Driving the Ring Road in Winter | Iceland Travel Photography

For the past 8 years I've done my fair share of traveling.  From Europe to Asia I've taken trains, planes, and cars in search of a new adventure.  Traveling is something that has become a part of my soul.  It enriches my life and makes me a better person each and every time I do it.  If there was some way I could get paid to travel the world for the rest of my life, it would be the greatest life ever lived.  All that being said, and after all the amazing things I've seen so far, nothing could have prepared me for the way that Iceland stole my heart.

With its unforgiving, rugged landscapes and intense weather I was a bit nervous to go there in the winter.  Most of the pictures I'd seen of this place feature luscious green valleys and fields of purple flowers as far as the eye could see.  Incredible to say the least, but I wanted to see the Northern lights so summer was out of the question.  After reading what felt like 100 blogs on Iceland in winter, 50 packing lists, and watching a dozen youtube vblogs I felt confident that winter was the choice for me.  I am sooooooo thankful that I did.  It was everything and more than my imagination could have dreamed up.

From the moment I stepped off the plane in Reykjavik I was blown away by the kindness of the people and the fresh supply of pressed juices that were available!  I remember thinking as I drove away from the airport at 5 a.m. that first day and watched the sun rise over the Mars like landscape that I had entered a world unlike any I'd seen before. The city of Reykjavik is sea of grey and white Scandinavian homes with pops of red, yellow, and blue throughout.  A quiet town, I found myself feeling very relaxed as I checked into my tiny airbnb.  You can walk almost anywhere in town and as I started to explore I came across dozens of the cutest coffee shops, organic grocery stores, and of course the famous Icelandic hot dog stands within blocks of my place.  This tiny city is worth a good day, but the beauty that lies beyond it's limits is what I enjoyed the most.  Renting a car was the best thing I could have done. 

My first drive in Iceland occurred the morning I arrived as it was so early in the morning I couldn't check in until late afternoon.  I pasted through the mars like terrain around the airport and into what seriously looked like my Nebraska roots.  Flat and barren, I could see miles and miles around with not a tree in site.  As the drive continued I started to wonder if I'd flown all the way to Iceland just to see landscape I could see at home!  I was considering turning around when I saw the first set of mountains around the bend, glittering with dozens of tiny waterfalls.  My heart was instantly filled with excitement and everything I saw after that first mountain ridge was nothing less than brilliant.  I had spent so much time and energy looking at pictures and videos of Iceland that seeing it for myself brought tears to my eyes.   Literally.. I was crying in the car listening to Icelandic news radio because before my eyes I was witnessing something I'd dreamt of for years. I stopped at every waterfall along the 1 and pulled off onto an over pass that allowed me to hike up to a view of the famous black sand beach of Vik.  I'm told I got a very rare day that first morning as the sun rarely ever shines in Vik.  I didn't even take my camera out because I assumed I'd have plenty more opportunities to take photos and I wanted to take it all in. The sun was bright and lit up the beach below making the contrast of white foaming water on the black sand pop like nothing I'd ever seen.  I didn't even need the winter coat I'd packed and I sat on the edge of the cliff for over an hour just watching the tide come in and the birds fly circles around their cliff side nests below my feet.  It was only 9 a.m. and already I was smitten. Around lunch I found my way to a hot dog stand where I tasted my very first Icelandic hot dog. Not being a hot dog fan myself, I wasn't sure what to expect, but I had heard this was the thing to do in Iceland and I wasn't going to miss out.  I ordered one dog wrapped in bacon on a bun grilled to perfection, covered in onions and some sauce I thought was mayo, but didn't taste like anything I recognized.  A little afraid I took a bite and it was everything I wanted in that moment.  Delicious and cheap and the perfect introduction to Icelandic cuisine.  I may or may not have eaten 10 more before departing the island.  I drove for 13 hours that day and it didn't feel like nearly enough.  When I got back to the room that night I couldn't sleep because the images of what Id witnessed were still with me. 

Over the next few days I picked up several friends from the airport.  Some new, some old, all so very talented.  I am so thankful to have gotten to share these experiences with them.  I was lucky enough to book several client sessions around Vik and spent a lot of those first days driving around to meet with them in random locations in the south.  We saw the Reynisfjara black sand beach, Skogafoss and Seljalandsfoss waterfalls, and the Solheimajokull Glacier.  A highlight of our time in the South was a dazzling display of the Northern Lights that put on a show for us the night we finished our biggest photoshoot.  Not knowing what to expect of the Northern Lights, I had low expectations, but this display took my breath away and we were told it was the strongest show they'd seen in Iceland for some time.  God truly gave us a reward for all the hard work we'd accomplished that day.  Sitting in the back seat of our rental with our model, the ever so sweet Erika, I couldn't take my eyes off the sky, tears streaming down my cheeks yet again.  Streaks of white lights danced to it's own beat in the sky above us surrounded by stars.  It disappeared as quickly as it came but it will be forever burned into my memory.  I can still see it and feel the emotions I felt at that moment when I close my eyes.  It was one of the most profound travel moments I've ever experienced.

After three days of finishing up client shoots, we set out up the east coast of Iceland for the first time.  Although the morning didn't start out the best (note to self, don't drive down gravel roads in Iceland if you don't want to pop a tire), we made it to our first official stop of the road trip.  The Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon.  I think we all were blown away by this place as it was unlike anything any of us had ever seen.  Never in my life did I think I'd be standing at the foot of a lake filled with icebergs floating out to sea.  The very lagoon the iceberg believed to have sunk the Titanic came from.  It was a site like non other we witnessed on the trip, and by far my favorite.  We stopped in Hofn and I had the most incredible pasta dish with Icelandic Lobster at Kaffi Hornid.  If you're ever in Hofn, you HAVE to stop here to eat.  It's seriously incredible and the staff is very kind.  From Hofn we drove along the rugged coast, through snowy mountain fjords, and up the scariest snow covered road I've ever been on.  There was a moment I think the whole car thought we might slide down the mountain to our deaths.  Luckily that didn't happen and that evening we arrived in Akureyri.  The charming capitol of the North is full of great food, nightlife, and shopping. Another highlight was found nearby at the Myvatn Natural Bath.  Definitely skip the Blue Lagoon and come here.  It's half the price and we got drink bracelets which were so worth the extra money.  For three solid hours we bathed in the geothermal pool and watched the sunset of the volcano Askja. 

The next part of our journey was very snowy so we couldn't see much, but it led us to the magic that is the snaefellsnes peninsula.  I thought we'd seen all the beauty we could possibly see already but I was wrong because this little peninsula was by far the most scenic place yet.  Our first day there we explored the famous black church and spend a good amount of time making friends with the sea lions that were playing on the rocks in a nearby lagoon.  I spend an afternoon alone traveling the whole way around stopping at every side road I could find.  I climbed to the brim of a snow covered volcano, sat on the ledge of a tall cliff over looking a black sand beach, and witnessed the most violent ocean waves I've ever seen crash on the rocky shore just steps in front of me as big white puffy snowflakes fell quietly to the ground.  I don't even have words for that drive, and the pictures don't come even close to doing it justice.  I will thank God everyday for allowing me to be in that place at that exact moment in time because it left me speechless.  Those days are the best parts of a trip.  The ones you know you will never be able to recreate because they only happened that way once in a lifetime.  That night we all met up in the town of Stykkisholmur which if you didn't know is where Walter Mitty stops to sing Kareoke and drink beer from a glass boot.  That bar doesn't actually exist, but it is a nice bookstore.  Down by the harbor there is a restaurant you have to try.  Please order the fish burger... just trust me.  You won't regret it.  Best meal of the trip by far, and the end of an amazing journey.   Iceland stole my heart and changed me in ways no where else has.  It left a fire inside me.  While I was ready to be home, I am already planning my next trip to this land as I know there is still so much I didn't get to explore.  I'm not sure one person could every really explore all of it the way it was intended to be explored.  I can't thank it enough for giving me all the gifts that it did, but I will take them with me everywhere I go.