Seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland

Seeing the Northern Lights has been on the bucket list for a while. After I sold my house, I decided on a whim to head to Iceland. I wanted to see if I could find them.

I researched the best places to see the Aurelia Borealis, but I also wanted somewhere quite straightforward to get to. Iceland in that period was deemed a pretty good bet for seeing the lights. Although some might say not as good as other places

Visiting Reykjavik

With high hopes, I set off to Iceland on a cheap flight. (Which lulled me into a false sense that it was a cheap place to visit – ha!) The first night I stayed in Reykjavik for ease and also so I could see the city.

It was such a lovely time of year to go. The main streets looked very festive and picture postcard. What was really interesting to experience were the incredibly short days. In the summer there is almost constant daylight, with the sun only setting for about 3 hours. In the winter it was the opposite.

Short hours of daylight

Sight-seeing in the dark at 10am was interesting! The sun only started to come up at about 11.30. There were a few hours of daylight before the sun began to set again. It does make seeing the northern lights much more likely since you’ll only see them when the sky’s dark

Here’s the famous Hallgrímskirkja church and cafe Loki across the road where I got an amazing veggie breakfast.

Hallgrimskirkja, Reykjavík Iceland in darkness | Seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland |
Cafe Loki, Reykjavík, Iceland, in darkness | Seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland |

Moving to the Icelandic wilderness

After the first night, I moved to the wilderness. Some people say that winter is a time for introspection and experiencing an internal winter. I wanted to see the Northern Lights. But I also felt a strong pull to let my inner wild woman have time immersed in nature.

I moved to the cabin below in Fludir which was pretty much in the middle of nowhere. I hired a car to get there and driving the main roads wasn’t too bad. However, when I turned off onto the smaller lanes you can imagine they were pretty snowy. The ice was insane. Of course, I hired a 4-wheel drive but it was still struggling.

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The scariest experience of my life

One of the scary experiences of my life was driving back up to the cabin. After I’d gone to get some shopping the lane turned into pure ice part way up. As I was driving up at a 45-degree angle the car started sliding back.

There was a pretty steep drop on one side of the road, the other hugged the hill. The brakes and handbrake were doing nothing. I almost resigned myself to the fact that the car was going to keep going. It seemed like it would just going to go backwards until it dropped over the ledge with me in it.

Anyway, I averted disaster by steering on to the tiniest bit of scree on the inner edge of the road. The wheel gripped it and I managed to get the car to stop. I climbed out as gingerly as I could. I wanted to avoid moving the car and sending it slipping off down the hill. (Now I had visions of it sliding down the hill without me in it. Marginally better but there was an insurance excess on the car of £1000 so not ideal!)

The comedy!

The whole thing could have been quite funny. (If I hadn’t been so stressed about the visions in my head. AND worrying that someone else would get hurt – not entirely sure who in this desolate location.)

As I crept out the door I promptly slipped and went flying down the hill on my stomach. It was like a comedy. I couldn’t get any purchase with my (proper, weather-appropriate) boots. I just kept getting up, slipping and then heading off down the hill like I was on a helter-skelter.

Finally, I managed to scramble up the verge. I pulled myself up with the long bits of grass that were poking out the top of the snow. I made it back to the cabin and found some salt to take back and sprinkle around the wheels. A couple of hours later the temperature had risen a bit so combined with the salt the ice melted.

I retrieved the car and parked it down on the side of the main road for the duration! And when I say main, about 3 cars a day travelled down it. I loved that when I was out and about driving I could just stop in the middle of the road. I could snap a few pictures and enjoy the scenery. There was literally no-one else around.

Icelandic ponies eating a bale of hay in a snow-covered field

The perfect location

The location was perfect for what I wanted with an acre of private land. I’d also specifically booked this property because it came with a hot tub. At the front of the property, there was a long wrap-around veranda. I used to stand outside there and watch the weather. It changes fast in Iceland and every time I looked up the landscape and sky looked completely different.

Anyway, it seemed to me to be the perfect place to catch the sights I’d come to see. The light pollution was really low and I could see miles of sky. Unfortunately, it was pretty overcast most of the time I was there.

Did I see the Northern Lights?

One night there was broken cloud and some clear sky every so often. I spent the evening at the Secret Lagoon hoping to see the lights from there.

(Side note: if you go to Iceland, visit here! It’s on the Gold Circle fairly close to some of the main sights. It’s about a million times better – and cheaper – than the Blue Lagoon tourist trap. Having the whole lagoon to myself for 45 minutes was heaven. I sat on volcanic rock spewed from the centre of the earth itself. I was immersed in naturally hot water, looking up at the stars. Pure bliss.

The Northern Lights did not show, however. When my time in the lagoon was up I headed back to the cabin. Incidentally, I never did use the hot tub at the property. All the plastic and chemicals seemed wrong after the entirely natural experience of the Secret Lagoon.

I stood on the veranda and looked to the skies throughout the evening. And the answer you’ve all been waiting for is, I THINK I glimpsed the Aurelia Borealis in action.

To be honest, it was a bit of let down and at the time I doubted what I was seeing. Contrary to my expectation of green and purple lights dancing across the sky in spectacular fashion, I saw a bit of a white streak.

The Northern Lights are white

To begin with, I wasn’t sure what I was looking at. There was a lot of white cloud moving across the sky. But there was a clear patch where I could see the starts and then this weird white streak. It wasn’t a cloud and I realised that I must be actually seeing the northern lights! I hadn’t even known they could be white.

Apparently, that’s quite common. There’s something better in cameras than our eyes at night to pick up all the colours you see in pictures. Having said that, if you go further north in somewhere like Norway or Sweden you might see them a bit more like the dramatic green we imagine.

Seeing the northern lights is still on the List

Although technically I could tick this seeing the northern lights experience off the 50-Before-50 Bucketlist I’m not going to yet. The experience in Iceland wasn’t what I had in mind for this. I’d still like to get closer to what I imagined so I’ll keep this on the list. At some point, I’ll book a trip to somewhere like Tromso and see what that brings.

Have you chased the Northern Lights? Was it an incredible experience or did you spend all night chasing them to no avail? I’d love to hear, let me know in the comments.

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