Oh, Iceland: a land that will capture your heart and enrapture your soul, all within just a few scenic miles. It’s one of those magical places that just changes you. You’d be hard pressed to experience such vast beauty and leave untouched. It’s a land of epic contrasts, a coexistence of life in vibrant green mosses and death in the volcanic rocks that they cover, utterly dynamic and otherworldly in its nature; a land that is constantly contradicting itself in the most breathtakingly beautiful ways. To see the vibrancy and dynamism of nature at its finest, wholly untouched, unhindered, and in many places, uninhabited, impacted only by its own elements, is truly something to behold.
Many sights we just absorbed with our eyes and hearts and took no pictures at all. Photos can hardly capture that magic and majesty anyway, where the best lenses through which to view these sweeping sights were simply the lenses of our souls. We traversed many a road with no other travelers in sight and marveled at the vast and ever-changing views before us. Just pure, raw landscape. Nothing but road and valley, road and coastline, road and mountain pass (all within just a few miles of one another). We crested many a hill and rounded many a corner with a breathtaking “WOW, look at THAT,” believing the view couldn’t get much better than that, and constantly being contradicted in the most visually stunning ways.
I love travel for the challenges inherent: the ingenuity of being in a new place, redefining routine, problem solving, no matter how temporary or leisurely. I love travel for the changes that it brings: change of pace, scenery, momentum. I always feel refined after traveling, like my horizons have broadened physically, emotionally, and mentally. We often reflect after having an amazing experience or visiting a unique place that we’ve left a piece of our heart there, but I would argue that more realistically, these places and experiences ingrain themselves on our hearts so that we carry them with us always. They’re these little reminders that our hearts have expanded to include something new, something that will always call to us.
I could wax poetic all day long about this experience, and trust me, I’ll continue to find outlets to do so! But for sake of sharing, and to just let some of the pictures speak for themselves, I want to pass along the highlights of our epic journey, including the details of how we traveled, what we ate, and how we saved tons along the way. Buckle up and enjoy the ride of this epic Iceland recap!
Travel + Lodging
We opted for a direct flight via Iceland Air from Denver straight into Keflavík (the main airport). This was by far the best choice, it was only pennies more expensive than a layover option, and was just under an 8 hr flight. If you have a direct flight option near you, take it!
After just a little digging, it quickly became clear that renting a car and staying at Airbnb’s or hotels was going to be out of the question. It was just too expensive, and since we wanted to drive the perimeter, lodging options became slimmer. In my planning, I happened across various camper van companies, and after researching many, Happy Campers quickly rose to the top. Their prices were excellent, they had great van options, and their customer service was impeccable. As a small family-owned company, I truly felt that they were the best choice for us (and spoiler alert: I was totally right! ;) Traveling in this way gave us SO much freedom, we didn’t have to book places to stay in advance and could just drive and explore until we wanted to stop for the night. Having your home and vehicle all-in-one is the way to go!
When We Traveled:
Sept. 24-Oct 5
We chose to go at the end of the busy summer travel season and the very early onset of potential wintery weather at the end of September. In doing so, we not only avoided the massive tourist season, but we also saved more on airfare and on our camper van, which was discounted for the mid to off-seasons. Even though we faced some colder weather, we still really enjoyed this season. And to be fair: Iceland’s weather is pretty bi-polar year-round! We were also hoping to catch the Northern Lights (spoiler alert: we missed them), which are active starting early September.
Great resources for weather:
Happy Campers also has an exceptional resources section on their site, including places to camp, weather and road conditions, and additional useful travel tips.
Obviously, you can’t know definitively what will be most useful on any journey until you’ve done it, but I must say I felt we were very well prepared for this trip. I only regret not packing a few warmer clothing options, but overall we fared really well.
Plenty of research also informed me that food (and everything else for that matter) is really pricey in Iceland. Being the Nutritional Therapist that I am, I had no problem reserving half of my suitcase for nourishing, non-perishable food items to keep our grocery expenses low. We stopped at grocery stores every few days during our journey and just purchased fresh or frozen meat and sausages (always gluten and dairy free, which was conveniently labeled), eggs, some potatoes and apples, and frozen veggies. Everything else came together with the items that I packed to keep us well-fed and to keep our grocery budget low. Meals were most often eggs and veggies for breakfast, sometimes pancakes, random snacking for lunch (Wild Zora was a total life saver here!) simply because we were always traveling, and meat and veggies for dinner, sometimes with rice or gluten-free pasta. The key items I packed:
paleo pancake mix (just add water)
Other Useful Items:
reusable water bottle (bonus: all water in Iceland is glacier-derived and perfectly safe for drinking! Don’t waste money on the bottled stuff, since it’s the same as what you’d get out of the tap)
good waterproof/cold-weather hiking boots
compression packing cubes (these kept my suitcase impeccably organized, which was especially useful in a small, cramped space)
Stasher bags for food and snack storage
small fan for white noise
Klova sleep patches (these help with jet lag and sleeping in a new/different environment)
additional bedding (Happy Campers includes bedding in addition to many add-on options and were kind enough to throw in an extra sleeping bag and blanket for us, which we absolutely needed! If you have room to pack your own, definitely go for it)
warm clothing layers
Now that you have the logistics, here’s a recap of our 11-day Ring Road journey!
The 24th was our travel day. We left Denver in the afternoon and arrived in Iceland early on the morning of the 25th after a 7.5 hour flight (with a +7 hour time difference).
Upon arrival, we snagged some (very expensive) coffee from Joe and the Juice, and waited a couple of hours for the earliest airport pickup, compliments of Happy Campers. This is incredibly useful and is included when you book with them. They pick you up at the airport and take you directly to pick up your camper van.
After we picked up our van, we headed to the famed Blue Lagoon for a nice long relaxing soak after a day of travel. Make sure you book in advance, as there’s no guarantee you can get in without a reservation. We spent a few luxurious hours soaking (highly recommended on your travel day to help combat jet lag), and then headed toward T-Baer, where we camped for the night at a free campsite nearby (with showers for purchase).
We slept in late (after a very rainy, very windy night), then headed toward Seljalandsfoss. Gljúfrabúi is right next to it and definitely worth the little trek through the rock crevice to see! We drove a little further and happened upon Gluggafoss, which offered a neat hike up with even more falls and exceptional views. We camped nearby at Langbrok, which was a great site in a large field with toilets and shower.
We left Langbrok in the morning and drove to Skógafoss, yet another of Iceland’s many breathtaking waterfalls. You definitely want to hike up to the top, and prepare to be amazed at the moss-covered sweeping landscape and abounding falls that greet you. From here, we drove further south and took a little side road detour to catch a peek of Sólheimajökull glacier, complete with sweeping rainbow, then journeyed on to see the DC-3 Navy plane that crash landed on the black sand beach of Sólheimasandur in 1973. This is a bit of a hike across flat black sand desert, so be wary of the weather conditions and be prepared. We camped at Vík for the evening (this was one of our least favorite camp sites, but stunning landscape in this area).
We left Vík and decided to drive through Þakgil canyon. Although windy and rainy, this was one of the most breathtaking drives of our whole trip—and that’s saying a lot! The canyon is so dynamic and stunning, and had we known, we’d have stayed at the tucked away campsite at the very bottom of the canyon. From here we took yet another side road detour and caught a stunning peek at one of the glacier tongues of Vatnajökull. We drove on through flat black sand desert to Jökulsárlón “Diamond Beach” glacier lagoon. This is such an amazing site to see, but again, the weather can really take its toll! It was SO windy here that we could only bear about 30 minutes before we headed back to the car. We camped at Haukafell, which was one of our favorite campsites, with stunning views and it was nicely secluded (toilets only, no showers).
We drove through the small fishing town of Höfn , then on to Mt Vestrahorn and Stokksnes beach . There’s an old deserted movie set nearby built like a Viking establishment, which is worth a little walk through. We also drove through a nearby sweeping valley full of colors, then ended the day in the small fjord town of Seyðisfjörður. We experienced our first snow over Fjarðarheiði mountain pass en route to Seyðisfjörður. This was another campsite that was not a favorite of ours. The facilities were great, but it’s just a parking lot with no wind protection.
We left Seyðisfjörður, trekked back over the snowy Fjarðarheiði mountain pass, and continued North toward Dettifoss. We stopped at Rjukandafoss and some traditional hut houses right off the road along the way, then traveled through breathtaking Narnia-like mountain passes before arriving at snowy Dettifoss. From there we continued on to Ásbyrgi, a unique horseshoe-shaped canyon that’s part of the greater Vatnajökull National Park. This was such a beautiful area, tucked into tall cliff faces, full of richly colored trees, and a stark contrast to the cold white scenes from earlier in the day. We loved this campsite, snuggled right into the canyon, perfectly secluded, and with excellent facilities.
We left Ásbyrgi and headed further Northwest toward Lake Mývatn, a dynamic volcanic lake and geothermal area. This is where the wintry weather really got the best of us! About a mile or so en route to Mývatn, the snow became too deep on the road and we couldn’t make it up a hill. This is also where we got to see the true Icelandic humanitarian spirit in action! A kind gentleman in a massive Jeep with proper snow tires kept watch over us as we backed down the snowy hill (with zero shoulder and drop-offs on either side) to make sure we were safe and to help us out should we need it. We were grateful for his kindness, and I was grateful to no longer be driving through the snow! Sadly we had to bypass this area, but we’ve tucked it away for our next visit. We traveled on to Goðafoss (literally meaning “Waterfall of the Gods”) on the Skjálfandafljót river. We ended the day at a campsite in Bakkaflöt after a lovely sunset drive around Akureyri.
Just outside of Bakkaflöt we stopped at the Glaumbær turf houses. We continued West and took a little detour into the Kolugljúfur gorge near Hvammstangi where we saw the Kolufossar Falls. This was a shorter day of mostly driving as we ventured into the Westfjords. We stayed at what was by far our favorite campsite of the entire trip tucked into the valley of Heydalur. There was a restaurant and guesthouses in addition to space for camping, and the most incredible greenhouse on the premises, complete with a geothermal swimming pool and hot tub, both pumped directly from underground hot springs of different temperatures. There was also a natural hot spring across the river nearby with close access from the grounds, but the river was a little too high to cross. We had the entire greenhouse to ourselves (except for the resident birds inside) and it was so luxurious, especially at this part of our trip, when we were tired and a nice hot soak was just what we needed. In the future, we would definitely plan for at least two nights here.
After a luxurious second dip in the greenhouse geothermal hot tub and a visit from some of the many horses on the property, we enjoyed coffee in the restaurant with entertainment from the sweet arctic fox that lives on the premises, who lingered just outside, patiently awaiting her breakfast. I could not recommend this place more highly! The remainder of the day was spent traversing the Westfjords, with the high point being the mighty and majestic Dynjandi waterfall. All of Iceland’s falls are breathtaking, but this one really took the cake for us. Photos scarcely do it justice. We just sat and marveled at its beauty and easily could have spent hours here. Dynjandi comes with the added bonus of SIX additional smaller falls below it, making it a truly stunning experience.
The end goal of this day was to see the popular bird cliffs (namely, puffins!!) of the westernmost point of Iceland at Látrabjarg, but alas all the in and out winding of coastal driving took longer than anticipated and we had to bypass this portion. This was the only evening we really had to drive after dark (which I would not recommend!), making up for lost time and landing at a campsite a couple of hours outside of Reykjavik. This was not a campsite worth noting. Facilities were nice, but it was just a gravel parking lot with zero wind protection, which we definitely needed!
Day 11 & Travel Day
Sadly we had to cut the entire Snæfellsnes Peninsula from our travels to make up for time we lost traversing the Westfjords. If I had it to do over, I think I’d have opted for Snæfellsnes over the Golden Circle, but even still, we have zero regrets—just a list of places for next time! We drove toward Þingvellir National Park from our previous campsite and did a high point drive through the Golden Circle, stopping at Öxarárfoss , Gullfoss, and Geysir Geothermal area. We stayed at an ok campsite outside of Reykjavík.
Day 12 was our travel day home. We reserved a couple of hours in Reykjavík before we had to drop off our camper van to visit the Harpa concert hall and conference center for its striking architecture, and the visually stunning Hallgrímskirkja church. Next time we’d definitely like to spend a little more time in the capital and largest city in Iceland.
If ever you have the opportunity to visit Iceland, take it. It is truly a magnificent world to explore, and I highly recommend you do so in a Happy Campers van, not only because it’s one of the most cost-effective options, but also because it gives you such freedom to travel and see all that there is to see. Traversing the Ring Road gave us such a wide scope of all the natural wonders and beauty that Iceland has to offer, and we left with full hearts and a deep desire to visit again soon.
May you have happy, healthy travels, and enjoy the ride!
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