When my fiance and I first started planning our trip, our number one goal was to see the Northern lights dancing across the sky. We knew that seeing them could never be guaranteed, but we planned our trip around trying. While many people chase this dream of seeing the Northern lights, Icelandic magic helped us catch them. Call it elves, spirits, luck or the universe but a lot had to take place for this dream to come true. It might be best to start at the beginning.
We arrived in Reykjavik early on a chilly day in late September. We specifically chose the last week of September and the first week of October for our visit. We wanted a good amount of daylight to enjoy the waterfalls and epic hiking. However, my fiance and I knew we needed a good amount of dark skies if we hoped to see the lights. After spending our first day enjoying this colorful city full of cute little shops, and finalizing plans for the rest of our trip, we headed to bed. The next day we picked up our cute little VW camper van. We planned to drive the legendary Ring road, stopping along the way for an amazing 11 day road trip.
We had four perfect days on the road before we hit an unexpected road block – literally. After arriving at the stunning Vatnajökull National Park, we found signs warning travelers that the Ring road had washed away in several spots up ahead. Although this was a bummer, the signs said that it might be open in a few days. We knew right away that we would need more time then we originally thought at Vatnajökull. This was happening at almost every stop, with each sight being more captivating then the next! This massive park covers 13% of Iceland and offered too many hiking trails to count. We also decided to book a glacier tour through Arctic Adventures at the park. We hoped that after spending a few days exploring the park, the Ring road would be repaired and we could continue on as planned.
The next day we stopped in the park office to get some advice the best trail to take to spot one of the many glaciers in the park. As we chatted, the ranger told us that the Ring road was washed away in five different places in a freak storm. We asked if he thought it would be repaired in the next few days. “It’s pretty bad, I would be surprised if its back open in the next week!” he said, laughing. Undeterred, we decided to go on our hike and enjoy the day. We went on a gnarly fifteen-mile hike and were rewarded with amazing views of a glacier. It was one of the most physically challenging hikes I’ve ever been on, but well worth it in the end! We headed back to our camp site tired, happy and feeling accomplished.
We woke up the next day stoked for our glacier hike. It was raining heavily, but as this is Iceland and the weather changes every 5 minutes we weren’t worried. We arrived at the Arctic Adventures to be greeted with more bad news – the glacier tongues were flooded and they wouldn’t be able to take anyone out. They also said that based on the forecast, it was unlikely we would be able to go tomorrow either. It was finally time to face it, we might have to turn around and reverse around the Ring road in the other direction. We went to the café in the national park to treat ourselves to a non-campsite breakfast and coffee while we reworked our plans.
We heard from another traveler that there was a different glacier we might be able to hike, and decided to call Arctic Adventures to see if they offer a tour at that location. They were extremely helpful transferred our reservation to Sólheimajökull glacier for a hike that included climbing an ice wall! They even checked the weather and told us the forecast looked perfect for exploring a glacier. We decided our best bet was to travel back the way we came toward Reykjavik, then head all the way back around to the north-east region of Iceland. From there, we would use our remaining days to explore the Northern and western sights while making our way to Keflavik, the airport, and our camper van drop off point.
On our drive to Sólheimajökull, we had amazing blue skies and puffy white clouds that allowed us to soak in the scenery around us. We passed moss covered lava fields, mountains with flowing waterfalls, and saw multiple rainbows. When it was time to get ready for our glacier hike we were so excited, this had been on our bucket list since we started planning the trip! Arctic Adventures gave us wonderful experience, and our guide Chris was so great to talk to. After hiking all day, and climbing an ice wall (which I highly recommend trying) Chris told us about a hot spring river he had visited where he saw the Northern lights. He said they had to hike at night, but he took a flashlight and had no trouble on the well-maintained path. Although we were nervous to hike at night, his confidence and excitement was infectious. We decided to follow his plans and drove to the Hveragerði hot spring river, which was conveniently in the direction we were back-tracking.
We arrived at dusk, changed into our swim suits under our layers of warm weather clothes and started to hike. It took about an hour and was mostly uphill, but once we arrived we knew it was worth it. Before starting our journey, we had checked the Aurora forecast which rates the strength of the lights on a scale of 1-9 along with a map of cloud coverage. The ideal conditions to see the lights would be a high number on the scale, with little to no clouds in the sky. We had half of the formula – there wasn’t a cloud in sight, but the lights were only at a 3 on the scale.
We quickly undressed and jumped into the hot springs. The higher up you go in the river, the warmer the water is. As it was chilly, we decided to go as warm as we could. We sat for an hour and saw shooting star after shooting star while relaxing after a busy day. Suddenly the sky lit up with the elusive Northern lights! We shouted out in amazement as the magical green lights danced above us. After a few minutes, that felt like hours, they vanished as quickly as they appeared. Feeling beyond lucky that we got to spot the lights in this wonderful mountain top river, we decided to head back. Just as we were changing out of our swim suits, the sky lit up again! We used an iPhone app to snap some photos, and stood staring at the sky. We were so happy that we barely noticed our freezing toes.
After the lights faded away we walked back to our camper van, giddy with excitement. If you are ever lucky enough to visit this amazing country, bring a good pair of hiking boots and patience. We were faced with many challenges – the road washing away, our glacier adventure being canceled, having to rework our whole road trip plan, and hiking in the dark. While some people could see these as negative events, we knew the truth. Iceland had a plan in place for us to see the mystic northern lights, and we will always be thankful we had the patience to end up where we needed to be.
Read more: 2000km in a 4×4 Camper around Iceland
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