Follow the Arctic Coast on Iceland’s New Road Trip Route

Apr 12, 2019

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Just imagine: Hundreds of miles of mountains, fjords, fields of lava rock — and not too many tourists.

If you’ve been dreaming of an Icelandic road trip, forget the Ring Road and the Golden Circle. This summer, you’ll be able to explore the Arctic Coast Way — also called Norðurstrandarleið, if you’re really looking for a challenge — in remote northern Iceland. On June 8, Visit North Iceland — the marketing and tourism office of the region — will officially unveil the new route.

While it won’t take you around the entire country like Ring Road, the island nation’s classic road trip, the Arctic Coast Way does take you through some parts of Iceland that have, historically, been incredibly difficult to access: especially during the winter, when Iceland can experience spontaneous snow storms and whiteout conditions that trigger lengthy road closures.

Spanning 560 miles and passing through 21 villages between the western town of Hvammstangi and the fishing village of Bakkafjörður in the northeast, the Arctic Coast Way also leads travelers to four islands, all accessible by boat transfers along the route. It’s far off the beaten tourist path and much less popular than the Ring Road, which is a relatively easy loop around the entire country, meaning travelers can expect blissfully thin crowds.

Village of Hjalteyri in Iceland. (Photo via Getty Images)
Village of Hjalteyri in Iceland, one of the towns along the Arctic Coast Way. (Photo via Getty Images)

Even if you haven’t yet been to the Land of Fire and Ice, you’ve probably seen photos (lots and lots of photos) of its most famous attractions — and heard stories about how crowded they can get. Still, Iceland is truly a special place considering you can go from can’t-move-an-inch crowds to complete emptiness with a 30-minute drive from the city.

But as exciting as the new route sounds, it’s difficult not to be concerned about its impact. Will it help ease the strain on Iceland’s most overcrowded sites, or will the Arctic Coast Way only prompt throngs of tourists to head north?

Overcrowding is one worry in a world where natural space is dwindling, but the deterioration of so many beautiful places in Iceland is exacerbated by humans — and I’m not talking about inconsiderate visitors who walk where they aren’t supposed to and leave behind trash (although those do, unfortunately, exist). I’m simply referring to the presence of humans in an area that can’t sustain mass foot traffic.

Take Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon, for example — a popular site along the southern coast of the country. The number of visitors soared after it appeared in a Justin Bieber music video in 2014. Combined with the inevitable weather damage the canyon sees every year, officials were forced to close the canyon to visitors through June 1 for much-needed restoration.

Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon. (Photo by Martin Sanchez/Unsplash)
Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon. (Photo by Martin Sanchez/Unsplash)

According to Visit North Iceland, the Arctic Coast Way will be comprised of official roads — not the gravel paths you so often see in that area — and the highlands, which will help alleviate the impact of tourists. And the introduction of this new route will inevitably help lighten the load on other popular tourist spots around Iceland.

After all, road tripping along the Arctic coast is the ultimate reason to rent a car if I’ve ever heard one.

If driving on your own sounds more stressful than freeing (hey, you are taking a vacation after all), consider an eight-day itinerary from Original Travel that will bring you along parts of this new route. During the trip, travelers will visit Hjalteyri (a Nordic village that looks like it came straight from a fairytale with its colorful homes and incredible views); drive along the picturesque Eyjafjörður; go whale watching at Dalvík; visit one of the most remote communities in the country; take a river-rafting adventure through a glacial canyon; view the Kverkfjoll glacier from above; travel through the northeast highlands to Myvatn, a region known for its hot springs; and watch seals in western Iceland.

Eyjafjordur, Iceland. (Photo by Einar / Getty Images)
Eyjafjordur, Iceland. (Photo by Einar / Getty Images)

Featured photo of a causeway in Eyjafjordur via Getty Images.

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