Iceland’s famous Ring Road measures some 820 miles, circumnavigating the gorgeous island and showing off the diversity, ruggedness, and beauty few countries can claim.
In June, under the midnight sun, I spent 10 days exploring Iceland, photographing the landscape, and seeing the plethora of must-visit and hidden gems offered through its vast terrain.
As a freelance photographer, I know not everyone can spend that long on a trip. But for those who do, I highly recommend spending the time immersing yourself in this fantastic country. It’s genuinely one that won’t disappoint, and you’ll leave with an immense admiration for the area.
While the whole trip was amazing, here are my seven top experiences driving Iceland’s Ring Road.
Katla Ice Cave
This was the one tour that caught my eye even before visiting Iceland. The Katla Ice Cave was incredible, yet nothing like I expected. First off, it’s not so much a cave as a glacier that is hollowing out as it melts.
Since that’s a bit too long to put on a billboard, a “cave” sounds better.
That said, exploring the Katla Ice Cave was phenomenal and something you can’t do in most other places. This is a no-brainer if you have time and money.
Make sure to bring a rain jacket, as you’ll have water dripping on you throughout the cave portion of the tour. Additionally, photographers should bring a wide-angle lens to help capture the scale of the cave once they’re in it.
If you’re looking for an Iceland challenge, try to count all the waterfalls you see. After 65, you’ll start to lose track and have to stop because there are truly so many waterfalls in Iceland it’ll blow your mind.
What makes many of these so nice, for travelers at least, is how accessible they are to view and experience. Most are right off the road and have paths that lead to the front or even behind it. These give you the full experience and will likely leave you soaked.
Make sure to have a rain jacket on hand. Even if you don’t think you’ll get wet, Iceland’s famous winds like to spray mist all over the place. Odds are, if you’re close, you will get wet.
East Icelandic Fjords
This was one of the areas that floored us.
While the western part of the country is more crowded and has a lot of empty sections due to the volcanoes, the East Iceland Fjords are magnificent. Each fjord was incredible with its towering mountains, small yet cozy coastal towns, and warm and sunny weather.
If you want to see a different part of the island, make a trip east. You’ll never forget it.
The lupines in this area were marvelous, some larger than my forearm! You’ll constantly be stopping to see these flowers. When driving through these fjords, slow down as you wind around the fingers, versus taking a straight shot.
The shorter routes take you away from the water. If your goal is speed, take those, but if not, enjoy the views and take your time.
Black Sand Beaches
With so much volcanic rock in Iceland, there are tons of black sand beaches to enjoy and marvel at. Coming from the United States, I’d only seen this in Hawaii, so getting the chance to explore multiple places was fantastic. Our favorite spots were Reynisfjara Beach, Stokksnes, and Djúpalónssandur.
Be aware. These are not beaches like in the United States. There are no lifeguards, and strong currents can be deadly if you enter the water. Always be safe, and do not swim alone.
Kayaking on the Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon
This is a phenomenal experience! Having the opportunity to kayak between icebergs is something most people only dream of. Our guide was incredibly knowledgeable about the history of the area, including its pedigree as a place where James Bond filmed a scene, but he also gave kayakers the chance to soak in the moment in peace.
It was something my girlfriend and I will never forget.
I recommend booking a morning tour, as this is when the wind is most calm. We had a 1 p.m. tour get canceled due to wind. The wind on its own isn’t exactly the issue, but it causes icebergs to move, and the last thing you want while in a kayak is a giant iceberg coming at you.
Most of the Icelandic highlands require a 4×4 vehicle as you’re driving in sand, over rocks, or through rivers. These SUVs are more expensive, but the highlands are incredibly magical, offering so much untouched land that it will boggle the mind.
We only got to spend 12 hours in the highlands, but it proved to be incredibly rewarding. If you don’t feel like renting a 4×4, there are tours to take the stressful driving off your plate.
Landmannalauger is the most popular spot in the Highlands and doesn’t require any river crossings, if you want to avoid them. Take F26 (paved) to F208 to F224. There’s a parking lot before the river crossing near camp. Even though we had a 4×4 camper van with a snorkel, we opted to stay on the near side.
While some people can get technical with what exactly classifies as the “midnight sun,” from May 20 to July 24, there is no nautical twilight, which means there is always light in the sky. Furthermore, from May 31 to July 12, you’ll have at least 20 hours of daylight.
These extended days, when you can literally hike through the “night” if you want, allow travelers to maximize their trip and see so many things without making the trip to Iceland longer than usual.
If you’re coming from the United States, you could decide not to change your sleep schedules and adventure during “night” and sleep during the day. This style works best if you’re not doing tours that operate on regular time schedules and if you go close to the longest day of the year (June 21). Planning your trip around the summer solstice provides the most light in the sky.
This way, you’ll encounter fewer people at each spot, giving it a more natural feel.
Driving the Ring Road in Iceland
The weather can be varied in Iceland. Due to this, leave some things open until the final week. This allows you to make last-minute plans or swap the route you take.
I recommend heading to the southern coast first and then going counter-clockwise. Additionally, I would visit the Golden Circle on weekdays as this is incredibly popular, and you might as well try to visit the places with slightly fewer crowds.
But however you trek the Ring Road, you will have a fantastic time and leave feeling overwhelmed by Iceland’s beauty.
Until next time adventurers, stay safe!