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A Guide to Seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland

Seeing the Northern Lights is a bucket list experience for many and Iceland is one of the best destinations for witnessing this breathtaking display. The phenomenon can only be witnessed at far northerly altitudes which generally means the closer you are to the Arctic Circle, the better. They can appear in numerous forms, typically as a band of glowing yellow and green lights dancing in the sky. Sometimes there will be other colors, including dark red, pink, blue, and purple. Various weather conditions lead to different types of light shows and their duration, from a few minutes to a few days. Following this guide to seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland will increase the odds of a memorable sighting.

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What are the Northern Lights?

The aurora borealis, often referred to as the Northern Lights, can be seen near the poles of the northern hemisphere. In the southern hemisphere, they’re known as the aurora australis or southern lights. Inspiring humans for centuries, archaeologists believe that some cave drawings depict auroras in the sky with the earliest known auroral citing written in 2600 B.C. in China. The Aurora has been significant in Australian indigenous oral traditions as well, with the Aboriginal people associating auroras with fire and death. 

The Northern Lights are caused by solar activity or activity on the surface of the sun. When solar particles enter the Earth’s atmosphere, accelerating down toward the poles, they burn gases that produce various colored lights. The wavy patterns and curtains of light the aurora is known for are caused by the lines of force in the magnetic field. The lowest part of an aurora is usually about 80 miles above the Earth’s surface but the top can extend several thousand miles above.

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When is the best time to see the Northern Lights in Iceland?

Unfortunately, you can’t just show up and expect to see the lights on your Iceland vacation. The aurora only appears when conditions are right during certain times of the year. Dark skies with a lack of light pollution and solar activity are two key factors for the lights to appear. That means the best time to see the Northern Lights in Iceland is when the nights are long and dark, between mid-September and early April. They tend to be most active around the equinoxes in September and March, but days with the longest hours of darkness provide a bigger window for viewing. The shortest day is around December 21st with only four hours and seven minutes of daylight, improving your odds even more.

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How to See the Northern Lights

As dark skies with minimal light pollution are a must for Northern Lights viewing, you’ll have much better odds by traveling further away from cities and towns, into the countryside. Ideally, opt for some accommodation during your trip that’s in a more remote area, away from city lights. Some hotels even offer Northern Lights “wake up” service. Otherwise, if you’re staying in a busy area, you can rent a car or join a boat tour, with options available from Reykjavik. There are also Northern Lights hunting tours that will bring you to some of the best spots for aurora watching. If you can’t leave Reykjavik, if conditions are right they can be seen while walking along the harbor or from Grotta Lighthouse.

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What to bring for seeing the Northern Lights?

An Iceland getaway that includes seeing the aurora borealis requires proper packing. Most sightings occur in the winter when you’ll need to bring the appropriate cold-weather gear anyway. That means dressing in layers, starting with thermal leggings and a long-sleeve thermal shirt. Clothing made with merino wool is ideal. Pure cotton should be avoided as it cools down when wet. An additional layer should include a fleece sweatshirt topped by a waterproof, windproof winter coat. Add accessories like gloves, a scarf, and a beanie. Wool socks, waterproof hiking boots, and hand warmers are all a good idea too. 

Top Tip

Before you go, be sure to download the Aurora Alerts app which will tell you the percentage chance of seeing the lights on a daily basis. If you want to capture photos with your smartphone, newer models have “Night” mode. It can be used to adjust explore time, around 10 to 15 seconds). You might also want to consider apps such as Northern Lights Photo Taker, ProCamera, or NightCap Camera for iOS, or ProCam X Lite for Android.

Where to see the Northern Lights in Iceland

 

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Thingvellir National Park

One of the main attractions along the 140-mile Golden Circle Route, Thingvellier National Park is just a 40-minute drive from Reykjavik and there is little manmade light here to interrupt the show. Straddling two continental tectonic plates, during the day visitors can even snorkel between two continents with up to 400 feet of visibility in the glacier meltwater at the Silfra rift in Lake Thingvallavatn. There are also magnificent waterfalls, cliffs, lava fields, and volcanoes to explore. After dark, watch for the aurora. Gullfoss, or Golden Falls, provides a remarkable backdrop although traveling out further brings a better chance for the most vibrant show with the lights appearing over the rocky lava plains and Silfra fissure.

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Reynisfjara Beach

Reynisfjara Beach is far from any major town or city, located near the southernmost village of Vik, about 100 miles from Reykjavik on the Ring Road. The black sand beach is ideal for viewing the Northern Lights thanks to the open horizon that provides a 360-degree view over the basalt cliffs, the volcanic sands, and the Atlantic Ocean, combined with low light pollution. Named one of the world’s most beautiful non-tropical beaches, head here before dark to see the fantastical rock formations just offshore rising straight out of the sea. The Trolls of Vik is the most famous, with legend telling that it formed when trolls tried to drag three ships ashore. Once night falls, you won’t have to worry about artificial lighting interfering with your aurora view.

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Kirkjufell

Kirkjufell is a famous mountain, along with the waterfall Kirkjufellsfoss, that’s been featured in countless brochures, postcards, and websites as a symbol of Iceland’s beauty. Located a couple of hours from Reykjavik on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, known as “Iceland in miniature” with landscapes that can be found throughout the country, this region is filled with stunning natural wonders. That includes black sand beaches and basalt columns, glaciers, volcanoes, and natural hot pools. The mountain is unique for its symmetrical shape with three peaks, each one facing a different direction looking as if it’s an arrow pointing north, providing a great backdrop. As you might imagine, witnessing the colorful dancing lights above it and the falls is truly a sight to behold.

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Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon

No matter what time of year you visit you can’t miss the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon. This large glacial lagoon on the south coast was created by glacier melt. It’s continuing to grow at a rapid pace and icebergs continuously break off the glacier, drifting through a short river into the sea where waves turn many of them back onto a black sand beach where they’re spread like jewels. While the warmer months bring the chance to get up close to the ice and hear the thunderous roar as the bergs break, between October and early April seals hang out on the ice and you’ll have the chance to watch the northern lights dance above it all. providing spectacular photo ops.

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Myvatn

Located in North Iceland, Myvatn Lake is a paradise for Aurora hunters with low light pollution. Part of the Lake Myvatn Geothermal Area, it’s focused around a shallow eutrophic lake created by a large volcanic eruption over 2,300 years ago. During the day, explore the volcanic features, including moss-strewn lava fields, mud pots, fumaroles, and the Hverfell volcanic crater that can be climbed for an epic view. Some of the best spots for Northern Lights watching in the area include the Lake Mvatn Nature Baths, a less touristy alternative to the Blue Lagoon for a memorable soak that can be enhanced with the aurora overhead. Lake Myvatn View Point, Pseudo Craters, and Dimmuborgir are just a few of the others.

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Landmannalaugar

Landmannalaugar sits at the edge of the Laugahraun lava field, part of the Fjallabak Nature Reserve in the Highlands. A vast area with unique and stunning beauty, its isolation ensures minimal light pollution while the contrast between the rugged terrain and brilliant lights creates a surreal atmosphere. This is also the starting point for the Laugavegur Trail, which has been ranked among the world’s 20 best hikes by National Geographic. The route brings breathtaking views of gorges, glaciers, mountains, and the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, ending at Skogafoss waterfall. If you visit in late September, you can combine a hike through the otherworldly landscapes with an aurora sighting and a soak in the natural hot springs for a truly unforgettable experience.

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