A fork in the Iceland Ring Road

Dave S. Clark

There’s a proverbial fork in the road – the Iceland Ring Road. Do you take the easier, flatter and longer route or do you take the rough, narrow, slightly more dangerous road that will get you there faster, but may not get you there at all?

Driving the ring road in Iceland’s East Fjords, I came to this exact predicament. My wife and I had left the beautiful south coast village of Höfn in the morning and wanted to reach the lunar-esque Mývatn area by the afternoon to get a head start on seeing the long list of geothermally-charged oddities the region is known for.

The drive that morning had been spectacular so far, the sun was almost shining, which was a welcomed sight from the grey days that had preceded. You couldn’t say it was sunny, but there was the odd break of warmth through the thinning clouds. As we drove right along the coast, it was hard not to stop every couple of minutes to get out and just admire the frigid North Atlantic waves crashing a few hundred feet straight below you. 

We had one pit stop on the agenda, which was Egilsstadur, where we planned to fuel up and get lunch before trekking on to Mývatn. But before we got anywhere close to Egilsstadur, we caught our first glimpse of an Icelandic fjord. It was such a deep inviting blue, it almost lured me to get out of the car and jump into it. But knowing I would probably die of hypothermia within minutes of doing so, I decided I should stay in the car.  As I drove to the middle point of this fjord known as Berufjördur, desperately struggling to keep my eyes on the narrow ring road and not on the raw beauty surrounding it, we were suddenly at the aforementioned fork. The sign said you could go right to Egilsstadur for 125 kilometers or go left and get there in 64 kilometers. The only difference was the fork to the left was gravel and instead of continuing along the coast, it climbed up and out of the fjord and headed straight inland. So I could continue along the fjord or I could take my little hatchback along an even narrower roadway full of switchbacks. I pulled over at the fork to ponder which direction to take and the driver behind me did the same. He was more decisive than I, but seemingly less adventurous. He took the long, easy route and as I watched him go that way, I brought out my inner Robert Frost and I took the road less traveled.

This gravel road is Route 939 and by taking it, I was risking a lot. I was turning my back on the incredible views of the sparkling North Atlantic as it met with this obscure island. An inland gravel road could be boring and could lead to some troublesome rock chips on the rental car. But I decided to go for it.

A Route 939 switchback looking back at Berufjördur. Although this wasn’t the prettiest drive in Iceland, it was a blast to experience.

Moments after I started, I knew I made the right choice. The road took a few dips and then went uphill and I hit the first of the switchbacks. I had to downshift to keep the revs high enough in my little Hyundai i30, which was rather lacking in torque. As I downshifted again to go climb into a steep hairpin turn, I imagined how fun this would be if I was driving my all-wheel-drive Subaru Impreza rather than the gutless front-wheel-drive Hyundai.

The dark volcanic gravel road was surrounded on both sides by even darker volcanic soil contrasted with larges patches of snow, even though it was early June. In the distance, I could see the snowy caps of the mountains of the highlands. It wasn’t as pretty as the coastal route, but we would definitely meet our quota of gorgeous drives on the rest of our Iceland ring road trip.

At first, my wife and I were entirely alone on the road, which wasn’t actually all that rare in Iceland. Even on the country’s main highway, we could go 10 or 15 minutes without seeing another vehicle.  To give you an idea of how remote this country feels,  that was almost peak tourism season.

We eventually came across a whole crew of large dump trucks, coating the road in new gravel and I immediately was thankful I bought the gravel insurance on the rental car. (I didn’t get the ash insurance though. Yes, they have extra coverage for volcanic ash related emergencies!)

The little Hyundai ended up making it all the way, I was able to pretend I was driving a rally car stage and we got to our destination about an hour faster than if we would have taken the other route!

4 thoughts on “A fork in the Iceland Ring Road”

  1. Great story Dave, I like how you described driving the Hyudai. Beautiful photo of route 939. I would like to travel to Iceland, but I hate the cold!

    1. Hi Dave – Just by chance I was trying to determine our best driving route from Djupivogur (near Hofn) to Egilsstadir this coming July (2016) and have found your description of the short cut across #939. We will be renting a VW Polo, not automatic transmission. So far we will be using our own insurance. Also, we are not drivers in your category! It will be at about 6 pm in the evening after the boat& birding tour off Patey Island. I would like to take the short cut. How dangerous is it exactly? How risky for gravel chipping? Is there anything interesting to spot on the way? Regards, Judy.

      1. Hi Judy – July at 6 p.m. means you will still have lots of light, which is nice. I don’t think the road is dangerous at all. The only real risk is rock chips in the paint/windshield, but with so little traffic on the road, that isn’t very likely at all.

        If you want scenery, sticking the coast is probably your best bet. There wasn’t much to see on 939, but it was a blast to drive because of the switchbacks. If you have any other questions, don’t hesitate to ask! Check out my itinerary if you are still in the planning stages. It was a great trip.

        Enjoy Iceland!

  2. I drove this road last Sunday (June 26, 2016) on my way from Akureyri to Hofn. It is in good condition. The only issues I had were heavy fog and a girlfriend yelling at me to slow down for twenty minutes on the southbound descent despite my explaining to her that 15 kmph translates into about 9 mph which is plenty slow.

    After a long day and a half of driving, Rt 939 was a nice break and felt like a bit of an adventure. If you’re headed north, about a mile off of Rt 1 on your left, be sure to stop at Folaldafoss. Not one of the larger falls but beautiful for it’s remoteness and water color even on a foggy day.

    One suggestion I’m going to make and hope everyone takes to heart is to keep your tank as full as possible. On Rt 1 the Mývatn area you will drive more than 100 miles without seeing a gas station or store. Also, don’t count on gas stations being open at odd times. We left Hofn at 5:15AM and did not hit an open gas station until we got to Vik about three hours later.

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