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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Since 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.