Rural Iceland is a wonderland of natural beauty with a wealth of evocative, inspiring and almost mystical landscapes. What makes Iceland unusual too for those of us from more regular latitudes is the fact that these landscapes can be even more inspiring and mystical on winter nights than on summer days.
The reason is of course the fabled northern lights; the aurora borealis, one of the world’s natural wonders and something that at first sight can send shivers down the spine of even the most seasoned travelers.
Below we’ll let you know some of the best places and the best times to see the northern lights in Iceland in 2017, as well as some of the best places to stay in rural Iceland. But first here’s a little background…
The Science Bit: What Causes the Northern Lights?
The mystical, mysterious effect the northern lights can have on people might be detracted somewhat by the sober scientific explanation of the phenomena but to a scientist there is no mystery; the aurora borealis is quite simply the result of a meeting between highly charged particles from the sun being drawn towards the Earth’s poles and striking the atoms of various gases in the local atmosphere.
This meeting momentarily energizes these atom’s electrons and they then switch from this high energy state to their previous low energy state releasing the energy given to them in the form of photons of light; aurora, which, en masse produces the effect which we know as the northern lights.
Boring Nonsense! What Did The Vikings Say?
Ok, forget all that science stuff, the northern lights are caused by magic, quite obviously. Furthermore, in Icelandic folklore the lights were supposed to protect mothers during childbirth but with the added twist that if an expectant mother was to look at them while in labour the child would arrive cross-eyed.
One intriguing aspect of the northern lights is how little they were mentioned in ancient Scandinavian texts. During the height of the Viking times not much was written by them about anything, it was only from about the 11th century onwards that their Scandinavian descendants started writing down some of the ancient tales of the region.
The lights though get few mentions. The famous Icelandic poet and politician Snorri Sturluson did describe them though and gave them the name Bivröst or Moving Way in the old Norse language of the time; the 1200s. He, and other writers from those times, described them as either a red or multi coloured bridge between heaven and earth that some warriors had even managed to disappear through. Even then though there is doubt that they were actually referring to the northern lights, some speculate they could just as well have been describing rainbows.
So why would this be? Well it is believed that during the Viking era solar activity was much weaker than now, and so the northern lights were a much rarer phenomena, generally only appearing during intense solar storms that happen only rarely but tend to produce lights that are more red in colour, as happened in 2014 when extra solar activity produced reddish lights that were visible all over northern Europe, and even in more southerly regions of the U.K. and Ireland that had rarely seen them before.
Best Times To See The Northern Lights in Iceland 2017:
You can generally see the northern lights in Iceland any time from mid September to mid April. The first, obvious needs are darkness and a clear sky. Darkness is easy to predict but long term predictions for the weather on any given day; i.e. whether the sky will cloudy or clear, is in 2017, like any year of course, impossible and needs to be checked week to week and day to day.
You might imagine that seeing them in October or March, i.e. not in the full depths of winter is not such a good idea but this is wrong; as night comes there is as much darkness then as in the middle of December, the only difference being that the sun sets later. And as the weather is a major factor in viewing them, non winter months might actually be preferable as there tends to be less snow showers and general cloud cover in those months.
Once those factors are in place the strength, or brightness, of the lights can be quite random depending on the amount of particles in the atmosphere at any given time, and seems to work out (very) roughly as three nights where the lights are bright and four or five nights where they are dimmer.
The Iceland Meteorological Service measures solar activity as well as cloud cover, so if you’re already on the ground in Iceland then be sure to check them out here: en.vedur.is/forecasts/aurora.
If you look at the screenshot to the left, taken in Sept 2017, you’ll see an Aurora Forecast on the right hand side of the image with a series of numbers which indicate the likelihood of the lights being seen tonight, their intensity, and the length of time they might be out, which can range from minutes to hours..
Be aware though that it is a very difficult thing to predict the chances of the Aurora being seen at any given time and because of this they tend to be pretty cautious in their predictions. Cautious, but also sometimes quite wrong; there are many occasions when the forecast will be weak but where the lights come out dancing super brightly for long lengths of time, and of course the opposite is also true, so take it as a guide but always be prepared for some randomness.
The Best Places to See the Northern Lights in Iceland 2017:
Though to a certain extent they can be seen from Reykjavik city or other towns you absolutely have to be out in the countryside to get the full effect. As almost all of Iceland’s charm lies in its rural landscapes though this shouldn’t be seen as some kind of inconvenience, and it would be a mistake at any time of the year to not get out and stay at least a few days in some of the country’s rural heartlands.
Once you leave the artificial lights of the cities and towns and you find yourself surrounded by natural darkness then the view there will be as good as anywhere. That being said though, to find yourself in what are already some of Iceland’s most stunning landscapes but this time lit up by waves of green light is an extra thrill.
That being said though, be sure to use some common sense; you have to be very careful walking and hiking in the wilderness after dark. If you have a hire car go with it as far as possible and don’t wander off too far on foot, unless you have a torch and really know where you’re going!
To really experience remoteness, wilderness, dark nights, and the northern lights, but with safety and comfort then an Icelandic farm holiday stay is a great option. You can have the lights on display all evening just outside your door and you’ll be in the middle of some blissfully peaceful countryside.
You’ll also find farmstay owners can always arrange tours and trips, including northern lights viewing, in some of the amazing natural landscapes described below, and at cheaper prices than if booked from the city. You can find links to our recommended farmstays in Iceland at the bottom of this page.
In terms of those stunning natural landscapes Iceland has far too many to mention, but definitely among the very best places to see the northern lights in Iceland are around its three national parks, the first one being conveniently close to Reykjavik.
Thingvellir National Park:
Thingvellir National Park is in Bláskógabyggð about 30 miles outside Reykjavík in the south west of Iceland and covers a large area around the shores of lake Thingvallavatn. Though maybe not Iceland’s most spectacular national park it is undoubtedly its most important, and its barren wilderness canvas can provide sone of the best places for viewing the northern lights near Reykjavik.
It was here that Iceland’s parliament, the world’s oldest existing parliament, first sat in 930 AD, and for that Þingvellir, to give it its Icelandic name, is now a UNESCO world heritage site. It was referred to as the Alþing general assembly and continued at the site until 1798 when it moved to Reykjavík.
With such a weighty and important historical site on its doorstep, it’s easy to overlook the natural wonder of the place. The lake itself could be considered one of the world’s best for fishing; a large regular inflow of water from surrounding rivers and streams and a certain unique ecology has led to it being a rich habitat for marine life and it contains some of the largest char and trout in the world.
Another feature of Thingvellir is its position bang in the middle of two tectonic plates. The divide is right on the Almannagjá canyon, one side North America, the other Eurasia which gives a nice overground visualization of what lies underneath for thousands of miles under the Atlantic Ocean.
Popular sites in the park are the Silfra Gorge, where you can dive and swim in crystal clear waters between the continental plates, the Ohara waterfall, and Nikulasargja Gorge which is popularly known as Peningagja or money gorge; the tradition is that you come to throw money in the water when you want a wish to be granted.
There is no public transport to and from the park so you’ll need your own hire car or join one of the many tours from Reykjavík. The drive from Reykjavík should take about 45 minutes.
Official Website: http://www.thingvellir.is/english.aspx
Snaefellsjokull National Park, on the Snaefellsnes peninsula in the west of Iceland, sweeps down from the glacier and volcano which gives the park its name directly to the sea. Literary fans might recognize the name from Jules Verne’s Journey To The Center Of The Earth; it was here that the passageway to the center of the earth was found. If overlooking the sea is your idea of the best place to see the northern lights in Iceland then Snaefellsjokull will be worth visiting.
In season there is a tremendous amount of birdlife to be seen too and the lava plains that run between the volcano and the coast are in patches filled with up to one hundred and thirty species of plants.
Points of interest in the park are of course the glacier itself, which can be climbed, but at 1446 meters above sea level and containing some tough stretches, is not for the enthusiastic beginner.
Guided tours of the summit can be arranged though and there are plenty of good hikes on marked trails all around it. An easier climb is the Saxholl crater which also offers some great wide views over the surrounding plains.
There are two major caves which you can explore too; the Songhellir Cave, or ‘Cave of Songs’ named as such due to the eerie echoes it produces and the extensive Vatnshellir cave, formed from the lava flows of an 8,000 year old volcanic eruption.
Getting there from Reykjavík is tricky if you haven’t got you own transport but if you haven’t then you can take bus no.57 from Artun-Reykjavik to Borgarnes then wait for a 58 to take you to Stykkishólmur and from there you’ll find a bus no.82 that will take you to Arnarstapl, the little fishing village at the park’s edge (details correct as of mid 2017).
Official Website: www.ust.is.
Vatnajokull National Park:
The huge Vatnajokull National Park which covers a full 13% of Iceland’s land area is located in the south east of the country and has a wide variety of landscapes, animal and plant life.
It is remote though, it’s a full five hour drive from Reykjavik and there are only a few settlements around it, the main one being Skaftafell just at the edge of the park.
So, if you’re in Reykjavik making a trip here just to see the northern lights might not be worth the journey; the park is absolutely huge, and the whole area incredibly peaceful and beautiful so we think it deserves a longer stay.
The park is named after the Vatnajokull Glacier and to its north you’ll find the table top mountain of Herðubreið as well as many volcanoes; Askia, Holuhraun in Bardarbunga, Kverkfjöll and Snæfell. All over the park you’ll find many interesting rock formations too carved out by the above named volcanoes historical, and not so historical, activity; Holuhraun in Bardarbunga for example last erupted only in March of 2015.
Apart from those, also to the north of the park there are also the waterfalls of Dettifoss to be admired, as well as the cliffs of Ásbyrgi. While Iceland’s highest mountain; Hvannadalshnjúkur is to be found south of the glacier.
Getting there from Reykjavík means a five hour drive along the southern ring road, or you can catch a no. 51 bus from Mjódd in Reykjavík to Skaftafell at the southwestern edge of the park (details correct as of mid 2017).
Official Website: http://www.vatnajokulsthjodgardur.is/english
WHERE TO STAY: FARMSTAYS IN ICELAND
Without a doubt the best place to see the northern lights in Iceland is by basing yourself in one its many quality farmstays. In itself the farmstay concept is interesting and enjoyable, and adds a extra dimension to any vacation, but all the more so in a country with such a strong rural heritage as Iceland.
Farmstays are, by their very nature, in remote locations without much artificial lighting, and so automatically there is the added attraction in Iceland of having the northern lights on display all around you the minute you leave the house.
You can also be sure that the owners of our recommended farmstays can show you around the local area either informally or on more official tours, and at the very least can definitely show you the best places to see the northern lights in the local area.