The Iceland Arctic Coast Way: The New "Golden Circle" of the North
If you’ve been researching a trip to Iceland, then you’ve likely already come across both the Golden Circle and the Ring Road, and maybe even the Diamond Circle. All three are famous self-driving routes through regions (or, in the case of the Ring Road, all) of Iceland. Travellers looking for an easy Iceland trip itinerary can choose to drive around one of these roads to see some of the best sights Iceland has to offer.
But did you know that Iceland now has a new driving route? The Arctic Coast Way, which was officially designated in 2019, takes travellers to the northern far reaches of Iceland to see some of the more remote areas of the country that tourists don’t often visit.
Sound intriguing? If you’re an intrepid traveller looking for a new adventure, we can’t recommend the Arctic Coast Way of Iceland enough. Keep reading to learn all about what the Arctic Coast Way of Iceland can offer you; how to prepare for the roads and weather of Iceland North Fjord; the best times to travel the route (as well as differences between travelling the route in the summer versus the winter); and the best Iceland 4x4 car rental to take you on your journey.
What is the Arctic Coast Way?
The Arctic Coast Way leads you around 900 kilometres (or 560 miles) of Iceland roadways, taking you along the North Atlantic Ocean and in and around the Arctic Circle. As one of the first “official” tourist routes of Iceland, the route allows you to visit six islands, 21 villages and 13 beaches. You’ll be able to find dozens of spots to view the Midnight Sun, nearly 20 spots for ideal Northern Lights viewing and even a handful of whale-watching viewpoints. Outdoor activities abound, from bird watching to geothermal bathing, to seal watching to seeing Iceland’s lighthouses with their beautiful views.
The best part? Since the Arctic Coast Way is a little more rugged and a little more isolated than some of Iceland’s other self-driving routes, you’ll enjoy a fair level of privacy and fewer crowds, as well as the enjoyment of knowing that you’re seeing spots and landscapes that not a lot of other travellers have.
The Arctic Coast Way is split into several sections, that are Coast of sagas and mythology / Coast of fishing towns and heritage and the coast of elemental nature. The Western Part of the Arctic Coast Way features mountainous landscapes and is home to Icelandic horses, seals and birds. The North Iceland coast is filled with quaint, colourful fishing towns and is also the gateway to the Arctic Circle. The Coast of Elemental Nature is the last section of the Arctic Coast Way and it features a wealth of nature, in all its dramatic glory.
Road and Weather Conditions for Iceland’s North Fjord Area
But if you’re travelling along the Arctic Coast Way of Iceland, you’ll need to prepare ahead, especially when it comes to your rental car for Iceland, or if you’re choosing to camp, your Iceland camper van rental.
The temperatures in North Iceland remain pretty chilly, no matter the time of year. In the summer months, the average temperatures from late May and into August range from 43 degrees Fahrenheit (6 degrees Celsius) to 59 degrees Fahrenheit (15 degrees Celsius). The rest of the year, September through early May, the weather is much colder, with temperatures averaging lows of 23 degrees Fahrenheit (-5 degrees Celsius) and highs of 35 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius).
Regardless of the month, strong winds are a possibility all year round. In the summer, you’ll get a lot of daylight hours, even late into the night, and, in some months, you’ll have the chance to see the Midnight Sun, if you’re in the right place at the right time. In the winter, precipitation is the norm, in the form of heavy snow, ice and rain, with dangerous storms possible. Winter months in the north of Iceland also mean more darkness, with very few daylight hours (as few as five hours of light per day in the darkest parts of the season).
Given all of this, road conditions in Iceland’s North Fjord area are best in the summer months, when all you really need to worry about is wind and the occasional precipitation. In the winter months, however, the roads can become treacherous, making an Iceland 4x4 rental absolutely crucial — possibly even vital to your survival.
Beyond this, about half of the roads along the Iceland Arctic Coast Way are gravel, meaning they’re not exactly easy to drive in the summer, either, if you have the wrong vehicle. That’s why we recommend a 4x4 rental in Iceland no matter the time of year you visit, if you plan on travelling the Arctic Coast Way.
What’s the Best Time to Travel the Arctic Coast Way?
Based on all of the above, you probably already know. Summertime (late May-early September) is the ideal time to travel Iceland’s Arctic Coast Way, to give you both the best weather and the best road conditions. The roadways are much safer during the summer, you’ll be able to access more areas and, for most people, you’ll simply have a more enjoyable time when the weather isn't so frigid and tumultuous. And, if you're visiting Iceland for some wildlife watching, you’ll have your best chance at doing so along the Arctic Coast Way during the summer months as well, when puffins and seals are out and about.
What’s the Difference Between Driving the Arctic Coast Way in the Summer vs. Winter?
Even though summer is by far the best time to travel the Arctic Coast Way, there are still some people who choose to visit the route during the winter. Because of this, there are two “official” Icelandic Arctic Coast Way routes, one for summer and one for winter.
The summer route allows you to travel the entire Arctic Coast Way exactly the way it was designed. The winter route, however, is adjusted to account for road closures and bad weather. If you travel the route during the winter, you likely won’t be able to access many of the peninsulas along the route at all, and only parts of the route will be open on a daily basis, due to snow clearing schedules.
Both for your safety and your convenience, it’s advised that you drive the Arctic Coast Way in the summer.
Arctic Coast Way Summer Route road map
Photo credit: Visit North Iceland
Arctic Coast Way Winter Route road map
Photo credit: Visit North Iceland
What’s the Best Car to Rent for Driving the Arctic Coast Way?
With road and weather conditions like the ones mentioned above, as well as windy days in the summer and the rough gravel roads along the route all year round, it’s recommended that you invest in a 4x4 rental for Iceland’s Arctic Coast Way, no matter what the month or season. A smaller vehicle just can't handle the gravel, snow or ice the way an Iceland 4x4 rental can and, in fact, trying to traverse some of the more dangerous parts of the route in a 2WD vehicle can result in not only damage to the car and possible injury to yourself, but it may also result in some heavy fees and fines from your Iceland rental car provider.
However, 4x4 rental cars aren’t your only option when choosing an Iceland rental for your trip along the coast way. You can also rent a 4x4 camper rental in Iceland, to save money on your accommodations (and to ensure that you actually have accommodations when you’re in some of northern Iceland’s more remote areas). An Iceland camper rental gives you the mobility and safety of a normal 4x4 rental vehicle, but with the added convenience of sleeping and storage areas, as well as camping equipment, in the back of the vehicle.
Looking for specific best cars to rent for driving the Iceland Arctic Coast Way?
If you’re travelling with five to seven people, we recommend renting the roomier Toyota Land Cruiser or the Nissan X-Trail. All of these 4x4 rentals will keep you safe and comfortable as you travel along the Iceland Arctic Coast Way.
For specific recommendations for 4x4 camper rentals, we recommend the VW Transporter 4x4 Camper Van for travellers in groups of two or three.
What Can You Do and See on the Iceland Arctic Coast Way?
Map of the best attractions and things to do in the Arctic Coast Way
Top activities to do in the Arctic Coast Way
As mentioned, there are tons of things to see and do along the Iceland Arctic Coast Way. Popular options include…
- Exploring the histories and cultures of the many towns and fishing villages in Iceland’s north
- Climbing to the tops of some of Iceland’s most beautiful lighthouses, to take in the views
- Walking along the various beaches along the Norwegian Sea
- Taking in the Midnight Sun, a unique experience only possible during select summer months
- Hiking Iceland’s vast wilderness
- Spotting the sea stacks off the shores
- Taking a boat tour for a day out on the water
- Island hopping off Iceland’s north coast
- Horseback riding Icelandic horses
- Stopping into the many cultural and historic museums scattered throughout the area
- Kayaking or jet skiing through the chilly waves
- Visiting a spa or hot spring for a bit of relaxation
- Exploring Iceland’s unique wool and knitting culture
- Chasing the Northern Lights, if you visit the area during the winter months
- Watching for the region’s wildlife, including whales, seals and puffins
What towns can you visit on the Iceland Arctic Coast Way?
Besides the things that you can see and do along this route, there is a wealth of towns that you can visit. Here are a few:
To plan a full Iceland Arctic Coast Way itinerary, and to explore all of the various spots that you can visit along the way in-depth, visit the official Arctic Coast Way website.
Tips for Driving the Iceland Arctic Coast Way
Ready to hit the road? Take some tips along with you, to help you along your journey.
Even in a 4x4 rental vehicle, it’s important to go slow, especially when driving on the route’s narrow, gravel roads. In general, though, you want to go slow to also watch out for any wildlife that might be near the roads (such as sheep or birds), as well as so you can safely go around curves.
Watch for signage.
In addition to the official Arctic Coast Way route signage, you want to also look for blue M signs. These signs mean that the road ahead is too narrow for two cars to pass. You’ll need to let oncoming traffic that’s closer take the right of way.
Stay on the road.
Even though the Iceland Arctic Coast Way features some rough, rural gravel roads, that doesn’t mean that you can leave the road and just drive anywhere. Off-roading, no matter what kind of vehicle you’re driving or whether or not you think your 4x4 rental can handle it, is illegal in Iceland.
Use your camper van correctly.
And, lastly, if you rent a camper van for your Iceland trip, make sure you only use it when and where you’re allowed. You cannot camp just anywhere along the route. Instead, you need to look for designated campsites, which are situated in each village along the route.
Experience a New Side of Iceland
Iceland is growing in popularity among world travellers, but that doesn’t mean that you have to stick with the crowds along the Golden Circle or the Ring Road. Get off the beaten path and explore a new side of Iceland that you haven’t seen before: the Iceland Arctic Coast Way.
With the right preparation and the right rental car, you’ll be ready to safely explore all the nature, wonder and beautiful landscapes that Northern Iceland has to offer. Check out Lava Car Rental’s selection of 4x4 cars and pick the best option for your trip, today.
Questions? We’re ready to help. Our Iceland team is here to assist with any questions you have about renting a car in Iceland, driving in Iceland or just travelling to Iceland in general.