Published September/October 2013

Iceland's Ring Road

Embrace the beauty and isolation of this 800-mile circular route in the land of fire and ice

BYJoAnna Haugen
Traveling down a two-lane road that separates the mountainous terrain of the inner island from the jagged coast and the sea, we begin our expedition around Iceland, the Nordic island nation situated at the confluence of the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans.
Of Iceland’s more than 320,000 residents, one-third live in and around the capital city of Reykjavík (and the vast majority of visitors never leave this area either). This means Iceland has a lot of open space with very few inhabitants, and almost no tourists. But we didn’t come here for the city, which quickly disappears in our rearview mirror, as we embark on a long-anticipated drive around this European isle. This trip is a rarity, a journey for journey’s sake, not simply a route to the next major sight or landmark. 
West Coast
Ring Road, formally called Route 1, will take us more than 800 miles, nearly tracing this country’s border in a clockwise fashion — all the way around the desperately remote and difficult-to-reach center of the island. Driving this route truly provides a complete Icelandic experience: hugging rugged cliffs, skirting waterfalls, passing through small towns, around harbors, and along fjords.
Our week-and-a-half-long road trip is one that my husband, father, sister, brother-in-law, and I have been talking about for years, and planning for months. Now we’re here, crammed into a hatchback station wagon beginning our trip. My initial impressions of this quiet, expansive, barren, and simple landscape will sit on the edge of my consciousness for the duration of the trip, and be reinforced in many ways. 
As we begin the western segment of our expedition, treeless vistas, thick with purple lupine and yellow wildflowers, greet us. Modest farmhouses are situated sporadically off of the highway, and waterfalls haphazardly fall from the distant cliff faces beyond them, as if thin white ribbons have been carelessly strewn across the countryside. We pull to the side of the road to take photos; no other cars pass us. Besides the long-haired Icelandic horses roaming freely in their large pastures and a few meandering sheep that stop to glance our way, we are on our own.
The next day, my body and brain ache in confusion upon awaking after the first night’s sleep. Never mind the last bit of jet lag, it’s as light out at 8 a.m. as it is at 11 p.m., and the sun will play tricks on us for the duration of our stay — we won’t think to eat dinner until 9 p.m. and we stay up until midnight or later, thinking it’s still early in the evening. 

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 Long-haired Icelandic horses
Long-haired Icelandic horses