Iceland in Winter 2016 Trip Report

By John Shaw on Apr 13, 2016

Some proposed alternate names for this year's Iceland in Winter tour:

  • The "first time this has ever happened" tour. Just weeks before we were to start our trip, a major movie company moved into a northern Iceland location where we were scheduled to spend several days. All hotel space was monopolized, and the limited number of hotels bounced tourists to accommodate cast, crew, and support staff. Roads and locations were to be closed at times to allow for filming. We were forced to change our plans, and would head west instead of north. This change actually worked extremely well for us. One of our new locations turned out to be a favorite waterfall shoot for everyone. 
  • The "what's the weather like now?" tour. We had thick fog, full sunshine, drizzle, driving rain, snow squalls, and wind so strong it was hard to stand upright. And that was all in one single day. Trying to figure out what to wear for a field trip was easy: take everything with you on the vehicle, as you'll need it all at some point during the day.
  • The "how do you say that?" tour. The Icelandic language is basically Old Norse, and to Americans the local names are almost impossible to pronounce. So…Stykkishólmur, Grundarfjörður, Kirkjubæjarklaustur, Borgarfjörður, Fagurhólsmýri...(yes, we were at all these locations).

Our group of 14 met in Reykjavik at a downtown hotel for a first night dinner. Most people had arrived a day early, so were able to spend a bit of time exploring the town. The next morning we boarded our two specialized four-wheel-drive vehicles (one with a trailer for luggage) and started our expedition. We planned to base at three locations, and then explore and photograph the surrounding areas at each of the locations.

Our first destination was the small village of Vik, the southernmost settlement on the southernmost point of the Iceland coast. Right at Vik are tall basaltic headlands, with large seastacks just offshore, including the Reynisdrangar group that legend says were trolls turned to stone when caught out in daylight. Close to Vik are many impressive waterfalls, and just to the east are extensive moss-covered lava fields, deep green when wet.

From Vik we followed the Ring Road further east, staying at a guesthouse near Jökulsárlón, the famous "iceberg lagoon" in Vatnajökull National Park. The park is named after Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Iceland covering a bit more than 8000 square kilometers and, for that matter, the largest glacial mass in all of Europe. Jökulsárlón is a glacial lake at the head of the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier. Icebergs calved from the glacier gather in the lake and then slowly drift out a narrow exit channel to the ocean. Tidal currents, wind, and wave action throw some of the ice back onto the black sand beach. So, face inland and you can photograph glaciers, lagoon, and icebergs. Go to the beach and you have blue ice on black sand with ocean waves advancing and draining across the sand.

From our guesthouse location we explored both to the east and west. Thanks to our special vehicles, we were able to access glaciers in several locations besides directly at Jökulsárlón itself. Continuing east on the Ring Road we drove past the fishing town of Hofn to photograph both the Vestrahorn peaks from the black sand dunes at Stokksnes, and then, a bit further on, the sharp peaks of Eystrahorn. Heading back that evening after dinner we noticed that an aurora was starting to appear, so we frantically searched for a place to park and photograph.

We had had two earlier tries at photographing the northern lights, both times at Jökulsárlón and both times with a low forecast of auroral activity. Our first attempt was a "zero" in terms of photography (we were barely able to tell if there actually was or was not an aurora) but a "ten" in terms of learning how to work cameras in the dark. It's not nearly as easy to do at night in the dark as when discussing the procedure in midday light. Our second try was better; not a great display but at least we all got some OK northern light photos. The third time, on the way back from Hofn, was a much better display, but it only lasted about 10 minutes. However, all of our previous practice paid off as we jumped out of the vehicles, set up tripods, and quickly composed shots.

Our third shooting location was the Snæfellsnes peninsula north of Reykjavik. Here we photographed Icelandic horses, with their flowing manes and tails, and several churches, including the unique small black church at Budir. A particular highlight for everyone was working Kirkjufellsfoss (Church Mountain Falls), which drops in two steps separated by roughly 50 meters. We photographed this waterfall late one afternoon in misting rain, then again at sunrise the next morning. Our final Snæfellsnes shoot was of spectacular waves crashing against the basalt cliffs at Londrangar, at the western tip of the peninsula.