Planning A Winter Road Trip in Iceland

Guest post by Alison Bailey

It’s Iceland, it’s December,  it’s cold and snowing, having spent several days holed up in Reykjavik courtesy of a hurricane Iain and I are planning to escape, and circumnavigate the island. Originally intending to drive anticlockwise around Route N1, a circular road that makes a circuit of the island possible, but the weather wasn’t exactly favourable. Winter weather aside, the other challenge was being in the right place, at the right time, with clear skies, to provide the best possible chance of seeing an Aurora.

In total it’s a 1,332km drive, mainly on tarmac, except for a 32km stretch of gravel track, and some country roads dating back to the 1940s. There are many hazards, such as blind curves and summits, single lane bridges, and narrow passes. In winter, icy roads, blizzards and gale force winds make driving hazardous, so careful planning is essential.

Map of the Arctic island of Island showing the circular Route N1 which allows a circular road trip around the Nordic island on Mallory on Travel adventure, adventure travel, photography IcelandColorMap08

Our circuitous route around Iceland

Aurora spotting is a tricky challenge, it doesn’t happen every night, and predicting where, and when it will occur takes a lot of research, plenty of patience and even more luck. It might start at 10pm, or 2am, weeks may go by without a sign, and when it does there is a blanket of clouds, pesky clouds. Iceland has plenty of those due to its mid Atlantic position. It’s the only piece of land for thousands miles where clouds can form!

In order to try to grab an Aurora, we’re checking weather forecasts, wind direction, gas from an erupting volcano, cloud cover and cross referring with Aurora forecasts. Soft Serve News, (Alaskan Geophysical Institute) do issue Aurora alerts but only providing a maximum of 45 minutes notice, and that makes getting clear of light pollution and finding a clear patch of sky a challenge.

Armed with maps, weather forecasts and Aurora forecasts we sat down in the lounge of our accommodation, The Bus Hostel and came up with a plan. Iain suggested driving clockwise around the island instead. This made perfect sense in the circumstances, as it would place us in an area forecast for good weather at a time when the lights were likely to provide a good show. Maximum exposure to clear skies at a time with a higher chance of an Aurora, all good. It also required us to make sure we were in the remote North-East of Iceland during daylight, to ensure we weren’t stranded at night if it all went horribly wrong.

A rental car in Iceland from SAD Cars car hire at the Langjökull glacier in the south east of the Arctic island on Mallory on Travel adventure, adventure travel, photography 20141205-DSC_8617

Game little Ragnar

We’d been provided a 10-year-old Toyota Rav4 from SAD Cars, which we’d immediately nicknamed Ragnar the Rav. The little car with essential studded tyres had been godsend so far, faultless on earlier daily excursions, but this prudent planning meant that driving in the remote stretches would, at least be in the short hours of daylight.

This might sound over dramatic but when Icelanders advise that it is crazy to even attempt this circumnavigation. Especially in winter, that the main road is usually closed at this time of year, then sensible planning and taking the right equipment is just being prudent. Sleeping bags, extra food, external packs for charging mobiles and a shovel went in the boot. Extra layers of clothing, spare clothing if anything gets wet are essential. Finally we added the photography gear.

Did I mention that Iain’s plan entailed completing the entire road trip in just three days? I have to admit, at the time I had my doubts. Without any accommodation booked and some places not even open in the winter, this seemed another major challenge. However, no problem, heading straight to a favourite site, Villas.com, Two suitable stopovers in Akureyri and Höfn were quickly identified, and within 20 minutes we’d booked somewhere warm and comfortable for both nights.

The apartment in Akureyri in particular was simply sensational, right in the town centre, very stylish and Edda, the Managing Director at Radhusid Apartments was very helpful. After a hard day driving with frequent stops to take plenty of photos it was 6pm when we rolled into town. With the benefit of a fitted kitchen, we opted for dining in, and at it wasn’t long before we were tucking into dinner. We still had time for a walk round town in the cold clear evening. Edda also shared some fascinating Icelandic Christmas traditions and tales, many of which are amusing.

The next day was a challenging drive with some very low temperatures through the mountains but our reward was some fabulous views, and images, the kind which stay with you for life.

Sunset over a small lake near Reykjavik on the sub Arctic island of Iceland on Mallory on Travel adventure, adventure travel, photography 20141204-DSC_8219

A winter sunset in North East Iceland

Dinner was at one of the Icelandic service stations which sounds less than salubrious, but they are multifunctional businesses. Service station, shop, restaurant, fish and chip shop, place to watch television with your mates……they’re not the standard service station.

Refreshed, we headed into the dark having taken the advice of the owner to avoid the 32km of gravel road that forms part of the N1 and follow the coast road which is, at least, surfaced. Skirting each Fjord, Iain driving and me swivelling around, keeping my eyes open for the Aurora that was forecast, and had prompted us to take this road trip in the first place. Nothing, hour after hour, and still nothing, another hour, another two at least the Fjords were providing a pleasant distraction, beautiful under a bright moon, but still no Northern Lights.

Unpredictable? Yep, but on we persevered.

The plan had included a stop to shoot Vesturhorn, known as Batman mountain near Höfn in the moonlight, even if we were unlucky with the Aurora. As midnight approached, without any sign of lights in the sky, we parked near the tidal flats that should provide the best shot of the mountain in the moonlight. Slightly disappointed at another night without any Aurora activity, 10 nights in Iceland seemed enough, but even careful planning and research doesn’t guarantee success.

However, we were still optimistic, it might still happen. Consoling ourselves with the other great experiences we’d had as the steel studded tyres crunched to a halt on the gravel of the parking area. Grabbing essential warm hat and gloves, hopping out to get my camera and tripod from the back ……. I saw it. Appearing like a faint grey stripe at first ,but running in the wrong direction for a cloud……it’s only the damned Aurora, over the exact mountain we planned to shoot!

The Aurora Borealis over Vesturhorn mountain, known as Batman mountain near Hofn, south east Iceland on Mallory on Travel adventure, adventure travel, photography Iceland 2014-143 vesturhorn

Worth planning for, worth the wait

It wasn’t the most spectacular Aurora, but it developed quite nicely, and an hour later, cold, and tired, we’re still grinning broadly, we’ve just witnessed the Northern Lights!

Two happy travellers arrive at the accommodation 30 minutes later, right on the harbour front at Höfn. Slightly more basic than the previous apartment, but on this side of Iceland, at short notice in winter villas.com had again done us proud. We slept very soundly that night.

That’s what trips like this are for. All the planning, all the driving…… all worth it, every moment.

We had some fabulous help in planning and executing this trip, Flybe, flew us out The Bus Hostel was convenient, fun accommodation in Reykjavík, Sad Cars for trusty Ragnar and Villas.com for last-minute flexibility. Thank you for all your assistance.

Alison Bailey 170 Miles Coast to Coast on Mallory on Travel adventure, adventure travel, photography

Coast to Coast

About Alison Bailey

I started as a photographer at the tender age of three when my Dad gave me my first camera, a Kodak Brownie. I crawled around ‘taking pictures’ of everything, even though there wasn’t any film, and I’ve been taking pictures ever since.

I’ve worked as a Lab Technician specialising in Pathology to the promised land of Olympus cameras, and even a spell in law enforcement. I’ve returned to my first love now however, specialising in wedding photography. I predominantly use digital today, but the traditionalist in me still loves film, and the skills required to develop it.

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Comments 14

  1. Brian Belfitt

    Iceland is a great place to visit. Sure, the weather is cold but it’s a beautiful country. It has lots of hot springs. If I ever visit Iceland with family, I will go for the hot springs. The Northern Lights are also beautiful to watch in the night sky.

  2. Hannah White

    its very fascinating to watch sky views from different locations at Iceland and Alison you have done it beautifully through excellent photography. Glad to see your experiences and post!

  3. Rouven

    Wow, driving the Ring Road in 3 days seems crazy, even in summer. You must’ve been really, really lucky with the weather and the road conditions. It took us a full day to drive from Hali to Egilstadir (with various stops of course) due to blowing snow, strong winds and icy roads. You can stretch a trip on the Ring Road to 2 or even 3 weeks without getting bored. There’s so much to such. Btw, I love your photo of the Northern Lights 🙂

    1. Post
      Author
      Iain

      Hi Rouven, not sure if you realised but it was actually December, so pretty wintry, and we did get blockaded in by what the Icelanders described as a hurricane. The roads were covered in ice and we had our fair share of snow blizzards, but guess we were lucky on the whole.

      Thanks for commenting and looks like you had your own ring road adventure to enjoy.

  4. Catalin

    Iceland is such a fascinating country. It’s been on my bucket list for several years now, this post convinces me I should really visit it asap.
    Btw, the sunset picture is incredible.

  5. Larry

    Tough tackling this road in winter, but the Northern Lights and awesome views of the glaciers, coast and mountains of Iceland make it well worth it!

  6. Rojalin Das

    I love the country Iceland. Many times I have advised to my friends who ask me for suggestions. Your guide winter road trip is really helpful to many travelers who are planing for their future travel. Really I appreciate for your beautiful photography.

  7. markwarn

    Iceland Was very amazing place .Can you suggest me that how costly road trip .Actually i living in Georgia . I also to planing g to Going A road trip for Albany with my freinds

  8. Tricia Kissoon

    Hi Guys,

    My husband and I are heading to Iceland in December 2016. We’re thinking about diving from Hofn to Akureyri in one day. What are your thoughts about this? I’d appreciate any suggestions as well. We are also inexperienced drivers when it comes to snow. We’ll be visiting from the Caribbean.

    Thus far your post has been very helpful. Thanks fro sharing your experience.

    Tricia

    1. Iain Mallory

      Hi Tricia, I’m jealous of you already, love Iceland, especially in winter and the ring road is fantastic. We actually did exactly what you suggest but in reverse, so it’s definitely doable. Actually your way round is probably a better option than our way round, as the drive through the mountains will be during daylight.

      If the weather conditions are right, you’ll have an exciting and spectacular drive, good luck.

  9. Wouter

    We went to Iceland last spring, it was really amazing! Thank so much for your work and info! It was my second time I have visited Iceland but after reading your inspiration and want to jump on the plane again.

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