Travel: An Overview of Snaefellnes National Park on the West Coast of Iceland

Snaefellsnes National Park is a beautiful, secluded area on the western coast of Iceland, only two and a half hours away from Reykjavik. It was voted one of the most romantic areas to get away in Iceland, and is the perfect place for both hiking in the summer and Northern light viewing in the winter. We stayed two days in this area and I absolutely fell in love. I wish we could have stayed an extra day in order to explore more of this region, but we were short on time in general. There are many things to see in this national park, and some of the most iconic images come from this area. The experience is unparalleled by other national parks we have visited, coupled with the seclusion and moody weather (even mid-summer!). Here, I will highlight a few sights but to be honest, none of these photographs do it justice and you really have to go for yourself to believe it.

Note: the sights are listed in order if you drive around the national park counter-clockwise, which is the direction that you approach it from Reykjavik (the south). The best way to get to the Snaefellsnes area (and all around Iceland) is by renting a car or campervan. We rented a car from Hertz which had the best deal at the time. Just a side note, there is plenty of gravel roads and F-roads in Iceland so you want to rent an F-road approved car if you want to reach the most remote of places. Also, we got car insurance for peace of mind since flying gravel is a common occurrence and we weren’t willing to risk car dents and broken windshields.

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Gerduberg Cliffs

A wall of columns make up this famous cliff.

These cliffs are encountered on the way to Snaefellsness National Park via a tiny road splitting from the main highway to the right. Parking wasn’t an issue as this place is usually deserted, allowing you to revel peacefully at its glory. Evenly spaced, dark grey basalt columns made from lava rock line the cliff walls and have baffled scientists for many years. It isn’t so much the fact that the columns extend for miles but rather, the fact that the evenness in width of each column makes it seem as if this natural beauty was carved by hand. The explanation comes from the way in which the lave rock must have cooled evenly. Small indentations in the grass show a path by which you can climb to the top of the cliffs to get a better view of the valley below.

Ytri Tunga Beach

This beach is comically famous in island as it is the only yellow sand beach present. To which Mike replied, “So like every beach in California?!” I suppose to an islander who is used to black sand beaches, this is a sight to be seen. It is still worth a visit as this is the stomping grounds for different breeds of seals. We visited during golden hour and the seals were playing in the water, bobbing their heads along as Mike and I climbed rocks to see them. Although we were originally unsure whether the “sameness” of this beach to one you would find in sunny San Diego is worth the drive, I was pleasantly surprised at how much we enjoyed our sunset there. We must have watched the seals for an hour, before heading off to dinner.

Budakirkja

Budakirkja set against the mountains in Snaefellsnes National Park.

This black church is similar to many churches in island, so if you’ve already seen one, there is no need to pull off the side of the road to see this one. However, it does mark the start of an eight-hour hiking trail that I wish I was able to do. It is hardly mentioned in the blogs online or in travel books, but it travels from Hotel Budhir to Hellnar. We did end up doing a portion of it, hiking from Anastarpi to Hellnar, but when we return to this region (which we surely will!), I would like to set aside the proper time to do the hike that starts from this church.

A bit of a ways at the beginning of the hidden trail. You can see the worn in grass which marks the path for the hike. All you need to do is walk away from the church towards the ocean.

Bjarnafoss

Such a beautiful waterfall. I can only imagine how much stronger it would be in the Spring.

This grand waterfall is so close to the road that you can see it on the road. The sign to the right of the road is small and easy to miss, but it is definitely turning back around for. There is a short hike that gets you closer to the falls, but not right up to the tippy top. Pro advice: a tiny picnic area hidden among the trees at the base of the waterfall makes this a great place to eat lunch.

The trail Mike is standing on leads to a hidden picnic table behind the trees.

Anastarpi

Bird-watching from the Cliff Viewpoint.

I’ve written about what can be found in Anastarpi in my previous post highlighting the hike from Anastarpi to Hellnar. This tiny town is a great place for bird-watching from the Cliff Viewpoint. It also has the famous Bdar Saga Statue that was built from rocks and towers over the town. You can climb the stone bridge and take a photograph that makes you look like you are high-up in the air, too. And I wrote in that post about the pizza we had for lunch, which I totally recommend. If you have a few days in the national park, I would really recommend hiking from here to Hellnar, as it is a short 1-hour trek and would break up the site-seeing quite nicely.

Bdar Saga Statue looking over the town.

Londrangar Viewpoint

Snaefellsnes is a bird-watcher’s paradise. There is no shortage of cliff areas to watch birds from.

There are many viewpoints along the highway running around Snaefellsness National Park. This one is just a few steps from the lot. It isn’t much different from the bird-watching that can be found in Anastarpi, but the rock formation was sure worth the two-minute detour.

Vatnshellir Cave

The entrance to the cave, although you must take a tour to see inside.

The Vatnshellir Cave is an 8,000 year old lava tube created during a nearby crater’s volcanic eruption. As the lava flowed down a hill onto the lava river, it cooled on the surface as the lava river continued to drain out, thus creating a roof-top over the existing cave. One company does tour guides for the cave and they are the only ones with a permit to enter. That means that you need to do a tour with a guide to see the cave. We decided not to join the tour as we had many other sites on our list. It doesn’t seemed to be booked in advance, which is good, as we saw cars pulling up and signing up for the next tour. You do need to wear proper gear which they provide (such as a helmet), and they ran 45-minute tours every hour at the price of 3500 ISK per adult.

Djupalonssandur Beach

The view of the beach from the top. If you look closely, you can see the ship-wreck remains – bright orange bits of rusting copper.

This beach was another area in which I sadly did not set aside enough time for. I was expecting nothing more than a black sand beach, but to my surprise, there were multiple hiking trails to take from the car park and this beach actually spans a large area. We did do one of the shorter hikes which took us down to the black rock beach, where the remains of a ship wreck can still be seen. To the right of the beach are steps that leads one to a small pool where previous settlers (mostly sea people) had to walk to to get access to drinkable water. There were two other hikes that I really wanted to see, each of which took 1-2 and 3-4 hours respectively. I will definitely be back here to explore! I think it would be best to set aside a half-day to see this beach at leisure.

The hike to the left of the beach took us to this secluded pool where sea travelers had to go to get drinking water.

Saxholar Crater

The Saxholar Crater is nothing but a huge hole in the ground that is viewable after climbing a surmountable number of steps. The cardio work was fun, don’t get me wrong, but the view was anti-climactic and honestly not worth the climb (unless you’ve never seen a crater before?). It is a five-minute detour from the road, if you just want to see it. But Iceland had so many other things to see!

Svortuloft Lighthouse

This was definitely not worth driving to as it required a 1 hour driving detour from the main road on a gravelly path (which meant a 2 hour detour total) just to see a lighthouse. There was, however, cool signs at the end that gave a bit of history about how the sea travelers who landed in this part of Iceland survived. Some of the old dwellings are still visible as mounds in the soil, and there is a scary looking well that you can look at. Mike was brave enough to walk into it, but it was too claustrophobic for me to even try. To be fair, we were coming to the end of our very long day of sight-seeing and I was getting cantankerous from the hunger pains signaling the need for dinner, and soon … so there’s that.

Mike bravely entering the under-ground well.

Kirkjufellsfoss

This waterfall and the background mountain reminds me of Mount Crumpit from Who-ville where The Grinch lived. It is so fairytale like that I wouldn’t believe it was a real place if I didn’t see it myself. The fall itself isn’t as grand as it seems from the photographs but the background can’t be beat on a clear day (luckily, it did clear up in the latter half of the afternoon). There is a lot on the side of the road and it is a minute’s walk from the car park to the fall itself. I had to open this entire post with this photograph, although here is another view of it without the mountain in the background from the base of the fall. Not as grand, right? It is one of the most famous sites for Google stock photos, and looks even prettier (or so it appears in other people’s pictures) with the Northern Lights in the background.

Sights we did not see:

  • Skarsdvik Beach
  • Berserkjahraun
  • Ondverdarnesviti
  • As mentioned at the beginning of the post, a few days was not enough time to see it all. Here are sights we did not see but will make the list on our second go around. Also, the hikes mentioned in today’s post are also going on the list for our return trip! These photographs are only a sneak peak of what there is to see in this area of Iceland. The pictures do not do the beauty justice. ‘Til next time!

    Travel: Hiking Anastarpi to Hellnar, Iceland

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    Anastarpi and Hellnar are tiny towns located in Snaefellsnes National Park on the western coast of Iceland. When I say tiny towns, I really do mean a few homes, at best. Remotely located on the coastline, there are a lot of great views to be had on the cliffs, which are teaming with seabirds, jagged rock, and strands of beach.

    SIDE NOTE: There is a hike that extends all the way from Hotel Budir to Hellnar (which no one EVER talks about) that we did not get to add to our itinerary (because we simply did not know about it before hand and did not allocate enough time) but it tops my bucket list for our return to Iceland. Even now, as I sit in the comforts of my home trying to google information about the hike through Budahraun Natural Reserve, I cannot glean any information. The only evidence of such a hike is an AllTrails suggestion. According to my travel notes, it is a 6-8 hour trek that begins at Hotel Budir (you will see a sign plus the trailhead starts after Budakirkja Church). Thankfully, I took a photograph of the sign.

    There will be a river crossing but if you want to avoid getting wet, you can cross it on the road above the trail. The tail end of this long hike is the one I will write about today, which spans from Anastarpia to Hellnar.

    Hiking Anastarpi to Hellnar

    It takes about one hour to hike from Anastarpi to Hellnar. When I say the towns are tiny, I really do mean tiny. I can count on my fingers and toes the number of buildings present in Anastarpi. There are less in Hellnar. The hike is easy, and goes along the coastline. We drove to Anastarpi around 10am and parked at a lot in front of the restaurant. Tour buses frequently park here so I would come earlier rather than later to snag a spot. I would suggest walking around the area first before starting this hike.

    At Anastarpi, there is this giant stone statue called Bdar Saga. It is worth looking at and reading the sign.

    From far away, he looks like a guardian standing over the city for protection.

    Or a lonesome stranger sitting in nature.

    There are also cliffs from which to birdwatch.

    My favorite view was this stone bridge.

    To the east, there is a trail that I am sure connects to the hike originating at Hotel Budir. Head towards the lake and onwards if you wish to go that way.

    The view of Anastarpi. Beautiful green grass, colorful buildings, a blue lake, and birds everywhere. This is the perfect bird watching place!

    The hike to Hellnar is to the west. Once you’ve had a chance to look around, I would start walking west and you will approach a gate that’s meant to stay closed. This is the mark of the trailhead. Don’t let the gate deter you, it is open.

    The trail is mostly through volcanic rock terrain. Hiking boots are not a necessity, but if you are curious, this is what I wear on every hike when I travel:

    Mikey moving along the trail.
    A boy looks into a hidden cave.
    When you get to this boardwalk, you know you are approaching Hellnar.

    At the end of the trail, once you reach Hellnar, there is a cute cafe situated on the coastline. It isn’t fancy, by any means, which adds to its charm. I highly recommend stopping here to grap a cuppa and a snack. They make really good waffles. On a rainy or snowy day, you can cozy up inside, but we preferred the outdoor views, even with the overcast weather.

    They were generous with the house-made whipped cream.
    On the way back, we were surprised to find this brightly colored home. Which goes to show that turning around to see from whence you came is always a good idea.

    We headed back to Anastarpi after our coffee pick-me-up and arrived shortly after lunch-time. There is a pizza place and a burger joint. I highly recommend the pizza place, although it is a bit pricier than the burger spot across the street. But the pizza was the perfect lunch after our hike!

    So how do I rate this hike? The hike was an easy one with mild views. It was not my favorite trek but it is good for children and older folks who wish to do a bit of jaunting while in Snaefellsnes National Park. I think I would have enjoyed it more if I had connected to it from Hotel Budir. As I said before, we’ll save that for next time!

    Travel: Hiking Reykjadalur Valley in Iceland and Bathing in its Geothermal Hot Spring River

    This post may contain affiliate links. Please see my disclosure to learn more.

    Of all the day hikes we did while visiting Iceland, the hike in Reykjadalur Valley was by far our favorite. Just a stone’s throw away from Reykjavik, this valley is full of beautiful scenery, geothermal hot springs, mud pools, and best of all, a hot river that you can bathe in at the center of the valley mid-hike. I would highly recommend relaxing your muscles in the running river, as it is a serene and beautiful spot. We almost skipped it but after high praises from my sister, who dipped into the river a few days prior, we rolled up our leggings and shorts and waded in. We had a great time and call it one of the best experiences on our Iceland trip.

    You can hire a tour guide to explore this area on horse (Iceland does have the cutest horses around, with their squat legs and beautiful flowing hair) but I prefer hiking on foot. My sister did the tour with the horses and it was an all-day trip, whereas my husband and I hiked Reykjadalur Valley on foot and it took about 3-4 hours. If you’d like to learn more about the hike to Reykjadalur Hot Springs, feel free to read on.

    Spoiler alert: There’s a number of photographs in this post that may spoil the views. This may not be the best post for hikers who prefer to be surprised by the scenery. I, for one, like to know ahead of time.

    This is a view of the valley on the main freeway as you approach from Reykjavik. From far away, you can see the geothermal activity of the area in the form of smoke rising from the hills.

    Reykjadalur is located fairly close to the main city of Iceland, Reykjavik. You just hop onto the 1 Freeway (also known as Ring Road) and head southeast for 40 minutes. You can see the valley on the freeway and before you reach Hveragerdi (the closest town), there is a turnout with a map of southwest Iceland. From this turnout, you will see smoke rising from the hills. Know that you are not far away. You must turn left towards the mountains when you reach Hveragerdi. The roads are well paved and there are no F-roads to encounter along the way (meaning you can reach the trailhead with a regular car). A large parking lot with a cute coffee shop marks the trailhead. There was plenty of parking space when we went, despite the late start to our day.

    The beginning of the trail.

    From the parking lot, you will see a well-kept gravel trail that begins the journey into the valley. If I had a do-over, I would start this hike earlier in the morning, so as to return for lunch at the cute cafe near the parking lot. In reality, we slept in after some major jet-lag, and started our hike at noon. As you can tell from the photograph, Iceland stays relatively overcast, even in July. That doesn’t mean you should skip the sun-screen. I would pack a light rain jacket if you have a problem getting wet, or a light fleece jacket over a tanktop. I like to wear layers when I hike for easy shedding. It was fairly warm that day, so I didn’t need both. For us, hiking boots are a must, although this trail is doable in regular running shoes as well. To get an idea, these are the things I wore on this day.

    What to Wear When Hiking Reykjavik Hot Springs

    Things to Bring

    When we went, there were no crowds. People were spaced out enough and as you get deeper into the valley, you see fewer and fewer hikers.

    On the day that we went, there were few crowds. I was happy to be hiking with less people around. As you get deeper into the valley, you will notice that the hikers spread out even more. The winding trail allows for bouts of isolation, so that you can enjoy the scenery without a bother. Mike and I prefer to hike fairly alone, and do most of our deepest talks during the most strenuous of hikes, which also happens to be the lesser crowded ones. Check out the photo below to see what I mean.

    A lone hiker in front of us, and nature all around.

    I would rate this hike as easy to moderate. Don’t let the steep looking inclines dissuade you from trying this one out. There is a steep hill at the very beginning but it is fairly flat towards the middle. Plus, you know what steep hills mean – easy descents! We hiked this trail without walking sticks, and the path was not so gravelly that we were slipping and sliding. Of course, our hiking boots really helped with the solid footing. To give you an idea of the difficulty level, we saw 3-5 year olds doing the hike with their parents. And there is only one patch of the hike that still had ice in July. It was fairly short (twenty steps total?) and was on a flat surface.

    A word of caution: Don’t stray too far from the trail. This place is teeming with geothermal activity. Mud pools could create soft pockets of dirt, which a boot can easily depress into. The last thing you want is a burned leg. Stay away from the steaming areas, and I would think twice about touching running water. The hot spring river is good to swim in, but I can’t speak for other areas. Other than that, enjoy the views!

    Don’t get too close to these hot vents. They’ve turned black for good reason!
    A happy giant looking down on us from the rocks.
    Sheep grazing in the grass, unperturbed.
    The views undulated between grassy knolls, black lava rock, and bright blue running streams. The overcast day and the white smoke rising from the brown mountains was really a sight to see!
    You can see the steaming river just around the bend.
    When you get to this bridge and a horse pen, you know that you aren’t too far away.

    A bridge and horse pen demarcates your proximity to the running river. You cannot miss it, as people are most likely wading in the waters. There are changing stalls without any doors. If we knew we were going to get into the water, we would have brought a towel and swim suit to switch into. As is customary in Europe, nudity is never a problem and you’ll see a number of people changing without the typical modesty you would see in America. You can always hide behind a stall and wrap your towel around you if that makes you uncomfortable. On either side of the river are stairs by which to enter the water. We spontaneously did it and are so glad we did. We stayed for an hour, and never wanted to leave. It was the perfect break before hiking back down to the parking lot.

    Side note: The river is not the end-all-be-all, even though it is where we turned around. The trail continues past the river and into the mountains. It is a loop that starts just past the river and returns to the river. Continuing on would add an hour to your hike. Then you return the way you came.

    It is worth stopping by the shop and cafe when you reach the car park. There were delightful cakes in the case, and sandwiches and coffee to be had. They also have clean restrooms and you can refill your water bottles at the restroom sinks. Lastly, there is a tiny shop where you can buy souvenirs or hiking necessities (such as a tiny towel, or a swimsuit).

    The valley and all it’s pretty terrain.

    This was our favorite hike in Iceland. It was also our favorite geothermal spot (better than the touristy Blue Lagoon!). We are introverted travelers and we prefer the romantic views and more isolated spots where we can hear our inner thoughts, and discuss them too! Even when we were in the river, there was enough space for everyone to get a stairwell to themselves. This place never felt crowded or overwhelming, but rather peaceful and serene, something we like over the tourist scene. I don’t think it’s worth getting a tour guide, as that would require you to see this place on their time. I recommend doing this hike on your own, and taking it in without rushing through it. It would probably take a half day to do.