Traveling to Iceland in the Summer can be both magical and tricky. On the one hand you may be rewarded with great weather and flourishing flora. On the other it is often hailed as the ‘busy time of year’ with hotel spaces sometimes being hard to come by if booking last minute. But if you plan in advance and aim to go a little off-the-beaten path you can enjoy Iceland’s raw nature while basking in the midnight sun away from the supposed crowds.
Many people already have a short list of why they want to go to Iceland but you will be amazed at what else you can find while exploring the untamed wilderness of this remote island. For every active volcano in the Katla Geopark there’s an Arctic fox hiding in the West Fjords. For every glacier at the Vatnajökull National Park there’s a newly hatched puffling along the sea cliffs at Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach. For every floating iceberg at the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon there’s a playful seal swimming at the Diamond Beach.
Here is a short list of just some of the things you can experience in the Icelandic Summer:
1. The Atlantic puffin migration
Iceland is home to the biggest Atlantic puffin colony in the world with some nesting grounds sporting over 1 million puffins in the Summer. These beautiful little birds are often described as the clowns of the sea. Mainly due to their colorful beaks and propensity to spend the majority of their lives at sea. In fact the Atlantic puffin only ventures onto dry land when the mating season begins in late May. And even then, they will nest on the edges of sea-cliffs so they are never far from their fishing ground.
This makes these tiny birds difficult to get close to which adds to the wonder when you get a glimpse of one swooping past you at the Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach or nesting at Ingólfshöfði in the South East. The Atlantic puffin has remained in high numbers for the past few years but due to climate change, the mating season is becoming less and less successful. They have recently been designated as Vulnerable on the endangered species list. If puffins are the reason you want to visit Iceland then now is the time to come. If you are keen to get close without disturbing them during this delicate time of year then I recommend joining an organised tour with a seasoned guide who can pick the best spots.
2. The wild West fjords are worth the drive
In the winter, the West Fjords in the far north-west of the country becomes a very difficult place to navigate. Winding gravel roads around steep cliff edges are not conducive to a stress free adventure when you add wind, snow and ice to the mix. The same can be said of the highlands of Iceland for the majority of the year. But in Summer, the winds drop and dare I say it the weather becomes rather nice.
If remoteness is what you are after when traveling to Iceland then the West Fjords certainly covers this. After all it only has a population of 6000 people spread across a region almost as big as Belgium. Most tourists will not venture this far north on their first, or even second visit so the views are often unencumbered by cars or other tourists. Aside from the odd cruise ship docking at some of the larger ports, the West Fjords can seem like it’s all yours.
I recommend spending 4 or 5 days in this area, and preferably with a local guide who knows the best spots for pictures and relaxed walks. Some of the highlights of this part of the country include the Arctic Fox Sanctuary, the 400 metre cliffs at Látrabjarg where you are likely to encounter puffins up close and the thunderous 100 metre Dynjandi waterfall.
3. The volcanic Westman Islands erupt with life
The Westman Islands in the south coast of Iceland is home to the largest puffin colony in the country and boasts the highest average temperature in Iceland. It also hosts an active volcano that erupted in 1973, almost destroying the entire town and adding 20% of land to the island. It was only thanks to the courage of the locals that destruction was kept to a minimum.
The locals astutely directed sea water with high pressure hoses onto the lava flow to slow it down and ultimately made it change direction out towards the sea saving the town. Along the coast you will see multiple bird species and, if you are lucky, some playful seals and the odd whale. You can do an easy hike to the top of the still warm volcano, Eldfell, or join a 1 hour speedboat taking you around the island. Make sure to try the ‘catch of the day’ at the scrumptious local restaurants of GOTT or SLIPPURINN.
4. Mouth-watering local cuisine
Admittedly, incredible food can be sampled all year round in Iceland but there is certainly a seasonality to some of the foods. By mid-Summer, when hiking in the wilderness, you are likely to stumble on fresh growing crowberries, blueberries and strawberries to name a few of the naturally growing edible foods in the fields.
For more weather affected fruits and vegetables the Icelandic people rely on the heat of the volcano to power their greenhouses. This allows them to grow anything from cucumbers, lettuce and tomatoes to grapes, oranges, bananas and even coffee beans. The peaceful farm of Friðheimar allows you to dine on the spoils of the 21 foot high tomato plants every day inside the greenhouse itself. But make sure you book in advance as this is a very popular spot and is ideally situated in the Golden Circle area.
5. Glacier hiking and ice climbing
The exciting thing about Iceland is that there are over 400 glaciers to choose from across the country. Around 11% of the land is covered in ice, giving you ample choice to step off the beaten path to try out something a little more adventurous, especially when you do an immersive private excursion. The glaciers are mainly created up in the mountains, often on top of volcanoes, which are a perfect place for ice to accumulate, ironically. As the ice pours down the side of the volcano towards sea level, much of the snow that covers the majority of the ice higher up melts away and gives rise to a frozen crisp wilderness which, in Summer, is an ideal hiking spot for longer trips.
Before you venture onto one of these moving ice mountains, you must travel with an experienced guide with all the safety equipment too. Be careful to check the reviews of the glacier companies and the maximum number of people per tour. As a general rule, a smaller group allows you to explore more of the ice. A private trip is even better as you may get to try a spot of ice climbing too.
Ryan Connolly is Co-Founder of Hidden Iceland. Hidden Iceland specialises in private trips, taking you to some of the hidden gems of Iceland with a passionate and experienced guide.