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Chasing the Aurora Borealis on Iceland’s Ring Road in Winter

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Today, we’ve got a super special feature from Kevin Yuan, a globetrotter who loves all things outdoor travel (and is great at photographing it, too!). I met Kevin through a friend of a friend and was excited to learn more about his travels to Iceland to chase the northern lights. Here, Kevin gives us the low down on how he took a winter road trip on Iceland’s Ring Road to chase this natural wonder.

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Getting to bask in the mystic glow of the Aroura Borealis has always been a dream of mine which is why when the opportunity to road trip around Iceland presented itself, I could not have pounced on it any quicker.

For Thanksgiving 2017, my friend, Alberto, and I flew from Los Angeles to Reykjavik and embarked on a journey to drive around the circumference of Iceland, chasing the Northern Lights. On our way around Iceland, we found ourselves trekking through waist deep snow, wading through frozen over waterfalls, and soaking in toasty hot springs amidst the -10-degree night. Iceland can be daunting to plan with its complicated location names and unpredictable weather conditions, but trust me, it is without a doubt worth it. If you’re thinking about heading over to Iceland in winter, read on to see what our itinerary was and how you can maximize your odds of seeing Lady Borealis.

Before You Arrive

  • One of the innkeepers I met while in Iceland told me that getting to see the Borealis is a privilege, not a right and I could not agree more. There are countless stories of people who spend 2 weeks in Iceland in the best Borealis months with the clearest skies, only to go home utterly disappointed to not have spotted the Northern Lights even once which is why filling your Winter Iceland trip with other destinations and attractions will help make your trip a memorable one, with or without the Borealis.
  • You don’t need to exchange any Krona. You can pay for anything in Iceland with your credit card.
  • Icelanders’ English is better than Americans’ English. Seriously, everyone has impeccable English, even in the smallest Icelandic towns at the cusp of the Arctic Circle.
  • Road conditions in Iceland are extremely volatile. There are dedicated snow plows and pilot cars that drive back and forth certain stretches of more perilous roads and there are rescue/police cars that can come to your assistance, albeit at a hefty price-tag. I’ll touch on how to plan for varying road conditions in a section below.
  • Iceland is very expensive and you need to prepare for that mentally. A bottle of water at a gas station will run you around $3.50 and any decent meal at even the most mundane diner will hover around $20-$30 dollars. If you don’t want to pay for that, consider bringing snacks/dry foods in your checked bag to reduce unnecessary costs.
  • Daylight is precious. We went for Thanksgiving and the amount of daylight we had each day had already shrunk to 6 hours per day.

Getting to Iceland

  • Assuming you are in the United States, you should have 2 primary options to fly to Reykjavik on the cheap. The first is Wow Air and the second is Icelandic Air. Wow Air is the budget option with a similar operating model as Spirit where you get one personal item and food/drink/checked baggage are extra. We flew Wow Air and it was completely fine! There was ample leg room and outlets at every seat!

My Itinerary

The ring road, or route 1, is a road that circumvents the entire country of Iceland. It stops or passes through most of the iconic attractions and the biggest cities. It is constantly being maintained by snow plows and pilot cars during the winter by the Icelandic government to not dissuade winter time visitors, so road conditions, barring a storm or blizzard, are relatively manageable.

Our trip took 8 days and 7 nights which is the norm for the recommended length during the winter time. To be honest, a lot of the attractions were either closed or inaccessible so even though I wished we had more time, we were still at the mercy of Mother Nature.

Day 1: Reykjavik to Skogafoss

We started in Reykjavik and decided to go counter-clockwise. The first day, we visited most of the iconic Golden Circle locations where many 1 day tour groups frequent. As a result, most of the sights’ parking lots are usually full and you’ll most likely have to wait patiently for your picture to be free of selfie-sticks or impromptu model shots. All the sights on Day 1 are still must visits and truly amazing. From diving the Continental Divide to soaking in the rotten eggs at Geysir, the namesake of all other geysers, it is a truly a best of Iceland day in a nutshell.

For lodging on Day 1, we stayed at Hotel Skogafoss. It was a rock’s throw away from Skogafoss Falls and it was the perfect place for us first Borealis sighting. We saw the stream of the Northern Lights dancing right over Skogafoss and decided to hike up the winding steps to get closer and sure enough, we were treated to front row seats to an Aurora performance.

 

Things to See

  • Thingvellir National Park (North American / Eurasian Continental Divide)
  • Gullfoss Waterfall
  • Geysir Geothermal Area
  • Seljalandsfoss Waterfall
  • Skogafoss Falls

Day 2: Skogafoss to Hofn

We left Skogafoss in the morning and headed towards Hofn. This day was one of my favorite days for sure. You first pass by Eyjafjallajokull Volcano, the famous Volcano that erupted in 2010. Stop by their museum to watch a quick movie produced by the family that lived right below it and speak to the Grandma of the family that mans the museum. Then head over to Reynisfjara Beach where you’ll be able to see obelisks poking out of the ocean along with the famed column walls that serve as the backdrop to the beach.

We then progressed towards Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon, stopping briefly at Vatnajokull and Myrdralssandur since most of it was just frozen over. Jokulsarlon was where we spent sunset and it was without a doubt, the perfect place to do it. Be sure to balance your time at Diamond Beach and Jokulsarlon carefully. I would recommend Jokulsarlon for sunset just because the colors just bounce off the glaciers and still waters so perfectly. Watch for seals too! We settled for the night at small farmhouse 10 minutes away from Jokulsarlon called Hali, right by the water, and it provided some amazing foreground subjects to frame your Borealis shot!

Things to See

  • Eyjafjallajokull Volcano
  • Reynisfjara Beach
  • Reynisdrangar Cliffs
  • Myrdralssandur Craters
  • Vatnajokull Glacier
  • Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon and Diamond Beach

Day 3: Hofn to Egilsstadir

One the third day, it was a lot more driving as we hugged the Southeastern fjords, weaving in and out of slithering fingers along the coast. Along the way, you’ll see the Cliffs of Vestrahorn consistently on your left and eventually you’ll begin to see a small Viking village in the distance. This village was made for a movie but has yet been used and it offers a truly immersive experience of seeing what an authentic Viking village would have looked like.

We then stopped at Djupivogur for lunch and found the most amazing diner, filled with eclectic Icelandic art and reasonably priced food, called Langabúð.

We kept on driving and finally arrived as Egilsstadir and stayed at the Guesthouse at the edge of Lagarfjot Lake. This was our only night where Lady Borealis did not visit us which was a shame because it would have been the perfect location to see the Borealis reflect off the water’s surface, away from the city lights. We grabbed dinner at a restaurant called Salt which offered modern takes on classics ranging from Pizza to Tikka Masala.

 

Things to See

  • Stokksnes, Cliffs of Vestrahorn
  • Djupivogur Village
  • Lake of Lagarfjot 

Day 4: Egilsstadir to Myvatn

This was my favorite day! We left Egilsstadir early in the morning and drove North towards Lake Myvatn. As soon as you leave Egilsstadir, you’ll begin to climb up these steps hills only to come barreling down the spiraling road that Walter Mitty longboarded down. After that, you’ll head towards Dettifoss, the largest Waterfall in Europe. If you are going in the winter, be careful driving to the parking lot because when we went at the end of November, we truly could not see the road at many stretches of the drive and when we arrived at the trailhead of the waterfall, we were only guided by yellow stakes sticking out of the ground, marking where the trail was intended to be. Once we braved the conditions, we were treated with having Dettifoss all to ourselves and it was truly magical.

After Dettifoss, we drove towards Namaskard and the base of Lake Myvatn. Definitely head over to Myvatn Nature Baths to soak in 50-degree Celsius water while your head freezes in the -10-degree Celsius storm. We settled in for the night at the edge of Lake Myvatn, where they filmed the exploding torpedo scene in Fast and Furious 8. We stayed at Sel Hotel Myvatn and headed out around 10:00PM to chase the Borealis. We found a good waiting spot by Skutustaoagigar, a viewpoint on Google Maps that offered a panoramic view of the lake and surrounding areas. We were then treated to a 2-hour light show right over our heads that truly made this day unforgettable.

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Things to See

  • Hengifoss Waterfall
  • Dettifoss Waterfall
  • Namaskard Myvatn Geothermal Fields and Hot Spring
  • Lake Myvatn and Myvatn Nature Baths

Day 5: Myvatn to Akureyri

This was one of those days where a lot of intended attractions were bypassed due to road conditions. We got caught in a winter storm and the road conditions were so brutal that we saw cars stuck in ditches all along the way to Akyreyri. The roads were closed for half a day and we spent our time at a gas station right by the road closure incessantly refreshing the road condition website, hoping for a way for us to get to Akyreyri, Iceland’s biggest Northern city.

Right before the road closure was Godafoss Waterfall and we could see both sides of it with the waiting time we had. This was my second favorite waterfall just because of how close you can get to it and how wide it was! Once the roads opened, we raced towards Akyreyri and got in late at night. It was difficult to find a good spot to wait for the Borealis in Akyreyri due to the light pollution but we stayed at an outlying lodge called Lamb’s Inn which offered us reprieve from the urban lights and once again, we were incredibly blessed with the Northern Lights.

Things to See

  • Dimmurborgir Lava Castles
  • Grjotagja Underground Bath
  • Hverfjall Mountain
  • Godafoss Waterfall
  • Akyreyri

Day 6: Akureyri to Gauksmyri

Blizzard, blizzard, and more blizzard. Northern Iceland is infamous for its unpredictable road conditions and alas we were definitely humbled by it. As we moved through North-Central Iceland, we could feel our cars swaying left and right, being carried by the wind, and again many of our intended stops listed below were inaccessible or just completely invisible. We switched up our itinerary and drove through a series of tunnels to arrive at, what I am convinced is, the Northern-most coffee shop in the world in a city called Siglufjordur. This was a quaint city with 2 amazing coffee shops that served fresh and toasty baked goods along with incredible coffee and hot chocolate. One shop, in particular, was called Frida, owned by Frida who is an artist by also Chocolate Artesian. When you walk into the shop, you’ll see chairs hollowed out and replaced by rubber duckies and a case of delectable truffles made with local Icelandic ingredients.

We stopped for the night at Gauksmyri, around 2 hours out of Reykjavik at a small county lodge and horse farm. The innkeeper recommended for us to head towards Sjavarborg restaurant, a renovated butcher house converted into a restaurant serving indigenous dishes. Gauksmyri was also the perfect place to wait for the Borealis as it was completely flat, with no hills or mountains to cover traces of the Borealis and sure enough, 10:30 hit and Lady Borealis dropped by and said hello!

Things to See

  • Saudarkrokur
  • Hvitserkur Rock Formation
  • Borgarvirki Fortress 

Day 7: Gauksmyri to Reykjavik

Our last day on the Ring Road was smooth sailing and brought me to my favorite waterfall in Iceland! We left Gauksmyri and went towards Hraunfossar Waterfall. There were many twists and turns upstream of the waterfall, carving out intricate nooks in the rock face and the water was a beautiful turquoise blue. After the waterfall, we made a pit stop at Sturlureykir Horse Farm and it was amazing! Sturlureykir is a world renown horse farm that raises competition ponies and horses that compete in Iceland and internationally.

We stopped by for a tour of their barns and go to interact and pet their ponies and were treated to rye bread made by the local trainers using the natural springs as an oven.

Things to See

  • Deildartunguhhver Hot Spring
  • Hraunfossar Waterfalls
  • Sturlureykir Horse Farm

Day 8: Reykjavik

This was our half-day in Reykjavik ahead of our flight out in the PM. We essentially ran around for 4 hours, trying to find souvenirs to bring home and stopping in all of the beautiful Nordic Cafes along Laugavegur Street, Reykjavik’s answer to Los Angeles’ Abbot Kinney and New York’s SoHo. See below for my recommendations for where to find the best of each category!

  • Coffee: Sandholt
  • Icelandic Wool Sweater: Handknitting Association of Iceland
  • Museum: Reykjavik Art Museum
  • Art Store: Arctic Photo
  • Bar: Prikið

Aurora Borealis Tips

Chasing the Borealis is as much luck as it is an art. After 8 days of doing it, I am by no means an expert but I wanted to impart some of the lessons learned from my trip on to you!

1) The Borealis is often photographed to be this bright green ribbon across the sky. Though it may often be the case and you truly can see its fluorescent glow, on most days, it more resembles a faint green cloud, whipping through the sky in erratic motions. How you can tell it’s the Borealis and not cloud is you’ll be able to see stars behind the Borealis but not clouds!

2) Use Vedur! Vedur is the Icelandic government’s website for weather reports, road conditions, wind predictions, and of course, Borealis conditions. There is a 6-minute delay but is more reliable than anything else.

How to use Vedur:

  • Go to the home page for the Borealis (http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora/) and you’ll be able to see the Kp-Index on the top right corner. It is essentially a representation of the strength and Aurora Activity for the day with 1 being the lowest and 9 being the highest. In our 7 nights there, the highest we saw was a 5 and lowest being a 2.
  • The most useful part of Vedur that was a lifesaver was the following link (http://en.vedur.is/weather/articles/nr/2549). This page has 2 key pieces of information:
  1. The Auroral Oval Map. It shows where the Borealis is currently so if it is not over Iceland, there is no point in going out. We found that around 10-10:30 PM was the most likely time for the Borealis to be right over Iceland.
  2. The Measurements of the 3 Components of the Magnetic Field. This was essentially our primary guide of whether to head outside. We realized quickly that there was no point to just sit in the -10-degree Celsius cold awaiting the Borealis. The chart below is what the website looks like and what you are looking for is sudden drops or rises in values indicating existence of activity. In the chart below, it indicates that the Borealis started at around 2:00AM and was at peak activity from 4:30AM to 6:00AM.

Cloud cover is your worst enemy. When people refer to trying to see the Borealis as chasing Borealis, I feel a more accurate representation would be fleeing cloud cover. Even if there is the strongest magnetic activity and the Borealis is roaring above you, if there are clouds above you, you will not be able to see it. So, use Vedur and your eyes carefully and try and find spots around where you are night that is clear.

Light pollution is your second worst enemy behind cloud cover. Many people stay within Reykjavik, hoping to see the Borealis. Although it is possible and may even occur, the city’s light pollution will dilute whatever brightness of the Borealis and dampen its visibility. If you aren’t road tripping with your own vehicle and can’t find your way to remote stretches of Iceland, deprive of light, I would recommend signing up for one of the many Borealis tours with the plethora of tour operators based out of Reykjavik. They will drive you to outlying areas of Reykjavik, away from light pollution and potential cloud cover.

Final Tips

  • Do not underestimate the cold. You’ll be outside for hours at a time late at night and the prolonged exposure will take a toll. Definitely over pack than under pack!
  • Bring spare camera batteries or invest in a battery grip. The cold drains battery remarkably quickly. My Canon 5D Mark III with a full charge usually lasts around 4-6 hours but in the cold, it seemed more like 30 minutes. If your intention is to shoot the Borealis, you definitely don’t want something like a lack of batteries make you miss out on a shot of a lifetime.
  • For more detailed itinerary planning, use tour operator websites! They are often excessively detailed and provide a good guideline of how best to coordinate which sites to see first as well as secret spots that may be more difficult to find.

The Bottom Line

By no means is this the definitive guide on how to traverse through the Ring Road in Iceland. I hope this inspires you to make the trip over to a country that has seriously stolen my heart. If you have any questions or specific concerns about anything, please let me know and if you have spot for one that you need to be filled on your next excursion to Iceland, please let me know as well! Good luck and happy Borealis sighting.

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Northern Lights in Iceland: Is seeing the northern lights on your bucket list? In this post, Kevin Yuan shares his tips on chasing the aurora borealis in Iceland. #Iceland | northern lights iceland | winter activities in iceland | things to do in iceland | northern lights photography | bucket list ideas |

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All photos by Kevin Yuan. If you’d like to see more of his photography, check out his Instagram and Flickr accounts.

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