Big, fat snowflakes fell outside the window of our hotel room in Reykjavik, muffling the sounds of the late-night revelers who were pouring out of pubs just across the street. I was grateful for nature’s mute button. It was 1 a.m. in Iceland’s capital city, and while my wife, Kelly, slumbered soundly, the noise had been conspiring with jet lag to keep me awake. In just a few short hours, we would head out for a driving tour of Iceland, and I needed some sleep.
It did occur to me, just before I finally dozed off, that snow might not be a good thing.
We traveled — on purpose — to Iceland in late February, so what could we expect? And as Minnesotans, we’ve been through a blizzard or two. But the gauzy white show outside my window was the start of the biggest snowstorm to hit Reykjavik in 80 years.
By the time we finished breakfast the next morning and lugged our suitcases to the car, almost 21 inches of snow covered the ground (and everything else in sight).
Though we’d made a conscious decision to visit Iceland in winter, this was not exactly what we were expecting.
We’d come with a singular experience in mind: seeing otherworldly bursts of color light up an inky sky. We knew that in this snowy, chilly, dark region, the Northern Lights would be at their brightest.
We wound up there, though, almost by happenstance. Kelly, knowing I had an interest in photographing those nighttime flare-ups, suggested we take a trip focused on just that. We considered Alaska, and Churchill, Manitoba, but then Kelly looked up from her laptop while doing research one evening and asked, “What about Iceland?” I was all in.
We were a bit concerned about news reports of Iceland’s 330,000 residents feeling overwhelmed by visitors. More than 2 million tourists are expected to pass through the country in 2017, a number that has quadrupled in just the past five years. But, we discovered, only about a quarter of the sightseers visit during the winter season — just another reason to head there in the height of the cold.
Behind the wheel
A winter visit it would be. Now what about transportation?
Preferring to set our own itinerary and pace (as opposed to being stuck on a bus), we rented an all-wheel-drive vehicle, drove ourselves and hoped for the best.
We decided to skip driving the entirety of the Ring Road, a loop that circles most of the country — we didn’t want to “see it all” if it meant spending 800 miles behind the wheel.
After studying our map and asking a travel agency for advice, we settled on a trek that took us along Iceland’s southern coast as far east as Skaftafell National Park, then northwest to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula and back south to Reykjavik. We’d have the best of both worlds, hitting some must-see spots along the “Golden Circle” route, but also getting off the beaten path.
Going to Iceland in winter brought two disappointments. We wanted to see cute little puffins, but those seabirds with the bright orange beaks only come in from the sea to breed during spring and summer. And whale-watching, while possible, was largely out of season.
So we’d have to make do with geysers, waterfalls, lava fields, black beaches, glaciers — and the Aurora Borealis.
Now, after our first night in Reykjavik, with all that snow on the ground, we were about to find out just how smart — or dumb — we’d been for choosing to drive ourselves.
We had intended to take a quick jaunt to the northeast of Reykjavik before turning toward Vik, Iceland’s southernmost village, where we would spend two nights. But because of the snow, the roads out of Reykjavik were closed until afternoon and the highway was shut down for the entire day. It would be straight to Vik.
We were excited and relieved to quickly leave the snow behind, with clear, flat roads that took us over the next two days to the attractions around Vik, including the Skogafoss waterfall, the glacier lagoon of Jokulsarlon, and the spectacular Reynisfjara, a black-sand beach.
But we hadn’t forgotten the fact that if you google “driving in Iceland in winter,” the first thing you come across is, “it’s not for the faint of heart.”
As we departed Vik and headed northeast toward our destination in Borgarnes, we found out why.
Our route took us to the waterfall at Gullfoss, the geyser at Selfoss and Thingvellir National Park. It also took us back into the snow and over some hair-raising roads.
In the winter, most roads in Iceland’s highlands (marked as F roads) are closed. But even those open year-round can be narrow, sometimes with little or no shoulder. Some main roads are gravel; fortunately, the lava rock used to make them is not as loose as the gravel on U.S. roads. Regardless, with ice and snow, our driving skills were put to the test.
I shouldn’t say our driving skills. When it comes to mountain roads, I have a touch of vehophobia. So able and fearless Kelly drove. Even as a passenger, there were times when I was happy to give the map some extra study just so I didn’t have to look out the window to see how far down the mountainside we might plunge if we hit a patch of ice.
What we found was worth the harrowing drives.
On the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, we marveled at the spectacular black cliffs and basalt columns surrounding the tiny fishing villages of Hellnar and Arnarstapi. In Hellnar, I snacked on scrumptious “happy marriage cake” — a tart rhubarb and oatmeal concoction served with a dollop of fresh whipped cream that is an Icelandic specialty — at the Fjoruhusid Cafe. We were the only customers that morning, but were told that if it was summer, we’d be fighting for a table.
As we passed through the picturesque hamlet of Grundarfjordur, on our way to see the Kirkjufell mountain, we were surprised to find the streets full of children in costume. Was this Iceland’s Halloween? Well, kind of; it was Ash Wednesday, celebrated in Iceland as Oskudagur, a day when kids dress up and visit stores and offices to sing in exchange for candy. What fun it was to watch them.
Only once did winter show its ugly side. On our last day, we took a highway east out of Borgarnes, trying to find a way to skip the 3½-mile tunnel at Hvalfjordur (it wasn’t the $8 toll that we didn’t like, it was the fact that the tunnel goes under the sea). Arriving at a mountain pass, we saw tire tracks left by the few vehicles that had come before; they’d turned around and gone back down. After a (very) short discussion, we elected to be as cautious as everyone else.
And the reason we went to Iceland in the first place? We could not have been luckier with the Northern Lights. In fact, Aurora Borealis experts in the U.S. who were feeding us the latest solar forecasts were envious at the activity they were monitoring — and we had the joy of seeing.
We experienced modest shows for two nights near Vik. But in Borgarnes, our final stop in Iceland, predictions suggested our best chance of a dazzling display would come on the last night. Kelly and I left our hotel a few minutes before dark, trudging through the snow to our car. We stopped on a farm road blanketed in white a few miles outside of town. With a chilly wind blowing, we shivered as we stood alone in the dark, waiting and hoping.
Then the sky exploded.
The Northern Lights dazzled not just to the north, but in every direction. Purple, pink and green pillars swirled and danced across the sky — and straight above us.
I didn’t know which way to point my camera; there was not a lens in the world wide enough to take all this in. It was impossible not to be giddy, and we were. The experience made us forget we were cold — and relegated that 21 inches of snow on our first day to just a minor inconvenience.
Jeff Moravec is a freelance writer and photographer from Minneapolis. Reach him at email@example.com.