In Icelandic, the word ævintýri means both adventure and fairy tale, a nifty linguistic coupling in a land so defined by its otherworldly beauty (seriously otherworldly—astronauts traveled here to practice lunar landings). If you hear the call of the wilderness in a big, spectacular way, your fairytale adventure awaits you at the top of the world.
Wonders of the Natural World
The best word for Iceland’s geography is intense. Formed around 25 million years ago, the nation is geographically one of the youngest land masses on the planet, and it boils with volcanic activity. Its most recent eruption was Grímsvötn in 2011. Lava and geysers are as much a part of the scene here as cactus are a part of an Arizona desert. Alongside all that molten heat, though, more than 11 percent of Iceland is frosted by glaciers. It’s a nation of fire, ice, black sand beaches, roaring waterfalls and arctic midnight sun. Iceland is growing, spreading about five centimeters a year where two tectonic plates meet. Iceland also boasts the world’s most recently created island, Surtsey, which was formed in a 1963 volcanic eruption. Whether you stay near the coast or venture for the interior, you’ll be seeing some of the most vivid landscapes on Earth.
Exploring Via the Ring Road
Covering 800 miles, Route 1—Iceland’s famous road trip route—provides an awesome sample of Iceland’s most impressive sights. It takes you in a huge loop around the country’s perimeter. During the summer, you can take advantage of extra-long sunlit hours to put in plenty of per-day driving, especially on the summer solstice, where the sun shines in parts of Iceland for the full 24 hours. If you’ll be tackling this adventure during the fall or winter months, make sure your rented vehicle is a 4x4 and be prepared for weather delays (such thrill seeking isn’t advisable for any but the most white-knuckle drivers).
The harsh unpredictability of this land is the genesis of its thrilling open spaces. The distance of the Ring Road loop is doable in seven to ten days, with ample opportunities to encounter some of Iceland’s most stunning places—though in a land as dramatic as this, it’s almost hard to find a place that’s not stunning.
You may start in Reykjavik and move southeast. During the first days of your excursion, you’ll feel the pummeling fury of Seljalandsfoss Waterfall as it spills over its jabbing, craggy cliff side into its steely blue pool. You’ll marvel at the ice caves under Vatnajökull glacier. Frozen in motion with all the eerie ripple and stunning blue of a tunnel through an aquarium—or the halls of an ice princess’s castle—the caves will hold you spellbound. In East Iceland, you’ll survey rugged mountains and lonely coast. Watch out for reindeer—this is the only part of the country where they live wild.
In the country’s northern extremes, you’ll want to visit the city of Akureyri, known for its good viewing opportunities of the northern lights. While you’re up here, day trip to some of Iceland’s active volcanoes, which may reward you with a molten pyrotechnic display.