There is really only one way to get out and see all the diverse natural wonders of Iceland – driving.
The Ring Road, (aka Route 1) so named as it circles the entire country, is 828 glorious miles through some of the most striking scenery you will find anywhere on this planet. As each part of Iceland has its own characteristics, there is no risk of finding yourself bored on the road.
A minimum of 10 days is recommended for driving Route 1. I did it in 9 days, but I had to rush through several sections and regretted it. It is nature’s paradise and you’ll be surprised at how quickly time flies or at often you are pulling over to take in the scenery.
Don’t stay on the Ring Road. Be sure to venture out on other roads as that is where a lot of the must-see sights are. Some recommendations include Route 54 around the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, where I spent a day and a half exploring as there is so much to see including the iconic Kirkjufell. And, rather than drive on the gravel portion of the Ring Road in eastern Iceland, drive along Routes 92/96 around the eastern fjords. The 92/96 is an amazing route that outlines the fjords – what scenery! But, as I quickly learned in Iceland, you can never go wrong no matter where you choose to venture. Any road or path in Iceland leads you to something that will leave you gob smacked.
Choosing the Car
If you do not plan on doing any off-roading, a sedan is fine. I drove a compact, 2-door car for the 9 days I was on the road and never once had an issue. If you’ve never driven a manual, then you need to ensure that your rental is an automatic. A 4×4 is necessary for all off-roading on any of the F-roads (more on those in a bit). A more expensive option is to rent a camper van thus avoiding hotel costs. Along Route 1, there are marked areas where you can park overnight.
Fuel Stations – There is either full service or just pumps. Full service locations are great. In addition to pumps, they have a shop, restaurant, and restrooms. Pump stations are typically several pumps by the side of the road and nothing more. And, in case you forget if your car is diesel or gas, many rental companies have a sticker on the fuel cap indicating which type the vehicle uses.
Payment – Cash is not accepted at the pumps. And, if you don’t have a pin for your credit card, you are going to run into issues at the pump. To avoid all hassles, I purchased several prepaid cards from N1 (available only at full service stations). Yes, I could only fill up at N1, but the company has stations all around Iceland, so I was never at risk of running out of gas. For nine days on the road, approx. 1,200 miles, I used 25,000 kr (US $236).
There are 3 types of roads in Iceland:
Paved (sealed) – Many roads, including most of the Ring Road are paved.
Gravel – Parts of the Ring Road and other connecting roads are gravel. But not all gravel roads are of the same quality. Some are very easy to drive along while others have a lot of pot holes. When a paved road turns into a gravel road, it is well indicated so that drivers have time to slow down before the change. A sedan can pass easily on these roads.
F-Roads – Open only part of the year, these roads go into the highlands. Do not attempt to drive these roads unless you are in a 4×4 with good clearance underneath. These are rough roads where bridges do not exist. You need to be able to ford a river. Insurance companies will not cover any sort of damage to a sedan if something happens while on a F-Road. It’s best to avoid driving on them altogether.
While on the road, you may encounter:
One-lane Bridges – A common occurrence. Rule of thumb, the vehicle closest to the bridge has the right away.
One-lane Tunnels – These are interesting to drive being quite narrow and you have no idea, going in, when you may meet oncoming traffic. If you do meet traffic, there are spaces to pull-over throughout the tunnel. If the space is on your side, you are the one who will need to pull over.
Sheep – The (in)famous Icelandic sheep are everywhere it seems. Sometimes, they dart out of nowhere across the road. Other times, they’ll congregate in the road itself. I found that most times honking works. Sometimes not. Just be on the lookout, especially when on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, as the sheep roam free there.
Speed Cameras – The closer you are to Reykjavik, the more speed cameras you will encounter, though, they are all over the country (just more sparingly). However, before getting to the camera, there will be signs indicating that one is coming up.
Hitchhikers – Iceland is a big backpacking destination so it’s common to see hitchhikers. As I was leaving Geysir, I saw two men trying to find a ride. I thought about it for a split second before pulling over. They were two Polish guys on holiday for a week. They gave me tips about my upcoming trip to Morocco and I gave them tips for hiking in Patagonia. I know other people who offered rides in Iceland. I’m glad I did as it was a fun experience.
Rules of the Road:
Headlights On – While driving it is important to keep your headlights on at all times (it’s the law).
Stopping for Photos – Yes, you will do this. Possibly quite often. I pulled over more times than I thought I would every day as the scenery knocks your socks off. However, be sure to not stop in the middle of the road. Even if there are no cars coming. Always find a safe area to pull off to avoid any accidents.
When driving in Iceland, it is not just about the destination. Getting to the destination is definitely half the fun. Some of my favorite places in Iceland were not destinations nor places that are marked on any map. Rather, spots where I pulled over and reveled in the glory of Iceland at its purest, whether it be a waterfall on the side of the road, a towering mountain, or an epic viewpoint, had a huge impact on me.
Take your time. Don’t rush. Relish everything that Iceland has to offer.