10 days and 1500 miles in Iceland

Bucket lists - everyone has one. And near the top of mine for a long time has been to see the northern lights, aka the aurora borealis. There are also southern lights called the aurora australis. Both are the result of solar activity entering and interacting with the earth’s atmosphere. While the lights occur year-round, they are only visible in winter when the night sky is dark. And because I’m starting my world tour in the winter, I decided to ✅ this item off my bucket list immediately. 

There are a lot of places you can go to see the lights - I decided to try to see them in Iceland. The country has become really trendy for tourism lately, creating an easy well-traveled road for us solo expeditioners. Plus, I didn’t only want to see the lights - I wanted to explore a new place, people, and culture and, tbh, I didn’t want to put a lot of effort into planning. I knew I had a better chance of really experiencing Iceland than I did with somewhere like Alaska (~16x bigger than Iceland) or Canada (~96x bigger). 

Case in point: when I went to the airport to catch my flight, I had my passport, a giant suitcase full of winter clothing, a rental car reservation, and a hotel booking for my first night in Reykjavík. That’s it. The rest of the trip was TBD. 

And TBD worked out really well! I was able to choose my next activities, destination, and hotel day by day based on the weather forecast, aurora forecast (see helpful links at bottom of post), and the debilitating strength of my jet lag. Ultimately I circled the country on Iceland’s “ring road,” Route 1, starting east along the “golden circle.”

And because I had so much flexibility, I saw the lights THREE NIGHTS IN A ROW(!!), which definitely would not have happened otherwise.

It seems obvious, but my main takeaway from Iceland is that it is a really beautiful country. Like, really gorgeous. It has snow-capped mountains, active volcanoes, climbable glaciers, black sand beaches, natural hot lagoons, and in the summertime, Puffins! The hardest part about driving my rental car was that I really just wanted to be a passenger so I could stare out the window at the scenery. 

If you research the waterfalls in Iceland, you’ll easily come up with over a dozen official falls. But there’s so much melting snow and ice in the mountains that water is literally rushing down through the country everywhere! 

The lack of development in Iceland, especially in light of the country’s tourism boom, was really noticeable, creating a feast for the eyes of landscapes largely unaltered by human activity.

As far as when is the best time to go to Iceland, if you want to see the lights, you have to go in the winter. With shorter days and longer nights, you’ll have more opportunities to see them. If you want to go to Iceland for any other reason, then summertime is where it’s at! There is so much to do and see in Iceland in summer! In winter, hiking trails are inaccessible or covered in ice (resulting in a wrist injury for me, womp womp). The waterfalls are covered in ice buildup and lose a lot of their visual power and beauty. Roads are closed, rendering much of the country off-limits. Many of the already limited selection of restaurants are seasonally closed.

In summertime, it’s warm(ish), the days are endless, the birds have arrived, the flora have blossomed, the roads are open, hiking is safer, the waterfalls are flowing in all of their glory - at least that’s my impression. I’ll be going back this summer to confirm these rumors…

No matter the season, make sure you put aside at least a day and a night to explore Reykjavík.

Other helpful tidbits for future travelers: if you want freedom to explore any of the country’s likely-unpaved three digit F roads, get a 4wd car; pay the extra $$ for a wifi device in your car; bring clothes so you can stick it out in the wind and the rain; figure out your food plan BEFORE getting to Iceland because food in Iceland is expensive and limited; and if you are driving or have any travel flexibility, keep an eye on the country’s forecast for where you may want to go and when. 

And if you do decide to go in the winter, keep an eye out for wild reindeer, which one of my loving airbnb hosts warned me “are stupid” and might walk or scatter onto the roads unexpectedly.

Helpful links:

Aurora Forecast: http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora/ 

Road conditions: http://www.road.is 

General weather forecast: http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/areas/  

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