So You Wanna Drive Ring Road? What To See, Do & Eat in Iceland (Part 1)

what to see do and eat in iceland when driving around ring road

The people in airports fascinate me. I often wish that travelers were required to wear a label when flying sharing where they came from and where they were going. Not in a creepy, stalker-ish way (although I get that’s where I’m headed), but more so because I believe you can learn the most about a person by seeing the places they value. Are the going home? Or faraway from it? There’s so many details that can be learned by merely scanning one’s boarding pass. It was during a conversation like this with the woman sitting next to me on a plane back from California when we got to talking about the greatest places we’d ever been. Without a moment of hesitation, she said that Iceland not only changed how she traveled, it changed how she lived. That sounds like a bit much, I thought to myself, but it didn’t stop me from doing a little research when I got home.

Views from the Golden Circle
Views from the Golden Circle

It quickly became apparent that the land where lava meets glaciers was drawing the appeal of millions. I, too, was not immune to its magical pull. Two months later, my best friend and I planned and booked 12 days driving around Ring Road for the middle of July (which allowed for optimal daylight hours and least chance of blizzards). Now that it’s been some time since our trip came to a close, I finally feel ready enough to pull out my journals and photographs to revisit the most enchanting country I’ve seen. Given the extent of this trip, I’ve split it up into three parts. Part one will follow us along Ring Road on the southern coast, part two is Ring Road leading up the northern side, and lastly, a separate post for all the gems to be found in Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik.

iceland route
Our route around Iceland. We spent one night in each of the labeled towns.

So go grab your hiking boots and sheep’s wool, it’s time to explore this land of beautiful contradictions. Welcome to the the place where fire meets ice.

Geyser in the Golden Circle
Geyser in the Golden Circle

After landing at Keflavik, the Reykjavik airport, we headed over to Sixt to pick up our rental car. A small hatchback we would use to travel around the highway circling Iceland. Given that we were traveling in the middle of the summer and planned to stick to main roads, four wheel drive wasn’t necessary. However, we did opt for the WiFi router and GPS (life saver!). Although it’s difficult to get lost when going in one direction, the street signs are less than stellar, especially if you’re not keeping up with your Icelandic. It was reassuring to have a safety net in case we got lost. Lastly, we stocked up on groceries since towns were sparse along the way. This is what they created trail mix for.

gullfoss
Gullfoss in the Golden Circle

Our first day was spent exploring the Golden Circle. This charming park is filled with rushing waterfalls, volcanic craters, steaming geysers and awe-inspring outlooks along the way. The route is easy to follow and we were able to see mostly everything in one day.

Þingvellir National Park
Þingvellir National Park

We spent the night at the Bus Hostel in Reykjavik and were up early to join a day tour to explore the glaciers. This hostel was more than just a bed to sleep in. We enjoyed the free breakfast in the morning and the ability to chat with others in the common area (and use the speedy Wifi!). It was the perfect spot to get suggestions from others who had been in the country for several days ahead of us.

Solheimajokull Glacier Hike
Solheimajokull Glacier Hike

This was our only pre-booked adventure, as we were determined to have the freedom to travel wherever the road took us. Yet, I couldn’t suggest this group enough. Although the high winds prevented us from walking across much of the glacier, a common weather disruption here, we were able to make up for it with other sites.

Solheimajokull Glacier
Solheimajokull Glacier

History buffs will be enamored with the Sólheimasandur plane crash that occurred on Saturday Nov 24, 1973 when a United States Navy airplane was forced to land on Sólheimasandur’s black sand beach in the south of Iceland due to severe icing. All of the crew members survived, and many of the Icelanders would visit the plane to use its leftover fuel.

Sólheimasandur Plane Crash
Sólheimasandur Plane Crash

Since we were in the land of waterfalls after all, the guide took us behind the sheets of water to view the world from another perspective.

Seljalandsfoss
Walking behind Seljalandsfoss
Walking behind Seljalandsfoss
Walking behind Seljalandsfoss

Sometimes the smallest waterfalls were the most moving to stumbling upon, a hidden secret you weren’t exactly looking for.

Hidden waterfall
Hidden waterfall

In between waterfalls, we encountered grass huts built into the sides of mountains. The folklore of trolls and elves is alive and well in Iceland. So much so, Icelanders reroute their highways to respect the land of the trolls.

Grass huts along Ring Road
Grass huts along Ring Road

Lastly, we visited Reynisdrangar Ocean Cliffs and the Black Sand Beach. Known for its high wind, you could full let your body fall against the strong gusts and feel your weight being supported. While difficult to breath, the thin air only added to the dark contrasts of the black sand against the icy water. Straight out of Game of Thrones, the area looked more like a movie set than an actual landmark.

Reynisdrangar Ocean Cliffs, Black Sand Beach
Reynisdrangar Ocean Cliffs, Black Sand Beach

We stayed overnight in a small AirBnB in Hvolsvöllur and prepared our snacks for the next day. It was important for us to always check the weather for impending storms and make sure we dressed accordingly. Our next night would be in Hofn, a small fishing town in the southeast. We woke up early to beat the rain and headed off to Vatnajökulspjódgardur National Park (say that three times fast..or actually just try and say it once) and Skaftafell to hike to Kristínartindar Mountain and the Svartifoss waterfall, which tumbles over black basalt columns. A popular walk, we felt as though we were on the edge of the earth. Each turn led to a view across mountain tops and the glaciers sliding in between until we reached the diamond shaped rock of the basalt falls, signaling it was time to turn back.

Svartifoss in Vatnajökulspjódgardur National Park
Svartifoss in Vatnajökulspjódgardur National Park
Vatnajökull Glacier
Vatnajökull Glacier

Since we still had time left in the day, we drove past Hofn in search of another hike before doubling back for dinner. We began to notice a series of cars pulling off the road towards large sand dunes. Curiosity got the best as off as we followed their lead. After climbing over the mountains of sand, we were rewarded with one of the the most unique scenes of the north.

Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon

A large lagoon reaching towards the edge of a glacier lay on the other side of the sandy mounds. Ice chunks had fallen off the glacier and turned an electric blue when they hit the water, creating a pool of neon ice cubes.

Jökulsárlón - Glacier Lagoon 2
Capturing Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon

When we’d had our fill of nature’s miracle, we trekked to our hostel in Hofn after a meal of skyr and langoustine, Icelandic lobster. We mingled with the locals and conversed with a geographer from Europe who was staying up near the glaciers to create topographic maps.

View from our hostel in Hofn
View from our hostel in Hofn

Our bed for the night overlooked a inlet of water with the mountains in the distance we would be driving to the next morning.

Hofn
Hofn

We enjoyed a communal breakfast in our hostel the next morning as we planned our trip up the eastern fjords. Little did we know that some of the most dangerous moments lay ahead of us as we penciled our route. One small turn off the main highway led us to a dirt road a mere inch away from the edge of a disastrously high cliff. I never realized how much I took guard rails for granted, or double yellow lines tbh. As we held our breath for the entirety of the drive, we were finally able to relax having reached our hike of the day, Hengifoss.

fjord driving
The only picture taken after our death-defying drive through the fjords

We lucked out that the Icelanders we spoke to were more than eager to offer suggestions for their favorite trails left off of google searches. This is how we came across Hengifoss, a strenuous trail tilted at a 45 degree angle with a rushing river below. Yet compared to what we just came from, this would be a breeze. Hiking through the bright green moss to reach a towering single stream of falls was worth the fire and ice to get there.

hengifoss
Hengifoss

Although we believed we had had enough heart attacks for one day, our journey had one more in store. We found a quaint hostel in Seyoisfjorour, a small town that is typically only reached by boat from the east. Thus, the only way to get there from inland was to drive up a steep mountain with so many switchbacks that made you began to question your car’s breaks after each turn. To add to the fun, a thick cloud laid on top the mountain for a darling zero visibility.

Driving through the clouds is only romantic theoretically
Driving through the clouds is only romantic theoretically

Finally, we arrived on the other side, our hands still shaking from the day’s unintentional adventures. We made a modest dinner in the abandoned hospital-turned-hostel and recapped our snafus with the older gentleman who had just come off a boat from Norway for a fishing trip. After briefly considering leaving our car behind to sail away, we shook off our fear and got back in the saddle…er driver’s seat. After a restless sleep, knowing we would have to go back across the mountain a second time to make our way to Akureyri, we prepared for the second part of a trip filled with a little more than we bargained for.

Seydisfjordur, Iceland
Seydisfjordur, Iceland

Stay tuned to learn how you can go spelunking underneath the glaciers and horseback riding through volcanic ash as we continue around Ring Road. Check out part two here! SPOILER ALERT: we survived.

Iceland

xx,
Juliette

P.S. I lucked out to have a best friend who is an incredible photographer. I suggest you make sure you have one as well so you can catch these sights from unique perspectives. Check out more of her talents here.

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How To Visit Yosemite in The Spring

how to visit yosemite in march, april and may

I’ve always referred to myself as a ‘park person’. I’m most comfortable in hiking boots with unwashed hair and only the slightest idea as to my exact location at any given point in time. I find comfort in falling off the grid and only interacting with those I meet on the trail or at the general store.

Upper yosemite falls hike
Upper Yosemite Falls

Visiting national parks is an unparalleled experience, so much so that you are going to meet people who are just like you, other *park people*. Folks who abide by a different clock than the outside world. No morning is too early, no mountain is too steep, no person is a stranger. We’re all here for very similar things: fresh air, peace of mind, adrenaline rushes…and distance from anything and everything that hinders all of the above. Nothing brings people together quite like the desire to escape from daily routines, albeit how different those routines might be.

Chilnualna falls hike in wawona
Chilnualna Falls hike in Wawona

Which is how we decided on visiting Yosemite in April. Although peak season isn’t until June since many of the park areas are closed due to snowfall this early in the year, we wanted to immerse ourselves in nature, not tourists. Visiting Yosemite in the off-season allowed us to venture from trail to trail uninfluenced by mass crowds trying to sneak a peak of this waterfall or that overlook. There’s something magical about this time in-between, the empty roads, the chill in the air, the determination to overcome obstacles that cease to exist in the summer sun. The secluded cabins up in the woods where it’s just you and the bears. And the other park people. The people who live there year round and are so eager to suggest where to go during this down time. The travelers who come every April to witness the gushing waterfall flow that is all but a trickle in August. This is the best way to spend four days in Yosemite in April, and how to prepare for any obstacle that comes your way.

Deer in Yosemite Valley
Deer in Yosemite Valley

After landing in San Francisco, we rented a 4WD SUV to take us the four hour drive into Yosemite. While chains are needed in the thick of winter, we kept our fingers crossed that we would avoid this hassle. The scenic drive into the park is only a small taste as to what you’ll witness once in the valley. We made a quick stop near Livermore to pick up groceries to last the week. With limited access in the park, we wanted to be sure we’d have enough food for all three meals, plus hiking snacks, each day. Luckily, the studio condo we rented out came equipped with a tiny kitchen which made soup and pasta nightly favorites for us.

Driving into the park feels like you’ve entered into a different world. The towering cliffs framed with strikingly tall evergreen trees is the only preview needed for what’s to come.

driving through yosemite national park
Entering Yosemite National Park

The winding roads with snow banks on either side led us to our condo in a small neighborhood in Yosemite West. Fitted with a living space, kitchen area, large bed and fireplace, we were excited to call this home for the next few nights. While there were many people who opted to camp, I wasn’t yet ready to give up my hot shower each morning. After settling in, we prepared for a long day ahead of us.

Road to West Yosemite national park
Road to West Yosemite

After an early meal of oatmeal and bananas, we headed down towards the village to plan out our adventures for the day. However, the park had other plans. Since it was the off season, many of the roads were in the process of being repaved, causing an unbelievable amount of detours. After failing to find the Visitors’ Center, we got hike suggestions from a hotel lobby we stumbled on and headed on our way.

Lower Yosemite Falls hike
Lower Yosemite Falls

Our first walk was to Lower Yosemite Falls. A short one mile hike with close-up views of the bottom falls. The ice that clung to the rocks before it had a chance to melt only added to the pristine view. Looking for more of a challenge, we trekked towards Upper Yosemite Falls which is made up of 6-7 miles of steep inclines and snow-covered trails. After passing a family of deer, we headed into the most challenging hike of our trip. Yet, with spectacular views of the entire valley, it was easy to get lost in the hike rather than focused on how many miles we had left.

Upper Yosemite Falls hike
Upper Yosemite Falls

The ice had frozen onto the tree branches and would drop off in solid chunks whenever the wind blew, knocking us with hail-like balls of ice periodically. Luckily the day warmed up quickly and the ice *almost* felt refreshing. We made it to the top fall and stopped for lunch. Peanut butter sandwiches and trail mix (which will reappear each afternoon) were easy to travel with and fueled the long days. It took us about four hours in total and with just a little steam left, we had one stop left for the day.

Mist Trail to Vernal Falls hike rainbow
Mist Trail to Vernal Falls

The free Yosemite Valley bus took up to Happy Isle for us to check out the most popular Yosemite hike. The Mist Trail is heavily-trafficked, even during the spring, for good reason. It’s a quick hour hike to cover 3 miles if you stick to the Vernal Falls. Another four miles if you want to head all the way up to Nevada Falls. The waterfalls are at full force and colorful rainbows spread across the wet stones. With limited daylight left, we headed back to warm up with soup and sandwiches and to plan the next day.

Chilnualna Falls Trail hike
Chilnualna Falls Trail

Having spent the previous day in the valley, we headed south to the Wawona region of the park. Chilnualna Falls, a lengthy 8 mile hike up a mountain along side a powerful creek, was one of the highlights of our trip. After driving through the small town of Wawona and prepping our whistles and flashlights in case we encountered any mountains lions (a real concern in these parts), we set off around 9am.

Chilnualna Falls trail
Chilnualna Falls trail

The trail varied from rocky hills to flat fields to staircases dipping below the waterfalls. We didn’t pass another hiker for four miles, and only then saw a few groups of people on our way back. The summit opened up to the top of Chilnualna Falls, large boulders overlooking the valley. We ate our packed lunch on top of the falls and soaked in the warm afternoon sun until we made our way back down the mountain.

Overlooking the top of Chilnualna Falls trail hike
Overlooking the top of Chilnualna Falls

Since we were in the area, we had one final stop for the day at Nelder Grove. Although Mariposa is closed for the next few months for restoration, we were set on seeing some Giant Sequoias, trees so large that the diameter of their trunks are twice my height. After stopping at the Wawona General Store for directions, we made our way down the series of dirt roads to the park entrance. Sadly, the park was filled with giant stumps, very few live sequoias to be found. Fittingly, the trail was named “Graveyard of the Giants”. We only walked a mile of so into the park and actually found the walk to be more depressing than we anticipated. It was devastating to see the impact humans have had on nature, the dead trees a symbol of the irreversible damage done to these woods. We stuck to the trails so as not to destroy anymore of the treasured area, and made our way back to Yosemite West before the second half of our trip.

Giant Sequoia in Nelder Grove hike
Giant Sequoia in Nelder Grove

Although Yosemite is a beautiful learning environment for all who visit, it’s also a reminder of the carelessness of mankind and its impact on the land. Black trees stick out along the highway like burnt toothpicks from past forest fires, and constant warnings to stay away from the endangered animal life are posted everywhere. It’s with optimism and subtle confidence that one hopes that the more people visit national parks, the more knowledge and power they’ll have to protect them.

View from Yosemite Valley
View from Yosemite Valley

Stay tuned for the second half of our trip, including a view of the park from the river and an early sunrise over Half Dome! Make sure to visit part 2 here!

Have you ever been to Yosemite? What is your favorite national park?

xx,
Juliette

If you’re interested in learning more about our rental, check it out here!

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