Nothing stirs my wanderlust like the words “road trip.” And nowhere on earth makes for more epic road-tripping than Iceland. The largest volcanic island in the world, Iceland is circled by a single two-lane road. Route 1, colloquially known as the “Ring Road,” runs exactly 828 miles around the country, connecting the farms, fjords, and 100,000 or so Icelanders who don’t live in or near Reykjavik.
Trusting the Ring Road to guide us, my fiancé Cliff and I rented a car and took to the open road with a full tank and a wide-open itinerary. Starting from the country’s southwestern coast, we headed east, first going through the tiny towns of Hella and Vik. After stopping for warming goat stew at Skógafoss waterfall, we spent our first night at Hunkubakkar, a wonderful family-run guesthouse and sheep farm. We had decide to embark during the spring shoulder season, and it was still bitterly cold, but it was also lambing season, and we couldn’t resist a late-night trip to the barn. Though we quickly understood why most travelers visit Iceland in summer, we were reward with the warmest cuddles from hours-old newborns.
The next day, we continued east to Vatnajokull National Park, where we hiked to Svartifoss, the so-called black waterfall, named for its striking facade of black lava pillars. In the heart of the park we came face-to-face with Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest glacier. Thinking we couldn’t get much colder, we continued on to Jojulsarlon Glacial Lagoon. Watching tankers glide through water the color of blue freeze-pops was stunning, but the afternoon wind soon drove us back to the car. After our jam-packed day, we treated ourselves to supper in Iceland’s lobster capital of Höfn.
Another long day of driving and a short detour landed us at Dettifoss, one of Europe’s most powerful waterfalls. The short hike to the falls was the snowiest stretch we encountered all trip. Atop the canyon walls, the snow gave way to slippery, wet mud; the constant mist from the falls and consistent pedestrian traffic make it a rather treacherous photo-op. My heart pounded as hard as the falls as we took turns taking snapshots.
It was on to Lake Myvatn, northern Iceland’s tourist hub. The lake is home to countless bird species and the surrounding countryside is some of the most geochemically active in the country. There is so much otherworldly nature packed into a few kilometers, you could enjoy days here. We spent two nights at the delightful Vogafjos Cowshed-Café and Guesthouse where, as the name suggests, the eatery shares a glass wall with a cowshed. It’s quirky and lovely to watch the morning milking while noshing on fresh milk and yogurt. Since it was May, and the days stretched long into night, we took an evening walk around the one-kilometer rim of Hverfjall, a 2,500-year-old tephra crater. It was like walking along the spine of a sleeping dragon, and likely the closest to walking on the moon I’ll ever come.
Beautiful as the lake and volcanoes are, the active geothermal sites stole the show. Hverir looks like a plot of land dropped from mars. Its boiling mud pools and hissing steam vents generate so much moisture, aroma, and heat that I began to understand how pre-historic Earth might have looked. In fact, since they first discovered the area, humans have been using the geothermal heat here to ensure their survival. Hverabrauð, for example, is a dark, sorghum-rich bread that was baked below ground in geothermal-heated pits and caves hold remnants of ancient baths. Likewise, modern pilgrims indulge in the exquisite open-air hot springs at the Myvatn Nature Baths, where we spent hours soaking and enjoying the hell out of our shoulder season solitude.
Another hard-driving day took us off the Ring Road and into the West Fjords. In addition to putting us ahead of peak-tourist times, our May visit meant we were just in time for puffin mating season. About 60% of the world’s puffin population mates in the cliffs off Iceland’s northwest coast, and we had a front row seat. The dapper little birds appear like black, white, and orange polka dots chirping along the coast as the North Atlantic Ocean hammers the cliffs below.
Marveling at nature’s power and creativity, we made our way to Reykjavik and discovered Iceland’s hip capital and wonderful farm-to-table cuisine. It was the perfect way to punctuate our fantasy-like trip to a country I sometimes still can’t believe really exists.