Winter in Iceland

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Jan 21, 2012
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393
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Canada
Thanks to Iceland Air's extended-layover offer, I was recently able to travel around this beautiful little island for seven days on my way from Europe back to Canada.

February in Iceland is the perfect time to see the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis), but it can be a challenging time in terms of weather. I was by myself with no pre-set itinerary, which gave me the luxury to go wherever the weather forecast was best at any given day. All I had was a 2WD rental car, as well as a list of some BnBs and Hostels.

Day 1: Arrival

I landed in Keflavik late at night. I saw some Northern Lights on the way from the airport into Reykjavik, but given the good weather forecast for the next day, I just kept driving. Stayed at a BnB in Reykjavik overnight.

Day 2: The North West

I left Reykjavik in the morning and drove to where the weather forecast was best for the next day - and night: North.
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On Highway 1, the "Ring Road". Almost no traffic. Road conditions are clear in the lower areas.

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A small detour via Kerlingarskarð Pass (R56), Snæfellsnes Peninsula. At higher elevations, the road conditions worsen, but are still easily manageable for my little rental car. There is even less traffic, other than the occasional snow plow.

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This is the former town of Kálfshamarsvík, an abandoned fishing village way up north. There are ruins of old houses, a lighthouse, and interesting basalt formations at the coast. Sunset lasts a very long time at this latitude, and the natural saturation is almost a bit much for my D7000.


My stop for the night is Skagaströnd, a little bit further south.

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This fishing town of 550 is apparently where a lot of the former residents of Kálfshamarsvík ended up after the fish populations moved.
While I am having dinner with a few film makers I met in the town, somebody comes rushing in and announces that "the lights are already on". This is what I came here for!

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Skagaströnd under the Northern Lights, just after sunset

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Spákonufell Mountain just outside Skagaströnd.

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I was standing in the middle of the road for almost an hour, taking these shots and watching the light show. The only car that passed me was another photographer.

The show keeps going long after I head back into town. The lights are strong that we can still see them perfectly fine over the brightly lit fishing harbour.

Day 3: Heading South again

The weather is supposed to get significantly worse during this day. On the advice of the locals, I take full advantage of the sunshine in the morning and first head east to Sauðárkrókur and Hofsós before taking Highway 1 back towards Reykjavik.

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Sauðárkrókur Harbour
This town has a great little bakery, highly recommended.

Everyone tells me that the famous "Blue Lagoon" in the south west is a bit of a tourist trap. Since you can't leave Iceland without going to a geothermal pool, I head to the little town of Hofsós, which has a small but very neat pool at 1/10th of the price of admission:

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This is kind of an "infinity" pool, when in the water, the edge to seems to disappear, and with a bit of luck you can see whales in the Fjord below. The water is also very low in sulfur, compared to most other geothermal pools in the country. Highly recommended.

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Small church in Hofsós. These type of chapels can be found all over the country.

The weather really turns bad during my drive back to Reykjavik in the afternoon, 60mph crosswinds on the coast and howling rain make it hard to keep the car on the road. My plan for the next few days is to travel along the south coast and check out all the typical tourist destinations, but the forecast isn't good for the next day or two.

Day 4: Rain

I don't think I took any photos on this day. I headed from Reykjavik to the town of "Vik" in the south. An attempt to hike to a famous plane wreck on the beach near Vik fails spectacularly due to increasing rain and winds. In the low visibility, I find myself on the wrong side of a river with no bridges. On the way back to the car, my phone dies as water is pushed up into my jacket by the storm. I check into the lovely Vik hostel for the night.


to be continued
 
Joined
Jan 21, 2012
Messages
393
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Day 5: Vik Area

The weather has drastically improved overnight, but is still pretty bad further east, so I decide to stay in the Vik area for the day. In the morning I go for a hike to Reynisfjall "Mountain" (more like: cliff) just outside Vik, with two girls from the UK I met at the hostel.
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Reynisdrangar

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Dyrhólaey, seen from Reynisfjall.

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Rough seas at Dyrhólaey

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Vik

Around mid day, my hiking companions have to head back towards Reykjavik, and I still have to avenge my phone and make it to that plane wreck...

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This DC-3 lies on the black beach west of Vik. It is about a 3.5km (2 mile) hike from the road on almost perfectly flat black gravel. Alternatively, local tour operators will drive you there, but where's the fun in that? Just make sure to check the map and start on the right side of the river. The location of the plane is well known, but there are no signs, and I do not know the backstory to the plane wreck.

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While I am checking out the plane, a 4WD bus full of photographers arrives, and a dozen people start setting up their tripods around the plane. One guy even starts firing up a remote controlled quad-copter with a camera to take aerial shots. I take this as my clue to leave and hike back to my car.

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On the Ring Road, near the DC 3 wreck.



Other than the cliffs at Dyrhólaey, this area is also well known for its iconic waterfalls, Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss‎:
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Skógafoss‎

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Skógafoss‎ is pretty impressive


Seljalandsfoss is smaller but just as picturesque. There is a small and somewhat steep path behind the water, which was naturally completely covered in 2 inches of ice this time of the year. I had planned for this and brought ice spikes for my shoes. A family of four, that wasn't equipped as such, tries to follow me briefly, and nearly collectively goes for a swim in the 1C "warm" water. Tourists, eh?

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Seljalandsfoss from behind. Keeping the fish-eye lens dry was the main challenge here, unfortunately I wasn't quite successful.
There are always 3 or 4 tour busses full of tourists at this waterfall, but they all leave long before the light really gets interesting.
 
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Joined
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393
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While having dinner in Vik, an American couple invites me to their table and recommends that I check out the Skaftafell glacier on my way east the next day:

Day 6: Ice

Skaftafell Glacier ("Jökull") is halfway between Vik and the famous "Jökulsárlón" Iceberg-Bay, which is my main destination for this day.

A short 20 minute hike from the parking lot (and the bus loads full of tourists) is the end of the glacier, and again I am by myself. Even in Iceland, tourists tend to be attracted to parking lot and pavement...

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Unlike other glacier locations elsewhere in the world, there are no fences stopping you from having a closer look at this one, probably due to the much lower volume of people that actually come here this time of the year. Great for a photo, but it would also be really, really easy for someone to slip on the ice and slide into one of the 50ft deep cracks, never to be seen again. Obviously my shoe spikes aren't the right equipment for this kind of endeavour, and I didn't bring any real crampons or an ice axe.

Another hour or so east from Skaftafjelljökull lies Jökulsárlón. The landscape progressively gets more and more spectacular the closer you get to the bay, I should have really stopped more often to take photos here

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The Ring Road, near Jökulsárlón.

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Jökulsárlón Bay

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Seals playing in the icy water

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My stop for the night is also the easternmost point of my trip, the town of Höfn. The hostel here is almost completely empty, as is the rest of the town, which is fairly large by icelandic standards. I was originally thinking about heading further east into the East Fjords, but the weather forecast changes that plan. I arrive in Höfn after dark and leave before sunrise.

 
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Day 7: The "golden circle"

Driving distances are pretty manageable in Iceland compared to what I am used to in Canada. I easily make it from Höfn all the way to Geysir, which is not far east out of Reykjavik, by mid afternoon. Geysir is of course the place that all other Geysirs in the world are named after:

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This is actually "Strokkur" - apparently the original "Geysir" Geysir isn't very active anymore. Strokkur on the other hand puts on quite a show every 5 minutes or so, this was probably the strongest eruption I saw that day.

I would return later that night, but first I had to head to the other big waterfall:

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Gullfoss. It was extremely windy here, again, and the locations isn't all that easy to photograph to begin with, due to the sheer scale of it all. I'd still recommend everyone to make a stop there, it is quite impressive in person.

I check into yet another (almost) empty hostel that night in Laugurvatn. Apparently most tourists visit this area on day trips from Reykjavik, so it should be easy to find a bed here even during busier times.
Checking the "Northern Lights Activity" scale on the icelandic meteorology website during dinner, I am surprised to find it at an extremely high "6" for the night, which is way more than it had been all week. I get another chance to see the Aurora on my last night on the island.

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This is a small church and graveyard in the middle of a forest near Geysir. Not gonna lie, this was a pretty creepy experience. It took me a while to balance the lights of the church (which were also flickering) and the exposure of the sky, in the end I covered them up with the floor mats from my trusty rental car to get the shot in a single exposure.

Back at Geysir for some final Aurora shots. The activity in the sky has really picked up by now, to the point that the Aurora is actually overexposed on my first few shots.

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The waves of light are racing across the sky now, bright like moonlight. I suppose it would take a video to really do this justice. I do occasionally see the Aurora where I live in northern BC, but I hadn't seen it like this yet.

Day 8: Heading home

I made a brief stop at the cliffs of Þingvellir on the way back to Reykjavik, which is a really interesting location from a historical point of view. One the worlds first parliaments was held here over 1,000 years ago, and the place has hosted many significant events in Icelands history since. I was pretty landscaped-out at this point though, so no photos.


Overall this was one of the best 1-week trips I have ever taken, and I will definitely be back, probably even during the same time of the year. My humble pictures can hardly do the place justice. One week is just about the minimum to see all the "mandatory" locations, and there are still lots of things I want to check out. Besides, I have never met more friendly people, locals and tourists, anywhere I've been to.


The End ;)
 
Joined
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Only Canadians would think of going to Iceland in winter and be happy about it!
I was! … some thirty years ago. You've done some good shooting there!

Thanks!

Well, the place may be called Iceland, but other than the hefty wind-chill factor, the weather was actually very mild. It hardly ever dropped much below freezing.
 

LyndeeLoo

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What an incredible adventure!! And to be able to see the lights on your second nite as well as your last - wow!

You had an amazing experience, and you took some excellent images. Thanks so much for sharing these.

Question: did you find that your rental vehicle handled well even in bad weather?
 
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Thanks!

The rental did fine for what it is (Toyota Yaris with winter tires), then again the road conditions were better than what I've been driving on up here in BC. Other than the occasional high winds, this:
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...was pretty much as bad as it got, and since the road wasn't very steep this was still quite doable in the Yaris. Some rental companies offer studded tires but I didn't miss them.

You are limited to the main roads with a 2WD vehicle like that, which is enough to get to all the well known destinations. The ring road is almost entirely paved and gets regular winter service.
AWDs like Subarus or light SUVs are also available to rent, probably not a bad idea if it snows more than it did on my trip.

To really venture further on the so called F-roads, one would need a proper off road 4WD with recovery equipment. You will find yourself fjording rivers on those in the summer, and driving through 2 feet of snow in the winter.
 
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Amazing! Iceland is on the top of my list for an extended visit! Thanks for posting these!
 
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Two of my co-workers (one Army and one Navy) went to Iceland in the past month. Both said that the direct non-stop flight from Denver was less costly than many shorter flights.
I have only been to Iceland in the summer. It was OUTSTANDING!
 
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Tony Admana
Great images and excellent story! I'm so envious. It's been in my bucket list of places to visit. Thank you for sharing your pics and journey...... loved it!
 
Joined
Jan 21, 2012
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I can really recommend a trip there for anyone who likes spectacular landscapes. Flights from the US (especially the East Coast) and from Britain aren't all that expensive, I met a lot of Americans and Brits wherever I went. Prices for food, accommodation and fuel are quite high by US standards, but not too bad compared to most of Europe.

I was surprised at how few tourists were actually there this time of the year, you would think the almost guaranteed Aurora Borealis sightings would attract more people. Then again, many other tourists that I met there didn't see the lights at all during the same week because they were in the wrong spot at the wrong time - in my opinion it is really important to be flexible with your plans and don't pre-book your accommodation, so you can follow the weather on a days notice.

Everything in Iceland is much more expensive in the summer, but at the same time the interior with its smaller "F" category roads becomes more easily accessible. Additionally, there is almost endless daylight. I might do a trip in the summer time one day if I get a good opportunity.
 
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I went to Iceland last summer with my wife for 14 days and your photos bring a big smile on my face. What a wonderful country. So much to see. Thx for sharing.
 

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