Tourism in Iceland has skyrocketed over the last decade, thanks to a seemingly endless stream of travel guides, online listicles, and international tv-coverage. While most visitors hit the road for the iconic Golden Circle or see the stunning waterfalls along the south coast, a lesser explored but by no means, less striking part of the country awaits in the west.
The Snæfellsnes Peninsula receives a fraction of the travellers you’ll find elsewhere. Still, this deserted area has beautiful hiking trails, a mammoth glacier, quaint fishing towns, and the most iconic wooden church in Iceland. Are you planning your trip to Iceland and considering exploring Snæfellsnes? We give you an overview of the highlights of this pristine peninsula.
Where is the Snæfellsnes Peninsula?
Snæfellsnes Peninsula doesn’t have a clear starting point, but you drive towards the wild emptiness of this cape from where road number 54 splits into road 55. This is 120 kilometres north of the Icelandic capital Reykjavik. The enchanting route to the west over road 54 immediately leads to the first sight. The Gerðuberg basalt cliffs lie a wee bit away from the main road but are surely worth the short detour. A natural wall of perfectly shaped, almost square basalt pillars rise up to 14 metres to the sky; they’re proof of the great force of nature, and the landscapes it’s able to create.
The south coast
Although Snæfellsnes doesn’t have a lot of people, and it is home to numerous animals. At Ytri-Tunga you can meet some of the local, more furry residents. This sand beach hosts a colony of both common seals and grey seals, which you can see hanging out on the rocks in the Atlantic Ocean. Though spotted at Ytri-Tunga year-round, the seals specifically stick around here during July and August. Ytri-Tunga is considered to be the most reliable place in Iceland to see the seals.
When you travel 20 kilometres west, you’ll bump into arguably the most famous church in Iceland. Búðakirkja, a black and white church, truly stands in the middle of nowhere. First founded in 1703, this traditional Icelandic has been a religious symbol for centuries and a beloved spot for photoshoots as well. But even if you don’t do your wedding shoot here, the Búðakirkja is still a very picturesque spot. To the south, you can see the ocean and rugged lava fields, while an enormous mountain range lies on the northern horizon.
Before arriving at the Arnarstapi community, you can take a road to the right to Sönghellir Cave. The entrance of this mysterious cave is clearly visible from the main road, and this natural phenomenon gets quite impressive when you’re walking up from the parking space. The Sönghellir Cave has a very narrow passage, with towering basalt cliffs on both sides and small streams of glacial water running through it. Make sure to test your voice because the cave is known for its magical acoustics and echoing qualities.
Of all sights and activities, you can explore on the Snæfellsnes, the short hike between Arnarstapi and Hellnar is one of the most sought-after. Along this 6-kilometre coastal walk, some of the most exciting landscapes in Iceland stretches out in front of your eyes. The trail crosses mossy lava fields, black sand coves, and provides excellent views of basalt columns that rise from the ocean. The highlight is a dazzling natural basalt arch that spans over the sea in the deep.
The starting point of the hike in Arnarstapi is less than 20 kilometres west of Búðakirkja, and only 4.5 kilometres from Sönghellir Cave. After the walk, it’s worth stopping by Londrangar View Point. From here, two massive stone towers that rise from the bottom of the ocean appear on the horizon. Near this coast, the Vatnshellir Cave begs to be explored. This lava tube system takes you down to discover the fascinating world of Iceland under the earth’s surface. With a staircase, you descend to a depth of 35 metres, after which you explore the tunnels further. A guided tour (such as below) is recommended for your journey under the ground.
Snæfellsjökull and Djúpalónssandur
On a clear day, the snow-capped Snæfellsjökull is visible from anywhere on the peninsula. With its 1446 metres, this stratovolcano towers above all else in the region. Guided walks around the base and slopes can be arranged through tour operators, and during summer, you can almost reach the summit. An ascent to the peak, however, requires technical ice climbing skills and experience. The scenery as seen from the summit is unmatched; the entire peninsula stretches out at the foot of the volcano, and you’ll see Snæfellsnes’ snowy peaks and black beaches.
One of those black beaches is Djúpalónssandur, which is arguably the most scenic shoreline on the peninsula. After a walk along lava fields, the black pebbles and surrounding rock formations reveal themselves. The brown lava rocks, green mossy lava fields, and the white cone of Snæfellsjökull to the north provide beautiful contrasts and photo opportunities.
The stunning northwest
It’s quite incredible how this relatively small peninsula is blessed with so many splendid landscapes, and the northwestern tip probably is the best display of natural beauty. A narrow dirt road leads to Saxhóll Crater, the remnants of a dead volcano. After ascending the metal stairs to the top of the cracked crater, you can look straight down into the bottom of the pit. The icy Snæfellsjökull shines in the background, which makes for marvellous scenes. Saxhóll Crater is one of the most alien-like places on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.
From the crater, you can enter another gravel road towards Svörtuloft Lighthouse. Not only is the orange lighthouse picturesque, around this beacon you’ll be able to admire the rugged coast with its dark lava cliffs and natural arches shaped by the ocean’s water.
Near the westernmost tip of the peninsula, a rare beach hides behind yet another magnificent lava field. Skarðsvík Beach is one of the few golden sand beaches in Iceland, and proof of the diversity in landscapes on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Obviously, the coastline here is encircled by dark lava rocks, but the different colour sand gives Skarðsvík Beach an almost non-Icelandic feel.
The north coast
The northern part of Snæfellsnes is the more populated area, with towns like Olafsvik, Grundarfjördur and Stykkisholmur. Still, the dramatic scenery is the unique selling point of this cape, and the north won’t disappoint nature lovers. Take Kirkjufell (Church Mountain), a recognizable mountain that’s featured in many travel guides and even more postcards sent from Iceland. Its particular shape is best seen from Kirkjufellsfoss, a nearby waterfall where many photos are taken of the thundering falls and Kirkjufell as a backdrop.
This area is blessed with more waterfalls and scenic walking trails. The absolute stunner among the waterfalls is Grundarfoss, a jaw-dropping cascade at the end of a track that starts just from the main road near Grundarfjördur. Kvernárfoss also is a beautiful, more gradually cascading waterfall nearby. However, you need to ask permission of the owners of the Kverná farm, since you have to cross their property to get to the waterfall.
Stop by the charming fishing town of Stykkishólmur, with its approx 1100 inhabitants it’s the largest town on Snæfellsnes. In Stykkishólmur, you can unwind and enjoy the cosy cafes, colourful houses and the fishing harbour.
The Snæfellsnes Peninsula gives visitors all the best features Iceland has gained popularity for in recent years; glaciers, mountain ranges, waterfalls, black beaches, and lava fields as far as the eye can see. With all of these treasures, it’s surprising to see that most tourists still flock in South Iceland and mainly cover the Golden Circle. If you want to soak up equally stunning landscapes with fewer people around you, Snæfellsnes truly is the jewel in Iceland’s crown.
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