Seeing the northern lights is a pinnacle life experience. And watching the ever-shifting lights flicker in the sky above mountains, glaciers and vast lava fields is particularly breathtaking.
In Iceland, the aurora borealis attracts everyone from professional photographers to travelers that have the phenomenon on their list of things to do before they kick it. You’ll have the best chance of seeing the night lights when it’s cold and dark outside and the aurora activity is high.
The cold isn’t a factor, but the sky has to be clear, which it usually is on extremely cold nights.
The phenomenon is caused by solar winds, which push electronic particles to collide with molecules of atmospheric gases that cause an emission of bright light. The best time to see the northern lights in Iceland is from October to March.
There are forecasts predicting visibility at vedur.is, the national weather website. When the forecast is strong, it’s best to drive (or take a tour bus) to a dark area and look up.
Below are some of the best spots on the island to see the northern lights.
South: City lights
Staying in Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital and the only city, with no access to a car? That’s OK.
The northern lights can be seen by taking a walk down to the Grotta lighthouse, where light pollution is at a minimum.
Other spots that might be dark enough are near the dome-shaped building Perlan (The Pearl), close to Oskjuhlid, or at Hljomskalagardur Park. For a short car ride, it’s worth considering Thingvellir National Park, site of Iceland’s first parliament, which is isolated and pitch black at night.
For visitors uncomfortable with traveling alone there are tours available. Reykjavik Excursions offers northern lights tours – buses depart regularly from downtown Reykjavik.
West: Beautiful backdrops
Lonely Planet recently named West Iceland one of its top picks for 2016. For good reason – it has everything: glaciers, mountains, lava fields, ice caves. When hunting for northern lights in the west, the Snaefellsnes peninsula and fishing villages like Akranes and Borgarnes are worth seeking out.
There are many interesting backdrops for northern lights photos here, including the Snaefellsjokull glacier, black beaches and miles of interesting rock formations.
Lighthouses are favored by photographers as great spots to capture the aurora borealis, and Akranes lighthouse – just 40 minutes from Reykjavik – is one of the best.
The lights streak and dance over the sea with minimal light pollution. Arctic Adventures offers tours in the west, including a northern lights tour by super jeep.
North: Dramatic landscapes
Northern Iceland is home to some of the most dramatic landscapes on the island – including thundering waterfalls and geothermal hot spots.
The unofficial capital of the north, and Iceland’s second most populous town, Akureyri is at the center of it all. The town has a thriving art scene, snow sports, chic shops and good restaurants. The open terrain with a small population and low light pollution makes it an ideal destination to catch a glimpse of the aurora.
Extreme Iceland offers a two- to three-hour northern lights tour during the winter. Other good locations for independent travelers include the mighty Dettifoss waterfall and the lush Lake Myvatn.
East: Isolation and sheep
For anyone seeking isolation, the east is the least populous region of Iceland. In fact, it’s more common to encounter sheep than humans.
The east is home to the actual “ice” of Iceland, as Vatnajokull glacier looms over farms and vast expanses of desolate land. Jokulsarlon, the glacier lagoon, is by far the best place to see the lights in the east.
The lagoon features huge blocks of ice that are endlessly breaking off the glacier, and large icebergs float along in the water. The lagoon isn’t wide but it is up to 250 meters deep, making it the deepest lake in Iceland.
Icelandic Mountain Guides offers tours that include a Northern Lights hunt at Jokulsarlon. Stand along the ice, bundle up in your warmest clothes, look up and enjoy the show. It’s worth keeping in mind that the weather is unpredictable in Iceland. It’s best to check the roads (road.is) before heading out on a northern lights hunt, or any excursion.
Based in Reykjavik, Iceland, Jenna Gottlieb has been published by the Associated Press, Dwell Magazine, The Independent, New York Post, Reuters, Reykjavik Grapevine and others.