Some of you might be aware that Morrie’s Auto Group has been running a road trip contest for the last couple of months that comes to an end in September. Not that the length of the road trip has any bearing on how likely someone will be to win one of the prizes, but I like to think I’m an overachiever so I packed up, hopped on a plane, and landed six hours later in Reykjanesbaer, Iceland. The plan was to tackle Iceland’s ring road and see as much of the country as we could in just over a week, so we rented a car (in this case, a 2016 Hyundai Tucson diesel with AWD) and hit the road.
For those that don’t know, Iceland is a pretty small country. Of the country’s 323,000 people, the vast majority live in Reykjavik and outside of the capitol city, the locals are quickly outnumbered by sheep, horses, and other wildlife. Highway 1, aka the ring road, takes a 1,332 kilometer (828 mile) route around the entire country, allowing tourists and locals alike to see a wealth of beautiful scenery including stark black sand beaches, lush green hillsides, and breathtaking waterfalls, and frigid glaciers. It’s also worth mentioning that of Iceland’s roughly 13,000 km of roads, only about one third of them are paved. Even the ring road had plenty of dirt patches along the way.
So with that in mind, we hit the road, staying in cabins, hotels, hostels and apartments as we traversed Iceland’s varied landscapes. We walked on glaciers, climbed over cliffs, stood under waterfalls, and explored national forests. We did everything we could to soak up Iceland’s beauty while we were there. Some days, we covered more ground than others. Our first day involved a ferry ride to a small island where we slept in a cabin built out of a cedar barrel. One thing we found was that the roads were always gorgeous, serpentine patches of tarmac (and the occasional stretches of gravel), winding their way through jaw-dropping landscapes. Our trusty Hyundai Tucson rental proved to make a more suitable vehicle than we had expected, capably carrying the two of us over and through everything we threw at it during our adventure with respectable composure. Obviously, I wouldn’t have minded one of Iceland’s famous super-offroaders, often Land Rover Defenders, Toyota Land Cruisers, and the odd domestic E-Series vans lifted sky-high and stuffed with huge, knobby tires, but that would’ve created more problems than it likely would’ve solved for us.
The first couple of days of our trip were spent getting acclimated to Iceland’s roads and getting a taste of its scenery along the southern coast. The “Golden Circle” as it’s known is a hotspot of waterfalls, glaciers, and hot springs that are all heavily trafficked by busload after busload of tourists and fellow adventures. Our first night in Iceland was spent on a small island off the coast with a single small town and a few campsites for those looking for a place to stay off the beaten path. The 40 minute ferry ride we took to get to and from the island was relaxing, giving us a chance to stretch our legs as well as see the coast from another angle. After a night of sleeping in a tiny barrel cabin, we took the ferry back to the mainland and tried to make up for a late start to an already long day of driving. Unfortunately, as a result of my excitement and desire to take and many photos as I could on the trip, we spent far too long during our first couple of days in Iceland at tourist traps, trying to force ourselves to enjoy the scenery and crowds. Luckily, by the third day we’d gotten far enough outside the Golden Circle to not have to deal with too many crowds, and found ourselves having much more fun exploring the beautiful scenery at our own pace, stopping when and where we wanted to for short hikes and photo ops.
Our fourth day was spent traversing the coast in the morning but we found a shortcut that took us on a sketchy dirt road high into the mountains. The drive was a bit hair-raising at times, but it gave me a few chances to test out the Tucson’s on-the-limit handling as I slid it around a few of the tighter hairpins, the balding Hankook tires struggling for grip on the loose terrain. As we got above the surprisingly low cloud line, the views opened up and we followed the mountain ridge for about 60 kilometers, making great time. We eventually found ourselves in a beautiful national forest, following a long glacial lake made famous in Icelandic lore for having a Loch Ness-like beast living in the murky blue waters. We had plans that evening to drive from our hotel to a beautiful coastal village known for their seafood, but were thwarted by a storm front that blew in over the mountains surrounding the village we were staying in. Visibility on the mountain roads became virtually non-existent as we attempted to cross the narrow, treacherous pass between the two towns through thick, soupy clouds. When we kept losing sight of the vehicle a mere 15-20 feet in front of us, we decided it was time to turn back. We settled for snacks from the convenience store down the street for dinner that night.
Day five turned out to be a relatively uneventful drive through completely different scenery to the lush forests we’d seen the previous day. Instead, we were greeted by an arid landscape with beautiful hills and plateaus – similar to what you’d expect in the American southwest – accompanied by black, volcanic moon-scapes and vividly colored mud pits belching up sulphuric clouds from deep within the earth. We set up camp around lunchtime in Myvatn, located on the shore of a large volcanic lake on the northwest side of Iceland and after a bite to eat, headed north to the coast for our first time whale watching! After donning the heavy, waterproof jumpsuit and piling into the 600-horsepower, twin-engine dingy, our surly captain took us out into the deeper waters off the coast in search of humpback whales, who regularly use these frigid waters during the summer for feeding. After an hour or so of attempting to spot the giant mammals, we eventually saw one come to the surface, clearing its blowhole with a massive 8-10 ft spray. We followed it for a minute or two as it swam just under the surface, before it came up one more time for air before diving deep into the sea again. Luck was on our side because we saw another five or six humpbacks after that before we headed back to the shore.
After an amazing afternoon of whale watching, we wound down with a few snacks before falling asleep. We started day six with a relaxing dip in the Myvatn nature baths – a milky blue hot spring located just a stone’s throw away from where we stayed the night before. It felt great to soak for an hour or two and just enjoy the beautiful weather and scenery after a few long days of driving. Eventually we dried off and hit the road again, this time heading west along the northern coast over beautiful mountain passes and through stunning valleys. We eventually stopped at a small coastal town for the night and enjoyed a quiet dinner before bed. After sleeping in a bit the next morning, we headed to the westernmost peninsula of Iceland, skipping the beautiful but desolate western fjords. We took the long way, stopping to explore a few beautiful vistas and seascapes as we went but eventually made it to the hostel we’d be staying at around dinner time.
Our last big day of driving took us about four hours of driving along the western seaboard back towards the capitol of Reykjavik, where we’d be spending the last few days of our trip exploring. We spent the rest of the trip exploring the cultural hub of Iceland, taking in the sights, trying new foods, and exploring a few of the city’s many museums. It was a much needed few days to unwind and think back on some of the highlights of our road trip. Iceland is truly an amazing country, full of rich culture, incredibly friendly and generous people, and a harsh landscape that is equal parts beautiful and inhospitable. While the climate during the summer months is very comfortable, constantly hovering in the mid-60’s, Iceland faces a long winter with frigid cold winds and conditions that make many of the major roadways around the country completely impassible. To live in Iceland is to endure it. Luckily, visiting it is much easier.