A friend of mine came over to Iceland for a week, so I planned a road trip. This road trip does require an off-road-capable vehicle, like a Dacia Duster or larger. Dusters are really common rentals, and you can get ’em with pop-up tents on the roof, but I wouldn’t recommend that, so my recommendations also include hotels.
Day 1: Jet Lag Recovery
Odds are, you’re going to be coming off an overnight flight or a complicated series of flights. Land in Keflavik, the only real international airport in Iceland, and crash at a downtown Reykjavik hotel for a day. Walk around the city, get your legs underneath you.
Watch Justin Bieber’s I’ll Show You music video. It’s a preview for the sights you’re about to see.
Day 2: Waterfalls and Glaciers
Get an early start and drive towards the Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon, about 5 hours away altogether, but it won’t feel like 5 hours in the car because you’re going to make a few stops.
Along the way, stop at Seljalandsfoss, the most-photographed waterfall in Iceland. It’s visible along the Ring Road, and it’s only a minute’s drive off. It’s an easy walk, and as long as you’re there, also walk over to the left to the other waterfalls housed in a cave.
Get back in the car, and continue driving east. If you got a late start, stop for lunch at Halldórskaffi in Vik. Get the fish, whatever it is, no matter how tempting the hamburgers look. In Iceland, you should try the fish as often as you can, because it’s always local and never frozen.
Next stop: Reynisfjara. It’s a fabulous black sand beach with tall basalt columns along the shoreline. This one’s about a 5 minute drive off the Ring Road, but it’s an easy drive. There’s a restaurant at the beach, but it’s nothing special, just a place to grab food. Hold off if you can.
Continue driving to the Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon, and schedule dinner. You’ll probably have to reserve a table when you check in.
Either before dinner or after, depending on your schedule, take a short drive over to the Jokusarlon glacier lagoon and Diamond Beach. They both look dramatically different depending on the current tides. When the tide starts to rise, water rushes in from the ocean into the lagoon, where pieces of the glacier are constantly breaking off. As the tide is rising, ice is trapped in the lagoon. When the tide starts to fall, the little icebergs float out through the river and into the ocean, depositing on the black sand beach, looking like giant diamonds. I think it’s spectacular at any tide level, but just be aware of the current tides on the day you go. I think this is a great one to revisit in the morning of Day 3.
Before you go to bed, look at the tides at Vestrahorn, and check how long it’s going to take you to drive there. In a perfect world, you’re going to wake up on Day 3, have breakfast, drive to Vestrahorn, and arrive at high tide.
Day 3: Mountains and Canyons
Check out of the hotel and drive east to Vestrahorn, a spectacular mountain right next to the beach. The neat part is at high tide, the water is perfectly calm in the bay, and it reflects the mountain like a mirror. It’s fun at low tide, too, just not quite as beautiful.
Drive back west again and stop at Fjadrargljufur, a lush canyon. The hiking trail is not a loop, so it’s up to you to figure out when you’ve had enough exertion – it’s a serious uphill climb. I’d stop after 30 minutes, enjoy the views, and then come back to the car.
Drive to Hotel Kria in Vik. Check in, drop your stuff, have dinner.
If you’ve still got a lot of time and energy, drive to the abandoned plane wreck at Sólheimasandur. It’s only about a 20 minute drive from the hotel, but once you park, you have a 45-minute walk each way to the plane and back. I have mixed feelings about this one: if you feel like you need to skip it, that’s okay. It’s just a scenic abandoned plane.
Day 4: Going Off-Road
Now’s when the car is going to matter, because we’re leaving the pavement. Buy a few sandwiches and bottles of water at the hotel, then check out and drive west. Set your GPS to the end of the F-road Hekla. You are not going to make it to that point. Depending on your car and your off-road driving skill, feel absolutely comfortable stopping at any point and turning around. I didn’t make it to the summit, and I was driving a brand new Land Rover Defender. I ran out of skill short of the summit. Still, it’s some of the most beautiful, alien landscapes.
You are now done with the hardest driving you’re going to do all trip. The rest of the day will be a mix of pavement and gravel road, but none of it is bad at all.
Set your GPS for 64°09’47.0″N 19°08’26.1″W. It’s a parking area for Sigoldugljufur, also known as the Valley of Tears. I call it the Garden of Eden, because it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life. There are no signs, and it’s just a gravel walkway. Turn right, and and follow the canyon for 10-15 minutes. You’ll know it when you see it and hear it. You can’t descend down into the canyon itself without planning to stay overnight there, so just enjoy the view from the top, and then head back to the car.
Next up, drive to the Landmannalaugar Tourist Information Center. It’s a base camp with a small restaurant, bathrooms, supplies, and tons of hiking options. I would just take the short hike from the sleeping huts into the black lava field – it’s only about 15 minutes up to the peak where you can get a really good view of the lava fields, craters, rivers, and more.
To finish out the day, drive to the Hotel Geysir. It’s literally across the street from the geyser that gave geysers their name: Geysir. Geysir has gone cold over the years, but there are other geysers right next to it that are still active, plus bubbling holes in the ground. These aren’t nearly as impressive as Old Faithful, but they’re right across the street, and they’re famous. You can walk over in five minutes, watch it erupt, and then say you’ve seen it. It’s fun.
You could have dinner at Hotel Geysir’s restaurant, but if you don’t mind a short drive, head to Efstidalur Farm. It’s a charming farm-to-table restaurant where you’re surrounded by cows. They make their own ice cream, too.
Day 5: The Golden Circle
The Golden Circle is a traditional route for tourists who are short on time and who want to stay near Reykjavik. That isn’t you – you’re here for a week – but on our way back to Reykjavik, it makes sense to stop at a few of the highlights.
After checking out of your hotel, head to Gulfoss, a gorgeous, huge waterfall. There are two parking areas, an upper lot and a lower lot. Park at the lower lot first, walk around, and then drive up to the upper lot with the visitor’s center. The visitor’s center has a cute gift shop, cafe, and bathrooms. Then walk around the viewing point for the upper area, too.
For lunch, drive over Fridheimar, a family-owned indoor tomato farm that uses Iceland’s geothermal energy to grow plants in the most unlikely of places. Everything’s made with their vegetables, but I’d highly recommend the ravioli, a Bloody Mary, and tomato ice cream. You’re going to need reservations for this, so make ’em as early as you can on your trip – even when you land in Iceland.
Spend the afternoon walking around Thingvellir, the scenic canyon where two tectonic plates are slowly separating. There’s not really a spot where you can stand with one foot in North America and one foot in Europe – it’s not that clearly divided – but it’s gorgeous scenery nonethless. It’s also the spot of one of the world’s oldest democracies. The visitor’s center has a really good set of interactive exhibitions that tell you more about both the geology and the politics.
Finally, drive back to Reykjavik. Any hotel of your choice in Reykjavik is fine here.
Day 6: Day Trip to Snæfellsnes
Leave your stuff in the Reykjavik hotel – don’t check out, because you’ll come back at the end of the day. Hop into the car for a bit of a long day of driving. You’re heading to the Snæfellsnes peninsula. One note first though: there aren’t a lot of services on the peninsula, so make sure you fill up the gas tank and pack snacks and water.
First, set your GPS for Búðakirkja, a pretty black church perched along the sea. It’s a pretty stopping point, but no services here, just a few photos.
Then it’s a half-hour drive on to Djupalonssandur, the black lava pebble beach. Yes, you saw a black sand beach earlier on the trip, but this is different: the entire big beach consists of pebbles, not sand. It’s a beautiful walk, and it’s especially stunning during storms. As waves come in and wash over the pebbles, and then wash back out, they make a delightful noise of a bunch of pebbles rolling alongside each other.
Drive along the sea to Sker Restaurant and get the mushroom soup. Best mushroom soup I’ve ever had in my life, and I eat a lot of mushroom soup. The bread’s great and the fish is fresh, of course.
It’s another short half-hour scenic drive to Kirkjufell, aka Church Mountain, and if you visit in the winter, it’s Mount Cinnabun. (At least that’s what we called it.) You’re not going to climb the mountain, but you’re going to park at the Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall parking lot, and admire both the mountain and the waterfall. You’ll walk right over a bridge near the waterfall, and everywhere you look is great.
From there, it’s about another 2-3 hour drive back down to Reykjavik to your hotel. You’re going to need a COVID-19 test in anticipation of your departure, and depending on the current regulations and your flight time, you’ll either want to get it in the evening, or in the morning of day 7.
Day 7: Spa Day for Recuperation
Hopefully you’ve got an evening flight, and you can enjoy a day at the spa first. Blue Lagoon is the famous one about 45 minutes from downtown Reykjavik, and Sky Lagoon is the smaller, newer upstart that’s a much shorter drive. They’re both great – they’re just different experiences, and I don’t think you can go wrong with either one.
Be aware that in Iceland, visitors are required to shower nude before entering lagoons. Sky Lagoon sells passes with private showers and changing rooms – Blue Lagoon does not.
Once you’re in the lagoon, both lagoons offer swim-up bars. Make a beeline directly for the bar as soon as you enter, and get yourself a glass of bubbly. You’re limited to 3 alcoholic drinks per wristband, so just plan ahead a little.
And that’s it! Hope you have a wonderful time.