Chasing The Northern Lights – Iceland

As some of you might already know, I got to see The Northern Lights in Iceland on my most recent trip to Europe.

The Northern Lights - Iceland

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The journey, however, has been in the making for years.

I’ve been chasing down the Northern Lights since I first discovered them via one of my mom’s screensaver images 16 years ago.

I became extremely INTRIGUED by the lights, obsessing over pictures of them. The Northern Lights always looked like the closest thing to the galaxy to me–with their green and rarely pink aurora glow, dancing in the sky so perfectly.

As a kid, I used to dream and wish to one day see them. Even though I knew how rare the opportunity was, I remained a firm believer that everything is possible, and that meant I could one day have the chance to see them with my own eyes.

In the recent years, I have become more and more obsessed with them.

My original plan was to stay at the ICE HOTEL in Norway (which, of course, is still a bucket list item) and catch the lights. After a few serious conversations with friends in a sad attempt to plan the trip, I realized I was going to have to fly solo. There are just too many clashing schedules in the adult world.

The Northern Lights - Iceland with pink

This summer was when I said to myself, “that’s it! You’re going this year”. I didn’t want to depend on anybody else to make my dreams a reality. I was finally going to see the Northern Lights if my life depended on it.

Now, there is more than just the sudden decision that goes into seeing the Northern Lights. There are tons of factors that go into whether or not you will be able to spot them. Most importantly is the “when”. The Northern Lights are most visible from November to January, but even more so in January in Iceland! I wanted to maximize my chances. How much would it suck to come all that way just to be thwarted by the weather? The obvious decision was to head to Iceland in January, and that’s exactly what I did.

Which still didn’t promise anything…

Here are the best tours in Iceland for seeing the Northern Lights:

I picked Iceland because, at the very least, my other bucket list item was waiting there for me; the Blue Lagoon. Besides, who hasn’t thought going to Iceland would be awesome!?

The Northern Lights over ocean

I planned a four-night trip to give myself some time to see the lights. I knew that if I did, Iceland would be the highlight of my Euro-trip! (SPOILER: it totally was — Iceland, The Place Where Dreams Are Made!)

On my flight, of course, I paid extra to get a window seat, giving myself the chance that I MIGHT see them through my plane window. Nothing happened.

Every night during the months when the Northern Lights are most visible, there are tours, like Gray Line (which I highly recommend) that go out in search of them; but again there are no guarantees. If you booked a tour and didn’t see them, you would be credited to see it again whenever you picked–if there was room. This is one of the reasons why I loved Gray Line so much.

Although that sounds like a good deal to some, it wasn’t to me. I didn’t care about getting my money back, I’d pay five times as much if it could guarantee that I would be in the same place at the same time as the Northern Lights!

The Northern Lights - Iceland over ocean green

When I landed in Iceland Keflavík airport, it was already night time. I took a shuttle to the Reykjavik (capital city), where I was staying. I was constantly looking out the window in anticipation of the lights, but no luck.

I arrived at the Loft Hostel, which is beautiful! I absolutely loved it. It was perfect and had a shabby chic feel to it, but I also picked it because it had a great roof top. That way if I had problems sleeping or they did randomly appear, I had a good view.When I arrived there, I met a guy who told me he saw them the previous night from the roof of our very own hostel! He showed me a photo and I was completely blown away!

After meeting him, we sat down with a few other people staying at the Loft. They were drinking beers and telling amazing Northern Light stories. I was absolutely jealous of them and even more so that I didn’t come a day sooner. Through hanging out, I kept randomly running out to the roof-top balcony in hopes that I might see them. I nearly went nuts, but still no luck.

The Northern Lights - Iceland ship

I had booked the tour with Gray Line for the next night. I knew that when I landed, I would be too tired from traveling for that much activity. The weather forecast for my entire week in Iceland changed dramatically and it looked like it was going to snow every day, which wasn’t a good sign for me. I was pretty bummed out but kept trying to think optimistically.

The next day I was scheduled to go to the Blue Lagoon. I was told that every day the Northern Lights by Gray Line tours sends emails around 5-6pm to let people know if it’s canceled. If you didn’t get an email, then it’s a-go!

BUT, I got the email that started off with “Unfortunately…”

Ugh! I was getting frustrated and almost scared that I wouldn’t be able to see them.

The next day, the weather got even worse. I had experienced some MAJOR snow storms and was starting to lose hope.

I was doing a tour of southern Iceland by the same company that does the lights tour, which I was rescheduled to go on at 7pm that night. This was crazy because the tour that I was on started at 10am and ended at 7pm, which meant I had to seriously run and try to make it to the lights tour on time.

On top of that, I wouldn’t have a proper meal all day because the tour was set to end past 12am! You can only imagine my exhaustion after that long day of hiking in the freezing cold, being sick and hungry; but I didn’t care! I wanted to see THE LIGHTS!!!

The Northern Lights - Iceland beautiful

The entire day, I was freaking out about whether or not the tour would be canceled. I couldn’t wait until 5pm to see if I got the email. On top of being sick, I was cold and starving. I figured that if my tour got canceled, I would be happy to go back and get some sleep!

Then, it happened! The guide of our tour said the lights are ON, it’s a GO! Suddenly an insane amount of energy came over me, filling me with shock and disbelief! I was going to finally see the Northern Lights!!!

I wasn’t hungry or cold anymore. The moment those words came out of her mouth, I found myself with more energy than I knew what to do with.

There were three tours going out that night at 7pm, 7:30pm and 8pm. I did the Southern Iceland tour with two friends I met my first day. They wanted to do the 8pm tour so that they could change clothes and grab some food. I really didn’t want to risk missing the lights, so I hopped on the 7pm tour.

During the tour, you are driven around different parts of Iceland in the hopes that you will see something. The tour company has different people at different locations that they call every night searching for the lights. The thing is, Iceland is a big country and the Northern Lights aren’t predictable. They can appear for a few seconds or can last minutes, not hours and not at a fixed location. They change shapes, move around quickly and can disappear in an instant, kinda like a rainbow.

seeing The Northern Lights - Iceland hofit kim cohen

So it’s not uncommon that by the time the bus arrives at the location it was commanded to drive to, the lights are already gone! Imagine the frustration. You literally have to chase them down all night, only on the hopes, you MIGHT catch a few seconds or minutes of them. Even once you’re on the bus, they let you know that there is no sure way to guarantee a sighting.

We started driving and I was ecstatic! This was the moment I was gonna make one of my biggest dreams come true.

We drove for about 45 minutes and made a stop to see if there was anything outside, but there wasn’t. So we kept driving for another 30 minutes, everyone eagerly staring out their windows. I kept moving seats from one side of the bus to the other to make sure I didn’t miss it. I was restless!

FINALLY, the tour manager said “I spotted one! I spotted one! Stop the bus!”

Ahhhhhhhh!!!!

 hofit kim cohen during the northern light

Everyone struggled to get their cameras out, put on their jackets and run outside the bus. We were all filled with excitement!

It was a small, minor glow that was hard to see with the naked eye. Through a camera lens, you can see it clearly, but I couldn’t really see a thing. I was getting annoyed, thinking, “this is what I’ve been waiting for my whole life?”

I asked her, “Are you sure it’s not a cloud?”, she looked at me and laughed, saying “No! It’s the lights, can’t you see the way it’s glowing?”

Clearly, I was blind or she was crazy because I was not impressed and couldn’t see much. I asked her what she would rate it from 1-10. She said it was a 4, maybe a 5. If this was a 5, I was clearly blind and was way too cold to stare at nothing in the sky. It was -10’C with heavy winds and I was looking up at a sky of disappointment.

At that very moment, we got a phone call urging us to rush to the nearest lighthouse where there had been a major sighting!

Ahhhhhhh!!!

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We all freaked out and ran back on the bus. Our awesome bus driver drove as fast as he could to get us there. This was another 45 minute drive, but it felt like ages!

We finally got to the light house and BAM, a huge rainbow-shaped green glow was flying over our heads. Now, THIS was The Northern Lights! Just like magic, it was swerving in the sky in circles, in a rainbow shape. It was moving pretty fast, in a random and unpredictable way. I was hypnotized and at a lost for words. If anything did come out of my mouth, it was “WOW” on repeat.

We went into the lighthouse museum after it disappeared. The second floor had a bar set up with cocktails, hot drinks and all you can eat desserts. It also had a balcony, which was a great place to spot more lights while keeping warm by simply going in and out, since it was crazy cold.

I went outside for a moment and the lights came out too! They started forming themselves into different shapes, just like in the famous photos you’ve seen of them. They were moving so fast throughout the sky–some across a long, rainbow line, others like a cloud shape. These ones were literally dancing before our eyes, like magic fairy dust!

Then, it happened; the lights were turning PINK! There was no mistaking them now, these were clearly the magical Northern Lights!

The Northern Lights - Iceland green and pink magic light

For the next hour, we kept running in and out to see them and keep warm because it was unbearably cold out. I couldn’t wait for my other friends to get there with the 8pm bus and see them! Sadly for them, by the time they arrived, they were all gone. A big storm came in and the sky turned cloudy, rainy and snowy in seconds and they literally missed it all by taking a one hour bus after me! Which made me so glad I went straight on the “LUCKY” bus!

The moment I got back on the bus, I fell asleep in seconds. It was such a long, cold, crazy and fulfilling day. I napped with satisfaction and a smile. I got back to my hostel at 1am, still smiling. I couldn’t wipe that look off my face! It took me about two hours to calm my nerves enough to fall asleep. All that was going through my head was, “I can’t believe I saw them! I really saw them! This is so crazy and unreal!”.

It’s pretty difficult to try and explain the feeling you get when you see them or how they actually look. Everything just happens so fast, that it’s almost hard to comprehend what is really going on between making your dream come true, freezing and trying to understand what you’re actually seeing.

beautiful The Northern Lights - Iceland

The best way I can describe it is like that first feeling you get when you FIRST saw a rainbow or a shooting star, but 10 times better! The Northern Lights is something so special and rare which is why it’s so hard to describe such magic.

I will remember and cherish this moment for the rest of my life. I feel so grateful to have experienced something so rare and beautiful.

*I was fortunate enough to see them again on my flight from Sweden to New York City, through my plane window.

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~All photos, except the first, are REAL and were taken the night of the sighting by the bus driver and a friend. 

 

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19 Responses to Chasing The Northern Lights – Iceland

  1. You’re so lucky, looks like an amazing sighting! I’ve wanted to see them for years, but am always put off by the cost of travel in the places they appear, and of course the lack of guarantee we’ll actually see them. Guess I should just bite the bullet and go for it hey 🙂

    • actually there are great deals! I even found one last night for a friend on Groupon.com for $799, with flights, hotel and the northern lights tour for 5 days! I think its a great deal

  2. Your excitement at seeing the Northern Lights is awesome! My first experience (around 4 months ago) was quite similar to yours in that at first I wasn’t too impressed and then I was absolutely hypnotized! I now live in Northern Canada so I have the chance to see them at completely random times such as on a road trip last week at 2am in the morning. Thanks for sharing!

  3. So beautiful and breathtakin! I agree that Iceland is where dreams are made – I fell so in love with Iceland that I started my travel blog on the journey home! But – I went in the summer so haven’t seen the lights and I would love love love to get a chance to see them like you did, and through a plane window too – lucky you!!

    • Thank you!
      WOW really?! Ya, Iceland is for sure my new favorite country! I can’t stop thinking about it and I can’t wait to go back! I would LOVE to go in the summer

  4. I’m so happy that you got to see them! I’ve seen them once before in my life too, actually from my house in Southern Ontario (Canada)! It is EXTREMELY rare to see them from my location and I’ve never seen them again. It happened to be a particularly active night one time in November (I think of 2003 or 2004) and you could see them really far south for some reason. It was amazing. I’d love to catch another sighting – after I saw the Northern Lights, I became quite obsessed with them!

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