Sunday, July 14, 2013

What To Expect on a Road Trip Around Iceland


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.

Ring Road waterfall, driving in Iceland, things to see in Iceland
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.

Seljaviller Valley, things to do in Iceland, driving in Iceland
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.


2. Wildlife
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.

Ring Road driving in Iceland, Icelandic sheep
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.)

Iceland horse Ring Road, things to do in Iceland
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.

Ring Road Iceland, driving the Ring Road in Iceland, Ring Road waterfall
Yet another breath-taking waterfall along Iceland's Ring Road.

places to stop on Iceland's Ring Road, Ring Road picnic
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.

Hveragerdi hot spring, Ring Road hot spring, things to do in Iceland
A hot spring bubbles and boils near Hveragerdi, alongside Iceland's Route 1.

Hveragardi hot spring, hot springs by Route 1 in Iceland, Ring Road hot springs
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.

volcanic rocks Iceland, Iceland landscape, things to do in Iceland
The unusual yet eerily beautiful lava rocks in Iceland's lava fields.

Iceland vegetation, Iceland volcanic rocks, things to see in Iceland
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.

camping Skogafoss waterfall, camping Skogarfoss waterfall, Iceland camping
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.

camping in Kirkjubaejarklauster, where to camp in Iceland
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.

Any other Ring Road tips and tricks?  Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below! Enjoy the two videos posted here as well: one is about driving through Iceland, the other about the geothermal town of Hveragerdi. 



5 comments:

  1. My husband and I and our 3 children travelled to Iceland in 2009 and had the time of our lives! We rented a car, drove the Ring Road and tented. Every town and village, no matter how small, seemed to have a campsite. I would highly recommend this less expensive way of experiencing Iceland. If you venture north, don't miss Akureyri, a gorgeous city. The Western peninsula with its Latrabjarg cliffs, home to nesting puffins, was the highlight of our trip. The cliffs are immense and spectacularly gorgeous and its possible to get very close to the puffins- I got amazing photographs of these awesome birds. Just be very careful- the puffins nest on the rocky outcroppings and while its tempting to get "just a little closer" to the birds, the cliffs are a very long sheer drop to the sea. We did a lot of our food shopping at Bonus, the very popular grocery chain. Try skyr, Iceland's healthy And very delicious version of yogurt. Its available everywhere and soooo good!

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    1. We did not drive up north, despite it being in our original plans. Maybe next time! Your trip sounds fantastic, and yes, camping is so much less expensive than staying in hotels and hostels. We also did a lot of shopping at Bonus - best grocery prices in Iceland. I loved the Skyr yogurt - it was our breakfast staple! Our two trips sound like they were very similar! Did you happen to see the rock formation Hvitserker while up north??

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  2. Thanks for a fun blog. Was there anything that you were not ready for while you were camping in Iceland? We just wrote a blog about the subject, a more general one so people can prepare themselves before embarking on an adventure of a lifetime! :) Hope you find something useful in it! http://www.goiceland.com/blog/camping-in-iceland/2612/

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    1. We loved nearly everything about camping in Iceland. It was cheap, convenient, and beautiful. There were lots of amenities available, such as showers and kitchens. There WERE two things I didn't expect - the freezing cold weather that week (but that can't be helped) and how open the campsites were. You basically just hunkered down in a field or open area and set up camp, and your neighbours could camp 6 inches away from you. I guess in Canada I am a little spoiled, as our campsites in most campgrounds are all pre-designated with a lot of trees and such in between. But it was never a problem in Iceland - just sometimes a little loud if your nearby neighbors wanted to stay up late. I would recommend camping the Ring Road to anyone!

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    2. Glad to hear it! Yes, there can't be too many "warnings" about the weather here! :)

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