The land of Ice & Fire…
The Northern Lights of Iceland is one of the reasons to plan your visit during the winter… and glaciers with ice caves… And also long-long nights with endless snowy roads 😉
Iceland is an interesting and popular destination. As of 2016 the number of tourists exceeded number of locals by the factor of 5. The grows from 2015 to 2016 is 40%! At the same time summer gets twice more visitors than winter.
Winter has its benefits and drawbacks. The daylight is pretty short — 4-6 hours depending on a month of the year. At the same time there are twice less tourists around. The road conditions might be severe and unpredictable. But there are sights you can see only in winter — northern lights, ice caves, endless snowy terrains. The planning is pretty tough, but prices are lower.
The best way to get around Iceland is probably a rental car. Other options include public transportation and tours. Public transportation covers all the island but is not really frequent, which is crucial in winter when time matters. Tours are kinda expensive, but are good option if you stay just 2-3 days in Iceland.
At the same time be careful when renting a car during the winter — weather conditions may be really severe. Within 5 km / 5 minutes distance the road conditions may change from a clean road to a snowstorm with strong sidewind and almost no visibility. If you don’t have experience of driving in real snowy winters I definitely do not recommend this option. Fortunately there is a website with real-time weather and road conditions all around Iceland.
As for the itinerary there are multiple options available depending on the duration of your stay. If you have 7-11 days and its not winter — you can try the Ring Road — the Road #1 that goes all around Iceland. Doing it in winter is pretty risky as many parts in the North may be closed. If you are shorter on time there are many sights in the South. Even if you have just 2-3 days there is an option for you — Golden Circle.
As Iceland lays just next to the Arctic Circle it partially experiences such phenomenas as Midnight Sun and Polar Night. During our visit average sunrise was at 11:25 and sunset at 15:30, which gave us about 4 hours of daylight plus about 2.5 hours of dusk and dawn. However due to almost permanent clouds it felt like sunrise slowly converts into sunset without actual “daytime”.
To make the most of our trip we chose our hotels to be between sights. In this way we started each of our days with a drive in the “night” to reach planned spot at the sunrise. And in the similar way we drove to the next hotel and had our dinner after sunset. This allowed us to save the most important minutes of the day to enjoy Iceland gems.
And as usual — my itinerary is at the bottom of the post 😉
Golden Circle is probably the most popular “destination” of Iceland. Whether you have just a couple of days or a few weeks you have to add it to your plans. The main stops include Þingvellir National Park, Gullfoss Waterfall and Geysir geothermal area.
According to Google Maps it is 237 km and 3 hours 21 minutes to drive from Reykjavik roundtrip. If you have more than just 2 days it makes sense to continue to the south of Iceland. Or you can choose among multiple detours available on the route — geothermal baths, craters, lagoons, rafting and others.
From Selfoss To Vik
On the next day after Golden Circle we continued to Vik, a small town in the south and then farther to the hotel in Hörgsland. There were two waterfalls on the way — Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss. Leaping ahead I must say that Iceland is a heaven for waterfall lovers. There are dozens and dozens of waterfalls — big and small, wide and narrow, tall and short.
After those waterfalls we visited Solheimasandur Crashed DC-3 Wreckage. It seems that just a few months before our trip it was possible to drive all the way to DC-3. Now however there is a parking lot just next to the road and then you have to walk for about 4 km one way. The wreckage itself is not something really spectacular. And while it takes about 2 hours now, the sight might be skipped if needed.
The final sights for the day were Reynisfjara Black Beach and Dýrholaey Arch. Both points are beautiful and interesting. The place near to the Arch has multiple photo opportunities with views of the ocean and the black beach. However the winds there were strong to the level that shifted standing car to the side.
A short note regarding the car. There are two types of roads in Iceland — regular and those marked with “F” letter. The last are allowed only for 4×4 cars. It makes sense in the summer, but in the winter it is suicide to go there even with 4×4 car. So we had to choose either we need four-wheel drive car in the winter. One opinion was that it helps on the unpredictable terrain. Another is that bigger car has higher centre of mass which makes it more difficult to drive on icy roads. So we decided to go with a small car, front wheel drive. And I must say it totally worked for us.
After the visit to the black beach we continued to Vik and then farther to our hotel in Horgsland with a small stop in Kirkjubæjarklaustur for a dinner.
It was one of the reasons for a winter trip. Northern Lights can be seen in Iceland from September to mid-April. First of all — the Lights look different comparing to the photos! Due to long exposure photos are morebright and colourful. In the real life everything looks dimmer. But still worth the trip!
First of all, if you want to see Aurora Boreal — check the forecast. The activity is different and measured from 0 to 9. Activity of 4 or more means real chance to see the Northern Lights. Aside from the activity you need to consider clouds — on a cloudy night you can not see anything. And one more thing, you need to be out of towns or village, in a pretty dark place. So if you look out of the window and do not see any stars — forget about Northern Lights ;(
But everything is not that bad. During our 7 days trip we’ve seen Aurora two times. First one was pretty dim and short, but the second time lasted for more than an hour and was really beautiful! Just look out of the window periodically, or better go outside because it might be just on the other side of your hotel 😉
Svartifoss and Glacier Lagoons
Farther to the East. First sight was one more waterfall — Svartifoss. About 20-40 minutes hiking from the parking lot and you can enjoy this place with tall basalt columns. There are more hiking opportunities in the same location but it was starting to snow, so we decided to move on.
The next stop was Fjallsárlón Lagoon. This is relatively small glacier lagoon covered from the road by the small hill. Probably due to this fact it is much less crowded than Jökulsárlón. Still we continued to Jökulsárlón to see so-called Diamond Beach, a great and unusual place!
Unfortunately after that we got caught by a strong snowstorm. So we continued very slowly in the direction of Höfn and our hotel. The storm was really heavy. When we finally reached our hotel we were thinking either to proceed Höfn to look for some food or it would be safer just to stay in the hotel. After some doubts we decided to continue. Even though it was just 26 km away, the road took us about 40 minutes one way.
On the next day we had Ice Cave tour at Skaftafell Glacier by Local Guide. Our initial booked tour was for a remote ice cave and included 1-2 hours of glacier trekking. However due to the weather conditions operator switched it for a closer cave. These caves are all natural and as result are affected by weather. Warm December made many of the caves dangerous to visit. So if you decide to go be prepared for the last minute changes.
After the visit to the cave we drove for the rest of the day to Eldhestar, a small village not far from Reykjavik. When you do not do Ring Road — you will have to drive the same road twice.
We still had two more days. On the first day we moved to the North from Reykjavik to see the Western Iceland. After a few days on the southern shore the landscape changed — wide plains, a lot of horses and sheep. Comparing to the South the distances between sights are much longer. So we had to drive more but seen less.
The first point was… drumming… a waterfall! Hraunfossar. Actually it is a series of waterfalls formed by rivulets streaming for about 900 meters out of lava field. As a result it looks like waterfall comes from underground. After that we proceed to Deildartunguhver Geothermal Area and then to Kirkjufell. I’ve seen some nice photos with Northern Lights around Kirkjufell, and the forecast for that night was very good. However… the sky was totally covered with clouds. So we had our dinner in a small town nearby, turned back and drove two more hours back to our hotel.
Finally at the hotel I took a bottle of beer, my towel and went to a geothermal bath. Just a few steps before the bath I turned left and saw it. Incredible Northern Lights, bright and colourful!
On the next day we explored an area between Reykjavik and Keflavik Airport — another geothermal area, a lake and famous Blue Lagoon. Ironically but that famous Blue Lagoon is an artificial geothermal spa. It is actually a side effect of nearby power plant 😉
Here is the itinerary of our trip. Important! It includes timing for the winter season!