Winter Views of Bergen, Norway

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After our three day cruise from Tromso to Bergen, we spent three days in Bergen to see the sights. Bergen is the second largest city in Norway, and it’s on the western coast set among a variety of fjords. It’s a major port area for cruises, shipping and the like. It’s been around for hundreds of years and has a perfectly charming harbor area (fodder for another blog post).

While the ground view of Bergen’s Old European buildings has its charm, it’s also great to get away and see Bergen from afar and above. Lucky for those of us who love a good viewpoint, there are two different viewpoints to see Bergen within easy access of the city center. Both give similar views, but different enough to make both worth your time.

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The entire time we were in Norway, I watched the weather forecast closely, because the weather could greatly affect our excursions. Bergen in particular had some of the trickiest weather. Sure there was snow in Tromso (and eventually in Oslo), but Bergen was the “warmest” city we visited. And when I saw warm, I am definitely grading on a curve. The temperature never rose above the high 30s, and it was often lower, but it was still warmer than the other places we visited. In fact, there had been days of rain before we showed up, but while we were there, it did snow on occasion.

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Since I am a travel planner, I had to work out our Bergen itinerary in advance, because due to times and weather, I wanted to fit in everything we wanted to see in the time we had to do them. First up on our first full day in Bergen was a visit to Mount Ulriken. This mountain is one of the highest in the area at 642 meters, and you get to the top via cable car. The cable car can be reached by either a 45 minute walk from the city center or about a 15 minute bus ride. If I knew for sure where we were headed, AND if I knew the weather was going to hold out, we might have walked to and from the cable car, because I love to walk on vacation. However, I wasn’t exactly sure the destination, plus the weather forecast only had clear skies for about two hours in late morning, so I felt it was best to take the bus.

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Lucky for us, two of the busses that stopped at the cable car stopped just around the corner from our hostel. Bus 2 or 3 with a stop at Haukeland Hospital N will get you close to the cable car. You cross the street and walk up the hill. The hill is a bit steep and we were feeling the incline, but it only took about 15 minutes to get to the base of the cable car. We were visiting mid morning on a Sunday (chosen because Monday was a maintenance day and Tuesday we had a fjord cruise planned) and there was no line for the cable car. So we hit the mountain top within about 15 minutes of getting to the base.

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The cable car raises you steadily up and as it nears the top, you can see more and more of Bergen city come into view. Ulriken is about 3 kilometers south of the city center, so the city view is a bit askew from the mountain top. Once you’re up on top, there are plenty of hiking trails, some of them easier and some more difficult, which are easier to do when there is no snow on the ground. Even though there was limited snow at the Bergen city streets, since they were at sea level, but just several hundred meters up above the sea and you are in knee deep snow. It made it a bit challenging to walk out to a view point to take some photos, but we got there.

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We were up there enjoying the views for about an hour, but soon after that, the wind picked up and the clouds rolled in, just like the weather forecast predicted. So it was time to take the bus back to the city center, and ensconce ourselves in a variety of art museums to hide out from the falling snow.

The other viewpoint over Bergen, Floibanen, is actually right in the city center, so if you only have time for just one viewpoint, this is the one to do.  It’s closer to Bergen, plus it has more extended hours year round (open until around 2300). We had always planned on going to it, but we had a free afternoon AND the sun was shining high in the sky, so we figured why not go watch the sunset over Bergen?

You reach Floibanen via funicular, which leaves about every 15 minutes from the base. Some of the funiculars make stops on the way up, so you can get a sense of how the streets climb up the hills toward the top of the mountain and there are whole neighborhoods you don’t even realize are there.

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Once we hit the mountain top, the weather was brisk and cold and the sun shining over the city. It was rather beautiful to see the city spread out before us with the sun lighting everything up. I can’t say it is PEACEFUL up there, only because there are so many people. You have the tourists, but you also have schoolchildren and those who come up the mountain after work or school to do some skiing.

We had plenty of time to kill before the sun set, so we decided to walk around and enjoy some of the trails. Like Ulriken, Floibanen is covered in trails (in fact, you can walk between the two mountains, which would take you about five hours) and you can choose your own adventure for walking. If you wanted, you could walk the roads from Floibanen all the way down to the harbor area, but we just wanted to enjoy some of the beautiful nature.

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There was plenty of snow up top, but unlike at Ulriken, the snow was tamped down enough that you could walk on the trails. Walking on the trails was a refreshing, almost magical experience, because it really was like a winter wonderland up there, reminiscent of Tromso, because the snow was pure white and lit up the trees around you.

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We only walked to a nearby lake that was 500 meters away, but it made for a brisk afternoon walk. Once we got to the lake, it brought back memories of when I visited during the summer 10 years ago. The walk around the lake was very nice, because it was covered in snow with some tracks (animal or human we weren’t sure), that gave the impression the lake was thick enough to walk on. However, we weren’t reckless enough to make the attempt, because the last thing either of us needed was to fall in a freezing cold lake and need to be fished out by the authorities.

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By the time we made our way back to the viewpoint, the sun was getting close to setting, so we got some cocoa and settled in to watch. As with every sunset, it is always a crap shoot. Sometimes sunsets can be colorful and awe inspiring, and sometimes they can just be there and the light falls below the horizon. That was the sunset we encountered. Nothing spectacular, but it was still pretty.

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We did other things in Bergen, but the viewpoints over the city are also worth your time.

Cruising down the Norwegian Coastline in Winter

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When I first started planning our winter trip to Norway, I wanted to create a balanced itinerary that enabled us to see some of the things I hadn’t seen on my first trip to Norway with seeing some of the same stuff again, only in the light of winter. For my mother, it was all new to her, so whatever I came up with was going to satisfy her desire to see Norway. So of course I wanted to make this trip as seamless as possible. I’ve done tours where I have spent a lot of time traveling between sights, and I wanted to make that as fun as possible, especially since I was setting up a fairly ambitious itinerary. I mean, I knew we HAD to see Tromso, mainly because of the opportunity to see the Northern Lights (accomplished), but also because I hadn’t spent that much time seeing it before. It was only a few hours cruise stop on my first trip and I wanted to spend some time up there and enjoy as much as possible, because there is a LOT one can see up in the Tromso area. I knew we had to see Bergen and Oslo, because they are basically must do cities on a Norway trip.

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To make it fun and to maximize seeing Norway’s beautiful nature, we decided to link it all together with a series of tours and make the journey to each next stop part of the fun and not just as a slog to get to a destination. Starting in Tromso was the best bet, because that meant we started in the Far North where there was a lot of cold and snow and limited daylight.

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Traveling south from there meant that each day would get a tiny bit warmer (though it wasn’t really noticeable except for the three days we were in Bergen) and certainly longer days of daylight. The best option (though certainly not the cheapest option) was to take the Hurtigruten cruise south from Tromso to Bergen. I had taken the cruise north from Bergen to Kirkenes in the summer about 10 years ago, so I knew how this was a great opportunity to relax and see the Norwegian coastline in peace and intersperse it with some shore excursions.

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If you want to do a Norway cruise in winter, the easiest option is the Hurtigruten cruise (there area many, many other options in the summer, though those are more traditional cruise lines). The Hurtigruten cruise has been operating in Norway for decades, and it is more of a very nice ferry line and not what you would consider a typical cruise. I mean, the Hurtigruten is a working ship that transports goods to many of the tiny seaside towns- some of which are extremely hard to reach outside of a ship. There aren’t as many typical cruise activities (no casinos, all night buffets, waterslides and whatever else they are coming up with on cruises these days), but it is a great opportunity to relax and enjoy the beauty of the Norwegian coastline. If you want to maximize shore excursions, Hurtigruten offers a wide variety. But if you just want to plop yourself down in one of the lounge chairs on the upper deck and watch the world float by while reading a book or checking out the Internet, you are free to do so as well.

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Considering our first three days in Tromso involved some long days and nights with activities, cruising down the Norwegian coastline for three days was a great opportunity to relax and recharge. Sure our embarkation night in Tromso was a long one, since we weren’t able to board until after midnight (a fairly easy process if you have reservations), but after that, it was pretty much on our own time. Most of the time we just read books, enjoyed the view and took pictures outside on the open deck (you always needed to keep your winter gear nearby in case you wanted to outside). Usually I am very go go go on my vacations, trying to get a lot in, but cruising kind of forced me to pump the brakes. Outside of the meal times, and occasional disembarkation at a stop, it was just sort of blissful peace.

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The cruise will stop for a few hours at some of the larger cities, such as Trondheim, Tromso and the like, but many of the stops were for only an hour or less. Most of those places were just smaller villages, giving the ship enough time to offload some materials and give cruise goers a chance to look around. Honestly, outside of our stop at Trondheim, we really didn’t get off the ship.

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However, we did want to take advantage of our three hours in Trondheim to see the city, because it really is worth a visit. There is a lot to see and do there, but you only have a limited amount of time, especially if you decide to walk like we did. The cruise offered a Trondheim sightseeing tour, but I am not sure if they stopped in many more places than we did. The southbound Trondheim stop is from around 0630 to 1000. That SOUNDS like a lot of time, but it really isn’t. First off, if you want to enjoy breakfast, you won’t be getting off the ship at 0630, and even so, in winter, the sun doesn’t rise until around 0900, so it’s not like you are going to be able to visit much at that hour. Plus the day we stopped, the wind and snow were blowing pretty hard, but we persevered. We had enough time to make a short 20 minute visit to the Nidaros Cathedral, which is one of the main attractions in Trondheim. The cathedral opened at 0900, so I figured we had enough time to visit and then briskly walk the 30 minutes back from town to our ship. We did make it and all, though we only had about five minutes to spare, but that was enough.

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After first disembarking, we made our way from the harbor area to the center of the Old Town, and we actually arrived at the cathedral before it opened. Since we had some time to kill, we walked the few hundred meters over to cross the Gamle Bybro or Old Town Bridge and get some nice photos of the Bryggen, which is a collection of colorful 18th and 19th century buildings along the canal. I remember my summer visit to Trondheim allowed me more time to walk around and explore that area, but not this trip. You can see a decent amount in three and a half hours, but it is more challenging when it is dark, but also that everything is closed. I wish our stop could have been in the later morning or the afternoon, but you can’t have everything (the northbound stop at Trondheim is later in the day, so you can maximize your visit). I wished we could have visited the Archbishop’s Palace or the fort overlooking the city, but it was still an enjoyable visit.

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Stopping in Trondheim was sort of the highlight of our cruise, and later that day, we saw the actual sun above the horizon in more than a week. It was interesting to see the gradual lengthening of daylight. The first day we were in the Lofoton Islands, which were beautiful, but we had the same limited daylight we had in Tromso, which unfortunately meant we didn’t get to see Trollfjord while we were cruising. But each day, the amount of daylight got both longer and brighter until we were actually seeing the sun on our last full day before arriving in Bergen.

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I am glad we did the wintertime cruise, as it was a good counterpart to seeing Norway in the summer. I think Norway is beautiful all year around, and worthy of a trip anytime. Sure there are some things that are seasonal specific, such as seeing the Northern Lights only in winter, and really only being able to take some longer hikes in the summer, since many of the paths are covered in deep snow in the winter. But many things are good all year, such as cruising the Norwegian coastline. It’s a great, peaceful and easy way to see parts of Norway that aren’t easily accessible on a land tour, and traverse great lengths of the country.

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Beautiful Blue Light of Tromso, Norway in Winter

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As I’ve talked about in previous blogs, there is something very beautiful and beguiling about the blue light of Polar Night. Since the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon, the light casts a soft shadow. Sure you aren’t in pure darkness 24 hours a day, but you also don’t have the sun beaming down on you. So it’s like hours of a soft dawn or a soft twilight that can feel otherworldly, especially in the morning when the initial rising light is a very strong blue that gradually lightens towards mid day. That blue light contrasting with the brilliant white of the snow really does make you feel like you are in some Narnia-style winter wonderland. It’s also the presence of the snow that makes everything look and feel lighter than it actually may be. At the the height of the day, you wouldn’t necessarily even realize that the sun is not actually above the horizon, because it is plenty light, but it certainly doesn’t stay that way for long-only a few short hours. That is reflected in that any day tour activities in Tromso in winter will likely end around 1500, because that is the time it starts getting actually dark. I personally found the long hours of darkness to be very cozy, filling me with thoughts of snuggling by the fireplace or by long walks in the refreshing, bracing cold, but I know that extended hours of darkness can drive some people up the wall.

While you could likely rent a car reasonably easily in Tromso (especially if you flew into town), I don’t think it was especially useful. First off, there is the matter of parking, since it’s not like there are vast swaths of parking in town (though, there apparently is a pretty large UNDERGROUND parking lot on the edge of town, in the center of this mass of underground tunnels that help you navigate into and out of the city-a rather interesting engineering marvel that saves the beautiful environment). Plus there is the matter of driving on hard packed snow. Probably because snow is present for many winter months, it is just easier to pack down new snow and not plow it out of the way. This prevents large, unwieldy piles in snow along the road, and just turns the roads into snow roads. I can only imagine that since most Americans aren’t used to or comfortable driving on hard packed snow, it is simply easier to not rent a car and get around town on your own.

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So honestly, it is much easier simply to take a guided tour out to see the Tromso environs. There are many, many offered; you just have to find the one that is right for you. They all see the same essential areas, so you will have plenty of opportunity to see the many, many beautiful fjords, beaches and snow covered hills.  While all of the Tromso environs are beautiful in my opinion, there isn’t a specific must do landscape point or anything like you see elsewhere. It’s all just general beautiful nature. We elected to do another day trip with Creative Vacations, just because their Blue Light tour sounded like what we were looking for in terms of seeing some beautiful Tromso winter landscapes.

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Since there isn’t THAT much daylight during the winter in Tromso, the entire tour is only about six hours long. But those are the six hours where there was the most light. After being picked up by our tour van, we headed out to their studio to get into some snowsuits. At first I was skeptical that I needed a snowsuit. I mean, this isn’t like their nighttime aurora tours where you just stand around in the cold for hours on end. But I soon came to see the wisdom of the snowsuits. It had snowed a fair amount in the days before our tour and there were places by the side of the road where it just naturally piled up high. While we never had to hike far to see some of the beautiful views, we did have to hike some. That often meant hiking through knee high drifts of snow, and it was so much more comfortable to be hiking through that in a rented snowsuit and boots, rather than my own regular pants.

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After getting suited up, we headed out on our sightseeing tour. The bulk of the tour was centered around Kvaloya Island, which is one of the many islands around Tromso. We made many, many stops along the way to take in beautiful fjord views and beautiful mountain views, beautiful snow-covered lake views and eventually we ended up at a beautiful snow laden beach.

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Our guide was pretty good telling us where we were and giving some of the backstory on the sights. She had to manage speaking to us in English and the rest of the tour group in Spanish, all the while she is a native French speaker (which kind of hints at some of the diversity in the seasonal tour guide personnel, since they aren’t all native Norwegians). I know we stopped at a view to see the longest fjord in the area, but I honestly don’t remember the name (it might have been Lyngenfjord, but I don’t know). Of course it is hard to get a good, accurate view of any scale while you are just looking at one part of a fjord. As would become more clear later in our trip, getting a good and photogenic view of a fjord was a matter of careful placement, since it is too easy to just get a flat picture of a fjord without really capturing the true beauty and scale of it.

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Along the way, we saw some reindeer lounging in the snow. It wasn’t a large group or anything, but it was still fun to see some reindeer, not exactly in the wild, but also not really on a farm either. Since we had limited days in Tromso, we spent more time focusing on beautiful nature views, and didn’t take in any of the many reindeer tours that involved feeding reindeer or sludging with reindeer.

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One of the nice things about this tour, and of Tromso in general, is that it is not heavily populated when you get out of the main town. Sure there are some very good roads that ring the fjords, but they aren’t overly crowded, since the small villages that dot the fjord areas aren’t heavily populated (at least in winter, I can’t speak to what it’s like in summer). That facilitated us stopping wherever we wanted along the road (pulling off it so we didn’t become a traffic hazard) to get some really nice views.

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Since it is winter and everything is covered in snow, sometimes it was a question if the vast expanse of snow we were looking at was a snow covered meadow or a snow covered lake. I think most of them were lakes, like the huge Lake Storvatnet we photographed.

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Our turnaround point for this tour was the tiny, beach side village of Grotfjord. We had a chance to relax, walk along the beach and enjoy some lunch. It was also a great place to see what little sunlight there was. Truthfully, this was our last day in Tromso and the sun did rise above the horizon for about 30 minutes. But because of the surrounding hills, we couldn’t see the actual sun (and wouldn’t for another week, until we moved farther south in Norway), but we saw this beautiful pink light very low on the horizon. The combination of the small points of pink light mixed with the surrounding blue light and offset by the pure white of the snow made for an enchanting and scenic landscape background.

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The best views of this light was on the beach in Grotfjord, because the clear day made for some colorful, almost painterly reflective backdrops of the beach and surrounding village.

By the time we got back from the tour, it was pure dark, but it made for a leisurely and beautiful final day in Tromso.

 

Tromso Ice Domes

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One of the challenging things about planning a trip to Tromso is deciding what activities to do, especially if you are there for less than a week. There are so many things to see and do while there, that it can be hard to choose if you have a limited amount of time. There are aurora tours (nighttime only, so you can still do day trips), reindeer sledging, husky dog sledging, snowmobile tours, and a day trip (and if desired, overnight) to the Tromso Ice Domes.

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Even though we had visited something similar when in Fairbanks (the Aurora Ice Museum at the Chena Hot Springs Resort), I couldn’t resist a trip to the Tromso Ice Domes, just because I love ice hotels and ice sculptures. Even though the name has “Tromso” in it, realize that the ice hotel is not in Tromso, but rather a 90 minute drive away (or in our case, a 2.5 hour drive away. We had to take the long way around, since the shorter road was closed to avalanche risk. However, that drive was a gorgeous drive along the Tromso coastline and into the Tromso wilderness, so it wasn’t an unwelcome delay). So this will be a full day trip if you choose to take it, or again, an overnight for those who want to spend the night in an ice hotel (one day I will stay at one).

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Once we arrived on site, we were shown an introductory video on how the ice hotel was designed and built. Even though Tromso never gets hot in the summer, it still gets warm enough to melt snow and ice, so obviously this hotel is not a year round attraction, but instead built special in the November timeframe, and the design and ice sculptures change yearly. It was interesting to hear how difficult it was to build this year’s hotel and what they had to go through to get it set up.

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Once the video was done, we got a guided tour through the hotel and the bar (with of course a complimentary shot of Norwegian vodka and some sort of tasty berry juice). We were shown into all of the rooms and each room has a different color pattern and a different snow design. There were designs of local wildlife, such as moose, reindeer and wolves, and other animals, such as polar bears and even some mythological settings.

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Since the group tour is small, it didn’t feel overwhelmed with people, and it was fun to get a peek into what a night in the hotel would be like (very dark and very silent and very cold- though they give you thermal sleeping bags to keep you warm at night). I had never really thought about an ice hotel night visit before, but the next time I am in the Arctic north (probably Finland), I definitely would want to give it a try, just to experience it. Once the group left, I had the hotel to myself, and it was eerie but also peaceful to experience that stillness and the silence (though not the darkness since the lights were still on), since the hotel blocks out outside sound. I could see how some people would be creeped out by it, but I think I would love it.

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Like all other tours in Norway, this one isn’t cheap, but it is fun and something a bit different to do while in Tromso.

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Chasing the Northern Lights in Tromso Norway

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There were two things I wanted to experience during our recent winter trip to Tromso, Norway: Polar Night and the Northern Lights. Polar Night is easy to experience, because all you have to do is show up and it is there. Polar Night exists just by being there (Tromso is located about 400 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle) during the approximately six weeks in winter when the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon. Experiencing the Northern Lights is a different thing altogether, however. Sure, we were there at the right time (dark, cold nights in winter) in the right area (Tromso is considered one of the best places in the world to see the Northern Lights- at least of those places that are easily accessible), and often the right weather (cold but often clear).

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Of course for those who have chased the Northern Lights, they know it is not that simple or easy. Successfully seeing the Northern Lights can be such a hit or miss affair. Sure, the weather is typically clear and cold, but it isn’t always. I mean, Tromso doesn’t get covered in snow in the middle of winter without some clouds and snow falling. A good example is that there were days and days of snow before we arrived in Tromso and some snow while we were there, and if the weather is cloudy and snowy, the chances of seeing the lights are almost nil. Then even if it is clear, that doesn’t mean the lights will show up. It also depends on the level of solar activity hitting the Earth’s magnetic poles, and to make things more questionable, we are heading into a downcycle of solar activity for the next few years. And even if the conditions are right, timing is also critical. They are more likely to show up late at night, but that could be relatively early in the evening, or it could be hours after midnight. You could go out all night on a clear, cold night and still not guaranteed to see them.

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So, while you can set the conditions as much as possible to see the Northern Lights, you are never guaranteed that they will appear.  It is what makes setting a vacation around seeing them so fraught with nerves, but so exciting and exhilarating if you do see them. Knowing all this, I did what I could to set the conditions to maximize seeing the Northern Lights on this trip to Norway. I budgeted three days in Tromso, and an additional three days on the Norwegian coast cruise. I booked a couple of Northern Lights tours while we were in Tromso, and knew that if they appeared during our cruise, our captain would alert everyone. I figured, we had to see them at least once in a week, right?

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Thankfully we were successful on our first Northern Lights tour in Tromso, because we really didn’t see them too much after that. But the first night made it worth it. Both Mom and I have seen the Northern Lights before in Alaska and Iceland, but there is something special about seeing them in Norway for me, especially since northern Norway is a winter wonderland of snow this time of year.

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Choosing which tour company to use was an interesting experiment in research and sometimes blind  hope. As you can imagine, there are scores of Northern Lights tours offered in Tromso, so it is just a matter of choosing which one is right for you and your wallet (since none of them are cheap, but some are more expensive than others). I knew that I didn’t want one of those big bus tours, having done one in Iceland. Yes, those tours are the cheapest, but they are going to be the most crowded, since they use a large bus. Big groups of people don’t really enhance your Northern Lights viewing experience, and it can be a detractor, plus the fact that these big bus tours are more limited in where they can go.

Northern Lights-14There are many, many options for the smaller group tours, though it will require some research. After careful selection, I chose the Creative Vacations Aurora Photo Tour. I was drawn to the fact that the groups are small (no more than 12 people per night), so you are transported in vans, but I was especially drawn to the fact that the tour guide will show you how to best photograph the Northern Lights, which is something I wanted to do.

In my previous Northern Lights experiences, I wasn’t really able to capture some good photos. I knew the basic requirements on how to photograph the Northern Lights, but it requires proper camera settings (a bit easier on a DSLR, though there are apparently phone apps that also help you take aurora photos), a good tripod, AND extra batteries, none of which I had with me. But since this tour provides a tripod and good instruction on proper camera settings, I figured this was my best opportunity to capture them. And if we did any subsequent aurora tours, I would know what were the proper settings for my camera. Our tour guide, Vidar is a professional photographer and he took the time to personally set the settings on my DSLR camera to best capture them. Some of the settings I knew about (such as adjusting the shutter speed to 30 seconds-later reduced to 15 seconds, because the lights were so bright), but some of the other settings were especially helpful.

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Another nice thing this tour (and most of the small group tours) provided was snow suits. Even if you have your own snow gear, it was still nice to add even warmer snow boots and suits, because you will be outside for hours on end (though you can warm up in the van if needed).

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Because seeing the Northern Lights is so weather dependent, there isn’t one location the tours venture out to each night. Sometimes if the weather is cloudy in Tromso, they end up driving to Finland or Sweden for viewing (it’s not as far as it might sound, since the Finnish and Swedish borders were probably only an hour’s drive or more away from Tromso). Thankfully this night, the aurora forecast was good. The sky was supposed to be clear, the wind minimal and the chances for viewing were the best they had been in a week.

Because of the favorable conditions, we did our viewing on a nearby island that wasn’t that far of a drive from Tromso. But it was still isolated enough for no ambient light to interfere with our viewing pleasure. The setting was really nice, with some mountains and a lake in the background. Even though most of the group went down to the lake’s edge, I chose to stay up on the road simply because they snow was deep, I am clumsy, and I was likely to fall going down. Even though we were set up on the road, the road was completely isolated and there was no traffic in the hours we were out there.

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Once we got into position, it was just a matter of waiting. And that is the biggest thing you will do on these tours- wait. Even if conditions are perfect for aurora viewing, it’s not like they show up on a specific schedule. You know they are likely to show up after midnight (though in Tromso, they often appeared as early as 2100 or 2200 at night), but they might not. They might take their sweet time appearing, and they might stay for hours, or they might make an appearance of only minutes. Our guide told us stories about a previous night’s tour where they drove all the way to Finland, and the lights did appear, but only for about 15 minutes.

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Thankfully this was not going to be one of those nights. This was going to be a night of some good aurora viewing. When they first appeared, they were so faint in the sky, that sometimes I wasn’t sure if I was looking at auroras or just some clouds (we had a near full moon out with us that night to light up the clouds around us). But as Vidar pointed out, my camera can pick up on those colorful nuances better than my eye, and he was right. I started taking some pictures and the lights slowly made their appearance.

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It’s funny that when the lights just tease you in the beginning, you get so excited, because they are actually appearing. But the lights got stronger, brighter and better as the night wore on. They went from just some faint streaks of green, to wide swaths of green, flowing and swirling across the winter expanse. The colors got brighter and it was amazing to get these photos of the Northern Lights high in the sky, and often reflected in the lake below.

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It’s hard to stop taking pictures, because I just wanted to capture as many as I could, because you never know when the show is going to stop. The biggest hurdle to capturing all the photos you want is the cold, time, and of course battery life. I had bought a few extra camera batteries, because I knew that the extreme cold drains battery power quickly. I was actually surprised at how long my first camera battery lasted, but of course it eventually drained. Maybe it was the increasing cold or the fact they were new, but my subsequent batteries didn’t have much power to them.

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By the time we left our first site, I had captured dozens of beautiful Northern Lights photos, and my camera was drained dry. On our way back, we stopped at a second site for at least an hour, and I’ll admit to being a bit irked at that at first. I was cold, a bit tired, and it’s not like I was going to get any more pictures. For the most part, there were only limited auroras, but by the end of our stop, they had gotten pretty bright, and I wished I had a working camera to capture them. It’s one of those lessons in aurora photographing- you never know if they will show up, or how long they will show up, so it’s hard to plan your photography if you have limited supplies. But it’s one of those things you get what you get, and enjoy whatever it is you get. So even though I wasn’t able to photograph those later lights, I still can remember how bright they were across the sky.

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I can’t recommend a good aurora tour enough if you are in Tromso in the winter. There are many tours available, though I was very pleased with Creative Vacations. So pleased that we did a daylight tour (the subject of a coming blog). Aurora viewing is something you can’t guarantee to see, but if you have the opportunity to see them, the experience will sear into your memory. Just make sure you take enough camera batteries to capture it all.

Polar Night in Tromso

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For several years now, I have wanted to experience Polar Night, the winter counterpart to summer’s Midnight Sun. I had a chance to experience Midnight Sun back in 2009, when I took a cruise up the Norwegian coastline in mid June, and once we hit the Arctic Circle, we spent a few days up where the sun doesn’t set. I enjoyed it, though it does a number on your circadian rhythm for obvious reasons. I mean, when your body doesn’t have any external clues about the time of day, it’s easy for it to go a little haywire. Now granted, I am a natural night owl, but even still, it surprised me a bit to look at my watch and realize it was 0200 or 0300 in the morning, and the sun was still shining like it was mid day, and I wasn’t tired. I had to force myself to go to bed, just so I wouldn’t eventually pass out from tiredness, and I was awake to see all the sights I wanted to see.

Tromso Overview-1So of course I wanted to experience its opposite in Polar Night. I personally love darkness, and embrace the cold and long, dark nights of winter. I honestly can’t get enough of it, and it disappoints me greatly being in a place where there are mild winters. Of course even if the temperature was warmer than I liked, I still had hours and hours of darkness to cuddle in and enjoy. But it wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to know what it was really like to visit a place where the sun never rose.

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I got a tiny taste of what it might be like (though not exactly Polar Night) when we visited Fairbanks, Alaska a few years ago around New Years. Sure it wasn’t exactly Polar Night, because the sun did rise above the horizon for four hours a day, but I also saw that just because the sun isn’t above the horizon, it doesn’t mean that it is pitch dark out. In Fairbanks, the sun might have been only up for four hours, but there were at least two hours of beautiful blue light on either side of sunrise and sunset. Meaning, that even during Polar Night, it’s not like it is interminable darkness; it’s just that the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon. But as many of us have experienced long dawns and twilights, we know that there can still be light outside, even if the sun is below the horizon.

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So I knew Polar Night wasn’t going to be some 24 hours of pure black darkness, but the light you do experience in Polar Night is a bit different. It is obviously softer, because the sunlight is indirect, and it takes on more of a blue tinge, which is really magical when it is against the backdrop of pure white snow (which has the effect of making it seem even brighter than it really is). Having seen pictures of places where Polar Night exists made me want to experience it even more.

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Now it was just a matter of choosing a place to visit, and honestly, there aren’t THAT many places where the sun doesn’t rise at all during the winter, AND has a reasonable tourist infrastructure to visit. Sure, there are multitudes of tiny villages and a couple larger cities above the Arctic Circle, but they are often hard and expensive to visit. So choosing Tromso, Norway as my place to experience Polar Night was an easy one. I had visited Tromso in the past as a cruise stop on my Norwegian cruise and I enjoyed the few hours I spent there. It’s the world’s third largest city above the Arctic Circle, with a population of around 75,000. Considering it sits at around 69 degrees north latitude, the weather is surprisingly “mild.” And I grade mild on a curve, because it does get very cold and snowy up there. It’s not like it has anything close to a mild winter. However, considering it is at the same latitude of Point Barrow Alaska (the northernmost point of Alaska), it is not nearly as cold and frigid as it could be, thanks to the Atlantic Gulf Stream that ends around the Tromso area.

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This trip to Tromso kicked off my second long visit to Norway, and the itinerary was similar to the one I did in the summer. Only now I was going to get a chance to experience Norway in the winter, something I had always wanted to do. Since it was my mom’s first trip to Norway, it was an opportunity to see similar places, only now under the beautiful cover of snow and ice. We decided to start up in Tromso and work our way south, since the farther south we went, the more daylight we would experience (and the temperatures would warm up a bit). So of course I had to pick a starting day when it was still Polar Night in Tromso, since that and the opportunity to see auroras were two of the driving factors for my winter visit. Polar Night lasts around six weeks in Tromso. I had toyed with the idea of visiting around Christmas, just because it would have saved me some work vacation days, but once I say that prices were literally double (at least airplane fares), I figured we could start a couple weeks into January. Polar Night officially ended 15 January in 2019, though people in the city really didn’t consider it ending until 20 January. Sure the sun does rise above the horizon for 30 minutes on 15 January, but it won’t become obvious until around 20 January. So based on our trip calculations, we would have three full days of Polar Night in Tromso, with our final day technically having 30 minutes of sunlight (though we didn’t notice a real difference).

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Since we were coming in at the tail end of Polar Night, I knew it wasn’t going to be as dark as it was during the height of Polar Night, but we would still get a chance to experience it and the beautiful blue light it produces. Our first full day in Tromso, we didn’t get up until 1000 (thanks to a very long plane trip consisting of three flights to get up to Tromso), and even at that hour, it was only a bit light out. More like a long dawn. Considering that I knew that we didn’t have that many hours of daylight, we decided our first stop on the first day would be Fjellheisen, which is the cable car up to the top of Mt. Storsteinen and provides a beautiful, panoramic view of Tromso and the surrounding area. Of course we weren’t the only ones with that idea, and the bus to the cable car was packed. But the line moved surprisingly quickly, and soon we found ourselves at the top of the mountain.

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At that point it was trying to maximize our viewing experience AND eating lunch, since we hadn’t eaten breakfast. Thankfully the cafe and the viewing ledges are next to each other, so mom and I took turns eating and going outside into the frigid temperatures to take pictures. At its zenith, the daylight was a soft gray, but that really only lasted a little over an hour. Soon enough, it started getting darker and that blue light became more prominent. By the time it was 1500 in the afternoon, it was completely dark.

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We decided to walk from the bus stop to the Arctic Cathedral, just to get a chance to get some exercise in and enjoy the darkness and cold weather. I found the bracing cold to be refreshing, and loved walking in the snow. While they plow the roads in Tromso, they don’t clear the roads, so most of the roads (even some of the more well traveled roads) had snow on them, just packed down so you can easily drive on it. And since snow in the winter is a permanent feature in Tromso, and considering how active Norwegians are (we saw more than one runner in the snow while we were there), it was nice that the sidewalks are plowed as well. It’s not like parts of the US where the snow is just plowed into piles and it is impossible to walk outside. Plus, the drivers are more respectful of pedestrians in Tromso (at least the ones we encountered), so even if we had to walk a bit in the road, it’s not like we had to worry about getting run over.

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The Arctic Cathedral is one of the more recognizable landmarks in Tromso, and the structure looks beautiful all lit up at night. The inside is not that much to look at, at least during the night, because the stained glass is probably pretty when the sun shines on it. We decided to walk back to town, which was really only a walk over the bridge (Mom is a pretty good sport about some of the things I ask her to do on vacation), so we had some nice views of Tromso city on our way back.

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Just like Midnight Sun does a number on your circadian rhythm, so does Polar Night, but in the opposite direction. In the summer, I was staying up hours and hours in the summer and not feeling it, but during Polar Night, I started getting sleepy by late afternoon, and it was more of a challenge to stay up to a reasonable hour, so I didn’t go to sleep early and then wake up around 0400 or something. But I LOVED Polar Night, with all its attendant darkness and beautiful light, and would love to experience it again sometime in the future. This day was just the first day in what proved to be a very beautiful and enjoyable Norwegian winter vacation.

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The Wonderful Waterfalls of Iceland

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As I’ve written in many other blog posts, there is so much beautiful nature in Iceland. It’s like an embarrassment of riches if you love nature, and the sheer diversity packed on that small island, means you get major bang for your buck during a visit to Iceland.

I’ve talked about other major waterfalls previously, such as Dynjandi and Dettifoss, but there are so, so many other waterfalls. Many of them are super famous for visitors in the first place, and many of them are easily accessible, just off a major road (so they are catnip for tour groups). Of course there are some other beautiful waterfalls I wanted to see, but either didn’t have the time to hike to them, or the type of car I needed to get to them. But there are enough diversity of waterfalls and ease of access, that you can satiate any thirst for waterfalls. I know I got my fill while I was there, and I can never visit too many waterfalls.

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On our very first day in Iceland, literally just a few hours off an overnight flight to Iceland, we were standing at the edge of probably one of the most famous waterfalls in Iceland, which is Gulfoss. It’s not necessarily the best waterfall in Iceland (though I don’t know how you would determine which waterfall is “best”), and it’s not the biggest, but it is the most famous. Gulfoss is one stop on the super popular “Golden Circle” day tour of different sites around West Iceland (the other stops being Geysir, Pingvellir and usually a geothermal power plant). I daresay that the vast, vast majority of tourists to Iceland will see Gulfoss, either on an organized tour bus group or on an independent tour.

Most visitors probably don’t venture very far outside of the Reykjavik daytripper radius, so it is easy for tourists to take bus tours to see sites outside of Reykjavik, but not that far outside of Reykjavik. On my first trip to Iceland, I did the Golden Circle day trip, because it was just easier, and I hadn’t decided to rent a car to travel around Iceland at that point.

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But planning this tour, I knew we would rent a car for a couple weeks, and would avoid Reykjavik altogether, simply to maximize time in the outer sites. But even though both my mother and I had been to Gulfoss, I wanted to see it again. Since both of our visits to Iceland were in the winter, we wanted to see the waterfall in warmer weather. A winter visit was really nice, because the surrounding area was covered in snow and ice, but the ice also meant that the trail to get closer to the waterfall was closed, but this time, we would be able to get up close and personal with the waterfall.

If you want to do your own self drive Golden Circle, it is super easy to do, since all the sites are located within a reasonable drive of each other, and all sites are well marked. That is one of the many nice things about driving in Iceland. Once you get outside of the Reykjavik metro area, there are usually only a few roads, and everything is well marked, so it is so easy to drive and not get lost.

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Since Gulfoss is super popular, you are guaranteed plenty of crowds when you visit (unless you visit really early or really late in the day). The waterfall is an odd and interesting setup, which only adds to the beauty of the site before you. You can view the waterfall from an overlook to get a wide expanse view of the falls and the canyon. The falls aren’t just one single falls, but rather multiple level falls. You can also hike down some stairs and a path down to stand right on the edge of some of the falls. The amount of water pouring through the canyon throws up a lot of mist that can obscure the canyon view, only to be exposed when the wind picks up.

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Another beautiful falls that is easily accessible is Godafoss, which is a nice, horseshoe-shaped falls that is located just off the Ring Road east of Akureyri on the way to Myvatn. This falls can be seen from the road, and there are two viewpoints on either side of the falls. Both sides provides a bit different view of the falls and the river, so it is worth it to stop at both viewpoints if you have the time. You can either drive the short distance between each waterfall side, or walk the easy path and bridge over the river.

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Both viewpoints require a tiny bit of scrambling over rocks, but it’s not that difficult if you are careful. Like all of the waterfalls in Iceland, there aren’t any guardrails. So it is incumbent upon visitors to be careful and not do stupid stuff that might result in them falling off high cliffs.

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The view of Godafoss from up close and personal and from farther down the river are really nice, and provide many picture worthy settings. Godafoss is also worth your time. You are liable to see some tour buses at this site, but since you see far fewer tour buses outside of Reykjavik, it doesn’t overwhelm visitors trying to push their way through crowds for a good view.

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The next set of waterfalls I want to talk about don’t have any individual names (that I know of), but if you have time, they are absolutely worth your time. And I don’t think this site is really popular, so you have to know about it in advance (though it is known enough, that you won’t be on your own when you visit).

If you happen to be in South Iceland (and chances are, you will spend some time in South Iceland, either on your own or as a tour group), I would recommend making the time to visit Fjardargljufur, which is a picturesque, twisty, somewhat narrow canyon that houses some nice waterfalls.

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Reaching the car park for the canyon is rather easy. It is on Route 206, off the Ring Road, east of the town of Kirkjubaejarklaustur. Like all routes in Iceland, it is well marked  with a sign. The road to the car park is about 3.5 kilometers down a rutted, bumpy road. But by this point in our Iceland vacation, I was wearily used to bumpy gravel roads, so I just slowed down and knew I would get there.

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On the road, we finally got to see one of the things we had been hoping to see up close in Iceland, and that was a black sheep. Even though most of the sheep in Iceland are white, there are occasional sights of black sheep and mixed black and white sheep, but most of them were always off in the distance. The few times we had tried to approach a group with black sheep, they always ran away, because they seem so shy. But finally, we saw a white and black sheep just hanging out together just off by the side of the road. Here was our chance to photograph a black sheep. I was hoping to get a good photo, but by the time I got out of the car and got my camera out, they were running away like little sheep teases. However, my mother just had to roll down the car window and was able to snap a nice picture of the cute little sheep couple.

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We knew we were at the car park, because we saw the long line of cars down the side of the road. Amazingly since this is not a hugely popular site, there is a nice bathroom right at the trailhead. The canyon is only about two kilometers out, the walk is very nice. The path is very well maintained, though there are some hills  since it follows the topography of the surrounding canyon.

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The trail is along the top of the canyon, and there are numerous viewpoints along the way that provide beautiful looks down into the canyon. The canyon walls were covered in moss, with a nice river flowing through it. My favorite views were the couple waterfalls, that were nice shapes and provided a different view of the canyon.

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Again, I highly recommend a stop at Fjardargljufur if you have the time. The walk is short and pretty easy, and a good excuse to get out of the car and stretch your legs. The canyon is a bit different than other places we visited in Iceland, and is almost like a glimpse into Middle Earth.

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The last two waterfalls I will mention are two rather popular waterfalls, and extremely accessible, as in they are both viewable from the Ring Road. And since both of these waterfalls are found  in Southwest Iceland, well within the Reykjavik tourist radius, you can count on seeing hordes of tour buses and rental cars. Which is fine. Just know before you go.

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Both of these waterfalls are a short drive between each other, so you can easily see them in one day. And to make it even nicer, both of these waterfalls look different and provide different views, so stopping at both waterfalls provides different viewing pleasures and don’t feel redundant.

Seljalandsfoss is a long, thin waterfall located not far from Porsmork, so it is often a quick stop for Porsmork day tours. In fact, that is where we picked up our tour group, since we were coming from South Iceland. This waterfall must be popular enough to justify paid parking. It is only the second place I have seen paid parking (Skaftafell National Park being the other).

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The view of the waterfall from a short distance is nice, but you also have the opportunity of walking around the waterfall and seeing the view from the back. Most people approach the back side of the waterfall from the right side, and from here, the waterfall mist will likely blow into your face if it is windy. Once you get behind the waterfall, the view of the falls is beautiful and the curtain of water adds the scenery. I made the mistake of following the path around the waterfall, instead of turning back from whence I came. The path from the right side is wet, but it is all rock. However, if you follow the trail behind the waterfall to emerge at the left side, you will find that the path is very muddy, slippery. I managed to scramble up the rocks, but I ended up with wet muddy boots and muddy clothes (thankfully you can wash yourself off in the river).

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The last waterfall, Skogafoss is just down the road from Seljalandsfoss. This waterfall is a different look, because it is a wider, more traditional looking waterfall. There is a big parking lot and an easy path to the bottom of the waterfall. You can walk right to the edge of the pool, though expect to be showered in waterfall spray. The day we visited the waterfall, the weather forecast was supposed to be a nice, sunny day (and it ended up being that way in the end), but for the brief time we were at the waterfall, the sky just opened up and dumped down on us.

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The nice thing about the rain is that it cleared out most of the tourists, including my mother who high tailed it back to the car. But since I was there and outfitted in a good rain jacket, I was determined to get some pictures from the top viewpoint. You can get a nice view of the top of the waterfall and the surrounding countryside by ascending the very steep set of staircases. Skogafoss is 62 meters tall, so it is not an insignificant distance, and you really feel it ascending to the top. The stairs are really nice and easy to ascend, but the sheer steepness required me to stop a few times and catch my breath.  But keep at it, and you will get to the top eventually.

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The view was good, even with the cloudy weather, since the rain had stopped by this point and the sky was brightening up. If you wanted, you could continue hiking from the top of Skogafoss to Porsmork, which is about a 23.5 kilometer trail. I elected not to do that, but the option is there if you so desire.

Like I said before, Iceland is an amazing wonderland of all sorts of nature, and if you love waterfalls in general, you will be in ecstasy while visiting this country. I wish I had been able to see a couple more waterfalls, but what I did was more than enough to keep me satisfied for a while.