This is a guest post from Nigel Hicks.
With all the recent growing volcanic activity close to Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavík, you might be forgiven for thinking that Iceland would be a dangerous place to visit. However, the danger zone is very small, and there is the whole of the country to explore. One hugely recommended area is the Snaefellsnes peninsula, and in particular the Snaefellsjökull National Park.
The Snaefellsnes Peninsula
Lying more than 100km north of Reykjavík, the Snaefellsnes peninsula is a 100km-long finger of land pointing directly west into the North Atlantic. It is mountainous, and yes it is also volcanic, but it is safe and stunningly beautiful. The peninsula’s westernmost extremity is dominated by Snaefellsjökull, at 1446 metres the region’s highest mountain, permanently capped with snow and ice.
Snaefellsjökull is a volcano, but it is quiescent. However it has been extremely active in the past, as is evident from the huge amounts of lava spilled out across the surrounding landscape. This is one of Iceland’s most famous volcanoes, its crater featured in Jules Verne’s epic adventure Journey to the Centre of the Earth, as a possible route into the Earth’s core.
Today, the mountain’s main claim to fame is that much of it is protected within the Snaefellsjökull National Park. The park includes about 170 sq km of the mountain and the westernmost coast of the peninsula. The area is worth exploring for its numerous dramatic lava rock formations, surf-battered Atlantic cliffs, craters, and of course the mountain itself. What’s more, beyond the national park, there are other sights on the Snaefellsnes peninsula to discover.
What Can You See In Snaefellsjökull National Park?
Most of the national park’s attractions lie along the westernmost coast of Snaefellsnes. Here you are at the very end of the peninsula, looking straight out towards the open North Atlantic Ocean. We’ll start with what is probably the most visited location.
A tiny coastal hamlet lying southeast of Snaefellsjökull, Arnarstapi is technically outside the national park, and yet it is the main starting point for visits to the area, and has some of the biggest attractions.
The coast here is dominated by a series of lava stacks, plus a huge and magnificent lava arch, named Gatklettur, that stands in the sea a short distance from the shore. The cliffs are composed entirely of black basaltic lava, the product of outpourings from Snaefellsjökull.
A few kilometres west of Arnarstapi lies Lóndrangar, an enormous natural lava sculpture. This consists of two gigantic basalt columns that tower over the much lower cliffs on either side. There is a convenient viewing platform on a clifftop to the east, which gives a grandstand view of the coast and its sculptures.
The next stop heading west is a black lava sand beach known as Djúpalónssandur. You will find yet more wonderful natural lava sculptures here, while just offshore at the eastern end of the beach stands the Tröllakirkja (Trolls’ Church), a striking tower of lava.
Behind the beach are a couple of lagoons embedded within the lava. These are often said to be freshwater. However, their levels rise and fall with the tide, so they must be at least partly seawater.
It’s hard to miss the huge amounts of rusting and twisted metal scattered across the beach. This is all that remains of the Grimsby fishing trawler Epine, which ran aground near here during a storm in 1948.
From Djúpalónssandur the main road continues northwards and parallels the coast. In the northwestern part of the national park, the road passes close to the Saxhóll Crater, all that remains of a long-defunct volcano.
The crater is easy to explore, with a well-built set of metal steps leading to the top of the 100m high crater rim, which you can then walk around. There are spectacular views in all directions, not only down into the crater floor, but also across the coast to the west and to the mass of Snaefellsjökull to the southeast.
Beyond Saxhóll, the main road heads north eastwards, but when you reach the north coast of the Snaefellsnes peninsula a side turning takes you westwards towards two stunning coastal sites, the first of which is Skarðsvik (pronounced Skarthsveek).
Here, a sandy beach is backed by black lava cliffs. Although protected from the full power of the Atlantic by a headland further west, surf rolls in here with some force, making for spectacular viewing.
A few kilometres further on a rough track brings you to Svörtuloft lighthouse, a bright orange concrete tower that dominates and contrasts sharply with the jet black lava cliffs of Skálasnagi. This is the westernmost end of the Snaefellsnes peninsula, looking defiantly westwards into the face of the North Atlantic.
It’s not advisable to stand here in the face of a full Atlantic storm. However in the days immediately following a storm the scene here can be quite spectacular, raging waves pounding the cliffs, the air filled with spray.
So finally we come to what you might think would be the star attraction of Snaefellsjökull National Park, the Snaefellsjökull mountain itself. In actual fact, for the vast majority of visitors it is little more than a backdrop to the park’s coastal attractions.
It has to be said that, being a large mountain pointing out into the open Atlantic, Snaefellsjökull spends most of its time covered in cloud. As a result, you’d hardly know there was a mountain there at all. But on those occasional clear days when the mountain reveals itself, it is quite stunning.
A small unpaved but driveable road leads up most of the mountain. Sadly it doesn’t reach the edge of the permanent ice, although it comes not far short. You can join this road from the main coast road near Arnarstapi, on the south side of the mountain; just east of the fishing town of Ólafsvík on the north side; and near Saxhóll on the west. Parts of this road can be difficult, so only drive it in good weather.
Places To See Beyond Snaefellsnes National Park
The rest of the Snaefellsnes peninsula has plenty more for the visitor to see, mostly along its northern coast.
Halfway along the peninsula, just west of the unassuming fishing town of Grundarfjörður, you come to one of Iceland’s most photographed views, that of Mount Kirkjufell and the nearby Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall.
The mountain stands by itself on its own peninsula and is a spectacular steep dagger of a mountain. The waterfall, on the other hand, is quite small by Icelandic standards, and sits a little way inland, on a hillside on the opposite side of the main coast road from the mountain. By pure good fortune the two can be combined into a single almost perfect photographic composition.
A few kilometres east along the coast road beyond Grundarfjörður brings you to Kolgrafafjörður, a spectacular fjord surrounded by mountains. At one time the main road used to go all the way around the shore of the fjord. However in the early 2000s a causeway and bridge were built across its mouth, giving magnificent views along the fjord and up towards the mountains.
Continuing eastwards brings you to Berserkjahraun. In my view this is the most spectacular lava field in Snaefellsnes, complete with lava sculptures, lagoons, craters and cones, as well as multi-coloured rocks. A small, but driveable track makes it possible to explore the lava field by car, a really worthwhile side-trip.
Beyond Berserkjahraun, the main road turns northwards and heads along a small peninsula before it reaches Stykkishólmur, the largest town on Snaefellsnes. The harbour area is really quite attractive, filled with fishing boats and lined with historic buildings in traditional Nordic architecture.
To return to Reykjavík from Stykkishólmur, a mountainous road cuts across the heart of Snaefellsnes, before connecting with the main route southwards. While on this mountain road, you come to a pass with spectacular views across Berserkjahraun. There is also a stunning waterfall nearby, if you can find it hidden in a little gorge!
Where To Stay In Snaefellsnes
There are quite a few holiday homes to rent on the peninsula, but for brief stays there are also a number of hotels, as follows.
- The Arnarstapi Center is a modern complex, with a mix of hotel, cabins and holiday homes, with restaurants and bar.
- The Fosshotel Hellnar is an attractive and very comfortable hotel close to the seashore in Hellnar cove, a few kilometres west of Arnarstapi.
- Fosshotel Stykkishólmur is a comfortable hotel on a low hilltop overlooking Stykkishólmur.
- Hotel Búdir is a luxurious but very remote hotel sitting right on the seashore, on the edge of the Búdir lava field. It is roughly 20km east of Arnarstapi, on the south coast of Snaefellsnes.
- The Freezer Hostel offers a mix of dormitory accommodation and double rooms. It is located in a renovated fish factory in the village of Rif, on the north coast of Snaefellsnes.
- Adventure Hotel Hellissandur is a modern and comfortable hotel in the town of Hellissandur, on Snaefellsnes’ north coast.
- The Helgrindur Guesthouse is a small, very modern, hotel with family rooms, in the centre of Grundarfjördur.
How To Get To Snaefellsjökull National Park
To get from Reykjavík to the Snaefellsjökull National Park under your own steam you will need to hire a car as there is no direct bus route. From Reykjavík you simply head northwards along Route1 until you reach the town of Borgarnes. Shortly after leaving Borgarnes turn left onto Route 54, which will take you all the way to Arnarstapi, a distance of just under 200 km. The drive from Reykjavík will take about two hours 40 minutes.
Alternatively, you can take a tour. There are several choices of tours from Reykjavík to Snaefellsjökull National Park. Or you could incorporate into a longer road trip around western Iceland.
Nigel Hicks has been a professional photographer for over 30 years, working mainly in travel and tourism, and his career has led him to travel across large parts of the world. In recent years he has led numerous photographic tours to Iceland, which has become a favourite location. You can find out about his work at Nigel Hicks Photography and read more on his blog.