Iceland Winter Road Trip Stats
Dates: Mar 7-13, 2020
Distance Traveled: 1829 km (1136 mi)
Coldest Temperature: -6C (21 F)
Warmest Temperature: 6C (43 F)
Max Wind Speeds: 20+ m/s (45+ mph)
Average Daylight Hours: 11 Hours
It feels kinda strange sitting down writing about an Iceland winter road trip in the middle of summer, but that’s what this Covid pandemic has led to. Since I can’t travel right now, I decided I’d vicariously travel through my old trips and get back into blogging. I haven’t written any posts since the end of 2019.
When we bought airfare to Iceland, the prices were significantly cheaper flying out of NYC JFK instead of Washington D.C., where my family lives. Like I typically do when searching for cheap flights, I used a combination of skyscanner.com and Google flights to track prices. Pro Tip: Always use a private web browser to search for airline tickets, because airlines raise prices on tickets if they see you frequently searching for tickets to a particular destination. Additional Pro Tip: Tickets are historically cheaper on Tuesday’s — not sure why but it’s true. The unspoken Tuesday rule worked for us too. The tickets dropped $150 each after being the same price all weekend long. We got our tickets for $460 round trip per person, which is a little higher than average. Another interesting “hack” I found was that it was about the same price to book a separate flight from DC to Toronto and then fly from Toronto to Iceland. We decided to drive up to NYC instead since it’s only about 4 hours away.
My brother, Jadon, and I lucked out this year with our Spring Breaks falling on the same week, even though we attend two different universities. Our planned family Christmas trip to Cancun, Mexico was canceled due to a family health emergency so we decided to go to Iceland because it’s been on my family’s bucket list, and because March is still winter in Iceland and within the window to see the Northern Lights if the night sky cooperates.
Fast forward to 1 day before departure.
COVID-19 is becoming a growing concern and Iceland has declared a state of emergency. 35 people have the disease in the Reykjavik area and the first 2 cases of community spread have been announced. We called Icelandair to hear our options about trip cancellation due to the pandemic since we had travel insurance. Turns out travel insurance doesn’t help you at all for a pandemic so our tickets were non-refundable but they would let us change the date; most of our hotel rooms were non-refundable that we booked a few weeks earlier. I was more worried about getting stuck in Iceland or being quarantined during our trip than actually contracting the disease, and with quite a bit of money invested in the trip, we decided to risk it for the biscuit!
I’m going to write in depth on each of our days in Iceland so this blog post will be pretty long, but you can skip from day to day using the sidebar. (The sidebar is not available on mobile, sorry! Happy scrolling)
Day 1 – Exploring Reykjavík
I didn’t sleep much on the plane because I was so excited for this Iceland winter road trip; Iceland’s been on my bucket list for years. A land of fire and ice, with plenty of green moss thrown in too. People always say Iceland is the green one and Greenland is the cold one. Well in winter, Iceland is very much a black and white landscape; very unique and beautiful.
My first impression after hopping off the plane into the Keflavik airport was the color scheme of pink, purple, turquoise, and lime green. I felt like I was in a trendy European country already haha. My Dad and I picked up a 12-pack of Einstök beer (really good) from the duty free store and paid about $20 USD (WTF). Iceland is notorious for having expensive food and alcohol prices, so it wasn’t much of a surprise, but it was still somewhat sad handing over $2.700 Krona for a 12-pack of beer. However, the international airport has some of the best prices for alcohol on the island, so stock up before heading out. The staff was also very knowledgeable about their product line; we picked up some of their Icelandic brew suggestions when we returned for the journey home.
We took a shuttle to our car rental place and were given our trusty 4WD Dacia Duster for the week. I’d never heard of this brand before but they were everywhere we went, seemingly all driven by tourists. Although it’s not a very roomy 5-seater SUV, the Duster had 4WD and kept us warm and safe. Because snow is common in March, 4WD is a must if you’re driving outside of Reykjavik. And get ready for tons of roundabouts! Also, if possible, try to get a diesel rental because it costs a bit less and is available throughout Iceland.
Now that we had a car, it was time to figure out where our first stop should be. We couldn’t check into our hotel in Reykjavik until 2pm and the sun was just starting to rise so we decided to go check out Blue Lagoon for sunrise. We didn’t end up swimming at the lagoon but it was still a great site to stop and see.
After Blue Lagoon we stopped at a Kaffi shop to eat some coffee and pastries for breakfast. And saw some chocolate KaKa (cake) – so good! Caca means poop in several languages so I had a nice laugh about that.
Similar to beer, food is VERY expensive on the island. According to Eurostat, Iceland had the 3rd most expensive in Europe in 2018. Our breakfast sandwiches at the coffee shop were over $60 USD for 4 breakfast sandwiches, 3 pastries, and 2 coffees — probably the equivalent of a $30-40 meal from a coffee shop in the U.S. Luckily, we knew this ahead of time and didn’t eat out too much. We came stocked with an arsenal of breakfast bars, healthy snacks, oatmeal, and cereal so we could use our budget for other things.
Since it was Sunday, my dad really wanted to attend a service at the Hallgrimskirkja, which is a church that looks like it’s straight out of an epic fantasy novel. We arrived early and decided to take a quick nap in the parking lot since we were all exhausted from the jet lag. Unfortunately, I either read the wrong website or something got lost in translation because when we woke up to attend the service, it had already started and the ushers asked us politely not to enter. Maybe next time. As a side note: Tourists are allowed to go to the top of the church for views of Reykjavik for a small fee which provides excellent views of the city.
Next, we headed to our hotel for an early check-in. Our reservation was at Odinsve in the heart of Reykjavik. They have two locations, the main hotel and an apartment style building a block away from the main hotel, which is where we stayed. The apartment was on Reykjavik’s famous Rainbow Road with a perfect view of the church and the water. The apartment had 2 bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchen. It’s more geared toward an extended stay and I totally recommend it and would stay again!
After another quick nap we went out to explore Reykjavik some more. We walked back up the road to the church to see if we could go inside. Now we could! The inside of the church was a large open cathedral with arching ceilings and equipped with a massive pipe organ. By chance, a student organist was having her senior recital for college, so we were allowed to stay and hear the organ in action.
We then wandered around some more and checked out some of the coastal streets of Reykjavik. Down by the water, there’s a sculpture called the Sun Voyager of a viking boat with excellent views of snow capped mountains across the bay.
For dinner, a local recommended a restaurant called Block Burger near our apartment, tucked away on the edge of a parking garage. When we got there it was closed, even though the sign said it should be open. We were bummed, burgers sounded great. My dad tried opening another windowless door attached to the restaurant and there was a guy inside cooking burgers in a kitchen. He yelled something at us in Icelandic and we all ran away laughing. After going back to the apartment to look up some alternate restaurants we stopped by Block Burger one more time, just in case. And lo and behold, 30 mins later the restaurant was open and packed. They made some delicious burgers. It didn’t quite make my top 10 list (I’m a burger connoisseur) but I’d say my top 20 list.
Sun sets at around 6:30 in Iceland in March, so after dinner it was already dark and time to go Northern Lights hunting. We had clear skies all day (which is pretty unusual) and our northern lights tracking apps said there was a 10% chance to see the aurora. About 30 minutes outside of Reykjavik, we drove onto a side road near a power plant searching for the lights.
“Dad, stop the car!” I thought I could see a faint green hue in the sky; I couldn’t tell if I was actually seeing the aurora or if my eyes were playing tricks on me because I wanted to see them. I put my Sony A7rii on a portable tripod on the top of the car, pointed my camera at that area of the sky, and there they were! This was a big bucket list item checked off for my whole family.
After a few minutes of enjoying the very dim northern lights, we thought that maybe the minor light pollution from the power plant could be affecting our view, so we drove to another random, darker location to hopefully catch a better look. But after two more hours of sky gazing, we unfortunately didn’t see any more northern lights. In fact, this was the only night of the entire trip that we saw the aurora. Several nights were forecast to have high northern lights potential but it was just too cloudy, as it frequently is in Iceland. But still, at least we kinda saw them, through the lens of my camera!
Day 2 – The Golden Circle
Day 2 was Jadon’s 20th birthday! They grow up so fast :’D. What better way to celebrate than taking a mini road trip around Iceland’s Golden Circle. (https://guidetoiceland.is/best-of-iceland/top-9-detours-on-the-golden-circle)? The golden circle is a 300 km loop just outside of Reykjavik that features several popular nature destinations. All of the sites are pretty evenly spaced out as well, so the drive time went by really fast. We took the northern way around the loop, which I’d recommend because I felt like each site got better as we continued along.
Before leaving for the day, I was cleaning my camera lens at the hotel. I had just bought a new Tamron lens for the trip and while carefully wiping it down with some lens cleaning tissue paper, a piece of dust made a sizable scratch on the lens. I’m still sad about it. So far I haven’t noticed any loss of image quality at least, which is a relief. Then… about an hour later, my camera strap randomly broke while it was hanging around my neck. WTF! Luckily, I caught my camera as it started falling so it didn’t smash into the ground. The photography gods definitely were not on my side this day.
The first stop on the Golden Circle going clockwise from Reykjavik is Thingvellir National Park. Thingvellir is a rift valley with a handicap accessible trail in between the cliffs as well as some additional lookout points up on the rocks. There is also a small waterfall (for Iceland standards) about halfway through the valley, which was completely frozen when we went. I saw a lot of hype for this national park on the internet while I was researching places to see, but I didn’t really feel it. It’s still worth the stop though, since it’s right off the road of the Golden Circle. Maybe it looks cooler in the summer?
One thing you have to try while in Iceland is a hot dog from a gas station. That’s what I was told from a few people who had been before, and now I’m telling you. In the states, buying a hot dog from a gas station would be a huge mistake, but in Iceland, they can actually be very tasty. AND CHEAP. Our first gas station hot dog experience in Iceland was pretty mediocre, but we tried one more time 2 days later in Snæfellsnes peninsula and they were really good.
The next stop along the Golden Circle is the Geysir geothermal and hot springs area . It is so popular in Iceland, that there’s a clothing brand, Geysir, named after it with shops and advertisements all over Iceland. We were greeted by the wonderful smell of sulfur, which smells just like rotten eggs. But that smell was a good sign; geothermal activity was near!
I think the snow and winter weather gave this park even more of an otherworldly feel than it normally would. Up to this point on our trip, the Icelandic landscape had been coated in a fresh layer of white snow, but there was a lot less snow here. We could see long golden grass and small flowing streams with hot steam rising out of the ground in every direction.
We watched the big geyser, Strokkur erupt several times. For a brief moment, I could see the aqua colored water bubbling up before it erupted into a huge white column of water and steam around 50 feet tall. I didn’t time it, but it seemed like the eruptions were about 5 minutes apart.
A few kilometers off the road of the Golden Circle was my favorite spot of the day. Gullfoss is a massive waterfall with a beautiful blue water color from glacier runoff. Fun fact: foss means waterfall in Icelandic, that’s why all the waterfalls have foss at the end of them, like Gullfoss. Since it was the end of winter, the waterfall was in between frozen and flowing states, which gave some serious Narnia vibes. Unfortunately, the lower platform for viewing the falls was closed because of the slippery ice-covered trail, but there were still several phenomenal viewing locations from up above. Gullfoss is in a pretty exposed location, there weren’t many mountains nearby, so there were howling frigid winds while we explored the falls.
An optional stop along the Golden Circle, which we elected to take, is Secret Lagoon. It’s another public developed hot spring. Secret Lagoon is typically much less crowded than Blue Lagoon and almost a third of the price; we paid around $30 USD pp at Secret Lagoon, whereas Blue Lagoon was around $100 USD pp.
The water isn’t as blue as Blue Lagoon but it’s still hot and perfect in the winter! The heat from the geothermal activity actually fluctuates throughout the pool, which I found pretty interesting. There were several hot spots that were scorching hot, but I could wade a few steps away and the water would feel just like a hot tub. Small note to keep in mind about Secret Lagoon: before hopping in the hot spring, everyone is required to rinse off naked in a group shower (seperate for male and female!). But hey, we’re all human, don’t let it stop you from visiting this unique stop along the Golden Circle!
We watched the sunset while relaxing in the hot springs so this was our final sightseeing stop for the day. It was too dark for us to see, but the last noteworthy stop along the Golden Circle is the Kerið Crater (https://guidetoiceland.is/travel-iceland/drive/kerid), a volcanic crater lake.
All of us were pretty hungry after just eating a hot dog and some granola bars all day. Once we got back to Reykjavik, we went to a restaurant called Kroft for dinner to celebrate Jadon’s birthday. Kroft is actually several restaurants sharing the same place, sort of like a gourmet food court with open seating. My dad and I got some delicious oven roasted pizza, which they cooked in record time, and my mom and Jadon both ordered seafood. I thought the food was very tasty and I really liked the atmosphere of Kroft. You can’t really go wrong here since they have so many different options.
For dessert we went to Eldur back on Rainbow Road a few buildings down from our apartment hotel. This quaint little shop served crepes, icecream, and coffee (https://www.facebook.com/eldurogis/). They had a mystery crepe option on the menu where you tell them a little bit about yourself and they make a surprise crepe for you. We split a mystery crepe and were given a HUGE and tasty strawberry fruit crepe with nutella and ice cream. It was definitely a cool and unique substitute for birthday cake.
After stuffing our bellies with so much good food, we walked back up to our flat and swan dived into bed early. Tomorrow was our longest planned driving day of the trip.
Day 3 – Driving Iceland’s Southern Coast
This is a good point in my recap to mention one of the most important things about an Iceland winter road trip. Stay flexible! Weather is extremely unpredictable in Iceland year round, and in the winter, snow can cause road closures. Even if it’s sunny in one part of the island, there could be a blizzard with gale force winds in another part.
SafeTravel.is is Iceland’s road status website that constantly updates as conditions change. It’s also mobile friendly so bookmark this website before you go! It’s a powerful tool and could save you from many future frustrations.
Our mission for the day was to drive to our reserved hotel near Glacier Lagoon in the southern part of the island. But when we checked SafeTravel, two sections of the Ring Road were marked as “impassable” due to snow. Here’s a phone screenshot of what we saw on the website in the morning:
We decided to go ahead and make the trip anyway, with a backup plan to find an alternate hotel in Vik along the way if the road didn’t open up. As soon as we left the city limits of Reykjavik and hopped on the Ring Road the driving conditions turned white knuckle. Because of the questionable conditions, we didn’t make too many stops along the way nor made good time. We wanted to reach our hotel before nightfall, plus we would be taking the same road back the next day. We were glad to have the 4WD!
Quick drive-by of Seljalandsfoss
Pit stop to see the black sand Beach in Vik
It turns out the roads really were impassable. There were earth movers out plowing the snow because high winds made a deep snow bank on the road.
When we were finally near our hotel in the evening, we decided to make one final stop at Diamond Beach. Ice chunks break off of the glaciers in the nearby Glacier Lagoon, then the current carries the chunks into the Atlantic Ocean, where a lot of the ice washes back up onto the black sand beaches. And, voila, Diamond Beach. I was hoping it wouldn’t be so cloudy so I could get some cool sunset pictures, but on the bright side, glacier ice looks bluer when it’s cloudy due to light diffraction. And the ice was BLUE.
The hotel we stayed at was called Hotel Smyrlabjörg, a hotel and sheep farm. Also super fun to say, Smyrlabjörg! It’s in an excellent location for the glacier tours and much closer than Vik or Hofn. They had free hot chocolate for us which was a nice treat after a very windy day.
Day 4 – Glacier Ice Cave Tour
If you ever find yourself in Iceland in the winter, there are two things you must try and do while you’re there. One is obviously trying to see the Northern Lights; there is a much higher chance of seeing them in the winter. The other is going on a glacier cave tour. It’s a bit expensive, but 100% worth it. The ice caves are only open for exploring in the winter months due to the safety risk of calving glaciers in the summer and ice melt. Another cool thing about the ice caves is that they change every year as the glaciers melt and refreeze. So, it’s pretty awesome knowing that I’m one of the few people who will ever see this particular ice cave before it morphs with the next winter season. Plus you can touch ice from the age of Vikings!
Everyone in my family said the glacier cave tour was the highlight of the trip. We used the tour company Arctic Adventures and booked the Crystal Cave Tour for $162 pp USD which claimed to tour the bluest cave in Iceland. It was definitely very blue, and very crystal-y(?). Our guide was great and showed us a lot more than just the ice cave. He also taught me how to pronounce Breiðamerkurjökull, the glacier we visited, which I’m very proud of haha. I’ll let the pictures I captured do the rest of the talking.
After the tour, we briefly checked out glacier lagoon one last time from the parking lot, then we were ready to hit the road again. But before leaving the area completely, we wanted to check out diamond beach again.
We went to the east side of diamond beach this time which was less crowded. There aren’t as many washed up icebergs as the west side, but there are some bigger ones. I’m not sure that’s always the case though. My dad and I crossed a sandbar to get a closer look at some of the big ones, but by the time we were done exploring, high tide was quickly starting to roll in and the sandbar was filling in with ocean water. We were the only people on the sand bar at this point and had a nice little crowd watching us to see what we were going to do. My dad risked it for the biscuit and ran across during a swell, getting his boots pretty wet. And I took off my boots and walked barefoot back to the main shore. Surprisingly the water wasn’t very cold, which was kind of ironic with snow and ice all around.
Our next hotel was back in the direction of Reykjavik, so we had the opportunity to check out some sites we missed the previous day. The first stop we explored was on the west side of Vik at Reynisfjara Beach. It has some impressive rock formations in the water as well as alien-like basalt columns. While I was shooting pictures of the basalt columns a huge wave rolled in and filled my boots completely with ocean water. Ocean: 2, Trizzle: 0. (Don’t underestimate the surf and undertow–a worker warned my mom that there are fatalities there every year.) When I took the boots off I turned them over and water actually flowed out of them. My feet were definitely cold the rest of the day and made squishy sounds wherever I hiked.
Our final stop of the day was Skógafoss, one of Iceland’s most iconic waterfalls. We arrived just after sunset but there was still enough light to soak it all in and capture a few photos. Because it was so late in the day, barely any people were there either == bonus!
We missed two stops on my list unfortunately, because we didn’t have enough light to check them out. The first one was Hjörleifshöfði, a cool sea cave a few kilometers east of Vik. There’s a road to get close to the cave in the summer, but it was covered in deep snow and would require a mile hike one-way from the Ring Road. Another unique site between glacier lagoon and Vik is the Navy plane crash. Visiting the crash site requires about a 2.5 mile walk one-way from the designated parking area. Next time for both of these!
We stayed at a pretty interesting “hotel” that night called Eldhestar. It’s a horse ranch that also has some hostel style rooms available to sleep in. Our room came with 4 twin beds and access to a common bathroom and kitchen area. The best thing about this hotel was the free breakfast! Out of the 5 different hotels we stayed at, this was the only hotel where we received breakfast, and it was a really good buffet style breakfast too. I think it was also the cheapest hotel of the trip, so another win there. Although the room situation is a little strange at Eldhestar, I totally recommend this place. Plus, you have the option for epic horse tours right at your doorstep. We decided it was too cold to spend hours sitting on a horse, but it’s definitely something I would like to try in the summer sometime.
Day 5 – Exploring Snæfellsnes Peninsula
I woke up to my dad shaking me awake, very concerned. He said “Trump signed an executive order, I need your help researching if we need to leave the country immediately or not.” Half asleep, I was confused.
March was still early in the Corona chronicles. So far China, Italy and Austria were the main concerns. But now, in the middle of the night (evening in the U.S.), Trump signed an executive order to block all foreign travel to the US from the EU. After lots of google searching we learned we were okay as US citizens, but all the airlines started canceling flights due to the order the day after our trip ended. We really got lucky with the timing of everything–we only beat the travel ban by 4 hours!
Day 5 on our Iceland winter road trip was dedicated to exploring Snæfellsnes Peninsula. I really wanted to see Kirkjufell, but other than that, I didn’t really know what else to expect.
Well as it turns out, Snæfellsnes Peninsula is pretty much a mini version of Iceland inside Iceland. It has epic mountains, volcanoes, black sand beaches (and a gold sand!), lighthouses, lava fields, glaciers, and more! A lot of people say if you’re crunched for time and staying at Reykjavik you should take a trip around the Golden Circle. And if you’re stopping to look at things along the way, that would take a whole day. I say if you’re crunched for time, head to the peninsula!
The roads to the peninsula are frequently closed in the winter due to snow but we lucked out. There were several roads closed in the center of the peninsula but we were able to cut through on the east side and do a counterclockwise loop.
The third item on my Iceland bucket list after seeing an Ice cave and Skogafoss (both accomplished!) was seeing Kirkjufell (https://www.west.is/en/west/place/kirkjufell-mountain), our first stop of the day. Kirkjufell means “Church Mountain” in Icelandic and is dubbed “the most photographed mountain in Iceland. You may have seen it before in a very famous TV Show that rhymes with Name of Bones.
Upon arrival, I thought my map was wrong. It was telling me we had arrived at Kirkjufell but it didn’t look like what I had seen in photos. I was seeing a long flat cliff in the water, rather than the Dr. Seuss looking mountain. It turns out there’s a particular vantage point by the falls that give the mountain that iconic look. As if an epic mountain wasn’t enough for a photograph, why not throw in a frozen waterfall in the foreground too!
Pressing on, we stopped on the side of the road for a sweeping view of the Western Fjords. It was pretty wild that the land off in the distance was not a separate island and still connected to the Mainland. We noticed another guy parked there and he was flying his drone around. It was time!
My buddy Taylor let me borrow his DJI Mavic before the trip, but up until now it had been way too windy the past 4 days to even consider a flight test. It was still windy, but seeing another drone in the air gave me the confidence to give it a shot. I was bummed about the wind so far… I had to get at least one flight in! This was our last full day and I had just been lugging around an expensive lunch box with a drone inside.
Another unique experience we did while in Iceland was climb a dormant volcano. Saxhóll Crater is a short climb to the top with a metal staircase and epic 360 views of the surrounding lava fields, water, and mountains. But beware of road conditions in the winter because the snow can get deep. One of our tires sunk in the snow and we had to dig it out–luckily there were 3 of us to push out the trusty Dacia Duster.
For the remainder of the day exploring Snæfellsnes Peninsula, there was something along the side of the road every 30 minutes to stop and admire.
The Malarrif Lighthouse had a very cool backdrop with snow covered mountains. There was also another black sand beach, but instead of sand there were smooth lava rocks grinded by the massive waves. And because there was no sand swirling around in the waves, the water was very blue.
Arnarstapi on Snæfellsnes Peninsula
If you’re considering taking a trip to Iceland in the winter, hopefully this blog post helped you make your final decision. Do it! Just stay flexible and it’ll be an awesome time. Iceland is very much a road trip country and there’s so much to see.
The landscape is wild covered in black and white. The cold weather makes swimming in hot springs that much more enjoyable. And ice caves! Many glacier excursions can only be done in the winter months, and I think it’s worth a trip to Iceland just to see one of these caves. If you have any questions/comments please comment below!