At the end of last year, Fiona and I spent just over a week in Iceland to drive across the south and see as much of the country as we could.
Winters in Iceland are known as much for their surreal snow-covered scenery as they are for their blizzards, so the visiting at the coldest time of the year had its risks. On the other hand, the off-season meant lower costs, fewer people around, and a chance of seeing the Northern Lights.
8 Days in Iceland | First Day | November 2016
The flight to Keflavik from London was longer than I expected, given there’s no time zone change. What did change was the temperature - it wasn’t warm when we left, but arriving without cold-weather clothing on was bitterly cold.
In the winter, the only realistic way to get around Iceland is by renting a car. We picked ours up at the airport and although it was only a short walk, it was enough to make me wish I’d taken the time to change into thermals. We’d rented a small-class car (something like a Fiesta) but were pleasantly surprised to be upgraded to a Mazda 3.
As you’d expect, chunky studded winter tires are mandatory. While not mandatory, I loved the heated seats, particularly as a quick way for me to warm back up whenever I jumped out to snag a photo.
The first stop on our itinerary was the Iceland-famous Blue Lagoon spa, not too far from the airport. The lagoon itself is artificial; the water is pumped up by a nearby geothermal power plant.
The Icelandic way to prepare for a swim is to shower and wash thoroughly beforehand. The main problem with this is the gap of windy -2°C outdoors that separates the warm indoors and the start of the pool.
The air temperature might be below zero, but the water sits at around 37° and keeps you perfectly warm. Of course, that’s not counting your ears, which start to freeze up unless you dunk your head every few minutes. The water also isn’t a constant temperature - it’s colder in some places, and hotter where it’s pumped in.
After a couple of hours in the baths, we changed into thermals and I was finally able to walk around outside without shivering violently the whole time. I was quite surprised as the only addition was adding a merino baselayer, but it made an enormous difference.
Suitably dressed, we explored the paths through the lava rocks that surround the lagoon. It’d snowed before we arrived, which gave it a perfect black and white look.
Our accommodation for the first night was in Selfoss. It’s a fairly industrial town without a lot to see, but it’s well placed for seeing the south-west, and full of shops so we were able to stock up on food.
The Golden Circle | Þingvellir, Gullfoss, Geysir | Days Two & Three
The plan for our first full day was to complete the Golden Circle, a route which covers three of the main landmarks in south-west Iceland.
That was the plan. It actually ended up taking two days. Part of that was because of how early it got dark, and the other part was the number of things along the road that make you stop and get out. We didn’t even make it to Þingvellir - stop number one, a seriously pretty national park - before getting pulled over by a field of Icelandic ponies.
Although it hadn’t settled too deep, it had snowed overnight which gave the landscape the signature Iceland look.
Our main target was the Öxarárfoss waterfall. Unlike some other waterfalls, it hadn’t frozen over, but where the spray flew up it had frozen into thousands of icicles.
Due to the super-short day lengths at this time of year, it was getting dark by the time we reached the next stop, Geysir. This is where the original Geysir lives, where the word comes from. Although it no longer goes off regularly, there’s another which fires every few minutes.
The evening drawing in meant that we had to put off Gulfoss until tomorrow. We explored Selfoss a little that night, but as expected there wasn’t a whole lot to see there. When we did make it to Gulfoss, we had awful weather for it - continual driving rain which somehow made it through our outer waterproof layers and started soaking through. Needless to say, we didn’t linger longer than necessary to see the sights.
On the upside, the rain meant that the waterfall itself was going gangbusters. The path leading down to some of the better vantage points was closed though, just due to being iced over from the spray.
With the Golden Circle done, we spent the rest of the day driving around. Although we found a couple of places which looked interesting on a map, they turned out to be impassable dirt roads once we got there. The local swimming bath in Selfoss helped redeem the evening though - they had a few shallow pools where you can lie just about covered by warm water in the freezing air.
Drive to Höfn | Seljalandsfoss, Sólheimasandur
Our schedule in Iceland gave us the first three days in the South West, before driving over to Höfn to spend two nights there. There was a whole long list of places to see on the way, so we made good use of the journey.
Our first stop was at Seljalandsfoss, one of the better-known waterfalls in the south. A lot of the photos you see of it are taken from a cave behind the waterfall, but the frozen spray makes that path impassable in the winter. Although it was pretty touristy around the waterfall, following the trail to the left takes you to a second, much quieter waterfall with a climbable cliff path.
Our second stop was at Skogafoss. This was a more built-up waterfall than Seljalandsfoss, though that had some perks - proper wooden stairs up to the top of the waterfall, and somewhere warm to dry off after being soaked by the freezing spray blowing off the base of the waterfall. Actually taking photos down at the base was a bit of a challenge - the waterfall lands in a narrow canyon, and the spray blows off and is guaranteed to cover any camera lens within a couple of seconds.
Our final stop of the day was at the Sólheimasandur plane crash - a US DC plane that ran out of fuel and crashed on a black sand beach right in the middle of nowhere. In the past, it was best accessed with a 4x4, but nowadays it’s only accessible with a 3-mile walk from the road. The surroundings are stunningly featureless, with only path markers to count on the lonely walk there.
From there, we had an evening drive on to our room in Höfn. This was when we got our first glimpse of the Northern lights - we stopped for a few photos, but the wind was blowing so hard that I wasn’t able to get any good shots.
Fjords | Berufjörður, Reyðarfjörður | Day 5
This was one of the few days where the weather was truly perfect. No rain, no overcast clouds, just sun and a light skim of clouds. The persistent grey skies of the last few days had made getting good photos a bit more of a challenge. Today though, there was no such problem.
Our plan today was to drive up the eastern fjords of Iceland, which sweep in and out through dozens of inlets. The main road follows them in and out so actually getting anywhere takes a long time, and is the reason there are so many tunnels crossing beneath the mountains.
We’d barely gotten to the coast before we stopped to grab a couple of photos. Despite being late morning, the sun was still so low in the sky that it gave everything a nearly-sunset look.
We stopped off for a late lunch of ramen noodles in a small fishing village. It was around 3 pm by this point, and the sun was just starting to set as we came across a low-lying area covered in a thin layer of crunchy ice. It looked like it had previously been a shallow lake or inlet, but had long since frozen over.
Although we were tired from a day of driving, I’d been keeping an eye on the aurora forecast all week, and tonight married a mostly clear sky with likely viewing conditions - a combo we wouldn’t see again. So, late at night we drove north of Höfn and got our first proper view of it.
It had been a while since I’d done any astrophotography, and this was a tough re-introduction - the freezing conditions mean camera batteries don’t last anywhere near as long as they normally do, and I figured this would be my one and only chance to get some decent pictures. Did I mention it’s a pretty cold place to be standing around outside for an hour?
Glacier Hiking | Skaftafell National Park | Day 6
Ok, so a second side-effect of the late night aurora-watching was not getting enough sleep before waking up stupidly early the next morning to drive back west along the coast to Skaftafell National Park.
We went on a guided hike onto the glacier, and down into an ice cave inside the glacier itself. These form in the winter where flowing water cuts its way through the glacier. They’re notoriously finicky and dangerous, so we were lucky to be able to visit one.
Iceberg lagoon | Jökulsárlón
After finishing the hike, we turned back east and stopped in at Jökulsárlón Iceberg lagoon, which is exactly what it sounds like - a glacial lagoon, filled with icebergs. And, as it turned out, seals.
Although we’d had perfect weather for the hike, the afternoon turned overcast and foggy which made it hard to see the whole lagoon. As we were heading back that way the following day on our trip back to Selfoss, we stopped in a second time with far better weather.
On the way back West to Selfoss, we also stopped at Svartifoss waterfall for a walk.
Reykjavík | | Final Day
We got back to Selfoss fairly late and didn’t really get a chance to appreciate the awesome little house we were staying in for our final night. It was a basement flat, but very cosy and decorated with a Christmas tree.
I set up my phone for a time-lapse overnight and managed to catch the snowstorm that played out overnight - it was a pretty tame one by Iceland standards.
Our flight wasn’t until the afternoon, so our plan was to wind our way back to the airport via Reykjavík, which we hadn’t touched on until that point. We also visited the geothermal power plant that provides the majority of the electricity for the city, which has a visitors centre and several exhibitions.
That’s the whole of it! We were extremely lucky with the weather we had. It easily could have been blizzarding with impassable roads as it was a couple of months later, but the worst we had was rain.
Going in the winter made for an absolutely spectacular trip, though if I were to head back I’d definitely consider a longer trip with a 4x4 to cover the entire ring road. A lot of the more out of the way places are only accessible during the summer, and to reach them you need all-wheel drive to traverse the gravel roads.