Over the last 8 days, I went on an 8 day photographic adventure to Iceland. I went with Ben Sabo who was my college roommate. Ben and I have been traveling together for the last 15 years. Our main goal for this trip was to see the Northern lights. That was mostly a fail and I’ll talk more about that later. However, we still got to see an amazing amount of things. Iceland is an absolutely gorgeous country.
I’m writing this blog post for my own record but also to serve as a helpful tool for anyone else considering visiting Iceland. The photos of me below were taken by Ben.
In many of these photos, the colors you see are the natural colors where the photos just received some selective dodging and burning to draw the attention to specific areas. The main thing that was enhanced and altered in many of the images is the sky color as the dull grey just wasn’t interesting so I used some localized white balance changes to give the images more drama.
Larger, higher quality images can be seen on our website here:
Since Ben lives in Phoenix and I’m in Detroit, we decided to meet in Newark for our connecting flight and then on to Iceland from there.
Most of the flights we found going into Iceland are evening/overnight flights with arrivals at the Keflevik airport very early in the morning. We were only able to get about 3 hours of sleep.
We landed around 5:30am and were able to get our bags and get through customs in about 5 minutes total. It was amazingly fast. We rented a car from the SIXT car rental company which is 1-2 minute drive from the terminal. They were supposed to have a shuttle at the airport but nobody was there. Thankfully we had their phone number and I was able to call them via skype. We signed up for the AT&T 120 MB data plan so that we could do random things like that while out there. I heard that t-mobile has unlimited international data which is nice.
We rented a Chevy Aveo which is a small 2 wheel drive automatic car. There were 2 tiers of cars smaller than what we got. They try to do a huge amount of upsells to try to get you to upgrade to 4WD along with buying lots of additional types of insurances that we declined.
It was a beautiful morning and before sunrise so we drove to the closest point of interest which is the Blue Lagoon. It’s a thermal spa where most people go to swim outdoors in the thermal pools, but we just went to photographic it before it was open.
It was exquisite. The color of the water was mesmerizing. The blue water and the green moss covered lava rocks was spectacular.
After leaving the lagoon we drove north to the Hvalfjordur fjord. With the fjord we were thinking it would be like the fjords in Norway with tall mountains and sheer cliffs down to the water. However, it was much more tame then that. It was a nice drive around the fjord with some little waterfalls along the way.
After that we drove back to Reykjavik where we planned to stay the night. The weather was turning ugly so we took that opportunity to check in to our hotel, grab lunch and take a short nap. The hotel was inexpensive but…for a reason. The rooms were TINY, but that’s ok because we just needed a place to crash.
When we left the hotel mid afternoon, the weather was still ugly. It was cold with a misty rain. We went to the tourist center downtown to see what information we could find. Our original plan was to drive the whole ring road around Iceland, but we learned that some parts were very snowy and icy and certain sections of the ring road only get plowed twice per week due to budget reasons. So, That plan was cancelled. There are two websites which proved to be VERY useful. The first will give you all the weather along with the aurora forecast which is probably what most travelers care about while there. http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora/
The second gives you the road conditions around the island.
We found that road, weather, and aurora conditions will change multiple times throughout the day so having a smart phone with you can be very helpful.
You also want to make sure you don’t drive and stay somewhere that you might get stuck if a storm comes through.
The ring road is mostly good with plows coming through multiple times per day, but if you venture off the ring road (especially in a 2 wheel drive rental car like we had), you need to pay close attention to this.
We still had a few hours of daylight left and even though the weather was bad, we decided to do the famous golden circle loop which takes you to some famous Iceland locations. As we drove east into the mountains, the weather turned from rain to snow. The roads were still mostly ok when driving slow but the farther we drove the worse it got. With the weather, you couldn’t see very far, making the mountain driving not very scenic.
We made it to our first stop which was Pingvellir National Park. There is a waterfall called Oxarafoss that we stopped at. We grabbed our gear in the rain/snow/sleet mix and headed to the falls but realized it was a long walk in miserable conditions so we turned around. We decided what we were doing was a bad idea and instead of continuing on the golden circle loop, we headed back to Reykjavik.
Due to lack of sleep on the plane, we fell asleep around 8:00pm. I got up at 1:30am and looked out the window and could see a few stars. We decided to try to see the northern lights so we got in the car and drove about 20 minutes out of the city. Within the first few minutes, we could see a faint splotch in the sky, it turned a brighter and brighter green and it was clearly part of the aurora. By the time we got our cameras ready and set, it was gone. We drove farther down the road and could see a very faint cloud that was a greyish green. By setting my camera to a high iso and slower shutter speed, I was able to take this shot.
The green band was so dim that you could barely see it with your eyes at all but the camera was able to pick it up.
We drove around for a few more hours but did not see anything else so we returned to the hotel at 3:30am.
Sadly, this very limited viewing was our ONLY viewing of the northern lights on the whole trip.
on our way back, we got into a pretty wicked blizzard. The weather here can change so fast it’s crazy. You can go from clear skies to a blizzard in minutes.
The first day we drove about 280 miles with all of our excursions.
After breakfast this morning we decided to attempt the golden circle loop again. The weather was much nicer this morning.
Today was much different than yesterday. It sure looked like iceland…open, barren, snow covered, and windy. It’s beautiful in a desolate sort of way…hard to explain.
We drove back up to the waterfall we tried to get to yesterday and hiked up to it. Instead of approaching from the top with a long walk, we drove around to another road below the falls and did the short hike up to it. Within minutes of our arrival, a blizzard came through and we were getting hit in the face by ice pellets. The waterfall was barely visible due to the blowing snow and the wind whipped through our clothes.
However, the Iceland blizzards seem to come and go quickly so we waited for about 5 minutes and it cleared right up to give us a beautiful view of the icy Oxararfoss falls.
Afterwards we headed to the Golfoss waterfall. On the way, we stopped at Geysir and took in a quick view if the geothermal activity there. We watched a geysur blow a few times and then returned to the car.
It was another cold and windy day! Next stop was Golfoss falls. It was probably one of the most incredible falls I’ve ever seen. It’s a very wide, multi-layered waterfall. It was insanely windy and cold but the sky cleared up and the snow stopped to give us a beautiful view of the falls.
After Gulfoss we drove down towards the south coast and passed through a few more storms on the way.
The next stop was the Seljalandsfoss waterfall. There were a number of gigantic waterfalls along a stretch of cliffs.
As we got closer to the coast, the sky cleared up and it was a beautiful day. Not too much farther down the road was Skogafoss which is an amazingly huge waterfall and a famous landmark of Iceland. The sun was shining with a beautiful rainbow on the falls.
One thing we saw a lot of is horse farms. In Michigan we’re used to cows, in Iceland they have horses…LOTS of horses.
Onwards towards Vik and the south coast. Before arriving to Vik, we turned off the ring road onto the 218 which was a dirt road out towards the beach and cliffs. There was a section of road that had been washed away and we weren’t sure it was safe to drive over it so we waited for a few other small cars to go through and they made it ok so we risked it as well. I’m really glad we did because it was probably the most beautiful stretch of coastline that we saw. Black sand beaches that stretch as far as the eye can see along with steep cliffs and crashing waves.
Unfortunately after leaving, we learned that there was a beautiful rock arch just below where we were and we never walked out to the viewpoint.
We then drove back to the ring road and then down the 215 to where there are some interesting rock formations. However, it was late and getting dark so we stopped to find a place to eat dinner and sleep for the night. The only hotels there had no food so we got back in the car and drove the 20 minutes around the mountain range and into Vik for the evening. It looks very cloudy and rainy tonight so no northern lights.
Day 2 we had drive approximately 200 miles and the day was definitely categorized as a day of waterfalls!
Woke up at 6:00 to check the sky but it was still overcast and rainy. Woke up at 8:00 and it was perfectly clear skies. It’s crazy how fast things change around here. We went to the beach in Vik to photograph the coastline.
The beach was filled with millions of rocks that had been smoothed from years and years of being rubbed by the water and abrasive black sand.
Next, we started to drive farther east. The first hour was an open, barren, snowy landscape.
As we got closer to the mountains, the skies cleared and it was a peaceful and still morning. Thousands of water pools gave mirror-like reflections of the mountains and skies which led to lots of photo opportunities.
We continued on to the Skaftafell glacier was spectacular being back-lit by the morning sun. Lots more beautiful reflections in the water pools.
If yesterday was a day of waterfalls, today was surely a day of mountain reflections.
Our adventure for the day was an ice cave tour. We typically don’t like tours but this would take us into a beautiful ice cave that we would not be able to access on our own. We connected with our ice cave tour at 12:30. The guide told us that it’s the best cave he’s ever seen.
He mentioned that due to the storm, we would not be able to go to the end of the cave. What he didn’t mention is that we could only go 10 ft in before our path was blocked by a surging river. We had a half hour drive with 9 people crammed into an SUV. When we got to the cave, we had a very small area for our group of photographers. It was difficult to move around and setup in that tiny space. The cave looked amazing and it was a huge disappointment to have paid all that money and then not be able to go any farther in. We had about an hour to explore and photograph this small area so we made the best of it. Viewing this clear blue ice that is 14,000 years old was pretty amazing.
After the cave tour we went to the nearby Fjallsarlon glacial lagoon for some quick photos.
Next was one of the highlights of all of Iceland, the Jokulsarlon lagoon. It’s a MASSIVE glacial lagoon with huge chunks of ice that have broken off from from the nearby glacier. Seals basked in the afternoon light as they lazily laid on top of a large ice shelf.
Across the street from the lagoon is a beach along the Atlantic ocean. The icebergs from the lagoon would float out a waterway and then get pounded back by the oceans waves and wash up on a beach. More about that later.
We moved on to the Skalafell guesthouse which is a farm property with private cabins nestled into the cliff side. These private farm properties are popular around iceland. The guesthouses are similar to what we would expect of either a bed and breakfast or some are more like a hostel.
This one had private cabins with it’s own 800 ft. waterfall right in the backyard.
After checking in to our room we went and had dinner in the town of Hofn and then back to the hotel for the night.
More storms rolled in tonight so no northern lights again.
We drove about 200 miles again today.
This morning we woke up to heavy overcast skies and lots of snow. There is about 2″ on the ground and pretty much no visibility. The main road had been loosely plowed but it’s so dark and grey today that we weren’t expecting to see much today.
The weather is showing clearer skies for the eastern part of Iceland for the next two nights so we booked another night at the same hotel then headed out. Despite the weather we decided to drive to the eastern fjords which is a few hours away. Not sure we will see much but it’s better than sitting in the room all day.
The first stretch of the drive was snowy and slick. It was so grey you couldn’t see anything. We kept pushing on knowing how quick the weather can change. We came to a few spots where you could somewhat see the coast.
The road signs and names of everything were a huge source of amusement for us due to our own ignorance of having no idea how to pronounce them.
We drove for almost two hours and eventually the road and weather conditions deteriorated and we had to turn around and head back.
On our way back we could see the sun trying to peak through the clouds. Although still grey, the coastal views started to open up. Around each bend of the mountains, the sky got brighter and the sun started peaking through the stormy skies to make for some beautiful photos.
We stopped at Hofn mid afternoon to gas up the car and to grab a pizza to eat later for dinner. By the time we got back to the farm, the sky was mostly clear and it was a beautiful afternoon so we ended up driving back to the glacial lagoon half an hour away.
Post-stormy skies are always some of my favorite to photograph.
It was insanely windy on the drive with wind gusts of up to 85 mph. The lagoon was beautiful as always.
However, with it being so windy the water was more choppy and we didn’t get the beautiful reflections today.
We then headed across the street to the black sand beach to photograph the ice chunks that the ocean rejected and spit back onto the beach.
The ice chunks were breathtaking in the evening light.
We had a beautiful drive back to the farm with the setting sun illuminating the clouds.
Since the skies started clear, our plan was to check outside every two hours for northern lights. Unfortunately as the night went on, it got more and more cloudy. So…once again…no northern lights.
Today we had driven about 350 miles
This morning we woke up to a beautiful clear sunny morning. What a difference compared to the view yesterday!
Here’s a photo of the exact same view out our cabin window yesterday morning and this morning.
We weren’t sure where we would end up tonight so we started driving west back towards Vik. The aurora forecast was showing clear skies on the southeast coast so even though we have seen everything we wanted to see, we figured we might as well hang around to get a good chance of seeing the northern lights.
We took another stop at the Jokulsarlon lagoon but didn’t photograph it as the pics we already had before were better anyway. Instead we went across the street to the beach of ice chunks. The sun back-lighting the ice chunks was breathtaking and each piece was it’s own unique piece of art.
This one was massive and probably one of the clearest and bluest of them all.
We drove back towards Vik and made a stop at the Skaftafell glacier. Our last stop here was rushed due to trying to make it to the ice cave tour.
This time we spent a few minutes to hike up closer to the massive glacier. The blue ice is just breathtaking.
When viewing through a zoom lens, it sometimes looked like we were on a different planet. The landscape in Iceland is so unique, it’s no wonder they film lots of movies here.
Driving back towards Vik, it was a perfectly clear sunny day. About 10 minutes before passing Klaustur, there was another beautiful private waterfall along the side of the road in someone’s backyard.
Right when we arrived at Vik there was a nasty blizzard that came and passed quickly within minutes. Then sunny skies, then another nasty blizzard, then sunny skies. We made it to the beach around the back side of the mountains that we had to skip the other day. The wind was whipping which caused some of the roughest seas I’ve ever seen.
The basalt rock formations were very unique.
We were able to get a few photos, however, another storm started to blow through. We grabbed our gear and high tailed it to the car but weren’t quick enough. Another vivacious blizzard! We were running right into the wind and getting pelted in the face with huge snowflakes and small pieces if hail.
What a day of crazy weather!!
We drove around to kill time as it was still early in the day. We hoped to see the big rock arch that we had missed the other day but when we got back to the section of road that was washed out, the water level was MUCH higher than before and it was impassible. We drobe back to Skogafoss falls to one of the waterfalls we had already seen. The wind was blowing so hard, the water swirled around like crazy and in some cases the water was actually blowing UP…it was wild! We waited in the car for the wind to die down before taking any more pictures.
We had decided that to see the northern lights we had to stay on the south east side of the island since the forecast was showing clear skies with high aurora activity. Therefor we drove back to Vik. We stopped at the beach again to photograph the sea stacks and cloud formations.
Before booking our hotel we checked the weather again and it looks like Vik may be cloudy all night so we drove an hour east back to Klaustur and booked our hotel there. Everything seemed lined up. Clear skies, high solar activity…we were excited.
We spent another hour driving around the area to find places that we would setup for our northern lights photos tonight.
While driving around we found this beautiful waterfall off the side of road with the sunshine blasting through the mountains behind it.
However, while stopped for dinner, we checked and found that the aurora activity had dropped down to zero for tonight. ugh!
Since it changes so regularly, we still woke up every hour to check the sky, but there was nothing.
The most disappointing thing was that we planned our entire day around the northern lights. We drove another 250 miles seeing all the things we had already seen and then drove way back east for the clear night sky and…no aurora. Huge bummer.
This morning we had a pretty sunrise so I took a quick iphone shot out the hotel window.
Today we decided to drive to the west side of the island and explore the western peninsula about 4.5 hours away. The partly cloudy skies and white mountains were quite beautiful.
When we reached the peninsula we started on the south side where everything was mostly dry with easy roads but not too much to see. When we got around to the north side, that’s where things got spectacular. The water and mountains were much closer together and the water was a beautiful bluish green color. There was a beautiful little icy waterfall near mt Kirkjufell called Kirkjufellsfoss.
Just beyond was a little mountain town called Grundarfjordur.
Continuing the drive were just amazing snow capped mountains along the blue sea and white puffy clouds.
The skies went from clear to stormy and back again many times today. I love photographing stormy skies when the sun is trying to peak through.
The roads on north side of the peninsula were not as good condition as they don’t get as much sun. There was a roughly 40 mile stretch of gravel road. We were a little concerned about driving on an icy gravel road for a long distance but thankfully only about a mile of it was bad.
We arrived in a small town called Dalabuo which had two restaurants and two hotels. The first one we came to looked closed. No lights on and no cars in the parking lot. The second one was the same. I tried the door and it was locked. We went back to the first one in hopes of finding a sign with a phone number and I just happened to try the door and it was unlocked and they were open. No visible lights, no cars in the parking lot, no plowed driveway, but they were open for business. We were thankful to find dinner and a bed as it had been a long day with almost 400 miles of driving.
There was still a chance that we could see the northern lights tonight as we were on the edge of a large clear space in the sky. However, the aurora activity dropped really low again and when I went to look a few times during the night, I didn’t see anything.
It’s cold. Very, very cold this morning. It’s probably 11 degrees and VERY windy.
We started our drive back towards the airport and I had found a couple more stops along the way. The first was a waterfall that was entirely frozen over and not worth seeing. However, the second stop was one of my favorite stops from the whole trip. There was an amazing waterfall called Hraunfossar where the blue glacial water was coming out of the rocks making hundreds of little waterfalls.
After that the weather turned terrible and it was gray and rainy and we just headed back to the airport to check in early for our flight home.
It was another 180 miles of driving today.
Even though we didn’t get to fully experience the northern lights, it was still a great trip. Iceland is a beautiful country that is easy to travel around in.
– Everyone we met spoke English
– They have minimal fast food and no mcdonalds which I found interesting.
– They only sell 95 octane gas. Bring a credit card where you’ve set and know the pin number because you will need the pin for the automatic gas pumps.
– The average temperatures here are not nearly as cold as I had imagined. However, it’s not the temperature that makes you freeze, it’s the wind.
– The weather and aurora forecasts seem to be mostly useless.
– The road conditions website was mostly very accurate.
– This was probably one of the easiest foreign countries that I’ve ever traveled in.
– You would probably get to see and experience a lot more in the summer as there is more to see on the north half of the island that we couldn’t get to due to bad roads.
– The airport is a bit crazy. Not much seating, no places to charge electronics and they board multiple international flights at the same time with no announcements for seats or zones…it’s just a free for all.
– Food and lodging is much more expensive than I expected. We had thought that due to their economical difficulties not long ago that traveling there would be cheap but we were wrong.
– Don’t plan your trip around the northern lights as you might end up wasting a lot of time like we did.