Exploring the Snaefellsnes Peninsula in Iceland

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Outside of the canned day trips/tour groups like the Golden Circle, one of the easiest day trips from Reykjavik is exploring the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. It is a beautiful peninsula, that really gives you a taste of all that Iceland has to offer. Even if you don’t have time to see the rest of Iceland (though I would HIGHLY recommend it), visiting the Snaefellsnes Peninsula kind of gives you an encapsulated look into many of Iceland’s natural treasures. It really only takes about a little more than an hour of driving to reach the peninsula, and you can easily do it on your own or with a tour group.

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Of course I would always recommend doing it on your own if you can swing it, in terms of time and rental car expenses. Sure, renting a car isn’t cheap in Iceland (though if you go for the smallest economy car like we did, it can be surprisingly affordable- even for a two week sojourn), but it gives you so much more freedom of maneuver in Iceland. You can see what you want, when you want it, and on your own terms. You don’t have to have your schedule dictated to you by a group of strangers, and you are never left waiting for people (or conversely, annoying people by making them wait for you). And to top it off, renting a car in Iceland is ridiculously easy, and driving around the country is pretty easy as well. Once you get outside of the Reykjavik metro area, there are only a limited number of roads, and they are all well numbered. So it is hard to get lost, plus most of the sights worth seeing have signs to them.

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I had visited Snaefellsnes Peninsula on my first Iceland trip, but my mother hadn’t, so I figured this would be a good place to start our vacation. This was our first full day in Iceland after our arrival (and that was basically a full day, since we both arrived around 0700 in the morning), and we got a head start on the day trippers by starting from the small town of Borgarnes. It is just a bit south of the peninsula, and it made a good stopover for us. There is a really nice museum to visit, the Settlement Centre, and their restaurant has an amazing three course dinner that just shows how well you can eat in Iceland (again for a price, because outside of the beautiful nature, everything you will love about Iceland can cost you a pretty penny).

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Even though I had visited the peninsula before, my trip was in the winter, so I was only able to see part of it. I wasn’t able to drive around the entire peninsula, because the road was covered in snow when I was there, and it wasn’t plowed (and I didn’t have chains for my small rental car). So this day was going to be a mixture of sights retreaded and new sights for me (and it was all new to my mother). All told, if you drive the entire peninsula, it is about 225 kilometers. Combine that with a plethora of stops to see and do things, it can make for a very long day. And that is presuming you are staying overnight, and not driving all the way back to Reykjavik. But either way still makes for a very worthwhile choice.

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Our first stop was an unplanned one, and it was at Bjarnarfoss, a very steep and narrow waterfall that is easily viewed from the road. If you drive around enough of Iceland, you will realize that there are way more waterfalls in this country than you can easily count. So at some point, you become inured to some of the less beautiful waterfalls. But you can be assured that if you see a road sign directing you to a waterfall, it is worth at least a brief stop to look at, and walk toward. So we figured, why not stop? There was a small parking lot and a short trail through some sheep grazing grass, before we found ourselves at the base of the falls. The falls are quite pretty and continue downward through a series of smaller waterfalls. The view from the base also provides a very nice view of the surrounding peninsula, and gives you a good understanding of the scope of the hills.

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After that brief detour, we stopped at our first planned stop, Budir, which is a former fishing village that now really only houses a hotel and a nice little church. One of the other things you will see in abundance in Iceland, outside of waterfalls, is little churches. Even most of the tiniest of villages will have one, and they are a testament to the long history of Christianity in the country (though I don’t know if many of them get much use these days).

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What makes this stop worthwhile, is a nice view of a lava infested beach, that is a short hike from the church. There is also a larger lava field surrounding the area called Budahraun. If you have the time and are so inclined, you can hike out to a large lava crater. I had stopped here on my first trip, but I wasn’t able to go to the beach or walk in the lava field trails, because they were covered in snow. And I mean, we are talking nearly knee deep in snow. The parking lot around the church was plowed, but certainly none of the trails.

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The only drawback to this stop is that we ran into our first tour bus of the day (though it certainly wouldn’t be the last). Hordes of tourists poured from the bus just before we got there, so we tried to let them get ahead of us. We knew that even if there were a lot of them, at least they would never stay in any one place too long, because they had a strict schedule to keep. So wait long enough, and you will have whatever sight you are visiting to yourself eventually (though for only a short time, until the NEXT tour bus shows up).

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Our next stop was Arnarstapi, which is a tiny village filled with summer cottages and some tourist hotels. We spent a fair amount of time in the area, both to dodge the continuous arrival of tour buses, but also because it is very pleasant to walk along the coast and easy to do.

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There is about a 2.5 kilometer coastal trail from Arnarstapi to the tiny village of Hellnar. The trail follows the coast for the most part, and even goes through a nature reserve (you will know you have hit it, once you are at the fence), and can walk through more lava flows. What I liked about the lava flows in Iceland, is that so many of them are hundreds of years old. So even though you can still see the black lava cooled into a a variety of shapes, there are also signs of life coming back, like ferns and moss.

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The trail provided an abundance of nice lava beach views, with a variety of stone shapes. And there is even a troll-like monument (trust me, there are depictions of trolls everywhere in this country) overlooking one of the best beach views.

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While we weren’t on a tight schedule or anything, we didn’t want to linger in any one place too long, because we knew there was still a lot we wanted to see and do, and we wanted to make it to our overnight at the town of Stykkisholmur before dark.

Soon after, the road took us to Snaefelljokull National Park, which houses one of the nicer glaciers in country. One of the things remarkable about Iceland national parks, is that they are easily accessible by all, and you sometimes only know you are in a national park, because you drive by one of the signs. We didn’t stop to see the glacier (that pretty much requires a guided tour to do so, and I knew we would be seeing an abundance of glaciers once we made our way to South Iceland at the end of our trip), but we did stop to see Saxholl Crater.

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While much of the surrounding countryside was flat or rolling a bit from the ancient lava flows, every so often a crater would just spring up, like Saxholl Crater. We nearly drove by it, but when we saw the parking lot full of people, we figured it was something we probably should see.

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The crater is easily viewable from the road, and there is a short track that leads to the parking lot at the base of the crater. Now the walk to the crater is only about 300 meters, BUT, it is a continuous slog of (well maintained) stairs to the top. And just when you start breathing hard and wondering if there is much more, you reach a small viewpoint. And only then you realize that there is still much more to go, and the stairs only get steeper. While you really only need to be of moderate fitness to climb the stairs, just know that you will likely feel it. But once you get to the top, you are rewarded with a nice view of the surrounding Neshraun lava flows, and can peer into the center of the crater, which is partly decayed from age.

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It had been a while since we had stopped at some waterfalls, so when we saw the sign directing us to Svodufoss, we figured why not. My guide book didn’t say too much about it, only that it is a dramatic waterfall, surrounded by basalt. It was funny that the 10 km road to the parking lot was rutted and not exceptionally well graded in places, but it leads to a very nice, smooth, new concrete parking lot. It just made for an interesting juxtaposition, especially since I don’t think Svodufoss is one of the major draws on the peninsula.

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The trail out to the viewing site is flat and easy. At first when we came to the site with numerous viewing benches, we figured it was just a place to see it comfortably from a distance. However, once we looked around, we realized that this was the terminus for the trail and you aren’t SUPPOSED to get any closer, because there were no trails leading to the waterfall. So my mother and I just took in the beautiful waterfall from a distance, all the while watching some tourists plow their way through the grass trying to find a path to the waterfall base. Again, if there isn’t a trail going somewhere, the Icelandic government doesn’t want you there, but that certainly didn’t stop a number of either very ignorant or very arrogant tourists.

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Of course, as nice as Svodufoss was, we still had one more waterfall to stop and see. That is Kirkjufellfoss, which is a nice little waterfall at the base of Kirkjufell mountain (appropriately named). It’s hard to miss this mountain, because it has a distinctive shape. It’s a narrow cone, that reminds me of a witch’s hat. Now, it is possible to miss the parking lot for the waterfall, because it is small. Surprisingly small for a stop that IS considered a big tourist draw on the peninsula. So small that there wasn’t a place for us to park initially, and we had to turn around and then wait for some cars (and a small tour bus) to finally depart so we could get a space.

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It started to rain fairly heavily when we first started on the trail to the waterfall, but we soldiered on since we had some nice rain gear. The view of the falls is very pretty, and the view from the other side of the falls is even better, because you can get Kirkjufell in the background to the waterfall (the leading picture of this post).

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By that point, it was early evening, and having seen pretty much all the sights we wanted to see on the peninsula, we high tailed it over to Stykkisholmur to check in to our hostel. When I booked our hostel, I was convinced that this was the town I had stayed in when I was here on my first visit, but I realized that I had actually stayed in the town of Grundarfjordur, so this was a new town for me as well. It is a very cute, small town right on the harbor. You can take a ferry from here to the Westfjords, and there is also a small hill you can climb that overlooks the town itself.

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Sure, we spent a fair amount of the day battling growing clouds and bouts of strong rain, but it still was a nice display of all the variety of beautiful nature, from countless waterfalls, a nice glacier, spectacular hills, nice beaches and a number of lava fields. Even if you can’t make it to the rest of the country, a day trip to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula can give you a nice taste of all that Iceland has to offer (and hopefully leave you with a hunger to see the rest of Iceland).