fisherman). Most people we met were also tourists, and the locals we met not only all spoke English, but were friendly and helpful. Looking back, I never once felt unsafe even though we parked overnight at public campsites next to strangers. Yes, it was cold, but that’s probably what keeps tourists at bay most of all, so it’s only a plus in my book. On sunny days, I wished for the moody overcast light I had dreamed of, and then when it came days later, I was just thankful we got a little bit of sun.
I have a detailed write up with meal plans and our full itinerary along with a Google map of all our stops that I might link to on this post down the line, but for now, text is included all throughout the post with location descriptions. Some of the photos included are Ross’s. I taught him well!
From the Beginning:
We started off by picking up our home for the week, our camper van. Since September was mid-season, we were able to get a Category B camper for the same price as a smaller camper in peak-season. It was great for us, since we were able to cook inside, and Ross fit comfortably inside even though he’s 6’6″. We also loved that it had a heater that ran on a separate battery, so you could run it as long as you wanted, though we never needed it for more than an hour at a time. Side note: I wish I had taken some photos of the inside of the van and our little setup.
After a mostly sleepless red-eye flight, we picked up groceries and drove straight to our first stop, Seljalandsfoss. There’s camping in the field right near the waterfalls, which made for a perfect first day in Iceland. We had a relaxed day, wandering the area and enjoying both daylight and sunset for great waterfall views. The campsite also had bunnies! My inner child was thrilled, especially since they were friendly and ate grass right out of my hand.
Sunset light! So different from the harsh midday sun just a few hours prior.
Day 2: Seljavallalaug swimming pool, which is up an unmarked road that leads to an unmarked pathway. Thanks to the powers of the internet, we found it eventually.
I was really looking forward to this spot, and though it was beautiful, it was a great exercise in reality vs. expectation. It was not that warm, not that clean, and not super impressive. Maybe if we had found this spot on a misty day it would have been better! However, we continued up along the stream for a little bit, and the view there was worth the hike.
Skógafoss. I was absolutely shocked how many people were here, but I was still able to wait it out and get a photo of Ross without anyone in it. Standing close to the falls and feeling the mist and the sheer power of the falls was awesome.
View from the top of the rather gruesome hike up the hillside. Worth it, even just to get warm from the workout.
Next was Vík. There were a lot of little pull-offs and views in this area, so we took advantage. Recently I realized that we missed a spot I really wanted to see, but in retrospect, I remember seeing cars driving up a road on the hill. We didn’t even try, because our camper van probably couldn’t have made it. Bald tires, remember?
Reynisfjara Beach, the black sand beach of legends. Maybe it was the nice weather, but there were SO. MANY. TOURISTS. Next time I visit Iceland, I’ll try again and hope for an overcast day. We continued along the beach and scrambled over some rocks to find a completely empty beach on the other side. It felt a lot like the rocky beaches of California.
The actual town of Vík. Super cute, but we mostly passed through.
Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon. Absolutely stunning and so peaceful. Every bit of it was beautiful: the canyon itself, the river, the waterfall at the top of the path, even the rolling fields on either side. Nature is amazing, y’all. We definitely drove here because we thought it was the Eyrie from Game of Thrones (it wasn’t), but it was still so awesome.
Kirkjubaer II (is there a Kirkjubaer I? I’ll never know), my favorite campsite of our trip, with large common areas, hot showers (I think it was 5 krona for 5 minutes, more generous than most), and sheep that roamed all around the campsite. We saw sheep everywhere over our trip. Crossing roads, high up in the hills, on farms, roaming freely, you name it. While Ross drove, I’d be on sheep patrol, announcing when I saw one. The KúKú staff warned us that hitting a sheep was an automatic 500 euro fee to the farmer. I guess it happens a lot, probably because the place is literally crawling with sheep, and they seem to be able to escape their fences.
Day 3. We had planned to check out Svartifoss, but upon arrival we learned it was a 1.5 hour hike each way. Since we had such limited time on this trip and a lot of ground to cover, we skipped it. Next time! We continued east, stopping for views of the glaciers. I’d never seen a glacier before.
On our way to the main glacier lagoon, we stopped at Fjallsárlón, a smaller, lesser known lagoon. It was pleasantly empty, and the fog hid most of the glacier.
Jökulsárlón, the main event. If you’ve seen pictures on Instagram of a glacier lake, it’s probably this one. The color of the water was insane, and some of the icebergs are said to be over a thousand years old. You can even see them breaking apart and crashing into each other as they drift.
We parked on the northern/eastern side of the bridge, which ended up being a great decision. If you walk the path under the bridge towards the shore, you’ll arrive at Diamond Beach. I believe it also includes the southern shore, but we found the northern part to be less crowded and have more glaciers.
This was by far my favorite place in Iceland. It was beyond magical. We spent a good amount of time here, just marveling at the landscape. On this whole trip, the only non-phone photo we got together was here, thanks to the Mark IV’s wireless capabilities and a small travel tripod we didn’t use otherwise.
Heading north into the eastern fjords. Some of the scariest roads to drive on, but with every turn we were rewarded with crazy beautiful mountains jutting up from the landscape. We stopped in Höfn, a cute seaside town that I somehow took no pictures of, for fuel and lunch.
Day 4. Started off our day in Egilsstaðir for coffee and more fuel. The farther away from the capital you are, the fewer gas stations you see, so we stopped for fuel whenever it was convenient. We had a lot of driving on days 4-5. Egilsstaðir felt a little like a scenic New England town, maybe because of the autumn colors.
The north of Iceland is expansive and desolate in places, but every bit as beautiful as the south. The Ring Road as a whole has so much contrast, and honestly, we were getting pretty sick of moss and waterfalls every day, so we were obsessed with the weird deserts and rocky fields.
Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe. Even standing far back from it, you’re blasted by mist, hence the droplets on my camera lens.
We stopped at the Hverir geothermal area with its bubbling sulfur fields. This is what I imagine Mars to be like.
Since I’d heard that the Blue Lagoon was overpriced and overcrowded, we checked out the Myvatn Nature Baths in the north, but found them to also be crowded and not really our type of place. We wanted something a little more low-key, so we detoured up north to Húsavík, the whale watching capital of Iceland.
A new geothermal sea bath facility called Geosea just opened up here, and it was exactly what we were looking for. This was the entrance below. I didn’t bring my camera inside, because that felt weird, but you can see what it’s like here on their website. While we were there, it was lightly misting, with jacuzzi-hot water and mostly locals around us. As a result, it felt totally magical and I’m so glad we found it. Bonus points were the yellow lighthouse next door, straight out of a Wes Anderson movie.
More driving as we headed back to Route 1 towards our campsite at Systragil. This one miraculously had fast free wifi, a small miracle after being off the grid for most of the trip. I loved the area, with orange and red mountains.
Day 5. Passing through Akureyri, the second largest city in the country. Sicne we had a lot of road to cover, we just drove through, but it gave me very Seattle vibes.
Cutie Icelandic horses being social on the side of the road. We saw horses often, but had to stop to say hi to these ones, who were so close and so friendly!
We finally made it to Hvitserkur rock and the surrounding shore. It took a long, bumpy drive to get here. With our crappy tires, a gravel road, and with broken windshields being so common in Iceland, we took our time. By the end of it, it was wonderful just to be still without bumping and the grating sounds of the drive up. We hiked down the hill to Hvitserkur, said to be a dragon drinking water and watching over the coast. We were lucky to be here at mid-tide. At low tide, people climb Hvitserkur rock and make photo taking impossible, and at high tide, you can’t access the beach.
Back down the gravel road and headed southwest towards the Snæfellsnes peninsula. Of course, this meant even more gravel roads. Not our favorite day.
Day 6. Kirkjufell and Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall. By this time, we were picking up on a little bit of the language. Foss = waterfall. Fell = mountain. I had seen a lot of pictures of Kirkjufellsfoss, and upon arriving, I said to Ross, “really? That’s it?” It’s not as large as it looks, and I’d barely call it a mountain, but it was still cool to see.
We stopped at this church near Rif, hoping to get some cool photos, but it was so windy I didn’t even get out of the car. Ross made it about 5 minutes before we were back on the road.
On the western edge of the Snæfellsnes peninsula, we found yet another neon lighthouse, along with basalt cliffs and a wild landscape. Cold plus bitter winds meant we were pretty quick in this area, somewhere near the Skarðsvík Beach.
Our camper! Even though it was starting to feel pretty crowded by this point, we loved our home on wheels. I definitely have a new appreciation for people living the #vanlife lifestyle.
Arnarstapi, one of my favorite places we saw. This was a small coastal town with lots to see, like this well-known rock bridge that you can walk across, views of the mountains, and moss-covered buildings.
Búðakirkja black church, near Hotel Búdir. It’s another place I’d seen a million photos of – you probably have, too! Much-loved destination for couples eloping and for hipsters worldwide.
We had some daylight left before camping, so we checked out Glanni. Of everywhere we went, this was probably the most peaceful. The perfect place for a picnic or a nap.
Day 7: Reykjavík! We parked at a central spot that could actually fit our camper van near the Tjörnin pond and City Hall, and wandered from there. Since Reykjavík is pretty small, by the end of the day, we probably walked most of the city’s center.
Hallgrimskirkja, the famous church, modeled after Svartifoss. You can buy a ticket to the viewing deck on top to get a look at the whole capital.
Harpa concert hall, with honeycomb architecture and a greenhouse effect of warmth that was a nice break from the cold and wind.
A Big Lebowski themed bar and restaurant!
There were two foodie stops we were happy to spend money at. Reykjavík Roasters had very Brooklyn vibes and made a mean latte. I don’t even know what I ended up getting at Brauð & Co, but it was buttery and flaky and delicious. They don’t seem to have a menu, just stacks of pastries and a long line that’s worth standing in.
So many stray cats!
I didn’t take any pictures on Day 8, since we pretty much woke up, packed, cleaned the camper, and went to the airport. Next time I visit, I’d love to spend more time at the places I loved, and see some of the spots I didn’t get to. In particular, I’d love to visit the Westfjords, the rugged, less accessible northwestern region. My dream is to photograph a couple eloping in Iceland, so if you’re considering getting married in Iceland and need a wedding photographer, get in touch!
Misc tips for camper van life:
Waterproof clothing, warm hats, and wool socks are your best friends. Pack dry food/pantry essentials like coffee, oatmeal, ziplocs, granola bars. We brought our own warm sleeping bags and while they took up a lot of space in our bags, it was worth it to be cozy on cold nights. Playing cards is a great way to pass the time after dark, as well as pre-loading shows or movies on a phone or ipad. Bring a car converter with an outlet for charging electronics. If you’re traveling off-peak timing, check campsite calendars – some close seasonally. Navigating the bus system from the airport is a little tricky, so research in advance. Get a smoothie at the airport from Joe & the Juice – it’ll revive you after a long flight. Most of all, have fun and go with the flow. The spontaneous and random things we did that were unplanned were some of our favorites.