Snaefellsnes Peninsula is one of the most spectacular places in Iceland. The peninsula is dominated by mountains and volcanoes, lava fields and breath-taking colors. It’s one of the places in Iceland where you feel almost as if you’ve entered another world, one where the natural forces are ever present and you stand in awe at their majesty. Come and feel the power of Snaefellsjokull glacier!
Driving from Reykjavik you head north of Hvalfjordur fjord. The fjord once served as a naval base for the Allied Forces during the World War II, chosen because it is deep and offered a great shelter from the merciless winds and storms of the North Atlantic, not to mention enemy submarines. The fjord however has even richer history, it is the scene of one of the Icelandic Sagas, Hardar Saga, and there have been farms in Hvalfjord fjord since settlement.
If you choose to drive the fjord, instead of crossing it using the tunnel, we recommend that you look for a few things. First of all, you might see once you driven for a short while where ruins of an old pier stand. There were two bases in Hvalfjord fjord and you will find the ruins of the first one there. You can find a place to park the car and check out what’s left of the old base. If you are into birding, you might see many sea birds there, especially sea gulls and even eider ducks. On the other side of the fjord, where you can see old oil tanks, was the other base. Nowadays it only serves as a base for whalers.
If you brought along some hiking boots there’s a must-see in Hvalfjord. Glymur, one of the highest waterfalls in Iceland, is at the very end of the fjord. However, it’s a steep 2-hour walk to reach it, but, trust us, it’s more than worth it. The hiking trail is one of the most beautiful in Iceland and that’s saying a lot! If you are, however, pressed on time, please take into account that it the whole hike should take around 4 hours.
As you head on and leave Hvalfjordur fjord you will next find the small and cozy village of Borgarnes. As the story goes, the town stands where the settler Skallagrimur Kveldulfsson built his farm. Skallagrimur is the father of Egill, the warrior-poet, and the main character of Egils saga. You learn much about the Skallagrimur, Egill and the settlement in the Settlement Center. There’s also a quite good coffee house in the same building as the Settlement Center.
Finally, there’s a nice swimming pool in Borgarnes, one well worth the visit, especially when travelling with kids. There are water slides and both indoor and outdoor pool.
Head north for Snaefellsnes peninsula
Proceed north on road 45 to the southwestern edge of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. You will drive along fields and across beautiful rivers, where you might see fishermen try their luck in hope of catching wild North-Atlantic salmon. As you get further north you’ll soon see a strange circular rock formations on your left. This is in fact a volcano called Eldborg. You can walk to the top of the crater, a walk that takes about an hour. Turn left from Snorrastadir farm and please walk only on the marked trail. Eldborg crater offers not only those interested in geology or volcanoes a chance to explore the crater and it’s surrounding, but, on a clear day, it also offers a great view point of the surrounding lands and a superb photo opportunity with the great glacier in the background.
See the mountains
As you leave Eldborg behind you soon see where the mountain ridge Ljosufjoll rise, many of these mountains are in fact volcanoes and if you take the time to watch the mountain sides you can see where lava flowed and fell like a waterfall down the mountainsides.
At the farm Olkelda, turn right near Stadarstadur, you will find a mineral spring with carbonated water. Many believe that the water has healing properties, so feel free to take a sip and let us know if you indeed feel better. The farm’s name, Olkelda, mean mineral spring in Icelandic.
Southern part of the peninsula
Heading west along road 54 you’ll soon see the beautiful Hotel Budir. The cozy hotel is situated at in Budahraun lava field. Originally the place was called Hraunhofn, which means lava harbor in Icelandic. The lava field originated in the low Budaklettur crater. Take the time to walk in the sandy lava field and pay a visit to the charming black chuch. You will also find there one of the few golden beaches in Iceland.
Not far from Budahraun you will find the quaint small fishing village Arnarstapi. However, when driving there, please note the farm Öxl. That farm has a dark history, the only known Icelandic serial killer in the history of Iceland lived there. His name was Bjorn Petursson, born in 1555 and executed 1595, and was aptly called Axlar-Bjorn (Bjorn from Oxl farm). Axlar-Bjorn admitted committing nine murders, some of which were children. Later, Bjorn’s son was hanged for rape and his grandson was also executed for evil crimes, so many reasoned that Axlar-Bjorn’s evil had been inherited by his descendants.
Arnarstapi however is not as morbid and far from it. The small village was an important trading post in the past and had much bigger population that it has now, but today it is one of the smallest villages in Iceland. The harbor is busy during the summer and you might see where some of the small fishing boats return, hopefully loaded with fish. A large colony of arctic tern makes the village it’s home, so please note that the tern can get quite territorial and aggressive, especially during the few weeks when the chicks are still in the nests.
Bardur Snaefellsas was the settler of Snaefellsnes. Half troll and half human he is said to protect the peninsula and the people there and many placenames in the area are inspired by his Saga. A large sculpture of Bardur by artist Ragnar Kjartansson stands by the beach.
As you head out of Arnarstapi and drive further west you’ll see a tiny village named Hellnar. This small village was once one of the largest fishing towns in West Iceland and dates back to settlement age. Hellnar is well-worth the stop, since the place offers a great view of the seaside cliffs. You can also find a hiking trail, that takes you along some breathtaking scenery, including Gatklettur and the peculiar Badstofa Caves. The hike is about 2.5 km (1.5 miles) and takes about an hour to complete.
At Hellnar you will find the Snaefellsnes National Park Visitor Center, which is open daily during the summer.
Snaefellsnes National Park
Snaefellsjokull glacier dominates westernmost peninsula and the mountain has some energy that one finds hard to explain. Perhaps that’s why Jules Verne decided to use is as the setting for his novel Journey to the Center of the Earth or Iceland‘s most celebrated novelist Halldor Laxness made the glacier so prominent in one of his novels, Under the Glacier or Kristnihald undir Jokli.
As you leave Hellnar you enter the national park. One of the first thing you might notice on the left side of the road, if you can take your eyes of the magnificent glacier, are a strange set of rock formations. These are Londrangar, a pair of natural towers overlooking the ocean, comprised mostly of basalt. These are well worth the stop, however you have to walk a bit to reach them from the road and please follow a marked trail.
Leaving Londrangar you slowly turn northwards, you should spot Vatnshellir Cave not far from Londrangar. The cave was formed in an eruption over 8000 years ago and it is one of the most enigmatic and beautiful places in the park. We fully recommend that you make a stop there and enter the cave. It’s simply awesome to see all the vibrant colors, not to mention the utter dark in the cave.
Black sand beach
Once your eyes have once more adjusted to the daylight you should head on north towards Djupalonssandur beach. It’s not far fram the cave, look left for an exit and follow that road towards a small parking lot. The beach is made of smooth pebbles and black sand. Please note, that picking the stones is not allowed. You will find four large stones there, which were once used to determine fishermen salaries. If you could lift these you’d be assigned salaries accordingly. If you couldn’t lift any of these, you weren’t fit to work on the boats. The amount of seagulls in Djupalonssandur is astounding and sometimes their squawk is even loader than the road of waves constantly breaking on the beach.
After discovering how strong you really are you should drive for some time further north, until you see a sign saying: Skarðsvík. This is one of the hidden pearls of Snaefellsness peninsula. The Skardsvik beach is small, serene and beautiful. Not far from where you climb down to the beach you can see an old viking grave. Archaeological excavation showed that the grave was probably created for someone who had either died shortly before arriving or when the boat was landing, and that it was quite old. There’s a post showing where the grave is and what the scientists discovered there.
Northern part of Snaefellsnes peninsula
Leaving Skardsvik beach you head east and should see the small village Hellissandur. Not far from Hellissandur you can spot enormous radio mast to your left. These are some of the tallest buildings in Iceland. Make sure you make a stop at Hellissandur, the village once served as a major fishing center and visiting the Maritime museum is a time well spent. You can also see there how fishermen used to live.
Not far from the village you can see a white church rise above the land. This is Ingjaldsholl. The church is beautiful and the oldest cemented church in the world. It is said that before Christopher Columbus sailed west to find (or re-discover) America, he spent a winter at Ingjaldsholl. You can find a large painting by Ake Granz in the church depicting Columbus in Iceland.
Next you should head out for the village Rif. The area between Hellissandur and Rif is a bird-lovers’ paradise and one of the largest arctic tern nesting areas in Iceland. Be advised, enter the nesting area at your own risk. The terns do not welcome guests and defend their territory aggressively.
As you drive further east you follow the coastline until you reach the town Olafsvik. In the 17th and 18th centuries, commercial vessels sailed between Olafsvik and Denmark, and the village was one of the larger trading ports in Iceland. There are many good hiking trails around Olafsvik and we recommend that you look for Baejargil gorge, where you can find the stunning Baejarfoss Waterfall. You can also go whale watching from Olafsvik, where you might see orca and other whales swimming in Breidafjordur bay.
The haunting of Froda
As you leave Olafsvik you drive along green fields and tall mountains. As you are about to reach the crossroads you should turn your attention to right. You will see a small stream called Froda river. As the story goes, there used to be a farmstead there, named Froda. Shortly after the Icelander decided to become Christian around the year 1000. One Yule the farmstead was haunted by 16 dead men, some who had drowned, other rose from the their graves, and the people of the farm needed to call priest who perfomed an exorcism. The farm is no longer there, but many believe that this haunting is one of the worst in the history of Iceland. You can read more about the haunting in the saga Eyrbyggja.
Next up is the incredible and famous Kirkjufell mountain. This is the mountain that appeared in Game of Thrones and you’ve probably seen many pictures of it on Instragram. One of the most popular photospots is to park you car by Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall parking lot and capture both the waterfall and the mountain in the background. Surrounded by beaches, Kirkjufell has a lovely walking trail around it as well as a more challenging and steep climb up to the top. Two spots involving a rope climb make it dangerous to scale when wet. You should not be attempt this without a guide.
The town of Grundarfjordur is just across the small cove. There you can find a decent swimming pool and embark on whale or puffin watching tour. The town also offers a wide range of outdoor activities including hiking, bird watching, fishing, horseback riding, skiing, ice-climbing and camping. There is also a superb nine-hole golf course as well as boat tours offered for sightseeing and sea angling. During summer the town comes alive. The local Viking Association is building a Viking village in the centre of town and Viking-age re-enactments are often the highlight of the day for visitors.
Driving from Grundarfjordur to Stykkisholmur takes you through the Berserker lava field, which is one of the most spectacular lava field in Iceland. According to the Eyrbyggja Saga, a ‘berserker’ was promised the hand of a local resident’s daughter if he cleared a path through the lava field, but was instead rewarded with murder upon completion of the task.
Turning left towards Bjarnarhofn will take you along a bumpy road towards the Shark Museum. Despite the road, the museum is incredible and shows how Icelanders have fished Greenland shark and worked it. There is an old and small church at Bjarnarhofn, as short walk from the museum. It’s quite quaint and special, make sure you pay it a visit.
Breidafjordur and beyond
As you reach Stykkisholmur you’ve traversed the whole Snaefellsnes peninsula. Stykkisholmur is the largest town and commercial center for the area. It also serves as the gateway to the Westfjords, with regular ferry service including stopovers at the timeless island of Flatey.
There are many activities to be found in Stykkisholmur. You could pay the Library of Water a visit or learn more about the many volcanoes of Iceland in the Volcano Museum. There is also a great swimming pool and a good golf course in Stykkisholmur, not to mention the many great tours you can embark on, seeing the isles of Breidafjordur bay.
You can also pay Flatey Island a visit, which is a must for any bird-spotter.
Finally, you can either drive further east along Skogarstrond coast or take the ferry across Breidafjordur bay to Brjanslaekur of the Westfjords.