I had my eye on the prize as soon as I landed. The Northern Lights in Iceland. The Aurora Borealis. Whatever you want to call it, I was dead-set on seeing this spectacle since I was this far north in the world for the first time in my life.
Actually seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. I did a little research online and although I didn’t necessarily expect to look into the sky at night in Reykjavík and just see them, I also didn’t expect to have to hunt them either.
There are plenty of tours we could have joined to see the Northern Lights in Iceland, but my siblings and I wanted to try to find them for ourselves. Everything in Iceland is expensive enough as it is; we didn’t need to splurge on another tour when we could do it ourselves. I did hear good things about tours, but I didn’t want to rely 100% on a tour and end up being reimbursed for not seeing them without any other options. We decided to give it a try ourselves on our first night in Reykjavík.
Hopped up on the excitement of arriving in Iceland at the crack of dawn – actually earlier than that – we set out that night in search of the Northern Lights. All signs were a “go”; the Aurora forecast indicated clear skies about a 40-minute drive away. The Northern Lights activity scale showed Aurora activity as “active”. To hell with cautious optimism; I was really sure I was going to see the Northern Lights the first night.
We followed one of the few roads in Iceland toward the Golden Circle until we felt like we were in the epicenter of a white spot on the Aurora map, meaning that the sky should have been clear enough to see the Northern Lights. I craned my neck out the window to get a better look.
Nothing. Nada. We drove a little further. Unclear on where exactly we were going, we found ourselves driving on a dirt road but resigned to turn around before we ended up stuck in a ditch in the middle of nowhere with no cell service. Luck wasn’t on our side that day. Even with all signs pointing to the Northern Lights, we just didn’t see them. This could have been because of some light faint pollution in the area. Maybe we just needed to wait longer. Either way, it was Day 1 so I wasn’t too worried about it.
I did start to worry after Day 2. We had just driven the Golden Circle and were driving back after a long day of sightseeing and snowmobiling. We saw a faint orange light in the sky. It puzzled us. All I could think was, am I seeing the Aurora right now?
I knew the lights can appear in many different colors, but my friend who had just left Iceland the day before we arrived saw green lights. I didn’t expect orange. Nevertheless, we drove slightly out of the way and toward the orange light. The entire sky was lit up orange ahead of us. It was absurd; it almost looked like daylight. But there was no movement in the sky like the Aurora, just an orange glow in the sky.
When we finally pulled up into an area with lights and buildings, we stopped to ask someone. Slightly embarrassed by our own question, my sister-in-law asked the man if we indeed were seeing the Northern Lights over where she was pointing. In the kind and friendly Icelandic manner I adored, he smiled and said what we were seeing was just the light of a greenhouse.
A greenhouse?! It must have been a massive greenhouse because it lit up the entire night sky! Another fail.
Lesson learned: if you’re not sure and the light in the sky isn’t moving, it probably ain’t the Aurora.
It wasn’t until we drove along the south coast toward Jökulsárlón that we got lucky. After an exciting day exploring an ice cave in the Vatnajökull glacier, we decided to try again. We drove to the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon where we spent some time earlier in the day. There were many cars parked there with tourists sitting inside. I asked another woman taking photos and she said the Aurora was barely visible in her long exposure photos. She’d come from further east with no luck. I took a few long exposures myself over the lagoon and when I checked them, I could actually see a faint green glow. I kept thinking, I can’t see you but I know you’re there. I was so excited. All we could do was wait.
It was difficult to patiently wait. There was still a little too much light over by the lagoon, so we drove further east despite the information I heard that the clouds were moving in that direction. It was worth a try. We drove east, away from light pollution on the only road in the area. I felt like we’d picked the right direction when we saw a few other SUVs parked along the road.
Staring out the window, I started to notice something. I rolled down the window to get a better look. Over the mountains and far away, something was happening. It was the green glow I saw at the glacier lagoon, but it was approaching. I got out of the car and set up my tripod on the hood, watching intently as the light in the night sky began to move as if it was alive.
It looked like it could have been a UFO. When you’ve never seen anything like this in your life before, it looks completely unreal. I watched the lights dance in the sky to an inaudible melody that only nature could hear. First in one direction, then another. One moment it looked like a green explosion in the sky, another just a faint green line like a jet steam. The lights moved just as they did in the videos I’d seen a hundred times before. But this time it was real to me.
My heart swelled with joy the way it always does when I see something spectacular. It didn’t last long, maybe only five minutes, but it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in my life. It was around 2 am when we finally drove back to Hali Country Hotel near Jökulsárlón. The lights continued to faintly dance and wave goodbye to us as we drove away.
Tips for seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland
- The best time of year to see the Northern Lights in Iceland is winter. Various sources suggest the time frames September-April or November-February, so keep this in mind when planning your trip.
- Check the Aurora forecast. This is a great way to know which direction the clouds are moving and whether there is any Aurora activity in the sky.
- The best time to see the Northern Lights is roughly between 11 pm and 2 am. Take a nap before if you need to!
- Once you’ve driven to a clear spot on the map, park off the road and wait. If there’s Aurora activity in your area, the lights will probably appear. It’s not practical to drive around when the Aurora itself is moving in the sky. Patience is a virtue.
- It might be obvious but it’s worth noting: the longer you stay, the more likely you are to see the Northern Lights. in Iceland
- If you’re doing it yourself, rent a car! It’s so convenient when seeing anything in Iceland, not only the Northern Lights. Check the road conditions too!
- I captured photos of the Northern Lights with my Fujifilm X-A2 (check out the newer Fujifilm X-A3 model) with a shutter speed of 30 seconds in M mode. It still felt like my photos were a little dark, but it was very dark and the Aurora was not as strong as I’ve seen in other photos.
- I used a Manfrotto MTPIXI-B PIXI Mini Tripod to capture the long exposures without disrupting the camera. It might be small, but it’s so easy to travel with. I just prop it up on something when I need to. In this case, I put the tripod on the car so it was at a taller height.
- Don’t forget to enjoy the actual experience too! It’s great to have a photo but there’s nothing like seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland in real life. You may never have this opportunity again!
Here’s a video of how the rest of my Iceland trip looked!