Snæfellsnes Peninsula’s Big Magic
Magical. Mysterious. Imbued with the stories of the Sagas and Settlement. Home to the Hidden Folk.
This is how the Snæfellsnes Peninsula is often portrayed. After having visited twice (in winter and summer), I can affirm that the descriptors match the reality. However, the peninsula is far more. It’s a fantastic way to enjoy a taste of the different geological features that pepper the rest of the country if you are short on time and are staying in Reykjavik, the capital city. I also believe it is the best way to begin your journey around the country. There are a variety of places to see and most experiences are close to one another, so you don’t have to see something amazing and then jump in the car for 2+ hours before you arrive at the next strikingly magnetic destination.
Although I have spent a total of two days on the peninsula, I am a firm believer that to not only witness but relish the magic, you will want at least that length of time. You may even desire three days if you are interested in taking a tour inside the volcanic or glacier caves. Perhaps that sounds ridiculous considering the entire country is filled with extraordinary things to see and do, and Snæfellsnes Peninsula is only 90km in length, but I promise, it is a place your mind, heart, and soul won’t soon forget. Since I have not been everywhere on the peninsula, I’ve linked a few of the resources I used in curating my itinerary for the region at the end of the post.
During both trips, we traveled to Snæfellsnes through Reykjavik. If you are driving (ie: you’re not taking a tour), you can travel on Ring Road (Route 1) towards Borgarnes.
A note about this route: You will encounter the Hvalfjörður Tunnel (Hvalfjarðargöng), an underwater tunnel that spans approximately 3.5 miles (5,770 meters) and travels beneath the Hvalfjörður fjord. It is the only tunnel that we traveled through in Iceland that resulted in a toll (1000 ISK in July 2018). Cash and credit cards are accepted at the toll booths. It may have been the lack of sleep or my fear of dying in an enclosed space, but I swear it felt far longer than 3.5 miles! If memory serves the speed limit is 60km throughout the span.
Borgarnes is a charming town of about 2,000 residents in West Iceland and serves as a main gateway to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. However, it should not be passed over as a mere refueling or rest station. Borgarnes has a connection to the Icelandic sagas, primarily Egill’s Saga that details the lives of the family of Egill Skallagrímsson.
On our first trip to Iceland our guide Gummi, from Gateway to Iceland, took us to a spot where we could not only see, but go inside traditional turf buildings, built centuries ago by Icelandic farmers. It was only in the early to mid 20th century when Icelanders began moving out of turf homes and into modern homes. Although I’ll say modern Icelandic homes look quite different from the homes I am used to in the United States. In Iceland many homes are built with both steel roofing and siding, which I assume factor in the sometime unforgiving elements of the country. Gummi shared that during the early days of settlement, most Icelanders did not sleep laying down. Instead they sat on benches, against the walls of the turf home, so that they could easily awake should anything disturb their homestead.
In the heart of Borgarnes is a small park. This park hosts the burial mound of Skallagrímur Kveldúlfsson, who it is said arrived in this area of Iceland from Norway about 10 years after settlement had begun. Egill’s saga tells of the death of his father, Skallagrímur, who died as an old man on his farm. Egill came back home to his father’s farm, Borg á Mýrum to bury him.
If you are into history and would like to learn more about Egill’s Saga and the settlement of Iceland, stick around in Borgarnes and check out The Settlement Centre. Its exhibits connect to The Book of Icelanders and The Book of Settlement, which were meticulously written in the 13th century and detail the settlement of Iceland. It’s open year round from 10:00-21:00 and boasts a cafe that features traditional Icelandic cuisine.
From Borgarnes, you’ll make your way on Route 54 and onto the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. In roughly 30 minutes you find Gerðuberg, an impressive wall of basalt columns. Although near the road, you will not notice it. Turn right onto a one-lane gravel-dirt road (there is a sign) and make a short one kilometer drive to the columns’ small parking area. Gerðuberg is the largest of its kind in Iceland and spans nearly half a kilometer and some 15 meters high. In summer and winter this site is breathtaking. How does mother nature create such wonders?! If this is your first stop on the peninsula, welcome a constant feeling of wonder and insignificance. That feeling followed me everywhere throughout this gorgeous country.
From Gerðuberg, you can also see the crater Eldborg, which erupted during the Settlement Era and is said to have consumed a farm with its fires. You can also have an excellent view of Snæfellsjökull glacier/active volcano, of Jules Verne Journey to the Center of the Earth fame. It last erupted 1800 years ago, forming the peninsula’s extraordinary landscape. It is also the home of Bárður Snæfellsás, who I will introduce when we get to Arnarstapi.
Looking for a surreal place? Búðakirkja. The village of Búðir consists of the church, Búðakirkja, and a hotel. Can you believe it? This area was once a prosperous fishing community in the 19th century. The black church sits near the top of a lava field, Búðahraun, which is some 5,000-8,000 years old. The first church was built on the site in the early 1700s and was deconstructed due to lack of parishioners. The iconic black church that stands there today was constructed in 1987 beside the ancient cemetery.
There is a hiking path that you can follow and it will take you along the coast to Arnarstapi and Hellnar in about 6-8 hours. I have not done that hike yet, but it is on my list! There is also horseback riding that departs nearby. As we were leaving Búðakirkja, a group of about 20 people on Icelandic horses were making their way along the ridge line. I tried to catch a photo of them, because it was truly majestic.
Although fairly easy to locate, using GPS coordinates worked best for us and took us right to a small parking lot at the top of the hill. GPS: 64.8218, -23.3846
During our first trip to Iceland, the first waterfall that I ever saw was this one. I think what struck me the most about the waterfall was that it was right behind a family’s home. It was nonchalant, but nonetheless impressive. Growing up near Niagara Falls, a waterfall was a familiar sight, but no waterfall I had ever seen before was in someone’s backyard! As we were there in wintertime, we weren’t able to access the walking trails up to the waterfall, but to read more about that, you should read Hit Iceland.
A golden sand beach (yes, you read that correctly) near a farm has one of the best seal colonies on Snæfellsnes. While we visited in winter I was surprised to actually see a seal, basking in the sun that was just rising (at 11:00), as most seals are active in the area in June and July. There is a sign on Route 54 for this spot, but coordinates will help you find it: N64° 48′ 11.375″ W23° 5′ 9.075″
My husband is a lover of any animal and was absolutely ecstatic when he identified the dark creature that blended in with the rock. I am not sure if he was interested in us, but Patrick could not take his eyes off of him as he lifted his head and tail, demonstrating his flexibility.
I have been lucky enough to visit this charming town twice now. I fell head over heels for this seaside hamlet when we visited in winter. There was a quiet peace to the place and the community center provided a warm welcome from the snow. Whether you go in winter or summer, I propose you stop in the community center. Order at the counter- I highly recommend traditional meat soup and coffee. There are also hand-spun lopapeysa (iconic Icelandic sweaters), mittens, and hats if you are looking for a souvenir made by a local with Icelandic wool. The center also boasts a charming library and restrooms.
As with many places in Iceland, there is a charge for restrooms if you are not purchasing a food or drink item. Iceland is home to a population of 350,000 and hosts 1-2 million visitors each year. Your support by paying for the restroom or an item allows locals to continue operations. Please keep that in mind as you travel throughout the country.
Arnarstapi lies at the foot of Stapafell, a rather small but distinct mountain. The mountain is said to be the home of the hidden folk. Atop the mountain there is a rock called Fellskross, which was a sign in Viking times of holy powers.
When we were there in the summer, it was raining sideways. Although very unglamorous, we donned our waterproof pants and a rain jacket over our light winter jacket to try to keep from being drenched.
Along the seashore you can feel the fierce strength of the Atlantic Ocean, as the waves crash along the black basalt ravines and lava formations. There is absolutely an energy in this place that draws you to it and holds you there.
As I mentioned earlier, protecting you on your journey is Bárður Snæfellsás, half-man, half-troll who has a large presence in the stories of the peninsula. In Arnarstapi there is a life-sized statue of Bárður, designed by Ragnar Kjartansson, whose work can be seen in other locations on the peninsula and in Reykjavik (we actually stumbled onto one piece). Regína Hrönn Ragnarsdóttir, a local contact with Guide to Iceland has written extensively on the mythos of Bárður and I highly recommend her blogs if you are looking for more stories from Iceland.
There is a 2.5km hiking trail that will lead you from Arnarstapi to Hellnar, the next village. The hiking trail hugs the coast line, where you’ll walk through stunning lava fields and weather-beaten cliffs. The hike from Arnarstapi to Hellnar is an easy one, with moderate inclines. Some of the path, close to Hellnar, now has a wooden walking trail through the lava fields. Use caution when walking on slippery surfaces.
At one point Hellnar was the largest fishing station on Snæfellsnes. However, when you visit, it’s difficult to believe that. In Arnarstapi, the views from the sea wall are stunning, but out of reach. However in Hellnar, everything is at your fingertips. The rock formations can be touched. The sand can be felt. It is a tactile experience. Below the hill, you can see and enjoy Fjöruhúsið, a cafe with views of the ocean. The cafe offers excellent fish stew, fresh locally baked bread, pastries and desserts with homemade jam and whipped cream.
If you are looking to start the hike from Hellnar to Arnarstapi in Hellnar, the trail begins right beside the cafe.
On the shore near Hellnar are two large pillars that tower over their surroundings. Researchers believe they are ancient volcanic plugs that have been eroded by wind and waves for tens of the thousands of years. The towers are mentioned in The Book of Settlement, depicting a troll who was sitting on the larger of the two pillars. There is a road that diverts off the main road so that you can get a closer look at the pillars. There is also a walking path from the lighthouse at Malarrif where you can take a scenic walk up close to the pillars, alongside the ocean.
Djúpalónssandur and Dritvik
Just a short drive and a short walk down Nautastígur path from the parking lot, you can access this wonder. On your walk you will notice freshwater lagoons, interesting lava formations. Watch your step as the walking path is steep and can be harsh.
Looking to test your strength? In the cove are four lifting stones that fishermen would use to test their strength. The smallest one is Amlóði (Lightweight) at 23 kilos, followed by Hálfdrættingur (Half as Good) at 54 kilos, then there is Hálfsterkur (Half-Strength) at 100 kilos and last, but not least, Fullsterkur (Full-Strength) at 154 kilos. Anyone who could not lift Hálfsterkur was deemed unsuitable for life at sea as an oarsmen.
On the beach, you’ll notice iron pieces from a 1948 British shipwreck. The sign asks that you leave the pieces where they are, as a reminder of the fishermen who lost their lives at sea. Although it may seem odd, the rusted iron was eerily beautiful as it stood in stark contrast with the black pebble beach below. The entire beach is covered in sea-smoothed black pebbles, Djúpalónsperlur or the Pearls of Djúpalón. Pick them up and feel them. You’ll never have felt a rock that smooth in your life. It was like velvet.
Again, mind the formations in Dritvik, as they are buildings of the hidden folk. Be careful and don’t get too close to the sea here. There is a powerful rogue wave and people have been hurt or even killed before.
If you’ve ever watched Game of Thrones you will recognize Kirkjufell, as the area where the Hound has a vision of the White Walkers, near an arrow-shaped mountain. In Icelandic, the name translates to church mountain, as it is freestanding and considered majestic. As it is a free-standing mountain and boasts a waterfall nearby, Kirkjufellfoss, has become a very popular spot for tourists and photographers alike. We pulled off the road into the parking lot that was near the waterfall, but there is a space where you can park near the mountain and hike around the base (approximately 3-4 hours). Surrounding the waterfall is a marked walkway that is well cared for, however descending the incline to the top of the waterfall is quite steep, so I held onto the rope for stability. When we arrived at Kirkjufellfoss it was around 18:00 and it was the first time we had seen the sun all day long. And we had some sheep greet us at the top! Kirkjufellfoss is stunning, but while on our travels we were again greeted with the reality that most of Iceland’s wonders reside on property held by private citizens. As we were descending from the top of the waterfall, a tractor was moving round bales at the base of Kirkjufell. Please keep that in mind, particularly in popular destinations. Parking along the side of the road is prohibited and traffic jams are said to occur in Kirkjufellfoss and many other popular spots around the country.
Along Route 54 between Grundarfjörður and Stykkishólmur, are kilometers and kilometers of lava fields tied to an Icelandic Saga. These lava fields are 3,000-4,000 years old, sourced from four scoria craters that form an east-west row from Kerlingarskard. In the Icelandic Saga, a 10th century farmer had two laborers from Sweden who were known for their large size and aggressiveness who worked for him. One of the men fell in love with the farmer’s daughter and asked to marry her, but her father was afraid to refuse him. Instead he asked for what he thought was an impossible task to be completed by the Berserks, and when they completed the tasks, instead of allowing him to marry his daughter, he devised a plan to murder them. You can read more about the tale on Hit Iceland and Guide to Iceland. Archaeological research has indicated that there was a burial site found with two very large male remains, so there is some real truth to the stories. Unfortunately I don’t have any photos from this. I decided not to stop as I was driving because all three of my passengers were asleep. They had not slept in nearly 36 hours so I was trying to be courteous and I knew that if I stopped that I would have woken them up! There are said to be hiking trails and local guides who can bring you through the lava fields. Maybe that will be on my schedule for my next trip to Iceland.
Although I have been to the peninsula twice, there are still places that I hope to experience one day:
- Rauðfeldargjá gorge and waterfall (it was on our itinerary for the summer trip but it was raining so heavily the group decided not to hike it)
- Snæfellsjökull glacier tour
- Saxholl crater
- The whole hike from Arnarstapi to Hellnar (again the rain deterred us in summer 2018)
- Hike Berserkjahraun
- Hike from Búðir to Hellnar
Here are some other resources: