Northern Lights, Glaciers, and Black Sand Beaches in Iceland

Thanks to the freedom of a rental car, we were able to travel along Iceland’s southern coast at our own pace toward the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, where we hoped to see the Northern Lights. Driving ourselves also allowed us to pull over anytime we wanted to take a closer look at something, and there were plenty of things that captured our attention. While Google Maps will tell you the drive should take under five hours, it took us over nine hours door-to-door since we stopped so often to take in the sights.

Screen Shot 2017-03-26 at 8.28.48 AM

The first big vista as we entered Suðurland was breathtaking, and it was the first place Mike flew his DJI Mavic drone in Iceland. He shot some stunning video on this trip! Check his post later in the week for tips on taking your own terrific photos and videos in Iceland, including capturing the elusive Northern Lights.

Further down the road, we stumbled on a country lane that led us to Urriðafoss. What a great surprise! It’s like a tiny Niagra Falls in the middle of farmland, and the sound of the rushing water and feel of the mist on your face are very refreshing. The suffix -foss means waterfall in Icelandic, so be on the lookout for signs pointing you to these sights. Unlike many of the other waterfalls and rapids you’ll see along this route, Urriðafoss wasn’t crowded. In warmer weather, this would be a good spot for a picnic lunch.

Our next stop on the great waterfall chase was Seljalandsfoss. We pulled off the road at the first vantage point and were impressed with the size and beauty of the falls.

IMG_6187 copy

Ben photographing Iceland’s Seljalandsfoss waterfall from a distance.

As we went a little further down the road, we noticed a larger pull-off closer to the falls, and WOW! While this spot was much more crowded and had picnic tables and public restrooms, it also allowed you to hike behind the falls and see them from a different perspective. Props to Iceland for setting this tourist spot below the road so it didn’t spoil the view from further away.

One of the cool things you’ll see on this excursion are old barns and houses built into the side of mountains and outcroppings. This was one of the most striking we saw along this route.

road_to_vik02_wm

Barn built into the cliff wall on the road to Vik, Iceland.

Every time you think you’ve seen the most beautiful thing in Iceland, you round the corner on something spectacular. We were headed toward the next big waterfall, Skógafoss, when we came upon this icy clear lake mirroring the scene above it.

IMG_6208

We wanted to stop for lunch at Ströndin bistro, but it was closed for the season. We wound up eating at Víkurskáli. Don’t do that. You’re better off buying snacks at the attached gas station if Víkurskáli is your only choice.

Better yet, after you top the hillside at Vík and see the beautiful little red-roofed church overlooking the sea, take a right at the main intersection of the tiny little town and have lunch at Halldorskaffi next to the town’s visitor center. We did this on our way back through Vík and shared a delicious pizza and some amazing grilled prawn pasta. It was one of the best meals we had on the trip.

IMG_6211 (1)

The southern coastal town of Vik, Iceland.

After leaving Vík, we continued along the coastline toward Jökulsárlón. Since we saved money on our weeklong travel package, we had enough in our budget to book a room at the Gerði Guesthouse. It is located near enough the glacier canyon that you can see the Northern Lights from your room if it’s a particularly good night. Mike chose this day for our Jökulsárlón excursion based on the Aurora viewing forecast from the Icelandic Meteorological Office. Very helpful for knowing how excited you should get about your chances for seeing them on a given night!

On this particular evening, the views of the Northern Lights from the Jökulsárlón glacier canyon did not disappoint. Mike captured these incredible shots using a GoPro Hero 5 Black. (Again, check his post later in the week for all of the technical specifications for the photos and video he captured on this trip.)

DCIM100GOPROGOPR0166.JPG

The Northern Lights over Jokulsarlon, Iceland.

17358809_10211581831716750_2440403720387038514_o

The Northern Lights over Jokulsarlon, Iceland.

Mike described the Northern Lights best when he said it looked like “angels dancing.” It truly is an awe-inspiring sight.

IMG_6224 (1)

Mike flying his drone over the Norwegian Sea in Jokulsarlon, Iceland, looking toward the Faroe Islands.

We thought the Northern Lights would be the highlight of our road trip, but the drive back on the following day provided some equally breathtaking scenery. During the daytime, the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon is a completely different place. You’ll witness pieces of the glacier as large as football fields making their way toward the Atlantic Ocean. On our visit, powdery white snow sat on top of ice that glittered like green and blue jewels, and it was fascinating to see how swiftly the chunks flowed right by you.

We turned left off the Þjóðvegur road just after leaving the canyon and found ourselves on a black sand beach. Patches of snow sat on top of the volcanic sand, and sparkling chunks of ice were splashed by waves at the ocean’s edge. It was one of the most unusual and beautiful things we’ve ever seen.

IMG_6245

Chunks of the Jokulsarlon glacier on black volcanic sand at the edge of the ocean in Iceland.

During our recent trip to Northern Ireland (more on that later!), we visited Giant’s Causeway. Iceland has a smaller version of these natural basalt columns in Vík that is home to hundreds of puffins. It’s a very cool stop that isn’t too far off the main road, and it’s lovely around sunset.

ben_basalt_columns02_wm

Ben, armed with an old-school SLR, in front of the basalt columns of Vik’s black sand beach.

The 48-hour road trip we took from Reykjavík to Höfn and back was hands-down the highlight of this visit to Iceland. There are tour buses that offer similar group excursions as a single day trip for around $189 USD per person, but you’d have to take a separate tour to see the Northern Lights. We highly recommend renting a car for this trip and breaking it into two days so you can enjoy all of the beautiful sights along the way.

Today’s expat evaluation: +all of the points for glaciers, waterfalls, black sand beaches, and Northern Lights