Written by Brian Heller
Photos by Dan Fish
5 trips in 26 months; and I keep finding myself wanting to go back for more! That’s what Iceland has done to me. Its hard to describe the feeling I get while visiting this country, which I have come to not just love, but admire for so many reasons. I have always struggled in frigid temps. Because my body had a hard time adapting to the cold, I grew up dreading the New England winters. The days are short and you can go a week without seeing a trace of the sun. Because of this, any trip I had ever taken was to a warm weather destination. So when I made the decision to venture to the arctic for the first time, I was truly stepping out of my comfort zone. Instead of packing board shorts, tanks, and flips, I was packing thermals, winter coats, and heavy duty boots for an August trip to the land of fire and ice.
The trip that changed it all
I remember stepping out of the airport for the first time and going to get my rental. The winds were fierce and the freezing rain felt like daggers to the face. That and being 430 am local time, I asked myself right away, why the hell did I decide to come to a place like this?! It didn’t take long before the sun started to rise, the clouds started to break, and the light was peaking thru in all directions. Between the multiple rainbows and the beautiful rugged landscapes, I couldn’t keep my eyes on the road. Within the first 3 hours in the country, I had experienced rain, hail, hurricane-like winds, and one of the most amazing sunrises. That is all it took- I was hooked!
The first trip was life changing! I had a whole new appreciation for cold temps, and remote destinations. I know Iceland has blown up over the past few years. So you might ask, how is this a remote destination? Anyone who has visited, knows that most tourists spend a majority of their time on the south coast, or on the golden circle. Tour buses cruise up and down ring road making the stops at all the iconic, Instagram worthy locations. But as soon as you get away from those areas, you could be in complete solitude. So much of the country is bypassed because it actually takes a little bit of work and physical endurance to reach. And its not even like they are areas that would be considered “hidden gems”. Skogafoss is a perfect example. Everyone that passes down Route 1 will stop in the town of Skogar to see this powerful waterfall. Some will walk right up and get soaked from the mist. Some will climb the 370 stairs to the top. But thats where 99.9% of people stop. If you followed the river in to the highlands, you would run in to another 20+ waterfalls, and they are all worth seeing! Also in the town of Skogar is Kvernufoss. Tucked away in a small canyon east of Skogafoss, this waterfall is totally worth the 5 minute hike and theres a great chance you could have it all to yourself!
Cruising through Iceland in just my Honda CRV, with no plans and no reservations, gave me the flexibility to go where I wanted, when I wanted. I camped when I felt like spending a night under the stars, and I rented a room in an Airbnb when I knew I would want to wake up and take a warm shower. (No, I didn’t shower every day) Camping is a true treasure of this island. Being able to set up your home for a night, at the base of Skogafoss, and waking up to the power of the water crushing from the 60 meter drop is a backpackers dream! A couple of other great spots to pitch a tent are Pakgil, Skaftafell, Hofn, and Asbyrgi.
After a week of exploring this country by myself, I knew I had to come back with a few friends so they could experience everything that I had. But instead of waiting for the warmer, longer days, we decided to take our chances in February. This decision led to one of the best days, and best weeks of my life!
Seeing the northern lights is something you’ll never forget- especially for the first time! My first encounter was just an all out epic day! We left Reykjavik at 2:30 am and headed southeast to the site of the US DC plane crash on Solheimassandur beach. With no real road, and a lot of snow and ice, it was an event just getting to the plane. We followed super jeep tire tracks and after about 10-15 mins of driving we finally reached it. My buddies and I spent a solid hour having some fun and just checking out the plane. Then we looked up and out of nowhere the aurora was dancing thru the dark sky. There was a lot of screaming and shouting of pure joy. The feeling was indescribable and it gave us all a huge high moving forward to crush the day. We ended up hitting site after site on the southwestern part of Ring Road, before ending up on the Snaefellsnes peninsula for sunset. Mount Kirkjufell is the most iconic mountain in Iceland, and if you’re able to catch a killer sunrise or sunset there, you’ve really lucked out. Not only did we catch a great sunset, but 40 minutes later, the northern lights came back out, lighting up the sky and Kirkjufell. Twice in the same day we were blessed with one of natures most amazing sites, and I know its a day the three of us will never forget!
Summer vs Winter
If you’ve visited Iceland once, and loved it, go back 6-8 months later. Its amazing how different the country is summer vs winter. The winter is harsh, with the mountain tops dusted with fresh snow and endless amounts of frozen waterfalls. The days are short and you have the chance to see the northern lights. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can check out the ice caves, or snow mobile across a glacier. As the days start to get longer, the snow starts to melt, the spring flowers start to bloom, the arctic lupins sprout up everywhere, and the mountains turn green. Once June hits, you have 20+ hours of daylight, giving you a lot of time to explore parts of the country that are only accessible during the summer months. You can do the Fimmvorduhals trail, which takes you from Skogar up in to the highlands, finally reaching Thorsmork. Along the way, you are treated to amazing, and breathtaking landscapes with numerous waterfalls, a volcano eruption site, hiking between two glaciers, and finally ending in Godaland (land of the Gods) This hike is about 15 miles but is totally doable with a little bit of planning and preparation. Your main concern is getting back from Thorsmork to the town of Skogar. You can take a bus or hitchhike.
For me, visiting this country with people who are going for the first time is an experience in its own. Seeing peoples faces, and the joy that comes over them as they witness the places that I love is priceless. And the great thing about a country like Iceland, is that each time you go, the conditions will always be different, giving you a different perspective and a new experience. It could be the never-ending days of summer, where you see the sun set at 11pm, and rise at 1 am. Or the short, short days of winter. When the light, even though its brief, is magnificent all day. And again, the weather. If you visit Iceland, you better be able to embrace it all!
The capital city, which is home to 200,000 people, has a little something for everyone. You’ll have no problem spending a day exploring the city and checking out all of the bars, cafes, boutiques and restaurants. From the vibrant street art you’ll find on numerous buildings scattered throughout the city, and the music culture that Reykjavik is known for, being entertained won’t be an issue. If going out is your forte, the Icelandic nightlife will keep you satisfied. It is known that Reykjavik has some of the craziest nightlife scenes in the world! Some might blame it on the long winter nights, or even the endless days of summer- You can climb to the top of Reykjaviks most iconic landmark- Hallgrimskirkja (sorry Harpa) and get a beautiful view of the colorful buildings and mountains in the horizon. There’s also a plethora of parks and gardens where you can spend an afternoon relaxing.