WEST ICELAND west.is
Mountains – Glaciers – Seascapes – and Sagas
FOR THE PURPOSE of this guide West Iceland is being classed as from the Snaefellsnes peninsula and from the coast as far inland as Langjökull.
The Snæfellsnes peninsula is almost 100 km long if starting from Borgarnes, the busy village that straddles R1 at the mouth of the great Hvítá river. From there R54 follows the southern shore first through the coastal plain of Mýrar. Once the Haffjarðará river is crossed the Gerðuberg cliffs are the first feature close to the road to see now that the mountains are starting to get closer to the coastline.
In The Shadow Of The Volcano
All roads lead to the star attraction of Snæfellsjökull but at the junction with R54 and 574 there are two features worth stopping for. The Bjarnafoss cascades down from the mountain on your right. Taking R574 there is soon a road on the left that will take you to the lonely Búðakirkja keeping its vigil over the often angry sea. There are more delights along the southern shore via R574 including a long stretch of golden beach before reaching Arnarstepi. This quaint fishing hamlet lies at the foot of the southern slopes of Snæfellsjökull noted for the geological formations around the harbour and the sculpture of Bardur Snæfellsnes. There are cafes, a petrol pump and the Jules Verne exhibit.
A little further along the coast is the village of Hellnar where there are more cafes and a choice of accommodation. The other places to see on this side of the glacier topped mountain are the Londrangar cliffs, Malariff, the Djupalondsandur beach and site of the wrecked Grimsby trawler from 1948. The entrance to the Vatnshellir cave it feels like you are about to take part in Jules Verne´s Journey To The Centre Of The Earth.
Snæfellsjökull towers above the surrounding country rising to 1,146m above sea level. It is an active volcano and surrounded by a national park. The visitor´s centre is at Malariff and there are tour operators who will take you to the summit.
Route 54 continues along the north shore that looks out over Breiðafjörður. It is a little busier on this side of the mountains with the fishing villages of Ólafsvík, Grundarfjörður and Stykkishólmur, where the ferry to Flatey island and the Westfjords is based. Grundafjorður is home to one of the most famous mountains in the country, Kirkufell, complete with waterfall, which is a firm favourite with photographers. There is also a viking village and a couple of festivals are held in the village each summer. Stykkishólmur is known for its architecture and as the gateway to the many islands found in Breiðafjörður. There are hotels, shops, petrol stations, museum and boat trips to view the island wildlife are available.
Gateway To The New World
After Stykkisholmur R54, gravel all the way now, makes its lonely way along Skógarstrond before joining R60 south of Buðardalur. Close by is Dalir, dubbed the stepping stone to the New World, where you will find Eriksstaðir. It was home of Erik the Red who established a settlement in Greenland in 985/86 AD, and Leifur the Lucky, who is said to have discovered North America. Further information about these adventurers and early viking life is at the Dalir Heritage Museu
Route 60 makes its way through the mountains and down the side of 934m high Baula, with its distinctive conical peak, and joins R1 about 40 km north of Borgarnes. The road passes through the forested lava fields bordering the Norðurá river where there is a viewing area for the Glanni waterfall. Bífrost university is next to the road and offers accommodation to passing travellers in the hotel on site.
To the east of R1, taking R518, is the great Hvitá river watercourse where you will find the waterfalls Hraunfoss and Barnafoss on the upper part of the river. The Langjökull glacier lies a little farther on along R551. There are activities available on the glacier and also beneath it in the ice caves. Reykholt and the Deildartunguhver hot spring are other attractions along the R50/518 trail. Reykholt is an historic site of note because of the church and cultural centre that revolves around the author Snorri Sturluson (1206 – 1241) and medieval literature.
Home Of The Sagas
Iceland´s highest waterfall, Glymur. © west.is
From Langjökull you can take the long, scenic route via R550 which is a primary gravel road that goes through the highlands. You can go directly to Þingvellir or trun off onto R52 and go back to Borgarnes. The Borgarfjörður district is the setting for most of the Icelandic sagas. Borgarnes was the home of Egil Skallagrim of Egil´s Saga fame and there are many references to him around town, including the public park.
We´re not done yet because there are still plenty of places to visit between Borgarnes and Reykjavík. Between the two lies Skorradalsvatn, a popular escape from the city for Reykjavík dwellers, and Hvalfjörður. The latter is a scenic drive along R47, which was the old R1 before the tunnel was built under the fjord mouth. There are the remains of the old whaling station and fuel depot used by NATO. At the head of the fjord is Iceland´s highest waterfall, Glymur, in the Botnsdalur valley. A scenic walking trail leads to the foss and takes about 4-hours to get there and back.
Between Hvalfjörður and the city lies the flat-topped Mt Esja. There are well marked hiking trails up the mountain from the car park at the side of R1. To the east is a ski slope to the east at Skálafell, R434.