When and how to see the northern lights in Iceland
9th April 2023
An increasingly popular wilderness destination, Iceland is synonymous with rugged, volcanic landscapes and stark beauty. One of the best ways to experience this incredible country is to wrap up warm, lace up your hiking boots and set out on foot. Despite its sometimes bleak appearance, Iceland offers a surprising variety of terrain: with valleys rich with hardy vegetation, vertiginous mountain ridges, and wave-swept beaches of thick black sand, there is something for every walker here. This diversity can make it hard to know where to begin, but we’ve chosen a couple of our favourite locations that we think you should consider when hiking in Iceland.
Skaftafell, on the south side of the enormous Vatnajökull National Park, is an excellent starting point for walkers wanting to experience the many joys that Icelandic hiking has to offer. Its location, beyond the reach of the Golden Triangle day tours from Reykjavik, affords this area a tranquility and feeling of wildness that is hard to match. The landscape is dominated by the tongues of glaciers reaching down from the icy vastness of Vatnajökull itself. These engines of ice have carved steep valleys, filled with tumbling waterfalls, and have left spectacular formations of moraine at their bases – both perfect for careful exploration on foot.
Setting out from the Skaftafell Visitor Centre is a must for the would-be hiker – the experienced staff here will happily suggest a walk of suitable difficulty for your experience level, and can give you valuable insight into equipment needed or weather conditions to expect. Feel free to ask them any other questions you might have. From the centre, several paths lead up the steep end of the wedge of mountain between two glacial valleys – gaining the ridge is the first step in most walks heading further into Skaftafell. Regardless of the route you choose, make sure that your path takes you past the cathedral-like basalt amphitheatre of Svartifoss waterfall. One of the most iconic falls in the country, the water here has carved out a hidden temple punctuated by black, hexagonal pillars of rock.
Continuing upwards from the waterfall, you’ll emerge onto a windswept highland, with mountains towering to the north and glaciers to both sides. The more easterly of these, Skaftafellsjökull – for which the area is named – can be seen in awe-inspiring fashion from above if your path takes you along the eastern edge of the ridge.
At this point, it’s possible to loop back down to the Visitor’s Centre if time is short or the weather has turned against you. For the intrepid, other paths lead upwards towards the summit of Kristínartindar, a peak with unrivalled views over both glacier tongues and the southern floodplain. An almost 20 km round trip, the walk to the summit is not for the faint of heart, and a whole day should be set aside to complete it. Be aware that during the spring months, Kristínartindar may not be accessible due to the dangerous conditions caused by the thawing of ice.
On your return to the base of the ridge, a short walk or drive can take you to the terminal lake at the nose of Skaftafellsjökull. Here, giant chunks of ice calved from the glacier sit surrounded by meltwater, and you can hear the occasional creak and strain as thousands of tonnes of frozen water move slowly down the valley, driven by their own immense weight. Keep a sensible distance from the edge of the glacier itself, to avoid falling ice and rock, and by no means attempt to venture onto the ice – the car park at the lake is punctuated by memorials to adventurers lost on the glacier… Of course, with an experienced local guide, it’s possible to explore the surface of Skaftafellsjökull in relative safety, and even venture into the fabulous glittering ice caves in the higher reaches of the valley – a hiking experience that few other places can offer.
With only 100 inhabitants, the north-eastern village of Bakkagerði is a small, sleepy place, even by Icelandic standards. Reached by a scenic drive north from Egilsstaðir, the village hugs the coast in the Borgarfjörður Eystri fjord. A proud little church – mixing practicality and charm with its blue and white corrugated steel construction – provides a calm, cosy stop-off for the contemplative traveller.
History buffs should stop by Lindarbakki, a lovingly-maintained example of the traditional Icelandic turf houses of old. As it’s a private home, you can’t normally go inside, but if you’re lucky during the summer months, you may be able to chat with the owner.
The real draw of the Borgarfjörður region, however, is its myriad hiking trails. A self-described ‘hiker’s paradise’, the rugged, lonely beauty of the coasts and mountain paths will satisfy any inner urge for isolation and escape from the everyday. In a day’s walking from Bakkagerði, you’ll find yourself skirting impressive cliffs, navigating between jagged peaks, and leaving your footprints in the black sand of hidden beaches. The polar opposite of the hustle and bustle of Reykjavik, the only sounds that will accompany you out here are crashing waves, the cries of seabirds and the thud of your heartbeat as you climb towards the next pass.
If the remoteness of Borgarfjörður seems daunting, don’t be deterred: regardless of your ability level you’ll be in good hands hiking here. Local enthusiasts maintain over 20 well-marked day routes in the area, and have even produced a detailed map which you can purchase at the information centre at Egilsstaðir before heading north to begin your expedition. For those who want to venture further afield from Bakkagerði, comfortable and well-equipped hiking lodges can be found in Breiðavík, Húsavík and Loðmundarfjörður. These lodges make a multi-day walk down the Eastern coast to Seyðisfjörður – renowned for its thriving creative scene – a possibility for the adventurous walker.
North of the imposing Vatnajökull glacier, tracing the band of volcanic activity where the mid-Atlantic ridge cuts through the centre of Iceland will lead you to the shores of Mývatn, one of Iceland’s most spectacular lakes. Formed by an eruption some 2,000 years ago, the lake and its immediate surroundings sport a variety of amazing lava formations, craters and thermal vents. Its nutrient-rich waters also support a thriving avian ecosystem, making Lake Mývatn a crucial stop-off for birdwatchers.
Accommodation is mostly found in and around Reykjahlíð on the north-eastern shore of the lake, ranging from the sophisticated Fosshotel Mývatn – offering stunning views over the water – to several campsites for those craving a more rugged experience.
Reykjahlíð is also a great place to begin a day’s adventure along the east of the lake: a walk incorporating many of the volcanic sites. A short drive south will bring you to the spectacular Dimmuborgir – if possible, try to get dropped off here so you won’t have to return to collect your vehicle. Perhaps the most striking of the volcanic rock formations in the area, this maze of paths between towering lava pillars is strongly associated with the supernatural in Icelandic folklore. Walking beneath the dark and imposing rock structures in the warmer months, it’s not hard to imagine why – Dimmuborgir has the air of an ancient ruined city. In winter, however, snow and ice transforms the area into a veritable palace of stunning beauty, where your steps are silenced by the powdery snow.
Taking the path north through the rock fields will lead you towards the looming bulk of Hverfljall. This dormant tuff ring volcano rises some 400m above the surrounding landscape, affording incredible views across the lake for those hearty enough to manage the steep 20 minute climb to the summit of the crater. Make sure you stick to the marked trail, carefully maintained in order to preserve the fragile local ecosystem. Once on top of Hverfljall, and after a well-deserved break for water and photographs, walkers should skirt the rim of the crater to the easier descent path on the northern face, leading smoothly down back towards Reykjahlíð.
The final stop before a triumphal return home is Grjótagjá, a hidden cave where water warmed by the geothermal activity of the region rises to create a primordial steam bath. The fissure containing the cave is clearly visible on the walk down from Hverfjall, and signs should direct you to the small opening where you can descend into this mysterious subterranean world. The scramble down is short, but requires careful footwork – the reward is crossing into a realm suited to myth, where you can dip your hand in the deliciously warm waters, breathe in the rising steam, and feel a tangible sense of the vitality of the volcanic processes that formed so much of Iceland’s spectacular landscape.
As a reward for your day’s exertions, a visit to Mývatn Nature Baths is the perfect way to unwind and soothe tired muscles. This excellent geothermal spa rivals the Blue Lagoon in quality, but is far less busy thanks to its out-of-the-way location. Watching the sun set over the lake from the balmy waters of the Nature Baths’ naturally-heated outdoor pool is a memory that will linger long after you leave Iceland behind.
Make it happen
Our local experts in Iceland are ready and waiting to advise you on your expeditions across the land of fire and ice – just get in contact with them so they can put together an amazing experience for you. When you set out, remember to keep your eyes open – in Iceland, you never know when you’ll stumble upon a hidden hot spring where you can take a revitalising dip! To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office, please call +44 (0)117 325 7898.