After our trip to Southern Iceland in February of 2019, we certainly hadn’t planned on a return to Iceland so quickly. Iceland has immense natural beauty and we witnessed that during our journey to Southern Iceland. However, the lure of the phenomenon of the Northern Lights beckoned us back for a fall adventure in October of 2019.
Guide to the Northern Lights
We’ve learned that no trip should ever be planned around the Northern Lights. Think of them as an amazing bonus to a trip you otherwise wanted to take…because they are fickle. It takes a confluence of a solar storm, clear skies with no cloud cover, and darkness to produce a mesmerizing display. I’ll compile here all of our tips for increasing your odds, but there is never a guarantee. The aurora is a result of collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that collide with gases like oxygen and nitrogen in the Earth’s atmosphere. Green lights are most common and are produced from oxygen particles and blue or purple are produced by nitrogen. They can be seen from an irregular oval circling each magnetic pole (aurora borealis in the north and aurora australis in the south). The cycle of activity is cyclic and peaks every 11 years with the next peak occurring in 2024. Iceland is situated underneath the oval making it a great place to try to view them. Best viewing times are from September to April when the longer nights create more darkness. The kp index is a measurement of the global geomagnetic activity based on measurements from ground-based magnetometers around the world. It can give you a rough guide of solar activity for an upcoming night, but even on nights with a lower kp index such as 2, you can still see some great displays. We used a few northern lights apps to give us a general sense of the activity but there is no substitution for just peeking out every so often at night to see if there is activity. Cloud cover can be a challenge in Iceland though. We used the site https://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora/ nightly to check the cloud cover. You can be a true light chaser and move each night to where cloud cover is predicted to be less. In addition to clear skies and high solar activity, you need darkness. You can’t just look up from a Reykjavik hotel room due to the light pollution which may obscure any minor activity. You’ll need to trek outside of any bright lights from a city or hotel and make your way into darkness which is not too difficult to do in Iceland. We would highly suggest using your own rental car for this which gives you infinitely more flexibility. A tour bus is going to take you to a set location at a set time which dramatically reduces your odds. My final tip is check the moon cycle. Our first trip to Iceland was during a full moon which makes it difficult to see the the lights. I won’t elaborate here on photographing the lights as so much has been written on this topic but absolutely pack a tripod and camera and give it a shot. I’m a novice and with a few tips, was able to get some great pictures.
Home Base: Dalvik
We planned according to the above factors with the main influencer being luck, and we got to see lights 8 of our 9 nights in Iceland. Another key to our success was our accommodation. For this adventure we chose an amazing Airbnb called Skrida just outside of Dalvik in Northern Iceland located on a rural road with very little light pollution. This made it easy to quickly hop outside for a peek at the skies instead of shivering in a cold car for hours. That speck of gray below is our gloriously secluded house.
Our Northern Iceland trip had a focus on the lights but we made sure to plan the remainder of the trip well to avoid disappointment. We started with another early Iceland arrival in Keflavik before heading to our first stop…the Silver Circle. The Silver Circle is a short loop of sites to see including Deildartunguhver hot springs, Hraunfosser and Barnafoss waterfalls and Snorrastofa where Snorri Sturluson, a famous Iceland scholar lived. We quickly toured these sites before a much needed nap to prepare for the predicted strong solar activity that night. We used the cloud cover app to take a 2 hour drive to the Akranes lighthouse predicted to have better visibility and had amazing luck! Our first night was spent at the FossHotel Reykholt which was a suitable accommodation but lacked the panache of the FossHotel Glacier Lagoon we visited earlier in the year.
Our next day, we drove north to our final destination, our Airbnb outside of Dalvik. On the way, we sidetracked to Hvitserkur, aka the drinking dragon. This is a fascinating rock formation that looks like a dragon is taking a slurp of water from the ocean. We also stumbled upon an incredible mass of horses being herded. Unknowingly, we were seeing part of the Iceland annual horse herding tradition named Laufskálarétt. Each summer, the Icelandic horses are left to roam free in the wild and in the fall they are herded, corralled and sorted back to their owners so they can be safe in the cold winter months. There were hundreds of horses galloping magnificently along the countryside with Icelandic volunteers aiding in the roundup.
For this trip, we planned to cook nearly all our meals at our rental property which saved quite a bit. We stopped at Bonus supermarket outside of Akureyri where we stocked up for the week. Food was fairly reasonable and we spent about $100 to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner for the week with just 3 meals out. A mini splurge must be Bakaríið við brúna bakery in Akureyri with delicious cupcakes and bread. Our Airbnb was a beautiful home with floor to ceiling glass windows in the living room for viewing the Northern Lights and the herd of sheep with whom we shared the property. Night two we took another trek based on the cloud cover to Hofsos. Hofsos is a tiny coast town where we visited the Stadarbjorg small basalt columns and dined at Berg’s Cafe awaiting the lights. This was a super cute little dining establishment on the water with great food and drink specials. Night 2’s display coincided with a huge surge of solar activity and we witnessed a stunning, phenomenal display. The lights danced and fluttered across the sky so brightly and quickly that I had a very difficult time trying to capture any part of the wonderment on my camera.
Next up was Akureyri, nicknamed the “Reykjavik of the North.” Much like Reykjavik, this is a modern city with a main street named Hafnarstraeti filled with shops and restaurants. We dined at Bautinn, a restaurant located in one of the oldest buildings in the city and on a second day trip, we succumbed to the temptation of having a famous Icelandic Hot Dog at Pylsuvaginn. We also visited the northern most botanical gardens in the world in Akureyri, though in October, it probably was a little less lush than typical. However, we did discover a great forested area just outside of Akureyri named Kjarnaskogur which has an abundance of trails some of which lead to an overlook of Akureyri. We were impressed at this park boasting well marked and maintained trails and several playgrounds for children. My favorite Akureyri site though was the charming traffic lights where the red circles are replaced with hearts. This started in 2008 after Iceland’s financial crash in an effort to elevate the mood of the Icelanders. No need to stop traffic to get a good picture of them though…they have carefully planned a light in a park on the waterfront perfect for your tourist photos.
Staying so close to Dalvik, we wanted to do a little exploration there so our next day was spent doing a long hike just outside of the town. The hiking trails here are a little difficult to locate. We chose a hike named Kofi which was an out and back to a small hut called the Kofi hut. It had relatively minimal elevation and you followed a river with waterfalls throughout. Afterwards we discovered that you can obtain a local map of hiking trails at the coffeehouse in town which would be helpful for planning. Also, if you really wanted a rustic adventure, you could stay at the hut though it is quite small with basically only one bunk.
Our biggest adventure day of our Northern Iceland itinerary though was our tour of Lake Myvatn. We started this one early to have a chance to see everything on our checklist. There is a large loop you can drive stopping at some amazing geologic formations. It also goes by the name, The Diamond Circle. In retrospect though, we would advise grabbing a hotel at the halfway point so you don’t have to beat daylight to see everything. From Dalvik it took us about 1.5 hours to reach Godafoss, an enormous horseshoe shaped waterfall just outside of the loop. Get there early to avoid fellow tourists and have unobstructed views of the massive falls. We drove the route counterclockwise stopping first at the Myvatn Pseudocraters which are giant depressions in a large field full of roaming sheep. From this vantage point, you can gaze across all of Lake Myvatn getting a sense of the size of the massive lake. Here there is also a small cafe and restroom to use before departing for your next stop. Dimmuborgir was our next stop which we felt was a highlight of the circular loop. This is another well marked tourist stop comprised of a massive lava field forming looming towers of lava. Great photos can be taken here against the jet black lava backdrops. For Game of Thrones fans, our next stop was a popular one, Grjotagja Lava Cave. This is the site where the Game of Thrones cave scene between Jon Snow and Ygritte was filmed. This is a very small cave and gets packed with tourists though so the odds of taking an unobstructed photo require some sneaky camera work. The Myvatn Nature Baths are next along this route. This is the North’s answer to the Blue Lagoon and we read many reviews strongly favoring this less touristy alternative. We peeked at the baths but ultimately chose to try the Geosea Sea Baths (more on that later). If you haven’t done the Blue Lagoon though, this might be worth a visit at a cost at least 1/3 less. It overlooks a lot of the circle and the steaming cerulean waters looked pretty tempting. We took a lunch stop at Daddi’s Pizza which has basic offerings reasonably priced and a great little deck overlooking a volcano. The next stop along the tour was the Hverir geothermal area which is a giant field of steam vents billowing into the wind and bubbling mud pools…pretty otherworldly. I would imagine a walk on Mars would look similar! Our final stop in Myvatn was the Krafla crater, another huge depression filled with that perfect blue water.
From here, we turned north turned Husavik to see the most powerful waterfall in Europe, Dettifoss. It’s before this turn, that you may want to consider an overnight, as our second half of the day became a bit rushed. To reach Dettifoss, you’ll turn off the well maintained Ring Road onto Route 862 which is a VERY bumpy gravel road. Dettifoss is fed from a glacier river emanating from the biggest ice cap in Europe, Vatnajokull glacier and it is MASSIVE. Volumes of water rush over the falls in a dingy brown color creating plumes of mist that can be seen from afar. We wanted to spend more time here just admiring the power. I’d consider at least and hour or more if you can. We continued up Route 862 after that to glimpse Asbyrgi Canyon, a large well forested horseshoe shaped canyon but continued driving to catch the sunset at the Geosea Baths. As you turn toward Husavik look north and you can see Grimsey Island, a small Icelandic island straddling the Arctic Circle. We didn’t really spend any time in Husavik. It is known as the whale watching capital of Europe. We had such good luck spying orcas in our tour out of Grundafjordur, that we elected not to do another tour. Though if you haven’t done a whale tour, Husavik tours do get great reviews.
We ended our whirlwind day at the newly opened Geosea Sea Baths. These are not silica based like the Blue Lagoon or the Myvatn Nature Baths but they are thermally heated. We paid 4300 ISK per person which is less expensive than both the Blue Lagoon and Myvatn Nature Baths. There are two large infinity pools that appear to empty directly into the fjord. This is a spectacular place to watch the sunset. Sipping a glass of Prosecco warmed by the thermal waters watching the sun dip into the Atlantic is a pretty great ending to the day.
After our full day of Myvatn adventure, we spent the next day exploring around our Airbnb. We opted for a leisurely walk around Hanefsstadaskogur, a marshy walk through many bird habitats that ended with an impromptu pony petting as a few Icelandic horses came up to their fence to greet us. We also discovered Vellir, a small farm side store selling jams, greenhouse grown vegetables, cheeses and meats. We brought some Christmas jams home for family! Our night ended with one of our only other dining out meal splurges, Bjorbodhi Beer Spa. This is a place where you can take a spa dip in a warm bath of beer! We opted not to do this but enjoyed a great burger and brew in their brand new modern restaurant.
Our final Northern excursion was to Siglofjordur, a tiny coastal town north of Dalvik. I must admit a large reason for this trip was to visit a renowned chocolate shop named Frida Chocolate. We were crushed to find they were on a month long autumn break during our visit and were left chocolate-less! The town itself also has a museum, The Herring Era Museum, which is Iceland’s largest maritime museum. Our timing on this was also poor at we arrived at closing.
After one last night of dancing auroras, we headed back to Reykjavik for a final night’s stay before our flight. We detoured to the Laufus Turf Houses, which are adorable historic homes with grass roofs and stopped in Bogarnes to dine at The Settlement Center which has an expansive vegetarian buffet as well as full menu. Our final stop was Reykjavik and we had a little more time to explore than our last Icelandic visit. Laugavegur is the main street teeming with souvenir shops, dining options and hotels. We stayed at the Sand Hotel by Kea Hotels. We’ve found many of the hotels in Reykjavik to be new, modern, and packed with amenities such as spas and saunas. A must do in the capital is a visit up the tower of Hallgrimskirkja. Once you take the elevator up to the top, you have an expansive view of the colorful rooftops of the city. You’ll have to work to find authentic Icelandic items as many shops offer a monotony of the same t-shirts and figurines. My Icelandic souvenir purchase was actually during my time in South Iceland at Alafoss, a wool factory just outside of Reykjavik offering authentic Icelandic wool items including mittens, sweaters, and blankets. If you are looking for true Icelandic wool, be careful as many items are NOT made in Iceland including many from the popular Icelandic store, Geysir, which only features items designed in Iceland.
Bridge Between 2 Continents
Not wanting to miss a site in Iceland as we doubted we’d be back after two trips in a year, we hit two more attractions on the way to the airport. We stopped to see Grotta Lighthouse and it’s accompanying Kvika foot bath, a tiny foot bath about 2 ‘feet’ wide. To note, if you are staying only in Reykjavik, many will travel to the Grotta lighthouse as it is just far enough out of the light pollution of the city to possibly glimpse the Northern Lights. Finally, we stopped at the Bridge between Two Continents where you can stand on a footbridge connecting the large rift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.
It was quite a busy adventure. We brought books and planned on some leisurely days spent reading in the countryside, but Iceland truly has too much to offer. You could continually travel back and still see only a fraction. I would still emphasize that any trip planned solely around the Northern Lights will be a disappointment as it takes a bit of luck..as well as your careful planning. This trip though…we had a lot of luck and really saw a light show that will stay with us forever!
With our Airbnb and cooking most of our meals, we found this Icelandic adventure fairly affordable. However, we definitely indulged when we took our trip to GeoSea.At 4300 ISK, it is still less costly than both the Blue Lagoon and the Myvatn Nature Baths though. You can’t top sunset with a cocktail in their infinity pools overlooking the fjord. For me, I also loved that this water was not sulfur laden which was much kinder to my hair.
Laufskálarétt is an Iceland annual horse herding tradition. Each summer, the Icelandic horses are left to roam free in the wild and in the fall they are herded, corralled and sorted back to their owners so they can be safe in the cold winter months. There were hundreds of horses galloping magnificently along the countryside with Icelandic volunteers aiding in the roundup. Quite a site to see!
- Don’t do an official Northern Lights Tour. These are so limiting! You are on a bus filled with tourists heading to only one or two sites and they are easily cancelled if the weather isn’t ideal. My advice would be to get a rental car, view the cloud cover map, and get out to somewhere without light pollution! The other very helpful addition to our Northern Lights mission was our Airbnb. We were in a remote location and could just step outside to look up at the sky. Sure beats waiting in a cold car!
- Iceland can be more affordable, but I think dining out is often a budget killer. We cooked every meal except 2 or 3 on a budget of $100 for the week by shopping at a local market. (We used Bonus)
- Lake Myvatn and it’s surrounding sites, sometimes called the Diamond Circle, is probably better split into two days. There is a LOT to see and we felt rushed doing it all in one.