Driving the ring road in Iceland: North Iceland
Tips about roads, sights and other good stuff from Grímsstaðir to Holtavörðuheiði
Driving road 1, "the ring road" in Iceland is great fun and the beautiful sights on the way are sure to take your breath away. We have decided to blog about driving on the ring road in an attempt to clarify for travelers what they might expect (with emphasis on the driving part). These blogs are not a list of all the sights you can see in the area, but rather an idea of how you might expect the roads to be, road sections to watch out for and how the weather can affect your trip. So put on your virtual seat belt and let’s continue our journey on road 1 through North Iceland!
The North, from Grímsstaðir to Holtavörðuheiði
Driving time without stops about 4-5 hours.
Asphalt road (road 1 only).
Safe for all cars to drive (2wd and 4wd).
For the purpose of this blog, we have decided that the North is from Grímsstaðir á Fjöllum to Hrútafjörður fjord, just before Holtavörðuheiði mountain passage which separates the North from the West. We are also traveling counter clockwise from East to West, many people choose to go the other way and they are both awesome.
As we enter the North region, it is important to mention a few things. This is the northern part of Iceland, which means that it is colder than the south, spring takes longer to show up and the winter can be harsher and darker with heavier snow for longer periods of time. To make up for it, summer days and nights are longer in the north as well.
There are two mountain passages in the region that can be dangerous to drive in the winter time, Mánaskarð just before Akureyri and Öxnadalsheiði just after Akureyri. We will mention both of them later in this blog.
Whales and seals are a popular attraction in the north. The town of Húsavík is the whale capital of the world (in their humble opinion) and tours are also operated from the town of Akureyri. Seals can be seen in Vatnsnes and boat tours are operated from the town of Hvammstangi, which is also home of the Icelandic seal center .
We start our journey where we stopped, at Grímsstaðir á Fjöllum. The road is fine the whole way on route 1 in the north, you will not have to go on gravel roads unless you go to secondary roads.
The road is pretty uneventful until you get to the road to Dettifoss waterfall, a comfortable asphalt road with a nice view to Herðubreið. Dettifoss is the most powerful waterfall in Europe. It has been used as a backdrop in many films, most recently in Prometheus by Ridley Scott. You can take road 862 to Dettifoss to the western side of the waterfall, there are parking lots and bathroom facilities there. If you have a 4x4 car you can also drive on the eastern side on road 864 but this is not necessary as the view from the west is spectacular as you can see in the above photo.
A little tip; if you have plenty of time to explore the area and have a 4x4 car, we suggest you consider taking a detour to Ásbyrgi and Húsavík. You can continue on from Dettifoss on road 862 but for this road you will need the 4x4 vehicle. You can also drive any type of car by turning on road 87 through the town of Húsavík. Ásbyrgi is an amazing place, an oasis the shape of a hoof print in a mountainous terrain. The bottom of the area is a magical place with high walls and green water. One of the most beautiful places in Iceland in my own opinion.
If you skip Ásbyrgi and decide to continue on the ring road from Dettifoss you will shortly be in the Lake Mývatn area. Be prepared to be stunned! This is a must-stop to enjoy some of the incredible nature in the area. We start by seeing Mt. Námaskarð and the geothermal area Hverir right by. You can stop at a parking lot near Hverir and check out some bubbling and rather badly smelling but multi-colored mud. The force of nature starts to become visible here. You can walk up and enjoy the view from Námafjall, if the weather is nice then this is something definitely worth doing.
Mývatn nature baths are a great place to stop, relax and fully take in the beauty of Lake Mývatn. The nature baths are the extra water from the power plant right by, exactly like the Blue Lagoon with a lot less people (usually). The location is right off the ring road. You can see the view from the baths in the above photo, it is pointless to try to describe it. ;)
Dimmuborgir (or Dark cities) is another spot we encourage you to explore, but you will have to get off road 1 and on to 848 for this stop. Dimmurborgir is an unusual lava field and when in Iceland, that is saying something.
After visiting the stunning Lake Mývatn area, we continue on to Akureyri, the capital of the north. You will drive by Goðafoss waterfall (of the Gods) which might seem somewhat small and powerless so right after visiting Dettifoss. :) The rest of the road to Akureyri is an easy asphalt road. However, you will have to pass Mánaskarð mountain passage which has been known to cause problems sometimes in winter when there has been heavy snow. Akureyri is a fun town with many attractions and we urge you to explore it online, but it is an easy drive through so we will not discuss it more in this blog.
Öxnadalsheiði mountain passage (in summer)
We continue our ring road journey by passing yet another mountain passage, Öxnadalsheiði. This drive can be a problem sometimes in winter, it is 540 metres over sea-level and the second highest peak on route 1. We urge you to check the weather forecast before you head out if you are driving in spring, fall or winter. You are in for a treat though as right before you go up on the mountain passage you will pass the awesome Mordor-like Mt. Hraundrangi of Öxnadalur, just look to your right when you are at the most inner part of the Öxnadalur valley.
The road after the mountain passage continues on as a comfortable, if a little narrow, road for the rest of our way in the North. You will pass by Skagafjörður fjord which is famous for its rafting in Jökulsá Austari. Detours in the area can be taken to the cute little town of Hofsós (awesome and well located swimming pool) and the bigger town of Sauðárkrókur. The view of Drangey island in the middle of the fjord is spectacular.
The view over the hills of Vatnsdalur, photo by Visit North Iceland
Next up on our way is the small town of Blönduós. We always urge you to stay within the speed limit, but this is especially valid in the area of Blönduós as the police in the area has been known to give out a lot of speeding tickets. You have been warned.
The view to your right onto the small Vatnsnes peninsula and the Western fjords can be amazing on nice days. After a while we will be driving by the remarkable hill clusters of Vatnsdalur valley. Vatnsnes is known for two things; seals and Hvítserkur, which is a big animal-like rock in the ocean. You can go on a tour to see the seals from the little town of Hvammstangi. Vatnsnes peninsula can be a fun drive but the road is a very, very bad gravel road so please drive slowly. Customers of SADcars have lost control of their cars numerous times in this area!
Our last part of the road in the north is to and through Hrútafjörður, a long and green fjord. The fjord is mostly used by Icelanders as the perfect time to stop, fill up and have a bite to eat at the Staðarskáli gas station. The fjord is also home to the smallest town in Iceland Borðeyri, population = 30 people.
I would like to remind you that the speed limit is 90 km/h on asphalt roads and 80 km/h on gravel roads. The speed limit in towns is 50 km/h. The police frequently checks for speeding in the area and there are a lot of speeding cameras so we advise you to respect the speed limit.
Also, please be aware that off-road driving is against the law in Iceland as it causes real and irreversible damage to the Icelandic nature that could take decades to heal. Please do not drive off roads even if you see tire tracks!
Well, we have now completed the third part of the ring road. We hope you enjoyed the ride. We will continue our journey through West Iceland soon.
Until next time friends,
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