Are you traveling to Iceland in the off-season and unsure what conditions you’ll be met with? Then you’ve come to the right place! Even after months of research prior to our trip, I still arrived unsure of what to expect. This was because most Iceland travel sources highlight information related to travel in the summer months. Therefore, this post is specifically geared towards filling that gap, and providing information for travelers who are venturing to Iceland in the shoulder seasons. My two kids and I journeyed around Iceland via camper van in early April, and had a remarkable experience.
You’ve laid the groundwork for your trip, collected the proper gear, and secured your camper van reservation. Here is a peek at how Iceland looks in April, what is accessible, and what to be aware of. If you have questions still left unanswered, please ask in the comment section below!
Note on traveling with kids ~ the beauty will make you want to stop every 5km for pictures. This will annoy your children greatly. Do it anyway.
Let’s start with the most practical piece ~ road conditions. While I can’t tell you the forecast (that would be pretty amazing if I could), there are a few tid-bits I learned along the way. Drive at or under the speed limit – obviously because it….ummmm…. is the law. But also because a gust of wind or an unexpected bump or ice on the road could derail you pretty darn fast. And because the roads are single-lane in each direction, with steep cliffs on one side at times, the odds really aren’t in your favor.
Study up on Iceland’s road signs , focusing on the warning signs. The sign below signals Uneven Road, which my kids took to calling out “boobies!!” every time we passed one.
Tunnels. Iceland has some really awesome tunnels, some of which are long enough that you truly start to think there’s no end.
Single-lane bridges. Single lane = one car only. If in doubt, let the car opposite you go first.
The only time we experienced rough road conditions on the Ring Road was through a mountain pass just South of Egilsstaðir, in NE Iceland. A layer of ice and snow forced us to dramatically slow down. Thankfully, we made it through without incidence that day, but one poor truck driver was not so lucky.
Many of Iceland’s famous waterfalls can be accessed directly off the Ring Road, year-round:
- Seljalandsfoss. This fall originates from the volcano glacier Eyjafjallajökul and falls 200 feet. Immediately off Ring Road in South Iceland.
- Skogafoss. At this fall, there is a long, steep staircase which will take you up to the tippy top of the falls. Immediately off Ring Road in South Iceland.
- Svartifoss. Forget about the water, check out the lava columns! A relatively easy hike in from the Skaftafell Visitor Center in East Iceland (elevation gain).
- Godafoss. Simply stunning. Immediately off Ring Road in North Iceland
- Kirkjufellsfoss. Iconic mountain/falls combo pic. Immediately off Ring Road in West Iceland.
The waterfall combo you won’t want to miss and hopefully road conditions allow for a visit: Dettifoss and Selfoss.
It’s a solid 45 minute drive off the Ring Road in Northern Iceland to get to these two falls, and the road was a bit snowy/icy in early April. From the parking lot, it’s about another 20-30 walk in to see the falls. No elevation gain, but in deep snow it certainly makes for a good workout!
Of course, the most popular beach attraction for visitors to Iceland is Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach. Due to its popularity, even in the off-season there are bus loads of tourists. But don’t let that deter you. It’s a stunning beach and so worth the visit. We saw a lot of sea birds nesting in the rocks, but sadly it was still too early for puffins. We did not trek out to see the plane wreck ~ if you’ve been, how was the hike out and what were your impressions?
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach were a winning combo! Climbing on giant chunks of ice? Yes, please! The colors, patterns and textures in the ice are absolutely brilliant. These are also immediately off the Ring Road, and accessible year-round. If you travel in Winter, there are also opportunities for guided ice cave tours.
As for driving around the island, all along the Eastern and Western fjords there are many beautiful beaches to stop and enjoy, provided you have the layers to stay warm!
Practicality forced me to write about road conditions first, so I’ve been chomping at the bit to finally start talking about hot springs! After all, this is the main attraction to Iceland, is it not?
There are loads of hot springs in Iceland – wild, developed, and semi-developed. In the off-season, you may not be able to drive the highland roads and access them all. But don’t fret. There are several to enjoy along the Ring Road.
A very short jaunt off the Ring Road, and an easy 30-min walk (no elevation gain) on an earthen trail, brings you to Seljavallalaug. In early spring, it’s a teeth-chattering transition to donning a swim suit, and then getting back into clothes, in the freezing outdoors. Particularly when the temperature of the pool is really only luke warm. But, hey, when in Iceland!
Gudrunarlaug natural hot springs in the West is a sweet little dip. The water was a nice temp, but the rock tub itself was covered in green slime so I opted for a nice foot soak. It’s a bit of a trek off the Ring Road, so I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s worth the trip. However, if you are driving further into the Western fjords, then it makes for a nice stop.
Grjótagjá Cave thermal spring, for all you GOT fans. It’s a very short drive (~ 1 minute) off the Ring Road, and signs clearly mark the way. The temperature of the water is very hot, but I managed to dip my feet in quick bursts to enjoy the spring. One poor lad dropped his phone into the pool, and necessity forced him to go in after it…..
Myvatn Nature Baths is right off the Ring Road, and if you make it to Northern Iceland, this is a must-go hot springs! Similar in form to the infamous Blue Lagoon, but much more affordable, less crowded, and has a more relaxed vibe.
Blue Lagoon. It’s proximity makes it a destination for all travelers to Iceland. I will not tell you whether you should go or not, because I don’t want to be held liable for any future regret you may have, either way. Coming soon is a post specifically about the Blue Lagoon, and from that you can decide for yourself whether it’s worth it. Stay tuned…
If these springs aren’t enough, then satisfy your urge to submerge by visiting the local swimming pool. Every town has one. Seriously. Every, single town. And they are glorious.
Volcanic Activity/Geothermal Fields
If you make it to the North in the off-season, whether by driving around or flying in to Akureyri, the geothermal fields are spectacular.
Namafjall geothermal field is immediately off the Ring Road, and is an open area where you can walk freely around the field. Some sections are marked with rope, but absent any dedicated boardwalks and pathways you’d normally find (such as in Yellowstone, for example), you can walk wherever you please. The ground was covered in thick, heavy mud, and it was a good thing we wore our snow boots, as the layers of mud were easy to wash off later at the campground.
In this same region of Iceland, Myvatn has numerous gigantic volcanic craters. I enjoyed a sunrise hike up Hverfjall crater, with not a soul in sight. This crater is 1,000 meters in diameter, and offers a stunning view of the valley. In early spring, the road to the crater’s base was a risky endeavor, but you can park on the main roadside. It’s about a 6 km hike, and the final summit push along the rift was very steep and icy. But so worth it!
Not all campgrounds are open throughout the year. All campgrounds open May 1st, but if you are traveling outside the summer season, be prepared with knowledge. Stay tuned for another week or two, as I will be writing a post specifically outlining open campsites, contact info, amenities and reviews based on my experience.
Aside from Reykjavik and Akureyri, all other towns we passed ranged from small to very small. The appeal in stopping or slowly driving through was enjoying their charm.
Although not bustling in terms of business, you could usually rely on finding a gas station, a market/grocery, maybe a restaurant, and a local craft/handwork store. In the summer season, there may be more going on, but the early spring was pretty quiet in these towns.
When you go through these small towns, I recommend:
- Chatting with the ladies at the handwork store. You will want them to adopt you.
- Stocking up on needed supplies. This could include groceries or yarn. Because yarn is arguably a “need.”
- Check out the harbor. Lost of beautifully colored boats framed against the snowy mountain peaks.
- Swim at the local pool. Awesome way to enjoy Icelandic culture and meet people.
In early April, most sheep were still indoors and getting ready for birthing season. Whales and puffins are still elusive around this time, but later in April will see their imminent arrival. One thing you can count on when you drive around Iceland in April are seabirds and horses!
Check out my short post on Animals in Iceland, published on the Rent.is website.
Skogar Folk Museum, where you can enjoy both the outdoor section of the museum (turf houses, an old school house, and church) and indoor museum (full of artifacts from Icelandic history and cultural development). As far as museums go, we actually really enjoyed this one!
A visit to snowy Iceland would be incomplete without paying our proper respects to the Yule Lads. Wandering through the snow covered Land of the Yule Lads, Dimmurborgir (Dark Fortress), under towering lava rock formations felt nothing short of magical!
A short detour off the Ring Road in Western Iceland will take you to see Eiríksstaðir, the homestead of Eirik the Read and birthplace of Leif the Lucky.
Right off the Ring Road in Eastern Iceland, 5 km North of Hofn, you will find the Viking Village. This is an abandoned movie set, but in the off-season if you are the only visitor you can pretend otherwise.
The rewards are great if you are adventurous enough to travel to Iceland in the off-season. Beyond the draw of fewer crowds, the vistas are that much more stunning when framed by ice and snow. If travel via camper van isn’t your style, renting a car and staying at inns along the way is a wonderful alternative.
Please share your thoughts, ideas and questions about Iceland travel in the off-season! Any other hidden gems you found that you’re willing to share with us?!
Read More on Iceland:
The Magic of Iceland (CamperStory submitted to Rent.is)
Animals in Iceland (CamperStory submitted to Rent.is)