The people in airports fascinate me. I often wish that travelers were required to wear a label when flying sharing where they came from and where they were going. Not in a creepy, stalker-ish way (although I get that’s where I’m headed), but more so because I believe you can learn the most about a person by seeing the places they value. Are the going home? Or faraway from it? There’s so many details that can be learned by merely scanning one’s boarding pass. It was during a conversation like this with the woman sitting next to me on a plane back from California when we got to talking about the greatest places we’d ever been. Without a moment of hesitation, she said that Iceland not only changed how she traveled, it changed how she lived. That sounds like a bit much, I thought to myself, but it didn’t stop me from doing a little research when I got home.
It quickly became apparent that the land where lava meets glaciers was drawing the appeal of millions. I, too, was not immune to its magical pull. Two months later, my best friend and I planned and booked 12 days driving around Ring Road for the middle of July (which allowed for optimal daylight hours and least chance of blizzards). Now that it’s been some time since our trip came to a close, I finally feel ready enough to pull out my journals and photographs to revisit the most enchanting country I’ve seen. Given the extent of this trip, I’ve split it up into three parts. Part one will follow us along Ring Road on the southern coast, part two is Ring Road leading up the northern side, and lastly, a separate post for all the gems to be found in Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik.
So go grab your hiking boots and sheep’s wool, it’s time to explore this land of beautiful contradictions. Welcome to the the place where fire meets ice.
After landing at Keflavik, the Reykjavik airport, we headed over to Sixt to pick up our rental car. A small hatchback we would use to travel around the highway circling Iceland. Given that we were traveling in the middle of the summer and planned to stick to main roads, four wheel drive wasn’t necessary. However, we did opt for the WiFi router and GPS (life saver!). Although it’s difficult to get lost when going in one direction, the street signs are less than stellar, especially if you’re not keeping up with your Icelandic. It was reassuring to have a safety net in case we got lost. Lastly, we stocked up on groceries since towns were sparse along the way. This is what they created trail mix for.
Our first day was spent exploring the Golden Circle. This charming park is filled with rushing waterfalls, volcanic craters, steaming geysers and awe-inspring outlooks along the way. The route is easy to follow and we were able to see mostly everything in one day.
We spent the night at the Bus Hostel in Reykjavik and were up early to join a day tour to explore the glaciers. This hostel was more than just a bed to sleep in. We enjoyed the free breakfast in the morning and the ability to chat with others in the common area (and use the speedy Wifi!). It was the perfect spot to get suggestions from others who had been in the country for several days ahead of us.
This was our only pre-booked adventure, as we were determined to have the freedom to travel wherever the road took us. Yet, I couldn’t suggest this group enough. Although the high winds prevented us from walking across much of the glacier, a common weather disruption here, we were able to make up for it with other sites.
History buffs will be enamored with the Sólheimasandur plane crash that occurred on Saturday Nov 24, 1973 when a United States Navy airplane was forced to land on Sólheimasandur’s black sand beach in the south of Iceland due to severe icing. All of the crew members survived, and many of the Icelanders would visit the plane to use its leftover fuel.
Since we were in the land of waterfalls after all, the guide took us behind the sheets of water to view the world from another perspective.
Sometimes the smallest waterfalls were the most moving to stumbling upon, a hidden secret you weren’t exactly looking for.
In between waterfalls, we encountered grass huts built into the sides of mountains. The folklore of trolls and elves is alive and well in Iceland. So much so, Icelanders reroute their highways to respect the land of the trolls.
Lastly, we visited Reynisdrangar Ocean Cliffs and the Black Sand Beach. Known for its high wind, you could full let your body fall against the strong gusts and feel your weight being supported. While difficult to breath, the thin air only added to the dark contrasts of the black sand against the icy water. Straight out of Game of Thrones, the area looked more like a movie set than an actual landmark.
We stayed overnight in a small AirBnB in Hvolsvöllur and prepared our snacks for the next day. It was important for us to always check the weather for impending storms and make sure we dressed accordingly. Our next night would be in Hofn, a small fishing town in the southeast. We woke up early to beat the rain and headed off to Vatnajökulspjódgardur National Park (say that three times fast..or actually just try and say it once) and Skaftafell to hike to Kristínartindar Mountain and the Svartifoss waterfall, which tumbles over black basalt columns. A popular walk, we felt as though we were on the edge of the earth. Each turn led to a view across mountain tops and the glaciers sliding in between until we reached the diamond shaped rock of the basalt falls, signaling it was time to turn back.
Since we still had time left in the day, we drove past Hofn in search of another hike before doubling back for dinner. We began to notice a series of cars pulling off the road towards large sand dunes. Curiosity got the best as off as we followed their lead. After climbing over the mountains of sand, we were rewarded with one of the the most unique scenes of the north.
A large lagoon reaching towards the edge of a glacier lay on the other side of the sandy mounds. Ice chunks had fallen off the glacier and turned an electric blue when they hit the water, creating a pool of neon ice cubes.
When we’d had our fill of nature’s miracle, we trekked to our hostel in Hofn after a meal of skyr and langoustine, Icelandic lobster. We mingled with the locals and conversed with a geographer from Europe who was staying up near the glaciers to create topographic maps.
Our bed for the night overlooked a inlet of water with the mountains in the distance we would be driving to the next morning.
We enjoyed a communal breakfast in our hostel the next morning as we planned our trip up the eastern fjords. Little did we know that some of the most dangerous moments lay ahead of us as we penciled our route. One small turn off the main highway led us to a dirt road a mere inch away from the edge of a disastrously high cliff. I never realized how much I took guard rails for granted, or double yellow lines tbh. As we held our breath for the entirety of the drive, we were finally able to relax having reached our hike of the day, Hengifoss.
We lucked out that the Icelanders we spoke to were more than eager to offer suggestions for their favorite trails left off of google searches. This is how we came across Hengifoss, a strenuous trail tilted at a 45 degree angle with a rushing river below. Yet compared to what we just came from, this would be a breeze. Hiking through the bright green moss to reach a towering single stream of falls was worth the fire and ice to get there.
Although we believed we had had enough heart attacks for one day, our journey had one more in store. We found a quaint hostel in Seyoisfjorour, a small town that is typically only reached by boat from the east. Thus, the only way to get there from inland was to drive up a steep mountain with so many switchbacks that made you began to question your car’s breaks after each turn. To add to the fun, a thick cloud laid on top the mountain for a darling zero visibility.
Finally, we arrived on the other side, our hands still shaking from the day’s unintentional adventures. We made a modest dinner in the abandoned hospital-turned-hostel and recapped our snafus with the older gentleman who had just come off a boat from Norway for a fishing trip. After briefly considering leaving our car behind to sail away, we shook off our fear and got back in the saddle…er driver’s seat. After a restless sleep, knowing we would have to go back across the mountain a second time to make our way to Akureyri, we prepared for the second part of a trip filled with a little more than we bargained for.
Stay tuned to learn how you can go spelunking underneath the glaciers and horseback riding through volcanic ash as we continue around Ring Road. Check out part two here! SPOILER ALERT: we survived.
P.S. I lucked out to have a best friend who is an incredible photographer. I suggest you make sure you have one as well so you can catch these sights from unique perspectives. Check out more of her talents here.