One of the first things you might think about when planning a trip to Iceland is whether to drive the full length of the ring road that goes around the entire country – known as Route 1, and not to be confused with the Golden Circle which is close to Reykjavik and gives you easy access to some key sights that can be seen in a single day.
To assess this, we needed to first know how far it was and how long it would take. The answer to that question is that Iceland’s entire ring road covers 1,317 kilometres and, in theory, can be driven in just 16.5 hours (albeit through non-stop driving – but even if sharing the driving, you would still need to stop to change drivers and to re-fuel!). This also assumes no traffic whatsoever.
Given that you can, in theory, comfortably get all the way around in just two normal-but-long days of driving (8-10 hours), this leaves many people considering how achievable it is for a circumnavigation of the entire country by road, particularly if they are staying in the country for longer.
So how long do you truly need to follow the entire length of the ring road? The general recommendation that I’ve read for this is that realistically you need to allow at least 6 days to drive the route in Summer or at least 12 days if driving in Winter.
We had just 8 days – 9 if you included the day of our departure but, since we had an early morning flight, it really was just 8 days. So, in theory, since we were visiting in Summer, we had more than enough time to do a so-called 6-day road trip.
But the more and more I studied the maps and examined what there is to see and do along the way, I seriously questioned whether 6 days is at all realistic. There are so many natural wonders to see in Iceland that, if you were to drive all the way around in just 6 days, I don’t think you would do any of it justice. Your stops would have to be hurried and you would have to miss out many things that you might otherwise want to see. In short, it just wouldn’t be fun, in my opinion.
Let’s take some of the attractions as an example. If you wanted to see Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach, which lies on the ring road… are you honestly telling me you’d be happy to stop here, see it and hop back in the car again 20 minutes later? No, I hope not! You want to take it all in… admire the view, maybe wander around the lagoon little, perhaps even go on one of the boat rides. You’ll want to wander from the lagoon to the shore and see the large blocks of ice on the beach, sparkling in the sunshine. You could easily spend at least an hour or two here, and potentially much longer.
Similarly, there are attractions such as the plane wreck which, although considered to be on the Route 1 ring road, are probably a 45-minute walk away. You probably need to allow at least 2 hours to visit the plane wreck, possibly longer depending on your walking speed and how long you want to spend there.
Waterfalls such as Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss are the same. They are very close to the ring road so, in theory, you can hop out of your car, take a photograph and be on your way… but where is the fun in that? At Skógafoss, you’ll want to climb the steps to the right which actually takes you along a path you can follow for miles, taking in yet more waterfalls. At Seljandsfoss, you’ll want to follow the path that takes you round the back of the waterfall and maybe even visit the much lesser-known and more difficult to access nearby waterfall of Gljúfrabúi. All of this takes time, but it’s time well spent and I’d sooner be doing things like this than spending most of my time in a car.
It’s also worth mentioning that many of Iceland’s key attractions – particularly for first time visitors – like in the south and west of the country. Given that your trip will no doubt commence from the south-west, either from Keflavik Airport or Reykjavik, you’ll find the greatest concentration of attractions do not necessitate you driving all the way around the country.
Then there are private tours that you might like to consider – for example, we did a Katla ice cave tour that took up an entire morning and a snowmobiling tour that took up most of an afternoon. If your goal is to get around the country in just a handful of days, you’re going to have to forego a lot of these kinds of opportunities.
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And I haven’t even mentioned stopping for meals. Wouldn’t you prefer to stop, sit down and relax with some Icelandic food, rather than just grab some snacks from a service station and press on? Some of Iceland’s famous red hot lava soup, perhaps?
In short, allowing yourself more time to get around the country, or knowing your limitations and choosing not to attempt it if you don’t feel you have enough days, is a very important decision to make. It’s the difference between have a rushed and frantic stay in Iceland or having a much more leisurely one that you can properly enjoy.
Returning to the recommendation of at least 6 days to drive the route in Summer or at least 12 days to drive it in Winter…. it all seems far too hectic and rushed to me. I think it’s more realistic to suggest 10-14 days in Summer and 20-25 days in Winter, and preferably choosing something at the latter end of each of those ranges.
For this reason, since we had just 8 days, we chose not to attempt to drive all the way around. Yes, it could have been done. But I’m glad we made that decision – there was still so much for us to see and do in the time we had available without driving excessive distances. It’s easy to think that you’ll see more by covering more ground, but in this instance I don’t think this would have been the case.
Have you driven the entire ring road? How long did you allocate and did you feel it was enough?
Planning a trip to Iceland yourself? You can watch a video from our trip to Iceland here: