Spring in Iceland – a good time to travel?

After two trips to Iceland in the summer and two in the winter, traveling companion A. and I decided to give it a try in the spring. The period was more or less dictated by the Dutch May holidays, which this year largely fell in April. For nearly three weeks we traveled through the land of ice and fire. And the question is, of course, if it’s a good idea, travelling in Iceland in springtime. Spoiler: yes, although…

This was our itinerary. Red=airplane, purple=bus, orange=car, blue=boat, green=walking boots. Click here for a larger version

Catkins

If you go to Iceland at the end of April, you actually travel back in time about six weeks. It maybe April but it feels like early March. After the young leaves and the cherry blossoms you suddenly find yourself once again between crocuses and willow catkins. On a nice day, a coffee on a sidewalk cafe is not entirely unthinkable, but usually it is weather for scarf, hat and mittens. Sumardagurinn fyrsti, the beginning of summer, a public holiday in Iceland, fell on the first day after our arrival. But that beginning was, to put it mildly, somewhat hesitant.

Willow catkins against a background of a red corrugated metal facade with with window frames in springtime in Reykjavik, Iceland
Catkins in Reykjavik

Snow

We experienced all kinds of weather during our expedition. From clear blue to heavily overcast skies and from calm to howling storms. With the whole range of precipitation: rain, hail, sleet. In the last week the temperature dropped to just above freezing and fresh snow fell a few times, which remained for a little while. Even the Icelanders thought it was a bit on the harsh side. But all in all, we shouldn’t complain. Where during previous trips it sometimes poured for days, the rain was now limited to a sporadic drizzle at times when it didn’t matter so much.

snowstorm in the harbour of Stykkisholmur, Snaefellsnes, Iceland
Snow shower in the harbour of Stykkisholmur

Powdered sugar

And the snow was actually a bonus. Around this time, there is still quite a lot of snow on the mountains and ice on the lakes anyway. But such a fresh dusting of powdered sugar adds a fairytale extra dimension to an already otherworldly landscape. But you just can’t count on it. Weather reports from the past are no guarantee for the future. And the weather in Iceland is, if possible, even more unpredictable than in the Netherlands.

The church and library on the island of Flatey in Iceland surrounded by fields with fresh snow
Fresh snow on the island of Flatey

Closed

The consequence of that unpredictable weather is that some things are not yet possible. Many roads are closed. During a walk to Fimmvörðuháls pass we had to return half way because the path was still covered with meters of snow. And you never know which crevasses are hidden under such a snowpack.

A thick layer of snow blocks the hking trail towards Fimvorduhals in Iceland
Snow on the trail to Fimmvorduhals

Off limits

The entire interior, which is only accessible in summer via gravel roads with fordable river crossings, is still off limits in April and May. And it is precisely in that interior that some of Iceland’s most outlandish landscapes can be found. On the other hand, there is more than enough beauty to enjoy in the vicinity of the Ring Road, which is almost always open.

Kirkjufell, Church Mountain, an iconic mountain near Grundarfjörður on Snaefellsness peninsula in Iceland
Kirkjufell, Church Mountain, near Grundarfjörður

Daylight

As far as daylight is concerned, April/May turned out to be a good period. We were already a few weeks after the spring equinox of March 20, which means there’s longer daylight in the northern regions than in the Netherlands. The sun sets at about a quarter to ten at the end of April. And the twilight goes on for quite some time. The transition from day to night is very gradual: the golden hour before sunset and the blue hour after are relatively long. It doesn’t get really dark anymore. And in the morning it is already light for hours by the time a normal person wants to get up.

Sunset and golden hour at Myvatn (mosquito lake) in North Iceland
Golden hour at Myvatn

Aurora

That abundant daylight also has a downside: this is not the best time to see the northern lights, aurora borealis. It must be dark for that. Travel companion A. saw a sliver of the northern lights one evening around midnight, when I was already snoring. So it is not completely impossible, but if you really come to Iceland for the auroras, I would advise the winter months.

View from the mountains towards the town of Hvammstangi, the fjord and the surrounding landscape in the northern part of Iceland
Hvammstangi seen from a mountain trail

Volcano

One important advantage of spring is undisputed: it is less crowded. Since the eruption of  Eyjafjallajökull  in 2010, tourism to Iceland has exploded. There is no such thing as bad publicity: while the ash from the volcano kept planes on the ground all over Europe, many people apparently thought: hey, this Iceland, we should go there. As a result, one now has to share the wonders of Iceland with crowds of selfie-takers.

Skogafoss waterfall in Iceland with a rainbow and a very tall staircase
Stairway to heaven in Skogar

Cost

Partly because of this, the prices in the high season skyrocket. And Iceland isn’t cheap anyway; even at budget supermarkets Bonus and Kronan you walk out of the store crying. Travelling in spring is a good way to keep costs down a bit. But there is also a flip side to that. Part of the so-called tourist infrastructure is only set up in the summer months. Many hotels, restaurants, guesthouses and souvenir shops are not yet open at the end of April.

View from a warmly decorated and tastefully luminated living room towards a cold mountain landscape in Iceland
The winning guesthouse of this trip: Blomasetrid in Borgarnes

Public transport

And if, like us, you travel by public transport, you have an additional problem: outside the Reykjavik region, buses run much less frequently at this time, sometimes only a few times a week. It was quite a puzzle to put together an itinerary with those limitations. Fortunately, the buses of the transport company Strætó  almost always run on time and comfortable coaches are used on the longer distances.

Straeto bus stop in a snowy mountain landscape near Stykkisholmur, Iceland
Bus stop in the middle of nowhere

Insects

What is really nice about the Icelandic spring: there are far fewer insects. In the summer they tend to spoil the fun. They aren’t as bad as the Scottish midgets, but they don’t really add to the holiday cheer. Okay, I know they play an important role in the ecosystem, but if you can avoid them just by choosing another season, that’s pure gain. This year we have hardly seen them, even at the “mosquito lake” Myvatn.

A double waterfall in a partly snow-covered mountain landscape near Olafsvik in Iceland
A double waterfall near Olafsvik

Spectacular

In short, there are some ifs, buts and downsides, but all things considered, spring is an excellent time to go to Iceland. Perhaps the best time. Well, we suffered a bit of cold every now and then but we were rewarded with spectacular weather conditions, bizarre landscapes, quaint villages, dramatic skies and an overdose of waterfalls. The targets in terms of photography have therefore been amply met, as can be concluded from the compilation below.

Frans Blok

My work explores the border regions of photography, painting and computer visuals. With my company 3Develop I do work in commission but I use the same techniques, skills and software to make free work. I am originally an architect and I live in Rotterdam; for that reason the architecture of that city is a major (but not the only) source of inspiration. But also travel to countries like Iceland and Britain, or walks in the Netherlands, provide much material. Seeing and showing quality and beauty, that is what my work is about.

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