Iceland Northern Lights Tour | Aurora Borealis Tours | TravelQuest
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Iceland Northern Lights Tours

A land of volcanoes and Vikings; hot springs and cold glaciers; dancing lights above and lava-covered fields below. This is Iceland—an island of contrasts and stark beauty, of elves, trolls, and unique Icelandic horses. Iceland’s other-worldly landscapes have made it a must-see destination for many travelers as well as the film industry.

Travel groups to Iceland may also encounter another out-of-this-world sight. If the weather cooperates, the northern lights—the aurora borealis—can be seen dancing overhead at night. This northern island is well situated when it comes to the appearance of these spellbinding celestial lights.

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Why an Iceland Aurora Tour

Witnessing the spectacle of the aurora borealis is high on many people’s bucket list, but to see it you need to be in the far north. All prime aurora-viewing locations lie beneath a narrow, invisible doughnut-shaped region in the sky called the auroral oval. Iceland sits directly beneath this oval, making the island one of the best places to catch sight of the northern lights. The aurora is a more-or-less permanent feature of our planet’s high latitudes. But be aware that these ghostly celestial lights are not visible, from May to August inclusive, due to Iceland’s perpetual daylight.

The best thing about our Iceland northern lights trips is that no matter where we go, we’re always under the aurora oval. Whether we’re near Reykjavik (the capital), driving along the beautiful south shore, exploring the island’s interior, whale watching in the far north, or traveling in the (almost) tourist-free Westfjords, each evening of our journey presents another aurora-watching opportunity.

During the day, it’s the magnificent Iceland countryside that spellbinds us as we visit sight after sight. Depending on our itinerary, we may explore numerous large, thundering waterfalls and even walk behind one; stroll various lava fields including a fairy-tale-like lava sculpture park; climb a volcanic cinder cone; visit folk museums to discover how Icelanders lived less than 100 years ago; or have a relaxing soak in a geothermal bath.

Of course, Iceland also means Vikings. In Reykjavik, several museums celebrate the country’s Viking heritage with exhibits on the settlement of the country. You can also learn about the famous Sagas, written stories about Vikings in Iceland, some of which are nearly 1,000 years old. Beyond the city, we may stop at a recreation of a Viking longhouse, see the excavated ruins of a 900-year-old one, or visit the replica Viking turf-house of Erik the Red whose son, Leif Erikson, is said to have ‘discovered’ America.

But above all, Iceland is volcanic landscapes, stunning waterfalls, and the aurora borealis.

Walking behind Seljalandsfoss provides a new perspective on waterfalls. (Photo by Paul Deans/TQ)
Reykjavik’s downtown core is very walkable and has numerous museums. (Photo by Paul Deans/TQ)

Experience Iceland and the Northern Lights

Our northern lights tours to Iceland are unlike most of the aurora trips offered by other companies. Of course we spend one or two days exploring the sights in and around Reykjavik. Even though the city is small, there is plenty to see, and Viking history abounds. But the aurora borealis is best seen where the lights are few and the skies are dark. Being based in Reykjavik for most or all of our Iceland aurora tour is not for us.

Since seeing the northern lights is our priority, we include as many dark-sky nights as possible on our trips. This means that most of our time is spent in the amazing Icelandic countryside. Here we stay at remote hotels or guesthouses with quick access to the outdoors from our rooms. This makes for easy and comfortable northern lights watching at your convenience. Our trip astronomer is with us for the entire journey to explain science behind the northern lights, help you capture images of it, and wake you if an aurora display appears after you’re gone to bed.

Each appearance of the aurora borealis is different. Sometimes, it’s nothing more than a faint, elongated, glowing patch of light, resting quietly above the northern horizon. But if the Sun is active, that glow could expand into an arc of green, brightening and curling like a wave rolling through the sky. Vertical rays might reach toward the zenith even as the arc spreads across the sky. If we’re really lucky, the radiant curtain of light ripples and pulses, the base of the arc turns a pale red, and the display stretches from horizon to horizon. After a while the activity decreases, the brightness fades, the curtains collapse, and the celestial light show ends as it began—as a pale, green arc stretching low across the northern horizon. All this is visible in a dark sky just steps from the warmth of your lodgings.

Of course, the weather is never always perfect, and that’s certainly the case in Iceland. Spotting the northern light depends on the local weather cooperating and the activity level of the Sun. (The northern lights have their origin in the Sun’s solar wind.) But when everything comes together, the northern lights can leave viewers awestruck.

In Thingvellir National Park, the slow expansion of Iceland is clearly visible. (Photo by Paul Deans/TQ)
Steaming geothermal landscapes abound in Iceland. (Photo by Paul Deans/TQ)
Reynisfjara, Iceland’s black sand beach, is magnificent in any weather. (Photo by Paul Deans/TQ)

Iceland’s Stunning Scenery

When planning an Iceland northern lights trip, keep in mind that there is no guarantee you’ll see the aurora. So it’s often said: Go for the scenery, hope for the northern lights. The aurora borealis is almost as unpredictable as Iceland’s weather. But thanks to the island’s incredible scenery, it’s well worth the journey. Volcanoes, geothermal fields, hot springs, moss-covered lava flows, glaciers, and waterfalls are all part of TravelQuest’s amazing Iceland itinerary.

One unusual fact about Iceland is that the island is continuously expanding, albeit at the very slow rate of a mere 0.8 inches (2 centimeters) per year. Icelanders sometimes joke that millions of years from now, Iceland will be large enough to be called a continent. The results of this expansion are most obvious in Thingvellir National Park, an hour northeast of Reykjavik. Here you can stroll beside a towering cliff wall of solidified lava that is part of the North American plate, while gazing across the rift valley toward the Eurasian side of Iceland.

Thingvellir is one of three sites that comprise the ‘Golden Circle,’ a must-see excursion when visiting Iceland. The others are the Geysir Hot Spring Area, where every few minutes the geyser Strokkur shoots water 100 feet (30 meters) into the air, and Gullfoss, the ‘Golden Falls,’ Iceland’s iconic, thundering waterfall.

Iceland may have more waterfalls, per capita, than any other country. On the south coast is magnificent Skógafoss (with the excellent Skógar Museum nearby) and Seljalandsfoss, a tall cascade of water you can actually walk behind. In the north is Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Iceland, and majestic Goðafoss, the ‘Waterfall of the Gods.’ Dynjandi, in the Westfjords, is cited by some Icelanders as the country’s most beautiful waterfall.

There are at least 30 active and extinct volcanoes in Iceland. Perhaps the most famous is Eyjafjallajökull, which erupted in 2010 and caused a major disruption in air travel across parts of Europe. On the Snæfellsnes peninsula in west Iceland is magnificent Snæfellsjökull, a 700,000-year-old glacier-capped stratovolcano that last erupted some 2,000 years ago. In Jules Verne’s 1864 novel Journey to the Center of the Earth, he placed the entrance of a passage leading to Earth’s center on Snæfellsjökull.

One benefit of so many volcanoes on the island are the fascinating fields of frozen lava and numerous steaming geothermal landscapes. South of Reykjavik lies Seltún, an area with smoking fumaroles and boiling mud pots. The landscape is a colorful blend of minerals, including sulfur, deposited by the geothermal waters. Thanks to the sulfur, the area’s rotten-egg smell is unmistakable.

Farther east along Iceland’s south coast is the little town of Vik and Reynisfjara—a black sand beach once described as one of the 10 most beautiful beaches in the world, and the only cold-water beach so designated. Flanked by enormous, multi-sided basalt stacks, with mist rising from the crashing waves of the north Atlantic, this beach is a unique site, even for Iceland.

We prefer to stay at country lodges, so the aurora is visible right outside our door. (Photo by Paul Deans/TQ)

Look North While Flying

To visit this exceptional island, you’ll need to fly. From North America, it’s an overnight flight. If you’re traveling to Iceland between September and April, consider choosing a window seat on the left side of the aircraft (the north side as the craft flies to Iceland). Three to four hours before landing in Keflavik (Iceland’s main international airport), keep watch out the window. It’ll be dark, and if you’re lucky, you’ll be treated to a display of the northern lights—a wonderful start to your Iceland aurora tour.

Join Us in Iceland

Our favorite time period for an Iceland northern lights trip is the end of summer, close to the autumn equinox. The temperatures are pleasant, the hours of darkness are gradually increasing (but there’s still plenty of daylight for sightseeing), and there is colorful fall scenery. And there’s science behind our choice of viewing dates. Around the time of the autumn equinox (September 21st or so), the Sun and Earth are aligned such that Earth’s magnetic field lets in more charged particles from the Sun than at other times of the year. This means the northern lights tend to be more active in late September than during other months.

If seeing both Iceland and the northern lights are on your bucket list, why not combine the two into one amazing Iceland trip. Contact us to learn about our next Iceland aurora borealis tour to this island of fire, ice, and the northern lights.

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Header image by Paul Deans/TQ