Viewing the Northern Lights in Iceland – Worth it or Not?

Viewing the Northern Lights in Iceland

Viewing the northern lights in Iceland isn’t as easy as the internet makes you believe. My initial thoughts were 1. I am going to be in Iceland during prime viewing – February, so I am bound to see them 2. According to the weather forecasts shows clear skies every night 3. They are going to be visible everywhere and look like a photo straight off of Instagram.

What could go wrong?

I went to Iceland for a long weekend in February with three of my girlfriends (Erin, Carly, and Meg), we did a mini road trip hitting the Snæfellsnes peninsula on the west, headed north to Akureyri, and then back down to Reykjavik. Our first night we stayed in a quaint cabin next to the most photographed mountain in the country, Kirkjufell.

And this is where the hunt for the northern lights begins…

Kirkjufell Cabin
Our cabin in near Kirkjufell, Iceland
Kirkjufellsfoss, Iceland
The other side of the Kirkjufell with a foss.

The plan

Before arriving in Iceland the team did some research on how to view the aurora, we downloaded apps, saved websites, and asked those who have previously seen them. We became amateur meteorologists overnight.

I order to have the best chance of viewing the lights we came up with a Lookout Plan. Erin, Carly, and Meg would rotate waking up at odd hours throughout the night and glance out the windows. If the lights were there, they’d holler for the rest of us to wake up.

As you see, I didn’t play a role in this nonsense. I shared a bed with Carly and strategically chose the spot next to the wall. I’d have to climb over Carly in order to see the window, waking up Carly in the process. Not fun to Carly or me so I got a “bye” from lookout duty. You could say I’m sneaky or smart.

Throughout the night I heard various alarms going off, the girls would scramble to look out the window for a minute then drowsily make their way back to bed. To no avail the ladies didn’t spot the northern lights.

New location, maybe better luck?

The next evening we stayed in a cabin a few miles north of Akureyri in the northern part of Iceland, also one of the best places to view the lights.

Our first night in the cabin was a dud, cloud coverage all through the evening. A part of me was relieved, I got my own bed at this place so if we stuck to the “lookout plan” from the night before I was bound to have to set my alarm and get up in the middle of the night.

Do you see what I see

Our second night in the cabin looked promising. According to our apps/websites there was going to be clear skies from 9PM-12AM and a moderate to high chance of aurora activity. We decided to nix the lookout plan and stay up until the clouds rolled in.

I had the fabulous idea to turn the lights out to better see outside. A little creepy? That was my point. To pass the time we cracked open some beer and spied on the neighbors. The cabin across from us looked like a bachelor party or a dwelling for illegal activity. They had the window blinds open, music blaring, and booze galore. I can’t tell you how many cars pulled up and dropped people off at this house, at least eight. Did I mention these cabins weren’t necessarily large? We definitely needed to see what was happening at this cabin.

Girls Weekend in Iceland
From left to right and top to bottom: Erin, Me, Meg, Carly. And yes, I caught Erin and Meg in the act!

To best find the lights we each had a role: 

Erin – The Spotter
She was constantly going from window to window gazing up at the dark skies. Erin was also the most positive about seeing the lights, she was sure we were going to see them that night.

Meg – The One With the Internet
Our internet was spotty to non-existent in the cabin, only one person could be browsing at a time. Meg was our aurora gal, she had her app up and would shout out excitedly “we have a 17% chance of seeing them right now” then a few minutes later “Guys! We are at 19!”

Carly – The Voyeur
I am not too sure what Carly’s role was in seeing the northern lights, and that was at no fault to her. There were too many “cooks in the the kitchen” and not enough internet juice to go around. I also think she enjoyed watching the scene unfold.

Me – The Storyteller
I love to scare people, their reactions make me giggle. As a kid, I’d jump out in front of my brother all of the time. He’d scream and then go whine to our parents. In college, I played several pranks on my sorority sisters; from putting a screaming Halloween mat under my roommate’s pillow to hiding behind doors and making spooky sounds. Naturally, with all of us sitting in a dark cabin in the middle of nowhere I felt like it was the opportune time to tell a little Icelandic ghost story.

Earlier in our trip we learned about Axlar Björn, Iceland’s first serial killer. He lived in the 16th century and prayed on unsuspecting travelers. If you’d like to know more about this creep click here. I figured I’d tell my own tale of Axlar to the girls, I asked them in my most spooky voice “do you want to hear a story?” In unison the girls answered “No!”, but in my fashion I continued with my tale. The story was neither scary nor appropriate for me to share with you.

While I was going on and on about Axlar, Meg would occasionally shout out the probability we had for seeing the lights, Carly might have been sleeping with her eyes open, and Erin was glued to the sky.

The chaos ensues

It was a shit show, at one point Meg peered out the kitchen window and said energetically that she saw dark swirls in the sky. My response “those aren’t the northern lights but are dementors”. Regrettably, Erin and Meg are not Harry Potter fans, thus not getting my attempt at a joke. However, this is when I realized Carly was awake because she gave a little chuckle.

“We are at 24%!” screamed Meg. This percentage meant nothing to me, I needed a solid 65% before I left my position on the couch. Erin shouted, “Guys! Guys! I think I see them! Look over there, that white stuff“. Now, I know what you are thinking, isn’t the aurora supposed to be green? The aurora can range from white to any shade in the rainbow, green being the most common you see in pictures and red and purple being very rare. I looked out the window and saw the white thing she was talking about. I shrugged it off as being a wispy cloud.

Moments later Erin yells, “No, I really think that’s them!”. We all hustle to the window and peer out into the night sky. This time the white wisps were a completely different shape. Trying to get outside as quick as we could we hustle about the cabin like little elves trying to grab our winter wear and cameras.

We were definitely looking at the northern lights, but…

Some shots of the lights

It just wasn’t what I was expecting. I imagined green swirls dancing across the sky. The lights we saw were white and could easily be mistaken for clouds. However when viewed on our DSLR cameras the color looked green, don’t ask me why I am a complete amateur when it comes to using my fancy pants camera.

*After some research, the human eye can’t process the colors and cameras pick them up much better.

My thoughts on chasing the northern lights in Iceland

It is a crap shoot. Let’s go back to my initial thoughts:

  1. February is prime viewing time – that is true but don’t be fooled into thinking you are going to see beautiful greens in the sky. You are most likely going to see white lights.
  2. Iceland’s weather forecast shows clear skies – the weather changes in an instant, it could be snowing one moment and clear the next.
  3. They are going to be visible everywhere and look just as beautiful as the pictures I’ve seen on Instagram – well we know that is just a down right lie.

I had given up all hope of spotting them and then out of nowhere they were in our front yard. We used this northern lights forecasting site and well as an app called Aurora. I am glad that I saw them and I can share with you that I wouldn’t waste money going on a tour to view the northern lights. To me they weren’t that impressive from the naked eye. Maybe if I knew a little more about my camera then I would be more amazed but who wants to be staring at their camera all night to get the best shot?

Check out Meg’s take on our adventure hunting the northern lights.

Have you seen the northern lights? What are your thoughts? 

Viewing the Northern Lights in Iceland
Northern Lights, Iceland

20 thoughts on “Viewing the Northern Lights in Iceland – Worth it or Not?”

  1. Great share…When we were there in September last year, I can say that we “saw them” but we definitely did NOT “experience them.”

    We were in Akureyri as well, and what we saw was a small showing of white lights. We only knew they were Northern Lights because they “danced” across the sky. Very faint, but they were there and so were we. ????

    We are going back, hopefully next fall and I hope we have better luck. We are wanting to camp in the West Fjords.

    Thanks for keeping me entertained and educated about traveling…you are a ROCKSTAR!!!

    1. Thanks Janelle! You are the best. 🙂

      Definitely check out Grundarfjordur in the west fjords. It is where we stayed and where Kirkjufell is located. It was beautiful.

  2. Thanks for the real perspective! I bet a lot of people see manipulated photos on Instagram and then are disappointed by not being able to see the Northern Lights. Your struggles aside, looks like you had a fun trip with your girls!

  3. Thank you for sharing! It has always been a dream of mine to see the northern lights. I was even in Iceland last September but didn’t get lucky.
    I completely agree with you that the lights look much more in pictures! It’s a shame but something I must check off my bucket list.

  4. It’s always refreshing to read honest reviews – I saw the Northern Lights in Tromso 2 years ago, I was impressed & would go out of my way to see it again, including in Iceland as I haven’t been there before, so I’ll take your advice in consideration, cheers

  5. Great article! I love how personal your writing is. I know the struggle of not seeing the Northern Lights though. I’m from Canada so I can see them all year long, but the one time we had a friend come over from England to see them and they just wouldn’t show.

    If you want to see them again, I’d recommend checking out Aurora Village in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories Canada. You can see them around Regina or Saskatoon, Saskatchewan too, but Yellowknife’s website says they’re the best place in the world to see them.

    As for your bit about Axlar Björn, I’m going to be checking him out. I’m totally into creepy stuff like that! 😀

  6. Thank you for your honesty. This is in my list but I’ll probably approach it with some caution now. I love your writing style and thought it was a very written piece ????

  7. It’s good to read an honest opinion about going just to see the Northern Lights, since it’s something I’d like to experience. My father used to view them from the cockpit window of a plane (he worked as an airline navigator before instruments took over all that). The way he described them, they WERE amazing! But please, do tell me the rest of your trip was a good one…?

    1. When researching our trip we were told the best place to see them was from the airplane, so we stayed up the entire flight with our eyes glued to the sky…no luck. Haha. But yes, the entire trip was fabulous, even though we were slightly disappointed by the lights.

  8. I love your writing voice, totally kept me entertained! My hubby is a photographer and it’s likely he’ll want to do this one day, but I’m kind of over it before it even happens!

  9. Yes, I did. But I perfectly understand how tricky it is! I traveled to the far north of Finnish Lapland and to Finnmark (close to Nordkapp) in Norway, in December 2015; there were barely 2-3 hours of weak daylight so there was a plenty of time to see the lights. Or not? When the sky was perfectly clear, there was no activity. Next day the forecast was much better, but there was a snow storm! The third day it was still cloudy, but we could see some lights above clouds since clouds were moving somehow. The fourth day was clear, and the lights were dancing!!! We were all amazed.

  10. How interesting! I would have shown up expecting to see them easily. Good thing you did research and had a good team. 🙂
    I suppose Instagram has distorted things for us a bit. I felt this way in Thailand.
    Thank you for sharing!

  11. Haha, good to know its not that easy to see them. Iceland seems like a very trendy place to go right now, thanks for bringing it closer and onto my list of places to visit.

  12. I was in Iceland last year and it has been one of my favorite places. I wish seeing the northern lights were as easy as people make it sound.

    I booked a tour with Grayline. In two occasions, the tours got canceled because it wasn’t cold enough.

    I kinda gave up and thought I wouldn’t have the chance to see them before I flew back.

    Here I was on my day in Iceland. Long story short, I missed my flight. As you know the airport is in Keflavik, 45 mins away from Reykjavik. So I decided to book a hotel in Keflavik to spend the night before I fly back the following day.

    As I was checking in and talking to the concierge. He told me that the northern lights would be visible tonight and I could watch them from my room.

    I was so excited! Though annoyed I didn’t get to go home as planned but happy I got to see them!

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