Black Ice and White Knuckles: Braving the Elements on Iceland’s Ring Road

The studded tires on our rented Toyota minivan were spinning, but we were not getting out of that three-foot snowbank along a remote Icelandic road without some help. Fortunately, I spotted a passing 4×4 tour vehicle and flagged down the driver, who shook his head as he rolled down the window.

“What are you guys doing?” he said.

Good question.

As an automotive writer for The New York Times, I’ve driven a $4 million Bugatti at 100 miles per hour along the winding Mulholland Highway in Los Angeles, and a Lamborghini at 160 m.p.h. on a track. But none of that prepared me to do 30 m.p.h. on a narrow, icy highway in northern Iceland.

Four of us — including my wife and two friends — were visiting the Godafoss waterfall, about 90 miles from the Arctic Circle, on Day 5 of our 13-day circumnavigation of the island. It was the third week of October, the temperature was in the 20s and snow already blanketed the roads and fields, the result of a heavy storm the week before.

Godafoss, a 36-foot cascade about 90 miles from the Arctic Circle, is nicknamed the Waterfall of the Gods.Credit…Carol Zulman

We were eager to see the 36-foot-high cascade nicknamed the Waterfall of the Gods, which we expected to be a mostly frozen wonderland of ice and mist. To get there quicker, I decided to take an alternative route. I had made it only a few yards down the gravel road when I changed my mind. Rather than backing out, I did a three-point turn, and soon our van was axle-deep in snow.

The tour operator attached his winch to a tow hook on the back of our van and began to pull — and pull — until we wound up stuck in another snowdrift, our tires again spinning uselessly. Annoyed, he switched the winch to the front of our vehicle and hoisted us out once again. Success.

We learned the hard way that knowing how to drive during American winters does not necessarily translate to Iceland, where snow begins to fall as early as September, and roads are windswept, often unpaved and frequently covered in black ice during the cold months.

The rocky shoreline of the Snaefellsnes peninsula in western Iceland.Credit…Carol Zulman

We were planning to drive around Iceland, a nearly Kentucky-size country with a population of about 376,000, on the roughly 830-mile Ring Road, which circles the island. That would give us time to see a magical landscape of majestic waterfalls and glacier-filled lagoons, and to take a few mountain hikes in solitude. This late in the year, we expected to encounter few tourists, or even Icelanders.

We decided to drive clockwise around the island — the opposite direction most tourists take. Not only would traffic be lighter, we thought, but we also wanted to start our journey from Reykjavik with the geysers and waterfalls of the popular Golden Circle route, and then see the dramatic basalt cliffs of the Snaefellsnes peninsula and the black-sand beach at Djupalonssandur, just north of the capital.

From there, we planned to drive on to Akureyi, a city perched on a fjord in the far north; then to Myvatn, a vast volcanic lake; and around to two small towns hugging the southern coast. We aimed to end up at the famous Blue Lagoon geothermal pools near the airport before flying home. With my wife in the passenger seat relaying Google Maps directions to me, we set out with the sun peeking above a lunar landscape.

Along the Snaefellsnes peninsula. In the colder months, Iceland’s weather is especially unpredictable: Strong winds can suddenly blow out of clear skies, and rain and snow can appear seemingly out of nowhere.Credit…Carol Zulman

The key to driving around Iceland in wintry conditions, we learned, is flexibility: regular monitoring of weather and road conditions, and being ready to alter travel and hotel plans when the Ring Road suddenly shuts because of snow or high winds. And the weather can change at any time, going from bright sun to a heavy downpour or a snowstorm.

“I would never drive out of Reykjavik between November and March without winter tires and studs in them,” said Pall Thorsteinsson, the public relations manager for Toyota of Iceland. “You need to listen to the weather forecast every four hours, as conditions can change very fast, with heavy winds and piling snow, and no towns for two hours.”

Icelandic maps divide roads into five types, from the paved Ring Road, or Route 1, to the mountainous, gravel “F” roads, which are closed to all vehicles from around September until June or July and are not recommended for standard passenger cars at any time. Many roads fall somewhere in between, but bad weather can make any thoroughfare much, much worse.

“Tourists rent a small car and then think they can drive around the Ring Road in the winter in four days,” said Gunnar Gunnarsson, the head of safety for the Icelandic Transportation Authority. “Icelanders would never do that, as you’ll probably get stuck.”

In spite of having a vehicle considerably larger than a small car, we certainly learned that lesson at Godafoss. But more challenges awaited us on the Ring Road: black ice lurking on the asphalt, a sun that set as early as 4 p.m. and then just peeked above the horizon after 9 a.m., and very high winds that blew unexpectedly. Our van’s doors were sometimes ripped out of our hands by powerful gusts that came out of nowhere on an otherwise sunny day. My wife twice had the door painfully ram into her ankle without warning. Rental car insurance often won’t cover damage to doors from these gusts.

An ice fragment washed up at Diamond Beach, near the Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon in southern Iceland.Credit…Carol Zulman

One thing we got right: We didn’t hit the ground running the moment we landed. After waking up at 3 a.m. to get to the Los Angeles airport and then spending 19 hours traveling, we knew we would be in no shape to drive, so we decided to spend the first two nights in Reykjavik. Arriving at our hotel at 8:30 a.m., we experienced what felt like the longest day of our lives — much of it in darkness — as we waited to check in at 4 p.m.

Most North American visitors arrive at Keflavik airport, about 31 miles from Reykjavik, at around 6 a.m., and many start in the early-morning darkness after getting little to no rest, which can be very dangerous. To discourage eager tourists from hitting the roads while half asleep, the government has teamed up with a number of hotels near the airport to offer rooms at a lower price for a few hours. The new program, called Nap and Go, lets guests stay in a room until around 2:30 p.m. for about $70.

Driving on Icelandic roads, even the Ring Road, is not like driving in the United States or Europe. The Ring Road is a two-lane, undivided highway with a maximum speed of 90 kilometers per hour, or about 56 m.p.h. Bridges are often one lane and offer limited visibility on the other side. Crossing them at 30 m.p.h., I prayed a hidden vehicle wasn’t lurking behind a blind rise.

To maximize visibility at all times of the day, we had to remember to manually turn on our headlights, because by law both those and the taillights must always be on. Leaving the headlight switch in the automatic position will not illuminate the taillights during the day.

With gas stations sometimes hours apart, we never let the fuel level fall below half a tank; we topped it off daily, at a cost of about $8.70 per gallon. And because even the main roads in Iceland are sparsely traveled in the colder months — we typically saw about one vehicle every mile in either direction — tourists often take dangerous risks, such as exceeding the speed limit in icy conditions or stopping in the middle of the road to take a photograph.

Fines for speeding can run as high as $1,750, according to a spokesperson for the Icelandic police. Traveling just 20 kilometers per hour, about 12 m.p.h., over the limit on the Ring Road can result in a $350 fine, payable on the spot via cash or credit card.

The week before we arrived, a storm had shut parts of the Ring Road, and we feared that if snow or high wind delayed our ambitious schedule, we might miss one or more of our prepaid hotel reservations. It turns out our worries were unfounded.

“We very seldom have a problem rebooking someone who is delayed because of road closures,” said Daniel Smarason, the owner of Hotel Akureyri, a hip movie-themed hotel with tiny rooms, converted from one of the country’s oldest cinemas. The attached hydroponic farm uses wastewater from the heaters to grow vegetables year-round. The hotel was socked in with snow when we arrived.

The northern lights shimmering in the early-morning hours at Hotel Laxa, near Myvatn, in northern Iceland.Credit…Carol Zulman

We also arrived without delays at Hotel Laxa, a comfortable spot near Myvatn, drinking Aperol spritzes during its long happy hour and admiring the gorgeous views of a wide snow-covered plain. The hotel would have tried to rebook us at no charge if we had been held up by a storm, the manager, Fionn Larkin, told us. If the hotel remains inaccessible to guests, he said, it will refund the booking without penalty. We were happy to be eating delicious lamb and fish in the restaurant, and that night at about 2 a.m., we awoke to see the spectacular sight of the northern lights shimmering overhead.

A few days and a few patches of black ice later, we arrived at the Blue Lagoon, but after our journey through the solitude of the Icelandic countryside, the tour buses parked outside dissuaded us from going in to take a preflight soak. Instead, our capstone became the Reykjanes peninsula, near Keflavik airport, watching Icelandic horses graze and visiting a desolate seaside church.

We had managed to get around the island with only one brief scare. But for those who don’t heed warnings and get stuck in snow or ice, there’s no equivalent of the AAA to call. While some rental car companies offer roadside assistance, the country maintains a volunteer search-and-rescue team, dispatched after a driver calls the emergency number, 112. Fortunately, despite its low population density, Iceland has excellent cellular service, with coverage available virtually everywhere along the Ring Road.

The good news is that visitors don’t need to wait until they’re in danger to call for help. Before our trip, we could have registered our itinerary and expected arrival times each day on the Safe Travel website. If we didn’t notify the site that we had arrived, a search-and-rescue team would have been sent out to look for us.

After our experience in that snowdrift, we can attest that that’s a comforting fact.

But some Icelanders, like Mr. Thorsteinsson of Toyota, have their own surefire ways to keep themselves from getting stuck in the snow. “I never go outside of Rekyjavik in the winter,” he said.

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