Although most people visit Iceland during the summer when the landscape is lush and green, our main goal was to see the Northern Lights there.
We had a rough list of spots that we wanted to see. A lot of it was based on photos we’ve seen online or from friends’ previous trips. What we didn’t realize until we arrived was how different things would look in the winter as opposed to summer. Because of this, some spots weren’t as accessible and other landscapes were completely covered in snow and ice. On the other hand, there were also amazing things you could only do in the winter!!
We rented our car at Go Iceland. It was a Dacia Duster which was the perfect size for the four of us, and really helped having the 4×4 too! We mainly stayed along the 1 when road tripping from Reykavik to the South Side and then took some sketchier roads to the West. Below, we’ve put together a guide to help you plan your road trip!
ICELAND WINTER ROAD TRIP (BEST STOPS + PLACES TO AVOID)
We listed them in the order of our favorite stops, but see the map and sample itinerary below.
This beautiful series of falls has a backdrop of a mountain that looks like a wizard hat. During the winter, a lot of it is frozen over so you can actually stand in spots you normally wouldn’t in the summer. It was far enough from major tours, so it was less crowded and was still beautiful even covered in ice and snow.
2. Silfra and Thingvellir National Park
Thingvellir National Park is a popular spot on the Golden Circle. If you decide not to dive or snorkel between two continental plates, you can still see it from land, but one of our favorite excursions was getting to snorkel Silfra. If you’re worried about it being too cold in the winter, they said the temperature of the water stays the same all year round and it may even feel better because the temperature difference isn’t so big. We got dive certified after our trip, so maybe we’ll have to go back and dive here too!
3. Crystal Cave in Vatnajokull National Park
You need to visit with a guide, but it makes for spectacular photos. The conditions are constantly changing so you want to go with the pros who know what they’re doing.
4. Svinafellsjokull (Blue Glacier)
Driving the road down here was a little more sketchy, so there were also fewer people.
This is probably one of the most photographed waterfalls in Iceland. It’s easily accessible from the parking lot. In addition to getting a good view from the bottom, you can also climb the 300+ stairs to the top. Warning: it can get crowded.
This is also a popular stop that can get quite crowded. This was the second most crowded waterfall after Gulfoss. However, it’s worth a stop since it’s easy and right off the road. You can get your shots (photoshop out the people later) and head off to your next destination. If it’s not too icy, you can even get behind the falls. We recommend crampons in the winter, though!
7. Bjarnafoss og Hraunfossar
Here you get two falls in one stop. It’s also a bit off the more touristy spots during this time of year so it’s much less crowded.
8. Solheimasandur Plane Wreck On the Beach
Previously you could take a 4×4 to get here, but now no vehicles are allowed. You have to park next to the road and walk, which takes roughly 45 minutes.
The falls itself was covered in snow and ice, but the hike takes you through a beautifully snow covered canyon. It was also the first time we felt alone in nature.
10. Reynisdrangar Black Beach and Basalt Columns
These were some of the most powerful waves we’ve seen! There was a sign near the front that said to “beware the sneaker waves,” which we laughed off. Shortly afterward, Jacob got his foot soaked. The waves are seriously sneaker! There are also basalt columns that make for a great backdrop.
11. Jökulsárlón Ice Beach (Diamond Beach)
This is a super unique beach because there are glacial pieces washed up on shore. It’s constantly changing and definitely looks like diamonds on a beach!
12. Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
This lagoon fills with glacial pieces depending on when the tide comes in. Pro-tip: when the tide is out, so is most of the pretty ice!
13. Langjökull Glacier
This is where you can go snowmobiling on a glacier!
14. Haukadalur Geysers
This is another popular stop on the Golden Circle, but if you’re in the area, you should stop by. Strokkur geyser erupts every 2-5 minutes. You can also see the original geyser that all geysers are named after.
Watch the ocean crashing against the cliffs from a high vantage point. There is also a sea arch here!
This is the biggest and easily the most popular waterfall in Iceland (it’s the Niagara of Iceland). Most tours will make this stop so there’s no avoiding the crowds. It’s still worth seeing and hearing the sheer power of the falls!
17. Blue Lagoon
This one is a toss-up. This is an iconic spot that’s overpriced, crowded, and definitely made for tourists, but there really isn’t anything like it in the world. If you want to go, make sure to book a reservation way ahead of time! We tried to book a week before and didn’t make the cutoff. We got to take few photos, but this is still on my bucket list (Jacob, on the other hand, was not impressed).
NOT WORTH IT OR NOT ACCESSIBLE IN WINTER
1. Kerið Crater
Not only is there a fee to get in (400 ISK per person and when we visited), but the lake is iced over and often covered in snow too, so you miss out on that brilliant blue color. Definitely ask for the conditions before buying a ticket.
2. Gerduberg Cliffs
Similarly, we were really excited to shoot photos of the basalt columns at Gerduberg Cliffs, but snow covered up most of them.
3. Nauthólsvík Beach and Hot Springs
We saw a post that mentioned that this was a great secret spot. Unfortunately, in the winter, the beach is closed, and it’s just a small strip of hot tub further in from the beach that was completely packed. I guess it’s not so secret anymore! We saw it and immediately left.
4. Hveragerdi Hot Springs
We really wanted to go to this hot springs, but we were advised not to hike there because it’s slippery, dangerous, and you can’t see the trail when it’s covered in snow. We’re not exactly trained for ice hiking. Everyone I talked to has gone in the summer, but if you went in the winter or know someone who has and think it’s okay, please let us know!
5. Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon / Kirkjubaejarklaustur
This one just depends on the road conditions. It’s a smaller road that doesn’t get serviced unless a farmer nearby plows it. If the road is snowed in, you might not be able to go through. Check the conditions of the roads here.
TIPS FOR YOUR ICELAND WINTER ROAD TRIP
- We rented a 4×4 from Go Iceland. Just keep in mind 4×4’s can handle much more, but not everything. Know your limits! One of our guides was telling us he’s had to rescue plenty of overconfident tourists in 4x4s. If you feel uncomfortable driving in inclement weather or find yourself on a road you’re unsure of, turn around. It’s always better to be safe than sorry!
- Check your wipers before leaving the car rental place. You’ll use them often.
- Always fill up your gas. Gas wasn’t as hard to find as we thought. It’s still safe to fill up when you see a station, but if you plan carefully, you shouldn’t have any issues. There was only one time we got really close to running out of gas.
- Always be flexible with your plans. Weather can change really quickly in Iceland. They aren’t kidding when they say there are four seasons in one day.
- Always check road conditions. Like the weather, it can quickly change. Don’t blindly trust google maps – it doesn’t take into consideration road closures in the winter.
- Northern Lights: If you want to see the northern lights, plan to go out every night the weather is agreeable. You can see them from many of these locations, read how to catch the Northern Lights! It’s not as easy as it seems.
- Bring crampons! If you’ll be exploring on your own, crampons will help you walk around the icy and slippery areas. These are okay to carry on (not as spikey but also not as effective) and these you need to check your bag.
- Allot 50% more time in each location than you expect if it’s winter. If it’s slippery, it takes longer to walk around.
- Icelandic Horses: We didn’t visit any specific locations with Icelandic Horses, but they are all over the island. We pulled over twice when we saw them near a fence. The owners didn’t seem to mind, but that may not be true everywhere.
- For planning purposes, you most likely won’t be able to drive yourself to the far east or north side of the island. The roads are usually closed off.
Day 01: Arrive, Blue Lagoon in the morning, Pick Up Supplies in Reykjavik, Drive to Vik (see Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss on the way), Hunt for Northern Lights.
Day 02: Drive to Jokusarlon, Crystal Cave Tour, Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon and Ice Beach, Svinafellsjokull, Svartifoss if roads are open, Drive Back to Vik, Hunt for Northern Lights.
Day 03: Reynisdrangar, Dyrholaey, Solheimassandur Plane Wreck, Drive to Selfoss, Hunt for Northern Lights.
Day 04: Snorkel Silfra at Thingvellir National Park, Explore Random Roads, Scout Northern Lights Spot and Hunt for Northern Lights.
Day 05: Drive to Glymur, Hraunfossar & Barnafoss, Head to Kirkjufellfoss for Sunset, Hunt for Northern Lights.
Day 06: Drive the Golden Circle or take the Golden Circle Tour (includes Thingvellir, Gulfoss, Haukadalur Geysers), Snowmobiling on a Langjokull Glacier, Hunt for Northern Lights.
Day 07: Drive back to Reykjavik, Explore Reykjavik, Night out on the town or Pack Up / Rest.
Regardless of the season, there are limited places to stay when you leave Reykjavik. It’s always best to book your hotels early. 2016 was predicted to have 4 to 1 tourists to locals, so even though Reykjavik has more options, it’s crowded everywhere.
- Hotel Selfoss Review (our hotel in Selfoss)
- Hotel Glymur Review (our hotel in Akranes)
- Click here for the best deals in Reykjavik
- Click here for the best deals in Vik
FOR OUR NEXT TRIP
If you know how these following spots are in the winter, please let us know!
- Seljavallalaug Thermal Pool
- Landmannalaugar + Landmannalaugar Thermal Natural Pool
CHECK OUT OUR RECAP VIDEO
MORE ARTICLES ON ICELAND
- What to Pack for Iceland in the Winter (10 Days in a Carry-On)
- 10 Things No One Tells You About Visiting Iceland
- 11 Things You Must Know Before Visiting Iceland
- 11 Interesting Things to Do in Reykjavik
- How to Catch the Northern Lights
- Snorkeling Between Two Continents at the Silfra Fissure
- Exploring the Crystal Cave in Vatnajokull National Park
Are you more likely to visit Iceland in the summer or winter? Which of these would be at the top of your list? If you have any other questions, please leave them in the comments, so that everyone else can benefit. :)
ESTHER + JACOB
Esther and Jacob are the founders of Local Adventurer, which is one of the top 50 travel blogs in the world. They believe that adventure can be found both near and far and hope to inspire others to explore locally. They move to a new city every year and currently live in Portland, Oregon.