I’ve always been obsessed with Iceland. It’s one of those places I felt drawn to. My great grandmother actually came to America from Iceland way back when. And that’s what inspired my first trip with my sister back in 2016.
That trip was amazing. We went at the very beginning of summer and it was right about the same time that Iceland was gaining popularity among travelers. But let me tell yah… it was nothing like it is today. We had most attractions to ourselves and it was May, an amazing time to visit.
Together we spent two weeks exploring the country under the midnight sun. With nothing but a map, a small guidebook, and a car we didn’t know how to put in reverse... I don’t know who thought it was a good idea to let the two of us go anywhere without parental supervision, but it was one of the best trips of my life.
When I started to plan my next trip, I knew I wanted to go in the winter instead. I knew that Iceland had become much more popular and I figured in the winter there would be fewer people, and more chances to see the Northern Lights!
We decided that we’d rent a camper van and drive around the ring road, and we knew that we’d need two weeks to complete the trip. I was slightly worried about the weather and road conditions but mostly, I was just so excited. Here are some quick facts about Iceland’s Famous Ring Road.
The famous Ring Road. Route 1 which is 828 miles long and runs all the way around the island and you can drive the whole thing with stops in about 7 days during the summer but in the winter, you’re going to need 14 days.
- The speed limit on most of the ring road is 90 km/h (55 m/h)
- 98% of Iceland's ring road is paved, most of it has 2 lanes but there are also some single-lane bridges
- Conditions of the roads vary greatly between summer and winter. If you are going in the winter, make sure that you are fully prepared.
Keep in mind, the ring road is passable all year, but without a four-wheel drive, you won’t be able to explore the country beyond that road. You won’t be able to get off the main roads much at all. You’ll also need more time in the winter. While you might get lucky and have great weather, a storm could come at any moment, making it much more difficult to travel. You might even get stuck somewhere for 1-2 days before being able to move on. Also, in the winter you have much shorter days, and driving through a snowstorm or on icy roads, is not advisable in the dark.
At the end of the day, you don’t want to rush your trip. So plan for bad weather, go for two weeks and then if the weather is good every day, you’ll be able to see even more than you originally planned!
The best way to start planning your trip is right on Google Maps. You can start by mapping down what you want to see while you are there. Then you can decide how much time you should spend in each region of the country.
Here’s what I recommend for a 14-day road trip through Iceland in the winter.
Day One - Land at Keflavik International Airport
Book a few nights of accommodation in Reykjavik.
I recommend you spend the first 2-3 nights in Reykjavik. After you arrive, you can take the bus to the city and stay for a few nights. Taking the bus from the airport to the city is going to be your cheapest option. They leave often the airport often and drop you off at your hotel (or very near your hotel), as well as other stops along the way.
Reykjavik is a really cool city. There are a lot of things to do and see and even walking around the city is amazing. You will notice tons of street art throughout the city as well as adorable coffee shops, unique bars and fun shops. Here are some of the top things to see in Reykjavik.
- Check Out The View From Hallgrimskirkja Church
- Visit Grotta Lighthouse
- Visit Harpa
- Stop to see the Sun Voyager which also has a fantastic view of Mt Esjan.
- On top of that, amazing street art has been blossoming in recent years, with mesmerizing artworks taking over entire sides of buildings all over town.
Hot tip for Reykjavik - Eat at Eldur og Ís. They have Vegan and Gluten-free crepes that are to die for! It’s sooooo good but keep in mind that they are going to cost you about $20! It is an expensive city. We shared one that was covered in chocolate, strawberries and powdered sugar. I’m still having dreams about how good it was.
Where to stay in Reykjavik?
The Swan House in Reykjavik. We stayed for two nights at the Swan House and honestly… I wanted to move in! The apartment was decorated perfectly. The bed was huge and comfortable. The central location made it so easy to walk everywhere in the city. And don’t get me started about the staff. They treated us like family from the second we walked through the door.
I recommend staying 2 nights at Swan House, giving yourself a few days to explore the city before taking your road trip.
Going out at night in Reykjavik
If you want to go out in Reykjavik, things can get expensive. But every bar in the city has an offer of happy hour. Usually, people go out for a few drinks for happy hours and then head home for dinner. The thing about Swan House is that it’s a full apartment so you can cook dinner at home!
After you’ve spent two days in the city, it’s time to take off on your adventure!! Grab the bus from Reykjavik to the van rental place of your choice. Both times I went, the van rental places were about an hour out of the city by bus. As with any car rental, make sure that you get there around the time you booked in for.
(The first trip I traveled with Kuku Kampers and my second trip was with Happy Campers)
Once you’ve picked up your van, make sure you hit a Bonus! You’ll be leaving the city right away and you’ll want to make sure you have plenty of snacks for your adventure. It’s always a good idea to stock up on food and other supplies while you’re in the city. Also, Bonus has the best prices, so I would also recommend finding one of those.
It's adventure time!
You’ve officially got 12 nights to drive the entirety of the island. And in winter, you’re going to need that much time because the weather is going to slow you down.
You’ll want to spend 3 days in the South
The south of Iceland - mainly the South West of Iceland, has a LOT to offer. Many people come to Iceland and never see anything except the South West because they don’t have time to explore the rest. This also means that this is going to be the busiest part of your trip. You’ll probably find a lot of crowds but as you travel east, that will thin out.
Start like many before you with the Golden Circle.
The main places that you want to stop in the Golden Circle are the waterfall Gullfoss, Þingvellir National Park, and Geysir, the geothermal area. As you’re heading out, I would also stop at Kerið Crater Lake because it’s a really cool place to add to your itinerary.
I would estimate that it’s going to take you about 10 hours to complete the Golden Circle alone, but that depends on how long you want to stay at each stop. The entire drive is about 300 kilometers (return trip) from Reykjavik, but if you’re headed out on the ring road, then you won’t go back to the capital when you are finished.
Instead, you are going to head to Seljalandsfoss. This is a beautiful waterfall that you can see from the ring road but is actually a 100 meters off the ring road. It's possible to walk around the waterfall as there is a big cave behind it. One of Iceland's most popular attractions BUT there is a campsite by Seljandsfoss. It’s a great place to stop for your first night.
It’s so incredible to be able to park directly next to this waterfall for the night. The campsite has a kitchen and bathrooms but the showers are not available during the winter. You can book your night at Hamragarðar here.
When we were on our trip, we ended up getting stuck in bad weather and staying the night at Hamragarðar before we could continue on our trip. It was actually a beautiful place to be stuck for a while and we were able to spend each morning soaking up this waterfall - while it soaked us!
There is a second waterfall just a short walk from Seljalandsfoss, it’s actually directly behind the campsite. It’s called Gljúfrabúi.
You’ve got the option to visit two different hot springs already on your journey. There is a thermal river that you can relax in (we didn’t stop because the weather was getting too bad) or you can make a detour to Seljavallalaug. This is a warm pool in the mountainside that’s about a 15-minute walk from the parking.
If you’ve stayed overnight at the Hamragarðar campsite, then you’ll be able to wake up and have the waterfall all to yourself! After a bit of exploring I recommend getting on the road to Skógafoss. This is a HUGE impressive waterfall that’s just a short drive (about 25 minutes) from Seljalandsfoss. It’s also the start of a 1-day hike called Fimmvörðuháls (that takes you to Eyjafjallajökull volcano!) During the summer, we were able to do this hike, but in the winter I would not recommend it. Even walking up the stairs to the top of Skógafoss was a bit treacherous due to the weather.
The Famous DC Plane Wreck
The next thing you might be tempted to stop at today is the famous DC plane wreck. Now we had planned on stopped here but the weather was still so bad that we didn’t want to walk one hour to the site. We also found that when we were there (Feb 2019) there is now a bus that takes you round trip to the site for about $50 a PERSON. I couldn’t believe it… We opted not to pay this and decided that since we weren’t willing to walk all the way there, we obviously weren’t willing to pay $100 either. (I think it’s more of a summer stop if you ask me).
Instead, we opted to visit Dyrhólaey. Well, we tried anyway, when we were almost to the cliffside we came to a road that had been completely flooded out. Since we didn’t have a four-wheel drive vehicle, we had to turn back. If you get the chance to visit, Dyrhólaey is an amazing bird watching stop. You might even get the chance to see puffins! Thousands of puffins have made their home in these cliffsides, which is the biggest reason I wanted to go! It’s definitely a stop for next time. You’ll start to notice as I said above, the weather is going to determine your trip in the winter. Some things you just aren’t going to be able to do.
Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach
From here you can drive to the infamous Reynisfjara black sand beach. This was totally accessible from the ring road. This is a deadly beach, with huge waves that come out of nowhere and sweep tourists away. It’s highly recommended that you stay well away from the water, but of course, when we were there (IN FEBRUARY) there were people treading in the water, getting taken out by waves for that perfect photo… crazy people.
It’s definitely worth a stop though, and if you sit far enough back on the beach, you can admire the powerful, huge waves as they come in. It’s pretty incredible! From Reynisfjara you can drive to Vík. Vík is a little village with about 300 inhabitants and an amazing view of the Reynisdrangar sea pillars. It also has a really beautiful black sand beach! Vík is the last village in the south (about an hour away from the next village) so make sure you fill up on gas and food! It is winter, after all, so you always want to be prepared.
The South East
You’re now going to enter the South East of Iceland. You’ll still have some daylight, but I highly recommend finding a campsite and starting the day early. In the morning you’ll want to start at Skaftafell. This is part of the Vatnajökull National Park and it has an awesome campsite where you can hang out for the night. This will make it really easy to wake up right away and start exploring. Vatnajökull National Park is also right next to a glacier!
I recommend waking up first thing in the morning and going for a short hike to the Svartifoss, black waterfall. It’s surrounded by these dark basalt columns that gave the waterfall its name. Then you can check out the glacier and explore more of the national park before heading to your next destination.
The next stop on your tour should be Jökulsárlón. Jökulsárlón is one of Iceland’s most visited attractions and it’s probably going to be one of the last places that you have to deal with crowds of people on your trip. Jökulsárlón is a 45-minute drive from Skaftafell and it’s the glacial lagoon. It’s actually really cool AND it’s right across the street from the Diamond Beach. A beach that is covered in pieces of glaciers. It’s a really beautiful place to watch the sunrise.
It’s called Diamond Beach because of the way the pieces of ice glitter on the black sand like diamonds.
From here... You’re headed East!
I think people often skip over the East but it holds a special place in my heart. When we were driving through the East Fjords, the sky decided to put on a show for us. We pulled over to a picnic pullout and spent hours just watching the northern lights dance across the sky!
What are the top attractions in the east of Iceland?
Vestrahorn mountain, which I misread a sign for and thought it was the tallest mountain in all of Iceland. So there I was jumping up and down shouting about how this is the tallest point in Iceland and Andrej had to stop me to say… check your facts, that is most definitely not the tallest mountain in Iceland... Anyway, it’s pretty cool. Nearby is the beautiful Álftafjörður (Swan-fjord), where flocks of swans gather and to either side of Vestrahorn are a couple of other spiky mountains, Eystrahorn and Brunnhorn.
While driving through the east, make sure to keep your eyes out for Reindeer. We saw several herds of Reindeer during our drive, and they were all absolutely beautiful. Did you know that Reindeer are not native to Iceland?! They were imported there but some of them either escaped or were let loose and now they roam wild through the countryside.
You’ll be making your way towards Egilsstaðir. Egilsstaðir is the largest town in the East of Iceland, right next to the forest. If you drive a bit further (off the main road) you come to Atlavík - a popular place to camp by the lake. We camped here on our first night in the east. Once we arrived it started to snow big fluffy flakes of snow and we were sure that we were going to be snowed in but come morning, we were able to take off for our next destination.
Hallormsstaðaskógur (a mouth full I know. Just try to pronounce that, I dare you). Alright, the pronunciation can be found here for those who are curious. This short detour off the ring road brings you to the largest forest in Iceland. Iceland has hardly any trees, so seeing a forest is quite unusual! When you reach Hallormsstaður Forest you've made it halfway around the country!
After you explore the forest, you can hike to Hengifoss. This was another hiccup in our winter road trip. We probably got about halfway to the waterfall when the fog and weather became so bad that we couldn’t even see where we were headed. We decided to turn around and head back to the car. This means we missed out on visiting this waterfall which is actually the 3rd highest waterfall in Iceland! Hengifoss has a distinct look because of the red basalt that surrounds it. I was able to find a photo from my visit in the summer even though we didn’t make it there in the winter.
After that, you’re headed north. The north of the island can be very difficult to visit during the winter. We had several places that we wanted to go including Grjótagjá, Hverfell/Hverfjall, Dettifoss and Húsavík but we weren’t able to visit any of them due to road closures and weather. Here’s what we were able to see though…
We started the day in the North by visiting Mývatn. Mývatn is a geothermal area with a stunning lake that you can drive around. Mývatn has Nature Baths that are super similar to the Blue Lagoon. I went and it was a lovely way to spend the afternoon. Plus they are way less crowded. There is a cafe there where you could have lunch or stop for coffee as well. From Mývatn you can visit Dimmuborgir. This is an area filled with dramatic rock formations and caves!
One place you will be able to visit in the winter is Goðafoss. Goðafoss is a stunning waterfall that is right by the ring road. You really can’t miss it on your way to Akureyri. This is the waterfall of the Gods, because the statues of Iceland’s Norse gods were thrown into the waterfall when Iceland decided to take Christianity as its religion. It’s really beautiful waterfall, you can easily spend a few hours exploring both sides of it.
There’s a beautiful hot springs you can visit near the Reykjafoss river and small waterfall. Keep in mind that this hotspring is quite small, so if you’ve been there a while, let the new people enjoy it. It’s actually a really cool spot! It’s right on the river banks, next to a small waterfall. It can be a bit hard to find, I recommend checking out the Google reviews, where you’ll find pretty good directions. Another thing I’d like to mention, it’s not overly hot… It was more like a warm springs.
There’s one place I recommend going from here, only if the weather is good. For us, the weather was good, until we started to get close and then it started snowing. Luckily we made it safely, this being said, on your winter journey, proceed with caution!
You’re going to be headed to camp overnight at Illugastadir campsite. This is a farmhouse in the Northern Fjords of Iceland where one of the most famous Icelandic Murders took place! We discovered this on the drive there, when I started doing a bit more research about where we were headed. While this place might be haunted by the ghost of Agnes Magnusdottir, it’s also an incredible seal watching site AND it’s actually only open in the winter. Also, just so you know there is no hot water and no showers, you’ll just be there for the ghost stories and the seals.
From here I’d recommend checking out another hot spring (ok this one is also more of a warm spring but we LOVED it.) It’s called Gudrunarlaug and it’s really picturesque. We had the whole place to ourselves.
And from here you’ve entered the Western part of Iceland. I’m gonna be honest with you, with only two weeks and no four wheel drive, exploring much of the Westfjords is going to be difficult. I made it there in the summer but only for one night. During the winter, we only made it to Gudrunarlaug and then we headed south.
We did, however, spend a few days exploring the Snæfellsnes Peninsula which was THE VERY BEST. The adorable town of Stykkishólmur is located on the peninsula and will offer a variety of activities including whale watching. Had the weather been better, we would have been on the first whale watching boat out of there! But it was sleeting and cold so we opted to stay on dry land.
Some natural wonders that can be found on the peninsula are Kirkjufell mountain, a natural hot spring called Landbrotalaug, Lóndrangar basalt cliffs, Snæfellsjökull glacier, a beautiful gorge called Rauðafeldsgjá, Gatklettur rock, and the Vatnshellir lava cave.
We chose to spend our last few days exploring the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, heading back to the Kirkjufell mountain twice, just because we loved it so much. From the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, you’ll want to start making your way back to Reykjavik.
On your way back though, there’s one more place you’ll want to stop (alright in the summer there’s several more stops but in the winter… just one). I would encourage you to stop at Krauma. It’s a luxurious little hot spring with several pools of different temperatures, an ice bath, a sauna, a bar, and a restaurant. We spent the majority of the day there and honestly, we freaking loved it. I think that was one of our favorite places we stopped on the whole trip.
We found a farm to camp at for our last night in Iceland and got blessed with seeing a wonderful display of northern lights all over again! The sky was lit up for hours and we were able to watch the show from the back of the van.
From here, you’re going to be sad to be leaving Iceland, I know that we were. We booked flights leaving Iceland at 7:00 PM so we had the entire next day to explore. We ended up driving the scenic route back to Reykjavik, just stopping along the way anywhere that we saw fit.
I have to say, this second visit to Iceland may have been even better than the first. Iceland is always an adventure and I will continue going back, even if it’s just to see the same things over and over again.
I’d love to help you plan your trip! Let me know when you’re planning on going and I can give you my best tips. If you’re interested in going in the winter, we were lucky enough to see the Northern Lights 7 out of 14 nights that we were there. It was simply incredible. And if you choose to go in the summer, exploring under the Midnight Sun is an adventure in itself.
Whatever you do, make sure to respect the land and the locals. Iceland’s moss is one of the most delicate landscapes in the world. Make sure that you always stay on pathways and never just run out across the moss. It’s very important to clean up your trash and only camp overnight in designated areas.
Lastly, be smart. Don’t go anywhere the roads or the weather is bad, especially in the winter. I’ve read far too many stories about tourists doing things they shouldn’t in Iceland. Don’t be those tourists. Leave it better than you found it so we all can continue to enjoy this stunning and unique country.
Enjoy your Icelandic Winter Road Trip!