Mid-winter road trip in Iceland

Date 12th January – 16th January, 2019
Places Reykjavik & South of Iceland
DaylightDawn 9:30 AM, Sunrise 10:50 AM, Sunset 2:45 PM, Dusk 4:00 PM
Day/Temp (C)12th Jan13 Jan14 Jan15 Jan16 Jan
Reykjavik4° /0° 1° /-3° 3° /-4° real feel – 12° – 2° /-3° -2° /-7°

Day I

The flight was from Luton, London to Keflavik, Iceland, . There was the head wind in the route so it took 30 mins extra than the normal flight hours. It was the evening flight arriving at Keflavik at 7:15 PM, we were somewhat anticipating to see Northern light, it did not happen. We collected the car from the counter, the lady at the counter was forceful to buy extra car insurance, which was £66/Day but I refused. I was adamant, after few iterations of it, which kind of shadowed the joy of landing. Nevertheless, we got the car key and drove to the serviced apartment in Reykjavik. The drive took about 45 minutes, the road were relatively empty so driving was not the issue. It was raining throughout that evening. We saw piles of snow by the road, but the road was clear.

We checked in, took a rest for a while. After that, we went out of grocery shopping for the next day.

Day II

Weather in the morning and the forecast looked promising. We decided to do golden circle trip. We were impressed at the first day-light glimpse of Reykjavik from the 5th floor of our apartment. There scenic mountain in the background covered with snow, the golden sunlight on the slope of the mountain, blue sky, it was nostalgic moment.

Golden Circle Route

Our first stop was the Tectonic plates in Thingvellir National Park. It was difficult to ascertain the actual parking/stop for this. Whole surrounding is covered in the blanket of snow, there were no tourist there. I believe, majority of the self tourer like us must have missed the placed. From the road, the place looks like any other fields. We did not see the road-signs. Even sign post was there, it must have been covered with thick ice so it was of no use. We really got lucky is this. I am glad we found this place, this was one of the place I really want to visit. My wife’s six sense rocks!

The North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet in Thingvellir, where they're visible to visitors walking through the Thingvellir National Park.
The North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet in Thingvellir, where they’re visible to visitors walking through the Thingvellir National Park.
This was about 11:30 AM , Sun was peeking over the horizon behind the cloud, spreading beautiful golden lights in Thingvellir National Park

Just after about driving the stop, there was a cafe which was serving goulash soup and the bread. They have rest room and souvenir to buy. It was a nice be warm and respond to the nature’s call.

The next stop was Gulfoss waterfall. The drive was beautiful it was mostly clear sky and sunny, we passed though the many lakes, hills and the mountains. Geysir was on the way but we decided to head to Waterfall straight away to get most out of daylight at Waterfall. The parking lot looked more like ski flat than the carpark. We carefully drove in the car park and parked beside the off road vehicle, the tyres were the size of the car. There are two car parks, one is next to the Waterfall, this means less walk, and the other, on the top of Waterfall where we can find amenities like the shops, cafe, restaurants. The weather was cloudy and drizzle.

Gulfoss and the rainbow
Lights through the ice
Waterfall when cloudy
Distant mountain seen from Car park

It is boarded to get to the Waterfall from the top carpark, but due to temperature below freezing it was fairly slippery. The metal stairs took us to pretty close to the waterfall.

After spending about 30 mins, we got really lucky, the cloud was clear and the beautiful sunshine blanketed the area. Atmosphere changed pleasantly we walked to the Waterfall to see Waterfalls glory in the sunshine. There was a warm welcome by beautiful rainbow in the second step of Waterfall. The waterfall looked much prettier .

We went back to the restaurant and treated us with hot beverages and snacks after being in the cold for about an hour or so. The glimpse of Langjökull Glacier from the restaurant window added yet another charm to the visit.


It is not recommended to drive in non off road vehicle beyond this point. We then head back to Geysir or ‘The Great Geysir’. The Geysir was a short drive back from Gulfoss, we want to get most out of the sunset on the clear day. Geysir is only few minutes walk from the road, there are plenty of parking spaces and the cafe/restaurants and shops.

The sun was about to call of its day to we headed to Geysir. There are many other small Geysir and pools in the area. It was restricted to get closer or touch water for our own safety.


Strokkur Geysir

The famous Strokkur Geysir eruptions can hurl boiling water up to 70 metres (230 ft) in the air. We waited between 4-7 minutes between each eruption. Most of the time there was a single eruption but we saw two immediately followed from the first one. Second one was not as high as first eruption but high enough to excite us. The sunset and the blue sky in the background while watching eruption made the experience notably different. We watch the total sunset in the clear sky.

At a glance it looks like the pollution. It is the steam from the hot spring.

The next plan was to do the aurora hunt while heading back to Reykjavik. Thingvellier park is one of the best place for Aurora hunting. The national park was about 1.5 hours drive from Geysir and we are 1.5 hours early to start Aurora hunt. The aurora forecast was 2 that night. We had fair amount of time to kill. We went to the restaurant and made ourselves comfortable. The place closed at 6:00 PM then we headed for our next mission.

It was not daunting to drive back. The roads were fairly clear of the ice and snow. There are parking spots through out the way to stop. The risk was Parking were covered in the thick snow, it was a bit of risk to drive in without knowing how deep the snow snow was. We mostly stopped in the stopping points where we saw tyre marks.
Wifey was continuously monitoring the sights of Aurora while I was driving. At about 9PM we parked the car in the middle of the national park, leaving engine on. The temperature on the car dashboard showed -15 degrees at stationary. It was a clear sky we saw so many starts. There are no artificial lights as far as our eyes could see. It was pitch dark, thick layer of snow, chill wind, bitterly cold, light sound of the car engine, of course, we left engine running. There were hardly any car passing at the time of the night. We wrapped well before came out of car. I setup the camera. It was the first time I used the camera in such an extreme temperature. I was not disappointed. It was a perfect opportunity to brush up my astro-photography skills. While waiting for Aurora I tried some light painting too. The experience was great, to be out there in such a low temperature, trying photography skills. Even though we did not get the glimpse of Aurora, we were not disappointed.

We headed back to Reykavik at around 10:00 PM. Wifey continuously monitored the Aurora. The road was busy close to reykavik, mostly due to the coach and off road vehicles. I suppose, they are also going for Aurora hunt. We came back to apartment, had a brief rest and then went off to Grotto light house, which is the best and artificial light free area close to city center to wait for Aurora. The parking lot there was almost full with enthusiast aurora lovers.

DAY III


Waking up in the morning greeted by heavy snowfall.
Weather forecast for the day in the morning was not looking promising. Snow rain and blizzard was in the forecast. We decided to start the day slow. We had our  breakfast.  The original plan was to visit South of Iceland, that is looking at the distance due to the weather. At about 10:30 am when it started to get bit of day light, we dare to drive out. The plan is to go as far as we can. We packed all essential I.e. warm clothes, food in case we are stucked due to bad weather. The first stop was fuel station.  While driving 6 kilometers to fuel stop, the 3 lane road become one lane, due to heavy snow, visibility was hardly 5 meters, we started seeing abandon cars beside the road. We got to the station, a friendly Icelandic gentleman helped us to fuel the car. He also mention that the weather is bad to the Icelandic standard. While waiting we decided to abandon the plan to drive to South. 
The back up plan to spend the day, infact bitterly cold day in the city. We went to the Grotto warehouse to drive. It was extremely windy and cold. The temperature on the phone was hitting 12 degrees C below freezing. Despite of cold, we got out of the car and walked around. We were impressed to see people  walking their dogs, leisurely walking in such a temperature.

After this we drove to Seltjarnarnes  town for more open field across grotto lighthouse. There was a golg course. There are mini lakes and areas seem to be popular to watch birds. Despite of chilly wind I took some bird photographs.

Bird watching on the crispy cold day

Later in the afternoon we went for the window shopping in the Smáralind shopping centre, which is largent shopping centre in the City.

In the evening weather was persist to be harsh, we strolled in the city center, Harpa, Sun voyager, Hallgrímskirkja . I took the opportunity to capture of City’s hi rises building from Sun Voyager. At mid-night cloud started clearing towards north so we headed to Grotto light house to spend time there. Enjoyed hot coffee and the good music while we were stationary there.

Sun Voyager and CityScape
At 74.5 metres (244 ft) high, Hallgrímskirkja is a Lutheran (Church of Iceland) parish church in Reykjavík, Iceland.

Day IV

Weather forecast and the morning indicators looks promising. We decided the execute the plan to go to south of Iceland. We took extra warm clothes, food, water, toiletries in the car, in case if we have to stay somewhere as the weather is so unpredictable.

We stopped by the road in this particular place where there was not any snow on the ground

Seljalandsfoss Waterfall, Þórsmerkurvegur

Breathtakingly beautiful Seljalandsfoss waterfall stands 65 meters tall. It is a ‘must’ place Seljalandsfoss when visiting the south-coast. This is one of the few Waterfall in word which you can walk go 360 degrees.

Selfoss Waterfall
Selfoss Waterfall -Behind the scene

Skógafoss

Skogafoss waterfall situated on the Skógá River in the south of Iceland. It lies just 500 meter off road 1 near Skógá and is easy to access. From the ring road we saw the enormous Skogafoss. The Skógafoss is one of the biggest waterfalls in the country with a width of 15 metres (49 feet) and a drop of 60 m (200 ft).

There a walk to go on the top of he Waterfall. We opted out due to layers of snow and ice.

Skógafoss Waterfall. It was windy and water spray to keep focus properly on the subject.
Mountain beside the waterfall. River Skógá on the foreground

Sólheimajökull glacier, Sólheimajökulsvegur

Sólheimajökull is an outlet glacier of the mighty icecap of Mýrdalsjökull on the South Coast of Iceland. It is one of the most easily accessible glaciers to reach from Reykjavík. From the carpark it is about 15 mins walk to reach to the edge of the glacier.

The Driving to the car park on little scary. We could not see the tarmac. Road was fully covered by thick white ice. It looked like I was actually driving on the Ski slope. There were tight corners and small lanes where only one vehicle can pass at the time.

We were told the outlet is shrinking by a size of swimming pool every year. It was first, worrying, first hand experience of global warming.
Frozen lagoon at the glacier outlet and standstill floating icebergs.

Solheimasandur Plane Wreck, Sólheimasandur

In 1973 a United States Navy DC plane ran out of fuel and crashed on the black beach at Sólheimasandur, in the South Coast of Iceland. Fortunately, everyone in that plane survived.

When we were at the parking lot at 4 PM, we saw everyone returning back. We were gradually loosing day light. Initially, we were in doubt whether walk to the plane, we decided to continue. One of the fellow tourist, who seems to be exhausted from the walk, warned us regarding the distance. It is about an hour walk, each way, for the relatively fit person.

The Plane Wreckage on Solheimsandur Black Sand Beach perhaps white snow beach when we were there.

Navigating to plane was tricky, there were poles in the either side of the road, that was what we were following. Planes lies of the road, main thing was to embed the direction, we are heading to, off the road as it was getting pitch dark, with no remarkable object to remember around the road.
When we got there, the whole place was for ourselves, as far as we could see.

Coming back from Vik was particularly challenging to drive, due to the strong snow storm. Due to the strength of the wind and the friction-less icy road, car was skidding, at times. One particular sand storm lasted for about 30 seconds, the visibility was about the 3 feet, means I can hardly see the bonnet of the car. This was on the two way road without any barrier in the middle. I got the goosebumps while driving.

Most of the snow storm did not came up to windscreen height but few did.

Day V

Our final day in Iceland! The plan was to spend the day in and around Reykavik. The weather was perfect. We first went to Grafarvogur, where there are small lakes, hot spring. The snowy mountain in the background looks absolutely stunning.

We spend another day going to Sun Voyager, Harpa and the city center in a beautiful sunny day.

Sun voyager in the day light
Harpa
Good old Grotto Lighthouse
Our last sunset in our Iceland trip.

Later in the evening, after the late lunch, we headed back to the Airport.

Travel Tips

Cost
Restaurant and groceries are expensive. If you are on the budget I suggest to get the accommodation with Kitchen. I was even shocked about the groceries. We spend 150+ pounds only for groceries. Eating out easily fork 50 GBP for the decent meal. We drove just about every where so not sure about the travel cost but I am pretty sure renting a car is the most economic option. 

Weather
Weather is unpredictable more like the UK. Be prepared with enough food and warm layers when  driving away from the city. Carry warm layers base layers, mid layers and water proof outer layers.

Driving
Driving around the city is not a problem. Transport authority in the Reykjavik. The parking in the city is cheap starting for 1 euro per hour. There are loads of in street free parking outside normal hours. 

Winter tyres in the car is the must. All rental car comes with winter tyres. If there is no prior experienceof driving in snow and ice, It is highly recommended to bit of practice to understand how far car can handle. Parking lot or quiet downhill/uphill in the residential areas are the best choice. 

There was a good mobile signal where we went. Do not totally relay on road signs, we saw many  road signs were covered in ice so having satnat or google map helps a lot. 

It is barred to drive in some of the tracks with out off road vehicle. The clear road signs are there to see where non off road cars are not allowed. 

Driving there , stick to the main road. Taking side roads for adventure in FWD cars is dangerous. There roads are covered in snow or ice hiding tarmac. I did not take any road where I did not see Tyre marks. There are many designated parking areas by the road to take break or appreciate the scenery. 

Plan
Make flexible plan. Able to make amendments to the plan in short notice is the key. Have a set of indoor and outdoor plans to adjust deep depending on what weather throws at you. 
Know the exact location where you want to go. As I already mention. Signs may be covered o  ice. Winter is off season so you will not see many people or tourist perhaps not at all, in less popular destinations.

Northern light

We did not see Northern Light despite of having clear Sky for the majority of the day, however, we were not disappointed. There are so much things to do and Icelandic landscape is stunning.

We kept monitoring Aurora forecast, even when the forecast was level 3, we could not see one. Only having clear sky is not adequate to witness the magical plantery beauty. Do not get disappointed if you do not see one, Iceland offers many more other things to treasure!

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