Iceland’s Ring-Road in 8 Days: The West & The North

Out of the 44 countries I have visited up to date, Iceland easily makes it in my Top 3 list (tie between Iceland and South Africa, check out Cape Town and the Garden Route if you haven’t already done so). Matter of fact, I loved it so much that I visited it twice! Which, believe me is quite the expensive mission since I live all the way in the UAE. In this blog, I will cover our 8 day itinerary around Iceland’s Ring-Road. If you are planning your own trip to Iceland, it is worthwhile checking out Iceland 101- Introduction to Iceland before reading this post. If you want the itinerary sent to your e-mail, feel free to Contact me.

Iceland 8-Day itinerary
I’m clearly a sucker for cartoons

Day 1: Reykjavik & The Golden Circle

After saying our goodbyes to Victoria; Mustafa, Maddie and I took a direct flight from The Faroe Islands to Reykjavik using Air Iceland Connect. It is worth mentioning that this is the only direct flight between the two countries and flights are not available daily. Therefore, make sure you check the flight schedule if you’re planning a similar trip. Another alternative is to take the ferry across to Iceland; the ferry doesn’t make the trip daily either though so it’s all a matter of planning the right days.

To get you guys on the same page, two more friends were joining us in Iceland from the UAE. Mohamed Motassem was meant to land at 11 AM but was delayed a couple of hours and Ahmad Khayat arrived in Reykjavik at around 3 PM. The plan was to wait for Motassem at the domestic airport and then head over to Camp Easy using the free cab ride that they so generously offer. Of course, I missed the part where they clearly instructed us to only use HREYFILL taxi so we ended up paying for that ride; make sure you don’t make the same mistake. Since Camp Easy are pretty awesome though, they gave us the taxi vouchers to use at the end of our trip anyway (Icelanders in general seem to be very friendly and not materialistic). All in all, we were very impressed with Camp Easy. The camper itself was in great condition and had loads of awesome features, the guys who work there are really cool too and threw in a number of freebees. Now that we had our car and home for the next 8 days, we made our way to Reykjavik City Center to burn some time until Khayat arrives.

Camper Vans in Iceland
The weather was so depressing during the first two days!

It’s no secret that Reykjavik ain’t exactly the most interesting city in Europe; however, it still holds its own and can keep you entertained for a day or two. So anyway while in the city make sure you check out the following:

  • Aurora Reykjavik is a museum that shows you some great insights on the Northern Lights and even explains how you can up your chances of seeing them. You can even experience the lights in their very own theatre… who am I kidding haha it is nothing like the real thing!
  • Saga and Maritime museums are pretty interesting if you’re into the history of Iceland, the early settlements and Vikings
  • Horse and whale steak at ‘The Steakhouse’. It is a high-end pretty pricey restaurant but the food is definitely worth it. Make sure you make a reservation if planning to visit on a weekend as it does get crowded
  • Chocolate cake at Stofan
  • Local dishes at Cafe Loki
  • Hallgrímskirkja is probably Reykjavik’s most famous landmark as it is seen from almost anywhere in the city. The church is 74.5 meters high making it among the highest structures in Iceland
  • The Statue of Leifur Eiriksson posing mightily with the church in the background. Viking history isn’t very clear and you’ll often hear different stories from different people. I have gathered some history during my trip in case you are into Viking history and will share the link as soon as the post is up
  • Walk around the bustling streets of Reykjavik’s City Center District

Once Khayat was finally with us, we made our way to GoCampers to pick up our second, two person camper van. I must admit, seeing this camper after spending the day in the 4-person one was pretty damn disappointing. I should have expected it not to be on par with the first one since it did cost a fraction of the price, but I guess a part of me was allowed to dream. While one camper boasted a heater, sink, fridge, dining table and many other features; the second camper could barely fit in a bed and a couple of drawers to hold our necessities. The pick-up process wasn’t as smooth nor structured as it was with Camp Easy; they didn’t give us as much information or pointers either which I imagine would’ve sucked if we hadn’t already been well informed by the Camp Easy staff. There were a couple more things that went wrong too but I’ll get into that later.

I like to think of myself as quite the expert when it comes to sleep. I have a talent of being to fall asleep anywhere and everywhere… but most importantly, at any time. It doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate the comfort of a cozy bed though. I have spent nights in 5 star hotels such as the Emirates Palace and the Marriott but also spent others in prisons turned into hostels. I spent nights sleeping on the ground under the starry night and others curled up in the back of my 4×4.  The crazy thing is, I never felt cozier than I did in the back of that 2-person camper van.

With both camper-vans in our possession, it was time to set out on our road-trip; beginning with the all so famous, Golden Circle.

Day 1: The Golden Circle

This is Iceland’s most common route along with the Northern Lights Tour and the Blue Lagoon due to their convenient locations near Reykjavik. The Golden Circle, named as such since the route literally forms a loop from Reykjavik, has three primary stops:

  •  Þingvellir National Park: Park your car at the parking lot and make your way down by foot. While you’re here, take a couple of pictures of Oxarafoss Waterfall since it’s technically the first one you see in Iceland, though definitely not the most magnificent (it’s actually a really small one). Continue your walk down to the Silfra canyon, which is where the North American and European tectonic plates drift apart at a rate of 2cm per year. In fact, many activities are offered at the Silfra Canyon; you can kayak, snorkel and even scuba dive! Make sure you book these activities well in advance via Extreme Iceland because they sell out pretty damn fast
 Þingvellir National Park
Make sure you book your snorkeling or diving tour in advance!
  • Although this is not one of the primary destinations, feel free to stop by Laugarvatn Village for some traditional, homemade rye bread
  • This next primary stop is one most people are often quite excited about… The Geysers at Haukadalur. The main attraction of this area is the Strokkur Geyser which erupts every 5-8 minutes, shooting boiling water 30 meters high before it evaporates into thin air. So set up your tripods, make sure you capture in slow-mo but most importantly, be patient. After you take that perfect video for your instagram, put your phones and cameras away and actually enjoy this miraculous phenomenon a couple of times
Geysers of Iceland
Geyser mid-action

Although the plan was to complete the entire Golden Circle before nightfall, the weather quickly took a turn for the worse; dark, heavy clouds filled the skies forcing us to call quits. Anyone who visited Iceland a couple of years ago probably camped anywhere, anytime; unfortunately Iceland’s new laws now forbid that. You are only permitted to camp in dedicated camp sites. Luckily, there are about as many sites as there are sheep in Iceland, it’s just a matter of difference in quality. You’ll find loads of really good ones along the Golden Route though, so if the weather decides to go all apocalypse on you, it shouldn’t be a problem.

Day 2: Dog Sledding & Discovering the West

The weather did not get any better and I was not happy about it… let’s just say Maddie had to put up with a lot of sulking. Nevertheless, we were tight on time and there was so much to be seen so we couldn’t wait the rain and fog out; thank God we didn’t try too because nothing changed until nightfall. We started off by visiting the well known Gullfoss waterfall to complete the Golden Circle.

Gullfoss Waterfall
This photo was taken from my first trip to Iceland, weather was better then!

With still some time to waste, we decided to go check out the Kerid Crater Lake which is one of the optional, less famous stops along the Circle. By this point though, the fog was so thick that visibility so low that we had to walk around blindly looking for the crater. After around half an hour of trial and error, we finally found what we were looking for. I’m sure the crater would’ve looked a lot more magnificent if the sun was out; but I have to admit, there was a unique, mystical sensation of walking around this barren land in thick fog trying to find what was once a raging volcano.

Kerid Crater Lake
You can see the cloud of fog hanging right above the crater, making it almost impossible to spot from a distance

It was finally… DOG SLEDDING TIME!!! This activity has been on my bucket list ever since I watched Balto back in the 3rd grade. I was kinda upset to discover that we’d be using a kart instead of a sled due to dry conditions; however, it was still pretty darn exciting. Now, if you are worried about animal cruelty and unsure about trying this because you think the dogs might be unhappy, think again. However, I understand your concerns and will address your thoughts in a separate post soon (link will be added here once it’s done).

Dog Sledding in Iceland
With our crazy wheel dogs

Look at those crazy adorable creatures… and the two dogs with them 😛 Seriously though, if you’re ever in Iceland, Greenland, Norway or Canada then dog sledding needs to be on your list of things to do. If you know of any other country that offers this thrilling activity, please do comment below to share with the rest of us! There is something else that needs to be said though. To be honest, I was kinda hesitant about whether I should share this story at first; but finally I decided that leaving out any details would be robbing you and future me from one of the most important events of this trip. During our dog sledding experience, we witnessed an accident that could’ve easily been fatal; fortunately though, no one was badly hurt. I will post a link to the full story very soon but in the meantime, keep in mind that although dog sledding is extremely safe it is slightly unpredictable. Even with the full brakes applied, one dog can easily jerk the kart forward begging it to budge and release; when all 12 dogs decide they wanna go, it will go… no matter whose on it, or whose standing right in front of it.

Screen Shot 2018-02-24 at 11.47.58 PM
I was surprised at how excited and happy the dogs actually were!

We weren’t having the best luck with weather so far and it wasn’t about to get any better as you can see in the pictures. Rain was pouring all morning and we were pretty much soaking wet by the time we had finished sledding. To our dismay, we also realized that the GoCampers didn’t give us the bbq I booked and that the Wifi in the camper stopped working. Their service wasn’t great during the pick-up, especially after Camp Easy set the bar pretty high, and the fact that we now had to drive all the way back to Reykjavik was not making it any better. Credit where it’s due though, when we got back to the office and informed them of our ordeal, they were extremely apologetic and offered to refund all the extras I had paid for as compensation, that was around 200 euros! You have been forgiven dear GoCampers, you really turned things around.

With that all sorted, it was time to head north and explore the western region of the island, starting with a small yet fascinating church known as Buðir. I’d be lying if I said this was one of Iceland’s ‘must sees’ but something about the eerie allure of this church really made it worth the visit. The rain had stopped just as we arrived and a thick, heavy fog hid everything but the mossy ground covered in volcanic rocks. Like a scene out of a movie, a gust of wind blew the fog away suddenly revealing the church sitting on top of a tiny hill with a cemetery by its side. No joke, there was absolutely no body there but us and I was half expecting an arm to reach out of one of the graves and grab my leg.

Budir Church, Iceland
You often feel a sense of mystery and magic in Iceland, this was no exception

On queue, the rain resumed its downpour as we rushed back to our campers and drove towards our next destination, Hellnar. Hellnar is an ancient fishing village on the westernmost part of the Snæfellsnes peninsula. However, we weren’t going to check out the village; instead, we were driving up the coast to admire one of Iceland’s many unique rock formations and dragon gates. Unfortunately, the pictures didn’t turn out due to the gloomy skies and rain but I’m sure you’d be able to get some epic shots on a clearer day.

Hellnar, Iceland
Did you know that the rock formations are actually a cause of water erosion over the years?
Hellnar, Iceland
One of many dragon gates found in Iceland

By this point, I was simply frustrated with the weather and really believed that the entire trip would be ruined if the sun didn’t decide to make an appearance. There was no point trying to see anything else and so we decided to cut our losses and camp as close to Kirkjufell Mountain as possible. We hoped that the weather would clear up overnight and that we’d get to witness the magnificent sunrise behind the mountain, little did we know…

Worth mentioning that there are no nice camp grounds in this area, the one we found was less than mediocre with no shower facilities. The ground was wet and mushy and we had to watch our steps as to not drown on the way to the toilets! Needless to say that this was not one of our best nights. When it’s all said and done though, there is nothing quite like camping in Iceland; I promise you’ll leave the entire world behind and sleep like you’ve never slept before.

Day 3: Hello Sunshine My Old Friend

Catching the sun rise on the other side of Mount Kirkjufell didn’t happen either simply because… the sun decided not to make an appearance that morning either. Cold and lost in the fog, we decided to skip the rest of the west coast and make our way north towards Hraunfossar and the Kolugljúfur canyon.

Just as I was about to lose all hope of getting any good weather in Iceland, the first rays of sunshine cut through the cloudy sky giving the land around us a whole new perspective. In a matter of minutes, the skies were clear and the jackets came off… well except for Khayat of course, man’s not hot! We were all so happy with this sudden change in climate that we stopped on the side of the road to rejoice. Must say, I felt like the English when they get some sun in between two clouds, never seen so many people put their lives on pause to enjoy something so brief. Luckily though, this wasn’t some brief moment.

Random off roads in Iceland
Kenny, I mean Khayat, never took off his jacket :p #SouthParkReference

Although you won’t see the name mentioned in many of the commercial tours of Iceland, the Hraunfossar waterfalls are extraordinary and among my favorites in this magnificent country. Hraunfossar literally translates to Lava Falls and their uniqueness stems from their bizarre appearance and the unusual natural phenomena behind their existence. All the waterfalls we have previously seen start with a river or stream and end with a precipice or steep incline. In Hraunfossar, you’ll spot the latter but not the former; i.e. there is no river or stream of water to begin with. From the pictures below, you’d think that the water magically appears from the lava. In reality though, it is actually a clear cold spring that surges through the ground and runs in rapids down into the Hvita River.

Hraunfossar Waterfalls
Dry land with no river at the top, looks like the water is magically appearing from within the trees
Hraunfossar waterfalls
Gotta rock the slow shutter photography here

Guilty as charged, I completely missed this place and did not include it in the itinerary; which is why I’m glad you’re reading this and hadn’t decided to just hit the red X after downloading the spreadsheet and to those who did… hah suckas!!! On the way from Hraunfossar to Kolugljúfur we came across three craters known as Grabrokargigar and I knew straight away that it was time to put the spreadsheet aside for a minute (How To Prepare Your Itinerary, remember its not a holy book). Anyway, here is a little about Grabrokargigar: The craters are protected as natural monuments since 1962 mainly to preserve the beautifully formed scoria cones that formed in relatively modern times. Like I said, there are three craters, Stora (big) Grabrok, Litla (small) and Grabrokarfell. Sadly, Litla has mostly disappeared due to mining operations before it was protected. This volcanic system is believed to be 3600 years old and the lava from these craters covers a large proportion of the Nordurardalur valley. The more you visit volcanoes in Iceland, the more you’ll come to see why the whole island is covered in a mystical layer of black hardened lava.

Grabrokargigum Craters
Velkomin ad Grabrokargigum

Kolugljúfur canyon isn’t one of the more famous waterfalls in Iceland either which actually makes this spot really worth visiting. The canyon itself is not very long but it is deep with several falls which makes for an impressive sight. Another great advantage here is the lack of tourists which makes it a really good opportunity to take some uninterrupted photos. One of things I really enjoyed about this location is that it allows you to get right over the canyon, with the raging falls to your back and the calm rift ahead of you; the contrast in turbulence separated by nothing but the strip of land you’re standing on.

Waterfalls in Iceland
Motassem welcoming the falls with arms wide open
Canyons of Iceland
Calmer tides

On our way to Hvitserkur, we were jawstruck by the reflection of an endless bed of clouds and green fields against the calm waters of Lake Vesturhopsvatn. Before we knew it, we were out the camper-vans and running through the meadow like the ending of a Bollywood movie (shame non of us could sing though). Standing there in the silence of the lake, I felt the same tranquility that I had once felt at Wilderness Beach in South Africa, Taking You Through South Africa’s Garden Route: Part I, and at that very moment, I was reminded why I love traveling so damn much.

Vesturhopsvatn Lake
Scintillating Tings

Relaxed and rejuvenated, we got back in the cars and made our way to Hvitserkur, a 15 meter high basalt stack standing magnificently along the eastern shore of the Vatnsnes peninsula. As you can see in the picture, the rock has two holes at the base which kinda makes it look like a dragon taking a cheeky drink after feasting on sheep… and some farmers (damn it Khaleesi I told you to control your dragons!).

Hvitserkur
Cheeky dragons

With the day coming to an end, we decided to ditch the last two stops since we’re not too interested in towns anyway and hit up a thermal spring instead. Finding thermal springs in Iceland is kinda like finding a teddy bear in a 8 year old girl’s bedroom… it ain’t hard. To make things easier too, the camper-vans often come with a little guide that shows you the locations of all the camp sites, gas stations and thermal springs. So wherever you decide to stop, just check to see what’s around you. I cannot remember the name of the thermal spring we visited which sucks because it was awesome! Maddie the buzzkill was afraid of how cold she’d get after swimming, so she decided to stay behind and start up the bbq while the boys and I chilled in this earth-made jacuzzi. What’s awesome too is that the river right by the pool is freezing cold, so if you get too hot, you can take a quick dip in there to refresh… Khayat never needed to do that though, you know why? Because man’s not hot!

Thermal Springs of Iceland
Nothing can be more relaxing than this

Day 4: Speed Boats & Whales

We couldn’t possibly conclude our exploration of the west and north coasts of Iceland without some whale watching. Like all the other activities, whale watching can be booked via Extreme Iceland and I highly recommend that you go for the Rib Boat Experience. Honestly speaking, the whale watching part was cool and all but what really made this trip worthwhile was the actual boat ride. The seats are equipped with dampeners to prevent any back and neck injuries which really allows the captain to… fly! I can’t tell you the exact top speed of the boat but I know for a fact that we were getting air time longer than 1-2 seconds which is a lot crazier than it may sound, trust me. So basically, if you wanna check out some cool humpback whales and get a sick adrenaline rush while you’re at it, make sure you book the rib boat tour. However, if you get seasick, I strongly advise taking some anti-nausea pills before getting on the boat. Oh and how can I forget… they’ll give you overalls so that you look badass during the trip.

Whale watching in Iceland
Ok maybe badass wasn’t the right word :p

I also highly recommend that you spend the night in Dalvik itself if you’ll be taking part in any whale watching tours from there. It just means that you get to sleep in a little later and the camp sites there are actually very decent. We stayed at a ground right by the whale watching office (around a 3 minute drive) and it was probably the nicest one that we stayed at.

Now it was time to visit one of my favorite waterfalls in Iceland, the Godafoss. In addition it’s size and magnificence, what really makes this place a favorite for me is merely the history behind the falls and how they received their name, Godafoss, which translates to waterfall of the gods. Now that I’ve built enough suspense, here is what history tells us about this place:

In the year 1000, Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði, chieftain of Ljósvatn district and Lawspeaker of the Althing, was entrusted with the momentous task of deciding whether Icelanders should adopt the Christian faith or stick to their own Nordic gods. When his decision was formally adopted, he went home and threw his statues of the pagan gods into the waterfall. Godafoss is said to derive its name from this event. The fall is 12 meters high and Skjalfandafljot is the country’s fourth longest river spanning 180 kms. The lava by the waterfall flowed through the valley Bardardalur in ancient times. Unbelievable as it may be, the lava is almost as long as the river itself and originates in the highlands by the edge of the biggest glacier in Iceland, Vatnajokull (I’ll be getting into more details about Iceland’s glaciers and volcanoes in part II of this post).

Godafoss
Photography of waterfalls up close is a little frustrating due to the heavy mist. Make sure you pack a protective, waterproof cover so you’re not forced to use your phone like I did

This next stop is one for the Game of Thrones fans, myself included. So to all the fans, let me give you a couple of hints and see if you can figure it out all alone.

  1. You know nothin John Snow
  2. Where John Snow breaks his oath to the Night’s Watch
  3. John Snow and a one red head wildling get a little wild

Yes, you can actually visit and enter that same cave if you happen to be in the northern side of Iceland. The name of the cave is Grjotagja and its located in the Myvatn lake area. The cave was a popular bathing place once upon a time; however, geological activity in the period 1975-1984 (or maybe Kaleesi’s dragons way before that) caused the temperature of the water to rise significantly deeming the pool un-bathable. It’s a damn shame too because believe me, when you peak into that cave and it’s crystal blue waters, you’ll want nothing more than a cozy swim.

Grjotagja Caves
You know nothin John Snow

Ok as much as I enjoyed watching at least 10 people slip on the rocks, and a little less than half of them dropping their phones into the water only to spend an hour trying to fish them out… all whilst ruining my idea of a perfect photo; I have to warn you. The rocks are slippery, so maybe keep your phones in your pockets until you find your base at a nice and flat rock.

On the way from Grjotagia cave to Dettifoss, you’re gonna come across a surreal lagoon of turquoise water like you’ve never seen before. The water is over 70 degrees Celsius so don’t even think of going for a swim, no matter how tempting it gets. However, make sure you stop there anyway to enjoy the jaw-dropping scenery.

Thermal Pools of Iceland
The beauty of these places is the reason I didn’t include the Blue Lagoon in my itinerary

While you’re there, make sure to have some fun with your photos too!

Myvatn Lakes
Expectations
Screen Shot 2018-04-06 at 9.37.58 AM
Reality

Your final stop of the day, and in fact the conclusion of Northern Iceland is Dettifoss. There are two falls in the area, each around a 20 minute walk from the parking lot so make sure you get there well before sunset to really take in everything. We made the mistake of getting there late and by the time we got to the second falls, it was already too dark.

Vatnajökull National Park
Perfect place for a photoshoot

Dettifoss is a waterfall in Vatnajökull National Park and boasts a land decorated with beautiful rock formations. It is reputed to be the most powerful waterfall in all of Europe… for good reason too you’ll see when you get there. The water comes from the nearby Vatnajökull glacier whose sediment-rich runoff colors the fall a greyish white. Imagine the waters of the wide Jokulsa a Fjollum river falling over 44 meters, causing an intense crashing spray. Bad news is, that intense spray is also the reason you won’t be able to take any good pictures unless you have proper water protection for your camera. Combined with the late hour and lack of light, I am extremely sorry for the crappy photography.

Dettifoss
There is a reason it’s labeled the ‘Most Powerful Fall of Europe’

Highlight of this spot however, were the two drugged out hippies we spotted at the falls. In all honesty, I’m A ok with people doing there own thing and enjoying what they enjoy in life; however, it does get a bit scary when they start dancing on the edge of a 44 meter drop. At first, we thought they were meditating, and then the girl started shaking aggressively and I thought something was wrong with her, but turns out it was only her way of dancing. It was only then that she kept stepping closer and closer to the edge, without even looking down to see where she was placing her feet. Meanwhile, the dude was just standing there, solid as a rock, staring up into the sky, arms stretched wide open and barely breathing. I can’t say what they were on, but I really hope they made it safely to their camp grounds.

Drugs in Iceland
Mustafa in utter confusion over what was happening (this was before she approached the edge)

Despite the darkness, we made our way to the second falls real quick simply because, FOMO. Luckily they weren’t as magnificent as the first ones so we didn’t feel too bad and hurried back to the cars. It was hectic to think we still had a 2 hour 50 minute drive ahead of us to make it to Seydisfjordur.

Dettifoss
Shot this with 40x zoom and high ISO so excuse the grainy image

You know these moments when you’re extremely exhausted, but you’re just pushing your last energy reserves to make it to your destination? That was pretty much us 1.5 hours into the drive to Seydisfjordur, knowing we were only half way there wasn’t helping too much either. And just when you start to think things can’t get worse… you get a slap right across your face. To wake myself up a bit, I asked Maddie to download the photos off my camera and at that exact moment, I realized I had forgotten it at the Dettifoss Parking lot toilet. The problem with losing cameras is not merely the value of the thing, but the memories it holds within it. That being said, I did what anyone would’ve done (not really), I told the guys to continue onwards until they find a nice campground and then I turned the car around back to Dettifoss. 3 hours later, Maddie, my camera and I met the rest of the guys at a camp ground and within 5 minutes, I was in the deepest slumber of my life.

This concludes the blog on Iceland’s western and northern coasts; however, the best is yet to come. Almost all the advertised spots you see about Iceland are located in the southern section if the island and I will be covering all of that in the second part of this blog. I really hope you enjoyed reading this; more importantly though, I hope I provided you with enough information about this beautiful country to help you plan out your own adventure. Please do like, comment, subscribe and share this blog so that others can benefit off it too! 🙂

Yousuf Elabbasy

Iceland blog
Stay tuned for more on Iceland!

 

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