The Perfect 7 Day Iceland South Coast Winter Ring Road Itinerary
The Perfect 7 Day Iceland South Coast Winter Ring Road Itinerary
Last Updated on September 15, 2020
NOTE: This was my carefully researched and curated ICELAND WINTER road trip itinerary for our 7 days THERE during the month of February. I took into account the number of daylight hours we had, the road conditions, the availability of the tours/activities we wanted to do, and most importantly what I felt we realistically could do each day and how long we could drive without over exhausting ourselves.
When I finally decided to pull the trigger on doing an Iceland winter road trip, I knew I had to do a lot more research than most of my other trips. There were so many logistical things that immediately jumped out at me. Weather. Road conditions. The type of car we would need. The type of tires. Which part of the island would we visit? How far could we drive?
This was before I could even get to any of the fun parts.
Ultimately, I could make the most of our time by focusing on the South coast and drafted out a rough skeleton of an itinerary with a couple of flex days that I would leave somewhat opened until plans started to become more solid. With weather and driving conditions being the biggest unknown factor so far out, it felt prudent to not be so locked in just in case we had to shift things around by a day or two.
With the trip done and in the books, I have to say that the following itinerary worked out near perfect for me and my friends. I’ll break down what we did each day, our rough costs and notes on anything I would have changed. Bookmark this post because there’s a lot of information to process and a lot of little tips that will come in handy for your trip, whether it’s winter or summer.
Driving The Ring Road In February and March
I had my initial concerns about driving in Iceland during the winter months, but was quickly reassured by my local friends that it was perfectly safe to drive along the Ring Road. Getting onto the F road required a little more planning. As soon as we started driving, my concerns were mostly eased. The drive from the airport to Reykjavik was perfectly paved and smooth. I was able to drive at the maximum speed limit of 90 kph on the open road.
Throughout the week, we encountered all the expected winter driving conditions: rain, snow, ice, and even a white-out. We mostly stayed on the Ring Road, but drove down smaller break offs to get to certain locations and to our accommodations. Those roads were not as well maintained, so we just drove slower. With our studded winter tires, we didn’t experience any problems even on the ice, though we did slow down and avoided any sudden movements to be on the safer side. We rarely drove more than 1-2 hours at night and didn’t have any problems.
On our last day of driving, we experienced about an hour of high winds that blew the snow perpendicular to the road. It was more cool than scary. Shortly after, with about 2 hours to go before reaching Reykjavik, we experienced an intense white-out that slowed us down to about 20 kph. We luckily took refuge driving directly behind a snow plower and slowly made our way back into the city. It was incredibly hard to see at times, with everyone on high alert to ensure I didn’t veer off the road. We spotted at least 6 vehicles that were in the ditches.
Despite this, I felt like it was pretty safe to drive on the Ring Road as long as you are cautious. I expect similar driving conditions for October and March. Personally, I wouldn’t have liked to do the trip in November, December or January since the shorter daylights means you’ll spend more time driving at night.
Iceland’s Ring Road Map
This is the full Ring Road map. Although Google has it as taking only 16 hours 15 minutes to drive the entire thing, expect it to be a lot longer during the winter months with the changing weather conditions. We focused our road trip on the bottom part of the Ring Road, going from Reykjavik to Hofn and back along the same road. Our only deviation, like most others, was driving the Golden Circle early on in the trip.
Day 1: Arrival To KEF Airport // Night Near Selfoss
Landed at Keflavik Airport at 10:30 am. We headed straight to Duty-Free and picked up some alcohol. It’s much cheaper at the airport, so if you plan on drinking, do it here. I recommend trying one of the Icelandic aquavit or the lakkris (licorice) liqueur.
Picked up our Toyota Rav4 4WD from EuropCar. We paid $485 for the week for two drivers, without any additional insurance. I was relying on my Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card insurance in case anything happened. This was a very quick process. Almost too quick. Before leaving, we took photos of any scratches, dents, and damage on the car since no one was there to do a walk through and check with us.
Note: We didn’t pull out any cash at the ATM because we read that Iceland is pretty much cashless. I can confirm now that we didn’t need to use any physical cash during our entire trip. We also skipped getting groceries in Reykjavik because we knew there would be a grocery store in Selfoss.
We were on the road by 12 pm headed straight for Thingvellir National Park, the first stop on the Golden Circle. It’s about a 1 hour and 20 minute drive from the airport to the park. We spent about 2.5 hours here walking the suggested route and checked out Silfra, the place where we will be snorkeling the next morning. Parking is about $6.
Next up was Spirit Farm, our accommodations for the night that we booked on Airbnb. Use this referral link to get $40 off. We paid about $60 for 3 people.
40 minutes of driving from Thingvellir to Spirit Farm. We checked in and then drove 12 minutes to Selfoss to do our groceries at Kronan, a budget supermarket chain around the island where we ended up doing most of our food shopping at during the trip.
We cooked dinner at the guesthouse and relaxed after a long day of travel. There’s a sweat lodge event going on, but we were too tired to join in. Maybe next time. I would have loved another night here.
Note: We had already booked the Silfra snorkeling for the next day, but in hindsight, I would have booked it for around 3 pm on the day of arrival and accommodations somewhere near Gulfoss for the first night, so we wouldn’t have to do any backtracking to Thingvellir like we would end up doing the next morning. Not a big deal though.
Day 2: Snorkel Silfra And Complete The Golden Circle // Night Near Skogafoss
40 minute drive to Silfra. We came back to Thingvellier for our dry suit snorkeling trip between the two continental tectonic plates. Highly recommended. You can book your space here and get roundtrip transportation from Reykjavik included. Alternatively, you can combine it with a Golden Circle tour for about $30 more. We went with a really cool and easy going company, so check my post in the link above to read more about this place and why it was a top bucket list item for me.
50 minute drive to Geysir. We spent about an hour walking around the geysers. It’s nice and on the way, but nothing that really blew our minds. An interesting fact though is that this place, Geysir, is the namesake for all geysers.
10 minute drive to Gulfoss. We spent about 30 minutes here to walk to all the major viewpoints. It was snowing heavily, so we were content with this short, but impressive visit. We brought these micro-spikes to wear around our shoes and it was the best pre-trip decision we made. Worth every penny to keep you safe and secure walking on ice and snow. We would later on spend one afternoon walking around in Hofn without them and was so much slower while slipping a couple of times.
2 hour drive to Guesthouse Raudafell near the Skogafoss waterfall. We arrived just after sunset and cooked dinner. This would have been a good spot away from artificial lights to see the Northern Lights, but it was a cloudy night, so we enjoyed our dinner, take showers and drank some Icelandic lakkris liqueur. We paid about $75 for 3 people here and it included a nice breakfast complete with pancakes. Such a good deal.
Note: If we had been able to do the snorkeling on the first day, we would have added the Secret Lagoon thermal baths to this day’s itinerary. It was on the way between Gulfoss and Skogafoss and was recommended by multiple people.
Day 3: Skogafoss, Plane Wreck, Black Sand Beach and Fjadrargljufur Canyon // Night Near Jokulsarlon
5 minute drive to Skogafoss in the morning. One of my favorite waterfalls on the trip. Since we had planned on returning by this way, we skipped the climb and hike next to the falls because it started to snow heavily and we were soaked from getting too close to the waterfall and its spray.
12 minute drive to the Solheimasandur Plane Wreck. It took about 40 minutes to walk in each way. I’ve read so many people say that the walk isn’t anything worth mentioning. I completely disagree. Especially in the winter time, it’s gorgeous. Vast expansive snowscape with icy mountains in the distance. What more could you ask for?
We had hail and snow on our walk in and out and it just made the destination feel so much more earned. Don’t waste your money on the shuttle bus unless you are really short on time. We spent about 2.5 hours here in total and in between the bus of tourist coming and going, we had the place to ourselves.
25 minute drive to Reynisfjara to see the black sand beach and the basalt columns. This was a beautiful place but also a very touristy stop. We spent about an hour here and left when a wave of 3 large buses arrived and unloaded.
Don’t Miss The Fjadrargljufur Canyon
1 hour 10 minute drive to Fjadrargljufur Canyon. Beautiful short hike to multiple viewpoints. Everything was just blanketed white. Highly recommended. We spent about 1 hour here.
2 hour drive to Guesthouse Ekra near Jokulsarlon. We arrived well after sunset. It was our longest day so far, but we saw quite a few things and didn’t feel rushed at all. This was our nicest room on the trip and cost about $175 per night for 3 people. The other two were guesthouses with a shared space and kitchen. This was just a room, so there was no kitchen, but it was nice to have a larger space all to ourselves.
We had dinner, rested and headed out to the Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon in hopes of catching the Northern Lights. We sort of saw it and called it a night at 2 am. My camera was able to capture more clearly what I faintly thought were the lights.
Note: Bring a headlamp. We considered tonight a test run at the Northern Lights since we had no idea what the lagoon looked like at night. We scouted it in daylight the next day and it was so much easier to navigate in the dark the next night.
Day 4: Jokulsarlon, Diamond Beach, Hofn and Vestrahorn // Night Near Jokulsarlon
First day we didn’t have to pack up and go. We slept in a bit on account of a late night.
10 minute drive to the Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon. We spent about 1.5 hours here walking around staring wide-eyed at a glacial landscape that gave us the Antarctic feels. Before leaving, we scouted a spot to return for the Northern Lights later that night. Attempt #2.
A 1 minute drive away next to the lagoon is Diamond Beach where you can see large chunks of glacier that have broken off and floated out to seat only to be pushed onto a black sand beach. They are clear and sparkle like diamonds, hence the name. We spent about 30 minutes here. There’s two sides to this beach separated by water. It’s worth checking out both.
Hofn & Vestrahorn
1 hour and 10 minute drive to Hofn. We thought Hofn would be bigger, but it definitely wasn’t. We did a quick ‘walk’ around the town and stopped into Pakkhuis for lunch overlooking the harbor. Make note of this place. The lunch was really good and very reasonably priced for Iceland. We shared a tender lamb dish, a fresh cod catch of the day, a crispy and thin langoustine pizza and a beer for about $65.
We took our time at the restaurant and then headed to Netto to resupply and get more snacks and grocery for the next couple of days.
20 minute drive to Vestrahorn. This was easternmost point on the trip and an absolute highlight. It’s 900 ISK per person to ‘enter’. You can pay at the restaurant where you park to get a ticket allowing you to go past the gate. There’s a fake viking movie set that you can walk to and explore. Apparently, they built the set for a movie that was never made, so now it’s a tourist attraction. We drove further down the road to the next parking spot and got that famous view of the entire Vestrahorn mountain range. We spent about 1.5 hours until it’s dark. It was gorgeous.
There was, oddly enough, a piano out in the middle of nowhere.
1 hour drive back to Guesthouse Ekra. After our big lunch earlier in Hofn, we did a light dinner and took a nap before heading back out to Jokulsarlon around 11 pm for the Northern Lights. It started out promising with a lot of stars overhead, but soon the clouds moved in, right over where the lights would show and we left disappointed again. My camera was able to capture something more than what we could see, but it just wasn’t the same. We did catch a spectacular shooting star or meteor that exploded brilliantly in the sky.
Day 5: Vatnajokull Glacier Hike and Sapphire Ice Cave // Night Near Skogafoss
10 minute drive to Jokulsarlon. This was another activity day with a glacier hike and visit to the Sapphire Ice Cave. Another absolute highlight of the trip. Read more about it in the link above and make sure it’s a part of your winter itinerary. You need to go with a guide for this one, so check out my recommendation for a good locally owned and operated guiding outfit. The ‘tour’ lasts between 4-6 hours, so it took up most of our day. Trips run between $140-$220 depending on the tour you take and depart from the Jokulsarlon parking lot. You can do a trip with a super big jeep too. It looked awesome.
3 hour drive to Skogafoss. It’s a long drive, so we broke it up with a stop to shoot some drone footage somewhere in the middle of nowhere. We also stopped a second time to shoot some of those adorable Icelandic horses. If you’re wondering how I got so close, it’s because these horses are curious creatures and they come to you when you approach the fence on the side of the road.
With a bit of light left, we stopped back into Reynisfjara and had the black sand beach completely to ourselves as the last light of day faded away.
We did the last 30 minutes of driving in the dark back to Skogafoss and checked into Guesthouse Skogafoss, which was literally walking distance from the waterfall. We paid about $92 for 3 people here. It’s owned by the same lovely couple that owns the Guesthouse Raudafell. Both places were nice, but we preferred Raudafell because it also included breakfast – for less. Guesthouse Skogafoss definitely had the more prime location though being so close to the waterfall.
After dinner, we checked the aurora reports on the Aurora app and headed out to the waterfall in hopes of catching the Northern Lights. It didn’t look promising and we waited in the car since we could see the waterfall from the parking lot and it’s in the same direction as the lights. 0/3 on the Northern Lights.
Note: As you can see by now, the Northern Lights are not a guaranteed thing. The best tip is to check the reports and then just go out and be ready for them if they show up.
Day 6: Skogafass, Seljalandsfoss, and Reykjadalur Hot Springs* // Night In Reykjavik
In the morning, we learned that we can see the waterfall right from the comforts of our guesthouse living room. Amazing. We headed back for a third time to Skogafoss to shoot and do the climb up to the top. There’s a few hiking options here and we went for a short hike.
Side note: Skogafoss is a magnet for Instagram influencers, so if you want to catch them in the wild jumping and posing, this is a great spot for that 😉
10 minute drive to Seljalandsfoss waterfall. Like temples in Southeast Asia and cathedrals in Europe, even waterfalls can get ‘boring’. I’m a little over it by now, but we stopped at Seljalandsfoss nonetheless. This is usually the 3rd stop on the Golden Circle. We checked it out for about 15 minutes and grabbed a coffee to go.
20 minute drive to Hvolsvollur. We stopped here to do another grocery run at Kronan. It’s near the end of the trip and there are few Icelandic ‘delicacies’ we’ve learned about that we needed to try. We picked up the rotten fermented shark, ‘hakarl’ and a singed split sheep’s head, ‘svith’ and another few bags of chips for the drive. The car smelled like how you would expect sheep head juice to smell like for the next 2 hours.
Prepare To Change Your Plans
1 hour drive to Reykjadalur Hot Springs. There’s an asterisk here because we didn’t end up doing going here. With just 10 minutes before arriving, we made the hard decision to abort our plans because the wind and snow was making the driving conditions very hazardous. It was another hour to Reykjavik, so we decided to make the drive in daylight. It was also a 45 minute hike to the hot springs from the parking lot, so we didn’t know what the hike would look and feel like in near white out conditions. This photo below was taken when the road conditions were considered pretty good.
The next hour was the most focused I’d ever been while driving. We were lucky enough to be behind 3 snow plowers, but even that only helped a bit. There were times when it was completely white and I drove almost blind for short bursts. Let’s just say I was really counting down the miles and minutes until we arrived. It made me glad I didn’t live here or anywhere with a real winter.
We got to Reykjavik earlier than plan and headed into town to explore. It felt very strange to be back in a city after the week we had. The town is definitely worth exploring for a few hours. Back at our forgettable Airbnb, we cooked dinner and looked out the window hoping for any signs that we could see the Northern Lights. Nothing.
Checking Hakarl (Fermented Iceland Shark) Off The Bucket List
We settled for snacking on the fermented shark and sheep’s head. I have to say this. Anyone who gagged and vomited or said the shark was the most disgusting thing they’ve ever tried is a [insert any politically incorrect insult of your choice]. I’m certain they were just doing it for the camera. The shark smelled of ammonia, but that was about it. The Brennivan shot that you’re supposed to chase it down with was much worse.
Side Note: I eat weird stuff all the time, but I specifically don’t like the idea of eating sharks because I really like diving with them. I don’t know enough to have a strong opinion on the eating of these Greenland sharks, but I also don’t like to jump to judge other culture’s traditions. Try this local delicacy at your own discretion.
Day 7: Blue Lagoon // Depart From KEF Airport
45 minute drive to Blue Lagoon. Our last day. We booked a 9 am slot for the Blue Lagoon and end up spending 5 hours there. Read about it to see why this has to be on your winter itinerary despite everyone’s divisiveness on whether you should go or not. We had a great time and after a freezing week where we averaged 20-25k steps a day (according to my friend’s tracker), it was the best note to end on. Winter must absolutely be the best time to go. It costs about $94 for entry to the Blue Lagoon, which includes a silica algae mask, a drink of your choice, and the use of a towel and locker. You can also go at night with one of the last 2-3 time slots for about $55.
With the last couple of hours before our 8 pm flight, we stopped by Reykjanesbaer right next to the airpot and had a lovely seafood lunch/dinner at Kaffi Duus. There’s also cheaper gas around here before you return your rental car. We paid around 236 ISK (~$1.86 USD) per liter during the trip (February 2020). That comes out to about $7 USD per gallon, so if you’re coming from a place like the United States, be prepared to pay more than you’re used to for gasoline.
Tips For Driving Safely In Iceland In The Winter
Get A 4WD
It’s more expensive, but will bring you a
little lot more peace of mind. We saw quite a few smaller cars in snowy ditches during the week. If you can’t drive a manual vehicle, make sure you book in advance to ensure they have an automatic 4WD reserved for you.
Limit Your Driving To 3-4 Hours A Day
You don’t want to spend the whole day driving and a 3 hour drive can easily turn into a 5 hour drive with bad weather. Don’t be too ambitious with your route. Move short chunks of distances at a time and give yourself enough time to actually see the sights along the way. We only stayed in one place for multiple nights and it wasn’t a big deal, but during our consecutive night stay near Jokulsarlon, we really appreciated not having to pack up in the morning.
Don’t rely on GPS
Make sure you have data and use Google Maps on your phone. It’s best to put in an exact address or use whatever words locals tell you to use. Also make sure you’re being navigated to the right spot. Use common sense.
Always Check Road.is And Vedur.is Before Driving
Check the road and weather conditions on these sites around where you plan to drive each day. There’s an app too. It’s a little complicated to decode at first, so get acquainted with the legend beforehand. 112 is the emergency number in Iceland in case anything does happen. Knock on wood.
Keep An Eye On Your Gas
Don’t wait til you go empty to refill. You might be some distance away from a gas station.
Drive slower than you’re used to and don’t make any sudden acceleration or deceleration. Unless you’ve been driving on ice and snow your whole life, you should definitely be cautious, even with studded winter tires. Even driving carefully, we felt the tires slip at times. Don’t speed up or brake suddenly because that’s the surest way to skid on ice.
Plan For Less
I can’t emphasize this enough. You might feel compelled to see as many places as possible in whatever time frame you have. Once again, don’t be too ambitious. It’s better to over-allocate time for each attraction. You shouldn’t ever feel rushed. It’s a lesson I’m always relearning with every road trip. I don’t think our itinerary was overpacked at all, but there were a couple of times where I wished we didn’t have to leave so early in the morning or had to leave a place so we could finish our day’s drive in daylight.
Supply and Resupply Often
We saved a lot of time and money just snacking and eating breakfast and lunch most days in the car. Iceland is cold enough during the winter that food will keep better. We chose a combination of fresh and dry/canned foods so we could cook full meals where we could and still had stuff to eat when we couldn’t.
That’s all. This was one of my favorite trips and I hope you’ll be able to plan your own itinerary based off my experiences. I checked off so many things from my bucket list. What’s on yours? If you need some ideas, check out my long bucket list and go out there and have an adventure.