Driving in Iceland: the roads

Having driven around Iceland for ten days or so two summers in a row, I am of course eminently qualified to talk about the subject of Icelandic road conditions. They’re neither as bad as they sound nor as good as they should be considering Iceland is a world leader in so many things.

The biggest and best-known road is the Ring Road, Route 1, the Hringbraut. I will be calling it the Ring Road. As the name suggests, it circles the entire island and just about every road you want radiates off it at some point. It was completed in the 1970s, after some problems in the south with jökulhlaups washing away roads and bridges, and in 2015, there are still stretches of it that are not tarmacked. Iceland specialises in gravel roads but it’s something of a surprise to find that parts of its flagship road are gravel. I’ve not noticed anything personally between Egilsstaðir and Jökulsárlón anti-clockwise; that is about 85% of it. But there are definitely patches between Höfn and Egilsstaðir and the stretch I’m thinking of in particular is between Breiðdalsvík and Egilsstaðir.

Most of this stretch is smooth and flat and almost as easy to drive on as tarmac. Getting up to the legal speed limit of 80kph is entirely possible – and I say this as someone who frequently finds 40 is more than enough on gravel. As you drive, it gradually occurs to you that you’re driving into a horseshoe of mountain. Well, where does the road go? Surely I’d have heard of it if there’s a tunnel. Can’t go through it. Can’t go under it. Doesn’t look like you can go round it. And then you see the road ahead and you realise – have to go over it.

There’s a reason why every guidebook and website will blithely ignore this part of the Ring Road and act as if it doesn’t exist and instead tell you about the 96 and the 92 and the pretty fishing towns on the way up to Egilsstaðir. That’s because this bit of Ring Road is a disgrace. I mean, it’s a lovely road but it’s not fit to be part of the Ring Road. It’s gravel for several miles and then winds very steeply up the side of the mountain, taking in two or three hairpin turns with no rails, on loose gravel and heaven forbid a bus should come the other way while you’re doing it. As the signs suggest, this road is impassable in winter – and where roads are concerned, the Icelandic winter can last from late August to late June. This year, indeed, there are at least four patches of road (not here on the Ring Road but Highland roads across the country) that have never become in a fit condition to open at all. Take a look on Google Street Maps – follow the “main road” up and over the mountains.

To be honest, if I’d known that was what the road was like, I’d have retraced my steps from Breiðdalsvík via the 96 and the 92. The other place I encountered an unexpected gravel road was on the way to Dettifoss. There are two roads running more or less parallel north from the Ring Road east of Mývatn to the 85. These two roads run either side of the Jökulsá á Fjöllum, the ferocious glacial river. I was under the impression that the 864, to the east of the river, was tarmac all the way whereas the 862, to the west, is only tarmac for the southern third. I was wrong! The 864 is gravel the whole way and it’s bad, rough gravel. It’s like driving over a washboard, and this idiot had left her tent pegs on the back parcel shelf and you have no idea what a racket tent pegs make when you drive over a washboard. Worse, this road runs through the desert. I had to check my map so many times to make sure I hadn’t strayed illegally onto a Highland road. I have never been on anything that felt so remote and so frightening and it didn’t help that every single car I encountered overtook me. The limit is 80, I’m struggling to get to 40 on such a terrible road and it’s really unnerving to be overtaken by a massive 4×4 doing at least 100 and kicking up a huge cloud of dust.

For the record, the 862 is glorious, beautiful gleaming black tarmac all the way from the Ring Road to Dettifoss. It took ten or twenty minutes to get there compared to over an hour on the 864. Let me show you the 864 as well:

There are, of course, other patches of gravel road. None of them are particularly remarkable. On the whole, any roads that go anywhere interesting – anything on the tourist trail – will be good tarmac road. And Iceland’s good tarmac roads are good indeed, except when volcanic floods or eruptions wash them away.