The best Iceland road trip route to see Western and Southern Iceland in six days.
Before our big trip, we decided to embark on a ‘mini-moon’ (which I am told is an Americanism, similar to baby-moon, that simply means a shorter than average honeymoon) immediately following the wedding. Limited somewhat by our employee holiday allowance, we couldn’t take the typical fortnight or more off to visit more temperate climes, so we had to consider places closer to home.
We had wanted to visit Iceland for a few years, but the cost had always put us off from booking it as a casual short break. We just couldn’t justify going somewhere that charges £30 for fish and chips, however much we lusted after it. When we got engaged in December 2016, it was the first choice of honeymoon destination for both of us, and we began researching travel agents, Airbnbs, and excursions. Time to plan our ultimate Iceland road trip!
Because it was a little bit of a special occasion, we chose to go with Discover the World, who recommended their Northern Lights, Glaciers and Waterfalls fly and drive holiday. We booked two excursions and split the time between Húsafell in the West and Hella in the South. Thankfully Discover the World give iPads to their customers because the inbuilt satnav in the 4×4 was horribly confusing – no one understands foreign addresses – so Google Maps was heavily relied upon. We landed around midday, picked up the car from the airport, and set off.
For all our fear of unfamiliar roads and endless chanting of ‘drive on the right drive on the right’ every time we pulled away, Icelandic roads are (weather permitting) pretty easy to navigate. This is down to the fact that there are a) hardly any other drivers on the roads 15 minutes outside of Reykjavík, and b) very few roads. For example, the ‘1’ goes all the way from the capital down to the South Coast and up into the East of the country. And unlike us Brits, the Icelandic Highway Maintenance is equipped with a squadron of huge snowploughs which they are not afraid to use.
The only issue we ran into was that the 550 from Húsafell to the top of Thingvellir National Park was closed, which added on about 20 minutes to our journey. In summer it is open, but come winter the snow makes it impassable for us lowly civilian (and inexperienced) drivers. The road wasn’t completely blocked off but, as neither of us reads Icelandic, the slightly angry-looking orange sign at the side of the road was enough of a deterrent.
We had also checked road.is before setting off, which we strongly recommend you check every day to ensure you know the road conditions for your journey ahead.
Also, just because Iceland is the most beautiful place ever, use the well-positioned lay-bys along the roads to stop and take in the views whenever you can.
Day 1: Drive to Húsafell
We stayed at the creatively named Hotel Húsafell, which was quite literally one of two things Húsafell seemed to consist of – the second being the adjacent car park, used for various excursion pick up points. We reached Húsafell at around 3 pm.
Anyone driving north from Reykjavík will likely need to pass through the Hvalfjörður tunnel, an insane 6km tunnel underneath the fjord which feels like it goes on fur-EVAAAHHH. We had no idea what we were entering into, but when we passed a sign which said we were 3km in and had another 3km to go, we were grateful we hadn’t tried to hold our breaths all the way through this tunnel.
Now, DON’T do what we did. This tunnel is a toll tunnel, and unless your car has an e-chip in it, YOU NEED TO PAY. It doesn’t matter if the car in front of you doesn’t stop, it doesn’t matter if the booth seems unoccupied. Pull up, pay the 1,000 ISK (about £7.30), and be on with your day. We ended up paying on the way back for both journeys when the kind tollbooth worker with the black eye told us we should have paid the first time round.
The hotel was nestled by a river, with amazing views of the plains and mountains in the surrounding area. When we arrived, it was getting dark (sunset was around 4:30 pm when we were there), so we checked into our Junior Suite and cracked open the bottle of prosecco we had purchased at the airport.
ALWAYS stock up at the airport, it is by far the cheapest place to get it once in Iceland. We bought 4 bottles of wine, a bottle of prosecco, a six pack of beer and a small bottle of vodka for about £70. To put that into perspective, one Bombay Sapphire G&T at dinner cost roughly £15.
For more details about how much our Iceland road trip cost, read this post.
Day 2: Into the Glacier
We booked an excursion with the appropriately named Into the Glacier through Discover the World, and handily the pickup location was at Húsafell car park. There was also the option to add on transport to and from Reykjavík.
The trip consists of driving up to Langjökull glacier, the second largest in Iceland, in an ex-military missile launcher 8×8 which thankfully had been kitted out with a heated cabin and seatbelts. During summer months, you can drive to meet them at the Klaki base camp at the foot of the glacier, but in winter the road is closed and only specialist terrain vehicles can make the climb.
Once on the glacier, the guide takes you into what can only be described as a plastic tunnel dug into the snow and then you find yourself inside an actual glacier. Crampons are provided but as you can imagine it is rather slippery and the walk down the tunnel sans crampons is somewhat precarious.
Unfortunately for us, our 8×8 broke down during the journey up, which is apparently not a common occurrence despite the unfriendly surface and -5 temperatures. Thankfully, the team were super chilled about it and we were only a two-minute walk from the closed down summer base camp cafe.
We sheltered in there and got the heating and lights to work, and waited for another vehicle (Mountaineers of Iceland) to make the half hour drive up to where we were located. Once they arrived, we were on our way again and within about 15 minutes we were descending into the glacier.
Usually, the trip lasts between 3-4 hours but they never guarantee this because, as we discovered, Iceland is a very unpredictable place. We set off at 12:30 pm and got back to the car park (next to the hotel) at around 5 pm. Not bad going considering we were stranded for close to an hour.
It was an amazing experience, even with the unexpected machinery problems, and the views were just stunning. We loved every minute of it.
For a more in-depth post about this trip, click here!
Day 3: Goats and Waterfalls
After our escapades of the previous day, we were glad for an unplanned third day. The hotel lobby had a few leaflets dotted around highlighting various activities and places to visit nearby and one of them caught our attention near enough from the point of check in: an Icelandic goat farm. Kez dreams of becoming a mad animal lady one day, and Sam is fond of goats (mainly by proxy), so it was a total no-brainer.
The leaflet stated that open season ended 31st October, but if we wanted to visit outside of this they would need a bit of forewarning. We found them on Facebook after dinner the night before, sent them a message, and at 11am the next morning we pulled into the farmyard of the Háafell goat centre.
The owner Jóhanna was the most welcoming host, and immediately invited us in for coffee and a chat before we went into the barn. For many years the Icelandic goat was severely endangered, with the popularity of the fatter, more woolly sheep (which Kez can confirm are also adorable) negating the need to farm goats.
After cuddling lots of goats, some of which starred in Game of Thrones, we tasted some homemade goats cheese and oils flavoured with herbs and flowers grown in the farmhouse garden. She kindly gave us a little present from the shop and we purchased some of the produce as presents for our families. It was the most perfect way to spend the morning, and Kez argues that it was her favourite part of the whole holiday.
On our rather snowy way back from the goats, we stopped off at two waterfalls – Hraunfossar and Barnafoss – where the water cascades out from underneath a solid lava field. It’s pretty spectacular, and in the snow was even more beautiful.
The story behind Barnafoss (or the ‘children’s waterfall’) is that two children fell into the icy water from a natural stone bridge which once stood here, and drowned. In her grief, the mother had the bridge destroyed. There is a cafe and small visitor centre, but we were one of only six people wandering around the area in the snowfall, so it was pretty magical.
We saw the Northern Lights over dinner too for the first time, which was the perfect end to the day.
If you want to see more cute goats, read our blog post about the visit here!
Day 4: Snorkelling and the drive to Hella
After checking out of Hotel Húsafell, we set off to our next hotel via our second excursion – snorkelling the Silfra Fissure in Thingvellir National Park. After a few icy moments and a desperate call to the dive team for directions to the meeting point at 12:40pm (we were supposed to be there for 12:30pm but got lost in the park), we began the arduous process of getting into our dry suits.
The fissure is between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates, and literally looks like two halves of a puzzle not quite joined in the middle yet. The water temperature is between 1 and 2 degrees celsius, which was actually warmer than the temperature out of the water when we dived.
The water is perfectly clear, and runs from the same glacier we had gone into a couple of days before. It takes between 20 and 30 years for the water to make its slow way through the ice and out into the lake, and the current means you are able to just float in your suit and take in the beauty of the place. In total you are in the water for about 40 minutes, and they warm you up with sweet hot chocolate afterwards.
We gave ourselves time afterwards to drive most of the Golden Circle, taking in the most awesome sunset we have ever seen, as well as Geysir and Gullfoss waterfall. We arrived at Hotel Rangá in time for dinner and another viewing of the Northern Lights.
Click here for our blog post all about snorkelling the Silfra Fissure!
Day 5: The DC-3 Plane Wreck
After the most fabulous breakfast (Hotel Rangá supplies champagne for guests to help themselves to as part of the breakfast buffet) we set off on the 45 minute drive to see the Sólheimasandur plane crash site. We found this odd attraction whilst Googling ‘things to do in Southern Iceland’ one afternoon before the wedding, and both decided we had to go.
Google Maps recognises it as a location, however it sends you about 5 minutes past it up the road. If you are coming from the West, you will see an unmarked car park on the right hand side quite literally in the middle of nowhere. That is where you need to park. Ignore Google Maps if it tries to make you carry on towards Vík.
We couldn’t see any signs to confirm that we were in the right place, but what we did see was about 30 cars and a lot of people following a marked path towards the sea. In a blind leap of faith, we followed that path.
We walked for what felt like an age (really it was about 40 minutes), but because the land is so flat and empty, it was hard to gain perspective and at times was a little disorientating. Often we couldn’t tell if the figures in the distance were walking towards or away from us until they were about 100 yards in front of us.
The plane is nestled in a dip, behind a ridge, so you really cannot see it until you are basically there. It was smaller than I imagined, but was still really impressive. Being from a country where anything remotely hazardous is removed or cordoned off, we both really enjoy being able to get up close to things like this.
The plane crash landed in November 1973 when it ran out of fuel. All crew members survived, but it must have been terrifying ending up in such a remote and desolate location. There were about 15 people around the plane whilst we were there, which did make it a bit hard to take any decent photos without getting someone posing like an aeroplane next to it a hundred times (we aren’t joking).
There was one family who seemed to think they were there for their own personal photo shoot, and would walk in the way of anyone else trying to take a photo. They climbed on top of the plane and didn’t come down for about 15 minutes, much to the irritation of a couple who were trying to get some cool drone shots.
Our advice: if you want to get photos without people in them, go early or later in the day. We didn’t really care and managed to take some ok shots, albeit with Plane Guy in a few of them
Once we got back to the car, we drove another 15 minutes East to Vík, famous for its black sand beach and picturesque church perched on a hill behind the town. There are some huge basalt columns in the sea which legend says were once trolls who pulled ships in from the sea. One day they stood out for too long and when the sun came up, they turned to stone.
We had passed a few waterfalls on the drive over, and agreed to stop on the way back when hopefully it would be a little quieter. By this point though we were really tired and hungry from all the walking, and stopped only at Skógafoss.
There were much less people to contend with at this time, and after slipping on the frozen pebbles to get a nice photo of the two of us we even managed the climb up to the top of the falls. Although it was cool to be up so high, the top of the waterfall where the viewing platform is doesn’t really offer a lot. Instead, we walked through the gate and along the river inland for a bit, which was quieter and much less slippery than the rocks below.
For more photos and a guide to finding the plane, read our blog post here!
Day 6: Reykjavík
On our final day we left the hotel and drove all the way back along the 1 to reach Reykjavík. On the way there, we saw what is probably most accurately described as a duvet of snow as far as the eye can see. The entire mountainous landscape was covered in the thickest, whitest, most pristine snow we have ever seen (not being skiers, we don’t come into regular contact with anything beyond the grey mush we get in the UK).
We parked in a car park by the harbour, which was by far the cheapest thing we had encountered on the whole trip, and wandered around without much concern over where we went.
For a city that houses over half the population of the country, it wasn’t a city as we are used to here. The buildings (with the exception of a few) were like toy houses, and the shopping areas were far from the rammed high streets of home. It is a charming place, with the most changeable weather we had experienced too – sunny, then rainy, then snow, then sun, then more snow, all whilst we were sat eating lunch.
We were still recovering from our hike from the day before, and so didn’t opt to go up the Hallgrímskirkja tower. Instead, we pootled about for a little bit more after eating, then went back to the car and set off for Keflavík airport.
After a painfully slow journey due to the most insane snowstorm we had ever seen (which naturally didn’t phase the natives one bit), our magical honeymoon was over and we returned to our much less snowy, slightly warmer life in the South of England to plan our next adventure.
Are you planning an intrepid road trip? Tell us your plans!