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Thanks to its location close to the Arctic Circle, Iceland is one of the best places in the world to see the Northern Lights. It’s also one of the world’s most beautiful countries, with scenery that’s so unbelievably stunning, you might think you’re in a computer-generated fantasy land.
Like many travelers, the Aurora Borealis was on my bucket list, but my first trip to the country back in 2015 came during a four-day layover on my way to Ireland in mid-September, not the best time to view the lights. As it is, witnessing the lights isn’t as easy as you might imagine as a number of factors have to come together just right, including solar activity, the weather and good luck.
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While I still hoped to experience those dazzling colors in the night’s sky, it was not meant to be that year, but having glimpsed a taste of what Iceland had to offer, I was determined to come back and chase the Northern Lights.
In September, the landscape was blanketed in vibrant green, with splashes of gold revealing that autumn would soon be here. Unlike many places where waterfalls and streams dry up during the heat of summer, they plunged majestically over the cliffs.
As soon as I returned home, I planned my next trip. This time, I’d visit in late winter, timed to celebrate my daughter’s 21st birthday in March. We’d join the two-day South Coast and Northern Lights tour with Extreme Iceland, hoping to increase the chances of finally checking off that bucket list experience.
While some people wondered if I was a bit crazy to want to travel to Iceland in the winter, the reality is it’s not much different than cities in the northeast U.S. like Boston or New York. In fact, it’s often warmer with average temperatures hovering right around freezing throughout the season. With the right clothing, as long as a blizzard doesn’t blow in, you’ll stay comfortably warm even while enjoying the many outdoor adventures.
For this trip, it was mostly brilliant blue skies, which made the endless white of the landscape even more spectacular. Below the surface was just as breathtaking. We explored an ice cave, with the densely packed glacial ice glowing blue due to the lack of air bubbles that normally spread colors of the spectrum as sunlight filters down from above.
With clear skies and cold temperatures, I thought for sure we’d see the lights that evening, but as our guide explained, the lack of solar activity meant we were out of luck. Of course, all was not lost. With another beautiful morning, we visited the famous Glacier Lagoon and got to listen to the thundering sounds of the ice breaking off, crashing to the water creating a powerful wave across that broke the stillness.
As we made our return to Reykjavik, we hiked to one of the glacial tongues, Falljökull Glacier, which extends like long fingers from Vatnajökull, the largest in all of Europe. Once again, our hopes were dashed for viewing the lights that evening, with a storm rolling in. The wind began to howl and tiny snowflakes that danced through the night air got bigger and bigger, piling up on the roadway, making me thankful that we had an expert driver.
We said our goodbyes to our guide and new friends without the photos of the aurora that we’d hoped to capture, but perhaps that just makes the chase even more enticing, and we hadn’t given up just yet.
Our next stop was along the Golden Circle with a stay at Hotel Geysir. Located far from the city lights just across from the thermal fields known as the Geysir area, in the winter months there’s a good chance that the lights may be glimpsed from here, of course, provided conditions are right.
With so much cloud cover, we really didn’t have much hope of catching the aurora that night either. We made our way to the hotel’s natural geothermal hot tubs – not a short walk in the cold with swimsuits on, but the soothing warm water was worth having battled the chill as we soaked while watching for a possible appearance. There wasn’t another soul in sight, but neither were the lights. At around 11 p.m., we gave up, with our wet hair turning icy as we ran back through the snow and ice to our room.
After warming up and drying off, my daughter thought she’d go outside one last time, just in case. It was 11:45 and I was already in bed when I heard her footsteps running back through the hall. She was out of breath, “I saw green in the sky! I think the lights are here, come look!” she yelled. The other guests heard her too. One by one, we all went out in our PJs and jackets to gaze up at the sky.
It was surreal, green flashes were spread across the horizon, unlike anything I’d ever seen. While capturing it in photos, I learned, wasn’t all that easy, seeing it with my own eyes for the first time was something I’ll never forget.