Putting the 'ice' in Iceland?
November 6, 2012 5:51 PM   Subscribe

Touring Iceland in March: bad idea?

I have an opportunity to take a vacation in mid-March 2013. I've long wanted to see Iceland. I'd probably want to spend a few days in Reykjavik and take 8 or 9 days to drive the Ring Road, (safely) get off the beaten path a little bit (maybe venture into Westfjords), find some cool stuff to see. I'd most likely be traveling alone.

The question: Will I regret doing this in March? I don't mind the cold, and I don't mind darkness (though I understand the days aren't too short in March), but if much of what I'd want to see is inaccessible or closed, the roads muddy and hard to drive, etc., that would obviously be unfortunate.

I get the sense the interior would pretty much be off-limits. I'm not sure how bummed I should be about that.

Would appreciate thoughts from locals or anyone who's done something like this.
posted by eugenen to Travel & Transportation around Iceland (11 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I drove the entire ring road in three (long) days of driving in early May of this year. It was reasonably cold, somewhere between -3 and +15C the whole time.

There are chunks of the ring road that are still gravel, and a couple climbs and descents on the western side that were so awe-inspiring i feel like they re-wired my brain, but also i would have to imagine would be terrifying and thoroughly dangerous in snow. Umm... this section: http://goo.gl/maps/3IJwq

You would need to be very comfortable driving a 4x4 and in poor weather conditions i would think. That said, we did it in May in standard rental sedans and had no trouble.

There is lots to see right off the ring road, but given the hauling-ass nature of our trip, I can't comment on the stuff truly off the beaten path. I do recall a couple roads to interior things that were still closed in May.

That funny noise all the cars make is their studded tires on the asphalt.
posted by Sleddog_Afterburn at 6:13 PM on November 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

This person appears to have well captured the scary bit in Oct: http://www.flickr.com/photos/no3rdw/5156038561/
posted by Sleddog_Afterburn at 6:16 PM on November 6, 2012

We drove through the interior in August. We didn't have to deal with weather conditions, but man... is that a desolated place. Sometimes we would drive for a couple of hours without seeing anyone. I would be very nervous about driving out there alone with cold, icy weather. Oh... and there are sheep wandering around everywhere, which made us nervous about hitting one.
posted by kimdog at 6:29 PM on November 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

That photo doesn't begin to capture the craziness of the climb Sleddog mentions; if I had a redo, I might stick to the coast instead of staking that stretch. I did my trip in early June, and I got caught in a white-out snowstorm up in those mountains.

That said, as long as you are okay with crazy weather, and you are willing to take everything slowly, I'm sure you could still have a very good time. Do you have experience driving in rain/sleet/snow, and would you be comfortable doing it on tiny roads (at least relative to the US), often with a cliff on one side?

The highlights for me were the glacier lagoon; all the waterfalls, but especially Dettifoss (which involved some rough snowy roads even in June), and I assume that at least the biggest few will still be flowing; and the entire Myvatn area, with the bubbling mud and hiking on the hot volcano, etc.
posted by ktkt at 6:31 PM on November 6, 2012

My husband and I went to Iceland last March. It was incredible! You won't regret it. We stayed for 13 nights total, 2 of those in Reykjavik. I don't recommend driving the ring road in March unless you are very comfortable driving in snow and ice, and you really do need to rent a 4x4. A lot will be inaccessible (all of the interior, Dettifoss, Western Fjords will probably be technically possible but not practical, and glacier activities will be limited and iffy depending on the weather) in March, and most restaurants outside of Reykjavik and Akureyri will be closed. We didn't anticipate that and ended up eating pretzels for dinner for more than one night.

We were very lucky with the weather, there was only one storm of note during our trip even though tons of snow was forecast up until the day we left home. It was MEGA cold. The coldest day was -14C, the warmest about 7-8C (it was also windy and raining those days). If you're hoping to see the Northern Lights (and you should be!), you really need thick-soled winter boots. Mine were all weather and not nearly warm enough. I swear I almost lost all my toes.

Do you have an itinerary in mind? Highlights for us included
*Blue Lagoon - if you stay at there hotel, you can use the lagoon for free which makes the rooms a lot more reasonable. I would make this your first stop after getting off the plane.
*Northern lights at Lake Myvatn - the bird museum there is surprisingly great too
*Asbyrgi National Park - the entire place was deserted when we were there, with chest high snowdrifts in some places. I will never forget it, it was one of the most awe-inspiring places I have ever been. Just be very aware of the conditions and be careful, especially if you'll be alone.
*Namafjall - a huge thermal area, again completely deserted. Again, be very careful as the only barriers are thin ropes that were down or covered with snow in lots of places.
posted by tealcake at 8:34 PM on November 6, 2012 [4 favorites]

Get a 4x4, the sedans all have stickers warning you that the insurance becomes invalid if you go into many places in the interior, and there is a good chance you might want to.
posted by biffa at 12:01 AM on November 7, 2012

I went on a great (very long) day tour of Snaefellsnes when I visited Iceland in December - it was fantastic, and we scarcely saw another person all day. It felt off the beaten path, even though we did it as a day trip from Reykjavik. I highly recommend Snaefellsnes.

I've also been to Iceland (Reykjavik only) in March, and found the weather to be similar both times, although of course there was a lot more light in March than in December.
posted by mskyle at 6:19 AM on November 7, 2012

The interior roads will be closed. I went to Akureyri a couple years ago at the end of February/beginning of March and had a wonderful time. Another woman who stayed at the hostel was doing the ring road alone, she said some of the driving was interesting (and there are no guardrails).

In Reykjavik, the museums will be open but the hours will be shorter. In Akureyri and Husavik, some were open, some were call to open. I think only the Whale Museum in Husavik and the Phallogical Museum (formerly in Husavik) charged me admission. The others refused my money.

My first trip to Iceland was in September, and it was the perfect mix of daylight and things being open. A lot of the Icelanders I talked to around Akureyri said they thought May was the best time to visit that area, because of the migrating birds and lack of crowds.
posted by QIbHom at 12:08 PM on November 7, 2012

I've been to Reykjavik in March. It snowed and it was very very cold. Definitely take more long underwear and wool socks than you think you need. I didn't drive out but I was on a couple of tours in vans / buses. It's a beautiful place and the people are very friendly. I personally would be very hesitant to drive in Iceland in March.
posted by bunderful at 3:29 PM on November 7, 2012

We went in March and had pretty fair weather - cold, wet, VERY windy. The cold was comparable to a New England winter, not Arctic, but you'll be outdoors a lot and there's little shelter outdoors (no trees etc).
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:12 PM on November 7, 2012

Best answer: I spent two weeks in Iceland two years ago, drove the Ring Road and some minor roads nearby (eg dirt roads). I had a 2wd and did not venture into any of the F roads (those which are forbidden to the 2wd cars).

I saw plenty, and it was beautiful.

This site will be your friend during the journey. Check it daily. Weather can change at a moment's notice - you'll be driving in pleasant blue-sky weather, get up to a pass, and on the other side, thick Scotch fog awaits. Every few dozen miles on the major roads, an LED display shows the weather and wind speed (in meters/second, strangely) so you can determine whether to stop or continue.

I LOVED Iceland. I've returned since and am returning again next year. I love the people, the landscapes, the views, the sheep, the vast tracts of emptiness, the infinite ocean and severe cliffs as you drive around the country.

If you are a timid driver, this trip might be challenging. If you are a regular driver though, it's a wonderful drive. Nothing too scary. There are a few places where the slopes are steep, but you just take it easy. There was one mention of one road, upthread, in the East of the country - I encountered a similar one in the West. No guard rail, a slope of over 20% and twisty with blind spots. Put the car into first, say your prayers, and start driving down. then stop at a pull out, and look at where you came from...

The Ring Road will take you through the country and around it. I greatly enjoyed Lake Myvatn in the North of the Country, as well as the cinder cones nearby (with the geothermal power stations - which tourists can visit). I also enjoyed the Iceland National Forest near Egilstadur, some beautiful trees there straining away trying to grow. Seedlings are brought in from Siberia, Norway and Canada, where the soil has similar acidity, and so far the trees appear to be doing okay.

One thing that I should warn you about are the tunnels - some of them are one-lane (yes, two way sharing one lane) and are dug into a mountain. The tunnel to Isafjordur (W Fjords) intimidated me at first. It is not lit inside, 10+ kilometers length, with pullouts every few hundred yards so cars can courteously yield the way to an oncoming vehicle. There are a few of these tunnels peppered through Iceland, but they are easy to identify on the maps.

If you only have a few days, indeed Snaeffelsnes is "mini Iceland" in one peninsula. You will be charmed by the little black church of Budir, and impressed by the white church in Stykkisholmur which you see on the way there. Even if one is not religious, the architectural styles of Icelandic churches (including Halgrimmskirka in Reykjavik) are impressive.

So take the tour. Go in March. It'll be cold, but you are already expecting that. Call ahead for hotels - as some may be closed in low season. Most people speak English. And, during my trip, I had five bars on my iPhone throughout. It's amazing that such a wild, unpopulated country has such excellent wireless infrastructure. Speaking of which, all the hotels that I visited had wifi - and that weather/road map that I linked to above.

The roads will be well taken care of - and if they are not, the map will inform you. All drivers in Iceland keep a close eye on that real-time map.
posted by seawallrunner at 6:11 PM on November 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

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