Even though the sun shows its face for less than five hours a day in December, the Iceland Ring Road is worth the trip. To be fair, I am biased. Iceland has been at the top of my places-to-visit list ever since I’ve had such a list. Now that I’ve been there a couple times, well, it’s still up there, near the top!
I first visited a few years back on my way from the USA to France and was blown away. The three-day trip was just enough to explore Iceland’s Golden Circle, a popular 300 km loop. The short “stop-over” made me realize that I’d be exploring this country again soon. And sure enough, I was back a year later but this time for a whole week. Visiting my friends and family in France was becoming an excuse to stop-over and spend more time on this beautiful country! For this trip however, I’d drive all the way around the island. Thanks to WOW Air‘s amazing deals and a partnership with GoIceland Campervans, I was able to make the weeklong road trip happen.
Iceland Ring Road in Winter: the basics
The Iceland Ring Road (Route 1) is a 1,332 km loop of pure beauty. The road is dotted with points of interest separated by stretches of breathtaking scenery. Of course the weather is best during the summer months, so is the amount of daylight and most tourist places are open, but winter has its advantages too. Sure some attractions are closed and the weather is much more unpredictable, but the crowds are gone, the prices are lower, glacier (ice) caves are open and seeing northern lights become a real possibility. The road itself is maintained all year long and unless you are visiting during a major snow storm, should drivable. Rental companies usually offer cars with studded tires during the winter months.
My campervan was two-wheel drive with studded tires and I never had an issue. It came with a bed, an outdoor kitchen set, a tiny fridge, a heater that used the diesel from the car and warm sleeping bags. The van also came with a Wi-fi hotspot which made navigation and chasing northern lights much easier. Finding gas and groceries wasn’t difficult and most rest areas had bathrooms. Not all restaurants were open but enough to satisfy my belly. I roughed it a little and took just one shower in the middle of the trip in a hostel in Akureyri. Except for a few exceptions, I never saw the outside temperature drop below -3°C and get above 3°C (27°F to 37°F).
Iceland Ring Road winter itinerary:
For my trek, I decided to skip Reykjavík altogether and head straight into nature. The capital is a great town to visit but I had already been there the year before and my six-day schedule was tight. On the menu for this trip: Seljalandsfoss, Skogafoss, Reynisdrangar, Fjaðrárgljúfur, Skaftafell, Svartifoss, Vatnajökull, Dimmuborgir, Góðafoss, Snæfellsnes, Kirkjufell & Kirkjufellsfoss. Yep, you read that right!
Day 1: Viking legends, trolls, waterfalls and black sand beaches
I landed in Reykjavík on December 1st at 4am, grabbed a coffee, a pastry and picked up my travel rig. The only two scheduled events for the next six days were a glacier cave tour on December 2nd and a flight to Paris at 6am on December 6th. I filled up my tiny fridge with a couple bananas and sandwich ingredients and I was on my way.
166 km: Seljalandsfoss
Just an hour and half outside the capital, this unpronounceable 60m waterfall is probably one of the most famous points of interest in Iceland. I remember seeing photos of it and thinking: “it must be a long hike to get to such a beautiful place.” Nope… it’s right off the road, as are most of the stops on the Iceland Ring Road!
195 km: Skogafoss
Less than thirty minutes down the road (and just as close to the road) is Skogafoss. This waterfall is one of Iceland’s largest and produces so much spray that rainbows are common sightings. Well, on sunny days that is. Legend has it that the first Viking settler who reached this area, Þrasi Þórólfsson, buried a treasure in a cave behind the waterfall. Locals found the treasure years later but were only able to grasp one of the trunk’s rings before the chest disappeared. The ring was given to the local church and is now on display at Skógar museum.
230 km: Reynisdrangar
Yet another short thirty minutes further down is Reynisdrangar black sand beach. The basalt sea stacks have, of course, legends of their own. One of them mentions a couple trolls trying to bring a sailboat to shore. Their failure to do so before the sun rose made them turn into needles of rocks. This legend must have happened in summer since winter’s twenty-hour-long nights would’ve given them plenty of time to finish their deed!
Day 2: canyons, waterfalls and blue ice
The second day was the day I had scheduled a glacier cave tour. I had to show up near Vatnajökull glacier at 2pm sharp and there were two stops on my list before that.
309 km: Fjaðrárgljúfur
An one hour away from the extraordinary black sand beach lays Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon (good luck pronouncing that one). I had driven there the night before and slept by the canyon’s entrance. This two million year old canyon is one of the most interesting and beautiful landscapes I’ve seen. Knowing what I know today, I would’ve dedicated a whole (winter) day to walking the trails around this crack in the earth.
387 km: Skaftafell
Skaftafell is a wilderness area of Vatnajökull National Park. The main reason I stopped by was to see the Svartifoss waterfall. Unlike the other points of interest on the Iceland Ring Road, this waterfall is a short 1.5km hike away from the visitor center.
There are several other waterfalls to enjoy on the hike, though Svartifoss steals the show. It’s only 20m tall but its amphitheater of lava columns make it an unforgettable sight.
This geological feature can also be found in other places on the island (including Reynisdrangar) and was the architectural inspiration for Reykjavík’s famous Hallgrímskirkja church.
However short the hike was though, I had to run back to the van in order to meet my glacier cave obligations.
434 km: Vatnajökull
Visiting glacier caves is best done with a guide. The caves are always changing and can be dangerous. Along with a handful of other tourists, we jumped into a decked out Sprinter van with absolutely massive off-road wheels. We were greeted at the glacier with a brief opening in the cloudy skies. The distant setting sun filled the air with sunset colors which reflected on the glacier making it look like the surface of an ocean. The opening in the clouds was short-lived so we proceeded to walk into the caves.
Glacier caves and ice caves are different, though people think of glaciers when they talk about ice caves. An ice cave is a cave that has ice in it whereas a glacier cave is made entirely of ice. Glacier caves glow blue and can only be visited in the winter months (except for one).
Day 3: landscapes and horses
Iceland Ring Road scenery
The next step on my list was Dimmuborgir, 434 km away from Vatnajökull. Day 3 would be a full day of driving through Iceland’s coastal scenery, hoping from one side of a fjord to another.
I arrived outside of the park at nighttime after a long day on the road. It was the first clear night of the trip and the stars were filling the sky. I had hopes for northern lights but they wouldn’t honor me with their presence (yet).
One nice thing about driving all day in Iceland is that you meet the iconic Icelandic horses. Though its size would put it in the pony category, the Icelandic horse is still considered a horse and is the only breed on the island. The import of horses is prohibited and once an Icelandic horse leaves the island, it is not allowed back. Icelandic horses are as hardy as they are friendly. Safely stop by the side of the road and they will come to meet you! And no need to be self-conscious, they have better hair style than most humans.
Day 4: Hobbits and more waterfalls
868 km: Dimmuborgir
Reminiscent of Mordor, this area is a large lava field on the north side of the island. It is a very eery place to visit especially in winter when nobody else is around. Walking through this broken landscape makes you feel as if you were a hobbit in a Lord Of The Rings movie scene, working your way through Mordor. Though not quite as treacherous as Tolkien’s landscapes, most of the trails in the park were covered with ice which limited my visit.
916 km: Góðafoss
The waterfall of the gods, as it is known in Iceland, is yet another gorgeous stop on the Iceland Ring Road. It’s only 15m high but 30m wide and easy to access. It’s also easy to go right up to the edge of the falls for the best seat in the house. I didn’t spend that much time at Dimmuborgir and Góðafoss as my next stop was still 400 km away.
Days 5 & 6: THE Iceland spot
Kirkjufell has been on my mind ever since I had interest in Iceland. Just as I thought for Seljalandsfoss, I was convinced that the only way to experience such magnificent landscape was after a grueling hike through Iceland’s rugged terrain. Nope… this one is also right off the Iceland Ring Road! As a matter of fact, the road goes in between the mountain and the waterfalls.
1,341 km: Kirkjufell & Kirkjufellsfoss
Also known as Church mountain, Kirkjufell is a small peak in the Snæfellsnes peninsula. It’s located right by the super cute town of Grundarfjörður and was one of the locations where Game Of Thrones was filmed (the Arrowhead Mountain the The Hound notices).
The combination of the waterfall and mountain in the background makes for one of the prettiest places I’ve had the chances to visit. As a matter of fact, the landscape was so gorgeous that I decided to spend an extra day there to enjoy the views.
The first night I spent near Kirkjufell was also the first time I had the chance to see northern lights. The show was distant and the skies were partially cloudy, but the green glow was there nonetheless. Seeing them that night motivated me to to stay up the following night and chasing the aurora borealis.
The last night: northern lights
From Kirkjufell, I was 220 km away from the airport where I’d have to drop off the van by 4am. My original plan was to drive to the airport and stay in the area to make sure I’d make my flight. That was before I had a taste of northern lights. I asked myself what I’d remember from this part of the trip: sleeping safely on the side of a road by the airport or chasing auroras all night long? The choice was simple.
I fired up the hotspot included with the rental and started doing some research. Using a combination of weather and aurora borealis forecasting apps, I figured that I had to go back the way I came almost 300 km, where clouds wouldn’t be as thick and the chances of solar winds were higher. I jumped in my trusted campervan and started driving.
I arrived in Sauðárkrókur in the early evening and treated myself to a wonderful dinner at Kaffi Krókur. The excellent meal cost me as much as a week’s worth of sandwich food, but was worth it. Once satiated, I started the hunt driving around face glued to the windshield looking for the faintest hints of green light. It wasn’t long until I spotted the glow and pursued it. I spent the next few hours driving, vaguely in the direction of the airport and stopping under the auroras whenever they were flaring.
It was absolutely incredible!
1,562 km: back to the airport
Though the map I originally made said it would be a 1,500 km trip around the Iceland Ring Road, I had driven well over 2,000 km after the aurora chase. I arrived at GoIceland just before 4am with a campervan full of gas and a head full of memories. Fitting all of this in a six-day road trip, even in winter, was a bit intense. If I were to do it again, I’d definitely give myself much more time. If you’re considering doing something similar, I’d suggest keeping Dimmuborgir and Skaftafell for a longer visit.
Have you traveled the Iceland Ring Road? If so I’d love to hear your favorite memories from your visit.
Iceland Ring Road Camera Gear:
All shots in this article were taken with my iPhone 7 Plus and with my Sony A7rII using a collection of rangefinder lenses. As a matter of fact, if you are interested in the travel photography kit I put together, read my article about using the A7rII in Thailand. Iceland is pretty rugged and often wet, especially in winter. Should I do this trip again, I’d want to pack a weather-sealed, yet small camera such as the Fujifilm X-T2 with a couple weather-sealed lenses. For all non-rugged traveling (which applies to most of us), I still think the Fujifilm X100F is the best travel camera available.