Being a noob at traveling solo, I wanted to do as much as I could to set myself up for success, beforehand. This included a lot of research, pre-bookings and a minimal amount of ‘winging it’. I call this ‘controlled chaos’, which still leaves room for spontaneity but doesn’t threaten to ruin your entire vacation. Yes, I have control issues and a compulsive need to be organized This Blog is turning out to be more introspective than I intended! Moving on….…
Iceland is beautiful in every season and all-weather types. I’m sure you’ll see this statement over and over again, in every blog / article you’ll read about Iceland. It’s true! It’s hard to believe me right now, but you’ll see what I mean when you get there.
I would divide the seasons into three categories – Winter, Summer and Shoulder Season. As Iceland’s main attractions are the natural wonders and scenic views it offers, there are several activities that are very specific to the time of the year you visit. For my visit, I ended up picking the Shoulder Season (May) option for reasons I will explain below. I will definitely go back there someday to experience the winter and all it has to offer. Here’s a quick run through of what each season offers and what the possible drawbacks would be!
Winter: November – March
- Northern Lights / Aurora Borealis (mid Sept – mid April): The northern lights are only visible when the sky gets completely dark and is relatively clear of clouds. This is simply not possible anytime from mid-April to mid-Sept as the sky never gets dark enough for the phenomenon to be visible.
- Natural Ice Caves (Nov – March): The Ice Caves at Vatnajökull Glacier are open only during the winter as it is too dangerous to keep them open once the ice starts melting. The ice caves are supposed to be a beautiful vision with blue ice all around (Blue Ice is formed inside of a glacier where the sun cannot reach).
Tip: The Langjokull Ice Cave is open all year around, but please note, this is man-made cave and not a naturally occurring one and is a very different experience all-together.
- Bad road conditions due to snow and ice. Higher chances of road closures and tour cancellations.
- Shorter days with 4-8 hours of daylight
- On the Ring Road, a lot of places that provide accommodations (privately owned farms or guest houses) are only open during the summer months. Might be a bit of a challenge to find a place to stay in when on the road.
Icelandic winter, from what I’ve heard, is harsh! Although, if you’re from Canada or northern Europe, you might actually have it worse. As my ideal plan was to do a road trip of the Ring Road, I decided winter would not work out for me. Though the ring road is well maintained, snowfall and ice on the road and subsequent temporary closures, would be inevitable. I just wasn’t up to taking the risk. I will definitely go back just for the winter though!
Summer (June – August):
- Midnight Sun (late June – early August): You can experience the phenomenon of the midnight sun in any part of Iceland. Basically, it means that the sun never sets completely before rising again for the new day and thus giving you 24 hours of continuous light! I was there in May and the sun would set at late as 10:45 PM and rise as early as 4 AM. This itself amazed me, so I can’t even imagine how crazy ‘midnight sun’ would be.
- Puffins (April – Sept): These adorable migratory birds flock into the country during the summer months by the thousands.
- Whale Watching (June – August): If sailing into the sea looking for whales is something you’re interested in, then Summer is the time to go. While the peaking season is the summer, you can still go whale watching a couple months before and after.
- Into the Volcano Tour (mid May – August): This tour takes literally takes you into a dormant Volcano tunnel! You can see the beautiful patters caused by the magma eruption from when the Volcano was active. It is a once in a lifetime experience and the only volcano in the world that is open to tourists entering and exploring.
- Glacier Lagoon (May – Sept): The lagoon is made of all the run-off ice and water from the glacier. You can go on a boat tour and drift between pieces of blue glacier ice for a surreal experience. The tours are only open from May to September.
- Highland Roads: These roads are gravel roads that lead off the ring road and are open only during the summer with strict restrictions on car types that are allowed to drive in. The land is untouched and views are supposed to be amazing.
- As summer are the tourist heavy months, you might see more people around from June – August.
- Hotels and Car Rentals are most expensive during the summer months due to a high demand for them.
I did not want to go to Iceland during peak tourist time. I wanted to be able to enjoy the isolation the country can offer. Also, summer bookings fill up crazy fast, as people book 4-5 months in advance and I wasn’t sure of my plans to make that kind of commitment.
Shoulder Months (April – end of May, Sept – mid Oct)
- The shoulder months mark the beginning and end of the Northern Lights (early April and late Sept), Puffin migration (May and Sept), Volcano Tour (late May), Glacier Lagoon Boat Tour (late May and Sept) and Whale Watching tours (Apr/May/Sept/Oct). Thus, depending on how you co-ordinate your trip, you can still catch one or more of these phenomenon at their starting or ending points.
- Ring Road conditions are generally good during these months with minimal snow and the weather flits between cold and warm.
- Fewer people are around during these months and as a result hotels and car rentals are generally a little cheaper.
- Farms and guest houses around the rind road are still opening up or closing out during these months, so find accommodation is still relatively easy.
- There could be several natural and unpredictable reasons why an activity might not work out in Iceland – cloud cover, bad weather, road closures, change in the general pattern of the natural occurrence, etc. With shoulder seasons, the risk of missing a season-specific activity is higher than usual. While it is possible to view the Northern Lights and / or Puffin clusters, avoid making it the highlight of your trip.
- Ice Caves and Midnight Sun are out of the question during these months.
This was my calling! My main goal of the trip was to drive along the ring road and stop at as many attractions as possible. While I wanted to try out as many activities as possible, I wasn’t particularly set on any of them. Also, being a budget traveler, I was all for cheaper flights, hotels and car rentals. I ended up picking the third week of May and lucked into being able to do a lot of the summer activities. There were activities that had just opened up for business that very week I was among the first groups to try it for the season.