Without a Plan ~ Winter Road Trip in Iceland

A cold wind slams into me as I walk out the Keflavik International Airport.  I am actually in Iceland and it’s early February.  I unlock my rental car and program my Reykjavik hostel into my GPS unit.  I have my hostel for tonight book and have to return the rental car in two and half weeks.  I am about to embark on a winter road trip in Iceland without a plan.  I have a 10 item bucket list of things I want to do.

  1. See the Northern Lights
  2. Drive the Ring Road
  3. SCUBA dive in Silfra, the space between two continents
  4. Ride an Icelandic Horse
  5. Hike on a Glacier
  6. Visit an Ice Cave
  7. See a Puffin
  8. Fly over the erupting volcano
  9. Boat ride in the Glacier Lagoon
  10. Swim in the Blue Lagoon

Most of the list is weather dependent but some items have other challenges.  Items 2, 6, and 9 all require the roads there to be open.  In Iceland, that is not a guarantee.  The roads open and close at the whims of the weather.  Iceland has this handy site that updates every 10 mins with road conditions.  Items 1, 7 and 9 are nature dependent and if she isn’t in a good mood they aren’t happening.  Items 3, 4, 5, 6, 9, and 10 all require some luck to find space on a tour or a ticket.

It’s a 45 min drive from the airport into Rekyvik.  I check-in the Kex Hostel and take inventory of what I have.  I was preparing to transfer work locations so I had checked 3 bags.  The Icelandair had only delivered one bag.  The bag with my heavy winter gear was one of the missing bags.  I had a mid-weight jacket, a rain jacket, and a pair of gloves.  I decided to pick up a couple of the items I need such as a hat.

Winter Road Trip in Iceland

Now that I was in Iceland, I started planning my next move.  Over the next two days, I wanted to go whale watching and drive the Golden Circle.  The weather forecast for the Golden Circle area was a little spotty so I decided that whale watching would be a better choice. Whale watching was a bust.  The food supply had not arrived in Iceland yet so neither had the whales.  We did see some birds and some nice views of the island. I highly recommend looking at the whale watching report for the last couple of days before going.

Winter Road Trip in Iceland

The next day the weather was better so I drove the Golden Circle.  The Golden Circle is a 300km (190 mile) loop of three famous landmarks.  The Þingvellir National Park (including Silfra), Geyser (the geyser for which all other geysers are named), and Gullfoss Waterfall.

Winter Road Trip in Iceland

After finishing the Golden Circle, I check the weather and decided that I would drive to the 4 hours to Vic to see the puffins.  I booked a hostel in Vik and the next morning made the drive.  Along the way, I stopped at the Selfoss Waterfall and experienced driving in the driving wind of Iceland, not fun.

Winter Road Trip in IcelandWinter Road Trip in Iceland

I got to Vik and checked into my hostel.  I asked about best places to see puffins.  Erik, the hostel managers tells me: “I hate having to answer that question during the winter.  The puffins are only on Iceland during the summer.”  Oh, I hadn’t thought about that.  Just another excuse to come visit Iceland during the summer. Erik did help me book a glacier hike for the next day and give me directions to a US Navy Plane Crash.

Iceland (5)

The next morning, I drove out to the Myrdalsjokull Glacier in zero visibility.  As I approached the glacier, the weather cleared but the wind didn’t let up.   The guide canceled the tour but said I was welcome to come back for a tour later in the day.  He was hopping the weather would improve.  I headed off to find the airplane crash.  After a long drive down a sand road with few discernible markers, I found my plane.
Winter Road Trip in IcelandWinter Road Trip in Iceland

I returned to the glacier for my hike. Matt, my guide, was glad to see I had made it back.  Apparently, it isn’t uncommon for tourist to get stuck in the stand.  We suited up with glacier gear, crampons, harness, and an ice axe and off we went.  It took about 30 mins to reach the glacier and we spent about an hour on the glacier before the weather forced us off.  I found out that the glacier is only blue during the winter.  During the summer, the glacier melting cause dirt to collect and ruin the crystal blue color.

Winter Road Trip in Iceland

After Vic, I headed out to Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon.  It is what it sounds like a Lagoon filled with ice that has broken off the Vatnajökull glacier.  Since it was winter, there were no boat tours of the lake.  Instead, I sent several hours walking along the lagoon shore.  I was hoping to see some seals or wildlife.  Not today.  I had missed the last ice cave tour of the day, but I was told there might be space tomorrow.  The next day I drove back to the Lagoon and spent some time on the shore line waiting for the ice cave tour guide to arrive.  I was heading back meet up with the guide when I noticed something swimming in the water.  It was a seal.
Winter Road Trip in Iceland

The guide had a full tour, but luckily someone didn’t show up so I got to go along.  Every year the ice caves move and change.  The different guide companies all work together to find the caves every winter. It’s a four-wheel off-roading adventure to the head of the Vatnajökull glacier and the ice cave.

Winter Road Trip in Iceland

My plan was to drive up to Seyðisfjörður but when I called to book a bed in the hostel I found that the hostel was closed for the winter.  I quickly found an open hostel in a nearby town, Reyðarfjörður.  The weather limited the views as I drove up the east coast of Iceland.  I spent a lazy afternoon, reading my book and enjoying the view out the bay windows of my hostel.

The next open hostel was in Aukeyri.  It was a long drive from Reyðarfjörður.  I planned to break it up with a stop to Myvatn.  I knew I got to Myvatn when I started smelling sulfur.  I stopped and wandered around the hot springs before enjoying a soak at the Myvatn bath. It looked like the pictures of the Blue Lagoon only less people.

Winter Road Trip in Iceland

The next two days were devoted to hiking in the Myvatn area and Northern Light hunting. I hiked out to several of the northern waterfalls.  I visited the land North of the Wall from the Game of Thrones or the Dimmuborgir as they are called for the non-Westeros residents.   Alas, Akureyri didn’t have any luck for northern lights viewing.

Winter Road Trip in Iceland

I realized that it was cheaper to book a Holuhraun eruption fly over from the Aukeyri Airport.  The first available flight was two days away and weather dependent.  Since I couldn’t do the fly over, I decided I wanted to go horseback riding.  North Iceland during the week lacks tourists and most the tour companies require at least two people to run a tour.  At about 9pm, I found a company that had a tour running.  I drove about an hour west of Aukeyri and found out I had a private horse riding tour.

Winter Road Trip in Iceland

My volcano eruption flyover was canceled due to a snow storm.  I decided to cut my losses and drive down to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.  I had 5 nights left in Iceland and I still hadn’t seen the Northern Lights.  Not for lack for trying on my part.  It was a long about 7 hour drive to the peninsula and I couldn’t help but be annoyed that I had yet to see the lights.  I made dinner and kept checking the Northern Lights Tracker.  It wasn’t looking good. I was the only guest at the hostel so I was going to call it an early night.  I decided that I was going to check the forecast and then head to bed.  The forecast had done a complete 180 since my last check.  I grabbed my gear and headed out to my car to drive out of town.  I stepped out and looked up.  Even with the light pollution, I could see a hint of green.  I drove about 15 mins outside of town and spent several hours watching the show.  It made up for not seeing the volcano.

Winter Road Trip in Iceland

I woke up late the next morning due to my late night.  I started around the peninsula and on a whim stopped and joined a lava tube tour to Italy.  The Vatnshellir lava tube is featured in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth.  The tube is actually two different lava tubes that are connected via a lava waterfall.

Winter Road Trip in Iceland

Once I made it into Reykjavik, I started trying to book my dive in Silfia.  I only had two days where I could do the dive since you can’t fly for 24 hours after diving.  I found a dive company that had space for an extra person.  I woke up excited for my dive.  I dressed warmly and drove out to Þingvellir Natioanl Park.  I meet up with my dive master and got a brief overview of dry suit diving since Silfia is 1 to 2 degrees C (33.8 to 35.6 Farinhieht). The air temperature isn’t much warmer than the water.  I was freezing even before we entered the water.  Due to the air temperature, we were doing one long dive instead of two short dives. I was fine with this.  Not sure my feet would have survived two dives.

Winter Road Trip in Iceland

My last full day in Iceland was spent wandering around the city and seeing the sites.  I went to the top of the Lutherian Church and had dinned at the Insuck bar.  I tried some local delicacies such as puffin, fermented shark, and whale (I know the ethical issues with whale, I have tried it once and will never do it again).

Winter Road Trip in Iceland

Since I had a late afternoon flight, I decided to spend my last morning bathing in the Blue Lagoon.  There was a snowstorm going on, but the lagoon is warm.  It was fun to feel the contrast between the air and the water.

Winter Road Trip in Iceland

I drove to the airport.  I checked my bucket list in my travel journal.  I didn’t do too bad for having nothing booked when I arrived and most everything was weather dependent. I can’t wait to go back in the summer and hitch hike the ring road.

  1. See the Northern Lights
  2. Drive the Ring Road
  3. SCUBA dive in Silfra, the space between two continents
  4. Ride a Icelandic Horse
  5. Hike on a Glaicer
  6. Visit an Ice Cave
  7. See a Puffin (Only available during the summer)
  8. Fly over the erupting volcano (Weather cancelled my tour)
  9. Boat ride in the Glacier Lagoon (Summer activity but the seal sighting allows me to mark off it off the list)
  10. Swim in the Blue Lagoon

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What is on your Iceland Bucket List? Would you do a winter road trip in Iceland?

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77 thoughts on “Without a Plan ~ Winter Road Trip in Iceland

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  3. Emi Hoshino

    That’s amazing…no itinerary! I am going to Iceland next month from 9/22 to 10/2. I rented a camper van to drive the ring road but after researching on Tripadvisor, saw a lot of locals advising against driving on the ring road during winter due to weather conditions/crazy winds. Obviously, you managed but how did you feel driving around in Winter? Thanks a bunch!

    Reply
    • Jennifer Post author

      It really depends on adventure level, time, and driving skill. I wouldn’t do the trip if you are on a tight schedule. You can get snowed in in the east or north easily. I had my hostel reservation canceled due to the fact that the western roads were closed. The hostel was surprised when I showed up but I came in from the east.

      Reply
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  15. Erika

    This is unbelievable! I just got back from Iceland yesterday and was hoping to return in winter to see the northern lights. I can imagine the days are quite short though. Did you have an issue with the short length of the days?
    Erika’s current road . . . Granada and the Masaya VolcanoMy Profile

    Reply
    • Jennifer Post author

      It’s an amazing country to visit any time of the year. I didn’t. Biggest thing to remember was things opened and closed with the daylight. It also kept me from over planning every day.

      Reply
  16. cai

    Seeing the Northern Lights is on my faith goal too! What a lucky girl, 8 checks out of 10 on your list is pretty awesome!

    Reply
  17. Fi Ní Neachtáin

    Wow is all I can say! I am so jealous, it’s my dream to visit Iceland and see the Northern Lights. Your pictures are amazing, you’ve inspired me to want to book a trip as soon as I can!

    Reply
  18. Rebecca Swenor

    This sounds like a wonder time indeed and I so love your list. I would love to try doing and seeing some of these sights because they would be so unforgettable. The dive looks like it would be so interesting a gorgeous. Thanks for sharing and these are totally awesome photos.

    Reply
  19. Victoria

    Wow that looks absolutely amazing! Love all the pictures and looks like a trip of a lifetime! I would love to someday explore Iceland as well with my family! Our best trip yet has been Ireland and I completely fell in love with it!
    Victoria’s current road . . . 5 Tips I Use To “Do It All”My Profile

    Reply
  20. Kae James

    This is just awesome. You are awesome. I never thought to put Iceland on my bucket list but you have changed my mind. Love the pictures. Kind of reminds me off Alaska. Well just the glaciers, whale, and northern lights.

    Reply
  21. ricci

    Great pics…only one thing though, it looks COLD! HA! I can’t wait for summer to start in the south. It has rained so much it still feels like spring!

    Reply
  22. Valerie

    I had no idea puffins were only there in Summer! What a bummer. It looks like you were able to accomplish a lot though, and bravo for being brave enough to do it all without set plans. I am an over planner so the idea of not having set plans freaks me out a little!
    Valerie’s current road . . . A Day in MacauMy Profile

    Reply
    • Jennifer Post author

      That is where a couple Icelander’s told me to go when I go back. Those pictures are amazing. I can’t wait to get back and see the puffins.

      Reply
    • Jennifer Post author

      Yea, I was a little bummed about the puffins but then again I didn’t actually research much before I went. Have fun during the summer in Iceland.

      Reply
    • Jennifer Post author

      Iceland is amazing and is like no where else I have been. I was prepared except for the airline losing my luggage but that worked out eventually.

      Reply

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