Iceland and Northern Lights
Taking full advantage of some time off work, Katie and I took off for a week in Iceland. My parents joined us on our adventure in this scenic wonderland chasing the Northern Lights. Along the way, we were pleasantly surprised at how easy this international travel experience was – from the lodging, food, local people, rental cars, and airport security – it is clear that Iceland has perfected tourism.
Grundarfjörður – Snaefellsnes peninsula
After the 7 hour direct flight from Denver to Reykjavik, we hopped into our rental car and drove towards the Snaefellsnes peninsula. We stopped briefly in Reykjavik for groceries (it’s hard to find good lunch spots in remote Iceland) and much needed coffee. Despite our jet-lag and Ambien induced stupor, we eventually made it to Grundarfjörður mostly intact, approximately 25 round-abouts later. We settled into our small apartment room and took a several hour long nap. Waking for sunset, we explored around Kirkjufellfoss, which is a waterfall in front of the famous Kirkjufell mountain (“Church Mountain”). Fortunately for me, the slate grey overcast skies parted briefly, revealing a wonderful and colorful sunset scene.
After chowing down on fish and chips for dinner, we headed back out around 10:30p to stalk the Northern lights. Knowing the forecast called for partly cloudy skies and a kP level 3 storm, we were optimistic. Waiting for several hours, Katie and I noticed a “beam of light” forming on the west horizon. Being Aurora Borealis rookies, we had no clue that was actually the northern lights. It wasn’t until the beam split and started dancing that we realized our mistake! We were entertained for ~ 20 minutes by the light show, which was truly one of the most remarkable things we’ve ever witnessed. Happy with our luck, we went back to the comfort of our apartment and slept. A short few hours later, I awoke to photograph sunrise. The skies were mostly clear, revealing the stunning scenery of the Snaefellsnes peninsula in all of its grandeur. After eating breakfast, we started our drive towards Gullfoss, which is the largest waterfall in Europe. En route, sunny skies soon yielded to overcast and rainy weather.
Gullfoss is an impressive waterfall, reminding us of a “mini-Iguazu falls.” It is multi-tiered and partially frozen in the winter. Given the amount of mist produced, the walkways around the falls are treacherous and icy – which also means it’s hard to get up close and personal to the falls. That evening, we ate dinner at our hotel – enjoying delicious local seafood. The forecast that evening was for persistent heavy rain, which also meant a satisfying 9 hours of catch-up sleep!
The next morning we took off for the Hali Country House on Iceland’s south coast. The drive was rainy and overcast, but started to clear once we got near the famous Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. Here, icebergs calve off the Vatnajökull glacier, making the journey from the lake and out to the ocean. They get bottle-necked near the entrance to the ocean, with the collection of icebergs varying depending on the winds and the tides. We then went to our hotel and came back for sunset.
At sunset, we went to the also famous “Diamond Beach” which is where the icebergs get pushed back onto shore from the fierce winds and also the tides. A photographers dream, this beach is stunning any time of day, but especially at sunset when the Icebergs change color with every incoming wave. Back at the hotel, we ate delicious Artic Char for the first time.
That evening’s forecast was cloudy and with a kP level of 2 (which means that the Aurora likely wouldn’t be visible inIceland). Regardless, we drove out in a sideways snowstorm towards the glacier lagoon. Much to our surprise, the aurora was active in the partly cloudy skies over the lagoon. It wasn’t the dancing show of two nights prior, but was magical nonetheless.
The next morning, we headed off for a glacier tour. We were signed up for a glacial “waterfall” tour which entailed some minor hiking – which also means little, to no tourists… Unfortunately, that cave was destroyed in an avalanche, which meant we were now doing the popular “Ice Cave Tour.” We were joined by a group of 16 Japanese tourists and set off in ridiculous 4×4’s fitted with 42 inch tires. Fording through deep snow, ice, and water, we made eventually made it to the ice cave. Due to the sheer number of people there (at least 40+ people in a small ice cave can be claustrophobic), the tour itself was slightly underwhelming.
Back at the hotel, Katie and I went back to the Diamond Beach – and this time there were HUGE icebergs the size of buses and cars! What a difference a change in wind direction can make! That evening we drove over to Hofn for the recommended langoustine (lobster). After Katie gorged on ~20 lobster tails, we went back to the hotel. After a brief northern lights check, we went to bed and slept soundly.
In the morning, we made the slow drive along the south coast towards Vik and the Skodafoss waterfall. On the way, we stopped at Skatafel National Park at the base of the Vatnajökull glacier. We hiked ~1.5 KM to the face of a glacier, which was a great and unexpected experience. On the way back to the car, we got blasted with snow, ice, and 40 MPH headwinds. Fortunately, the park visitor center had hot coffee to warm back up!
As we arrived to Vik, we checked out the nearby black sand beach with offshore seastacks. The wind was ridiculously powerful, and rather than risking significant sand damage to our rental car, we headed out of Vik. After briefly stopping to help two Scots try and push their Jeep out of a snow bank, we made our way to Reynisfjara.
Here, the waves are notoriously unpredictable and every 10-15th wave is ridiculously powerful. In February, there was a tourist who drowned at this beach. I watched a tourist get knocked over and nearly swept out to sea and photographer fall over and soak his camera after brazenly inching closer to the water. The shear power and unpredictability of these waves makes for a stunning scene, that fortunately for us was illuminated with beautiful light by the passing storms. While I was busy photographing, Katie and my parents found shelter from the rain squalls in the nearby restaurant. After sampling a wonderful IPA from Reykjavik, we headed 20 minutes up the road to our hotel near Skogafoss.
That evening we caught our last tiny glimpse of the Aurora. The skies had multiple cloud breaks, but frustratingly, the aurora forecast didn’t keep. In the morning, we packed up our bags and headed back to the airport near Reykjavik.
There is a reason that tourism is exploding in Iceland given its proximity to Europe and North America. Hotels were clean and reasonably priced. The food (particularly seafood) was outstanding. Driving the ring road was easy and intuitive. At most importantly, the scenery rivals some of the most stunning I’ve ever seen (although not quite to the level of Patagonia..).
- There are many unmanned gas stations which do not accept standard chip and sign cards (most debit cards that are chip and pin will work).
- Finding lunch spots along the way can be difficult, so we shopped for groceries in Reykjavik.
- GPS: We pre-programmed our destinations into our GPS App (Navigator, Android only). Typing the Icelandic addresses in after arrival can be cumbersome and it isn’t uncommon for tourists to get lost.
- To check out the detailed aurora forecast (+cloud cover): http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora/
Pros: scenery, scenery, and more scenery. Super friendly locals. Easy travel. Northern lights!
Cons: food is quite expensive. Lots of driving with little hiking available in the winter
Car rental: blue car rental (as a bonus, all rental cars are fitted with studded winter tires).