Driving in Iceland-Westfjords Day 3

Westfjords Day 3-6

For our third and final day driving in the Westfjords, we had a relaxed start (for us anyway), because I knew that most of the driving would be on paved roads, and there weren’t many stops to make. So we were in no hurry to get going. It gave us the opportunity to enjoy a leisurely farm home breakfast and just take in our surroundings. Sure, we saw the beautiful fjords when we checked in, but there is always some hurrying around after you show up at your hostel after a long day of driving.

Westfjords Day 2-21

Our first stop was just down the road and unplanned. We had been hoping to pet some Icelandic horses, and we finally got a good opportunity. Driving in Iceland took us past many horse farms, and some of the horses were even close to the fences by the road, so we would sometimes see tourists pulled over and taking pictures. We always debated stopping, because we wanted to pet some horses and get our pictures, but we always figured that there would be more opportunities down the road.

Westfjords Day 3-3

When we saw this group of horses, we figured it was a great time, because we were on a gravel road, so we wouldn’t have to worry about traffic, and there was a nice, attractive group of horses with different colors. We didn’t know when we would get another opportunity. At first, the horses hung back, but were looking at us. It was almost like they were mocking us for our interest, and they were over it. But after a few minutes, a couple of them came to the fence, so we could get some closeup photos and pet them. I love Icelandic horses. They really are more like very large ponies, and are very fluffy in the winter. On our first trips to Iceland, we both went on horseback riding tours. I thought it was a lot of fun, but horses tend to make me nervous, because I never know what they will do. They can sense my nervousness, which makes them skittish, and that in turn makes me even more nervous. It really is a very negative feedback loop, so we decided not to go on any horseback riding tours for this vacation.

Westfjords Day 3-4

After we got our fix petting horses, we headed out for the rest of the driving tour. Our hostel was about a 20 minute drive from Isafjordur, and to reach the town, we had to drive through a tunnel. There are parts of Iceland, where instead of traversing the fjord, we got to drive through the fjord, which saves so much time. However, this tunnel is a bit different than the other tunnels, because it is a one way tunnel. Yeah, presumably to save money, because there isn’t enough traffic to justify a two tunnel all the way through the fjord, part of the tunnel is only one way. However, there are plenty of pullouts, to prevent car pileups, but it was still a weird experience.

Westfjords Day 3-1

But after we got through the tunnel, it was just a matter of driving the next few  hours through the northern parts of the Westfjords. The road traverses the fjord for the most part, so the view was very pleasant. Even in this part of the Westfjords, there wasn’t much traffic, so we had the road to ourselves for the most part.

Westfjords Day 3-2

We hit our one major stop for the day by lunchtime, which was the Icelandic Museum of Sorcery and Witchcraft. This is probably the biggest, most famous, non-nature tourist attraction in the Westfjords, and is located in the small town of Holmavik. The museum is small, but it provides an interesting peek into the history of witchcraft in Iceland (all but one of the 21 persons burned for witchcraft in Iceland were men, for instance). The exhibits are a mixture of historical documents and presentations that show some of the weirder aspects of Icelandic witchcraft. Probably the most notorious exhibit is the “necro pants”. The exhibit isn’t ACTUAL necro pants, but you definitely have a solid impression of just how weird a concept it is.

Westfjords Day 3-5

After lunch, we were pretty much on our own, because there wasn’t that much to do. So we decided to just go relax at our hostel. Our hostel was located in the tiny, post stamp of a village called Broddanes. Like there are probably more sheep than persons. One of things we grew to appreciate was just how many sheep there are in this country. It was one of the many reasons I thought of Iceland as the “New Zealand of the north”. Both of our previous trips to Iceland were in the winter, so we didn’t see all the sheep. But sheep are everywhere. In the more populated areas, they were confined safely within fences and gates. But in the less populated areas, they were basically free range. I mean, they roamed all over the countryside, and sometimes wandered into the road (we were always on high alert when were passing sheep near the road, because more than once they darted out in front of my car). We took great delight in seeing the sheep in different locations. My personal favorite were the sights of sheep on a beach. There was something so weird about sheep just hanging out on a beach, that we were always hoping to capture them on photo in odd places. That and the black sheep. There were always a few black sheep in most groups of sheep we encountered, but they always seemed so much shyer, so we had a hard time capturing them on camera.

Westfjords Day 3-8Westfjords Day 3-10

Since we were at the hostel at the end of the visiting season, we literally had the hostel to ourselves. It was a very nice, comfortable hostel, with large windows providing a nice view of the fjord. We were hoping for a clear night, because it would have been absolutely perfect to watch the Northern Lights in warm comfort. Alas, it was not to be, because the clouds were too thick to see anything.

Westfjords Day 3-7

It was an easy and short day, but it was a very nice way to end our three day sojourn to the Westfjords. I am so glad we made the time to see them, because this is Iceland at its wildest, most isolated, and very beautiful. If you have the time, the relative patience and confidence needed to drive on the extensive gravel roads, I HIGHLY recommend a trip to the Westfjords. Again, it is not day trip material, but it certainly is worth a few days on any Icelandic vacation.

Westfjords Day 3-9

Driving in Iceland- Westfjords Day 2

Westfjords Day 2-20

Day two of our Westfjords side trip started early, because we wanted to take advantage of the nice, sunny weather. Iceland weather can be very turbulent and unpredictable, and rain and clouds are common year round. Our first day was really nice, and the early morning was looking like this would be another great day for nature gawking.

Westfjords Day 2-5

Our first stop of the day was actually revisiting a stop from the previous day, Raudasandur. I was deeply frustrated with what happened the first day, and I figured we missed something critical somehow (though again, this was not specifically addressed in our guide books), and I really wanted to see this beach. So I went searching online for any sort of information that could clear up where we went wrong, and I finally found it in some blog posts.

Westfjords Day 2-1

Westfjords Day 2-3

Apparently what visitors are supposed to do to access the beach is park at the parking spots by the church (which we had passed on more than once the previous day), and then walk about 1.5 km down a nature path to access the beach. It was all so simple, but not immediately intuitive if you didn’t already know, that I wonder why guide books didn’t add more specific information.

Westfjords Day 2-2

In any case, it was early morning, so there was only one other car down by the church, and we started the easy, pleasant walk to the beach to get in our morning walk. The trail is through some beach grass and has a good view of the beach off in the distance, and the surrounding hills. We eventually reached where the beach is, though we weren’t really able to walk on the sand, because the tide was in. This is a beach that is really only walkable at low tide, because there are tidal inlets that prevent access to walking on the sand (unless you want to wade through ice cold water of unknown depth). So while we weren’t able to go out on the beach itself, we could see that the tide was going out, and the reddish sand was visible to us, and we could see how nice this beach would be to walk.

Westfjords Day 2-4

By the time we left Raudasandur, there were more tourists walking about, so we picked the right time to visit. We made our way back up the steep, windy gravel road to head off on our new itinerary. Our first stop was at the small town of Bildudalur. I had been hoping to visit the Icelandic Sea Monster Museum, because it just sounded like a fun place to visit. Alas, the museum  is only open during the summer season, and the last day was literally the prior day. So no sea monsters for us, but we had plenty more beautiful nature to see.

Westfjords Day 2-7

Shortly after this town, the road turned from paved to gravel and would remain so, for most of the rest of the day (until we hit the town of Pingeyri). Our second day was our longest stretch of gravel road in the Westfjords, and for the MOST part, the road was reasonably good. Sure, it is gravel, but most of the road was grated to an extent, though there were places that were annoyingly rutted and potholed. Again, there seems to be no rhyme or reason to why the road is the way it is. I would drive for long stretches on well-graded gravel and then a series of potholes would emerge, sometimes on only one side of the road. It’s can be frustrating, but it’s just the price of admission for visiting the Westfjords.

Westfjords Day 2-8

Westfjords Day 2-10

The road in this part of the Westfjords generally snake along the topography of the fjords, with some occasional steep climbs to go over fjords and cut off driving time. My prior reading into self driving in the Westfjords talked about how the roads are often gravel, but also talked about the steep mountain roads you would have to climb. And that is true, FOR Iceland. The hills in the Westfjords are higher than many parts of the country (outside of the central Highlands), BUT “steep” is really grading on a curve. If you have any experience driving in any steep mountain ranges (e.g. the Rockies or Cascades), the roads aren’t THAT steep. We’re only talking a few thousand feet elevation. It was only annoying for me, because of that small car I chose didn’t have a lot of acceleration power, so I had to slowly make my way up the hills in low gear. But we got there nonetheless.

Westfjords Day 2-13

Westfjords Day 2-12

The highlight of our visit was an extended stop at the waterfall called Dynjandi. It is the tallest waterfall in the Westfjords, and one of the most famous waterfalls in the country. Of course this waterfall isn’t visited as widely as others, such as Gulfoss, because this waterfall is found deep in the Westfjords where the roads surrounding it for kilometers on end are gravel. This is NOT a waterfall you can visit on a day trip from Reykjavik, and in fact, in our three days in the Westfjords, we only saw one tour bus, because it is not as popular of a place to visit, and we were heading into the off season.

Westfjords Day 2-18

Westfjords Day 2-16

Dynjandi is also a waterfall that isn’t really accessible six-eight months of the year, because the road isn’t plowed in the winter, and snow tends to accumulate. But if you are in the area during the visiting season, I would consider this waterfall a “must do”, especially if you like waterfalls. It isn’t an exceptionally tall waterfall (only about 99 meters), but it has a pretty and unusual triangular shape, and is actually a series of several smaller waterfalls.

Westfjords Day 2-17

Since this is the highlight in this part of the Westfjords, it’s no surprise that this is where we saw the most people. You can get a good view of the waterfall(s) directly from the parking lot, but you can also walk up a trail to get closer views. If you are so inclined, you can even do the short, but somewhat steep hike to the base of the main falls and stand directly in the spray of the waterfall. I was feeling the hike a little bit, but it felt good to get out and exercise after driving for several hours by this point.

Westfjords Day 2-19

After this stop, we were basically through with touring for the day, and made our way to our hostel for the evening. This hostel, Korpuldaur HI Hostel, was on a farm tucked into a fjord. It was only a 20 minute drive from the “big city” of Isafjordur, but it was quiet and peaceful  in a beautiful setting. We hit the gravel road a short drive from our hostel, and I wanted to get out and kiss the ground. Sweet, sweet pavement was a welcome sight to behold after bumping around on gravel all day.

Westfjords Day 2-11

Since the clouds were clearing up and there was little light pollution, I was hoping to see the Northern Lights. Auroras are visible in Iceland from approximately September- April (and even some other times during the year), so I was hopeful. Our hostel room had a window that directly overlooked the fjord, and I spent a fair amount of time looking out the window in the dark, and then standing outside, hoping to see some auroras. While I didn’t see any bright Northern Lights like you see in the pictures, I did see some fainter versions of the lights, so it fed my fix just a bit.

Westfjords Day 2-9

Overall, this was a really good day of great weather, beautiful nature, and peaceful near isolation, from the few tourists we encountered  during the day. Our Westfjords trip was turning out to be a very pleasant success.


Driving in the Iceland Westfjords- Day 1


Westfjords Day 1-9

On my first visit to Iceland, it was during the winter, so I didn’t have an opportunity to visit the Westfjords. Sure it is possible to visit parts of the Westfjords (though not all) in the winter, but everything I had read about the Westfjords made the driving sound horrendous, so I decided not to risk it at all.

Westfjords Day 1-1

I knew I would want to go back to Iceland at some point, but ideally in May or September (the weather is still good, but the hordes of tourists aren’t present like they are during June-August). There were some things I wasn’t able to see on my first trip, because the winter weather prevented it, and I wanted to rectify that on my second trip. One of those things was the Westfjords.

Westfjords Day 1-2

The Westfjords are considered to the “wild West” of Iceland. There aren’t a lot of people in the Westfjords (the biggest town, Isafjordur has only about 1200 inhabitants), so it isn’t as developed for tourists as other parts. The nature is a bit wild and untouched in parts, plus the road system is legendarily bad. This is a place that is not going to be a day trip from Reykjavik, because it takes way more effort to visit. Put that all together, and it isn’t surprising that only about 14% of tourists make their way to the Westfjords.

Westfjords Day 1-3

I knew all of that, and still wanted to visit anyway. I had seen pictures of parts of the Westfjords, and it just looked so beautiful. I wasn’t put off by the isolation, but rather it was an attractant, because I don’t like to have to fight tourists for a nice picture. And the more I read about the Westfjords road system, the more I was confident enough that it wouldn’t pose a problem. Sure, a lot of what I read emphasized that the roads were really bumpy and you would have to go slow, but there was also more updated stuff that talked about how many of the roads were seriously improved in recent years, and even most of the road system was paved.

Westfjords Day 1-4

So I figured, why not visit the Westfjords? My mom and I were going to be in country in two weeks, and since this was our second trip for both of us, we decided to skip Reykjavik altogether, and focus on seeing the rest of the country. All of my research emphasized that you have to take it slow in the Westfjords, so this is not a place to zoom through at high speed. Taking that all into consideration, I figured that spending three days driving through the Westfjords would give us enough time to see it in peace.

Westfjords Day 1-6Since the Westfjords aren’t as developed as the rest of Iceland, it was a matter of deciding where to break up each day. That was driven in large part where we could find a nice place to stay, and how much driving I wanted to do each day. The first day, I figured we would drive all through the southern Westfjords and finish up at the small town of Patreksfjordur for the night. That would give us several hours to see everything, and we wouldn’t feel rushed.

Westfjords Day 1-5

For the first day, we weren’t coming from Reykjavik, but rather the town of Stykkisholmer from the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. That added a couple hours to our driving, because a fair amount of the roads weren’t going to be paved. This was our third day in country, and up to this point, I had only driven on paved roads.

Westfjords Day 1-7

I was a bit leery of being on gravel roads at first. Sure I had rented a car, but I rented a small car, because the costs for larger cars went up exponentially. However, I did opt for gravel protection, because I knew we were going to spend a fair amount of time tooling around on gravel roads, and I would rather get screwed up front with the cost, rather than screwed on the back end, in case something happened to the car.

I hadn’t gotten comfortable yet  driving on Iceland’s gravel roads (though that would change dramatically as our trip progressed), so I was driving slow and careful the first day in the Westfjords. I cringed at most of the potholes I encountered, and was keeping my speed well below the limit. I was very glad when we finally hit other roads and they were paved.

Westfjords Day 1-14

However, of course that wouldn’t last forever. I honestly don’t know the rhyme or reason why some of the roads are paved, and why some aren’t. It’s not even one road in particular is all gravel or all paved. You could be speeding along on a paved road, and then for some reason, it would revert to gravel, and I would have slow down and watch the road more. But all told, I was pleasantly surprised that even the gravel roads weren’t AS BAD as the horror stories I had read. Honestly, a good chunk of the MAIN gravel roads (as opposed to the smaller gravel roads, which are another story entirely) were fairly driveable. Sure I wasn’t driving as fast as I was on paved roads (though if I had been in a 4WD SUV, I would have), but I was making fairly good time nonetheless.

Westfjords Day 1-11

The thing that takes the most time when driving, is stopping frequently for photo ops. The beautiful nature and isolation made itself known to us almost immediately, and around nearly every corner, there was a gorgeous vista we just wanted to stop and gawk.  A somewhat annoying thing in the Westfjord is the lack of road pullouts to pull off the road safely. However, the fact that there aren’t that many people in the Westfjords played into our favor. We could easily take a few minutes to stop on the road and quickly take pictures, because we ran into other cars only occasionally, and we could go a fair amount of time where it was just us on the road. That would be a bad thing if our car broke down, but it was a great thing when we just wanted to enjoy our vacation on our own.

Westfjords Day 1-10

The road wound its way through the fjords, with most of the roads matching the topography. It made for a pleasant journey as the colorful landscape changed around us, and the topography lent itself to wild imagination.

Westfjords Day 1-8

By the afternoon, we had reached the general area of our destination, Patreksfjordur (the name for the fjord in the area, and the town upon which it is located) and Latrabjarg Peninsula. There were a lot of different sites in the area, and reaching them meant driving along some really questionable roads. This is when all the talk about the horrid road talk in the Westfjords started to become more of a reality, though again, this is because we were in a small car with low clearance.

Westfjords Day 1-13

One of the first sites we came upon was Gardar BA 64, which is an Icelandic whaling ship (the oldest steel ship in the country), but has been beached since 1981, so the ship is now steadily rusting on the beach. It is an interesting site to see, especially since  there aren’t THAT many manmade structures in the area.

Westfjords Day 1-12

Our next stop was Raudasandur, which is called that because the sand is shades of red and pink. It is the only beach of its kind in Iceland, since most of the other beaches are golden or black sand. Reaching Raudasandur is reasonably easy. It’s a 10km drive down Route 614. The road is fairly bumpy and potholed, but it isn’t likely to do damage to your car if you drive carefully. Getting down to the beach meant driving down a pretty steep, curvy road. Looking at the road from the top of the fjord was a bit daunting, but it is more manageable once we actually got on the road. I had read some blog posts talking about how this is the most dangerous road they had ever encountered, but objectively speaking, it really isn’t. It all comes down to how much experience you have on steep and/or gravel roads. I had driven on some very steep roads in the past, so the road didn’t scare me too much. There are some very sharp turns in places, but the road is wide enough for two smaller cars to pass without much difficulty.

Westfjords Day 1-16

However, things got frustrating once we got down to sea level. I was expecting a sign detailing where Raudasandur actually was. I figured there would be a clearly marked parking lot or something that made it clear where the beach actually was located. However, we saw signs to stuff, but nothing specifically to the beach itself. By this point, it was very late afternoon, so the sun was shining low on the horizon, and the tide was way out, so the red sand wasn’t very obvious. We drove up and down the roads, but didn’t see anything that made it clear where the beach was, and we just about gave up. None of our guide books gave specific directions about how to access the beach, so we decided to return up the fjord. We had been a bit concerned about getting our small car up the steep road, but it was a fairly easy process as long as the car was in low gear the entire way.

Westfjords Day 1-15

Our last stop for the day was supposed to be the Latrabjarg Bird Cliffs, which are considered by many to be the westernmost point of Europe (minus the Azores), and in the summer time, they play host to thousands upon thousands of nesting birds, which is the biggest draw for tourists. When I started down Route 612, I fully intended to drive the 25 km (roughly 15 miles) to the cliffs. However, the road was so bumpy, and I had been driving for eight hours at this point, that I just couldn’t take it anymore. It would have been one thing if there would have been the birds to see, because that would have made the frustrating drive worthwhile. But knowing there were no birds there, diminished my tolerance for the ruts and bumps. We made it all the way to Breidavik, which is a huge golden sand beach, and then we decided to turn around and go to the town of Patreksfjordur, so we could check into our hotel and relax.

Westfjords Day 1-17

All told, even though I was a bit frustrated toward the end of the day due to tiredness, most of the driving was fairly pleasant. A surprising amount of the road was paved, and the even the parts of Route 60 that were gravel were nice enough. It was a beautiful day, and the weather was absolutely gorgeous. We would have enjoyed ourselves even if it was raining, but the sun just made all of the natural landscape that much more attractive. It was a satisfying first day in the Westfjords.