From Borgarnes, Route 54 branches off west past Borg á Mýrum through the sparsely populated Mýrar district, a region of low-lying plains and bogs with a few small lakes, heading for the southern coast of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, a rugged yet beautiful arm of the Icelandic west coast that juts out into the Atlantic between Faxaflói bay and Breiðafjörður. The north and south coasts are divided one from the other by a string of spiky mountains which run down the spine of the peninsula and culminate in the magnificent Snæfellsjökull, a glacier at the land’s westernmost point. Towns – and regional buses – are mostly confined to the north coast, where harbours are good and plentiful, and it’s from picturesque Stykkishólmur, far and away the best place to base yourself on the peninsula, that boat trips can be made across to the peaceful island haven of Flatey. From here a road runs west round the tip of the peninsula via uneventful Ólafsvík, though, if you’re keen to head straight for the glacier, aim for the south-coast township of Arnarstapi where snowmobile tours of Snæfellsjökull can be arranged. Remember that it’s the south coast which more often than not bears the brunt of the moisture-laden low-pressure systems that sweep in from the Atlantic, emptying their load here rather than over the mountains on the north coast.
More about Iceland
Find out more
- Arnarstapi and around
Nineteen kilometres east of Arnarstapi, and served by all buses to and from Reykjavík, BÚÐIR is a romantic, windswept location, a former fishing village at the head of the sweeping expanse of white sand that backs the Búðavík bay. The settlement, like so many others in this part of the country, was abandoned in the early nineteenth century and today consists of nothing more than a hotel and a church, both situated just a stone’s throw from the ocean. Surrounded by the Búðahraun lavafield, rumoured to be home to countless elves, and enjoying unsurpassed views out over the Atlantic, the tiny pitch-black church with its three white-framed windows dates from 1703, and cuts an evocative image when viewed from the adjoining graveyard with the majestic Snæfellsnes mountain range as a backdrop. Look out too for the unusual wall, made of lava and topped with turf, that surrounds the churchyard.
Hiking in western Snæfellsnes
Hiking in western Snæfellsnes
Hellissandur makes a good base for exploring the foot of the Snæfellsjökull and the surrounding lavafields. A recommended day hike of around 20km leads from the village to Eysteinsdalur valley; take the unmarked secondary road between the campsite and the maritime museum that leads towards the glacier. After around 1km the road becomes a hiking path which strikes out across the Prestahraun lavafield, joining up after 4km with the unnumbered road that runs up through the valley. Here, on the south side of the road, a signed path leads up to the hill, Rauðhóll, to a red scoria crater. An impressive rift in the lava can also been seen to the east of the hill. Continue another 1km along the road towards the glacier and you’ll come to a signposted path to the south of the road, which leads to the prominent basalt spur, Klukka, and a beautiful waterfall, Klukkufoss, where the Móðulækur river flows through a narrow canyon lined with basalt columns. Back on the main road and another 1km towards the glacier, a path to the north of the road leads to the Blágil ravine, where the Ljósulækir glacial river thunders through the narrow rugged gorge. To return to Hellissandur, retrace your steps along the main road, beyond the turn for the waterfall, to the hiking path that heads out to the north across the Væjuhraun lavafield for Rif. From here, simply head west along the coastal road to Hellissandur. Maps of these routes should be available from the tourist office in Ólafsvík and the hotel in Hellissandur.
Another recommended day hike (18km) leads first to the sandy bay of Skarðsvík, walled in by cliffs and crags on its northern and western edges. The lava above the cliffs is overgrown with moss and can be a good place to see rare plants. Excellent fishing can be had in the bay’s protected waters and it’s therefore a favourite spot for local boats. To get here, follow Route 574 west out of Hellissandur to its junction with the unnumbered road signed for Skarðsvík; it’s at this point that the main road swings inland, heading for the glacier and the turn for Eysteinsdalur valley. Just 2km west of Skarðsvík the road terminates at the peninsula’s westernmost point, Öndverðarnes, a dramatic and weatherbeaten spot marked only by a lonely lighthouse and a stone well which legend has it is linked to three springs: one of fresh water, one of sea water and one of wine. The promontory is a favourite destination for basking seals, which favour the pebbly beach here. South of the cape the Svörtuloft cliffs are worth a visit; swarming with seabirds in summer, the cliffs provided a major source of eggs and birds for the tables of local villagers until the 1950s, when living standards began to rise. The free-standing crag in the sea here, Skálasnagi, was once connected to the mainland by a natural stone bridge until it fell victim to the pounding of Atlantic breakers in 1973. From the cliffs, a path heads east, inland through the Neshraun lavafield to an area of small hillocks known as Neshólar before emerging at Skarðsvík.
Enter the Snæfellsjökull crater, which is kissed by Scatari’s shadow before the first of July, adventurous traveller, and thou wilt descend to the centre of the Earth.
Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Jules Verne
Made world famous in the nineteenth century by Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Snæfellsjökull stands guard at the very tip of the peninsula to which it gave its name (Snæfell means “Snow Mountain”; Snæfellsnes means “Snow Mountain Peninsula”). It is from here that Verne’s hero, the German geologist Professor Lidenbrock of Hamburg, descends into a crater in the dormant volcano under the glacier and embarks on a fantastic subterranean journey accompanied by his nephew and an Icelandic guide with the very un-Icelandic name of Hans. The professor has managed to decipher a document written in runic script that leads him to believe that this is the way to the centre of the earth; rather inexplicably he finally emerges on the volcanic Mediterranean island of Strómboli. This remote part of Iceland has long been associated with supernatural forces and mystery, and stories like this only strengthen this belief – at one time the glacier even became a point of pilgrimage for New Age travellers, though they’re not much in evidence today. The 1446m, three-peaked glacier sits on a dormant volcano marked by a large crater, 1km in diameter, with cliff walls 200m high; three eruptions have occurred under the glacier in the past ten thousand years, the last around 250AD.
Experienced hikers have a choice of ascents, though you’ll probably need ice axes and crampons, and should also first talk to the national park office in Hellnar (late May to mid-Sept daily 10am–5pm; t436 6888, wsnaefellsjokull.is) about the condition of routes and the likely weather. There are two trailheads: either east off the four-wheel-drive-only Route F570, which clips Snæfell’s eastern flank as it runs for 18km between Ólafsvík and Arnarstapi; or at the ice cap’s northwestern corner, via a track running east of Neshraun. Hiking trails cross between these two starting points via the glacier’s apex, Jökulþúfur (1446m), which sits atop three crags on the crater rim – allow at least four hours to make the crossing, not counting the time it takes to reach the trailheads themselves.