The Top 10 Attractions on Iceland’s Ring Road
It’s not hard to discover some of Iceland’s most amazing sights. Waterfalls, sparkling glaciers, gorgeous nature reserves and bubbling hot springs all draw in tourists to Iceland, and a ring road trip makes it easy to see as much as possible. While we do recommend slowing down and detouring off every now and again, we understand not everyone has a lot of time. Luckily, Route 1 is filled with bucket-list worthy attractions. These are the best things to see on Iceland’s Ring Road.
Take a Dip in a Hot Spring River – Reykjadalur
If you’re not interested in the Golden Circle, then heading along Route 1 directly southeast will take you over the mountain pass towards Hveragerði. Located on top of a geothermal patch of earth, this quaint village enjoys an abundance of hot springs and geothermal energy. To experience it for yourself, about an hours’ hike up into the mountains behind the village you’ll find a geothermal river for swimming. On the hike you’ll pass steaming fumaroles and bubbling mud pots, electric blue pools of water and waterfalls dripping down the long valley. When you’ve finally reached the end of the trail, you’ll be in a valley where the cold water of the river mixes with the geothermally heated water to create the perfect bathing temperature. Bathing in the river is one of the best things you can do in Iceland to get acquainted with its unique nature.
The Most Perfect Waterfall – Skogafoss
No doubt one of Iceland’s most famous waterfall, people slam the brakes on as soon as they see this perfect sheet of water spilling over Iceland’s highland shelf. 60 metres tall and surrounded by mossy cliffs, it’s a picturesque photo shoot and a favourite attraction amongst ring road travellers. Don’t forget to climb the stairs up to the top of the waterfall, as the views over the southern plains towards the ocean are well worth the effort. The top is also the beginnings of the Fimmvörðurháls Pass, the epic mountain crossing into the Thórsmörk Nature Reserve. Let yourself through the fence and head northwards along the river a way to leave the crowds behind and discover countless waterfalls and incredible scenery, but don’t attempt the mountain pass without proper gear and planning.
Top tip: there’s a campsite at the base of the waterfall, and while it doesn’t have the best facilities, waking up to the view of Skogafoss in the early morning without the crowds will be one you won’t forget.
Dramatic Black Sand Beach – Reynisfjara
By now, this must be one of the most visited natural attractions in all of Iceland. Thanks to its use as a shooting location for several films and TV series (Star Wars and Game of Thrones amongst the most famous), crowds are now flocking to this black sand beach just west of Vík. At one end a cliff face of basalt columns rises from the sand, dramatic hexagonal columns moulded by ancient eruptions, a perfect display of the chaotic powers of nature. Wander along the cliff face to discover some twisted sea caves, but always beware of the water; powerful waves can sweep up the beach out of nowhere, knocking over unsuspecting tourists with strong undercurrents.
For an astounding view, Route 218 brings you up to Dyrhólaey Peninsula, where you can enjoy the long stretch of black sand from above, bordered inland by an impressive array of mountains topped by the icy glaciers Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull.
The Canyon that Bieber Made Famous – Fjaðrárgljúfur
Many will recognise this twisting canyon from Justin Bieber’s music video for I’ll Show You – ever since the video came out, the area has been swamped by tourists. The canyon was carved out long ago by a glacial river bolstered by flooding waters rushing down from the glacier after an eruption. Paths meander up one side of the canyon, overlooking the floor below where the remnants of the icy blue river flows. Once a little-known destination, the increased popularity thanks to Bieber has meant that the gorgeous canyon has been intermittently closed by the Environmental Agency of Iceland over the past years because of damage to the pristine ecosystem. If it’s open, remember to be a responsible tourist; always stick to the paths and don’t hop over the fences.
Hiking in the Shadow of the Glacier – Skaftafell Nature Reserve
The next big stop along the ring road is the Skaftafell Nature Reserve. Once upon a time this was its own National Park before it was merged into Vatnajökull National Park, which will give you an idea of the area’s importance. A heady mix of black sand, lush greenery and glacial ice makes this one of the best places in all of Iceland to get out and go for a hike – which is the best thing to do if you want to experience Iceland’s landscapes for real. If you’re just looking to get in and out before moving along, we recommend checking out the waterfall Svartifoss. It’s an easy 30 – 40-minute hike, your reward being a perfect spout of water gushing out in front of more black basalt columns.
Skaftafell also has one of the best campsites in the country, which makes it easy to spend a few days at the base of the glacier. You’ll also be able to tackle a few of the more challenging trails; some creep up towards the edge of the glacier, others scale the mountains deep in the park, and others take you along the sides of canyons above the glacier tongues spilling out through the valleys. Remember to always check in at the visitor’s centre to find out the condition of the various trails.
Icebergs and a Natural Sculpture Museum – Jökulsárlón and Diamond Beach
This package deal is one of the best attractions on the ring road – we would always recommend checking this out on your campervan trip. Jökulsárlón is really the only place in Iceland where you’ll see icebergs up close. Breaking off the larger Vatnajökull, they crash down into the water and are pulled around the expansive lagoon by the underwater currents. Swimming under and in between all these icebergs are plenty of seals, and all the while the views of Vatnajökull in the background are phenomenal. These floating icebergs eventually make their way out the narrow entrance that connects with the ocean, only to be washed up again onto the black sand along the coast. Here, the icebergs are stranded on the sand, melting into spectacular shapes – nature’s own sculpture museum, and the reason for the name ‘Diamond Beach’.
Black Sand and a Photogenic Mountain Range – Vestrahorn
One for the photographers, this mountain is a dramatic and awesome area. As you round Iceland’s southeast corner, you’ll pass the town of Höfn and then come to the Vestrahorn mountain. A rough dirt track takes you out along the peninsula, where a black sand beach is dotted with patches of long grass in front of this incredible looking mountain. Seemingly pulling away in either direction, photos of the jagged peaks capture the mood of the ferocious waves crashing up against the black sand. For the best photos, you do have to cross onto private land – you’ll pay your entry fee at the café before being allowed to drive out further to capture the best views of the area.
Natural Beauty – The East Fjords
East Iceland is Iceland’s most underrated region. It’s also Iceland at its most understated; giant waterfalls, epic canyons and exploding geysers are few and far between in the East, causing a lot of travellers to make the mistake of rushing through as fast as possible. But the attraction of this stretch of the ring road is the scenery itself. We encourage campers to slow down, stop at the villages along the way, and take it all in. You’ll feel small in the big landscapes; steep mountains dive into deep fjords, and the sun often illuminates the pretty fishing villages seemingly trapped in time. If you’ve got the time, hanging around this region and detouring off the ring road will turn up some seriously cool things. For more information, just check out our Campers’ Travel Guide to the East Fjords.
Europe’s Most Powerful Waterfall – Dettifoss
The most powerful waterfall in Europe, visiting Dettifoss is worth the detour from the ring road. From the ring road, it takes just over 20 minutes to get to the parking area on the western side of the canyon (Route 862). You’ll hear the roar of the falls long before you can see it, as 193 cubic metres of water pour over the precipice every second. Only 44 metres tall, the raging waters disappear into wreaths of mist churned up as the water crashes into the river below. This fine mist clings to the black rocks of the canyon, sparkling in the rare bouts of sunshine. All of this is viewed from platforms built onto the edge of the canyon, which was carved out by glacial flood caused by a volcanic eruption underneath Vatnajökull.
The Most Diverse Landscape in the Country – Lake Mývatn
An area of great biodiversity, wildlife and geothermal activity, it’s easy to spend a day or two exploring around Lake Mývatn. During the summer, thousands of birds and ducks make their home on the lake’s waters, bringing life and plenty of tourists to the area. But for many, it’s the unique volcanic landscapes that make this such a beautiful stop. Pseudo-craters, large dormant volcanoes, and geothermal activity surrounding the lake all make for interesting stops. For more details on what to see and do around the lake, check out our Ultimate Guide to North Iceland.
Waterfall of the Gods – Goðafoss
Goðafoss (‘waterfall of the Gods’ in English) might not be the largest waterfall in the country, but what it lacks in power it certainly makes up for in beauty. You’ll come upon this waterfall east of Akureyri, and it’s located right on the ring road making it an easy stop. It is rumoured that when Iceland adopted Christianity as its official religion around the year 1000, upon returning from the Althing the law speaker Thorgeir Thorkelsson threw his statues of the Norse Gods into the waterfall, giving it its name.