Iceland’s Ring Road – an 11 day itinerary for photographers and explorers
Updated: Nov 9, 2020
Exploring Iceland is on many active travel lovers bucket lists. And if you are a photographer, you’ve probably been drooling over images of Landmannalaugar and Kirkjufell for years. However the reality is, to really experience Iceland and get a comprehensive photography portfolio of the country, you need to spend time there, preferably over several visits and several seasons. So I shake my head when I see blog titles that hint that you can ‘see Iceland’ in 5 or 7 days. No way. You will only be scratching the surface in that amount of time.
I had already been there once, knew the unpredictability of the weather and had a basic understanding of much there really was to see in this small country. And the time of year to visit is a consideration for photographers, as there is always a tradeoff of optimal weather for optimal light. Summer offers the most tolerable weather. But your golden hours won’t be as dramatic as in winter or shoulder-season, as the sun barely sets. But with more the defined nights and days of winter and shoulder season, you have the unpredictability of extreme weather to contend with. See what I mean? So know going in going in, that you may not get all the shots you plan, on just one trip.
Not a point-and-shoot vacation
My husband is a professional landscape photographer, so simply checking off sites from a tourism list and doing a sort of ‘drive through-point-and-shoot’ type experience is just not in the cards for us. I understand that if short on time, ‘some’ is better than none. But that’s not how we prefer to travel. As a writer, I like to get a ‘feel’ for an area, allow for some deeper exploration and enjoy talking to the locals. And as a photographer, if Nic wants to get a certain ‘shot’, he has to factor in time of day, lighting and weather. For this trip, we purposely budgeted in two nights in some places, as we knew the weather would be so variable. That way, if he got less than desirable conditions for that morning shot that he wanted, there was a good chance that later in the day or the next morning, he would be graced with some blue sky, fluffy clouds or at least no rain. Sure, you will see some of the same classic points of interest in this blog as in many others. But we have also included some hidden gems and paths less traveled, which we only found by talking to locals, or occasionally stepping off the traditional path of the Ring Road.
NOTE- The photos in this itinerary are a mix of Nic's professional photos and my amateur photos. Look for PC but you will easily be able to tell †he difference.
Since I brought up weather, I must emphasize that good weather is not guaranteed no matter what month you travel in Iceland. But that’s part of what makes the country exciting! So be prepared. My first trip to Iceland was in the month of August. It rained almost every day. This trip we went in May. And although we were lucky enough to stay ahead of some major storm fronts, the ‘typical’ day had > 40mph winds at times. In the south, I wore three layers up top and my rain pants over hiking pants/tights for added warmth almost every day. By contrast, in the North and Western Peninsula, I actually had a few days that I was able to hike in a t-shirt and wind-breaker. A FEW. So be prepared.
(Go here to read What to pack for Iceland.)
Hiking, walking and cycling are all do-able in Iceland. But if you plan to bike, you’d better be hearty and have the right gear. The first time I went to Iceland, I did a cycling trip in August and was pedaling in rain several hours a day for six of the eight days. So this time, I planned to explore on foot, which I can do in pretty much any weather. If you are in a pinch, some of the nicer hotels offer small gyms with treadmills when it’s too windy to run outside.
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Iceland has some really nice luxury or boutique hotel options. So if you plan to travel hybrid like we did, try mixing in these beautiful hotels along the way: Hotel Ranga (Hella) Ion Adventure Hotel (Thingvellir) Hotel Siglo (Siglofjordur) , Hotel Borg (Reykjavik).
TIP - I use this booking site frequently because many associated hotels do not require a deposit and have very lenient cancellation policies
How to connect
We are big advocates of mixing in Farm-stays and AirBnB accommodations with hotel stays. This not only provides direct financial support to the locals but gives us a chance to get to know the people who work and live in the country we are exploring.
On the subject of conservation and environmental support, when we traveled with WOW air (no longer a service), we were conveniently provided envelopes on the plane in which we could leave our leftover kronos for just this reason. WOW will match any contribution and donate it to Landvrnd, a nature conservation program who aims to protects the highlands and other Icelandic resources through strategic planning and education.
The Icelandic Nature Conservation Association (INCA) is another worthy resource whose primary objective is wilderness protection and conservation. So if you love what you experience in Iceland, consider a donation so that it remains special for future travelers.
Trip rating – L1/L2 – English spoken, food is familiar, cars drive on the right side of the road. However, I rate it a possible L2, because if you are a fair-weather dependent traveler, Iceland is not for you. The variability of the weather and temperature require a tolerant, adventure-oriented travel mind-set. Go here to read more about our trip rating system.
Length of trip – 11 days
Month of Travel – Mid to end of May, fewer crowds, but some of the interior hiking trails were still drying out from winter and closed due to muddy conditions.
Costs – Iceland can be expensive. But we found ways to save money, stick to a budget and still treat ourselves to an occasional luxury hotel or geothermal spa. Go here to read How Expensive is Iceland?
Arriving in Iceland
Flight – we took a night flight directly from LAX to KEF and arrived at 11am on next day.The international airport is actually in Keflavik, about a 45 min drive from Reykjavik. So you will need to either rent a car here and drive, or catch the Flybus which runs routinely between KEF and Reykjavik and will drop you off in the city center.
TIP - Cars are expensive in Iceland, so since we were mostly driving the paved ring road, we chose a compact car for this trip. This car also did well on some gravel roads that were hard-packed. We just had to drive slowly and avoid potholes due to limited clearance. If you are renting a van/RV or planning to go off road, be prepared to pay for it. If you plan to explore the interior of Landmannalaugar (mid-June to September) , you will need a 4x4 off-road vehicle with high clearance for river crossings as well as road conditions.
Stop 1 – walk down to the waterfront, check out the Solfar sculpture and the Hallgrimskirkja cathedral
Stop 2 - Do some grocery shopping for car snacks and on the road lunches.
Accommodation suggestion –The Storm Hotel in Reykjavik
Dinner suggestion - Mai Thai Bistro and grocery downtown
Day 1 - The Golden Circle and onto Vik
This is only a 2.5-3 hour drive time in total, so you can get a lot of stops in between Reykjavik and Vik without being rushed. Also, remember that the days are long this time of year. Sunset is around 11pm and sunrise is around 3am. So checking out places after dinner is very manageable.
Stop 1 – Gulfoss
Stop 2 - Geysir Geothermal Field
This may be worth a stop if you have time. I saw it on my first trip and honestly, was a bit underwhelmed. We skipped it on this trip. It's hard to rate a geysir when you live in a country with Yellowstone National Park.
Stop 3 Soak at Secret Lagoon Hotspring/ Gamla Laugin
Stop 4 Seljalandsfoss
TIP - The main attraction is easy to see from the road. But after you walk around and behind this gorgeous waterfall, walk down the front path to the end and check out the waterfall hidden inside a cave.
Stop 5 – Skogafoss #1 - late afternoon photography
We planned to come here a second time in the morning, both for different light and to hike above the falls towards Thorsmork as well as to a second waterfall in the area that most travelers don’t know about. (see Day 2)
Stop 5 Reynisfjara beach #1 - the wild waterfront
You must come here twice! Once in the evening to see the raging waves and vertical rock stacks and once in the morning when the tide is low and you can walk around to see the caves and get closer to the offshore Basalt stacks!
Dinner suggestion – Sudar Vik
Stop 6 – Dyrholaey
We went after dinner, since the sun does not set until 11pm this time of year.
TIP - This is one of two places to possibly see puffins in the south. The other is the black sand beach in Vik. Puffins are out looking for food on the water every day until ~ 7-8pm when they return to their nests.
Accommodation recommendation – Air BNB with Jon & Martina (2 nights) $132 night, a super host, includes breakfast
Day 2 – More of Vik
This area deserves a second day!
Stop 1 – Reynisfjara beach #2
In morning at low tide, explore caves and get closer to Basalt stacks.
Stop 2 - Skogafoss #2
This time, hike the trail above it – there is 25k more trail above Skogafoss falls, go check it out! Or hike a quick 20 minutes to the hidden waterfall next to it, behind the museum. (see below)
Stop 2a – Hidden waterfall next to Skogafoss
TIP - Exit the parking lot at Skogafoss but head towards the museum instead of the main road. Park your car near the very last building. Walk between the two end buildings and you will see a small path. Follow it around to the right, behind the building. You quickly come across a small over-fence ladder that you will have to step over. Then the rest is simple. Beautiful area, lush and only a 15-20 minute walk. Shhh!
Stop 3 - Katla Geopark / Myrdalsjokull (also see first photo under itinerary title)
TIP - Don’t be fooled by the sign that suggests only guided tour buses can go here. Although not advertised, this is one of the coolest areas that anyone can explore for free! Drive in 4k off route 1, park and walk in towards the glacier. You will see many guided tours going on, but you can walk safely right up to the glacier’s face without one. However, do NOT go ONTO the glacier itself without proper training, equipment (crampons, ice axe, helmet) or a guide. We were happy just to walk as close to it as we did.
Dinner suggestion - a burger at Ice Cave café – this was surprisingly good
Accommodation suggestion – Air BNB with Jon and Martina (2 nights) $132 night, super host, includes breakfast
Day 3 – Glacier Lagoons and Diamond Beach
NOTE - stops we bypassed but worth checking out if you have time
a) Fjadrargljufur – gorgeous, winding, narrow canyon – the trails were still muddy when we were there.
b) Vatnajokull Glacier Hike – we had such a great experience at Katla for free, that we opted to bypass this one and save time and money. But we have read that travelers love it! Coming up, we’ll talk about another place close to Hofn, where you can drive in and get up close to glaciers (but not on them) for free.
Stop 1 – Fjallsarlon
This is a glacier lagoon just before Jokulsarlon. It's a pretty cool photo opportunity. You can’t get as close to the icebergs here as you can at Jokulsarlon. But it's a short, easy drive in and you can get a nice photo from up on the hill, behind the conveniently located cafe. This also a chance for a less-crowded bathroom break and a quick stop for some hot coffee or cocoa.
Stop 2 – Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon – Must See!
This place was incredible and one of our favorite places on the entire trip! We spent over three hours exploring and taking photos between here and Diamond Beach, despite 30-40 mph winds. It was that cool.
TIP - Park in the lower lot, which sits between Diamond beach and the Lagoon. This way you can walk from one to the other easily.
Stop 3 – Diamond beach
You can walk to this beach from the lagoon. It's stunning, a really incredible place.
TIP - Time your arrival so you can visit this area in late afternoon. It never really gets dark in May. But the light is lower at this time of day, and makes for some great photos.
Dinner suggestion - Ishusid Pizzaria
Stop 4 – Vesterhorn
This is a really interesting area for photography and the classic shot is taken from the ocean side in Stokksnes. However, the property owner is now charging $2000 krona ($20 US) per person to hike on the property - ouch!
TIP - One other view to consider is driving through the tunnel on the Ring Road, just past Hofn, and composing a shot from the back side. The irregular black sand beach there make a nice foreground element.
Day 4 – Unique photography spots around Hofn
Stop 1 - Skalafellsjokul Glacier and Heinabergsjokull Glacier lagoon
TIP - The best part about these two areas is that very few tourists know about it! So you will most likely have the place to yourself like we did.
If you backtrack from Hofn about 20 minutes drive, these two glacial areas are very accessible. Skalafellsjokul’s entry road has an obvious large white monument at its junction to the 1 . A short drive in will take you to a little village of Skalafell where you can park. The hike to the glacier looks to be 2-4 hours in length but takes you right up next to the glacier (see map). When we were there, a storm was coming in and we did not get an early enough start for the hiking distance. So we opted to drive back out to the Ring Road and take the next entry road into Heinaberg and Heinabergsjokull's glacier lagoon.
NOTE - these roads are gravel packed and drivable in most cars if you drive slowly and avoid potholes. However, if it looks to rain or the road is muddy, I’d avoid it unless you have a 4x4, as you may need more traction in mud than a standard 2WD can provide.
Stop 2 – Skutafoss hike
This is a triple waterfall with a large cave opening, easy access by 15-20 min walk, and again, no one there but us.
Directions- drive east ~ 15 minutes from Hofn, and just after you pass through the tunnel, watch for a small sign marked ‘Porgeirsstadaa' and park near here. Follow the river upwards. We walked on the west side of the river. You will pass a few smaller falls en route.
Dinner suggestion - Café Hornid (one of the best meals we had in Iceland)
Day 5 Heading up North to Myvatn
In May, cars were getting pulled out of the mud on the 939/95. In dry conditions, its supposedly a scenic drive and cuts 45 minutes of your drive to Myvatn. However, checking the websites below as well as listening to locals, guided us to make the best decision to stick to the main, paved Hwy 1. We are so glad we did! The drive through the eastern fjords was gorgeous and put it on our list for exploration on our next visit to Iceland.
TIP - Stop at Dettifoss/Selfoss en route to Myvatn. It's about an hours drive from Myvatn, so if you wait until the next day to do it, you will chew up two hours of your day just getting there and back.
Stop 1 Dettifoss / Selfoss
Stop 2 Myvatn Nature Baths
Dinner suggestion – Daddi’s pizza – casual, nice deck, decent pizza and beer on tap.
Stop 3 – Grjotagja hotspring cave
Famous Game of Throne scene with John Snow and Ingrid the Wildling filmed here. Closed to bathers now. But worth a stop for a photo.
Stop 4 – Storagja hotsprings cave
This is very close to Grjotagja. This one is accessible by stairs and a knotted rope which you need to lower yourself a short distance into the pool.
Day 6 – Myvatn area
TIP - There are no flies around the lake yet in May!
Stop 1 - Viti Maar Crater/Krafla caldera
Stop 2 - Hverir hot pots
Stop 3 – Hverfjall crater – hike to rim
Stop 4 Skutustadir Pseudo craters south of Lake
Day 7 – Husavik
Activity suggestion - whale watching with North Sailing
Accommodation suggestion - Husavik Cottages (one of our favorite places the entire trip!)
Dinner suggestion - go to store and get a roasted chicken and some rolls and a few beers and make a simple meal in the cottage. The cottage also is fully stocked to make breakfast and coffee in the morning.
Day 8 – Godafoss, a beer bath, and Siglifjordur
Stop 1 - Godafoss
Stop 1A Going the extra mile(s) – Aldeyjarfoss
This waterfall is accessed from 844 or 842 near Godafoss. It really is a spectacular falls with unusual basalt columns. But to see these falls without being rushed, you need a solid 3-4 hours in your schedule. It’s a 45- 60 minute drive each way to get to either the lower parking area (45min) or upper area (60 min). If the roads are dry, you may be able to take a standard vehicle to the upper lot if you drive slowly. If the roads are muddy, you will need a high-clearance 4x4 vehicle or park at the lower lot, and walk/hike to the upper lot as we did. It was a 30+ minute walk to get from the lower lot. Once there, we still had to walk down a long-winding, steep trail to get to/from the falls. So this adds another 15-20 minutes. Once there, you will want to spend at least 30 minutes taking photographs or flying your drone. So if you see Godafoss in the morning, have the afternoon free and the weather is good, it’s quite a dramatic sight.