AirBnb, Arnarstapi, basalt, beaches, Bjarnarfoss, Bogarnes, Budir, Busaklettur, carbonated water, cave, church, crater, Djapalonssandur, food, Gatklettur, gorge, guillemots, Hellnar, Hellnar village, Iceland, Instagram, Kirkjufell, Kirkjufellsfoss, kittiwakes, lava, lava field, Londrangar, Malarrif, merchant town, natural water, Northern Lights, Olafsvik, palagonite, photograph, photography, Pufubjarg, Raudfeldsgja Gorge, rocks, Saxholl, Seal Colony, seals, Snaefellsjokull, Snaefellsnes, Snaefellsnes Peninsula, Snjofell, soda water, travel, Vatnshellir, wanderlust, Yak Traks, Ytri Tunga
We started our day early because we had plenty of things to see. Our host sent me an email with recommendations for when she does her own tours, and I also had other notes from some online resources to follow. I opened up a Google map and started a new file so I could drop pins on all of the points, then I picked a direction to start the loop and wrote step-by-step instructions on how to get there on a piece of paper. We got in the car, turned west on the southern part of the 54, and headed to our first site.
1. Ytri Tunga Seal Colony
Our first stop was actually the next property over. It’s a beach area you can pull into to catch sight of the seal colonies that live in the icy rocks. We did manage to see some seals, and I even caught some videos of them swimming and playing (well, I think the one was trying to get himself a girlfriend…)
Farther west yet again, on the north side of the road, we spotted Bjarnarfoss. There is a newly paved lot and a nice trail where you can walk up to a bridge for a better view of the falls. They come out of the cliff and are surrounded by tall, black basalt columns.
3. Búðir & Búsaklettur’s Lava Field
Farther up the road, we turned left into Búðir, an old merchant town on the southern coast with a large building converted to a hotel and a black church. To the west, a crater rises out of the ground in a lava field left over from Búskalettur.
4. Rauðfeldsgjá Gorge
Continuing down the road, there is a parking lot on the north side near a split in the cliffs. In the snow, it was easy to see the footprints that have gone over the ridge to the entrance of that split. I put on my Yak Traks, but my mom opted to hike around outside and not in the gorge. She read the sign and told me there is a troll-shaped rock which she later photographed. I walked up the trail and went into the opening in the rocks to find the crevice was filled largely with snow and ice that had fallen in from above. Embedded in it were other peoples’ steps so that it was like one giant, snowy staircase climbing into the gorge. I started to scale it, continuing through several switchbacks until the ice was getting sunlight and exposure and looked less safe.
Seagulls were nesting in the cliffs and swooping around angrily as I climbed up. One seagull must have been injured because he fell and hit the ice, sliding down the slope right past my hand, then got up and tried to fly away again. I got as high as I thought I could, looking out across icicles lining the walls and the view of the beach through an opening, then I started to descend again. It’s much harder going back down… I tried to slide a bit, but then I slipped and slid too fast, directing myself towards the eastern wall because there was a huge space between the western wall and the enormous ice pile that I was worried was something you couldn’t get out of once you fell into it. By the time I got back to the bottom, three men were trying to climb up – but they couldn’t do it in their shoes. I guess those Yak Traks make a huge difference! (Or maybe they just aren’t very athletic…). On the way back to the car, I made sure to sample some of the Iceland snow and it was very fresh!
5. Arnarstapi, Gatklettur, & Hellnar Village
The next stop along the road was to the towns of Arnarstapi and Hellnar. We grabbed some lunch at the Arnarstapi Center and Snjófell Restaurant, then we walked towards a monument about a troll in the mountains and followed the path to the viewing point of Gatklettur. This was really just an arch in the water with lots of gulls nesting on it. Then we got in the car and visited the next village over: Hellnar. Here, we followed a path down to the beach to view what is considered a sea cave surrounded by icy rocks in the waves crashing around.
6. Þúfubjarg, Lóndrangar, & Malarrif
We stopped briefly at a space where you can look over the Malarrif lava field area. There are bird cliffs along the Þúfubjarg where you can usually catch glimpses of kittiwakes and guillemots. When you stand on the platform, you’re actually standing on the crater in that area. There is a large cliff of stratified palagonite from a submarine eruption, similar to the one that formed the island of Surtsey. To the west, there is also Lóndrangar: two rock stacks of 75 and 61 meters that were possibly volcanic plugs left behind as well. According to our host, they were first scaled in 1753. An old fishing center can still be seen in that area and the lava above it used to be used to dry fish.
7. Djápalónssandur, Snæfellsjökull, & Vatnshellir Cave
As we circled around the peninsula, we passed the Djápalónssandur – white sand beaches where there are some stones on the side of the road. These are 23, 56, 100, and 154 kg and were used to test the strength of men who wanted to go to sea. Then, on the interior of the drive, you could see the white peak in the sunlight in the area of the glacier Snæfellsjökull. We passed the Vatnshellir Cave but did not stop, assuming we needed a tour and also interested in seeing other things in the area for the day.
8. Saxhóll Crater
We pulled off to the left and drove down the road to the Saxhóll Crater, estimated to have been formed about 3,000 years ago. There are over 300 metal steps that ascend the side of the mountain so that you can walk around the top of the crater. It was very windy and cold up top, and the sides were dangerous, but it was a great view.
9. Other Sites
The area contains several more beaches and villages. There is also a soda fountain at Ólafsvík which is naturally occurring, but we weren’t able to locate a spigot. Continuing on 54, you can also see Kirkjufell (mountain) and Kirkjufellsfoss (waterfall) which we didn’t drive past until the evening. We instead went over a clear mountain pass and headed back to the AirBnb for some time.
10. The Northern Lights
The last thing we did this night was look for the Northern Lights. We suspected we could see them if we stayed put, but we didn’t want to risk it. I went on Instagram and began scanning tags of “Iceland” until I found some photos of the Northern Lights. Several were taken only 2 minutes ago and in the area of Bogarnes. Although I was currently on a call with EPA/NEJAC members for a working group I serve on, we took off in the direction of Bogarnes after 10pm. Along the way, I saw a white cloud-like streak that I thought was suspicious, but it wasn’t until we were almost to Bogarnes that the sky opened up and it was obviously the Northern Lights I was seeing.
We stopped along the side of the road and I messed with my manual settings until I found the right F-stop and shutter speed for capturing the lights. With a 30 second exposure, I found the lights suddenly transform to greens and even some yellow. We photographed for some time, then we headed back west again. I stopped along the side of the road and took some shorter exposures – even down to 2 seconds was still making nice shots. The unfortunate part is I don’t have a tripod, so I had to stabilize the best I could on something solid. At this stop, I used a road sign, but when I finally stood up I started an animal next to me – or so I think. Whatever it was, I thought about the stories of trolls in the area and decided not to stick around!
We ended up driving about 5 hours watching the lights. We took off north up 55 which proved to be gravel and a long way about seeing things. We then went west on the northern stretch of 54, looking for the Kirkjufell church. We stopped on the pass and again by a lake and had some beautiful photos, then we passed a whole bunch of cars parked near Kirkjufell and realized they were also photographing the lights. We decided not to stop because it was crowded. We got gas in town and headed back, exhausted. I went to bed at about 4am that morning – and we were going to have yet another early start before heading back to the United States in the afternoon.