Home #WHERETONEXT Europe Avoiding the crowds in Iceland while searching for northern lights and ice...

Avoiding the crowds in Iceland while searching for northern lights and ice caves

Jökulsárlón Northern Lights - Photo:Tom Archer

It’s early morning on December 21st in Iceland. The darkest day of the year, with only around 4 hours of direct sunlight. The landscape is covered in snow. I’m about to embark on a 2 day trip with my small group of customers along the south coast of Iceland.

Despite the fresh snow the roads are clear, the wind is low and there’s not a cloud in the sky. Unusual for Iceland. The potential to see northern lights tonight are good.

My guests have chosen to join me on this journey because they want to do the ‘must see spots’, like walking along the Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach and the towering Seljalandsfoss waterfall. But they also want to go a little further than most and experience some, dare I say, adventure. And adventure is what they will get as we hike across a glacier, discover ice caves, and hunt for the northern lights. 

We do most of the scenic picture stops on day 1 which also includes the Skógafoss waterfall, and a short hike along the Fjaðrárgljúfur gorge. Everyone is in high spirits as we drive towards the UNESCO protected Vatnajökull National Park. The drive on day 1 is punctuated by regular stops, fun facts and stories.

My group has opted for location over luxury for accommodation tonight. The newly built Lilja Guesthouse, on a working farm, combines comfort with tradition perfectly. It’s also in the middle of nowhere, completely isolated from unnatural light. Open fields and the occasional passing car are all that stands between you and the sky. I teach my guests camera techniques and what to look out for at dinner.

Luck is in our favour! The solar winds are strong and the clouds are non-existent. We’re treated to a rare dancing curtain of bright green northern lights across the night sky. Mesmerizing. I’ve seen it many times before, but sharing this natural wonder with first timers always gives me goosebumps. Or maybe that’s the crisp cold winter air. I’d love to say northern lights are visible every time we’re here, but there’s a reason many people call it ‘hunting for the northern lights.’

The following day we set off after a scrumptious local breakfast. When we arrive at the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon it’s still dark. The numerous icebergs floating in the lagoon groan and crack in the darkness.The excitement continues to grow as we meet a local ice cave explorer from Local Guides who will be assisting us on the glacier. They are the ones who find the winter ice cave and monitor its safety. We’re in good hands.After twenty minutes of bumpy driving off-road we get to the base of the glacier that runs along the edge of lagoon. Once everyone is briefed and wearing their glacier gear we are on our way.

The first step onto the blue ice of the glacier is scary for some, but they know they’re in safe hands. I also confirm that the crampons (spikes for your boots) make glacier walking as easy as normal hiking. After all, we’ve created the trip with first timers in mind. We keep a steady pace as we traverse the glacier, stopping regularly to inspect blue crevasses and deep holes. The sun has now risen to its peak, though barely above the horizon, forcing our eyes out towards the lagoon to see icebergs light up in the low golden light.

It’s not long before we get to the big reveal, the ice cave! The gasps are audible. The guests cant believe their eyes. I explain that each season a new ice cave must be discovered as they only last one short winter before melting or collapsing. Each ice cave season is truly unique. The clarity of the blue ice inside this building-sized cave is something to behold. Pictures are plentiful and stories abound as we spend time enjoying our surroundings. By the time we’ve explored every inch of the cave our bellies begin to rumble.

For lunch we decide to venture beyond the ice cave and find the black diamond beach at the front of the glacier. We make sure to keep a safe distance from the calving section where new icebergs are created, and sit on the warm black sand nearby enjoying a snack as the sun begins to set over the lagoon. A few curious seals pop their head out of the water to say hello before I announce that we need to make the journey back before dark. What a day.

We arrive at the vehicle just as the last few minutes of usable light disappear, it’s barely 4pm. Everyone is exhausted but ecstatic from the experience. Time to go home. After stopping at a local restaurant for dinner the drive home is relaxed and soothing. I play Icelandic music in the background while my elated guests recline in their seats, use the WiFi and gaze at the full moon lighting the tops of the mountains.

That night, back in Reykjavik I say my farewells feeling more like I’m saying goodbye to new friends than my customers. It really was a perfect two days in Iceland.

Written by Ryan Connolly, co-founder of Hidden Iceland
Hidden Iceland run personalised trips all year round, but the ice cave and northern lights two day trip is only possible for a short window between November and March. It’s my favourite time of year. Come and find the best of Iceland with Hidden Iceland 

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