Snæfellsnes Peninsula: The Ultimate Guide
Snæfellsnes peninsula is definitely one of my favorite places in Iceland. Many people call it “mini-Iceland“ because on this amazing route you´ll find lots of the features that are unique in Iceland and people come to experience.
For example volcanic craters, impressive moss-covered lava fields, gorges, waterfalls, small fishing villages, beautiful beaches, high cliffs, a sub-glacial volcano, mysterious caves and colorful mountains. Not to mention the variety of birds and horses, naughty sheep near the roads, the almighty Snæfellsjökull glacier, natural hot springs and hiking trails.
The Snæfellsnes peninsula truly has something for everyone. At least once every summer I take my children around the peninsula and stop at various sites.
The Snæfellsnes peninsula is great whether you‘re seeking adventure and adrenaline or simply looking for a family-friendly trip. What almost everyone agrees with, is that the area surrounding Snæfellsjökull glacier is quite magical.
If you want to see for yourself, check out day tours to Snæfellsnes Peninsula. You´ll go on a guided minibus tour and even have free Wi-Fi on board.
Since it‘s only a relatively short distance from Reykjavík it‘s the perfect day trip to go on and the tour operates both in the winter and summer. If you‘re going on your own on a self-drive tour you´ll find this ultimate guide of the Snæfellsnes peninsula very handy. I´ll point out all the main sites and tell you about the other less well-known sites and activities.
The drive is around 400 km (250 miles) to and from Reykjavík and if you‘re going on your own I suggest staying a night at one of the hotels on the peninsula so you can stop at more places.
I promised I would tell you how to pronounce ‘Snæfellsnes‘ so here you go: For those who know phonetics: [ˈstn̥aiːfɛlsˌnɛːs]. For many people, this isn’t helpful so here’s a link where you can listen to the pronunciation: http://forvo.com/word/sn%C3%A6fellsnes
The geology of Snæfellsnes
On the west coast of Iceland you will find the large shallow bay called Breiðafjörður. On one side of it you have the Snæfellsnes peninsula and on the other side the West fjords of Iceland. All around Breiðafjörður are mountains and a rough coastline, and what little lowland there are lying around the bay. On the south side of the bay, which is the northern part of Snæfellsnes Peninsula, are the biggest towns on the peninsula: Búðardalur, Stykkishólmur, Grundarfjörður, Ólafsvík, Rif, and Hellissandur. I´ll talk more about them later. On Breiðafjörður there are hundreds, if not thousands, of small islands, probably close to 2,500.
Breiðafjörður has an estimated 6-12 million-year-old tertiary basalt bedrock formation. It was formed during volcanic activity in the Snæfellsnes volcanic zone that has now shifted. In the northwestern part of Hvammsfjörður fjord is the oldest bedrock, but close to the fjord in the southeastern region, you´ll find the youngest bedrock, consisting of layers of basalt. Many ancient volcanoes are present on the peninsula and sometimes I wish I could go back in time to see what the area looked like when they were active. Well, in a fireproof hazmat suit. Breiðafjörður used to be covered in ice during the last ice age and glacial erosions molded the landscape into what we see there today. There’s still some geothermal activity in the bay below sea level and some hot springs are visible at low tide.
The towns of Snæfellsnes peninsula
Stykkishólmur: This fishing village is the largest town on the Snæfellsnes peninsula. It has really quaint and interesting houses, restaurants, a grocery store, campsite, post office, bakery and more. For some very light exercise take a walk up the lighthouse on Súgandisey island from the harbor. Enjoy the view up there out to Breiðafjörður bay and breathe in the fresh air. You can visit the Volcano museum, go on a sea tour from the harbor or have a nice cup of coffee at the café down on the harbor. The Stykkishólmur community proudly holds an environmental certification and has been a pioneer in recycling in Iceland. Check out the Stykkishólmur webcam: http://www.stykk.is/webcam.html
Grundarfjörður: Great little fishing village, famous for awesome village festivals. Enjoy whale watching tours, the golf course, fishing or horseback riding. What you´ll notice right away is, of course, the beautiful mount Kirkjufell. It’s very popular for photographers and has a charming waterfall located at the skirts of the mountain. In the winter, if the aurora forecast is favorable, the northern lights make Kirkjufell look even more dramatic. But even with the spectacular mountain so close, don’t forget to explore Grundarfjörður a bit. For example, you might want to see the Saga Center exhibition where you´ll find free wifi and a small café.
Ólafsvík: A small but nice fishing village. It has a swimming pool, the Pakkhús museum, whale watching tours and is close to Bæjarfoss waterfall. The waterfall is situated behind the town and is a lovely hike.
Rif & Hellissandur: I sincerely hope I’m not insulting anyone by putting these two little towns together, but they’re just 2 kilometers apart. Just off the road, you’ll find Rif which is a small fishing village (you’ve read this phrase before) and has a population of around 140 people. It has a café with great cakes and fish soup and a harbor. It used to be the main trading port on the Snæfellsnes peninsula. There are large arctic tern breeding areas between the two towns and the birds can get pretty aggressive defending them! Much to some people’s surprise, considering the population of Rif, is the Freezer Hostel. Besides being a hostel, it’s a cultural center that hosts awesome events like theater shows and concerts. At Hellissandur you can visit the maritime museum and see Iceland’s oldest rowboat and if you’re looking for accommodation you can stay at the new campsite or Hotel Hellissandur.
The area surrounding Snæfellsjökull glacier has been a national park since June 28th, 2001. Its purpose is to conserve and protect the amazing area with its unique landscape, wildlife, and plants along with historically important ruins. Of course, it also has the purpose of teaching travelers about the area and provides information. The Snæfellsjökull national park covers the westernmost part of the Snæfellsnes peninsula and not only the magnificent glacier, but the surrounding sites like Þúfubjarg, Djúpalónssandur beach and more. What I find really cool is that the Snæfellsnes communities hold a certificate for Green Globe which is a global certification for sustainable tourism. They were actually the first in Europe to receive one.
Everyone is welcome to visit the park and explore the area. What is wonderful about the Snæfellsjökull national park is that its boundaries reach all the way out into the sea and there are so many opportunities to explore the coastline and beaches. Not only that, but the area is geologically interesting with the volcanoes, and can be considered a bird lovers paradise.
The almighty Snæfellsjökull glacier
a clear day you can see the beautiful Snæfellsjökull glacier all the way from Reykjavík. This 1446 meter high stratovolcano has a 200-meter deep crater and is a popular attraction for hikers and travelers. The glacier sits on top of mount Snæfell. “Jökull” is the Icelandic word for “glacier”, hence the name of the glacier is Snæfellsjökull. It’s around 700.000 years old and hasn’t erupted for around 1800 years, give or take. So in a geological history sense just moments ago, and is still considered active.
Now, I’m not a huge believer in magic or spirits, but many people say that the glacier emits magnetic energy that they feel physically while they’re in its vicinity. Some of them even report having trouble sleeping while visiting the area, but I don’t know, maybe they’re just distracted by the midnight sun or the northern lights.
If you want to hike on the glacier we recommend going with a local mountain guide who’s knowledgeable and can recommend a good route for you. Some companies offer private tours to Snæfellsnes and they can, of course, include a glacier hike or any other tours you like. At the top, if you’re lucky with the weather, you´ll have views of the West fjords and even the Greenland shores, so the climb is definitely worth it.
I can’t really talk about Snæfellsjökull glacier without mentioning what it’s most famous for: Being the setting of Jules Verne’s novel, Journey to the center of the earth. That’s not the only story the glacier is famous for, because way before Jules Verne wrote his novel, the glacier was the setting of Bárðar-saga Snæfellsáss. The saga is about the half-troll Bárður and his son, Gestur. I´ll talk about it more in the folklore section at the end of this guide.
Must see sites in Snæfellsnes
I had a hard time choosing must-see sites on the Snæfellsnes peninsula so don’t take the list too literally. If you see something I put on “other sites” that you like, you should definitely check it out, and if some of the must-see sites don’t interest you just skip them. If you don’t agree with my choices, just leave a comment and I might make some changes to the text 🙂 These are my preferences and I know not everyone will agree.
Mount Kirkjufell and surrounding waterfalls
Mount Kirkjufell is a favorite among photographers and no wonder. It is 463 meters high and towers over the small town of Grundarfjörður. The mountain is absolutely beautiful and quite striking because of its beautiful shape and symmetry. It has been compared to lots of things, and the name itself, “Kirkjufell” literally means Church Mountain in Icelandic, because people must have thought the mountain reminded them of a church steeple. Some think it looks more like a witches hat, but I don’t know about that! Kirkjufell stands by itself and while it can be climbed, it’s not for the inexperienced. If you have time for a 3-hour hike then you can hike along a path around the mountain. When you’re there, close your eyes and imagine what it was like in the million years when Krikjufell was being formed by glaciers and rivers carving it out. The forces of nature are amazing.
Mount Kirkjufell is great, but let‘s not forget about the waterfalls in the area. Kirkjufellsá river and Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall have glacier meltwater coming from Snæfellsjökull glacier. It‘s not a huge waterfall, something like 5 meters high, but it‘s very pretty, especially when you have the mountain in the background. Grundarfoss is another waterfall in the vicinity of Grundarfjörður worth checking out. You can see it from the road so it‘s not hard to find.
Gerðuberg basalt columns
One of the longest basalt column belts in Iceland, Gerðuberg, is situated on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and is absolutely stunning. I love the geometric patterns that look almost man made. The columns are up to 10-14 meters in height and listed as a natural heritage. You can walk up to the basal columns for a closer look and of course, take a few photos since there is a path leading up to the top of them. Gerðuberg is a bit off the main Snæfellsnes road so many people miss it, but it is definitely worth a visit. So much so that I’ve placed it on the must-see list. You´ll drive along a gravel road up to the columns, only a couple of kilometers and find some parking spots near the columns.
Natural mineral springs
What I find is pretty cool are the natural springs along the Snæfellsnes peninsula. If you’re heading to see Gerðuberg, you might want to stop at Rauðamelsölkelda. Don’t let the name scare you, it simply means the natural spring of red gravel plains. At this spring you can take a sip of the freshly carbonated water coming from the ground, not something you do every day. The water is said to have healing powers but I don’t know if that’s true.
Maríulind holy spring water (spring of Mary) used to be called Lífslind Hellnamanna (spring of life) but changed after someone put up a picture of the Virgin Mary next to it. Like the other springs, it’s said to have healing powers and in the folklore section near the end of the guide, I´ll tell you about the legend associated with it.
Another natural mineral spring is Ölkelda, the name of the farm next to it actually. Again, said to have healing powers and contains minerals such as calcium, potassium, and iron. People say the water tastes funny and not everyone likes the metallic taste of the iron. Don’t be surprised if you can’t find it right away, just look for a spot of red ground with a pipe sticking out of the ground. You can fill a bottle with the water but after sitting for a while it might not look appetizing with the iron falling to the bottom and look yellow at the bottom.
Lýsuhóll swimming pool has natural mineral water and swimming there is quite a unique experience because the pool can be covered in green slime. I´ll talk about it a bit more in the activities section.
What most people will tell you is a “must do” in Snæfellsnes is walking between Arnarstapi and Hellnar. It’s a 1-hour hike, so not for everyone, but you can drive to each place as well. On the trail, you´ll walk along nature reserves and the seaside. You´ll see unique lava formations, basalt columns, and Gatklettur (arch cliff), a natural arch that extends into the sea. A good idea is to go on our day tour of Snæfellsnes Peninsula because the minibus will drop you off in one place and pick you up at the next so you don’t need to walk back the same way.
Arnarstapi is located in southern Snæfellsnes just a few kilometers from the beautiful mount Stapafell. It’s an excellent bird watching spot but beware of the aggressive arctic terns that might want to peck you on the head. There are other bird species there as well in the cliffs surrounding the area. While you’re there you should check out the beautiful harbor.
In Stapafell you´ll find a large stone structure of Bárður Snæfellsás made by one of our sculptors, Ragnar Kjartansson. If the name Bárður Snæfellsás sounds familiar it’s because I mentioned him in the section of Snæfellsjökull glacier and will mention him again in the folklore section.
If you’re not hiking from Arnarstapi you can always drive to Hellnar. Back in the day, Hellnar was a relatively large fishing community and in the year 1703, there were 194 people living there and a lot more that stayed for work. See, I said relatively large, not large. Today you´ll find a nice Hotel and a visitor center in Hellnar and last but not least, Fjöruhúsið café. It’s said to have the best fish soup in all of Iceland and is often pretty crowded.
Berserkjahraun lava field
While driving on the Snæfellsnes peninsula you’ll notice a few lava fields. One of my favorites is the rugged Berserkjahraun (berserker lava). It’s situated on the northern side of the peninsula near Bjarnarhöfn where the shark museum is. It’s around 3600-4000 year old and has two lakes. The name stems from the fact (or fiction) that two berserkers (Norse warriors) were buried in it and I´ll tell you more about it in the folklore section of this guide. As you can imagine, in the old days people had trouble passing through the sharp lava rocks and according to the myth, the berserkers built a road that is still visible.
People have different interests, so while some love waterfalls, other like caves. While some like sheep, others like horses. Snæfellsnes peninsula has so many wonderful sites and it was really hard to categorize them, but the following are what I consider to be worth a visit if you have the time.
Neshraun lava field
In the Neshraun lava field you´ll find 4 craters of an unusual nature, very high with steep slopes. The craters are called Vatnsborgarhólar, Grashóll, Krákhólar and Öldungarhóll (yes, hóll/hólar = hill/hills). From these craters, who according to Björn S. Harðarson (1990) were formed during the same eruption, flowed the Neshraun lava field.
Neshraun is around 25 square kilometers and apart from the craters I mentioned also has several caves. Since lava flowed through tubes and channels it has a good number of lava tube caves. It’s a little tough to walk through due to the roughness and holes. There are trails up to some of the craters like Vatnsborg.
Source: Björn Hróarson 1990. Hraunhellar á Íslandi. Mal og Menning, Reykjavík.
If you’re looking for a hiking trail you might want to stop at the sign where it says “Barnaborgir” and walk up to the two lave hills. The name Barnaborgir means “children’s mounds”. It is said that two children once got lost in the wilderness and died there. Not a nice story but adds to the eeriness of the Barnaborgarhraun lava field.
Fossá waterfall on Vatnaleið
Vatnaleið is a road that you might call a shortcut from the southern part of the Snæfellsnes peninsula to the northern sides, skipping the western part. On this road, you´ll find a parking spot with some tables. It’s definitely worth a stop just to admire the view. But below it, you´ll find a path leading to Fossá river and a very pretty waterfall that’s sort of in two parts. Near the lower part is a great spot for a picnic and at the upper part, there’s a path behind the waterfall so you can stand behind it.
Svörtuloft sea cliffs
In the western part of Snæfellsnes peninsula you´ll find Svörtuloft. It’s a 4 km long belt of sea cliffs, steep and dark. In the past, many ships perished there along with the crew members. The waters there are very rough and many lives were lost. On a nice day, the area is quite beautiful and has an interesting orange lighthouse.
Various cool beaches
One of the things I love about Snæfellsnes peninsula is that has both black sand beaches and is one of only a few places in Iceland where you can find golden sort of pink-ish sand beaches too! I’m almost reluctant to tell you about Skarðsvík beach where you find a little alcove with rocks and golden sand. If you’re in the area on a sunny day I thoroughly recommend you visit this little spot, bathe in the sun and dip your toes into the Atlantic Ocean. Yes, it’s really, really cold.
Worth noting is the golden beach near Langaholt campsite and the black sand beach near Ytri-Tunga farm.
Djúpalónssandur beach is another great beach to visit in the southern part of Snæfellsnes. It has black pebbles and, I don’t want to scare you off, but the beach is supposedly haunted. In 1948 a ship wrecked there and 14 British sailors died while 5 were saved. There are still some rusted old beams and metal fragments on the beach. If you’re into strongman competitions you might want to try out the lifting stones on the beach. They range in weight from 23 kilos up to 155 kilos so you need to be pretty strong to lift them. Please don’t drop them on your toes. You´ll also see a couple of freshwater lagoons.
Drápuhlíðarfjall Rhyolite Mountain
About 20 minutes before you arrive in Stykkishólmur you´ll see a 527 meter high yellow and colorful mountain called Drápuhlíðarfjall. It’s made up of rhyolite, basalt, Sulphur, jasper and ignite, and contains fossilized plants and petrified wood. The mountain is close to the road and at one place you can turn onto a road that leads up to the mountain. Not quite all the way but close enough to hike.
Back in the day people used to search for gold on the mountain but didn’t find any. At one point the rocks were a popular building material for fireplaces but removing rocks from there is now strictly forbidden, so keep that in mind.
Hiking up top is relatively easy and quick. You´ll have a good view from the top! Be careful though and at least wear appropriate shoes. There’s a lot of loose rock.