black sand beach iceland

Destination black sand beach Iceland: 10 of our favorite unforgettable beaches to watch the northern lights from

If you’re looking for some black sand to aurora watch from, look no further. With nearly 5000 km. of coastline, Iceland has you covered.

Picture it. Destination: black sand beach Iceland. Sparkling dark sand is the gift of many volcanic hotspots, but up here in the North, Iceland is among the few. Imagine the incredible darkness of sitting on the velvety black sand, while auroras dance in the black night.

Aside from the mystical moving lights, the only thing you can see are the stars and the white surf. It’s not a sight to miss, so we’ve gathered up a few of our favorites. Many things are otherworldly about black sand Iceland- but this is surely one of the most surreal.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Neil Mark Thomas)

1. Seltjörn, Ægisíða, and Kirkjusandur: The City Coast

Despite Reykjavik’s cosmopolitan appearance, this is a seaside town. And with the sea, comes miles and miles of coastline. There are many places where you can’t access the water because of barriers, big rocks, or just a lack of places to stand, but these are not among them.

These three beaches represent only a fraction of the accessible coast, but they are gorgeous hideaways to stroll in the sunlight. (Or the moonlight, if you’re keeping an eye out and watching the tide.) If you’re enjoying a walk on the seafront paths, you can find Seltjörn and Kirkjusandur at either end of it.

Kirkjusandur is the closer beach to the city center, and like many city spots, depending on the tide it may or may not be there when you arrive! It is a good reminder that despite our concrete home, we are never too far from nature in black sand beach Iceland.

If you find yourself down by Grótta, you will have plenty of time to enjoy Seltjörn. The home of one of Reykjavik’s most notable lighthouses, a nature reserve, and a beloved aurora watching spot- this entire area feels lightyears removed from the hustle and bustle of the city just behind it.

And if you find yourself in Reykjavik’s cozy Vesturbær neighborhood, you can enjoy a walk down Ægisíða. An area of trails and recreation, Ægisíða is a tiny stretch of shore dotted with fisherman’s huts and reminders of a time when a day’s work was a good catch and a small boat.

On a clear day, you can see all the way to Reykjanes from this spot. There are many tiny beaches in the city, some of them with no name at all.

They are all different windows into what life used to be like, with different gifts like sea glass, urchin shells, and long strands of luminous seaweed decorating their shores. And if you’re careful, each one of them is a glorious place to watch for northern lights.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Agnieszka Mordaunt)

2. The world-famous Diamond Beach, also known as Breiðamerkursandur 

When reading about black sand beach Iceland, it’s hard to miss the glory of Diamond Beach. A small piece of the larger Breiðamerkursandur coastline, this is a popular spot. Though it’s a bit of a drive from the capital this is the home of the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon, and it is from there that the diamonds are provided.

This area is fed by the glacier Vatnajökull, which is so big that pieces of it have their own names. This part of the glacier is called Breiðamerkurjökull. As pieces of ice calve off of the glacier, they fall into the Jökulsárlón lagoon.

From here they travel out to sea, sometimes finding themselves festooned upon the beach there. These enormous chunks of ice bob up and down in the waves, heavy when they’re on the shore, but light as air when they’re being thrown about by the waves.

If you’re visiting black sand beach Iceland- you simply cannot miss a night spent among these titans. Black sand, chunks of ice as big as a man, and the lights coming down to dance on the lagoon.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Olena Kamenetska)

3. Reynisfjara: The postcard beach

A trip to black sand beach Iceland can’t happen without a stop on Reynisfjara. Charting as one of Iceland’s most dangerous beaches due to strong currents and sneaker waves, this beach in front of Vík has been featured in countless films and television shows.

Instantly recognized by its huge basalt caves, rock stacks, and the Dyrhólaey promontory. Iceland’s south coast is one long stretch of beaches and sand deserts. Many of these formed because of powerful volcanic eruptions and the glacial outburst floods (or jökulhlaup) that they created.

Reynisfjara is a great spot for grabbing a bite to eat or staying the night. If you plan to aurora hunt from here, make sure to keep a safe distance from the water. This beach is not staffed and getting caught in a sneaker wave can be deadly.

Fortunately, the town is right up on the beach, and you can watch the aurora from a cozy little bench among the dunes, while you listen to the crashing of the big waves on one of the most famous spots in all of black sand beach Iceland.  

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Roan Lavery)

4. Djúpalónssandur at the edge of the world

If you find yourself in Snæfellsnes at the foot of another famous glacier, you must certainly make a stop at Djúpalónssandur. This is a place of many curiosities and treasures in black sand beach Iceland, so tread carefully here.

Located at the edge of the Snæfellsnes peninsula, you’ll find that the sand is hidden under a layer of polished black pebbled. These are Djúpalónsperlur, or the “Pearls of Djúpalón”.

They are protected, and so are the twisted pieces of metal that rest on top of them. These are pieces of the British trawler the Epine GY7, and they rest on this beach in memory of the men that lost their lives in a blizzard there.

This is only one of many stories on this beach, as it used to be an epicenter of activity when fishing was a smaller industry in the hands of the people.

Nearly all of the rock formations, springs, and sea stacks have names and stories, and tales of being elven structures or frozen trolls who saw the daylight. You could spend weeks in these coves learning the history of each mark in the land.

If you’re a history buff or a story lover in black sand beach Iceland, make sure to grab some literature about this area, and leave nothing but footprints in the sand behind you. This is a hallowed place of memories gone by, and a protected zone.

Not to mention, a remote area with similar wave patterns to Reynisfjara. Enjoy the aurora from a safe distance, and be respectful of the different souls that may be watching with you.

where is the best place to see the northern lights
(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Thomas Tucker)

5. Solheimasandur and the plane wreck

There are a lot of beaches in black sand beach Iceland, but this is a special one. A smaller part of the big stretch of the long southern coast, Solheimasandur is another creation of volcanic eruptions creating glacial outburst floods, and the sand flats of this area are vast.

Because of its volcanic history, Solheimasandur is not home to any villages or large settlements. It is, however, home to the US Navy DC-3 plane wreck, a landmark sought by photographers and curiosity seekers alike.

In 1973 due to a fueling problem, this plane crash-landed here on the sand. All parties involved survived, and walked away from this impromptu landing in one piece, so it is not truly a memorial piece.

Getting to the wreck takes a bit of a walk, but it’s worth it to gaze upon this strange visitor among the sands. This is a truly desolate place, so take caution if you are visiting here in the nighttime or the winter season.

It is good to check ahead on the weather, as the sand wastes are disorienting and visitors in the past have gotten lost here. With little to nowhere to hide, it is possible to risk exposure and it is unlikely that you will come across much help.

Though this is a popular northern light photo opportunity, look out for your safety first. Those airmen walked away from this wreck, and in order to enjoy more of black sand beach Iceland, so must you.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Stephen Leonardi)

6. Catch a wave on Thorli Beach

The Reykjanes peninsula is known for its big, consistent waves, and believe it or not, is a long time favorite of arctic surfers. Thorli is a fairly advanced spot near the town of Þorlákshöfn (Thorlákshöfn) and it sports an unusual mix of both black and yellow sands.

Beloved by local and visiting surfers, Thorli is a long crescent of sand at the heart of Iceland’s surfing community. And though there are different waves to catch throughout the year, the high point for big surf is right smack in the middle of aurora season.

If you’re a seasoned surfer, this is the beach for you. (And if you’re an aurora hunter- the best of both worlds!)

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Matthias Weiss)

7. Stokksnes the Mirror Beach

Stokksnes is a photographer’s dream. At the eastern edge of Iceland lies the long flat shore of Stokksnes, and the jagged dragon’s-teeth peaks of Vestrahorn. Close to the town of Höfn, this area either welcomes you back to the sand deserts of the south or announces your arrival to the dramatic mountains of the east.

But before you go further either way, you should take a moment to stop at Stokksnes. This beach is wide and flat, which causes the tide to leave water behind as it recedes. This creates a shallow and incredibly reflective surface, allowing incredible reflection pictures of the mountain Vestrahorn, the surreal black dunes, and potentially, the colorful, dancing aurora.

There is a small fee to visit the beach, as it is privately owned land- but it is more than worth it to help preserve the majesty of this place.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Dorottya Kovacs)

8. Everybody’s gone surfin’...In Sandvík and Grindavík

For those who aren’t ready to catch a big Thorli wave, there is the slightly more forgiving beach break of Sandvík, where many locals catch their first waves. Most of Iceland’s surfing beaches are reef or point breaks, which means you’ll be dodging a lot of sharp volcanic rocks, and maybe some sea urchins.

For those who are only here to watch auroras, you are in great company. The peninsula of Reykjanes boasts long coasts of lonely beaches, and many friendly seaside towns to pick up snacks in.

(Including Grindavík, one of Iceland’s happiest towns! And the nearby neighbor of our recent fissure volcano, Fagradalsfjall.) In black sand beach Iceland, you can’t go wrong with cruising quiet Reykjanes.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Danvarsh Badribabu)

9. The Seal Circle at Vatnsnes

You’ve heard of the Golden Circle, and even the Diamond Circle- but what about the Seal Circle? The 711 road around the peninsula of Vatnsnes is a great spot for black sand, seals, and auroras. If you’re lucky, you can spot harbour seals, grey seals, harp seals, bearded seals, hooded seals, ringed seals, and maybe even a rare walrus or two!

The Illugastaðir beaches on the western side of the peninsula have been a notable home for them for many years, but these creatures can be spied year round throughout the peninsula. It is even possible to see them on the eastern side basking near famous Hvítserkur, a popular aurora photo spot.

You can stop in Hvammstangi to visit the Icelandic Seal Center to learn more about these curious residents, but don’t forget to keep your eyes on the sky. This is a popular aurora spot with low light pollution and many beloved foreground landmarks for great aurora shots.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Andreea Popescu)

10. Ólafsfjörður on the Arctic Coast Way

North Iceland is a magical place punctuated by a more extreme climate, big mountains, and beautiful small towns throughout the fjords. There is a lot of history and tradition here, and even though it’s not by much- you are that much closer to the pole when you visit.

Ólafsfjörður is located in between the shark fishing village of Siglufjörður in the north, and Dalvík just below- home to world class skiing and “The Great Fish Day” festival (Fiskidagurinn mikli). This is another great peninsula to explore, and you guessed it, every single one of these towns boasts its own piece of black sand beach Iceland.

These are long, picturesque coastlines framed in by tall mountains and sweeping fjord views out to sea. They have long histories and unique cultures, even from village to village. And just like their skiing, when it comes to auroras- they are unparalleled.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Chris Ried)

best hiking in Iceland near Reykjavik

Top 7 aurora trails: the best hiking in Iceland near Reykjavik

Are you in the capital looking for auroras? Here are some of our favorite paths for northern light discoveries.

Looking for the best hiking in Iceland near Reykjavik? Well, cities aren’t usually known for their outdoor activities, but Reykjavik is the epicenter of wild adventure! You can find countless things to do here, and nearly all of them pick up in town.

But what about hiking? Going for a stroll while you search the skies is a great way to get some fresh air and increase your chances away from the light pollution. Here are a few of our favorite local haunts- how many of these have you tried?

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: GLACIERS Photo)

1. Öskjuhlíð: Head to the hills!

Chances are you’ve seen the glistening dome of Perlan from your window on your way into town. Or perhaps it already caught your eye on a walk around town? It is on top of one of our highest hills, after all. Perlan rests on top of an area called Öskjuhlíð.

This area is home to some of the best hiking in Iceland near Reykjavik, because not only is it directly in Reykjavik but it’s filled with charming forest paths. It’s also next to the Nauthólsvík beach, another great place to stroll or swim. (Don’t worry, it’s heated! Just.. Maybe come back after aurora season for this one.)

There are multiple trails to enjoy in Öskjuhlíð, and if you make it to the top you’re met with a sweeping view of the sparkling town below you. (You are still within the grip of city light pollution here, but on a good night, you can see past it. And it makes for great photos!)

Easily accessible on foot or by public transport from most of town, the paths here lead on to many of our other favorite Reyjavik walks- including the coastal road to the Grótta lighthouse, Fossvogur, and Elliðaárdalur, all the way down to the red rocks of Heiðmörk. No matter what time you visit, a walk in Reykjavik’s local forest is a beautiful experience.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Michael Held)

2. The Coastline path from Hafnarfjörður to Mosfellsbær

The wide arms of the capital region don’t stop at Reykjavik. They include the towns of Hafnarfjörður in the south and Mosfellsbær in the north. Nestled along the jagged coast, you can walk to and from all of these places using the Blá lykilleið (Blue main path), also known as the Strandleið (Coastline) walk.

You can ride or bike all the way to either end. While it might take you a while to complete, this connection gives you a huge amount of coastal path to tread. Depending on the cloud cover, you’ll find people populating the Reykjavik half of it often as they set cameras up for some aurora watching.

Looking towards Esja gives you a dark northerly view over the water, and helps to cancel out some of the city light. The further away from town that you go, the darker it’s likely to get- so an evening walk on these fine paved city paths may be a great spot for you.

You can see the lay of the walk here, and look at all the other options! This might not be the first thing you think of when you envision trekking, but after you’ve enjoyed it once you’ll see why we’re calling it some of the best hiking in Iceland near Reykjavik.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Jenean Newcomb)

3. The red hills of Heiðmörk

The nature reserve of Heiðmörk is a constantly evolving treasure of the city, and arguably some of the best hiking in Iceland near Reykjavik. Heiðmörk is a large area that actually encompasses some of our other favorite spots, so you’ll want to check out a map to see all of it quickly.

The city has been busy in Heiðmörk over recent years and has maintained and created multiple trails, recreation areas, and even some camping grounds. And the wonders here are countless.

From its moss-covered lava fields to the nearly Martian Rauðhólar pseudocraters, to the Christmas tree forest at Holmsheiði, this is an area that you’ll need a lot of time to discover. Because of its location on the edge of town, Heiðmörk is an ideal tangle of trails that you can walk in search of the lights.

The paths here are well cared for and fairly simple difficulty wise, so it’s a good spot for adventurers of varying abilities. It’s also accessible by local bus! But before you go, double check the schedule to make sure you know the time of the last ride out. It’s a long walk back into the city center!

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: twentyonekoalas)

4. Elliðaárdalur: A city oasis

While hunting for the best hiking in Iceland near Reykjavik, you are likely to hear about the Elliðaárdalur valley. Elliðaárdalur is a lush green space tucked away in the city, cradling the protected Elliðaár river.

After walking the concrete streets and paths of Reykjavik, Elliðaárdalur is like a rare portal into a fairy world. Punctuated by recreational trails and tiny waterfalls, Elliðaárdalur is home to a surprising amount of wildlife.

Watch out for all the mink and rabbits who call this place home, as you will likely see some on your journey. (And keep an eye out for salmon! They populate this crystal clear river, making it an important fishing spot close to town.)

This area is connected to many other green spaces and is great for pedestrian adventuring. You can link up to other walking and cyclings paths through Fossvogsdalur, and even as far as Heiðmörk.

Elliðaárdalur borders many popular Reykjavik neighborhoods and is a great spot to visit if you happen to be spending most of your time in town, but still want to get a glimpse of Icelandic nature.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Yeo Khee)

5. Vífilsfell and the Blue Mounatins

Vífilsfell is a possible option for those that have wheels and are used to winter trekking. There are many mountain paths that are popular hiking in the capital area that we’ve left off of this list, primarily because they are maybe not the easiest options for nighttime winter adventuring.

Vífilsfell on the other hand is a gorgeous choice if you’re surefooted and looking for some big views outside of the immediate grasp of town. Nestled within the Bláfjöll (Blue Mountains), this area is popular for trekkers and winter sport enthusiasts alike.

The road up to the Bláfjöll ski area passes right by, and other trails in the area populate the zone as well. This is a quiet part of town just off the route 1 highway, so you may want to save this trek for a time that you have access to a vehicle.

And don’t fret! If you’re not feeling up to a mountain hike, this is a great spot just for hanging out or checking out the slopes. The best hiking in Iceland near Reykjavik doesn’t even require hiking, you can see it just fine from the parking lot at Litla Kaffistofan across the street.

Even if you only drive through Bláfjöll on your aurora hunt, it’s worth it just to see the sudden majesty of snow-covered volcanic peaks rising out of the earth right after exiting the glowing city. The peace here is vast, colorful, and lonely- and a great first look at the wild country beyond the manicured city streets.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Tim Foster)

6. Grafarholt and Úlfarsárdalur in the shadow of Úlfar’s Mountain

Another hidden-away escape are the vast meadows of Grafarholt and Úlfarsárdalur, peacefully wrapped around the mountain Úlfarsfell. This is a residential area and outdoor recreational spot just north of the quiet neighborhood of Grafarholt.

In the summer, this place is absolutely flush with purple lupin flowers and gentle meadow grasses- at least, in between the sprawling lava fields. Curled around the river Úlfarsá, this is another place where you’ll find copious bird life and salmon. (And maybe even a few horses! Many of them call this area home.)

The trails in this area are family-friendly and accessible, and you can access this zone via public transport. If you’re looking for a bit more of a challenge, Úlfarsfell is likely one of the more reasonable winter mountain hikes available. (..You guessed it! We’re going so far as to call it one of the best hiking in Iceland near Reykjavik!)

In all seriousness, the highest point on Úlfarsfell is around 307 m. (1007 ft.) and is accessible via a fairly even and wide path. There are great views of Reykjavik and the sea from the summit, and it only takes around 2.5 hours to complete. As far as vistas go, this is a great place to catch the lights, and you are likely to have the whole thing to yourself.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Pedro Netto)

TIP: This mountain is near Esja, one of Reykjavik’s most famous landmarks. It goes without saying that Esja is some of the best hiking in Iceland near Reykjavik, but it is also some of the most challenging.

While these paths are steep in good conditions, braving them at night in high winter is not recommended for most trekkers. You can try for an Esja hike in the autumn, but otherwise, seeing her from nearby Úlfarsfell is a great compromise.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Elijah Chen)

7. Viðey: The island’s island

Looking for an island getaway from your island getaway? You’ll be hard-pressed to find a closer option than nearby Viðey. Once the home of a monastery, Viðey is the home of Yoko Ono’s Imagine Peace Tower, and countless trails.

There is a lot of history on this little island, and some of the oldest rock in the Reykjavik area. In fact, nearly 2 million years ago, it was a volcano! (Considering where we are, this may not come as much of a surprise to you.)

These days, however, we have to say it’s some of the best hiking in Iceland near Reykjavik, not to mention one of the most exclusive city spots to watch the northern lights. But how does one get there?

In the summertime, the ferry runs pretty regularly. But in the wintertime, the ferry only runs from the harbor Skarfabakki on weekends. There are however aurora boat tours available that can land on Viðey for a portion of the tour, giving you a chance to grab some solid ground to plant your tripod in for a lucky northern lights shot.

However you manage to get there, hopefully, you’ll get to take advantage of some of these historical trails. This place has seen and housed invaders, paupers, politicians, farmers, and more puffins than you’d expect. But today, it is protected and allowed to finally thrive. A true shoo-in for the best hiking in Iceland near Reykjavik.


beautiful northern lights with a shooting star

Beautiful Northern Lights...and 10 important safety tips to remember while you look for them

Do you know how to keep safe while you chase the beautiful northern lights?

We all know how beautiful northern lights are, but what about how to stay safe while we look for them?

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Thom Holmes)

1. Dress for the hunt

Dressing in layers is key for surviving Icelandic weather. Because of the Gulfstream, the climate in Iceland can be surprisingly moderate- but because of its North Atlantic location, that moderate climate can include some quickly changing weather conditions. In order to manage the unpredictability of weather or temperature, you might need a few layers of clothing.

This can help you regulate between inside and outside temperatures quickly, and can give you that extra warmth you might need to stay outside hunting just a little bit longer. The temperature might not be astronomical, but it can add up if you’re out for a few hours. 

If you can swing it, try adding a waterproof layer to your collection. This could be waterproof pants for maneuvering in snow or even a waterproof top layer. In the autumn months when there’s a lot of rain, this kind of coverage could be key to enjoying the evening.

northern lights iceland
(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Jonatan Pie)

2. Be careful where (and how) you park your vehicle

The first point of this tip is to never park on the road. We don’t need to elaborate on that, because no version of it should be on the table. The roads in Iceland are typically narrow and do not always have a shoulder, so it is not recommended to attempt a pullover for the sake of those beautiful northern lights.

Many of these roads are somewhat raised and have a sloped edge that cannot always be easily seen in the dark. This and other obstacles like lava fields can be easily hidden by accumulated snowfall.

Nighttime driving is difficult under the best conditions, so keeping an eye on the weather, visibility, and the other speedy travelers that you’re sharing the road with is enough pressure already.

If you’ve seen the lights from your window, don’t panic! Though it may be a sacrifice for the driver, the passengers in your car can still snap a shot or two while you search for a safe place to pull over. This could be a designated observation point, a parking lot, a safe place off of the main road.

Try to be respectful of private property, and avoid opening any gates that you may come across. These gates are often keeping livestock from straying onto the road, which is a good reminder for us as well. The beautiful northern lights may be calling… But never let them lead you into the road.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Ben Collins)

3. Try reflectors!

If you’re local, you probably already have one somewhere on your person. They can be painted onto your clothes, clipped to your zipper, or even taped onto your gear. Reflectors come in a variety of applications, and there’s one for everyone.

Iceland is dark for a large part of the year (which is why we get to see the beautiful northern lights), so reflectors are a popular accessory here. They can help you maintain some visibility in the dark, which could help a group leader to keep track of you, or help a motorist see you from further away.

If you don’t have one, these can often be picked up in gas stations, outdoor gear shops, and even souvenir shops. Look for a fun one that you can use as a zipper pull!  

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Mael Balland)

4. Tell someone where you're headed

This is a safety tip that you should use no matter where in the world you’re adventuring! If you can’t tell a friend where you’re going (because they’re coming too!), you can submit a travel plan to websites like SafeTravel.is.

If you’re headed out into the wilds looking for beautiful northern lights, you can also rent a Personal Location Beacon (PLB) from them as well, should you need it. These types of precautions may seem extreme, but it is always good to be prepared.

Simple trips can meet with surprise conditions, and it’s better to not need your extra planning than to wish you’d done it.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Gemma Evans)

5. Check the conditions before you go

We may have mentioned this a few times already, but conditions in Iceland change fast. It’s hard to fully understand the weight of that statement until you’ve experienced it a few times, so this might have to be a point that you deposit some trust on.

Iceland’s lonely location in the North Atlantic means that we can be at the receiving end of low-pressure systems, incredible winds, and swiftly moving storms. There’s a lot of precipitation, and lots of domestic concerns like seismic activity, avalanches, and more.

You can’t predict all of it, but you can educate yourself and stay on top of the predictions by checking sites like vedur.is and safetravel.is. These websites can not only keep you safe, but they can also make you aware of new alerts and help you find those beautiful northern lights that you’re after.

Know the season that you’re visiting in, and be aware of the types of weather that most commonly happen within them. Being ready can help you decide how to proceed in a dicey situation.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Sergey Pesterev)

6. Learn how to walk on ice

This is less of a requirement and more of a reminder to be aware of your surroundings. In the colder months, the temperature can fluctuate throughout the day. This means that Iceland is a great spot for producing ice. (Surprising, I know.)

If there’s one thing people usually aren’t doing when hunting the beautiful northern lights, it’s usually looking at the ground in the dark. Falling on ice is a big concern in these colder months, and it goes without saying that it’s an important safety tip to remember.

You can stay upright by looking where you’re going, paying attention to how you’re walking, and protecting yourself with gear. This can mean smaller steps, keeping your weight centered above your feet (less diagonal weight-bearing with long strokes or leaning), and maybe trying out a pair of shoe spikes.

Shops throughout Iceland carry different shoe attachments for this purpose, but you will likely find them at home too. When in doubt, however, look at penguins! They seem to have mastered the technique with their upright shuffle.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Rahul Bhosale)

7. Bring your own light

Don’t forget your gear! Safety tips are one thing, but being well prepared is another. Depending on where you are going and what you’re doing, you will need to pack different things. Typically for nighttime activities, the biggest recommendation is a torch or headlamp.

You may also want to make sure that you have charged your communication devices and cameras, and that you are outfitted to stay warm outside. This means hand, ear, and head coverings if possible. If you are headed out into the wilds, you may want to consider a satellite phone or a Personal Location Beacon.

Organize and check all of your gear before you head out, to make sure that everything is functioning properly, and that you don’t forget anything. Oh! And don’t forget snacks! Even if you’re just out for the night, an aurora hunt is hungry work and you might not find many restaurants open after midnight.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Nik Shuliahin)

8. Look where you're going

This is a nighttime activity, and if you’re hunting in a great spot, you will likely have some impressive dark cover, making it harder to see where you’re walking. We covered ice earlier in our list, but what about terrain? If you’ve had a chance to wander around in the daytime, you may have noticed how uneven Icelandic ground can be.

Iceland’s biome is Arctic tundra, which means that while you may not run into many trees, you will find thick brush and other low-lying grasses that can obscure variation in terrain. In many places that would be manageable.

But in Iceland, that terrain is likely to contain lava fields and rock protrusions. The ground might look flat, but watch out for holes! Like many of the simplest safety tips, this seems like one that doesn’t need to be mentioned, so let’s stay on the path, and keep it that way.

(Unsplash. Valdemaras D.)

9. Beware the water's edge

Another terrain tip! (Are you starting to get the feeling that these might be linked to many avoidable accidents?) Water is a big part of Iceland’s terrain. Whether it’s the huge amount of precipitation that we get, to the frothing glacial rivers, the surrounding ocean, or the placid lakes and ponds of our inland areas.

Many of these bodies of water may look similar to others you’ve seen before, and they may be! But at least during these nighttime activities, they are best left alone. At the time of this writing, the ocean near Reykjavik was a whopping 3.1°C (37.58°F).

This temperature paired with strong currents and stormy winter weather is not safe for inexperienced swimming. There are very few places that one can swim in the ocean here, so you will not find beaches staffed with lifeguards, monitoring the waves.

A fall into one of these frigid bodies of water can be treacherous during the day, but at night it can be lethal. So while you’re keeping an eye out for ice, and looking for holes in the lava- try to keep a respectful distance from the water, and stick to hot pots.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Lux Graves)

10. Stay rested

The beautiful northern lights are only visible at night, which is usually when most of us sleep. If you’re visiting, you probably have some pretty packed days ahead of you. Sightseeing, activities, restaurants, maybe even some hiking.

It’s easy to forget to take a break when you’re hurrying to see all the things on your list. (Have you ever needed a vacation after your vacation? Tell me about it.) There’s stuff to do! Stuff to see! And tonight is a great night for auroras! It sneaks up on us.

But don’t forget to slow down and take a break, or a nap, before heading out for the night. Many visitors go from day trips to aurora hunts, and if you’re driving it can be a lot to handle.

Make sure to eat an early dinner, and take a small nap before you go, just to refresh. Being out in the elements is hard work, and sleepy night driving is a dangerous chance to take. Not to mention following all of these other tips!

Be careful with yourself. We want you to come back, for all the beautiful northern lights yet to come.


where is the best place to see the northern lights

Aurora Hunter Top 10: Where is the best place to see the Northern Lights on the South Coast?

When the sky is only clear in one region, that’s where you’re headed! But once you get there, then what?

So you’re headed down south, and you want to know: “Where is the best place to see the northern lights on the South Coast?” So we’ve put our heads together and gathered up a few of our favorite spots along Iceland’s southern coast for aurora hunting. From the rare to the luxe, we’ve got one in here for everyone.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Bibhash)

1. Gígjagjá at Hjörleifshöfði: The Yoda Cave

The south coast of Iceland is a dramatic landscape, no matter what season you visit. But if you’re looking for a spot a bit off of the beaten path to aurora watch from, look no further than the “Yoda Cave”. 

The cave’s real name is Gígjagjá, but it is fondly known as “The Yoda Cave” since the entry to the shallow cave resembles a particular green individual. It is located in Hjörleifshöfði, which is an inselberg on the Mýrdalssandur plain near Vík.

Surrounded on all sides by vast black sand and seagrass flats, it is said that Hjörleifshöfði used to be an island, and the resting place of old Hjörleif himself. These days, you can drive up to it and enjoy multiple trails in its vicinity.

When inside the cave, you’ll find that the light from the outside illuminates the entry, creating a curiously familiar silhouette. Because of its shape, the cave entry is an amazing sight no matter when you visit. But imagine that shape filled with the majesty of dark sky, a million stars, and the dancing northern lights.. Not a bad spot.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Denise Schuld)

2. Fjaðrárgljúfur

At the more eastern edge of Iceland’s south coast, lies this ethereal canyon. Unlike many popular canyons, this one is not far from the main road. Right off of the village Kirkjubæjarklaustur, this canyon is nearly 2 km. long and houses the Fjaðrá river.

In good weather, the road to the canyon is accessible by all types of vehicles, and the hike along the canyon trail is easy and dry! This is key for those of us who are here to aurora hunt because unless you’re staying in Kirkjubæjarklaustur, you are probably not near a change of clothes.

The bottom of the canyon is home to an active river and a few waterfalls, not to mention protected vegetation and wildlife. Plus, the best view is on top. Fjaðrárgljúfur is a landscape photographer’s dream, so make sure you’re in the right place when the show starts!

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Leo Mengoli)

3. Gljúfrabúi & Seljalandsfoss

You probably already know Seljalandsfoss, but do you know its neighbor Gljúfrabúi? After walking behind the towering falls of Seljalandsfoss- an incredible spot in its own right – there’s a little known secret just a stone’s throw away.

Hidden in the same massive rock shelf that feeds Seljalandsfoss, this little waterfall is a hidden treasure of the south coast. When you approach, you see the stream of water first. Further down, you can see the falls peeking through the walls of the canyon. To access them up close, one must walk down the stream through the “halls” of rock.

Depending on the time of year and the conditions at the time of your visit, you may get wet! But once you make your way through the tiny canyon, you empty out into a natural room in the rock, where you can see the waterfall up close, and the sky up above.

Imagine seeing the aurora here, in Gljúfrabúi’s hidden chamber, with the mist of its spray all around. What’s the best place to see the Northern Lights on the South Coast? This is definitely one of them!

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Globe City Guide)

4. Sólheimajökull

Sólheimajökull is a piece of the larger Mýrdalsjökull, the south coast’s resident ice cap. (Mýrdalsjökull isn’t alone out here though, it shares the south with Vatnajökull, a glacier so big that it reaches through multiple regions!) This piece of the glacier is a popular location for glacier walking, ice caving, hiking, and just general wonderment.

This ice giant is incredible to see up close, and it is changing by the minute. One can visit the glacier on their own, but due to the extra training that it takes to traverse ice, it is only recommended to climb on with a guide.

Because of how quickly they are receding, one can’t make enough trips out to see the glaciers. They are visible reminders of how many gifts nature has bestowed upon us. …And seeing the lights in their presence is just one more gift on the neverending pile.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Olena Shmahalo)

5. Reykjadalur

Reykjadalur is nearly 30 minutes from Reykjavik, so in some ways, it’s like the gateway to the south coast. Resting in the mountains above Hveragerði, Reykjadalur is a favorite of locals for its beauty, its accessibility, and its naturally hot water.

Reykjadalur means “Valley of Steam”, and it houses a geothermally heated river. This is a colorful area full of steam, bubbling mud, and incredible views as you ascend into these seemingly living mountains. It’s also mostly undeveloped!

There are maintained trails and even some protective boardwalk in the area around the water, but at this time there is no entrance fee, no buildings, and no facilities in this area. This could change over time, but for now, Reykjadalur is a place that belongs only to nature. The hike up takes around 45 minutes to an hour, and once you’re up there it is beyond heavenly to peel off your hiking gear and just lay in the warm river.

It is an incredibly restorative experience. Be careful, though! There are different temperatures throughout the water, so the further down the river you go, the hotter the water gets. This is mountain territory, so while the hike is not considered difficult, winter conditions can add some challenge to the terrain- even for the most seasoned hiker.

Things like early darkness, low clouds, and ice can make this an intense trek, so don’t forget your spikes and torches. But if you do make it up here, laying back in the hot water with your eye on the dancing sky- we’ll leave it to you to answer “Where is the best place to see the northern lights on the south coast?” I think we know what you’ll say.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Alain Wong)

6. Bláfjöll

Even though we just crowned Reykjadalur as the gateway to the south coast- some could argue that that title truly belongs to Bláfjöll. Known as the “blue mountains”, Bláfjöll is a small mountain range that lies about 30 km from Reykjavik, just before Hveragerði.

Though popular for hiking, caving, and lava tubing pursuits- this area shares its name with the ski slopes that live amongst them. Driving through this area is one of your first tastes of wild country outside the capital, and it provides many quiet spots for aurora watching off the main road.

If you visit before the snow, you may get to experience a different type of lush covering- Bláfjöll’s endless fields of Icelandic moss. This moss covers the lava fields and huge swaths of the mountains themselves and can be seen for miles around.

Insulated by the snow in the height of winter, it returns to us every year despite its fragility. The moss takes ages to regrow after damage, so be careful not to walk upon it when hiking. 

where is the best place to see the northern lights
(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Thomas Tucker)

7. The plane wreck at Sólheimasandur

One of the more unusual stops, this is a pretty interesting one. Though it sounds grim, this plane wreck was non-fatal, and all of the passengers escaped unharmed. In 1973, a US Navy DC plane appeared to run out of fuel and had to crash land on Sólheimasandur– a vast black sand beach on the south coast.

The people inside made it out, but they left their airplane behind. The wreck of this plane is still resting on the beach today, a bit worn and smoothed by the endless Icelandic wind and the movement of the volcanic sand. It is a favorite location of photographers, and many have watched the lights from its empty belly.

If you choose to visit this spot, please exercise caution. While it is a flat land hike, it does take around an hour of treading sand to reach the wreck, and it cannot be seen from the road. You can leave your vehicle in the parking area, but you can no longer drive up to the location. This area is vast, and it is not populated by many landmarks- so it is easy to get disoriented here.

Be aware of the weather before you head out, as there have been accidents of exposure and hypothermia in the past. It is possible to visit the location with a guide, but be respectful of the area nonetheless. Just like the moss, we wish to preserve the unique strangeness of the wreck for years to come- so that many can spy the aurora from its wings.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Toby Elliott)

8. Þorlákshöfn (Thorlakshofn)

Wedged right in the corner of the coast where the Reykjanes peninsula meets with the full curve of the island, lies the little town of Þorlákshöfn. Known around the country as one of the primary places to catch a ferry to the Westman Isles– this is a charming seaside town.

Right along the edge of the coast, there are gorgeous villages to explore, and this is only one of them. This town rests at the end of the Ölfusá river and counts many curiosities among its hiking trails, bustling port, and beautiful sights.

If you’re planning a night out of aurora watching by the sea, this is certainly a good place to stop for a bite first. (Or to ride ATVs, horses, do some rock climbing, check out some sea caves, and more!)

This is a beautiful community where you can appreciate the brevity of Icelandic living, and the relationship between the sea and the warm volcanic land in which that life continues to thrive.

When we asked “Where is the best place to see the northern lights?”, it was not hard to imagine this place. (But don’t end your adventure here! If the weather is mild, hop the ferry to the Westman Isles! Southern Iceland really is a whole world of its own.)

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Denys Nevozhai)

9. Reynisfjara

This is a popular spot, but it sure is hard to argue with. Reynisfjara is the name of the black sand beach near the village of Vík. Seen in countless films, tv productions, photographs, and artistic works- it’s a must see location.

Vík is the southernmost village on the island, and a great spot to branch out from if you plan on exploring the south coast region. Home to many activities, restaurants, and shops, this area is lined by dramatic basalt cliffs that thousands of seabirds call home in the summer season.

Though beautiful, the waves here can be massive and are known to be dangerous, so please exercise caution near the shoreline. Due to the small population of the town, you’ll find great dark skies here. We love Reynisfjara year round, but it truly is a magical place to watch the northern lights, in the shadow of slumbering Katla.

where is the best place to see the northern lights
(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Balazs Busznyak)

10. Skógafoss

Last but not least, we can’t leave this thundering giant off of a south coast adventure list. Not only is it close to some of our favorite northern lights hotels, but it makes an incredible aurora vantage point.

If you visit earlier in the day, you can climb to the top of the falls and enjoy the 25+ waterfall trek known as waterfall way! (You thought the show was just Skógafoss? Guess again!)

Skógafoss is the grand finale of the Fimmvörðuháls path, a 22 km. trek into the hiker’s paradise, Thórsmörk. While this adventure might not be possible in high winter, you can catch the tail end of its availability in autumn. For those that don’t wish to make the full 22 km., waterfall way is only about 8 km. one way, following the river.

But this is extra. Skógafoss itself is phenomenal. Standing at 60 m. high and 25 m. across, you can see this wonder right from the main road. It creates huge clouds of mist, and it empties out on a vast plane of land that runs out to the sea.

You could spend a whole day here exploring the surrounding area and enjoying the falls from different vantage points. You can even throw up a tent and camp out nearby, lulling yourself to sleep to the constant hum of falling water. Don’t forget to look up though! The rainbows in the mist during the day are hard to compare to the aurora curving over the cliff edge at night.


northern lights painting

Northern Lights Painting...and 5 other fun things to do when the lights aren’t out

We spend a lot of time looking for auroras, but what do we do when we can’t find one? Fellow hunters, meet northern lights painting.

Northern lights painting may not be the first thing you think of when you pack your bags for a hunt. (And it might mean something different to different people! Don’t worry, we’ll come back later for the crafters.)

But if we’ve learned anything at all from years of chasing the aurora, it’s how to be prepared for any and all kinds of nights. Whether there’s a show to see, or not.     

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Marek Piwnicki)

1. Light painting, or, Northern Lights Painting

Known as “Light Painting” or “experimental long exposure photography”, this is the ultimate activity when you’re waiting on the lights to show up. It may not be auroras, but it’s a fan favorite for a dark night with no show.

Popular in its own right, light painting or, northern lights painting, as we like to call it, is an activity that requires a camera. All you need to do this is a DSLR camera or a camera that can accommodate a long shutter setting, a tripod or flat surface, and a light.

This is an experimental process for a reason, and there is no wrong way to do your own northern lights painting. (Well, as long as you’ve got the flat surface and the long shutter. If your camera is moving you’ll have a hard time capturing an image, and if you can’t access a longer shutter, it will be harder to create these effects.)

That being said, this is an activity for people of all levels of artistic skill. The photos you make will look differently depending on where you are, what settings you try, and what tools you use to create light.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Daniil Silantev)

You can even do this inside! (Though, we find ourselves doing this outside most of the time, since we’re always waiting on the aurora to show up.)

Once you’ve got your tripod and your camera set up, you’ll be using a lot of the same settings you’d use for a northern lights shot. This means low aperture, and typically a higher ISO than you’d use for a daylight photo.

(Depending on the effect you’re going for, this could be an ISO as low as 400, and as high as 3600- but don’t take our word for it! This is art, so you’ll have to try different combinations out to see what look works best for you.)

And the key of course, is the extended shutter. Most cameras can accommodate up to 30 seconds of shutter, which is plenty for time for you to create a compelling shape or image. If you find that this is too bright, remember the golden rule of northern lights painting, and adjust till you get the look you want.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Austin Neill)

These photos are created by manipulating lit items in the camera’s field of vision. This means you can use fairy lights, mobile phones, torches, sparklers, LED tools, and so on. You can write messages, create three-dimensional patterns, draw shapes- the opportunities are endless. You can make your own aurora! (It is northern lights painting, after all..) 

This is a great activity whether or not the lights are out, and we suggest checking out the work of other light painters. There are a lot of opinions on the best types of light, how to diffuse light with tracing paper, and how to color white light with plastics.

There are also countless tutorials on how to make the tools themselves, in order to achieve certain looks. (We are big fans of the long piece of wood with fairy lights taped to it.) If you choose to go the sparkler route, be careful!

Activities like this can spark dry grasses and create wildfires. Make sure you are operating in a damp area, and practicing fire safety while you work. No photo is worth an accidental blaze.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: shawnanggg)

2. Stargazing and Telescoping out the heavens

Northern lights painting gives us something to do down here on Earth, but what about when we’re back to eyeing the skies?

That’s when it’s time to stargaze. While this activity does require the same clear skies as auroras, it doesn’t necessarily require any special equipment. (But don’t worry gadget collectors- there definitely is some.)

With a little knowledge and a lot of darkness, you can find constellations, planets, nebulas, and all sorts of celestial bodies. One can follow satellites, shooting stars, and even an eclipse or two in the Icelandic sky. (And you ought to make the best of it while you can, because we miss out on nearly ever summer event!)

However, if you want to elevate your stargazing experience, there are a lot of tools that can help you do this. Telescopes, binoculars, star maps, and more apps than you can imagine exist just for this very purpose.

Stargazing is a burgeoning hobby with an incredible community, and depending on where you are- there is likely a whole contingent of fellow gazers that you can learn from and watch with.

There also happens to be a lot to learn, so this hobby may stay with you far beyond an Icelandic holiday. Amateur space weather enthusiasts all over the world are even helping contribute to modern science.

In fact- it was stargazers that helped us understand STEVE. But, it’s a wide world out there. What far off planets or mysteries of the verse are YOU going to discover?

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Hu Chen)

3. Astrophotography, Star Trails and Galaxy Hunts

While stargazing and northern lights painting can both become camera-centric activities, this is definitely one. Many aurora hunters end up becoming photographers out of necessity- because it is just too hard to chase such an ethereal thing and not keep a piece of it for yourself.

Photos are one of the many pieces of the magic, and they are not easily come by. Their rarity and the work that goes into making them is in some ways just as rewarding as the aurora hunt itself.

(Not to mention, a well-timed photo can be a great early detection tool in actually finding the northern lights on a dim evening.)

As many of you know, a great photo is the ultimate souvenir. It’s hard for a t-shirt or a fridge magnet to beat that kind of memento. But what do you do when there’s no aurora to capture?

That’s when we widen our scope even more, to astrophotography. Astrophotography is a big term that includes aurora photos- and about a thousand other things. The reality is that we can access so much more of the sky than we realize.

With the naked eye and our usual context in light polluted places, there’s a lot that we don’t see. But with a great lens (be it in a camera, telescope, or slick pair of binoculars,) suddenly the far rings of Saturn, or the super up close topography of the moon, become easily viewable.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Jose De Queiroz)

Star Trail images

So after you’ve done your northern lights painting of course, turn your lens to the stars. If you’ve got your tripod and plenty of battery, you can create star trail images by setting your focus to infinity and using the longest exposure you’ve got available to you.

This can be a tricky situation, because you may need to set your camera to the bulb setting, or acquire a cable release for your specific camera model to allow these unusual levels of exposure. (We are talking about 15-30 minute long exposures here!)

But, thanks to aids like Startrails, you can also take shorter exposure images, and the program will layer them together for you. This process makes this type of photography a bit more accessible to the novice astrophotographer, and it cuts down on image noise as well.

This is a special branch of nighttime photography, so have a look around if you’re interested! There is a whole world of star trail enthusiasts, and a million tried and true practices for getting the kind of images you want.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Jonatan Pie)

Galaxy Photos 

If you’re looking to capture nebulas and far off bodies of celestial light, you may need some specialized gear. Many of these photos are taken with professional attachments and some are even captured through telescope attachments!

If you’ve got a telescope with you and want to venture into that realm of photography, go forth and please send us a copy! We’d love to see it. But for those of you who are trying to capture a galaxy with your DSLR, you may be in luck.

It’s not the easiest, but it is possible. You’ll need a lot of the same stuff you’d bring with you for northern lights photos, so make sure you’ve loaded up your manual capable camera, a sturdy tripod, a fast lens and some patience.

A new item that you’ll need is a starmap app. An interactive map can help you locate the milky way for that evening, which will cut out a lot of the guess work. Above all, you need to be in a dark place. Just like aurora hunting and northern lights painting, light pollution drowns out the good stuff.

Just like the star trail photos, you’ll be working with a pretty long shutter. As you try this out, don’t be disappointed if your photos don’t look quite as outrageous as some of the galaxy shots you’ve seen.

Many photographers in this field are utilizing specialized gear, processes like time blends and startracking, and doing a lot of heavy lifting in a post processing software like Photoshop.

These images are sometimes the product of a great composite job, or a lot of really skillful editing in a RAW image. You can certainly capture a viable shot with your regular aurora gear, but if you’re interested in this- don’t despair! All of these tricks can be learned, and there is ample information on the web to help you. Everybody has to start somewhere.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Ross Hughes)

4. Hot spring night soaks

Now here’s an activity that you don’t need a camera for. (Unless you want to make some friends extra jealous.) Half of the time, we’re doing this instead of setting up the cameras- and sometimes the lights come out anyways!

The best seat in the house is always in the hot pot. Iceland’s geothermal landscape is a treasure chest of natural hot springs and great places to soak. But despite that, Icelanders have installed geothermally heated swimming pools in nearly every town, and hot tubs at many summer houses.

If there’s a pool to sit in, we can almost promise it’s heated. (Unless it’s an ice pool, that’s a thing.) If you’re staying in town, there’s a swimming pool near you that is accessible for a low price year round, and if you’re extra lucky, you may have a hot pot in your vicinity.

If you’re a hiker, you can venture forth into a natural hot spring like Reykjadalur, or even Landmannalaugar. If you choose these wilder options, remember to be careful.

Hiking in the colder aurora season and in the darkness is a next level activity, and should only be taken on by aurora hunters that are confident in their trekking skills. Make sure to tell a friend where you’re headed, and bring the appropriate gear.

And check the weather! Some of these natural springs are in mountainous places that experience quickly changing weather and limited visibility, so it’s good to understand the area before you set out.

But if you make it.. Enjoy! There’s nothing in the world like laying in a wild hot spring at night watching nature make its own northern lights painting, just for you.

Bubble Hotel Iceland

5. Lay back and pop some Bubbly

As we near the more.. Luxurious end of our list, it feels only right to mention the northern lights igloo option. If the lights are out, this is an incredible option. If they aren’t out, it’s an incredible option. If you’re here in the summer, it’s an incredible option. You can’t go wrong with this activity.

The Bubble Hotel of Iceland consists of a handful of fully transparent domed igloos that are tucked away in the embrace of two lush forests. This means you’ve got two location choices, and all the nature you can handle.

These hideaways are sequestered in their own groves, heated, and outfitted with their own luxury sleeping accommodations. To catch the lights, we often wait outside for long periods of time in the wind, weather, and low temperatures.

But imagine if you could do it wrapped in a down comforter with gourmet treats, in bed? Because of their rural locations, you’ll have all the darkness you need for optimal aurora watching or stargazing.

If you catch the lights out here, there’s no better seat. But if you don’t- you still get to walk away with a night spent in the height of luxury, surrounded by the grandeur of raw Icelandic nature on all sides.

It’s certainly the furthest away you can get from roughing it, while still being right in the middle of the woods. So excuse us while we slip into something a bit more.. Comfortable.


best place to see northern lights in iceland

The best place to see Northern Lights in Iceland: 10 of the most magical spots for aurora watching and stargazing

No matter how many times we’ve seen the aurora, we’re always looking for the best place to see northern lights in Iceland.

We never stop looking for the best place to see northern lights in Iceland. From the far reaches of the west, to the lush forests of the east- it is impossible to count them all. Iceland may be a small island, but the hidden treasures here are many. Where was the best place you watched the sky from?

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Ursula Drake)

1. Vestmannaeyjar

Vestmannaeyjar, or The Westman Islands, lie right off of Iceland’s south coast. Accessible by ferry or plane, they are an often overlooked gem and in our opinion, a best place to see northern lights in Iceland.

The Westman Islands are a self-contained world all to themselves, and boast some of the warmest annual temperatures in the entire country! Benefitting from the gulf stream, they are known as a wildlife-rich area that enjoys plentiful fishing, whale and birdwatching, and music festivals and sport in the summer.

A visit to the Westman Isles is punctuated by incredible sights. Lighthouses on rock stacks, one of the most famous volcanic eruptions in modern history, vast sea caves, and a whole chain of gorgeous, uninhabited islands. And being far south, one of the last places to catch the lights at the end of the auroral season.

Many great country aurora spots are remote, but here in Vestmannaeyjar you’ve got everything you can think of within a few kilometers. Including some of Iceland’s most notable golfing and dining!

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Gigi)

2. Hellnar in Snæfellsnes

The peninsula above Reykjavik is known as Snæfellsnes. A place that enchanted Jules Verne and featured in many historical Saga tales, Snæfellsnes became an EarthCheck community in 2008.

Truthfully you could travel the whole of the peninsula, and find thousands of good aurora spots. This is not a heavily populated zone, and during the day it is a phenomenal sightseeing location.

But we’re spilling the details on our favorite spots, so Hellnar has to make the cut! An ancient fishing village for many generations, Hellnar is perched on the tip of the peninsula overlooking the curved basalt coastline and the thundering sea.

People come from miles around to seal and whale watch, enjoy the varied geology of the area and view the countless natural landmarks in peace. You can travel quietly here, and enjoy the high-quality darkness of this northerly locale.

When in Hellnar, one can nearly imagine what it might have been like in centuries past- a bustling destination under a slumbering volcano.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Globe City Guide)

3. Hvalfjörður

Just outside of Reykjavik lies a hidden treasure off the main road. Hvalfjörður is the name of the fjord that lies between Mosfellsbær and Akranes. A short trip from the capital city, Hvalfjörður is home to many small waterfalls and hiking paths.

The popular trek to Glymur starts here, and many coastal hikes as well. The fjord itself is 30 kilometers long and there is not a stitch of it that does not house some kind of tiny wonder. Often passed over for more notable climes, this is a calm and beautiful place to aurora watch, with multiple marked observation points that are safe to park in.

Great for some daytime and evening hiking while you wait, the textured vistas and low traffic certainly make Hvalfjörður feel like the best place to see northern lights in Iceland.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Majkl Velner)

4. Jökulsárlon and Fjallsárlón

You have likely already seen Jökulsárlon on lists like these, and it is admittedly hard not to include it. One of the most dramatic glacial lagoons on the island, Jökulsárlon feeds out to sea across a black sand beach littered with giant chunks of ice.

Watching the huge pieces of ice swirl in the surf as if weightless, is a close competitor for the northern lights. But what about nearby Fjallsárlón? Only about 10 kilometers west of well known Jökulsárlon, lies this smaller more intimate lagoon.

Spectacular during the day, at night the lagoons can provide gorgeous reflection photos for aurora hunters and stargazers alike. Time spent next to these otherworldly spaces is special and fleeting.

They are truly impermanent and no repeat visit to them will ever feel the same. All the better reason to hurry- both the lights and the ice do not keep. 

 

Tip: When visiting these spaces, be extra careful around the water and the ice. It is tempting to hurry forth and touch, but the calving of the glacier is unpredictable and can create impressive waves. The ice left on the beach is easily moved by the ocean, and just like the lagoons, can be dangerous up close. (What looks light in the sea, may feel rather heavy when dropped on your feet!)

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Robert Bye)

5. Dyrhólaey

Near the coastal village of Vík, there’s a promontory called Dyrhólaey. Named for the arched holes in the rock- or “door holes”, this is another ever-changing gem of the island, not to mention the southernmost point of the mainland! Featuring multiple paths, Dyrhólaey is a paradise of vistas.

There are many famous shots to be had here, and hardly anything to get in the way of them. An easy jaunt from the nearby village, Vík is a great refueling stop for explorers of this area. The south coast is punctuated by black sand beaches, huge basalt sea caves, and towering cliff waterfalls.

There are even northern light igloos that one can hide away in, which makes the south coast in general a great choice for the best place to see northern lights in Iceland. 

 

Tip: Mind the pathways and signs when visiting this area. Dyrhólaey is changing, and pieces of the landmass are sometimes lost to the sea. Places that are roped off are roped off for a reason.

Check any signage you see before you hike out, as rangers in the area often update it due to shifts in the conditions of the land.

The ocean around this area is fierce and has claimed many lives. When visiting the shoreline, keep your distance from the waves- this beach is known for “sneaker waves” and unforgiving currents.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Yves Alarie)

6. Dimmuborgir

In the north of Iceland near Mývatn, lie the dark castles. Otherwise known as Dimmuborgir, this strange lava field has captured the eye of many, from Norwegian metal band Dimmu Borgir, to the wildlings of Game of Thrones.

Characterized by the unusual rock stacks and tunnel formations, Dimmuborgir is a place of many stories and beliefs. But, regardless of what you believe, it is a shoe-in for best place to see northern lights in Iceland.

Being located in the picturesque Mývatn region, the dark cities overlook miles of great lakeside hiking and some of the north’s best geothermal bathing. For amateur and expert photographers alike, the craggy peaks of the lava and the still waters of Mývatn make incredible photos against the bright colors of the auroras.

Between the breathtaking natural wonders and the nearby amenities, it’s hard to find a better spot! 

 

Tip: Visit this place during the daytime to familiarize yourself with the terrain. Mývatn may not be hugely difficult hiking, but these rocky areas can be challenging to navigate for the first time in the dark. Double up on your protection by bringing a headlamp or torch- extra points if it’s a red light for night vision preservation!

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Michele Orallo)

7. Gullfoss

Imagine reclining on a bench watching the northern lights, while a waterfall rumbles nearby. Doesn’t get any more peaceful than that! On our hunt for the best place to see northern lights in Iceland, we had to include a waterfall. Iceland is simply riddled with these gifts of nature, and Gullfoss is a big one.

Named for its golden illuminated appearance in the daytime, what is even more spectacular is the light that hits it in the nighttime. About 1 hour and 45 minutes from Reykjavik, Gullfoss is a protected area that hosts observation points, walking paths, and a parking lot with a cafe.

It’s rare to find a good aurora spot with a safe place to park your car, so spots like these should not be overlooked. The golden circle region is a great daytrip, and the roads are well maintained in the winter months. 

 

Tip: If you plan on visiting the cafe or shop on your trip, make sure to check ahead and see what the hours are. These things can vary depending on the season, so it’s better to go in with no surprises. (Or at least one less- the lights are a big enough surprise on their own.)

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Kym Ellis)

8. Þingvellir National Park

Only about 35 minutes from the capital, Þingvellir or Thingvellir should be on the top of your list for best place to see northern lights in Iceland- no matter where you’re staying. Once upon a time, Thingvellir was the most important gathering point for Icelanders, and it isn’t hard to see why.

Home to a massive lake, miles of hiking, and incredible views- Thingvellir is a place of activity. It’s also one of the places where you can see the continental rift! But as far as lights go, it’s a veritable playground.

When you’re out aurora hunting, you have to consider logistics. Things like places to park, places to get a snack, bathrooms, proximity to lodging, access to darkness, and so on. Most places will only have a few of these, but Thingvellir hits them all.

Being a national park, it’s designed to accommodate vehicles and wanderers. There are loads of paths to travel, established hiking routes, and plenty of parking lots and observation points to safely stow a vehicle.

This is a big win, because Iceland is full of narrow roads with few places to pull over for a show. Thingvellir is also aware of us aurora hunters, and so there are occasionally places to grab a coffee or a bathroom break along the way.

(Depending on how late you’re out, of course. Double check this before you go if it’s your destination.) You’re also in a great spot when you’re here. Thingvellir is just a half-hour north of Reykjavik, and rests at the entrance to the Golden Circle region. (Or exit, if you came the other way!)

And even though you’re close to town, you will find that Thingvellir is home to some surprisingly good darkness. Because of its inland location and its historical importance as a gathering point, it’s well-positioned on the edge of the highlands.

And there’s tons to do! The only mistake you can make by aurora hunting here is to skip visiting in the daytime. In the autumn, Thingvellir is a rainbow of foliage.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Chris Stenger)

9. Ásbyrgi

This is a rarer stop in the north of Iceland. Located on the Diamond Circle, Ásbyrgi is a horseshoe-shaped canyon that some believe was made by a glacier.. But really we know it is where Sleipnir touched hoof to Earth.

The views to be had here are unique, as the steep walls of the canyon protect a vast forest within their embrace. Because of this “Shelter of the Gods”, Ásbyrgi is an incredible place to visit in the autumn months to catch the color changing of the leaves, and the crystal pond among them.

There is a campsite here, and multiple trails to enjoy all the different views that the huge canyon has to offer. But be careful while you’re here- to us this may be the best place to see northern lights in Iceland, but to some it is the elven capital. Tread lightly!

(Photo Credit: Kévin Pagès)

10. Gamla Laugin: The Secret Lagoon near Flúðir

The truth about the best place to see northern lights in Iceland, is that it will change with the weather, and with your expectations. Maybe you have a certain photo you want to get, or a certain thing that you want to see. Maybe you want to stay in a specific region, or are looking for cozy places to unwind while you you look.

Places like the Secret Lagoon near Flúðir, perhaps. We are pretty big fans of watching the lights from warm places, and this is one of the warmest. If your plans and the weather both allow it- watching the aurora from a natural hot spring is an incredible experience.

Particularly one as beloved as the Secret Lagoon. One of Iceland’s oldest “swimming pools”, this is the place where many southern Icelanders first learned to swim.

And within 24 hours, it has replaced its own water as it continuously flows. One of the most authentic bathing experiences there is, coupled with one of the most authentic aurora watching spots we know. 

 

Tip: Check the website before you go to see what the conditions are for that day. Depending on traffic, you may need to book in advance. (The lagoon is big, but it is always better to plan ahead if you can.) The hours of the lagoon may change, so double-check the schedule to see how late they’ll be open when you visit.


how to hunt northern lights in iceland

How to hunt Northern Lights in Iceland: 10 important tips for catching the aurora

Heading out on an aurora hunt? Don’t go too far without these tips! 

There’s a lot of info out there about aurora hunting, but what about how to hunt northern lights in Iceland? With its ethereal landscape, rapidly changing weather, and, convenient location, these tips are penned with that special island in mind. After a few visits, you’ll see what we mean.

1. Check THE aurora forecast

There are countless aurora forecasts and apps floating around on the web. The more used to them you are, the quicker you can understand how to hunt northern lights in Iceland. Eventually you may find that it can be to reference a few of them before heading out, but for now, here is our favorite. 

If you’re new to the aurora forecast scene and you need to know what’s going on in Iceland, you’ve got to check the forecast put out by the Icelandic Meteorological Office. We like this forecast because we know it’s focusing on the cloud cover in our area, and not a global average or a hidden location behind a percentage.

It’s also a great place to catch any unusual weather alerts or natural events that might not be covered in your own home forecasts. Things like avalanche warnings, seismic activity, and volcano alerts. This website is your one stop shop for all forecasting needs in Iceland.

how to hunt for northern lights in iceland
(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Jonatan Pie)

2. ..And then check the weather

You looked at the aurora forecast, and it looks great! But what is the actual weather doing? Chances are, if the cloud map looked ok, you might be in luck. But it’s always best to double check, because of how quickly Icelandic weather can change and develop by area.

Knowing how to hunt northern lights in Iceland is greatly benefited by knowing about general weather alerts, low pressure systems, high wind, icy conditions and storms in areas that you may be heading to are all things you will want to know before you head out. It might be clear at your starting location, but an hour away might be a different story.

Make sure to scroll through the hours that you’ll be out and see how the prediction develops over time. These things can make or break your trip, and it’s important to be safe while traveling in dark conditions.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Matt Palmer)

3. Set a heading

If you’ve seen the aurora forecast, you probably have a good idea of where to go. (How? Because you saw where the sky clarity was!) When choosing a direction to venture in, we are looking for areas of clarity first, and then figuring out what roads and landmarks follow that window.

Depending on what time of year you’re hunting in, you may need to check the roads along your projected path, as not all areas receive service in the winter months. Some roads close, some are unpaved, and some may be dangerous at certain times.

The good news is, you can find out all of this info, and see a webcam view of most of them. (The webcam view might not do you much good at night, but it’s a nice tool for daytime use.) Websites like road.is keep track of the status of the roads, if they’ve been serviced, and if they are safe to travel.

This information gets updated frequently, so it’s also a good tool to use while you’re out. It can also help to familiarize yourself with the roads that are in the clear areas you saw on the aurora forecast.

Be careful though, and make sure that you are never stopped on one of these roads while hunting. Icelandic roadways are often small and often lack a shoulder for pulling over, so it is key to wait until you reach a safe space to stop- no matter how good the show is.

(And be careful about private property and gates! Much of Iceland is private farmland, so try to be respectful of where you hunt, and never leave a gate open behind you.)

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Alvaro Serrano)

4. Don’t leave the house without a full charge!

This might be a no brainer to some, but it can be the difference between getting that great shot, and being left empty handed. Batteries drain faster in cold weather, so don’t rely on a half charged battery for a long aurora hunt. These treks can last a few hours, and you can’t always gauge when the aurora will reveal itself.

Do yourself a favor, and hook all of that gear up before you go. That could mean phones, camera equipment, drones, headlamps, backup batteries, whatever you’ve got. In this respect, it’s better to be too prepared.

(..And don’t forget a USB cord for the road! Depending on your travel situation, many cars and busses have USB ports that can boost a dying device in a pinch.)

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Madara Parma)

5. Dress for success

This is a point that often gets overlooked, and it’s a very Iceland appropriate topic. If you’re headed out into that dark wintry night, you had better make sure you’re layered, and at least partially waterproof.

You can give or take some of these things depending on how long you’ll be out and what your level of activity will be; but if you’re diving in, you won’t regret it.

Due to a fairly moderate climate (as far as Arctic climates go,) Iceland can be quite wet throughout the auroral season. Pair this with increased wind speeds in the evening, and you’ve got a recipe for some frigid legs. If you’re spending a few hours outside at night, you could benefit from some waterproof gear or insulated pants.

You may also want to dress in layers, as hopping in and out of a vehicle can sometimes be an extreme temperature experience. And don’t forget fingers, necks, ears and ankles!

These are parts that you may need to expose to work cameras, phones, and gadgets- but even the strongest mitts need a break. You might not wear them the whole time, but you’ll appreciate having the choice.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Ihor Malytskyi)

6. Start the hunt before you leave the house

When thinking about how to hunt northern lights in Iceland, checking the forecast and dressing in layers seems pretty straightforward. But what about preparing yourself? For some people, the hunt starts the minute they head out into the darkness.

But for a true aurora hunter, it begins in the afternoon and early evening, when you’re getting that early dinner and pre-hunt nap. You might be out late, and you might work up an appetite!

It’s a real drag to roll back into town around 1:30 am cold and hungry, only to find that your options are severely limited to convenience store snacks at best. If you’re lucky, you may be able to find a 24 hour grocery, but otherwise, most restaurants and eateries will be closed by the time you’re done chasing the lights.

So give your hunt the full attention that it deserves, by making sure your belly is full, and your body is rested. (…And maybe preemptively pick up some snacks for the road. Aurora hunting is hungry work!)

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Jonatan Pie)

7. Know what you're looking for

When people talk about how to hunt northern lights in Iceland, they often forget to mention this part. It’s important to be prepared for auroras that may not look like what you’ve seen on postcards and films.

The average, low level aurora may be a bit smokier, darker, or less saturated than you expect. Knowing that they can begin this way can help hone your vision, and can also be the tip that helps you decide between the “cloud or lights?” game that many hunters have to play.

It can also help to know that not every aurora is a swirly ribbon of quickly moving spikes, and they may not even be the color you’re expecting! Some auroras can appear as a diffused glow, spots of activity, or even slowly moving bow shapes.

(Not to be confused with ambient city glow! On a cloudy night, a nearby town can throw off a surprising amount of warm glow into the sky.) Keep an eye out for cool extras like the Imagine Peace Tower in Reykjavik, shooting stars, satellites, constellations, planets, and even STEVE!

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Rahul Bhosale)

8. Go easy on your eyes

This can be a difficult tip depending on your situation, but it’s a good reminder. Our eyes are not designed to view color well in darkness, so aurora hunting can be hard on us.

Depending on your eyesight, the context you’re in, and your own color processing ability, you may find that your experience of viewing the lights is different from the person next to you.

Make sure to compare what you’re seeing, and talk about it! You would be surprised by how different we are. But no matter how sharp your night vision is, remember that you can help it by giving your eyes time to adjust, and avoiding bright lights while you’re out.

Things like phone and camera screens can be adjusted, and easier sources of light like red light flashlights can be acquired to really set the scene and spare your peepers. You don’t have to go full infrared mode, but don’t forget to be gentle to yourself. Aurora hunting is magical and difficult, so go easy on your senses.

iceland northern lights hotel
The Bubble Hotel of Iceland

9. Keep moving

This isn’t a requirement, but it can be a helpful strategy. If you have a great spot to watch from, (like a northern lights igloo!), then moving might not be the play for you. But if you’re in a vehicle, or just out wandering, switching up your vista can sometimes help.

When we view the sky, it can feel like we’re seeing the whole thing- but we aren’t. The area you’re watching is a slice. And that slice might be impacted by the grade of the land, obstacles like mountains, trees, or buildings, and sometimes clouds.

It’s good to remember that the northern lights are a global event that are happening to our planet, and not necessarily just us. This can mean that we just aren’t underneath whatever is happening, so movement can sometimes be that extra step that gets us a glimpse.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Chelaxy Designs)

10. Don't forget those test shots

If you’re waiting on that dream photo, this tip is for you. Don’t wait until you’re SURE it’s an aurora, shoot early, and often! If you think you saw something and you’re not sure, a test shot can be a great way to find out.

Low level wispy activity can be easily sussed out with a sample shot, and it can be a great way to gauge how you’ll need to adjust your settings for that subject. You’d be surprised how dark the lights can be when they’re just getting started, and how much color the camera can pull out in a simple test image, that our eyes could not.

This is a strategy that can also help if you’re in a brighter place and are really struggling to see. The settings dont have to be perfect, but you’ll get a good confirmation when you see that neon green pop up on your camera.

Or not! Sometimes, it really is just a cloud. But until you’re sure, a test is a great way to hone your hunter’s eye and get used to the various forms an aurora can take.


aurora hunting

Next level Aurora Hunting: 5 wild places to watch the Northern Lights in Iceland

Looking to up the ante on your aurora hunt with a getaway to a rare location? Look no further.

Seeing the northern lights is phenomenal no matter where you are. But for some next level aurora hunting, we’ve reached deep into our own favorites for some rare spots that we think you’ll enjoy. Seeing these places at all is a big win, but aurora hunting in them? Unforgettable.

1. Grímsey: The Gateway to the Arctic

Grímsey is the one point in Iceland that actually reaches the Arctic Circle. Resting about 40 km. north of mainland Iceland, Grímsey straddles the actual Arctic Circle and is the northernmost inhabited land in Iceland. (There is a smaller island further north, but it is uninhabited and is predicted to soon be claimed by the sea.)

Getting to Grímsey is fairly straightforward. You can hop on the ferry for a 3 hour trip both ways, or catch a quick 25 minute flight from Akureyri Airport. Believe it or not, you can access this northern gem year round.

Home to only about 100 people, Grímsey is a popular destination for aurora hunting, birdwatching, history buffs and those that seek the rare and covetous Arctic Circle certificate! When in Grímsey, one can actually visit the border that denotes the current location of the Arctic Circle boundary.

This intersection is marked by a nearly 9 ton stone sphere called “Orbis et Globus.” This giant art piece is a monument that was made to mark the Arctic Circle boundary, and follow its movement. In fact, it’s round because they never intended this monument to be static- just as the Arctic Circle is not static.

At the time of this writing, the Arctic Circle is marked at 66.5 degrees northern latitude, but it is constantly moving further north of us. The circle is moving about 14-15 meters north every year, and will likely continue this journey for 10-20,000 more years.

At that time, it is expected that it will move south once again. Till then, we have the century stones on Grímsey to mark its passage. You can visit these three stones, that mark the past locations of the Arctic Circle border from the summer solstice in 1717, 1817, and, 1917.

Depending on how things go, Orbis et Globus may have to roll into the sea! Despite Grímsey’s diminutive size and small population, it is a place of thriving life and a phenomenal aurora hunting spot.

There are multiple options for lodging there, multiple historic locations to view, and many hiking paths where you will truly be alone with nature at the edge of the world. Out here it’s just you, the northern lights, and about 1 million estimated sea birds.

This close to the pole your ability to pick up low level solar activity increases, and of course you can’t complain about the quality of darkness out in the Arctic waters. Not to mention, the certificate!

There are multiple ways to acquire one of these rare documents, and for many, they are a trip highlight. You can secure yours by taking a Nordlandair/Air Iceland flight, or by purchasing one in the Gallerí Sól giftshop.

(According to the town of Akureyri’s webpage, Gallerí Sól is open Monday, Wednesday, and Friday during the summer months, which may not line up with many Aurora hunters. If you plan on taking the ferry, make sure to write or call ahead to pre-reserve your diploma by phone (+354) 4673190 / (+354) 4673156 or by email: gullsol@visir.is. Can’t leave without it!)

aurora hunting
(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Robby McCulllough)

2. Þórsmörk/Thórsmörk: Valley of the God

In English, this place is The God’s Valley. Named for Thor, you don’t have to be here very long to see why this place is divine enough to be a deity’s backyard. Thórsmörk makes the list not only because it’s painfully gorgeous, but it is also not so easy to get to.

Nestled in the southern Icelandic highlands, this nature reserve is officially a trek. Though it doesn’t take too long to get there from the main ring road, it does require some F-road travel and depending on conditions, a couple of river crossings.

These are glacial rivers, and because of that, it can be hard to predict how deep, how turbulent, or how difficult a crossing will actually be at the time. Glacial rivers are affected by climate change, seismic and geothermal activity, and just weather in general, so this is a location that we recommend some help to access.

While it is perfectly legal to attempt this journey yourself, most rental insurance does not actually include water damage to the undercarriage of a vehicle, which is good to know before you take a 4×4 into the middle of a river for the first time.

Even the experts get stuck sometimes in their specially modified highland crawler trucks- so it’s a good thing to take seriously. Fortunately, there’s another way!

Thórsmörk is home to some cool mountaineer lodging and endless beautiful hiking trails, there are many different guides that can help ferry you into the god’s oasis.

These experiences range from private super jeep expeditions, all the way down to the Highland Bus, which is a specially altered bus meant to navigate river crossing and get you over Eyjafjallajökull’s still standing piles of fine ash.

If you’re able to make this journey in the winter, be ready with your cameras. There are some unbelievable vistas in this area, and some of them are quite manageable for the novice hiker.

Proceed with caution though, because colder months of the year bring additional navigation and footing challenges that should not be overlooked. These are the true highlands, and people aren’t kidding when they say it’s another planet.

Between the climate microcosms and the rapidly changing conditions, it is good to be extra mindful out here. Keep in mind that some of these pathways into the reserve may not receive extensive service in the height of winter, and so if you are aurora hunting then, it is recommended to go with a guide.

If you are visiting in the earlier or later halves of the aurora season, it may still be clement enough to venture out on your own, if you are an experienced outdoors person, or you’re hitching a ride on the Highland Bus.

Thórsmörk in the autumn months is colorful and covered in berries, and a great place to spend the night for a northern lights show like you would not believe. When you’re there, you know you are watching from Thor’s own theatre.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Visit Greenland)

3. Greenland via Reykjavik or Akureyri

I know what you’re thinking! Greenland? But this isn’t a rare spot in Iceland? And you are correct. However, for the intrepid aurora hunter or day-tripper, it is good to know that the icy shores of Greenland, or Kalaallit Nunaat, are accessible from multiple city airports in Iceland.

You can catch a quick flight in Reykjavik’s domestic airport to the capital city of Nuuk, and it only takes about 3 hours and 20 minutes. These flights visit multiple locations in Greenland however, so if you’re looking for a longer stay you can visit Ittoqqortoormiit, Kulusuk, Narsarsuaq or Ilulissat.

Though this is another country, we had to include it on the list as a rare and magical aurora hunting dream spot- because it has not been possible in recent years to get many direct flights to this area outside of Iceland or Denmark.

Thanks to Greenland’s small population, remote towns, and low light pollution, this is a phenomenal place to chase the lights. This large landmass also boasts fairly clear skies most of the time and is large enough that you can move around to avoid some of the relentless low-pressure systems that are so populous in the high winter of the year.

There are many things to do while you wait, like fishing in the pristine ice fjords, dog sledding, hiking, climbing, and visiting one of the biggest ice caps in the area. But don’t stray too far from the towns- with their colorful houses and local delicacies, they are just as incredible and bright as the light show you’ve come to witness.

iceland northern lights hotel

4. The Bubble Hotel of Iceland: Imagine if the only thing between you and the lights was a bubble?

Though rare, this spot might be easier for you to get to- with some help from their intrepid guides. The Bubble Hotel of Iceland is a surreal paradise tucked away into two different Icelandic forests.

These wholly transparent spheres are heated and nested into private groves so that you can melt into nature while wrapped in a luxurious down comforter. This might be our coziest location yet!

Typically when aurora hunting, you have to give it a rest when you go inside. Sometimes we miss prime aurora hours, or even a whole show when we head in to get a hot chocolate and thaw out.

But not here at the Bubbles. At the Bubbles, going inside never means missing the sky. You can lay outside for the whole night, and see everything around you from your 360-degree nest in the woods. It’s hard to beat!

If you plan on visiting the Bubbles, it is good to note that there are not many of them, and they book up months in advance. They exist in order to protect the woodlands they’re in, and provide an alternative revenue source to the farmers in the area so that they do not have to sell their lumber.

Protecting long-term growth in new forests is an important task, and so not only are the Bubbles a fun choice, they are a responsible one. They are located out in the country near the Golden Circle region, and the South Coast region, and upon booking, one of their local guides will collect you in Reykjavik and give you a chauffeured tour on the way to your destination.

They will also pick you back up the next day, and return you to town. From start to finish, a trip to the Bubbles is the ultimate luxury and a rare chance to turn off your brain and connect to the world around you. Not a bad state of mind for some aurora hunting.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Jack Anstey)

5. The Arctic Henge at the top of the world

Unless you’re already stationed up in the north, it may take you quite a while to get to this one. Sitting at 2 hours and 2 minutes drive from Húsavík, this monument is nearly the highest mainland point in Iceland.

Designed by Artist Haukur Halldórsson, the Arctic Henge is much like Stonehenge and is built as a reminder of figures from Norse mythology. The henge itself represents four dwarfs from the Prose Edda book who were tasked by Odin to hold up the sky.

It acts as a sundial and a calendar of sorts, reminding us of all of the dwarves that help to build this chronological map of the seasons. Right now the henge consists of four six meter tall gates and one ten meter high column, but it is still under construction.

The stones used to create it are massive,  Set on a hill in the seaside town of Raufarhöfn, this is a historical place with an incredible spectrum of wildlife. If you don’t visit Grimsey, this is nearly as far north as you can get in Iceland.

The clarity in the northern climes and lack of light pollution is sublime, and few photos can rival a choice shot of the lights dancing among the henge. (Perhaps even a video punctuated with the wild cries of Arctic foxes darting in between? This is their turf, after all.)

Keep in mind when you visit that the henge is a holy place celebrating the Ásatrú belief. It may yet be under construction for some time, and so it may take a few visits to see everything that has been planned.

Though it is out of the way, don’t sleep on Raufarhöfn and its beautiful henge. Aurora hunting is a place of deep magic is not an opportunity to be missed.


tips for photographing aurora borealis

Don’t miss that shot! 10 important tips for photographing aurora borealis

Camera? Check. Gloves? Check. Tips for photographing aurora borealis? Double check.

Planning to capture some once-in-a-lifetime shots on your aurora hunt? Don’t head out without these tips for photographing aurora borealis!

Seeing the lights in person is one thing, but being able to revisit that memory is priceless. Here are some of the tips and tricks that we use when setting up for a night of astrophotography. Share some of yours in the comments!

1. Keep your image sharp with a tripod

It can be hard to tell, but we move a lot. Try taking a few photos on a long shutter and you’ll see how much. In order to achieve a crisp and unblurred image, you’ll need a tripod or a solid surface to set your camera on for the duration of its shutter process.

Tripods are the best option. Because you never know when you’ll get a flat enough rock at the right height. (Not to mention the wind! A brisk evening wind has taken out many an expensive camera- so make sure yours is both attached and weighted enough to be left alone!

And if your images still suffer from shake, try a remote shutter release, or set a 10-second timer. You’d be surprised how disruptive one shutter press can be!)

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: JESHOOTS.com)

2. Check for manual mode

When you’re heading out on your first aurora excursion, make sure you have the right gear for the job. Many first-time hunters make the mistake of bringing cameras that don’t have a manual capability or a way to adjust settings.

Things like disposable cameras and many lower-level point and shoot varieties function on pre-created settings that don’t allow for much tweaking if any. These settings are most often intended for specific contexts like traditional daytime sunlight and indoor lighting.

You may find that you have limited control over novelty gear and smartphones as well, so it is good to check beforehand to make sure you know what you’re working with. Popular options for aurora photography are SLR and DSLR cameras with a manual mode, and as technology develops- even some smartphones and drones.

Many of the newer smartphones have night mode settings and are only getting better. But till then- it’s hard to beat good old-fashioned manual mode, which gives you full control over your image and how you capture the light around you.

tips for photographing aurora borealis
(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Lucas Favre)

3. Do your business before you leave the house

If you’re just starting out, get familiar with your camera settings before you leave. Finding an unfamiliar button or dial in the dark can be a struggle, especially if there’s an aurora actively happening overhead.

You can set and test basic settings (shutter speed, ISO, aperture, etc) before you head out, giving yourself just one less thing to do in the field, and a chance to troubleshoot any problems.

Keep in mind though, that a good understanding of these settings is helpful as you may have to adjust them based on what conditions you’re seeing. (Oh. And do use the facilities before you go- you never know when you’ll see another bathroom out in the wilds of nighttime Iceland.)

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Matt Collamer)

4. Get focused

You already know to put the camera in a manual setting, but what about your lens?

The autofocus function works really well during the day, but at night the camera will struggle to use this tool. Picture it- you’re all set up, there’s a glorious display of northern lights, you’ve pressed the button, and.. The lens is just grinding into infinity.

When in autofocus in a dark place the camera isn’t quite sure what to focus on, so it just spins the lens over and over trying to find a subject. So don’t forget to set your camera to manual focus! (..And then to actually focus, using another bright object in the area.)

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Fabrizio Conti)

5. Keep your batteries warm

Most cameras are powered by lithium-ion batteries, and lithium-ion batteries don’t do well in the cold. This could spell trouble for your smartphone, your cameras, and even your gadgets or tools.

In order to keep yourself prepared, the best thing to do is to make sure you have fully charged backup batteries on hand. But if it’s too late, you can still salvage the one you’ve got by warming it in your pocket, wearing your gear close to your body, or utilizing hand warmers.

Make sure to not leave your batteries in a cold place overnight, and if you need to do an emergency charge, try to avoid charging a cold battery. You may find that it won’t take the charge!

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Jakob Owens)

6. Open it up!

You’re packing your camera bag and making last minute lens decisions- so what are you bringing? Our favorite aurora lenses are fast, wide, luminous and light.

That means that they can access a low digit (fast) aperture, they can capture a wide view of the sky, they aren’t overly heavy, and they manage low light conditions well and without distortion.

Choosing a lens is a big investment, so make sure you’re going with something that works for your camera and will meet your photographic needs. Auroras can take up a huge vista, so when in doubt, go wide!

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Cole Parrant)

7. Keep down the noise

When setting your camera for nighttime photography, one of the most important settings to remember is ISO. ISO is a function that controls the light sensitivity of the camera’s imaging sensor.

In this case, that means that the ISO is helping the camera “see” light in a dark place. ISO is always in play, even if you’re using a pre-programmed setting, and we recognize it as a number scale.

Typically, a daytime ISO is between 100-200, and a nightime ISO starts at 800, and can go quite high depending on the conditions at hand, and the length of your shutter speed. (Too much on both can create a washed out image!)

You will find that you’ll have to experiment a bit with the best ISO for your shot, and it’s good to try a few. For most cameras, we recommend staying below 6400, but always experiment with these combinations- as higher end cameras will have different processing strengths.

But beware- the ISO may make the aurora in your photo brighter, but you can have too much of a good thing! An ISO that is too high can create “grain” in your photo, or noise.

This can be hard to see in a thumbnail, so make sure to capture shots with multiple setting combinations to avoid getting a great shot- but with too much texture.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Jake Hills)

8. Catch every movement, the easy way

Photos are great, but what about animation? Live filming of nighttime shots has been difficult for a long time, but is starting to become possible on certain cameras.

The difficulty here is that most cameras do not allow manual setting control during video, but instead they give you a pre-set daytime mode. In order to capture an aurora on video, you still need access to those nighttime settings just like you do in photos.

The good news is that tech is catching up and allowing us these options more and more- but what if you don’t have one of those gadgets? Luckily, you can go the route of a traditional aurora hunter and try out time lapse.

A time lapse is a collection of many photos taken in quick succession, that are put together later to create a slideshow. After controlling the speed of this slideshow, you can use photos to simulate filmed movement in an auroral occurrence.

Many cameras have a time lapse function already, so you can just set it, and forget it! (Make sure to test it before you go out, this can be a tricky one to troubleshoot in the field.)

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Xuan Nguyen)

9. Don’t forget to turn ON the lights

Believe it or not, there are actually moments where a little light pollution can help us out. In instances where you want to be in the shot, or want to light the foreground a bit, try experimenting with small lights or vehicle headlights to carefully illuminate a smaller foreground object.

These photos takes some experimenting to get right, as too much light during a long shutter process can create overexposure. Sometimes it’s enough to just flash a cell phone light for a few seconds, and allowing the camera to capture that moment and layer it in.

A well diffused porch light can do the trick- or even a good flashlight. And if the northern lights are running late, don’t forget about light painting!

Allowing a camera to take a photo on an extra long shutter can create motion blur in a photo- which gives you a chance to write a message or draw a symbol with a small light.

You’ve likely seen some of these images before- and they can be a lot of fun on a night when you’re biding your time waiting. Try setting your shutter to bulb for more time, and experiment with star trail shots as well! After all, the aurora isn’t the only light up here.

10. Pick your favorite color

Disclaimer: If you can, shooting in RAW is a preferable starting place. The RAW image format allows the image to retain more data, which helps you out later if you plan on post processing the image later.

A RAW image would retain enough data that you would be able to adjust the white balance later on. However, if you don’t have this ability, or you don’t want to bother with post processing, this tip is for you.

Once you’ve set your camera within the typical nighttime setting range, you’ll find that funny things can happen with color. Messing with somebody’s concept of light can do that.

However, don’t fret! If your photo is exceptionally orange or extremely blue, this can be quickly remedied by changing the white balance on your camera. The white balance option often has its own button indicated by “WB”, but can also be found in your camera’s settings menu.

This function gives you a menu of different icons that correspond to different “temperatures”. These temperatures will change the color cast of your images, so you can use them to control the warmth or coolness of your shot.

This is a pretty subjective setting, so you may need to try a few to get the look that you want.


can you see the northern lights in michigan

“Can you see the Northern Lights in Michigan?” and 10 other true or false questions from the secret vault!

One of nature’s most mysterious natural phenomena gets unmasked here and now, with these 10 true or false questions from the frequently asked question vault!

We’ve heard hundreds of different questions, facts, and myths from all over the world. From quandaries as simple as “Can you see the Northern Lights in Michigan?”, to more difficult wonders about what they look like on different planets, and why?

Some of these questions we’ve found answers to, while others are still up for discussion as the science develops- but we’ve gathered some of the popular ones here.

What are some questions you’ve heard about the Northern Lights? Did you find an answer? Compare in the comments below!

1. It has to be cold to see Northern Lights

FALSE. In artwork, the aurora is often depicted in snowy, Arctic settings, and connected to cold weather. This is definitely an accurate season for aurora watching, but so is the end of autumn, and the beginning of spring. The reason for this is not the temperature, but rather the light cycle during this half of the year.

From the end of April to the beginning of August, it is too bright in Iceland to see auroral light with the naked eye. Auroras can still happen, but we lack the proper darkness to view them. Because the aurora happens above our weather system the warmer temperatures during this off-season do not affect them.

You will find that cloudless nights and cold temperatures do often go together, which helps with visibility. This is because the Earth absorbs the Sun’s heat during the day, and the clouds insulate the Earth and keep that heat from escaping.

If there are no clouds that night, you’ll find that the temperature is colder. A cloudless night certainly does help us see the show, but it isn’t the catalyst that causes the show to happen. So don’t pass up a September or March aurora hunt!

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Hans Isaacson)

2. All auroras look just like the photos

FALSE. No two auroras are the same, and that goes for the conditions you’re viewing them in as well. Add that to the variety of equipment and information out there, and you’re looking at a whole spectrum of opportunity.

On average, an aurora viewed with the naked eye will not match the photos and films that you see in professional publications. This isn’t necessarily because of photoshop, (it can be), but rather because of how the human eye and nighttime photography work.

In a nutshell, human eyes were not designed to perceive light well in dark places, so we have trouble seeing full color at night. Cameras on the other hand do not have this problem and are able to be manually adjusted to brighten certain aspects of a scene.

This is a type of photography commonly used to create dramatic portraits, realistic theatre or performance shots, and nighttime or astronomical photos. Pictures like these are made by utilizing a higher ISO, a longer shutter speed, and a lower aperture, among other things that are up to the photographer.

Depending on how bright the location is and how strong the aurora is, you may have to adjust in different ways to get the image you want. These types of photos traditionally required fairly advanced gear, but with the advancement of available technology, it is becoming easier to capture more realistic images.

These days, you can snap a shot on a smartphone, or even live film with a camera that allows manual control during filming. This doesn’t mean that the photos that you see are fake, but it can mean that they are processing the low lumen light in a more efficient way than the human eye, creating a more saturated and complete image.

Of course, we can’t speak for every image, so there are always possibilities that additional editing was applied. You may find that your own color processing ability is also at play while aurora watching, and should compare what you’re seeing with those around you. You would be surprised how many people see the same thing in different ways!

can you see the northern lights in michigan
(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Aubree Herrick)

3. You can see the Northern Lights in Michigan

TRUE. One of the most important and popular questions of all time, is if you can see the Northern Lights where you live. We hear these questions often from people in continental Europe and the northern areas of the United States, and the short answer is that it IS possible.

It may not be a regular occurrence, but during a geomagnetic storm or a night of intense auroral activity, the lights can and have crept down that far. There are photos of aurorae visiting uncommon places all over the web, and even just recently an alert from a past storm that they might travel down as far as Maryland.

On average, low-level activity stays close to the pole, which is why it is so common in the Arctic area. But the more geomagnetic activity that there is, the more possible it is for it to appear further away from those poles.

We also now have STEVE to look forward to, which has been reported to occur closer to the equator. So if you’re in Michigan, don’t lose hope! Every now and then Lady Aurora definitely does makes a trip.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Daniel Mirlea)

4. A full moon will make it impossible to see the Northern Lights

FALSE. When looking for the northern lights, it is recommended to remove yourself from all sources of light pollution. This includes manmade sources like streetlights and city lights, but it can also mean organic sources like the Sun, or moonlight.

There is often a lot of chatter about checking the moon phase before you go out, and many forecasting services often include it. But it certainly does not mean you’re 100% out of luck if you find yourself stuck with a full moon.

In my experience, a darker sky can mean easier viewing, but some brightness can be a photographic dream. The light from a fuller moon can provide you with important foreground illumination that can help highlight a landmark, landscape, or even a person.

These shots may require some tinkering to get the correct settings and avoid overexposure, but they can be some of the most beautiful. A full moon can be hard on your eyes, but it definitely isn’t game over for an intrepid hunter.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Jonatan Pie)

5. You have to look north to see the Northern Lights

FALSE. Typically, northern lights will occur in a northerly direction more often than not, because few things are further north than the magnetic pole. All of us are more than likely going to be below the activity, which makes this an easy tip to give someone who is trying to orient themselves.

However, if you’re already pretty far north, (which we are), and the geomagnetic activity is high, it is possible that the aurora is not always happening north of you. Activity can manifest overhead, or to the south- or even to the side.

This can depend on the optical illusion of where you are while you watch, what obstacles or landmarks are obscuring your view, and how the activity is manifesting in the sky at that moment.

If you have a wider and further reaching view to the East, you may be more likely to catch a visualization in that direction rather than in a direction where you may be up against a mountain.

At the end of the day, we are small, and the Earth and the Northern Lights are huge, and it can be hard to grasp the visual scale or distance of a celestial event. The lights will always be north to someone, but don’t forget that that person may not be you- and look around! They do have a tendency to sneak up on you when you least expect it.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Thomas Lipke)

6. The Northern Lights and the Southern Lights happen at the same time

TRUE. Over the past 20 years, scientists have been hard at work getting to know the full impact and behavior of geomagnetic activity and also improving the imaging technology that we use to perceive such systems on Earth.

Multiple studies have been conducted over these past two decades that have taught us that the lights are not twins, but siblings. While they do happen simultaneously at both poles, they do not perfectly mirror each other as many have said in the past.

So yes, it is true that they happen at the same time, but currently untrue that they are identical. Stay tuned as further developments surface!

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Mike Lewinski)

7. Ancient people believed that red Northern Lights meant war or danger

TRUE. This is one of the more modern and widely shared folkloric beliefs pertaining to the northern lights. Aurora myths have been held as an oral tradition in many areas around the world, including the Southern Hemisphere.

Due to their striking appearance and occasional intense coloring, one can imagine how the appearance of intense auroral activity may have been frightening to ancient, and some not so ancient, people.

There is even as recently as the 1800s, written proof that multiple cultures linked large instances of northern lights with notable battles and disasters. Read more about the spectrum of beliefs here.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Jonatan Pie)

8. The Northern Lights affect animals

TRUE. This is a question that has been asked for a long time and has only very recently been verified. Though the full effects of geomagnetic activity are surely not known in entirety, scientists believe that their magnetism may interact or interfere with the magnetism belonging to animals and other biological creatures.

It is not news to many that migratory animals move North to South throughout their lives in order to nest, reproduce, and follow feeding routes. This is a phenomenon seen throughout the world in many climates, particularly here in Iceland where we are visited by multiple migratory species, namely puffins and whales.

As recently as 2018 scientists have begun to study the magnetism of mammals, insects, and even bacteria. There have been many theories put forth about emotional interference, different health and sleep functions, and other curiosities, but thus far these things are all still being researched.

So for now, this question stands at “True”. While we currently have no findings to prove that geomagnetic activity is harming life, we can certainly infer that a big storm may temporarily put animal navigational systems offline for a bit. And maybe us, too!

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Jonatan Pie)

9. The Northern Lights make noise

TRUE. This question has been making the rounds for years, and many aurora hunters have their own anecdotal answer. Right now, multiple branches of research are being conducted about if this is true, and if so, how?

One of the more popular theories is from a research group headed by Aalto University Professor Unto K. Laine. They’ve introduced the “inversion layer hypothesis”, which infers that sound is born through a geomagnetic storm’s interaction with our atmosphere’s inversion layer.

The charges activated by the storm cause the popping and crackling sounds that people have reported hearing during certain auroral occurrences. But this is only one of the theories, there are multiple others floating around currently being researched, many by universities.

(One of them says pine needles are to blame!) But don’t take our word for it- have you ever heard the northern lights? Let us know in the comments!

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Shanu Nag)

10. You can photograph or film the Northern Lights with any camera

FALSE…FOR NOW. As technology advances, the answer to this question changes dramatically. Up until recently, the only way to capture the northern lights on film was to use a camera that allowed manual control.

This meant that typical point and shoot machines of the 2000-2010s, disposables, phone cameras, basic film, and nearly all auto-setting cameras were out of luck. The reason for this is not that they are necessarily lacking some feature, but more that they were using a default daylight setting array to create photos.

The settings that we use to create nighttime photos do not come naturally to the camera, as they would be challenging to use and would make it difficult for us to capture typical photos of a lit subject.

So if the tool you are using to take photos does not allow you to adjust the ISO or the shutter speed (among other things), you may find yourself with a roll of dark images!

These days, however, technology is catching up to us and many simpler photo tools (like phones) are coming prepackaged and ready with “Night mode”! This is an exciting feature that puts auroral photography into the hands of nearly any hunter, and has only been the product of the past few years!

Who knows how easy it will be to make phenomenal photos in the future?


if i never get to see the northern lights

“If I never get to see the northern lights…”: 10 important reasons why you WON’T see an aurora!

Stop right there! If you’re looking for lights, here are 10 obstacles that you need to know about.

“…if I never get to see the northern lights.” We hear things like this a lot. For many, auroras are a once-in-a-lifetime experience. People come from all over the world, with very little time, and big hopes to catch one- and if possible, we want to help make that happen.

Maybe you’ve even tried already but came away unsuccessful. Perhaps you live in a place where auroras could possibly happen?

Either way, we want to make sure that you DO see the northern lights. So we’ve gathered together our biggest glow-pas (ha), in hopes that they will better prepare you for the hunt. Have one to share? Let us know about it!

1. You visited in the off-season.

Once I overheard a woman in a cafe angrily describing a trip to Zimbabwe. I had to listen in, because I couldn’t imagine how a dream trip like that could go awry. It turns out she had been planning this trip for ages and had come to see the great thundering waters of Victoria Falls.

But she missed a key detail to the plan- and that was WHEN to visit. You see, she wanted to see Victoria Falls in full spray, active with gushing water and huge currents.

But Victoria Falls experiences a wet season, and a dry one- and in the dry one, there may still be water, but it’s a bit less than what you might have seen on that postcard or commercial.

While there are still just as many reasons to visit in the dry season (like being able to walk across the falls to Zambia!)- if you expected to see the crashing water, you might be disappointed. Iceland is like this in many ways, in that we experience a “light season”, and a “dark season”.

This means that while the aurora happens above us all the time, we can only see it from mid-August to mid-April, at best. The brightness of the Midnight Sun in our summer months is just too great to allow visibility of auroral light, so we have to wait for the return of true darkness in the autumn.

Just like Victoria Falls, we have a lot of incredible things going on in our summer period as well- but if you came for auroras, you might find yourself disappointed.

if i never get to see the northern lights
(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Cosmic Timetraveler)

2. You’re out too early. 

Visiting in winter and finding it a bit dark? Don’t worry, so are we. In the height of winter, we only receive a few hours of direct sunlight- and that’s on a good day. If it’s overcast (which it often is), you may feel like you haven’t seen the sun in days!

(And in some parts of Iceland, that may be true!) Iceland experiences the maximum of dark hours at the winter solstice in December, and after that, the nights begin to shorten.

While this does often mean you can start aurora hunting a bit earlier, it does not mean that you can set out at 4:00 pm. Is it after sunset? Yes! But there are layers of darkness, so to speak, and you still need to wait for optimal dark hours to be able to perceive the northern lights with the naked eye.

On a great night with huge activity, it can be possible to view an aurora as early as 8:00 pm, but typically most hunters will be out looking between 10:00 pm – 2:00 am on average.

This doesn’t mean that nothing can happen before and after that window, but typically we experience better visibility at this time.

Keep an eye out on the light cycle though, wherever you are! These hours may fit Iceland, but depending on how close you are to the pole, your cycle may vary.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Jonatan Pie)

3. You are a victim of cloud cover.

This may sound dramatic, but every aurora hunter has been taken down by clouds at least once. The northern lights happen above our weather system, so if it’s cloudy, there can be a phenomenal show going on and we can still miss it.

This can be difficult in a place like Iceland, where midwinter brings us not only the greatest dark hours, but also the greatest low-pressure storm season. These are big, moody, windy storms that can bring a great deal of precipitation or cloud cover.

They can move fairly quickly, which sometimes means that the next day will be clear skies and mild weather. But, sometimes they linger for days. This can be a good reason to look for lights early in your visit, in case you do cross paths with one of these blustery visitors.

But even on a stormless night, you can still meet some impressive cloud cover. (We are in the middle of the North Atlantic, after all!) When you head out for a hunt, make sure to check the aurora forecast first. These forecasts will let you see the cloud cover over time, and will also tell you what layers of the sky are experiencing cover.

This can be good to know, because different types of clouds exist at different altitudes, and can mean different types of cover.

The way that a good hunter picks a trajectory, is by seeing what areas will be clear. But don’t fret! Cloud cover can and will move throughout the evening, and the forecasts do not always have the ability to account for small holes of clarity within them.

Sometimes, all you need to catch the show is a single window in the sky.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Jeremy Bezanger)

4. It was too bright!

Sometimes, not even the brightest blaze can compete with Lady Aurora. But on an average night, we need a little extra help to see her. The Northern Lights occur at a low lumen, and so it helps if your eyes have been able to adjust to the darkness when you look for them.

If you are in a brightly lit area, near a streetlight, or hanging out in the headlights of your car- you may struggle to pick out the faint green tail of an auroral glow. In fact, some people will only use red light flashlights when they’re out hunting- and may dim the light settings on their equipment.

These steps are pretty serious, but it is a good reminder that your eyes do need time to adjust to darkness and that you should be prepared to search for lower level auroras.

Not all occurrences appear as huge jagged shapes with supernatural brightness. Some are soft glows that are so dim, that they can only be picked up by camera. (So if you’re scanning the horizon and you’re not completely sure, try a test shot!

A correctly set camera will proliferate the light, so this can be an easy way to discern if what you’re seeing is aurora, or just wispy clouds passing through. (This doesn’t mean that you have to go hours away into the interior of the country, but if you do have the option, getting outside of the city can help.

The quality of darkness improves a great deal even just 15 minutes outside of town. Cities create big bubbles of light pollution around themselves, and while Reykjavik or Akureyri don’t create nearly enough light to compete with mainland light pollution, it is still surprising how much it changes your surroundings to be near it.)

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: John Salvino)

5. You didn’t budge. (Your eyes, OR yourself!)

There are a lot of tips and tricks out there, but none of them can compete with the fact that an aurora is a planetary occurrence that is happening to Earth from Outer Space.

What I’m getting at here is that it’s huge, and the piece that we sometimes see is only a piece of a greater whole, and that whole is moving. It can be hard to imagine how minuscule we are in comparison, but what might be a sky-filling explosion of light to us, may just be a fraction of a bigger occurrence.

You can get a better idea of what I mean by viewing an aurora from space, or by checking out a forecast model that shows the predicted footprint of the northern lights on our planet.

The obstacle here is understanding that the northern lights are less like a piece of lightning, and more like the storm system that the lightning belongs to. (Unless we’re doing a different metaphor, then the northern lights are definitely like a lightning strike. But I digress.)

Sometimes you get lucky, and the aurora wanders right up when you’re having a drink outside in your hot pot. But other times, the northern lights really do require a hunt, and that means movement to keep up.

It is not uncommon for groups of hunters to report different findings, or for neighbors to see an aurora, while neighbors a few kilometers away did not. This could mean that your section of visible sky was active, but maybe the vista a stone’s throw over was not.

Sometimes this can be because of actual obstacles in your path- like the grade of the land, a mountain range, or how close your house is to another house. These obstacles don’t always seem as problematic as they may be, but if you are looking out of one view all night, you get just that. One view.

And sometimes, this can mean just simply turning your body. Many sources tell you to keep your eyes on the north for the lights, but that is not always the case. Oftentimes in a place as far north as Iceland, it can feel like the aurora is happening overhead, or even in a direction other than north.

(This is where that detail comes in again- that the lights are a global occurrence, and they are happening to EARTH. Not just Iceland.) So stay alert while you’re out, and keep an eye peeled in every direction. You never know where Lady Aurora is going to sneak up from.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Jonatan Pie)

6. Surprise! You actually DID see it- but you didn’t recognize it.

This is not an obstacle per se, but it certainly is a thing that comes up. No two instances of northern lights are ever the same, so it can be hard to recognize if you’re not used to seeing it.

This is especially the case when the aurora is low level or occurring in an unfamiliar shape or color pattern. Many people set out on their first hunt after seeing incredible footage from world-class photographers and documentarians.

These shots are career-making images that likely took a lot of time and skill to create. The typical stuff doesn’t usually make the postcards and National Geographic covers. Seeing ANY kind of aurora is spectacular and special- but be ready to catch whatever comes to you.

This may mean darker colors that are harder to pick out, like misty whites, strange olive greens, and cool grey purples. It may also mean shapes that aren’t particularly “snakey”, like diffused glows, cirrus cloud shapes, whisps, and long bowed streaks.

The aurora can move quickly and appear to “dance”, but this is not always the case. Sometimes it’s a slow pulse, or even just a fade that you fail to clock until it’s gone. A softer aurora can appear to be a cloud, or a smoke formation- which can get pretty confusing when the wind is quickly blowing the clouds and the ground is puffing up huge geothermal breaths of hot white steam into the night.

An easy way to check can be to take a long-shutter/high ISO camera shot of the “thing” in question, but after a while, you do get used to the telltale sign of a quiet little aurora starting out in the night.

They may not all be full-on Carrington Events, but each one of them is a rare gift, that traveled all the way from the Sun, to you.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Aiden Patrissi)

7. You stayed in the city!

Look, we get it. Reykjavik has one heck of a nightlife, and there are at least a hundred different places to eat that we still haven’t tried- and it’s so cozy… But! It’s also full of twinkly Christmas lights, and street lights, and illuminated windows and art installations, and whathaveyou.

As you know from tips 4 and 5, these things can get in the way of an optimal auroral view. And sometimes you just can’t help it, you don’t have wheels! If you’re here for the lights, we highly recommend getting yourself out of the hustle and bustle into the real country darkness.

Even if you only head about 10 minutes out, the quality changes considerably. But, if you’re only in town for a few nights, you can still check out some of Reykjavik’s best aurora spots, get chauffeured out to a northern lights igloo for one evening, or even grab a tour for a few hours.

All of these options will secret you away to some better watch locations, and one of them gets you a warm down comforter with a bottle of bubbly.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Tim Foster)

8. The Sun is on a break.

This obstacle is one of the bigger ones, and by bigger, I mean sun-sized. All of our northern lights come from one place, and that place is the Sun. Every swirly green burst of polar light that you’ve ever enjoyed began as a volatile little send-off from our galaxy’s most important star.

The good news is that the Sun is a fiery individual, and is regularly sending out pieces of itself through solar wind. Solar wind passes over our planets (and everything else), and can create aurorae on a fairly regular basis because of Earth’s magnetic field.

Sometimes, the Sun expels a great deal of activity through solar flares or Coronal Mass Ejections, and larger geomagnetic storms make their way over to us. Geomagnetic storms usually create larger, more impressive lights- and can even in rare circumstances create Carrington Events, which can affect our electrical grid.

Carrington Events are extremely rare, but geomagnetic storms can happen a couple of times a year- depending on the year and the solar cycle that we are in at the time. But every now and then, the Sun is quiet. This is fairly rare, but you can see how things are going in an aurora forecast.

These forecasts will tell you on a scale of 0-9, how much geomagnetic activity is bopping around in our atmosphere. This is known as the K-index, or Kp scale, and is a paraphrased way for us to measure this solar activity, and infer how far from the pole an aurora might be able to reach.

This system is still very much a developing science, so if you see a zero on the forecast, do not fret! Odds are, this may be a visually quiet night, but activity has still been known to appear on Kp 0 nights with clear skies.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Joshua Earle)

9. You were in the bathroom!

Some instances of the northern lights blink on and off all night for hours. These are usually dreamy nights in the countryside, where you don’t need to move about, you can just kick back and watch. In the city, you can watch a good show for a few minutes, or maybe a half hour, walking down the street or parked at a cafe with a coffee.

Some of these city lights are so fleeting, that you find out about them after they’ve happened, from local photos and the forgotten alerts on your aurora apps.

It may be that someone in a darker place is watching this aurora for a bit longer, but in a brightly lit place, it is harder to pick out the finer pieces and more diffused glows, so you can end up watching for less time.

It’s a frustrating reason to miss the lights, but when you’re struggling with light pollution every minute counts. So be quick about those bathroom breaks!

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Ihor Malytskyi)

10. You left the party!

And on the other end of the time spectrum, we have the old adage “good things come to those who wait”. Many a disappointed adventurer has bemoaned their fruitless hunt, only to hear from the person next door that they were successful! But how?

Sometimes it’s something as simple as the areas you were both in, the cloud cover differences, or even the amount of light pollution. As wee human beings, we can only cover so much ground.

But sometimes, it’s the waiting. It’s not always the most comfortable activity, cruising around in the darkness and braving winter weather. Hunting for a thing that can be challenging to find, maybe for many hours. It’s no wonder that some people call it quits early.

There have been nights where I myself have done the same. But when you’re out there, know that every night is different, and the activity displays itself on its own time, if at all.

So despite all of the tips and tricks in the world, sometimes one of the best things you can do on a hunt is take your time. Lady Aurora often shows up you when you least expect her.


10 facts about the northern lights

10 facts about the Northern Lights to dazzle your mind and ignite your imagination

You’ve heard about why the lights happen, what changes the colors, and when is the best time to see them.. But what else is there to know?

The aurora is one of nature’s most mysterious phenomena. We spend a lot of time talking about it, reading about it, and looking for it– so we put together these 10 facts about the Northern Lights that might be interesting to another aurora enthusiast.

How many of them did you already know? Let us know in the comments!

1. Galileo gave the aurora the name we use today

Sometime around 1619-1621 A.D., Galileo Galilei, and Pierre Gassendi witnessed an aurora. A time of great astronomical advancement, this event kickstarted the aurora madness that we all know so well today.

This is where the name “Aurora Borealis” was born. Coming from the name for the Roman goddess of the dawn (Aurora), and the Greek god of the northern wind (Boreal), the term we are so familiar with today was penned.

Though Galileo and Gassendi are credited with some of the earliest modern writing, there are multiple historic records of early cultures recording their glimpses of the lights.

And despite having named it, Galileo didn’t actually know what it was. In fact, he named it “aurora” because he thought it was the sunlight reflecting off of the atmosphere.

We didn’t know the true source of the aurora until the early 1900s when…

(Unsplash, Photo Credit: Greg Rakozy)

2. Kristian Birkeland developed the theory of atmospheric electric currents, therefore revealing the origin of the Northern Lights.

Often referred to as “The Father of the Aurora Borealis”, Norwegian scientist Kristian Birkeland is responsible for introducing us to the real source of the Northern Lights.

Between 1899 and 1900, he organized the Norwegian Polar Expedition to study the global patterns of electric currents. He did this by making magnetic field measurements from Earth, and the theory he was able to develop through this study is the basis of the theory we use today.

He released this information to the world in 1908 in his book, “The Norwegian Aurora Polaris Expedition 1902–1903”. Birkeland went on to be nominated for 7 Nobel Prizes, but in his lifetime his work was highly contested and considered a fringe theory at best.

(Image Credit: NASA/Christopher Perry. "A NASA-funded sounding rocket launches into an aurora in the early morning of March 3, 2014, over Venetie, Alaska. The Ground-to-Rocket Electrodynamics – Electron Correlative Experiment, or GREECE, mission studies how certain structures – classic curls like swirls of cream in coffee -- form in the aurora.")

3. We didn’t believe Birkeland’s theory until 1967!

(Ok well maybe some people did.) Kristian Birkeland died in 1917 at the age of 49, and at the time of his death, many mainstream scientists did not believe his theory about the aurora. The difficulty here was that his experiments were costly, and it was believed that this theory could not be proven by ground measurements alone.

(It also didn’t help that it was the early 1900’s, and getting to space wasn’t an option yet.) Things changed in 1967 however, when the U.S. Navy sent satellite 1963-38C up into space. This probe carried a magnetometer above the ionosphere, proving the existence of magnetic disturbances, and therefore, Birkeland currents.

Like many scientific discoveries, the origin of the aurora was only made possible by the study of many, many curious people. Birkeland’s study was the next step here, but for him these hypotheses were made possible by the work of scientists like Anders Celsius and Olof Hjorter before him.

It makes you wonder what discoveries will be born of our curiosities now!

10 facts about the Northern Lights
(Unsplash. Photo Credit: NASA)

4. We continue to study the aurora.

Our quest for auroral knowledge did not end with that Navy probe, or with Kristian Birkeland. In fact, it proliferated. Citizen scientists have been hard at work monitoring space weather and collecting data on what they can see- and even NASA is hard at work filling in the blanks!

This is still very much a developing branch of science, and even as recently as June 2021 new data has been collected via NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale mission.

Satellites, sounding rockets, multiple study missions, and laboratory experiments here on Earth are just some of the ways that we are inching closer to a better picture of what creates our favorite light show, and how it can be affected by different factors that we have yet to fully understand.

Perhaps this study will far surpass our lifetimes, just like Birkeland. Imagine the strangeness of today’s facts becoming tomorrow’s misconceptions. The journey continues!

(Image Credit: John T. Clarke (U. Michigan), ESA, NASA. "[These] images supplied by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope reinforce the newly identified origin of Jupiter's auroras. The images ruled out the Sun as a cause for the auroras. Credit: NASA/STScl")

5. We’re not the only ones with auroras!

As you may know, there are two different areas on Earth where one can view auroras. There’s the Aurora Borealis in the north, and the Aurora Australis in the south. But now that we can see a bit further out of our own planetary neighborhood, we know that other planets host auroral light as well!

Because we know that the look of an aurora is caused by the atmospheric gases that it collides with, we can make a lot of inferences based on what we believe the atmospheric makeup of a certain planet to be. We now know that planets like Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune have auroras due to the interaction of solar wind with planetary magnetic fields.

We also know that nearby Mars and Venus have them as well, due to solar wind engaging with their atmospheres. Tools like the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and NASA’s Juno spacecraft have been able to not only confirm this, but also capture images of planets like Jupiter in full glow.

Just by seeing these things, we are able to learn more about how our sun functions, and how other planets are not just different from ours, but alike.

(Image Credit: Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio. "This visualization shows the 20 THEMIS ground station locations. These ground stations will assist the THEMIS satellite constellation in measuring the Aurora Borealis over North America. Each ground station has an all-sky imaging white-light auroral camera and a magnetometer. The ground stations' radial coverage (blue circles) is rendered at 540km (335 miles). An artist's conception of an aurora is added to the visualization for context (red and green stripes).")

6. It isn’t just NASA making discoveries. Citizen science is at an all-time high!

Being on Earth in the 21st century is an exciting thing. There is more information available to us than ever before, and more accessible tools than we’ve ever been able to acquire. (It also helps that we are less likely to be burnt at the stake for pursuing a scientific theory. Maybe.)

And in that spirit of advancement, in 2016 in western Canada, citizen scientists made an incredible discovery. We know that discovery today as STEVE, or, Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement.

STEVE was originally named after a reference from the animated film “Over the Hedge”, in which the character’s named a hedge without knowing what it was. Early viewers of STEVE also weren’t sure what it was, so the name stuck. 

STEVE is a pinkish “streak” that can appear in conjunction with auroral activity (often appearing as a spiky picket fence), and though we’ve actually been seeing it for centuries, it was never truly researched until this sighting.

STEVE is created by particle friction, which explains its incandescent color. It occurs closer to the equator than the lights typically do, and because of the collaboration of astronomical photographers and scientists, we were able to learn more a lot more about what actually causes it.

It just goes to show that there is always more to discover, and any one of us can lend a hand.

(Image Credit: NASA/SDO. "On Feb. 24, 2014, the sun emitted a significant solar flare, peaking at 7:49 p.m. EST. NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), which keeps a constant watch on the sun, captured images of the event. These SDO images from 7:25 p.m. EST on Feb. 24 show the first moments of this X-class flare in different wavelengths of light -- seen as the bright spot that appears on the left limb of the sun.")

7. Auroras may not be dangerous, but space weather can be.

Though uncommon, space weather can disrupt us on Earth. The most dramatic record of this is the geomagnetic storm of August-September 1859, otherwise known as a Carrington Event.

Named for the British astronomer Richard Carrington, whose work helped to prove the existence of solar flares and their effect on Earth and the lights. When this geomagnetic storm happened, it damaged telegraph lines and injured the people working with them.

Technicians were shocked, telegraph papers were set ablaze, and lines were electrified. The Northern Lights were visible as far south as far as Hawaii and Cuba. On March 13th, 1989 a similar geomatic storm occurred, affecting the electrical grid again by creating a power blackout in Canada.

This event affected power grids in Canada, all the way down to New Jersey in the United States. Our electrical systems had updated a bit by then, so there were no telegraph papers to set on fire- just transformers to damage.

As you can see, these types of things are few and far between, but there are sources of information about how to prepare for similar events.

(Though, Carrington Events are not a common occurrence, and you are likely better served by preparing for the natural disasters that we see more frequently in our respective corners of the globe.)

(Photo Credit: Scott Kelly from the International Space Station on Oct. 7, 2015. Image Credit: NASA)

8. We’re not the only ones watching.

So we know we’re watching it, photographers are watching it, citizen scientists and space weather enthusiasts are watching it- but who else? It turns out there are a lot of student researchers and working astronomers keeping tabs as well!

Researchers on the THEMIS mission under NASA’s Explorer Program used satellites in 2008 to find out what causes movement in aurorae. In 2016, The ESA’s Sentinel-3A satellite danced right through the aurora after a launch.

There are countless aurora and space weather observatories throughout the world, and even the astronauts in the International Space Station are up there looking down on the dancing lights.

Sometimes, there’s even a chance to watch together in programs like #AuroraHunters, hosted by the ESA and the Norwegian Space Centre.

(Image by: NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and ESA astronaut Tim Peake. Image taken from the International Space Station on Jan. 20, 2016. Image Credit: ESA/NASA.)

9. They’re pretty high up there!

The Northern Lights are a unique combination of space weather, and Earth’s magnetic field- so where exactly do they happen?

An average auroral occurrence can occur as low as 80-100 km. above Earth.

This doesn’t sound like much, but if you think about it, airplanes only fly about 10 km. above us, and Mount Everest only reaches just under 9 km.! Depending on varying factors, the aurora can reach as high as 500-1000 km. above Earth, which means that it has some interesting neighbors in the middle.

One of which is the International Space Station, sitting at an orbital height of 408 km, and height neighbor Tiangong Space Station, who varies between 340 and 450 km.

Because of this, cosmonauts in either station could one day look out the window and see the lights around them, instead of below or above. Keep an eye out on their socials to see the amazing captures that they make!

10 facts about the northern lights
Frederic Edwin Church, Aurora Borealis, 1865, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Eleanor Blodgett, 1911.4.1

10. Before we could photograph the lights, there was art.

Our ability to photograph and film the lights has been such a recent advancement in the long timeline of human creativity. One could say that the accessibility of this art continues to grow even now, as SLR cameras become easier to get, and smartphones get.. Well, smarter.

We have drones, phones, tiny waterproof cameras, and all kinds of things. This method of capture creates amazing work, especially due to the camera’s ability to process low light better than our limited human eyes. But before this technology, there was still art and the drive to capture this beautiful thing.

Thousand upon thousands of works depicting the lights have been made, but one of the earliest comes to us from Cro-Magnon cave paintings around 30,000 B.C.

There are works referenced from early China and the belief that the sighting of Northern Lights may have become entwined with belief in great supernatural dragons.

There were many painters in the more mobile days of the late 1800s like Danish painter Harald Viggo Moltke, and American painter Frederic Edwin Church, two individuals inspired by their experiences on Arctic expeditions.

Today we continue the tradition with thousands of technological installations, museum exhibits, handicrafts, and more. As we learn more about this incredible gift of nature, it seems, so does our curiosity and our devotion to its existence.

Perhaps the one thing over time that has never changed. Fact.


iceland northern lights hotel

Iceland Northern Lights Hotel: 10 cozy hideaways to watch the skies from

Aurora hunting is a popular activity for many visitors to Iceland. But what if you could do from your room?

Stargazing in luxury

Looking for an Iceland Northern Lights hotel on your winter adventure? Choosing your activities while you’re here is one thing, but what about where you’re staying?

From the northernmost reaches of the island to transparent dome accommodations, there’s a whole spectrum of choice for those that have auroras on the brain.

We’ve done some of the legwork for you, and collected 10 of our favorites, in no particular order, other than clockwise around the country. Let us know which ones you’ve tried!

The 5 million star hotel: Bubble Hotel Iceland (South Coast and Golden Circle)

Nothing maximizes your chances of catching a rogue aurora quite like staying in a northern lights igloo.

These “Bubbles” are completely transparent dome structures, outfitted with heating and luxurious downy beds.

Sequestered in two forests, one in the South Coast and one in the Golden Circle– one can be collected in Reykjavik and treated to a private tour before being chauffeured to your private forest grove.

You can’t get much closer to nature, and you certainly won’t be warmer than this on an aurora hunt.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Toby Elliott)

The Northern Light Inn in Reykjanes (South, Capital Region)

Located close to the Blue Lagoon and the airport, this is a great spot for those on a short stopover, or with an early flight the next day.

Tucked away in the lava fields of the Reykjanes peninsula, this cozy getaway has a great restaurant (named after the owner’s golden retriever, Max), and an observation deck for aurora viewing.

And like many of these hotels, there’s a northern lights wake up service!

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Thomas Tucker)

Hotel Rangá in Hella (South Coast)

Heading down the southern coast, is Hotel Rangá. A favorite for skygazers due to its on site observatory and telescope room, you will certainly find yourself thoroughly entertained while staying here.

Whether you’re watching from your themed bedroom, or a geothermal hot pot, the log cabin walls of Rangá are a special treat to experience.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Roan Lavery)

Hótel Búðir in Snæfellsnes (West)

If you’ve made it to the western wilds of Iceland, you’ll appreciate a stay at the boutique Hótel Búðir.

With views of the famous black church (of the same name), this is a gorgeous destination.

You may have a hard time only focusing on the lights here- in between the carefully decorated hotel, the towering glacier, and the vast countryside at your doorstep.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Ian Parker)

Holt Inn Country Hotel in Önundarfjörður (Westfjords)

Many brave the ring road, but few make it to Iceland’s hidden gem, the Westfjords.

The Holt Inn is both family-run and built in an old school house. A visit here is an experience not to be missed.

Nearby to some of Iceland’s only colored beaches, from here you can set out to see white and even red sand.

The light pollution in this area is nearly unmatchable, as the Westfjords are not heavily populated.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Raul Popadine)

Deplar Farm in Ólafsfjörður (North)

Tucked away in the dramatic mountains of north Iceland, Deplar Farm is a destination for those who crave adventure and solitude.

This converted sheep farm is outfitted with helipads, geothermal pools and an outfitted band loft for live music.

If you can pull yourself away from the activities and the spa, you might find that you’re in a great spot to aurora watch.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Anuraag Rajsekhar)

Hótel Kjarnalundur in Akureryi (North)

Just 3.5 km outside of the “capital of the North”, Hótel Kjarnalundur is an oasis in a sea of trees.

For those that seek some proximity to bustling town life while still enjoying the peace of the northern countryside, this is a great spot to watch from.

And it doesn’t hurt that they’re surrounded by lush forest hiking trails! This area promises a myriad of places to set up your camera and wait undisturbed.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Ruedi Haberli)

Hótel Norðurljós in Raufarhöfn (North)

Nearby to the northernmost point in Iceland is the Hótel Norðurljós. This spot is a bit out of the way for the typical traveler, but it is worth the trek.

This hotel is located in the same area as the Arctic Henge, a colossal stone monument reminiscent of Stonehenge.

A trip out this way is worth it just to see the Henge, but this area is also known for Arctic deep-sea fishing, bird watching, and even Arctic Foxes.

A great stop in the summer as well (as the Henge is a giant sundial of sorts), a northern lights photo in front of this landmark is not to be passed up.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Jonatan Pie)

Aurora Cabins in Höfn (East)

With mountain views and a grill for each cabin, you can’t argue with a stop at the Aurora Cabins in Höfn.

One of the largest towns in the southeast, Höfn is well known for its lobster dishes and dramatic mountains.

There are some great photos to be had out this way, and some great restaurants as well. On a ring road trip, it can be a nice change to have a whole cabin to yourself.

(Especially when there’s a BBQ on the front porch!)

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Tanya Grypachevskaya)

Fosshótel Glacier Lagoon (East)

Just down the road from some of Iceland’s most famous glacier lagoons and the Diamond Beach, is this luxe hideaway.

Fosshótel is a known institution throughout the country and has now put up a location along one of the quietest stretches of the route 1.

This is a peaceful area alongside the towering glacier and the black sand deserts. And as you will be out here nearly all alone, you can bet that the skies will be plenty dark when the aurora shows up.


northern lights forecast iceland

Northern Lights forecast Iceland: 10 brilliant tips for deciphering every aurora hunter’s key tool

Every expert has a toolkit. In the aurora hunter’s kit, whether they be photographers, astronomers, or excursion guides- a good forecast is one of the best. (Well, that and a cozy jacket!)

Tip #1: Get Local

These days there are countless apps and websites that promise key insight into the northern lights forecast in Iceland. Many of them work in different ways and are focused on different parts of the globe- or sometimes even the planet as a whole.

(The Northern Lights ARE a planetary occurrence!) This can create some interesting changes in how that data is interpreted, that you may not even be aware of.

For instance, some of these services are factoring in sky clarity, or cloud cover, into their prediction. This can happen often in apps where a percentage of visual probability is given.

If this cloud radar data is not for the area that you’re in, you might be getting someone else’s prediction! It can be challenging to know what data the service is using, sometimes. Especially as these details are not always transparent.

That’s why one of our favorite services is the Icelandic Meteorological Office. Since we’re looking for Northern Lights in Iceland, it helps that the cloud radar that we’re seeing on their webpage is specifically for Iceland, and not say- for Alaska or Svalbard.

(Which, don’t get me wrong- super interesting stuff! But if I’m cruising the coast in Akranes looking for a glow, that’s not going to give me much to go on.) When you’re mapping out a trajectory, make sure you’re checking the sky in the place you’re currently in!

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Jonatan Pie)

Tip #2: Take all forecasts with a grain of salt

Scientific knowledge of the aurora is fairly new, in the grand scheme of things. (Especially when you think about how recent some of the folktales are!) All things considered, people have gotten quite good at figuring out how and when it may happen.

Many questions about the aurora have been answered even over the past few years, and the ability to track and study the phenomenon has flourished. Research stations all over the globe and places like NASA’s Heliophysics laboratory have added many layers to what we initially knew about one of the planet’s most curious light shows. But, we are still learning.

Perhaps we will never stop. It is good to remember this when you are busy interpreting a forecasting tool.

It is possible for the Kp number to be incorrect, or the cloud radar to be slow. Auroras are space weather, and though our predictions are guided by years of data, it is still possible for us to gauge the speed of an incoming solar storm incorrectly.

After years of watching the forecast every day, it has happened that on a Kp 0 night, we got lucky! It has also happened that on a Kp 7 or 8 night, we were not. Always remember that forecasts are a great tool, and a guideline- but they are not 100%.

If you’re visiting Iceland within the auroral season, and the sky is clear- it is always worth having a look.

(Photo Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration - National Weather Service National Centers for Environmental Prediction: Space Weather Prediction Center at https://www.swpc.noaa.gov/products/planetary-k-index)

Tip #3: Get to know the index

So you’ve seen an aurora forecast, but what’s that number, and why is everyone saying it’s a “5 night”? This is the Kp planetary index, K-index, or Kp index. This number belongs to a 0-9 scale that references a metric that people use to gauge the level of geomagnetic activity.

This number is referencing the activity within a 3 hour period, in order to achieve a more realistic picture of the activity at that time. This is why checking the forecast in advance can be tricky.

This number is a great guideline for what’s going on, but it is not definitive, and is only as good as the data being collected to create it. Different factors can affect how this number is achieved, and how it applies to us- and so for this reason it is important to remember that it is one of the many tools in a hunter’s kit, but not the only one.

(Photo credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration - National Weather Service National Centers for Environmental Prediction: Space Weather Prediction Center at https://www.swpc.noaa.gov/

Tip #4: The K-index and Earth

This whole situation is layered! Once you know about the K-index and what it stands for, it’s helpful to know how that applies to where we are.

We know that the aurora is a polar phenomenon most of the time, but then why does it sometimes show up in North America or continental Europe?

It’s possible, and understanding why helps to explain the K-index in a different way. Because of all of this data collected over time, scientists have been able to gauge how high the level of activity needs to be, for an aurora to grow a certain distance away from the pole.

Like everything else related to forecasting, this too is not 100%, but it is a system built over time that is supported by carefully collected data.

(Science and nature do love an exception!) You can see on many charts and graphics just like this one, that the Kp or K-index typically correlates to a specific “ring” or “slice” of the globe.

These numbers from the chart tell us that if the solar activity is at a 5 level of strength, it is possible for it to reach as far as South Dakota on the globe.

Does that mean that on a 5 night, it definitely will? Or that if it does, we are guaranteed to see it? Not necessarily.

It means that should all factors occur as on a typical level 5 night, it is possible for the activity to reach that far south.

However, it does not take into account what the clarity and light pollution factors are in your area, which is why the K-index is only one piece of an aurora forecast.

northern lights folklore and mythology
Photo by Kevin Pages

Tip #5: Live in the moment

When forecasting an aurora, we typically don’t look too far ahead of ourselves. This is a bit out of our hands, as the Kp index functions on such a small time period anyways. Our very own northern lights forecast in Iceland even runs on three days cycles at a time.

So figuring out when we can see the northern lights is on our minds often!

And of course, if you’ve been here before- you’ve probably already heard someone say “If you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes.” Icelandic weather is at times capricious and volatile, so it seems we have something in common with space after all.

If you’re hunting for auroras, it’s important to remember to exist in the NOW. They are elusive, they defy all odds, and no two are ever alike. If you’re planning an excursion, try to book it near the beginning of your trip so that you have time to try again if you need to.

And above all else, keep your eyes peeled! If the sky is clear, there is always a chance. Some of the best auroras have happened to us while taking out the trash, driving home, or while having a tiny impromptu stroll. Like some of the best things, it often happens when you’re paying the least attention.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: NASA)

Tip #6: …But don’t forget to play the long game

Now that we’ve told you to loosen your collar and get spontaneous- here’s some advice from the other end of the spectrum! (..You will find that this is very characteristic of aurora hunting. Do everything, and nothing, all at once!)

The forecast itself is very focused on the current time, but what about the science of it all, and the bigger picture? Well, it’s true. For the next-level hunter, there are some old reliables that you can depend on when making your predictions. We’re talking about solar cycles and the tracking of sunspots.

To simplify it all the way down, we are all spinning, and these orbital patterns create seasons or sections of measurable time. The Sun also experiences this and has cycles that we refer to as solar maximum and solar minimum.

These are believed to be 11 year cycles in which the Sun’s magnetic field flips from north to south, and is characterized by sunspot activity or prevalence.

Therefore, in solar maximum you can expect more sunspots or increased sunspot activity than you would in solar minimum. A prevalence of active sunspots can be good news for aurora watchers, as they are often responsible for more volatile solar activity, like the release of solar flares and prominences.

They are almost like volcanoes in that way, and these bursts of activity that they send off mean better and more powerful displays of auroral light. One can track these sunspots, as they are visible fixtures on the surface of the sun.

You can even try it out yourself at home with activities like this. For people that regularly track auroras, knowing when a sunspot is coming up is a nice way to gauge when activity might be high again in the future.

Like all aspects of auroral activity, this is not guaranteed, but it is one of the more long-term dependable factors that we know of at this time. Not visiting on a sunspot night, or even within solar maximum?

Don’t worry! These factors may result in high activity, but it has been proved time and time again that we do not require them for great northern lights adventures.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Daiwei Lu)

Tip #7: Don’t fight the moonlight

The forecast is looking good, you’ve got an idea where you’re headed, and the plans are in place. You’re even preparing to take a few photos while you’re out. But what are the conditions going to be while you’re out?

It can be helpful to know what the moon phase will be while you’re out so that you have an idea of what kind of visibility conditions you’ll be working in.

Don’t worry if it’s a full moon- though it can create a great deal of light pollution, it does not make visibility impossible. A full moon can create some really helpful foreground light so that you can capture a semi-lit nature shot.

Though a darker sky can be easier on the eyes, there’s certainly something special about a full moon shot. Be ready to adjust your camera settings accordingly!

northern lights forecast iceland
(Photo credit: © Veðurstofa Íslands at https://en.vedur.is/)

Tip #8: Get crystal clear

Since you’re hunting in Iceland, it’s safe to assume you’re using our favorite northern lights forecast. But at a glance, do you know what you’re looking for?

This forecast comes in two halves, the Earth half, and the space half on the right. The “space half” is just the 0-9 Kp number on the side, letting us know what the solar activity is up to. The “Earth half”, is the map.

At first glance it can look like the colored places on the map might indicate auroral activity or visible lights- but that is not the case. This map is only showing us the cloud cover. You can choose to view a layer of the sky or the entire sky altogether.

(Different types of clouds form in different layers of the sky, so sometimes you can find that the cloud cover might not be so serious after all, because of where it is.)

But no matter which layer of the map you’re using, don’t forget that the colored spaces on the map are the thing we’ve trying to avoid. We are looking for white or clear areas on the map because that is where the clouds are not.

Try using the sliding scale at the bottom of the map to see how the clouds plan to move over the course of the 3 day period. You can also view a wind forecast if you want to see a more detailed view over time of how the directionality might change.

If you’re lucky, those clouds will get blown away before you’re even out there! Or maybe, you ended up with some wispy cirrus clouds, high up above us in the topmost layer.

Either way, as long as you’ve got some clarity over top, you’re set. (And don’t forget that earlier tip, to take this with a grain of salt!

We’ve gotten pretty good over time at predicting Earth weather, but even the cloud map can be slow, or too vast to catch tiny windows of clarity in your immediate area.

Sometimes, that imperceptible window through the fog is all you need to catch the show. So look up, no matter what!)

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Evgeni Tcherkasski)

Tip #9: Know what’s behind the number: Mix it up!

You’ve seen our favorite northern lights forecast in Iceland, but where does that data come from? Some of it comes to us from the Leirvogur Magnetic Observatory in Mosfellsbær, Iceland.

At Leirvogur, scientists have been taking measurements of Earth’s magnetic field since 1957. This has given us the ability to note magnetic disturbances in real-time, as their data is updated every 10 minutes. They are another great tool to have in your kit if you want to see how the Kp number is decided.

But all forecasts are different kinds of tools, so why not look further? NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center is another great source for space weather updates. On this page dedicated to fellow sky enthusiasts, you can view a myriad of different forecasting tools.

From the conditions on the sun to the solar wind update, all the way down to a visual rendering of the auroral oval. This is a great example of how many pieces must fit together in order for auroras to be known about, and then found. Check them out, and tell us about your favorite!

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Chelaxy Designs)

Tip #10: Take it with you

Preparing for a night out hunting is a key step. This means charging up your camera batteries and headlamps, collecting all your gear, packing away your snacks, and making sure you’ve got all the layers and mittens and hand warmers you can carry.

But what about the forecast? Many of these services have mobile apps or can just load up in your phone or tablet browsers. On average, many of these forecasts will update between 3 and 10 minutes, so you never know what magnetic spikes or cloud movements may be on the way.

If possible, bring them with you! Being able to follow the cloud map live (while someone else drives, of course!) can sometimes make all the difference on a chase.


reykjavik iceland northern lights

10 brilliant aurora spots in Reykjavik, Iceland: City of Northern Lights

Heading out into the country is the go-to for most aurora hunters, but how lucky can you get in the city?

Reykjavik, Iceland Northern Lights: Can it be done?

Destination Reykjavik, Iceland, Northern Lights: The world’s northernmost capital, is the first stop for most of the country’s aurora hunters. But is it possible to see the lights there, or does one truly have to head out into the wild?

The capital region around Reykjavik, Iceland houses nearly two thirds of the Icelandic population. This makes for a busy little city in the southern climes of Iceland, and also makes for some of the greatest light pollution in the North Atlantic, until continental Europe.

For many intrepid skywatchers, the first advice is to get out of town and into the country, if only ten minutes away, to access better darkness and get away from the buzz of electric light. 

For our eyes to have a starting chance of processing auroral light, it does make a big difference to increase the darkness of your surroundings. This is a thing that happens in stages, depending on what you have the power to control.

For some, it means heading out into the night down a long, quiet country road. But for others it just means shutting off the porch lights, dimming the vehicle console, letting cell phones rest- or just turning away from the streetlights and hoping for the best. You can’t always change the light pollution in your location, and sometimes you don’t need to.

Nature has a way of surprising us sometimes. If given the chance, it is certainly easier to see Northern Lights in darker and less populated spots. The low-light photographs become easier to create without overexposure, and your eyes adjust better into this context that they were not entirely meant for.

It’s true, the city is not every aurora hunter’s first choice of location. But, as a denizen of downtown Reykjavik, I have found that while it’s not the easiest spot to watch from- it certainly can surprise you.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Mike Swigunski)

Nature’s light show 

The aurora is an elusive character. Despite all of the careful planning and season mapping, the truth of it all is that this is an occurrence that happens above our weather system in space, and so it can start up at any moment.

This means that auroras can occur anywhere that they’re strong enough to reach, at any time of day or night, and in any season of the year. This is perhaps not the answer that they are most often associated with, but the reality is that the sun isn’t thinking too hard about what time it is at our place when it sends the activity.

In some ways, this natural defiance is good news for us, because it means that despite a common norm, there are always exceptions. One of these exceptions is aurora watching from the city. Though it would not be the recommended area to watch from, sometimes you just can’t get out.

Whether it be a short layover or a night without a vehicle, it isn’t always feasible to trek out into the wilds. Some think that this means their shot at catching the lights is over, but it just isn’t so.

Despite the light pollution of greater Reykjavik, sometimes we just can’t outshine nature. On a good night with low cloud cover, you most certainly can watch Iceland’s dancing lights, in front of some of her most notable landmarks! 

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: James Genchi)

How to set yourself up for success on a downtown aurora hunt 

In the best conditions, a low-level aurora can be hard to see. It is common that people watching from slightly different areas have extremely different experiences, and report different intensities, different colors, and sometimes even failures vs successes.

This can be frustrating when you find out that they were only a few kilometers away from you, and you missed the show! It’s important to remember that the northern lights are a planetary occurrence that happen to our entire globe, and they are constantly moving. Despite how huge the sky feels while you’re under it, you are only really seeing one section.

This is why consistent movement on aurora excursions can be a small help on difficult nights. Keeping your eye on the sky for an extended period of time while you constantly change it up can be a more forgiving strategy than only having a few quick looks or staying put.

Especially when you keep in mind that the aurora isn’t the only thing that’s moving, the cloud cover may be as well!

However, you can still get lucky in the city. And there are a lot of perks to staying local if you’ve got to. The obvious benefit is proximity to your lodging.

Reykjavik is a walkable city, and if you’re staying in the area, you’ll always be close to your home- should you run out of camera batteries, forget your mitts, or just flat out get tired. Need a snack? There are countless places to get one!

Looking for a place to sit that isn’t a frozen rock? Not to worry, public benches line the roads and walkways. But, it’s good to keep a strategy in mind. If you’ve seen luck in the forecast and have decided to set out into town, try to keep your back to the city lights, and your eyes fixed on a dark area.

Night vision takes some time to adjust, and if you can set yourself up in a spot that isn’t directly casting a streetlight blaze into your eyes, you’ll do yourself a big favor. And to help you out, here are a few of our favorite spots:

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Nicolas J. Leclercq)

Best city hideaways for Reykjavik, Iceland Northern Lights watching

Grótta: The most popular spot for a good aurora hunt, Grótta is a hidden gem on the Seltjarnarnes Peninsula in Reykjavik. It takes about an hour to walk there from the city center, but there are pedestrian pathways, a lighthouse, and a small geothermal pool to dip your feet into once you get there.

Acting as a nature reserve for the area’s abundant bird and sea life, parts of Grótta are closed to us in the summer to serve as nesting grounds. In the winter, however, it becomes the city’s own aurora spot.

Already a bit out of the way as far as city locations go, Grótta suffers from far less light pollution and enjoys a dark view over the water. If you choose to head to this spot, make sure to check the tide tables.

The very end of Grótta is attached to us by a very thin strip of land, which can become submerged during high tide. If you’re looking for a little slice of quiet in Iceland’s bustling capital, this is one of the best. 

The Sæbraut walking path: If you check out a map, you can see that there are copious walking paths in the capital area. You can walk all the way to Hafnarfjörður if you’re feeling adventurous!

The most popular of these paths, however, is along Sæbraut, or the Sea Road, at the northern coast of the city. Running along Faxaflói Bay, this wide path takes you past many notable landmarks like the Harpa Music Hall, the Sólfar or Sun Voyager dream ship, and many local works of art and sculpture.

It stretches from harbor to harbor and takes local wanderers on a flat, accessible trek with a full view of Esja, Reykjavik’s favorite mountain. Though a seemingly obvious spot, it truly is one of the best. Easy to get to, central to downtown, and sporting one of the best dark views over the water in a northerly direction that there is!

Not having to look at any lights over that expanse of water is easy on the eyes, and on a good aurora night, one can find many hopefuls lining the path and balancing their tripods on the barrier rocks.

Having this unobstructed view towards Esja is as good as a compass for finding north, and being able to keep the streetlights mostly behind you is a lucky mercy.

If you plan to try your luck on the Sea Road, it’s often best to set yourself up a bit of a way away from Harpa, and she is often busy conducting a light show in the evening. (Though, while you wait, it is spectacular to watch!) 

Sky Bar: Looking for a slightly more luxe place to watch from? We’ve got you covered. For those who’d prefer to have a cocktail while they wait, we recommend the Sky Bar, resting on the 8th floor of Center Hotels Arnarhvoll.

Open until 23:00 (at the time of this writing), Sky Bar boasts some of the best views of Faxaflói Bay that you can get, without scoring a meeting in a waterfront board room or making a friend in one of those high rise apartments. 

Öskjuhlíð: Resting pretty on a 61 m. high hill is the home of Perlan, and one of Reyjavik’s lushest forests. A veritable tangle of woodland hiking trails, Öskjuhlíð is a curious oasis with a great view.

It’s a bit of a hike to get to the top, but one can enjoy the glistening dome of Perlan, the memory of military bunkers from a century gone by, and even the new site of the Ásatrúarfélagið temple.

Depending on the side you watch from you may have to look over some city lights to view the sky, but on a good night, this can be a phenomenal spot to take a photo from.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Jeremy Bezanger)

Get the shot: Local landmarks to capture on film 

If you’re in Reykjavik, Iceland northern lights hunting, you’ve got an excellent opportunity to grab a showstopping photo while you’re there. Many people leave Iceland with gorgeous sky shots of open country- but a Viking longship, or a cathedral built to look like basalt columns? These local treasures make for some dramatic foregrounds. Here are a few of our favorites:

Lighthouses: It’s hard to pick just one! There are over five active lighthouses in the greater Reykjavik area, and even more outside of town!

Icelanders are a coastal people, so you’ll find no shortage of these beacon towers on your journey. When in town, key an eye out for these bright yellow structures. 

Esja: Reykjavik’s very own distinctive mountain and favorite hiking destination of locals and visitors alike, Esja lies in a northerly direction from the city center.

Looking across the dark bay to capture a stunning photo with Esja in focus is a great souvenir of your time in this seaside city.

(And for those with transportation, the parking lot at the base of Esja can be a great close by dark area for last minute viewing!)

Hallgrímskirkja: The tallest church in the country, Hallgrímskirkja is usually the star of most photos that it appears in- so it’s hard to imagine it taking a back seat to northern lights.

But, with its basalt column structure, and its prominent memorial to Leif Erikson out front, this hilltop spot has lots of seating and lots of space.

(Come back during the day to try out the observation tower for a great panoramic view!)

Sólfar/The Sun Voyager: Created to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the city of Reykjavik, The Sun Voyager is a sculpture crafted by Jón Gunnar Árnason.

A popular photo spot during the day, local photographers make a point to capture this stainless steel dreamboat in all seasons.

Resting right on the Sea Road path in front of Esja, you can hit three locations at once at this stop!

Harpa Music Hall: At the head of the Sea Road pedestrian path lies the Harpa Music Hall, a notable structure on the Reykjavik skyline. With its massive fish scale windows, Harpa lights up at night and creates animated patterns and shapes in an impromptu electric light show.

This feature is free to watch and is a great photo in and of itself. 

Thufa and the Old Harbour: Thufa, also written as Þúfa, is an art installation in the Old Harbour/Grandi area. Created by Ólöf Nordal, Thufa is a reminder of Reykjavik’s maritime past.

Though it takes a bit of a walk to access, one can guarantee a modicum of serenity here at the near end of Reykjavik’s Old Harbour, jutting out into the bay.

If you head out early, check out some of the boutiques and cafes in the area. 

Perlan: Perched on the top of Öskjuhlíð hill, Perlan, or, the Pearl- is a famous Reykjavik landmark that has lived many lives.

First built to house hot water, then becoming a revolving restaurant, and now hosting a vibrant museum, planetarium, and even a refrigerated ice cave- Perlan has seen it all.

This is a landmark that is popular to capture both up close and from a distance, but be sure to check their website for opening hours if you choose to visit.

Perlan is a vibrant space with many attractions, and some of these do require a ticket to enter. 

Tjörnin: Tjörnin is technically a lagoon, but as you can see it has lovingly been named “The Pond”. Lying next to the city hall and many of Reykjavik’s oldest structures, a stroll around the pond is a historic pastime.

If you’re lucky and the wind is low, you can try for a great reflective photo in the shallow waters of this city treasure. Watch out for the residents though- Tjörnin’s birdlife are expert connoisseurs of bread!

northern lights folklore and mythology
Photo by Kevin Pages

A few parting tips:

Tours: Tried your luck strolling and still didn’t see any lights? Not to worry. Reykjavik is the bustling epicenter of a myriad of tour departures.

One can book all sorts of experiences that pick up in the city, from a northern lights boat ride, all the way to a chauffeured stay in a northern lights igloo. Don’t worry about the transport, you can be picked up and dropped off at your hotel, and the rest is up to the experts. 

Snacks: Up late and hungry? So is half of Reykjavik! Lucky for us there are some tasty late-night options scattered through the heart of downtown. Try a stroll along Laugavegur, or stop in Ingólfstorg for some late-night eats.

If it’s close to the weekend, there may be food trucks about! The majority of them gather at Lækjartorg, but you’ll smell them before you see them. (And trust us, there is nothing like a hot cup of humarsúpa or a toasty homemade waffle in the middle of a hunt. Try finding that in the country!)

Special Surprises: Reykjavik is a bright spot on the map, but every now and then its residents want to see the lights too! In the past on high activity nights, the city has been known to dim the glow just a bit, to help out.

Don’t bet on this happening often, as it is a very special occurrence that takes quite a bit of permission to achieve- but know that you’re in good company when looking up!

(And cross your fingers that you get to experience one of these events! The excitement in town is palpable on a night when Reykjavik goes dark.)

Got wheels?: So you’ve found yourself a ride and you’re looking for a spot. Don’t forget to check the northern lights forecast for clear spots in the sky before you do it!

Once you’ve had a look, you’ve got a huge spectrum of choices in front of you. Just within an hour’s radius from town, you’ve got the entire Reykjanes peninsula, all the way out going south to just a bit past Selfoss, the national park Thingvellir, and even the route 1 going north all the way up to Borgarnes.

All of these spots are reasonably accessible and within an hour. Good luck, and happy hunting!


what are the northern lights

When can you see the Northern Lights in Iceland?: 5 useful tips for planning your adventure

"When can you see the Northern Lights in Iceland?" is the question on the tip of everyone's tongue. The minute you step off the plane in the land of fire and ice, it's time to start looking up. Or is it?

What are the Northern Lights?

Before we get to the “When can you see the Northern Lights in Iceland?” half of the show, let’s talk about what we’re actually looking for. In a country of natural wonders, the Northern Lights are one of Iceland’s greatest treasures. A phenomenon based on volatile space weather, the Aurora Borealis happens when solar activity from the sun travels over our planet and collides with our magnetosphere. This meeting of forces gives some of the super-charged gas in the solar storm an opportunity to travel down the magnetic field towards the poles, creating another collision with oxygen and nitrogen pockets in our atmosphere.

This clash creates the colorful visual byproduct of the aurora- an accidental gift of the cosmos. Because this is a polar occurrence, it takes incredible strength for the storm to grow large enough to travel closer to the equator from the pole, which is why we primarily see the aurora in very northern or southern lands.

Every so often we get lucky, and the sun sends a sizeable storm, giving us the rare chance to view the Northern Lights from places like North America and continental Europe.

when can you see the northern lights in iceland
(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Joshua Earle)

Life under the polar light cycle: Choosing the right half of the year

Planning a northern lights vacation can be challenging, as nature tends to run on its own schedule. A good place to start, is to know which half of the year is aurora season in Iceland.

Because polar lights happen far above us in space, it is possible for them to occur at any time of year. Many people mistakenly think that they are related to cold weather, but, luckily this is not the case. Because of how the Earth tilts in its orbital path, the winter season in countries around the northern pole coincides with shorter days. You may have a similar light cycle situation during winter in your home country.

In a country closer to the pole, this light cycle is a bit more exaggerated and can result in days where the sun does not rise for a period of time. Iceland’s winter light cycle is not quite as extreme, but due to this trade-off, we experience a surplus of daylight hours in the summer and a surplus of dark hours in the winter.

This means that in the summer, it is much too bright for us to pick out auroral activity in the skies. There may be solar activity and auroras happening, but we would be unable to see them. Despite their appearance, we require solid darkness to view an aurora from Earth. (If you’re riding along on the International Space Station, however, you might be one of the few people that could view a July aurora!)

But for those of us down here planetside, we must wait for optimal darkness to be able to pick out auroral activity with the naked human eye.

The Northern Lights occur at a low lumen, so sometimes even a weak occurrence can be hard to pick out in perfect conditions. (A good camera can help you out with this, as the camera’s vision capabilities are not quite so limited in darkness.)

Fortunately, this extreme light cycle buys you an entire half of the year to plan a Northern Lights holiday in Iceland- which gives you more time than you might think.

northern lights iceland igloo

August to April: The Auroral Season

Because of this light cycle, the Northern Lights season in Iceland runs from August to April. August is very early in the season, and typically we access amenable darkness by the end of the first week. However, if you are planning a vacation, it is recommended to wait until the end of August for optimal conditions.

The end of the first week of August is the earliest we have seen an aurora, but it is not generally expected and would be a risky time to plan a trip. In recent years, tours have started mobilizing for their aurora seasons at the middle to end of August, with some starting as late as September.

This August to November time frame puts you in our autumn season. Not a time typically associated with auroral viewing, the transitional seasons like fall and spring are phenomenal times to hunt for Northern Lights. These are moments in the year where colorful changes are occurring in the countryside, and often, low traffic among visitors.

These are some of our favorite times to look for aurorae, particularly because there is milder weather, manageable light for other outdoor activities, and gorgeous scenery. As you can see, the auroral season runs all the way to April. In Iceland, April is traditionally considered the beginning of the summer season (if you can believe it), so the same rules that apply to August apply here.

If you are interested in a spring aurora hunt, you will want to be careful of booking too close to April, as mid-April is too bright for aurora viewing typically. In a lucky year, professional photographers have managed to grab some surprising shots throughout April, but this would not be advisable for someone that is planning an aurora trip.

The month of March is often quite good throughout, weather permitting, and people have been known to get lucky in the very beginning of April. Once we near the middle of April, the island moves over to summertime in earnest, and the midnight sun begins to return.

This gives you quite a spectrum of time to hunt for auroras, and this season spans autumn, winter, and even spring. This means that you can tie your aurora aspirations together with additional activities, like horseback riding, hiking, ice caving, or even skiing.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Matt Palmer)

"Hello darkness my old friend": Aurora watching under the cover of night

You’ve got an entire half of the year to plan your trip in, but what time does the aurora show up? This is another popular question, and the answer does change a bit depending on the time of year that you visit. For folks visiting earlier or later in the season closer to autumn and spring, you’ll find that there are fewer dark hours available for hunting.

In Iceland, you are losing or gaining minutes of light every day, depending on if you are moving away or towards midsummer or midwinter. If you’re visiting us before December, you will be losing 3-4 minutes of daylight on average every day.

After midwinter, you start to gain those minutes of daylight back. If you stay with us for a week, you might even notice a difference by the end of it! Because of this, you will find that guided experiences start a bit earlier (closer to 8:00 PM) in the autumn and spring, and a bit later 9:00-10:00 PM) in the winter months.

Like all aurora figuring, this can vary on the occurrence itself. A powerful solar storm may cause a brighter visual manifestation, thus making it possible to view earlier in the evening. However, despite the fact that you’re watching in the correct half of the year, we still require this high-quality nighttime darkness for visibility.

This can be a confusing detail, especially if you’re visiting us in December when the sunrise is closer to 11:00 AM and the sunset is nearly 3:00 PM! One might think, “If the sun has set by 4:00 PM, why can’t I see the aurora already? Isn’t it night?” Despite the early setting of the sun, we do still cycle through steps of “twilight”, or “dusk”.

You may be familiar with this if you enjoy maritime sports or navigational pursuits like flying or sailing. So despite all this extra darkness in the high point of winter, we still wait for proper nighttime in the later evening. Averages for optimal visibility may vary per person, but typically we can expect that on a good night our window will be around 10:00 PM to 1:00 AM.

Can an aurora happen outside of this time frame? Absolutely! On a phenomenal night, you might catch one at 8:00 PM! And likewise at 3:00 AM! The excitement of this phenomenon is that no two aurorae are ever the same- and neither are the experiences that lead you to them.

Like many sciences, very few things are permanently definite- so if you feel that you have exceptional darkness, clear skies, and a forecast indicating solar activity, have a look! These things do tend to sneak up on you when you least expect them.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Jonatan Pie)

The right place at the right time

So you’ve got an idea of when the Northern Lights can be seen in Iceland, but where should you go? Where can you see Northern Lights in Iceland? The truth is, there is no singular good spot.

This is lucky for us in a way because it means we’ve all got a fair shot, no matter where in Iceland we’re watching from. As far as darkness goes, it is advisable to move away from light pollution if you can. The greatest centers of light pollution in Iceland are still manageable enough for auroral viewing, and won’t impede you to the level of a massive metropolis- but if you can find yourself a patch of true dark your vision will adjust better and your viewing experience will be improved.

Watching near a streetlight or a house can make low light photography a bit harder to balance, and it can also cause your eyes to struggle with adjusting to their own night vision. When viewing a similar auroral occurrence, people in a brighter area may report seeing less of the aurora, or a dimmer or less vibrant color.

In a truly dark place, your eyes will be able to pick up some of the finer pieces and “shards” of the occurrence, and typically be more successful at discerning the color.

If you’ve got a camera, don’t forget to snap a few low light shots- you’d be surprised how much better the camera’s “eye” sees compared to our own! When looking for a good spot to wait for the Northern Lights, you’ll want to consider cloud cover. On an auroral forecast, you can see that the cloud map is an integral part of finding out if you’ll be able to view activity or not.

Because the Northern Lights happen above our weather system, we miss out on any light shows that happen on cloudy evenings. The good news about this is that cloud systems can move quickly over us on a windy night, not all areas will have the same weather, and even forecasts miss tiny windows of clarity in the sky.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Toby Elliott)

Sometimes these holes in the cloud layer are all we need to glimpse the glow- but many great activity nights have been canceled over a thick layer of cloud cover. If you’re in a vehicle and you’re able, it can be helpful to watch the forecast to see where areas of clarity may be located.

If there are clear skies around your location, you can head in the general direction of that clarity. In fact, many guided experiences will do a similar thing and will plot their course that night based on where the clarity is expected to be.

This is the best way to choose a spot, and the travel time that you spend on the way to the clear skies may also prove lucky. Covering ground and exposing yourself to different areas of the sky can be helpful since a large portion of aurora hunting is the waiting.

The longer you’re out in the dark under clear skies, the better your chances are. Because of the importance of clouds in this equation, it can sometimes mean just heading out on the road that leads in that direction. If you’re interested in finding a spot to wait in, we recommend looking for landmarks of natural importance along the way, or national parks.

Parks can be a great spot to watch from because they are designed for spectating and parking your car safely (unlike the side of the road), but be warned that many others may have the same idea. Be careful not to pull over to stop your vehicle in an unsafe location to watch! Country roads can be dark and narrow, and they do not always have a shoulder for pulling over.

It’s exciting when an aurora happens upon you in the car, but being safe and waiting for an approved pull-over location is the safest way to enjoy this gift of nature.

However, you don’t always have to be on the road to catch the Northern Lights! There are a few spectacular hideaways in Iceland just for this very purpose, where you can be cozy, alone in nature, and waiting in a perfect dark location.

For those that want to try the most comfortable hunt around, we recommend the Northern Lights igloo. Lay back on a down comforter in a heated bubble and have a drink? We can hardly think of a better way to spend the night. (Or a better photo op!)


iceland northern lights season

Iceland northern lights season: the most wonderful time of the year

In Iceland northern lights season is a magical time. But when do they actually happen- and when’s the best time to come see them?

Iceland's northern lights season
(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Ruedi Häberli)

The two halves of the year

Most of us know about the four seasons and the special relationships that different places can have with them. There are dry seasons, seasons that bring great storms, and times when amazing blooms and colors transform the land. You’ve seen it in autumnal leaves, avenues of cherry blossoms, fields of fruit, and grasses that grow ten feet fall! Seasons were our clock before we had a better way to count the time- and here in Iceland that is truer than most. 

If you’ve had the chance to visit Iceland, or any country in proximity to the poles, you may have already experienced the extreme patterns of light that I’m referencing. Tales of the ethereal “Midnight Sun”, or endless days of darkness that see no light. The closer to either pole you get, the more severe this pattern becomes. 

Because of the tilt in the Earth’s axis, the polar regions of the Earth find themselves much closer to the sun in summer, and much further away during winter. As you move closer to the equator, many countries further down feel the echoes of these shifts in light as well. Some, even further north than Iceland, feel it even more. 

You can see what the annual sun graph of Reykjavik looks like here. It’s a great way to get an idea of what the light will be like when you visit. Try it for your home, or a city far away from you. It’s amazing to see how differently we experience the world- even at the same time. 

The Icelandic settlers of old had to balance their survival with this harsh cycle- and created a calendar to help them manage their livestock, their crops, and their morale. This old calendar still has bearing on society today, and its holidays are still beloved as reminders of the natural progression of this place, in a way that the modern global calendar sometimes is not. 

This calendar was based heavily around solstices and equinoxes of the year, and with its 12 months it splits the year into two halves. These halves were the summer/nattleysi, or lack of night, and the winter/skammdegi days, or short days. All of these were checkpoints in the arc of time, and were visible and even ways to mark its passage in a place where it often felt as if there were only two seasons to measure. 

It was a difficult life for the settlers, and surviving the winter was a cause for great celebration. You can tell when the local populace felt the breaking of winter at the end of April- because that is traditionally when Iceland marks the first day of summer, or sumardagurinn fyrsti. This is a national holiday, and it is celebrated on the first Thursday after April 18th. This is a day of festivals and merriment, even though it may not seem very summer-like in temperature or appearance. But for Icelanders, this day marks the end of the long dark, and the beginning of the lengthening of days.

At one time, it meant the increased likelihood of survival, and days where one could work, craft or read without the obstacle of losing the light.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Joshua Earle)

So where do the northern lights come in?

We know a little bit now about Iceland’s age-old relationship with seasonal time, light cycles, and surviving the harsh winters. But where do the northern lights come into all of that? 

To give you the short version- the northern lights themselves can happen at any time. 

They happen so far above our planet in space, that temperature, season, and time don’t mean too much when it comes to their arrival and creation. The first thing to realize about the aurora, is that it is a function of space weather before all else- but seeing it does require a little bit of cooperation from our own Earth weather, as well. 

When an aurora is born, it is due to the sun releasing a solar storm into outer space. You can read more about that process here. We can track these storms to an extent because of the orbital patterns of the sun and the reappearance of sunspots, which more regularly release these strong systems. However, our ability to measure and predict space weather is still very much a developing science, and can be imperfect at times. 

Despite all of that, the sun is releasing this energy all the time. Depending on the solar cycle and factors facing the travel of solar storms, this activity can find its way to us at any time of year, in any season. This means that it’s entirely possible for solar activity to arrive in our atmosphere in the middle of summer, or during the brightest point of day. 

The difficulty here is actually with us. Auroral light is a visually delicate natural phenomenon, despite its volatile origins. To see it with the naked eye, we require darkness in order to pick up the low lumen light that it creates. 

(An additional difficulty here lies with us as a species, because of how we perceive color visually in dark places. Because we are not nocturnal, our eyes are not designed to process color as well at nighttime, and so it’s already challenging for us as creatures to look at this type of light.)

Which is where we circle all the way back around to our first point- and Iceland’s dramatic dark and light seasons. 

If the aurora arrives in the high point of summer when we experience only civil twilight, we wouldn’t be able to see it. It would technically be there, dancing and possibly displaying incredible colors- but we would only be able to see that from space at best. (And sometimes, NASA sends us a video of it!) 

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Jonatan Pie)

The same situation happens for us during the daytime, even in the winter months. Even though we only have a few actual hours of daylight, we still require the solid darkness of night to bring forth the best canvas for auroral glow.

Can we start our hunt earlier in the midwinter? Definitely! We can start heading out as early as 7 or 8pm on some nights, a thing that would be rather difficult to do in the earlier days of the auroral season. But we do still require that deep darkness of nighttime. 

In Midsummer and Midwinter, we start to lose or gain minutes of sunlight. This means that once we hit Midsummer, we begin the ever-increasing trek to winter darkness. We don’t always notice this right away, but typically once we reach August, it becomes dark enough to witness the spectacle of northern lights.

For me, the earliest I have seen them was at the end of the first week of August. This is only the beginning though, and so I would likely wait until a bit later in the season (late September at the earliest), to plan a trip.

This darkness builds every day until mid-winter when we start to gain the sunlight back. This typically means that we can witness auroral light until the very beginning of April, though March is the popular cut-off. (Similar to August, April would be the very tail end of the possible season- and would be a risky time to book an aurora hunt.

Though, there are quite a few intrepid photographers that catch them that late in the year, with lots of practice, lots of experience, and a tiny bit of luck. It is, of course, Lady Aurora herself waving goodbye for the year- she loves a dramatic exit.)

northern lights iceland
(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Jonatan Pie)

Some materials do talk about the ‘daytime aurora’, and this is not an incorrect statement. There are many places further north than Iceland (like Svalbard for example), that have an even more extreme sun graph than we do. (Though you can visit Siglufjörður, where they celebrate the first day that they see direct sunlight again.)

Places like this may not actually see the sun at all for quite some time- and maintain the ability to see northern lights for a longer period of time because of that. In addition to the extended dark hours during the day- they are also closer to the pole. Proximity to the pole can mean that they catch more of those low-level auroras that don’t travel very far out.

So don’t fret! The truth of the matter is that you have a whole half of the year to hunt for auroras in Iceland, as our forebears might say. (And for the other half of the year, you have puffins, endless lupine fields, and all the sun you can handle!)

But what about the weather?

You know about the Midnight Sun, the space weather that makes auroras, and the half of the year when we finally get enough darkness to see them. But what about Earth weather?

Earth weather does not interact with the northern lights, because it exists in the troposphere layer of our lower atmosphere. This is where most of the clouds in our atmosphere are located. It is sometimes said that extreme weather (things like polar vortexes and massive storms) can occur as far up as the stratosphere, but this is not entirely accurate. The stratosphere is particularly dry, and lacks the moisture to regularly create clouds, like the more humid troposphere.

To give you an idea of scale, these layers of the atmosphere combined are nearly 50 kilometres above the Earth. And still, it’s not high enough for auroras. 

Auroral activity occurs in the ionosphere, a section of the atmosphere that overlaps the mesosphere and the thermosphere. This is an area of the atmosphere where a great deal of electrons and ionized atoms and molecules occur, thus housing a key part of the collision recipe that makes the visible aurora. 

This means that myths about temperature and storms don’t necessarily hold true, and they don’t inhibit aurora activity. They do however get in the way of our viewing path. 

northern lights iceland
(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Jonatan Pie)

The view from Earth

Since we are watching from the Earth’s surface, anything that does happen in our weather system can get right in between us and the aurora. This means that sometimes the aurora forecast is great, and shows high solar activity and an incoming show- but if it’s cloudy, it’s as if someone pulled the curtains. The show goes on of course, but anyone under the cloud cover is missing it. 

This is why the aurora forecast usually comes in two halves. The space weather or solar activity half (where we use the 0-8 Kp scale), and the Earth weather, or cloud map. 

Much of what we are discerning before a night out hunting, is can we see the sky, where is it the clearest, is that clarity window moving due to wind- and if we can find a good spot to watch from, is there any solar activity? 

Iceland is known for its rowdy winter weather, and depending on where you are in the country, you may find yourself exposed to some interesting micro climates and storms. The good news is, is that if you have the ability to travel and move around, sometimes it’s just as simple as driving over to the next cloudless spot. (And not forgetting the snacks, of course. It’s definitely a process some nights.)

Ready for the hunt: A Recap

You know it all, now! (Who am I kidding, nailing down space weather is a learning journey that never ends. At least not in our lifetime!) 

Let’s do a onceover to make sure we’ve got our northern lights trip toolkit together.

First, we have to book a trip in the right half of the year. This means we’re headed to Iceland some time between September and March at best. (If you want to catch the tail end of August or the early start of April, you can try it, but it would not be a recommended time frame for northern lights.)

However, it is always good to remember that the northern lights are a natural phenomenon, so it is best to plan a trip first for the experience of visiting the place. Iceland is a wonder all on its own, and the northern lights are just one of its many gifts. 

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Luke Stackpoole)

Assembling your Aurora Toolkit

Once you’ve booked your trip for the ‘aurora half’ of the year, you’ve got to remember all of the pieces that have to line up in order for a successful hunt. 

These are things like making sure you’re out at night (not at 3:00 pm, even if you could swear it feels like midnight- which it kind of does in December-), making sure you’re in a clear area or an area that will become cloudless or ‘cloud light’ by nighttime, and of course, having a small check on if there’s any solar activity that evening.

It also helps to make sure you’re not in an area of extreme light pollution. Iceland is not populated by huge cities, so we do fairly well on this front, and it doesn’t typically take long to get out of the city and into some real nighttime. However, if you find yourself city-bound at any point, try looking for a spot that takes you out of the direct light and gives you a bit of a break on the eyes. 

Remembering that the Aurora Forecast is not the last word!

It’s good to remember that many of these things are variable and imperfect, so it is not always necessary to plan by extremes- unless there is very inclement weather or a safety concern. (Those types of alerts always come first. Can’t enjoy the lights if you’re frozen.)

What I mean by this, is that forecasts are infallible. Not because they are in any way bad, but because weather is a volatile force that occasionally evades even the best of us. 

This means that the cloud radar can be off or slow, and the Kp number may not be accurate. It is possible for forecasts to gauge the speed of a solar storm incorrectly, as there are many factors that can add to that figuring. It’ll probably be a few years before we nail down space weather, but I can guarantee that there are a lot of brilliant people working on it.

Northern lights at the bubble hotel in Iceland

When the numbers don't add up, still look up!

This can mean that some nights, an aurora can occur on a Kp 0 evening. It can also mean that an exceptional evening (like a fabled Kp 8!), can disappoint us. This can happen for many reasons- which sometimes remain unknown to us. Sometimes powerful activity reaches so far that we end up in the middle of it instead, similar to being in the eye of a storm.

Sometimes it’s because we didn’t move very much on our hunt, and so we were only viewing one slice of the sky. It can happen that people see an aurora in one place, but a few kilometers over, nothing! Northern lights are like snowflakes in this way, and no two occurrences are alike. Forecasts are a great tool to have in your kit, and it can be good to cross reference a few good ones.

The TL;DR: Every aurora is a gift

Learning to decipher all of the different forecasting tools can be complex, but like many other information sources, being able to read a few different ones can sometimes give you a more comprehensive idea of what may be going on. 

Sometimes, it can be that an aurora did happen, but it was a visually weak occurrence, and you did not realize you were seeing it. If you have only seen photographs of northern lights, it can be hard to recognize a low level manifestation- as they are not quite as neon and extreme as a photograph can be.

Nighttime photography uses processes like slow shutter speeds, aperture, and ISO to perceive light in darkness, in ways that our eyes cannot. This does not mean that auroras cannot be bright, or that all photos are photoshopped- but it does mean that the average occurrence will most likely not match the once-in-a-lifetime shot that you saw on a postcard.

Sometimes all of the factors are completely lined up, but there’s a weather warning, and it just isn’t a great night to chance it. The weather conditions can get very serious here very quickly, and are not worth risking. 

All together, this sounds like a massive feat. The thing to take away is, that if you have a window of clarity in the sky, and you’re here in the magical half of the year that gives us this other kind of light, have a look. Once you know how much work it takes for the universe to produce one of these things, it feels miraculous that they happen at the frequency that they do. 

Know that you may have to keep an eye out for longer than you’d expect sometimes, and you may not always be successful. But as every local knows, it is always worth looking up. They often happen when you least expect them. (..And it can also be nice to have a few drinks and a hot pot to soak in. You know. Or a transparent Bubble to wrap up in. Just saying.)

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Mike Swigunski)