By Michael Lanza
Driving Iceland’s Highway 1, or Ring Road, in the country’s southeast on the kind of sunny day that’s almost as rare here as the sensation of boredom, we reached the seacoast—and the landscape and seascape suddenly seemed to exceed the capacity of our vision and minds to take it all in. The two-lane highway snaked along this island nation’s ragged edge, weaving in and out of one fjord after another, each as impossible to comprehend in its magnificence as it was to pronounce. The ocean crashed up against starkly barren yet wildly colorful mountains as we crossed bridges over intricately braided rivers, gazing up valleys where multiple, cracked glaciers tumbled nearly to sea level.
As stupefying as the scenery was the near absence of traffic in early August, owing to the remoteness and unpopulated character of this part of Iceland: We saw an empty highway more often than we saw another vehicle.
Not only were the hikes of widely varying distances and the short walks we took along the Ring Road all exceptional, the scenery through the car windows—like the random images in the above gallery—often left us breathless and wanting to simply stop at the roadside and spend a few minutes appreciating it all (which was never hard to do, given how few other vehicles we encountered).
Although I’m usually constitutionally opposed to labeling one travel experience as “the best,” I cannot think of another scenic drive I have taken that rivals the splendor of Iceland’s Ring Road—and I have taken many over the past three-plus decades, from the American West, Alaska, and Hawaii to many of the world’s most cherished landscapes, including the years I spent as a field editor for Backpacker magazine and for many years running this blog.
Capping off a nearly three-week family trip to Iceland that included trekking hut-to-hut on the Laugavegur and Fimmvörðuháls trails, we spent a week driving the Ring Road and taking many of the best dayhikes and walks along it. This story describes the hikes and short walks we took, listed in chronological order when driving the Ring Road clockwise from Reykjavik.
This article includes Iceland’s second- and third-tallest waterfalls, the highest-volume waterfall in Europe, and a trail that passes more than two dozen eye-popping waterfalls; both the deepest and the longest fjords in Iceland and the longest river canyon; probably Iceland’s most famous glacial lagoon; a great dayhike to waterfalls and overlooks high above glaciers in Iceland’s largest national park; and in a more casual vein, a walk along a black-sand beach. (Reading this entire story and some stories linked from it requires a paid subscription to The Big Outside, which costs as little as $7.)
With each hike, we mapped the driving route on a smartphone, which worked fine even on remote dirt roads off the Ring Road. Although some interior roads require high-clearance, 4WD vehicles, all of the roads mentioned below are fine for standard cars.
Please share your own experiences on any hikes along Iceland’s Ring Road or questions about them in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.
3.8 miles/6.1k, 1,180 feet/360m up and down.
At 650 feet/198m tall, Iceland’s second-highest waterfall, Glymur, thunders into a deep and narrow chasm located at the head of the deepest fjord in Iceland, Hvalfjörður. The first view of the falls one gets when hiking the trail up that canyon will stop you in your tracks and the overlooks only keep getting better as you climb higher.
Sometimes hyperbolically described as a “well-kept secret,” the three- to four-hour out-and-back or loop hike (the latter requires fording the wide, shallow, and frigid river well above the waterfall) rarely offers any real solitude: Arrive at the trailhead early to beat the crowds because the large parking lot often fills by mid-morning. But the steep and rugged trail, a bit of exposure, and a river crossing on a log (or fording it) not far into the hike—in addition to the optional ford to make it a loop hike—makes it long and hard enough to dissuade the masses of tourists that frequent Iceland’s most famous and accessible waterfalls.
Reach the trailhead on a 90-minute drive north from Reykjavik and follow the well-signed trail up the canyon, with stunning views from below and above Glymur itself, which does not come into view until you get close to it. The drive along the shore of Hvalfjörður is beautiful and feels quite remote, despite its proximity to Reykjavik.
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6.2 miles, 2,887 feet/880m up and down.
Mount Sulur sits near the head of Iceland’s longest fjord, Eyjafjordur, and above the town of Akureyri, Iceland’s second-biggest city with fewer than 20,000 residents, centrally located on the northern coast. I hiked it alone on a rainy day with limited visibility; the weather seems very often wet in the north, which is on the Arctic Ocean.
But the hike was enjoyable, pretty, and certainly very quiet nonetheless—and on a clear day the panorama takes in the long fjord and mountains embracing it. The trailhead can be a little hard to find (we did use a phone mapping app to get there) and the trail meanders gradually uphill across slopes often wet and muddy; wear good, waterproof boots and I recommend using trekking poles.
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10-minute walk from the parking lot or a 1.6-mile/2.5k, easy hike to two or three waterfalls.
Not far off the Ring Road in northeast Iceland, Jökulsárgljúfur National Park’s 144-foot/44m-tall and 328-foot/100m-wide Dettifoss ranks as the highest-volume waterfall in Europe. The drenching mist from it creates double rainbows over the canyon in the right light. Jökulsárgljúfur—which means “glacial river canyon”—is Iceland’s longest river canyon at 16 miles/25k, one of the country’s deepest canyons, and known for its series of waterfalls: Selfoss, Dettifoss, Hafragilsfoss and Réttarfoss.
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From the Ring Road, there’s a paved road to a large parking lot on the west side of Dettifoss (we used a mapping app to find it easily); that road is often closed in winter. From the parking lot, it’s a 10-minute walk to see Dettifoss and several minutes farther to a viewpoint near the waterfall’s brink, where you can literally feel the power of it shaking the ground. The trail is rocky and often wet and slick.
On the day we visited, heavy rain driven by strong winds made a longer hike unappealing, but the waterfall is nonetheless impressive and we walked the trail several minutes farther downriver to another overlook of Dettifoss. The west side of the river gets much of the heavy spray created by the waterfall, so wear a rain jacket even on a sunny day. Returning to the parking lot, look for signs directing you toward Selfoss, a smaller but pretty waterfall a half-mile/1k upriver. If you hit all the viewpoints, it’s a 1.6-mile/2.5k hike with very little up and down.
If we’d had a better day, I would have preferred to visit these waterfalls from the east side, which has a dirt road to a small parking lot that apparently fills most mornings (arrive early, before the parking lot fills and traffic backs up on the dirt road with motorists waiting for parking spaces to open up); the road is passable for cars but watch for potholes. There’s also a 1.6-mile/2.5k hike on the east side with up-close, better views of Dettifoss, Selfoss, and Hafragilsfoss—and the east side doesn’t get the heavy mist.
See “15 Adventures on Earth That Will Change Your Life” and all stories about international trips at The Big Outside, the Lonely Planet guidebook “Iceland’s Ring Road—Road Trips,” and more information at visiticeland.com.