I flew to Iceland in March with three good friends in search of the Northern Lights. We were all hoping for an out-of-this-worldly experience! Of course, we knew there were no guarantees of seeing the often elusive Aurora Borealis. But we planned our winter trip with 5 nights in Iceland to increase the odds of a viewing. Plus our itinerary gave us 3 nights in Akureyri in the country’s far north – a much less populated area with less “light pollution.”
Spoiler Alert: Yes, we did see the Northern Lights! It was in Akureyri, near the end of our trip when we had just about given up hope. Our “hunts” for the Lights (run by local tour operators) were cancelled both nights in Reykjavik, because weather reports of overcast skies gave us no chance of a viewing. However, we did search for the Lights all three nights in Akureryi – and each evening was a very different and fun experience.
The Northern Lights viewing season is generally September to mid-April. You need a few key factors to align to be able to see the Lights (Aurora Borealis) – the solar particles activity (the cause!), dark skies without a lot of light pollution, and clear (mostly non-cloudy) skies. In fact, many people come to Iceland (especially on shorter stopovers) and never see the Aurora.
Before this trip, I couldn’t really imagine what Iceland in winter would be like, nor a Northern Lights “hunt.” Now that I do, I want to share my experiences with you so that you’ll have a better idea of what to expect when you plan and make your own visit to see the Northern Lights in Iceland during the Aurora season.
Hunting for the Northern Lights – Night #1
Our first day in Akureryi, we signed up for an afternoon/evening tour to Lake Myvatn with Saga Travel. The tour included a Northern Lights hunt in the evening – after finishing dinner and a soak in some outdoor hot baths. Lake Myvatn (an hour drive from Akureyri) is a great area for viewing the Aurora because it’s in the countryside with minimal “light pollution.”
That night, our group of ten departed from the delightful Myvatn Nature Baths around 9:30pm to begin our Northern Lights search. We were in a hopeful mood since the skies were clear and the stars were out. Our guide Ingi drove the van further out into the darkness on a sparsely traveled road. Soon we got out and set up our tripods and cameras by the roadside and waited. There was a faint hint of an Aurora but after a short while, we got back in the van to try another location.
Our second stop (at around 10:45pm) delivered the night’s best (but still muted) Northern Lights viewing. We saw one long white, slightly greenish ribbon arcing from the horizon across the sky, with another ribbon rising upward from it. It was cool to see, of course, but we were hoping for something a bit more dramatic.
Being a complete newbie to Northern Lights photography, I learned that SLR cameras (like mine) on a tripod with a long exposure (like 20-30 seconds) actually show more color in the photos than you can see with your naked eye. So, the photo below shows much more green than we actually saw.
After we all had enough of the unchanging sky (and with our hands and feet getting really cold), we began our drive back to Akureyri. We continued to keep a vigilant watch on the skies for the appearance of more Lights but it only got cloudier with time. We stopped at the Godafoss Waterfall, one of Ingi’s favorite spots for viewing the Lights but again, no luck. We returned to the hotel around midnight.
When asked, Ingi rated the night’s Lights show around a 2 on a very subjective scale of 10. Luckily, this was low enough – considered as not really seeing the Lights – to give us a “free repeat” of a Northern Lights hunt the next evening. This is standard protocol for most tour operators. Okay, that sounds good. We still have two more nights in Akureyri. I’m feeling lucky!
Northern Lights Hunt – Night #2
The next evening, we headed out of Akureyri at 9:30pm on our “make-up” Lights hunt. This was Saga Travel’s standard Northern Lights Exploration tour (usually 2.5-3 hours) which they run every night, weather permitting. We were in a fully loaded 14-passenger van with our driver/guide Armann.
The town of Akureyri sits near the bottom of a beautiful, long fjord. We drove north along this fjord to a point far away from the city lights. We all piled out of the van (dressed in our heavy winter clothing) and those of us with SLRs set up our cameras and tripods. We were in a very exposed area on the fjord and the winds were really howling (perhaps 20-25 mph?). It was damn cold!
Armann said he could see some Lights under the cloud cover, but they were very faint. However, he must have x-ray vision because none of the rest of us could see anything. He also told us the winds help blow away the clouds – but no such luck tonight. After standing outside freezing for about 20 minutes listening to Armann talk about Auroras, I went back inside the van. Turns out, I wasn’t the first to be huddled inside getting warm and soon the rest of the group joined us.
Armann was on the phone checking with other guides (in different areas) to see if anyone was spotting the Lights. We even drove back over the mountains to the Godafoss Waterfall again – but still no Aurora. Unfortunately, the cloud cover stubbornly remained in place the rest of the evening.
So we drove back to Akureyri, stopping at a scenic overlook for a few minutes. Luckily, it was much less cold here – because there was no wind. While Armann served us hot chocolate and some sweets, we enjoyed beautiful views of the shimmering lights of Akureyri at night. We got back to the hotel around midnight.
So, yes, once again, we returned in “Lights Defeat,” which is a common occurrence. As said before, there is never a guarantee you’ll see the Northern Lights – I guess that’s why they call it a hunt! One of our guides likened the predictability of it to “searching for rainbows.” I really like the analogy.
Night #3 – Lights Hunt: Victory!
The next morning at breakfast, my friends and I talked about having just one more night in Akureyri for seeing the Lights but the weather forecast was not looking hopeful. Bummer! Carol & Jamie (who initiated the whole idea of this trip) began discussing other options to see the Northern Lights – including a possible trip to Yellowknife in the Canadian Northwest Territories. This did not excite me – I really wanted to see the Lights here in Iceland on this trip!
That evening around 8:40pm, we were walking back to the hotel from dinner (under skies at dusk) to be ready for our 9pm Northern Lights tour pickup (another freebie.). My friend Jim just happened to look up at the sky and voila! There they were – the Northern Lights had just appeared! We saw two vivid green bands of light (aka ribbons or streamers) arcing across the sky. We screamed with delight and practically ran back to the hotel, absolutely giddy with excitement!
The tour guide had just arrived, so we ran to our rooms to get our gear and boarded the waiting bus (a large one this time). The guide rushed everyone – “Hurry, Hurry!” – at all the Akureyri hotel pickups. Finally, at 9:25pm, we headed out of town to the other side of the fjord, all holding our breath hoping the Lights would continue to “stay on.”
We made a stop at the first good viewing place (the same scenic overlook where we were the night before) – to make sure we could see and photograph the Lights ASAP in case they suddenly stopped. Luckily, the Lights were still dancing when we got out of the bus. In fact, this first stop had the most vivid Northern Lights of the whole evening. They truly filled and lit up the whole sky!
We saw broad arcing streamers (ribbons) of light, many in vivid greens or whitish with a greenish tinge. Bursts of light (jets or rays) – in greens and pinks – shot up from the arcing ribbons. And, early on, there were many dancing swirls of green light. It was magical! Words can’t really do it justice. One of the women on our tour kept exclaiming “Wow – this is Phantasmagorical!” (We all laughed but silently agreed).
After some initial photos (during perhaps 10-15 minutes), we drove to two other spots further up the fjord. There, we lingered for quite a while as we continued to enjoy and photograph the Lights as they slowly faded, due to increasingly cloudy skies, finishing at around 11pm. Luckily, it was not as cold as the night before (because of much less wind).
We returned to the hotel a little before midnight and enjoyed a celebratory drink in the lounge with our new travel friends Lorie & Rick from DC. Besides making toasts to our first ever viewing of the Northern Lights, I also said a silent prayer of thanks for not needing to go to Yellowknife! Phew…
That night, I photographed the Northern Lights the whole time, learning just how difficult it is to do successfully. It’s very technical. As you can see, my photos are not great, but they’ll give you a small sense of what we saw. For perspective, I have also included “more professional” photos of the Lights in this blog. They were taken by my friends Ivy (while she was on a dedicated Iceland photography tour in 2015) and Eddie from his April trip as explained below.
Carol & Eddie’s Aurora Experience – The Following Month
My travel mate Carol loved “Winter Iceland” so much that she returned four short weeks later (in early April) – this time with her husband Eddie in tow. They spent 7 nights in Iceland, touring the southern and western areas of the country by car. They also had a great Northern Lights show on one of their nights. Every other night was overcast so the Lights hunt tours were cancelled.
The way it works is this. The Iceland tour operators who offer “Northern Lights” tours check the weather forecast each day and cancel that evening’s tours ahead of time when it’s looking hopeless. They’ll still go out if they think there’s a chance of a viewing, offering no guarantees of course. But most will give you a free repeat Lights tour the next night if you didn’t see the Aurora.
Interestingly, Carol & Eddie ended up seeing the Lights during their time in Reykjavik, Iceland’s big city instead of when they were out in the countryside (where they spent most of their time). I’ve added their experiences below because they offer a fourth good tour perspective for you.
A Successful Northern Lights Hunt – From Reykjavik
While staying in Reykjavik, they signed up for a regular Northern Lights tour (vs. a photography-oriented tour) because weather conditions were looking good for that Tuesday evening. Their tour was with Reykjavik Excursions and cost 6400 ISK (around $52) per person.
They were picked up from their hotel around 9pm, and taken to Reykjavik Excursion’s main terminal where “light-seekers” from hotels all around town were being shuttled. Once everyone had collected, Carol & Eddie boarded their particular tour bus (holding around 50 passengers) to begin the actual Lights hunt tour at 9:30pm.
Happily, the Northern Lights appeared that night, as predicted. Seeing the Lights right away, their guide was encouraged that it was going to be a really good night. They drove outside of Reykjavik for a short distance and stopped for 20 minutes (at a parking lot just off the side of the road) for everyone to get out and enjoy the Lights. Once again, to be safe.
They then continued driving onward to Pingellir National Park for the main viewing of the Lights. The park, which is about 40 minutes east of Reykjavik, is one of the main stops on the popular Golden Circle tourist route (by day). The bus parked in a large parking lot – one other bus and a few private cars were also there.
They spent an hour viewing the Northern Lights in that area. Their guide actually called the show the “best of the season!” Eddie told me that his photos can’t really capture the show, which at times covered the entire sky. Carol, who had seen both Lights shows, said these particular Lights were wonderful but different than what we had seen in Akureyri last month – more diffuse and less dancing movement.
Their Northern Lights show lasted around 3 hours, from their first sighting to the end. They returned back to Akureyri, finally arriving at their hotel around 2am. Certainly, these hunts / tours last longer when there are actual Lights to see! Carol & Eddie were thrilled that finally all the factors, like weather and aurora activity, aligned that night to give them their own out-of-this-worldly Iceland Northern Lights experience!
To Read More About Iceland – Check Out These Posts:
- Iceland’s Winter Wonders: Northern Lights, Reykjavik, Bjork & More
- Akureyri – North Iceland’s Not-To-Be-Missed Travel Gem
- Iceland’s Northern Lights Photography for Dummies
Comments: Have you seen the Northern Lights? What were they like? Was it in Iceland or somewhere else? Is seeing the Northern Lights on your Travel Dream List?