Travelling through the Westfjords of Iceland is like exploring an entirely new planet. The Yukon of Iceland, so remote, so rugged, and so potholed, this sparsely populated region is a massive land area spiderwebbed with craggy cliffed fjords and thrillingly rough roads. It was for the Westfjords that Dana and I specifically rented a 4×4 SUV, because in the Westfjords you never know when you’re going to lose your pavement.
Exploring the Westfjords is a test in patience knowing that the payoff at the end of the road will be wildly worth it. We decided to cut off some of the driving by taking the ferry to the Westfjords from Stykkisholmur on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. This ferry cut off at least 5 hours of driving, and who doesn’t love a boat ride!
The day we sailed wasn’t the clearest day, but we made it across the fjord separating the two leafy splotches that make up the Western half of Iceland just fine. Dana even had a nap!
As I said, the Westfjords is a remote region, so accommodation is not altogether plentiful, nor are population centres of any kind. We stayed at a small farm accommodation about 10 minutes west of the ferry dock at RAUÐSDALUR in Barðaströnd. Don’t worry, I’m not sure how to say those names either.
But the guesthouse was a solid choice, with grazing sheep out the back windows and a lovely ocean view from the front. Even more so, it was from the welcoming hostess that we received directions to our very first natural hot springs in Iceland!
Westfjords Natural Hot Springs Iceland
Upon arrival at our guesthouse, I saw a small sign saying something about natural hot pools nearby. Huzzah! Is there anything better than finishing the day with a soak in a hole in the ground? Even more, since this was the same day that we had hiked Kirkjufell, we had actually worked hard that day and kind of deserved some luxury.
So the young lady at the guesthouse pointed to a vague point on a very large Westfjords map, and said it was only about 10 minutes away. The pool was natural, outdoors, and free. Some of my favourite adjectives!
Excited at this possibility, Dana and I changed into bathing suits faster that you can say ‘Vikings’ and we were back in the car hunting hot springs.
FIND A GREAT PLACE TO STAY IN THE WESTFJORDS!
True enough, about 10 minutes west of the accommodation (so about 20 minutes west of the ferry dock), we found a rough road turning off the main road going down a steep hill towards the beach. Well, this is why we have a 4×4!
Down the hill, we found a couple of concrete pools with warm water in them. More thrillingly, we found a smaller, round rock pool bubbling with hot water, perched on a flat stretch of earth before the property fell off into the sandy beach and the crashing waves. My heart was so full at this spectacular sight, and to think, it was all ours and free!
There is something indescribable about bathing in a natural hot pool, right next to the ocean, in a remote part of Iceland, as the sun sets. Call it surreal, call me melodramatic, but it’s truly a moment incomparable with any others I have had.
Dana and I were giggly with glee at how amazing our day had shaped up. A few hours earlier we had been hanging onto the side of a mountain hoping to not die, then I was bit by a dog on a sacred Icelandic hill, and now we were living it up like Viking princesses in a spa of the Gods. What luck!
Raudasandur Pink Beach
One of the biggest draws to the Westfjords is the enticing idea of Raudasandur, touted as a pink and red beach that stretches flat along the South Coast. Turning off Highway 612 that leads along the southern most branch of the Westfjords, Road 614 took us down a very winding and very steep road south to what feels like the edge of the world. In fact, this day we would get to the edge of the world, but that’s for later.
The best views of the Raudasandur Beach are actually from above on this crazy road while giving your brakes a hefty workout. The beach is in fact two beaches that come and go as the tides ebb and flow. When we arrived, long flat stretches of sand came from both the east and the west but not far enough to meet each other in the middle.
Driving towards the eastern side of the beach, the colours of the beach changed from a pink hue to more of an orange red, as the light shifted with our perspectives. By the time we were walking on the sand, it appeared rusty and forlorn, not least of all because we were the only people for miles around.
Latrabjarg Cliffs and Bjargtangar Lighthouse
The further you drive into the Westfjords, the fewer people there are, the fewer road signs exist, and the more your car’s shocks have to work. The road going along the South Coast turns into gravel not long after the turn off for Raudasandur. And no, that was not close to where we were going.
The Latrabjarg Cliffs are one of the most dramatic sights in Iceland, not least of all because of how far away you are from seemingly anything. The cliffs soar up to 441 metres above the crashing waves and provide the absolute best homes for puffins and other cliff dwelling birds during the season. Now I’m no birdwatcher (as exemplified by my pathetic attempts to see condors in Peru), so we did miss the puffin season, which is more in the summer months. This location is actually called Puffin Paradise during that season!
Despite the absence of puffins, the cliffs were still full of bird life, all gusting in the very strong winds, and keeping us wholly entertained.
The cliffs run for 14 kilometres, and the Western most point, whereon sits the Bjargtangar Lighthouse, marks the spot largely said to be the Westernmost point of Europe (if you don’t count the Azores, and like, who does?).
Latrabjarg Cliffs are not for folks who may be scared of heights. They are almost half a kilometre in the air after all, and while there are some safety railings at other attractions in Iceland, the Westfjords doesn’t seem to be on that same page. I may have nagged Dana several times to “stay away from that edge!”. As if she couldn’t see if for herself, I really am turning into a Nana.
The Latrabjarg Cliffs really are captivating, and I actually would be interested to see them in peak puffin season. As it stood, Dana and I visited on a beautiful day, with gusts of winds keeping things exciting. It did take what felt like a very long time to drive to the cliffs, but it was time well spent and I do love the idea of standing on the edge of a continent!
Dynjandi Waterfall in the Westfjords
Turning our back to the great Atlantic, we drove North east into the Westfjords aiming at a spot on the map called Dynjandi. We didn’t know what to expect, but we knew it was an impressive waterfall, and if it was in the Westfjords, we knew it would be remote. What was too bad is that we lost the paved road very soon into the drive to Dynjandi and never got it back.
Oh well, who cares! Bring on the epic waterfall that very few visitors to Iceland get to see!
The road to Dynjandi winds higher and higher into the barren landscape of the interior. The day had turned overcast and made the drive seem longer than it probably was. We started to spot fjord cliffs and figured we were getting close. Then we wound down a hill and around a corner only to be faced with a 100-metre cascade spilling off the cliff in almost complete symmetry.
“Holy shit!” I surely said, because I am exceptionally articulate when I am stunned. Ok yep, the drive was definitely worth it!
We parked at the base of the falls with about 8 other cars (as I said, few people make it out this far) and absolutely no tour buses. We bundled up, because it was clearly very cold and the mist coming off the falls was more like pelting rain, and we made a run for it.
Dynjandi is actually a series of 7 waterfalls, all seeping down from the massive one that dominates every picture. The falls path starts at the parking area and gets more impressive as you climb. Oddly, the higher you go and the closer to the main falls that you become the drier life seems to be. I don’t know, wind?
The main waterfall at the top starts at 30 metres across as it tumbles over the cliff edge and cascades out to a round 60 metres at the bottom. So symmetrical! We spent a good amount of time up at the top, as you can get within spitting distance of the tumbling water itself The views from the top are pretty epic as well, with the Iceland fall colours and beautiful sweeping vistas of the nearby Borgarfjordur.
Driving in the Westfjords
After we exhausted ourselves at Dynjandi, and then ate a super classy picnic lunch on our laps in the car, we turned the car back towards the south and made for the main road east. I hate that we only had one day in the Westfjords, I would love to go back and spend an entire Iceland trip just in the Westfjords. I’m serious, if anyone wants to do that, call me.
As we drove east towards Holmavik, where we had booked a hostel for the night, we wove in and out of many a fjord, past luscious fall colours, and stunning ocean views. I love roads that follow the exact outline of any earth form, it’s hard to not feel like a race car driver.
We drove and drove, meeting few cars or humans. Many sheep, but little else. Until we were stopped cold in the road, at a standstill in… a traffic jam? This can’t be right…
Little did we know there was some sort of weird tourist event going on that involved herding a massive flock of sheep down the middle of the road. As Dana and I have both spent many months in Kyrgyzstan, having watched sheep herded down the street and cars passing those herds very easily, getting stuck behind a flock of sheep was annoying for us to say the least.
Another worry was that the gas tank could have had slightly more gas in it, to say the least. If we ran out of gas because of a herd of mutton, I would have been choked!
FIND A GREAT PLACE TO STAY IN THE WESTFJORDS!
Accommodation in Holmavik and Our First Northern Lights Encounter!
Despite the bloody sheep, we eventually did arrive in Holmavik, our home for the night. We checked into the Iceland Visit Hostel, which is a super new hostel, with truly affordable dorm beds. Imagine my surprise when the dorm beds that we had booked were the HEIGHT of luxury: flat screen TVs in every bunk, charge stations, curtains for each bunk and a heater right at our heads! But combine the state of the dorm with the charming woman at the front desk and the well stocked kitchen, colour me impressed!
The aforementioned charming woman told us to go out at around 10pm and we may see the Northern Lights. It was a clear evening, and we were having a great day, so we thought why not. Well after dark, and basically at my bedtime, we rolled out of bed, bundled up in our woolies (no I did NOT put my bra back on), and drove out of town a ways to a dark turn off on the main road and stared at the sky.
And stared at the sky.
And stared at the sky.
And then…wait, was that dash of light there a minute ago? Am I imagining things? Are my eyes just wanting sleep after such a long day in the car and the sensory overload of the Westfjords?
Nope, those dashes of white light across the sky, those were the Northern Lights!
On our third night in Iceland we were feasting our eyes on the great Aurora Borealis and we were PSYCHED! Mesmerized by the ever shifting light display, I took some half hearted photos (the lights are not easy to photograph without a tripod and a heck of a camera), but generally just gazed at the sky.
An amazing night to be sure. Dana and I discussed whether the Northern Lights were cooler than the natural hot pool from the night before. Truly tough call.
But the thing about watching the Northern Lights is that the activity is by necessity cold. The lights only appear on clear nights, in the winter, not far from the Arctic Circle. The Northern Lights are a high maintenance date, and it takes a lot for this tropical island seeker to do anything in the cold.
The next morning we were heading away from the Westfjords and to North Iceland, where we hoped to see more Lights. Oh God, the North is even closer to the Arctic Circle.
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