I just recently completed a 10 day road trip around Iceland and thought it would be useful to document some thoughts, tips and recommendations for others planning to visit this wonderful country. Also for photographers I have included some recommendations of where you may want to shoot and what gear you may want to bring with you.
Many people who visit Iceland restrict their visit to Reykjavik and the area close to the capital – the Golden Circle tour is a very popular tour which takes in Þingvellir National Park, the Geysir geothermal area and the Gullfoss waterfall.
I decided if I was going to go to the effort of visiting Iceland I would want to do a lot more and would like to try and cover most of the island during my visit.
Planning a Route
So in the planning stages I sketched out a rough idea of where I wanted to visit highlighting the key places or landmarks not to be missed and mapping out a tentative route around Iceland to cover all these places. The obvious way to cover all this area and be flexible would be to rent a car and drive. This would allow me the choice of where I wanted to visit and in particular where I wanted to do some serious photography. I have seen countless photographs taken in some spectacular locations around Iceland and wanted to visit as many of these iconic sites as possible.
Google maps was used to plan out a route and I came up with a circular route around the island using the main ring road, Route 1. The main highway around Iceland, Route 1, or Ring Road, circumnavigates Iceland in 1,332 kilometres of which 33 km is dirt road. I somehow decided to do this in an anti-clockwise fashion and this worked well, avoiding Reykjavik at the start of the trip and only staying there at the very end.
With all the places highlighted that I wanted to visit and giving enough time to drive between locations I came up with a 10 day trip as highlighted in the map below.
Arriving into Iceland at Keflavik I planned to drive east along the south coast with a diversion inland on Day 1 to take in Geysir and Gullfoss. Driving around the island on Highway 1 counter-clockwise I would take in many of the key sites I wanted to visit and photograph with the occasional drive off the main road on the smaller gravel roads to visit waterfalls, fjords, geothermal areas, etc.
My initial road trip plan did not take in the north west part of Iceland but after reading an wonderful blog posting by Alex Cornell (@alexcornell), whose route was almost identical to mine, with the exception of including the north west portion, I decided to include a brief foray into the remote north west area.
I planned to finish in Reykjavik staying there only one night before leaving on the final day. This was a good decision as after experiencing all the outstanding scenery and wilderness of the rest of Iceland Reykjavik was a little of a disappointment and one day there was enough to cover what I wanted to see.
The road trip itinerary is detailed below:
Day 0 – 2nd May 2016
Flight : Arrive at Keflavik International Airport on Flight Icelandair FI 455 at 23:10
Accommodation : White House B&B, Bragevellir 17, 230 Keflavik +3548642596
Day 1 – 3rd May 2016
From White House B&B, Keflavik drive to Strandakirkj. Drive to Selfoss for lunch then drive to Geysir and Gullfoss in the afternoon.
Accommodation : Hotel Gullfoss, Brattholt, 801 Tungufell +3544868979
Distance : 185km
Time : 2h 31m
Sights to see :
Day 2 – 4th May 2016
Drive from Gullfoss to Vik.
Accommodation : Hotel Adda Vik, Klettsvegi 1-5, 870, Vik +3544444000
Distance : 175km
Time : 2h 13m
Lunch : Eldsto Art Cafe
Sights to see :
Black Beach at Vik
Day 3 – 5th May 2016
Drive from Vik to Hofn.
Accommodation : Seljavellir Guesthouse, Seljavellir, 781, Hofn +3548455801
Distance : 272km
Time : 3h 12m
Sights to see :
Fjaorargljufur River Canyon
Skaftafell National Park
Mossy Lava rocks
Day 4 – 6th May 2016
Drive from Hofn to Egilsstadir.
Accommodation : Hotel Eyvindara, Eyvinadar 2, 700 Egilsstadir +3544711200
Distance : 187km
Time : 2h 37m
Sights to see :
Random coastal views
Day 5 – 7th May 2016
Drive from Egilsstadir to Lake Myvatn, Reykjahlid.
Accommodation : Vogafjos Guesthouse, Vogafjosi, 660 Vogar +3544643800
Distance : 229km
Time : 2h 56m
Sights to see :
Hrossaborg Horse City
Day 6 – 8th May 2016
Drive from Reykjahlid to Hvammstangi.
Accommodation : Hotel Hvammstangi, Nordurbraut 1, 530 Hvammstangi +3548551303
Distance : 301km
Time : 3h 38m
Sights to see :
Day 7 – 9th May 2016
Drive from Hvammstangi to Country Hotel Heydalur in West Fjords.
Accommodation : Country Hotel, Heydalur, 420 Latur +3544564824
Distance : 255km
Time 2h 58m
Sights to see :
Holmavik Museum of Witchcraft and Wizardry
Gardar BA 64 Shipwreck at Skápadalur
Day 8 – 10th May 2016
Drive from Country Hotel, Heydalur in West Fjords to Hotel Framnes in Grundarfjordur.
Accommodation : Hotel Framnes, Nesvegur 8, 350 Grundarfjordur +3544386893
Distance : 294km
Time : 3h 40m
Sights to see :
Kirkjufell Church Mountain
Day 9 – 11th May 2016
Drive from Grundarfjordur to Reykjavik.
Accommodation : City Centre Hotel, Austurstraeti 6, 101, Reykjavik +3545711400
Distance : 170km
Time : 2h 7m
Sights to see :
Harpa Concert Hall
Bankastraeti Main Street
Day 10 – 12th May 2016
Drive from Reykjavik to Keflavik International Airport. Visit Blue Lagoon.
Distance : 74km
Time : 1h 12m
Sights to see :
Total Distance : 2142km
So, when should you visit Iceland?
Winter time is excellent should you want to have the opportunity to experience the aurora borealis and see some stunning frozen waterfalls and visit the ice caves. However you will not be able easily to drive around the whole island as many of the roads will be impassible at that time. Furthermore you will only have a few hours of daylight every day.
Summer time is very popular for visitors as you will see all the glorious colours and have the advantage of very long hours of daylight – for photographers this means you can shoot all day and then all night!
I decided to go in the shoulder period, in this case early May when there would still be a lot of snow and ice around but I could drive relatively easily all around Iceland. I would miss the aurora borealis and a chance to enter the ice caves as the melt would have started but the weather would be hopefully relatively warm and the chance of some bright sunny days for photography.
This turned out to be an excellent decision and I was extremely lucky with the weather only having one half day of rain and a brief period of snow in the high area we drove through in the north.
Whatever time you decide to go the scenery is stunning, even with rain and cloud the stark, rugged wilderness is wonderful to experience and as a photographer offers some great opportunities.
In May when I visited the temperatures were generally around 6 deg C, but with any wind (which there usually is a lot of) the wind chill factor makes it seem so much colder. On the north section of my trip the temperature dipped down to just below zero. However on the sunny days the temperatures reached about 10 deg C and it was very pleasant.
It is a good idea to wear many layers so you can adjust as necessary. A good waterproof outside jacket is essential as well as a good pair of boots as much of the environment you will walk over will be rough terrain. Even in May we had to hike through thick snow to reach the Dettifoss waterfall for example. I took a warm wooly hat and gloves as well with me – and I wore them frequently. So be prepared.
You can check the local road status and weather situation at The Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration (IRCA) site and this is really important when planning your drive that day – always good to see if the road is clear.
At the peak times in Summer it is advised to book and confirm your accommodation as this can be limited in the more remote areas. During the time I visited this was not necessary but I did book ahead and used Booking.com for all the reservations.
In the larger towns you will find hotels but in my experience after this trip the guest houses and B&B’s were much better in terms of cost and level of accommodation.
The standard of the guest houses we stayed in were really excellent – clean, warm and with good hot showers. Most places that I stayed offered breakfast included in the cost.
The first B&B we stayed was at the White House B&B in Keflavik right next to the airport as our flight from London arrived very late. The level of accommodation was really excellent and our host Hilda stayed up to welcome us even though it was well past midnight when we got there. The large breakfast spread we had the next morning was really great with platters of cold meat, cheeses, freshly made quiche and breads. Really excellent and got the trip off to a wonderful start.
Another excellent guest house we stayed at was in the Lake Myvatn area. Vogafjós Guesthouse had lovely wood cabins for rooms and the restaurant was in the cow shed on a working farm – you could watch the cows being milked as you had breakfast. Dinner here was also very good.
Accommodation costs for most of the guesthouses and hotels were in the order of Euros 100-130 per night, most having breakfast included.
In the north west of Iceland I stayed at Heydalur Country Hotel which was at the end of a remote fjord but was well appointed with pleasant rooms and offered a wonderful evening meal in the large restaurant.
I felt it was important to have a good reliable car for this trip and I decided to book a 4×4 car to give me the confidence on the gravel roads which I planned to drive on. I used Blue Car Rental and their service was really excellent.
On arrival (very late) into Keflavik I picked up a nearly brand new Toyota RAV 4 (with only 88km on the clock) from Blue Car Rental and this came with a free GPS which is also useful for navigating around Iceland.
This car proved to be really good – extremely comfortable with all the extras (even had heated seats) and with plenty of room for luggage and camera equipment. Car rental in Iceland is expensive but you want to make sure you have a reliable car and a reliable company when travelling in the more remote areas – so don’t skimp.
Car rental for 10 days was around Euros 900. I returned the car after the 10 days having done about 2,800km, and the car was somewhat more dirty than when I had started.
Driving in Iceland
The main ring road, Route 1, is a two lane road and almost all tarmac; there was one small 33km portion on the far east coast which was gravel. This road is marked by stakes and only the rough natural terrain beyond the stakes so no barriers, fences, lay-bys or any of the usual standard things we are used to elsewhere. So it is advisable to drive cautiously – you don’t want to run off the road in any of the remote areas where help is a long way away and the terrain is so rough and rugged with sharp volcanic rocks it is going to mess up your car and you big time.
Once you move off the main ring road the other F-roads are usually gravel roads of varying quality, some two lane but many single lane. These gravel roads require you to drive much slower and this along with the fact that many of the roads meander up and down the fjords it is going to take you much longer than you think to drive between locations, so bear this in mind during your planning.
One of the gravel roads we drove down trying to get to Mjóifjörður was blocked by snow as the snow plow had only gone about half way. Also on the section of road between Egilstadir and Myvatn the main Ring Road had just been cleared of snow so evn in May you have to be cautious.
There was not a lot of traffic when I was there in May – you could drive for an hour or so without seeing another vehicle – although I’m sure it gets a little busier in Summer.
There are many bridges in Iceland and these are very often single lane so there are usually signs warning you of these narrow sections.
The roads also have many blind summits which are usually signposted to warn you.
Because of the relatively long distances between places and the general remoteness of Iceland you will need to take special attention to refuelling your car. Like my general motto with toilets – don’t miss an opportunity and fuel up whenever possible.
Most of the fuel stations are automated and take credit cards. It is important to note that the auto payment teller can operate multiple pumps so it is important to note which pump you are at. Also the credit card payment is a little quirky. After prompting for your PIN number you can choose how much volume you want or choose to fill up the tank. If you choose the latter the credit card is pre-charged with a huge amount to check the card is valid – I got an SMS from my bank after re-fuelling to say my card had been charged with about 25,000 Kroner! However after checking with the attendant in the nearby cafe he told me this was only a pre-authorisation charge and my card would only be charged what I pumped.
You can also buy pre-paid cards at some of the stations but I never used this facility.
Although the car I hired had GPS I also used a map which was recommended in Alex Cornell’s article.
The Iceland Travel Reference Map can be bought at Amazon and I’m glad I did this before I left for Iceland – something nice about browsing a map and planning your trip the old way rather than just relying on the GPS.
Also as I mentioned earlier Google Maps is an excellent tool to help you plan your journey.
You can use your credit card at almost all places but I did take some local currency as well which was useful for some of the smaller routine purchases.
Food in Iceland is really very good even though the choice may be somewhat limited. Hotels are a good place to eat and I ate in their restaurants on most evenings – this saved driving out again and in many places it was really your only choice anyway.
The menus usually comprised of salmon (which was of course excellent!) and other local fish, lamb, sometimes chicken and of course seafood. We did have some excellent seafood at Höfn at the Pakkhus Restaurant right on the harbour.
And the local beers were really good!
One of the most interesting places I ate was at Geitafell Restaurant close to Hvammstangi. The fish soup was just incredible and a whole meal in itself.
In all the places we stayed and usually at all restaurants and cafes there was internet with good connectivity which was really a pleasant surprise. Even in the more remote areas there was good internet.
For a photographer Iceland is is must visit with a large range of shooting scenarios. There are stunning waterfalls, volcanic and geothermal areas, seascapes, black sand beaches, bizarre volcanic rock formations, mountains, rivers, vast stretches of wilderness, volcanic gravel deserts, glaciers, ice lagoons and wildlife.
With the ever changing weather and light conditions this can create some stunning and atmospheric situations to produce some great photos.
Some photos are shown below showing some of the highly recommended locations.
What photo gear should you take to Iceland?
If driving you are not so limited by weight so you can take a wide range of lenses and other equipment. If you plan to trek into the glaciers or waterfalls then you will need to think about weight in your camera bag.
I took one body, a Canon 5D MkIII with a 16-35mm lens, 40 mm pancake lens, 24-70mm lens, 70-2oomm lens, 1.5x convertor, and also a 17mm tilt-shift lens.
Make sure you take a sturdy tripod as wind and camera movement can be a factor in some locations. Take plenty of batteries as you will find you will be shooting a lot of frames and if its Winter the cold will drain your batteries quicker. Always have plenty of storage – I took a stack of CompactFlash cards and SD cards so was never short of storage. I also took a backup disk and my MacBookPro so I could do some editing and post-processing while on the trip.
A good sturdy and waterproof camera bag is essential as you never know what the weather conditions are going to do. I also took a variety of camera and lens cleaning aids to ensure everything was clean and dry. Taking photos behind the waterfall at Seljalandsfoss was interesting trying to keep all the equipment dry and the lens clear of water droplets.
There are some great locations to shoot – all the waterfalls are fantastic and many are easily accessible by car and sometimes very close to the road. The mountains and glaciers were just incredible and I was very pleased to be able to get some atmospheric shots of Vestrahorn. There was even a very interesting old wreck of a DC3 aeroplane at Solheimasundur which was an interesting photo shoot.
The highlight for me was Jökulsárlón – the glacier lagoon – with incredible views of a vast lagoon full of icebergs and then on the nearby beach large chunks of ice being thrown onto the shore. If I had just spent one day at this site alone on my visit to Iceland I would have been happy.
The one essential item you will need as a photographer is time, almost in every location I was I could have spent days just photographing that one area. With so many changing variables such as light, cloud, and weather the possibilities were endless. So when planning your trip leave enough time to photograph that location and allow extra again for you to wait on changing light and weather conditions.
Iceland … I hope to return soon.
Passionate Photographer …. Lost in Asia
Stuart Taylor of HighlanderImages Photography has been making images for over 25 years and can offer a diverse range of photo imaging services with a focus on Asia and a documentary/photojournalistic style. These services include planning and executing a photo shoot on location but importantly all the post-processing and image preparation needed for the specific finished media format required by the customer. Stuart’s experience and knowledge in all of these aspects makes HighlanderImages Photography a one-stop-shop for a comprehensive and professional image production service.
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