Southern Iceland Winter Guide
Iceland is definitely the land of fire and ice - active volcanoes, hundreds of glaciers...if you don't like extremes, it might not be the place for you. Visiting Iceland in winter brings its own set of challenges (snow flying at your face sideways, strong winds that can blow cars off the road), but it also provides an opportunity to see two unique natural wonders, spectacular blue ice caves and mesmerizing green northern lights (if you're lucky). Even if you don't see either one of them, you still have loads of waterfalls that continue to flow in the winter that you can get out and explore. I've provided a list of natural sites/attractions by region that are worth your time in this guide, but first, there are a few tips you should be aware of when planning your trip to Iceland in Winter:
Rent a 4x4 SUV. Winds can reach 100mph and the weather can be unpredictable. Heavier vehicles will be less likely to be blown off the road and 4x4's will provide better stability in bad weather. Check the road conditions by clicking HERE. When reading the website, the first number after the temperature is the wind speed and if there's a second number, that's the potential speed for wind gusts. Anything over 25 is considered to be strong and if it's over that, you should definitely drive slower or travel another day. Make sure you know how to turn on the 4x4 mode on your rental before leaving the rental company and see if there are any speed restrictions in that mode. As a general rule, don't exceed 60kph in bad weather.
Gas is very expensive in Iceland - as much as $100 to fill a tank, depending on your vehicle. Also, many gas stations in the southeastern coast of Iceland are self service and only accept credit cards that have a pin number. American credit cards do not yet use the same system, so the self service gas stations won't work for you. After leaving Reykjavik, when you come across a regular gas station w/a person inside, you should fill up to avoid being stranded. The further east you go, the less gas stations there are.
Food is also very expensive. If you want to save some cash, pick up some sandwiches and snacks from the grocery stores around the country called Bonus.
If you're looking to see the Northern Lights, click HERE for a rough estimate of when they might appear. Know that even a level 2 prediction can mean amazing northern lights. They may seem very faint at first, something like a visible cloud in the sky at night. If you have a full frame camera, you'll still be able to see northern lights that are faint if you use a high ISO and a 15-20 second exposure. They can brighten up and then become faint again within a few minutes, so be patient. No need to take a northern lights tour unless you enjoy being with a bunch of folks or if you don't want to drive at night. Head out of the city to get away from the light pollution (street lights, building lights, etc) for a better view of the northern lights.
If you have T-Mobile, you will most likely get free data (it'll be slow) and texting while in Iceland. This is especially useful because you can use your phone's gps apps to get to each location listed on this page.
Plan on using your credit card in Iceland. Capital One credit cards do not charge an international transaction fee when using them abroad. Additionally, using your card while travelling out of country will generally give you the best exchange rate you can get (better than the currency exchange companies or banks).
Skip the blue lagoon and the Navy Plan on the beach. The blue lagoon is an overpriced tourist trap and the long walk to Navy plane is surprisingly disappointing, especially when everyone and their mother are climbing all over it. There are other natural hot springs you can visit, one of which is mentioned below.
Natural sites/attractions by region:
Fjaðrárgljúfur: Awesome canyon with a river running through it. Short trail, but make sure you go all the way to the end.
Svartifoss & Skaftafellsjokull: Svartifoss is a unique waterfall that flows over a cathedral of basalt columns. The trailhead starts from the left side of the Skaftafellsstofa Visitor Center. Be sure to pay the parking fee inside. The trail for Skaftafellsjokull starts to the right of the visitor center and will bring you up close and personal with a glacier.
Jökulsárlón (Diamond Beach): Chunks of glaciers shining like diamonds on a black sand beach. Also, check out the floating iceburgs located directly across the street from Diamond Beach.
Ice Cave Tour by Local Guide (winter only): This is a family owned tour company that specializes in ice caves. It's not safe to explore glaciers or try to find ice caves on your own and people die every so often from trying. With this company you'll be safe, and I can personally attest to how awesome the caves are. Click HERE for more info. Be sure to sign up for these tours far in advance as they do sell out. Also, keep in mind if you sign up for an ice cave tour later in the winter season, there's more of a risk that the caves will become unstable due to warmer weather and your tour may be cancelled. I'd recommend going no later than the first week of March.
Tips for the Southeast:
Glacier views: This entire region has many views of glaciers. Take your time to head down the various roads that lead to a closer view, it's well worth your time.
Stop at Veitingasala Restaurant for some good fish and chips, Viking beer, and other local snacks. It's also one of the few places in the area you can stop and fill up your gas tank without needing a pin number.
If you stay at the Foss Hotel, make sure you get to enjoy their amazing breakfast buffet and ask the front desk for a northern lights wake up call.
Seljalandsfoss and Gljúfrabúi: Two waterfalls you don't want to miss. For Gljúfrabúi, you'll want to wear your waterproof gear. To get there, continue following the trail past Seljalandsfoss and eventually you'll reach the entrance of what looks like a waterfall room. A stream flows out of the entrance. Now walk in the water and head on in there. On your way back to the car, grab some coffee and donuts from the little food stand. They're some of the best donuts I've ever had in my life!
Secret lagoon: All natural hot springs surround and feed Iceland's oldest pool in the country. It's a well deserved treat after a long of day and driving and exploring. Be sure to grab a beer or wine to bring to the pool with you. The water will become increasing hotter near the upper left and right edges of the pool. You can actually see the bubbling water from the hot springs that feed the pool. Click HERE for more info.
Bruarfoss: This cascading waterfall can be a bit challenging to find. Use your gps on your phone to get to the general area. You'll see houses nearby and what looks like a tiny dirt parking lot. Follow the dirt trail that leads from the parking area until you reach a bridge and the view below.