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For landscape photographers and adventure backpackers, Iceland has become something of a mecca. Absurdly popular, the island’s yearly tourist numbers usually far exceed the country’s population. However, with a winter season that can sometimes yield violent conditions, even the hardiest of outdoorsmen prefer visiting during the comfortable summer months. That said, there is a reason to visit the island in its cold, dark winter — The Northern Lights. Below, we’ve found down the best places to see the Iceland Northern Lights.
Northern Lights Background
We are not exactly scientists here but what we do know is that the Northern Lights occur as a result of solar particles entering the Earth’s magnetic field at the high reaches of our atmosphere. The particles then ionize. Our Google search tells us that ionizing happens when an atom, molecule, or substance convert into an ion by losing electrons. The famous dancing lights occur as a result of other factors like acceleration and solar activity. While most often the lights appear to be a green color, they can be most colors of the rainbow depending on the elements going through the ionizing process.
Many legends surround the Northern Lights. In old Nordic culture, it was said the lights were the shining armor of the Valkyries, while some Native American groups thought them to be the happy spirits of the dead.
Conditions Needed for the Northern Lights
The Northern Lights, also known as the aurora borealis, are fickle. Without all the right conditions they will not make an appearance. The first key is location. Auroras can only occur above the 60-degree latitude mark in the north and below the 60-degree latitude in the south (the lesser-known Southern Lights are called the aurora australis). That is why the Northern Lights are only seen in northern cities in Norway, Sweden, Finland, Canada, Alaska, and of course Iceland (among a few other spots).
Additionally, the following circumstances must be met: in Iceland, it must be between the months of September and April, the darker the better (a full moon may diminish the lights), there can be no major cloud cover, and there needs to be enough solar activity.
The biggest deterrent to a great light show though is light pollution. Light pollution has drastically changed the number of places the aurora borealis can be viewed. Luckily, Iceland is minimally populated and the entire island sits above the 60 degrees north latitude requirement.
Places and Ways to See the Light Show
From the Capital City Reykjavik
Reykjavik is not exactly what someone would call a “big city” (the population is only about 125,000 people) but it’s large enough that the city lights can interfere with viewings. However, there are a couple of locations around the city that are prime viewing destinations. First, on the far northwestern border of the city is the Grótta Island Lighthouse. Protruding into the Atlantic Ocean, the lighthouse is significantly removed from the heart of the city and many people have taken striking pictures of the lighthouse illuminated underneath the Northern Lights. Additionally, the Perlan also presents the possibility of catching a glimpse of nature’s show. The Perlan is a fine dining restaurant set beneath a giant glass, domed roof. Since it is located in a large park, there is less interference from light pollution.
Take a Road Trip on the Ring Road
Why see the Northern Lights of Iceland just one night when you can see them many nights in different locations? Taking a road trip in Iceland is easier and more accessible than ever before. Many rental businesses in Reykjavik have popped up eager to fulfill people’s van life dreams. Renting a fully-equipped camper van is a great way to hit the road for an extended period of time and adventurers can complete Iceland’s Ring Road — a highway that circumnavigates the entirety of the island.
Those who have completed the route recommend seven to ten days to experience the drive correctly, although someone could potentially do the full road in less than 24 hours. Along the way, visitors can see the much photographed Kirkjufellsfoss Waterfall, Skogafoss Waterfall, and Thingvellír National Park. Because of the remoteness of much of the drive, there are many opportunities to see the Northern Lights (weather-permitting). People completing the road also get some major travel credit as much of northern Iceland is very off the beaten path and not typically on traveler itinieraries. Those embarking on the trip in the winter must come prepared for the cold, lack of resources, and difficult roads. Also worth noting is that Iceland recently adjusted laws allowing campers/drivers of camper vans to park anywhere for the night — they must now stop at designated sites.
The Westfjords is both Iceland’s most western and northern points. Part of the extremely jagged coastline that makes up the country’s border, the Westfjords jets out away from the rest of the island making it difficult to access by land. This isolation makes it a great place to witness the Northern Lights. The northern portion of the Westfjords is the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, a hotspot for campers (mostly in summer) and a perfect place to see Iceland’s natural ecosystem; including wild rocky rivers and animals like foxes and puffins.
From the Golden Circle
The Golden Circle is another spot that has both good views of the lights at night and things to do during the day. The Golden Circle is equally a popular driving route that passes cool geysers called Geysir and Strokkur. While eruptions are not always frequent, Geysir can throw piping hot water 230 feet into the air.
On a Boat
Another option that many travelers don’t know about for Northern Light viewing is taking a boat out onto the frigid waters. Seeing the Northern Lights dance on Iceland’s dramatic shores with calm seas in the foreground is maybe one of the most magical sights the world has to offer. These boat rides are most commonly found in coastal towns like Reykjavik and Akureyri and make the most of Iceland’s waters teeming with life. Although it’s dark, tourists shouldn’t be surprised to hear the deep breathes of diving dolphins and whales in the various harbors.
People eager to see the unbelievable natural phenomenon but nervous about embarking on their own can look into the many tours offered throughout the country to see the lights. From 4×4 Jeep excursions to boat rides to Golden Circle trips to fine-dining tours, there is no shortage of ways to see the Iceland Northern Lights.