Hidden in plain sight between North America and Europe, Iceland is no longer a secret in the outdoor-travel community. Between active volcanoes, endless glaciers, black-sand beaches, natural hot springs, and massive waterfalls, the country of just 300,000 inhabitants has enough natural resources to knock off an entire bucket list—and then write you a whole new one.
"We have everything right here," says Hinrik Ólafsson, an actor, producer, and location manager who scouts settings in his homeland for big-name productions like The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Tomb Raider. "Using our landscape, we have recreated the mountains of Europe, the tundra of Afghanistan, the beaches of Iwo Jima, even scenes from outer space."
After taking my first trip to the island, I can't argue with the guy. In addition to the locations Ólafsson suggested, I saw echoes of the rugged British Columbian coastline, plateaus and mesas straight out of the Utah desert, and geysers plucked from the pages of a Yellowstone field guide. As an outdoorsman with a geology crush, it took all of my power to keep from ripping up my return ticket, buying an Astro van, and calling it good.
But alas, while I didn't end up living the camper life, I was still able to see good chunks of Iceland in just a week thanks to the country's main highway—an adventurer's sample platter known as the Ring Road. The Ring Road—or Route 1, as it's officially known—is an 828-mile stretch of highway that connects most of the inhabited parts of the country while providing prime access to a number of natural attractions.
Our group headed southeast out of Reykjavík, the nation's capital, climbing into the mountains as steam plumes rose along the horizon—reminders of the country's orientation along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and the geothermal energy that heats more than 80 percent of the population. (Iceland is the largest green-energy producer per capita in the world.) Had we headed north, we would have hit a series of majestic fjords and, a bit farther on, the skiing capital of Iceland, Akureyri.
As it was, we stood at the base of Eyjafjallajökull, one of Iceland's iconic volcanoes, just two hours outside of Reykjavík. After almost passing out trying to pronounce the name (eye-yal-fyal-la-yo-kyul, if you're curious), I was floored by the mountain's towering glaciers and river valleys. Eyjafjallajökull gained international infamy in 2010 when its eruption sent an ash cloud into the atmosphere that grounded planes in Europe for almost two months. Our experience was a bit less violent, though it was hard to ignore the volcanic debris fields that were miles wide and swept all the way to the ocean.
It seems like every mile along the southern stretch of the Ring Road offers up a new adventure, weaving between waterfalls, rivers, and black-sand beaches while towering cliffs and mountainsides serve as stunning backdrop. Rent a car and you can stop as often or little as you like while driving this dream highway.
In just a few short days we climbed glaciers, hiked under waterfalls, rode ATVs through river valleys, and scoured black-sand beaches, never driving farther than a couple of minutes from the highway. While most of our adventures were guided, guides are not required, and there are plenty of spots that are off the beaten track.
Normally we saw no more than 50 cars a day on the highway, and very few people, considering the goods right off the road. Despite its growing popularity, Iceland has used the Ring Road to disperse the crowds and keep its sense of wild adventure alive. For any international explorer looking to experience a diversity of outdoors activities in one short trip, the Ring Road needs to be toward the top of your priority list.
For video footage from Iceland and the Ring Road, check out The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, now available on DVD and Blu-ray.
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