Elves and Ice Caps: Touring Iceland’s Snaefellsnes Peninsula

The Snaefellsnes Peninsula is like Middle Earth.  It has EVERYTHING.  Now I know that I have said previously that Iceland has EVERYTHING, but really Snaefellsnes is a microcosm of Iceland. Which means, a road trip around the Snaefellsnes Peninsula is a crash course in everything Iceland!

Dana and I planned to head to Snaefellsnes right away after leaving Reykjavik.  The Snaefellsnes, pronounced Snay-Fells-Ness, is the south-western bulge of Iceland and home to all kinds of top attractions in Iceland. True road trip potential, the peninsula is starting to pull more folks away from the very touristy Golden Circle track in the south of Iceland.

My friend Maddie was recently in Iceland for only 6 days and her takeaway was that she would have rather spent more time in Snaefellsnes and less in the Golden Circle.  One woman’s opinion, but Maddie is like, super smart.

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So why is it so awesome? I would love you just to take my word for it, but then this post would be extremely short and you wouldn’t get to read my charming wit and see my dazzling photos, so check it out…

Driving to Snaefellsnes from Reykjavik via Borgarnes

Most folks will go to the Snaefellsnes from Iceland’s capital city.  The distance isn’t nearly as far as we thought it would be, and taking into account the roads on the Snaefellsnes are pretty good, we moved along relatively quickly. 

That said, the distance was not great, but the stops alongside the road potential was overwhelming! What was surprising was the very sudden, and very lengthy tunnel that Dana and I found ourselves in while driving.  We had no idea this tunnel was coming and it ended up being over 6 kilometres long underneath one of Iceland’s millions of inlets.  We were such beginners this day, ah the naïveté of the Iceland newbie.

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We were soon to learn that Iceland is full of epic tunnels, and that the road you are on can just as easily go right through the mountain or under the water than around. 

Once we were free of the immediate Reykjavik surrounds, we headed north-west towards Bogarnes, a small coastal town (most Icelandic towns are coastal) with a darling church perched atop the central hill.  We hopped out for a gaze at the local fishing boats and had our first real dose of Iceland wind. As sunny as the day may be the wind is always a deal breaker! 

Bogarnes is home to the Settlement Centre, a museum devoted to the history of Iceland and the settlement of its people.  I love a solid Viking tale, but unfortunately we didn’t stop for the centre. Both Dana and I are fans of the tv show Vikings, so we figured we would watch that and catch up.  Just call us historians!

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Snaefellsnes Peninsula South Coast

As we drove away from Bogarnes, we left Highway 1, also known as Ring Road behind us. Anytime you leave the Ring Road in Iceland the number of cars drops substantially and the number of sheep and horses alongside the road increasing accordingly.

We stopped at a small farm Borg a Myrum that the book touted as having lovely views of the harbour. There is also a onsite church and graveyard with ancient grave markers inscribed with runes.  Who doesn’t love runes and views? 

We walked up to a very picturesque cairn atop the hill behind the church and really got our first sweeping vista of Iceland’s beauty and unique scenery.  Little did we know what was to come, remember this was our very first day and Iceland was already impressing big time! 

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Driving along Highway 54, we were proven very correct for having invested in a rental car.  I actually can’t imagine sitting in a tour bus and not getting to stop anywhere we wanted along the way.  There is just so much to see that is right off the road, and seeing it from the inside of a moving bus just doesn’t count. 

Bjarnarfoss Waterfall

Our first stop on the true Snaefellsnes Peninsula was the Bjarnarfoss waterfall.  A kindly woman at a tourist info centre had pointed us to this waterfall, one of literally thousands tumbling off the cliffs facing the southern coast of the peninsula. As we drove we saw many falls, and then we saw this specific one, which was definitely larger than the rest. 

‘Hey Dana, is that the one we are looking for?” “Sure!”

Nothing like flexibility is what we are doing minute to minute. 

The parking lot for the lesser visited waterfall, or ‘foss’ in Icelandic, is an easy 2 minutes off the main road, and then the walk to the base of the falls is maybe 10 minutes.  Easy! 

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The view from the 260 foot high Bjarnarfoss is excellent, as it looks back out towards the great North Atlantic, and if you can hold your camera steady enough in the wind, the colours and clarity of your surroundings are stunning. 

Budir – An ‘Elf-Infested’ Nature Reserve

Neither Dana or I have any problem admitting we love a good elf story.  Or troll story.  Or really any story about any mythical creature that could have feasibly been in either Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. Iceland is well-known for its folklore and beliefs surrounding elves and trolls, so we were clearly in the right country. 

I may have been driving the car, but Dana was truly in charge of the directions and the maps, so anyplace that mentioned elves went straight into the GPS.  Hence our next stop being a nature reserve that is infamous for significant elf presence, Budir. 

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Located right on the seaside, Budir home to the craggy black lava field called Budahraun, presumably created after the major eruption of the Budaklettur volcano some millennia ago.  At that time, the elves moved in and made themselves a cozy little village out of the lava rock.

The word cozy is used loosely, since lava rock is some of the more unforgiving rock when you happen to trip and fall on it.  Not that I have ever done something so silly.

It is thought that the tower shaped lava formations are the church spires of the elves and supposedly there is a tunnel that is paved with gold that goes all the way to another lava field.  A freeway of the elves if you may. 

This elven homeland also happens to sit right beside the coast, the lava rock making spectacular cliffs that lend themselves from striking viewpoints. Looking south, we saw that we were lucky to be dry, as the stormy seas were dramatic and mildly threatening.  But the elves kept us safe!

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Arnarstapi – Trolls, Rocks, and Fish n’Chips

Our next stop heading west was Arnarstapi, a small windswept fishing village wedged between the ocean and the foot of the Snaefellsjokul glacier. The Arnarstapi coast line is just as dramatic as Budir’s, but with some truly inspiring rock formations.  The most famous of the bunch is the hole in the rock, maybe at one time broken out by the local troll Bardur, the regional guardian spirit from the local sagas. 

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A hot stop for bus tours, Arnarstapi can be crowded with folks, but there really isn’t a ton to do here except enjoy the views… and eat fish and chips.  If you’re into that kind of thing.  Which I DEFINITELY am! After Dana and I checked out the coastline and did a short walk along the cliffs, I couldn’t shake the image of a food truck that I had seen along the road.  A food truck selling fish and chips, presumably delicious.

Lucky for me, Dana was just as hungry and we split a massive order of fish and chips.  The lovely lady running the show was also offering free coffee. Dana got coffee, I got saturated fat.  We were both happy. 

Snaefellsjokul National Park – A Drive Around a Glacier

On  decent day, Snaefellsjokul can be seen for hours as you drive toward it.  In fact, 1o days after we were on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, I was dropping Dana off at the airport east of Reykjavik, and we could see the glacier from there.  This thing is huge, to say the least.

Sitting smack dab at the end of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, the glacier is epic in both proportions and in adventure.  Many folks take the opportunity to climb onto the glacier as well as doing cave tours.  As we were in town a touch too late for these activities, we settled for enjoying the view of the glacier as we circled the entire thing in our car.

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Stopping along the way, we would look back continuously at the glacier, which seemed to grow as we drove around it.  The glacier, which is thought to be one of the world’s great ‘power centres’ by New Age groups (ok…), the one and only Jules Verne also thought it was pretty special in his day.  So much so in fact, Snaefellsjokul is the setting for his classic Journey to the Centre of the Earth! Fun trivia!

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Grundarfjordur and Kirkjufell Mountain

By this time, we were starting to lose the light, Iceland is very far north you know, and we didn’t actually know where we were going to stay that night.  We had our sights set on Grundarfjordur, a town located on the northern coast of the peninsula and home to the famous Kirkjufell mountain.

Setting our sights for Kirkjufell, we drove around the western most tip of the peninsula and wound our way back along the north side of Snaefellsjokul glacier.  After what felt like a long time, we left the glacier behind, only to come face to face with the imposing Kirkjufell.

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Kirkjufell is one of the most photographed locations in all of Iceland, mainly because it is a dramatic mountain that rises out of the sea as if it’s alive. Sharply conically shaped, the mountain very recently appeared in a small television program called Game of Thrones.  So if Kirkjufell wasn’t the most popular girl in school before, she definitely is now!  Jon Snow has that effect.

*Note: Iceland is one of four countries where Game of Thrones has done a large amount of filming.  Dana is a mega fan.  Kirkjufell will not be the last GOT location we visit.

We arrived at Kirkjufell about 90 minutes before sunset.  We parked the car and headed to the Kirkjufellsfoss, a small but picturesque waterfall that makes for one heck of a pristine nature picture. If you have seen a picture of Kirkjufell, you have probably seen it with this waterfall in the foreground.  Classic.

Dana and I took some of these classic photos, but knowing we would be trying to climb that now very steep looking mountain the next day, we took off to try to find a place to sleep that night.  We ended up in the Grundarfjordur Hostel, which we were thrilled to get into, but not so thrilled with the price.

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Welcome to Iceland! Where budget feels pretty dang expensive! It was still the cheapest in town, erg.

The bright side of getting into the hostel pretty quick was that we had enough time to drive back out to Kirkjufell and get to the waterfall and see the mountain at sunset.  Which was, well, clearly pretty amazing! We were only on the second night of our trip through Iceland and we were already so blown away it’s hard to describe.

Climbing Kirkjufell Mountain in Iceland

During our trip planning phase, climbing Kirkjufell Mountain had been on both Dana and my Iceland Bucket Lists.  So it’s a no brainer that we were going to attack this famous and frankly pretty intimidating mountain. The mountain does appear to go straight up into the air after all.

Was I maybe regretting saying I wanted to climb that mountain? Perhaps.  Was I questioning that idea when I stupidly read a blog comment that spoke of a woman falling of the mountain to her death recently? So stupid. 

But hey, no regrets right? So the next morning we suited up and drove to the base of Kirkjufell and found the worn trail that leads straight up the slope, to what I hoped would not be my death.

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As we climbed higher the views became more amazing especially as the sun rose higher in mountain shaded distance. The light bouncing off the surrounding ocean waves and looking down at the waterfall where we had just been the evening before was surreal to say the least. 

And then the rock climbing started.  I’m not a huge fan of climbing rocks to begin with.  I’m all about putting one foot in front of the other like a pregnant cow. Hiking, trekking, whatever you want to call it, I love.  But using my fingers to grapple into rock that is scratching my silver rings, hmmm. And since you’re surely asking, no we were not harnessed into anything and no there were no ropes to hold onto. 

Of course, Dana thinks this kind of activity is fun and exciting.  She is younger than I am and clearly doesn’t understand how fragile my joints have become.  But I’m all about pushing the comfort zone, so at the first moment when I felt like turning back, I pressed on.  I dreaded returning down the same rocky slope I had just climbed up (literally using my knees at some points), but when in Iceland, you climb the bloody mountain. 

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After that first sketchy rock grapple, there were several more. I didn’t feel overly steady, but I pressed on, not because I had anything to prove… but Dana was doing it so I wanted to do it too.  Perfectly mature reason.  Several more sketchy bits of the trail, and after reciting several inspirational travel quotes in my head, and I was feeling like I was pretty high up this mountain.  High enough in other words. 

“Dana, I’m done, I’m calling it”

“Really, but the top is right there.”

“No, it’s not. And I don’t want to die today.”

Fair enough. Dana is a wonderful person and not overly prone to peer pressuring her friends when they are pee their pants scared, which is something I appreciate about her. 

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I made it about three-quarters of the way up the most famous mountain in Iceland, and that was good enough for me.  The views were epic, I went further than I thought I could, and I didn’t hurt myself.  A solid mornings work in my mind!  I’m almost 33, I have nothing to prove.

Dana on the other hand has this idea that she really needed to get to the top, so God speed young friend! Dana kept heading skyward as I drank some water, took some pictures and then started heading down. Several minutes later she called down from a ledge, from which she was apparently hanging from a rope, yelling “EMILY! THIS IS TERRIFYING!!”

My response: “I’m really glad it’s you and not me. Love you! Meet you at the car.”

Don’t worry we both made it back to the car just fine. Dana scaled that mountain all the way to the top like a boss and we both avoided getting rained on. The latter point was actually a big achievement as the weather forecast had been precarious and we did not want to be on that mountain when the rain started. Big wins all around!

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Helgafell – The Lucky Mountain

By the time we climbed up and down Kirkjufell and then changed out of our sweaty sweaty clothes, it was time for us to head towards Stykkisholmur, one of the larger towns on the Snaefellsnes and from where the ferry that runs north to the Westfjords leaves. We were to be on that boat.

As the clouds started to bear down we drove through the dramatic coastal scenery of the Snaefellsnes.  Dana and I were both continually amazed by the colour and the ever-changing landscape.  We decided to quickly stop at a nearby turn off for Helgafell, a sacred mountain that is thought to grant wishes and good luck to those who climb it.  

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The word climb can be taken very liberally in the Helgafell context. It took about 5 minutes to get to the top and I was nowhere near sweating.  Which says something, seriously. Maybe that is why during the Saga times, Icelanders would come to Helgafell as they were approaching death, to have their death be blessed but also because the climb itself probably wouldn’t kill them.

Helgafell is a small perch of earth and rock in the middle of the low laying valley that may be lucky but also gives lovely views of the surrounding area.  I personally am not to certain how lucky this whole process was for me. On the way down, Dana started petting an “adorable” dog, a dog that then tried to bite me. Ass.

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Ferry from Snaefellsnes Peninsula to Westfjords

One thing you start to learn about driving in Iceland is that the distances and the driving times can be hard to estimate, because of the variation in road conditions, weather, maybe there are sheep on the road etc.  So when we had the chance to take a break from driving and take the ferry across Breiðafjörður, the fjord that separates the Westfjords and the Snaefellsnes, we were down.

The car ferry is run by Seatours, runs once per day in both directions, and costs about $45USD per person and then the same for the vehicle.  Leaving from Stykkisholmur at about 3pm, we stopped quickly in Flatey, a small island with about 200 people living on it, before charging on.  The ferry was great and totally worth the money as it was a change of scenery, saved us hours in the car, and who doesn’t like boats?

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Once we arrived in the Westfjords, we were in even more remote territory than before. The Westfjords are Iceland’s true Wild West and relatively very few tourists make it that far. Which was the main reason we wanted to go.  But the tales of the Westfjords are for another day and another blog post.  Which will be another big one, because Iceland just has that effect on someone writing about it.

Until next time fellow travellers!

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Exploring the Snaefellsnes Peninsula Iceland is a magical road trip around Snaefellsjokull National Park and famous Kirkjufell Mountain.


4 thoughts on “Elves and Ice Caps: Touring Iceland’s Snaefellsnes Peninsula

  1. So glad you wrote this. I’d just decided my last week (of 4) in Iceland was going to be to see Borganes and beyond. It will be January 2018. Keeping my fingers crossed for good driving weather. And I’ve been through the 6km tunnel. Quite impressive.

    1. Thanks so much Elinor! The Snaefellsnes could definitely take up your last week, if not more! We would have loved more time there and in the Westfjords! So much road trip potential, you just want to pull off at every turn. Definitely made for anyone who is inclined to ‘slow travel’.


  2. You hardly had to fess up to three quarters of the way up Kirkjufell Mountain. Your selfie easily looked as if you were at the top. Always thought Iceland looked intriguing to visit. But you’ve made it enchanting.

    1. I would never want to mislead my lovely readers regarding my accomplishments or lack thereof 🙂 Iceland was breathtaking, even without getting to the very top haha

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