It’s no secret that Iceland has some stunning scenery. Its geography is just fantastic.
In fact, huge parts of Iceland are totally barren — uninhabited and uninhabitable. You could drive for miles without seeing anything.
But when it gets good, it gets really good. Nature does not get much more extreme than volcanoes. But more visually spectacular are its waterfalls — and, of course, the northern lights.
This picturesque waterfall is easily visible from Iceland’s main Route 1 road in the south, between the towns of Hvolsvöllur and Skógar. The water runs off the glacier of the infamous Eyjafjallajökull volcano, before dropping off the cliff edge of Iceland’s former coastline.
Seljalandsfoss also has lots of smaller waterfalls for neighbours across this long cliff edge, which makes for a spectacular sight.
During summer, it is possible to walk around the back of it. Unfortunately this wasn’t possible when we visited. Near the waterfall, the pathway became treacherously icy from the spray. It was a struggle to even remain standing up. That didn’t deter some brave people from attempting to make their way closer though.
Further along the Route 1 road is Skógafoss, an even more spectacular waterfall. This is a much more forceful waterfall, with a different sort of appeal to Seljalandsfoss.
It is possible to climb steps up the adjacent hill. It is quite a climb, and although the stairs are good quality, it is not the easiest to climb in the icy conditions.
At the top is a spectacular viewing platform overlooking the top of the waterfall. It is rather scary, because the design means that you can see directly below the platform, and just how high up you are. I don’t have a head for heights, so I was slightly nervous taking this video.
According to legend, Viking settler Þrasi hid a treasure chest behind the waterfall. Only a ring attached to the side of the chest was ever retrieved. The ring initially took pride of place on the door of Skógar church, and is now in the local museum.
This volcanic crater was certainly spectacular looking. It’s just a shame we were unable to stay for longer.
We visited on probably the coldest day of the holiday, and this exposed area had a very stiff breeze. I have never felt such an intense burst of coldness, and we were able to stay for literally one minute.
That explains why this photo isn’t the greatest — not just because I’m not a very good photographer!
Probably the biggest town between Reykjavik and our accommodation near Hella was Selfoss. Like many towns we came across, Selfoss is a mixture of the functional and the jaw-droppingly beautiful.
The cold weather made the Ölfusá river that runs through Selfoss a spectacular sight, with huge chunks of ice swirling around in the intensely aqua blue water.
Clearly, a huge part of the appeal of visiting Iceland in the winter is the prospect of seeing the northern lights.
Going in summer for that would be no good, as there can be daylight for up to 22 hours. But when we visited, the days lasted only around four hours, with reasonable daylight for about six hours.
So if you want to go to Iceland to see the scenery, winter is not the time to go. Not only are the days short, but it might be difficult to get around because of the weather.
However, a winter trip is worth it all if you get to see the northern lights.
We had been hoping to see the lights while we were in the remote accommodation near Hella. Some of those night skies were tantalisingly clear, allowing for spectacular views of the stars. However, there was no solar activity.
On 1 January, while we were in Reykjavik, the northern lights forecast became good. So we booked tickets on a northern lights tour with Reykjavik Excursions.
These buses basically drive you out of Reykjavik, apparently without really knowing where they will go. They just drive to where they think the sky will be clear and you will be able to see the northern lights. If you don’t see the northern lights on your first trip, you can use your ticket again a second time for free.
We were lucky to have an fantastically entertaining and informative tour guide, Höskuldur Frímannsson. He could probably give many professional stand-up comedians a run for their money, and he mixed his highwire comedy routine with highly educational observations on the northern lights, with an obvious and genuine passion.
His proof of why the moon is made of cheese has to be heard to be believed. If the other tour guides are half as good as this, you’ll be guaranteed a good time.
We caught our first glimpse of the northern lights from the bus. Soon enough the bus driver pulled over to allow us to take a better look.
It was an incredible sight, although oddly it does not look anything like as spectacular with the naked eye as it does in photographs. The long exposures required on photographs of the northern lights exaggerate the effect quite a lot.
Moreover, the lights were dancing only briefly. For the most part, it was like looking at a cloud made out of light. Our guide told us that we had seen an average display; about 6 out of 10. It makes me want to go again to see an 8 or 9 out of 10 display!
It is quite a sight to behold, and one item near the top of my bucket list has now been ticked off.
We also got this awesome photograph of the group in front of the northern lights. We had to stay still in the freezing cold for 30 seconds to pull this off — but it was worth it! What a photo.