Exploring the breathtaking scenery of this 90km long peninsular to the north west of Iceland was definitely a highlight of our trip. We had hired a car and left the hotel early for the 2 hour drive from Reykjavik to beat the traffic and spend as much time as possible on Snæfellsnes.
At nearly 5,000 feet and standing alone at the tip of the peninsular, the towering cone shaped volcano of Snæfellsjökull was visible from early on in our coastal drive and provided a constant reference point on our progress. It is the same volcano in which the lead characters of Jules Vernes’ Journey to the Center of the Earth used a lava tube to reach their subterranean world. However, in early spring, it was thick with snow and we were more focused on whether the roads at sea-level would be passable for our little Hyundai hatchback.
The weather was dry and sunny but there were reports it might start breaking up in the afternoon so we decided to travel anti-clockwise on the circular route which would take us to the colder northern side first. Navigating was easy since there are very few choices of road but our sat-nav confirmed our instincts. Route 56 took us up over the Vatnaleið mountain pass where we stopped along the way to take in the stunning scenery. Volcanos, lakes, lava, frozen rivers and waterfalls surrounded us and only the biting cold winds kept us from exploring too far from the road.
On the north side of the peninsular, the winds blew snow in a continuous horizontal stream snaking across the road in long white wisps. The long shadows of the mountains created ice patches which made the driving hazardous in places but the beauty of everything around us more than made up for it. Just past the fishing town of Grundarfjörður was our first destination – the iconic mountain of Kirkjufell and the nearby water fall of Kirkjufellsfoss.
This symmetrical mountain stands alone on the northern shore of the peninsular and its isolation adds to the spectacle. The nearby waterfall is accessible via a walk up an icy path to be rewarded with a great view back across to the mountain. We spent about 30 minutes here before getting back on the road to the west.
In other months, whales can sometimes be spotted swimming in northern Atlantic ocean to our right but there was nothing to be seen today except the distant grey peaks of Iceland’s ultra-remote Skagi peninsular. The road wound its way along the coast sometimes hugging the side of a steep mountain as it plunged into the sea, and then opening up into wide snow-filled valleys and fjords. The once distant Snæfellsjökull volcano was now very close and had been dominating the southern view, however quite abruptly, the cold shadow of the mountains gave way to golden sunlight as the land flattened into lava fields stretching as far as we could see. Here, we entered the Snæfellsjökull National Park which protects this fragile and beautiful landscape.
We explored a few side turnings that led down to the rocky shoreline since we were looking for the Saxhóll Crater which was a small (and extinct) volcano only a 100 meters high where the crater was supposed to be quite accessible. However, finding one particular rocky hill in a landscape full of such shapes proved harder than we expected and so, with many sights still ahead of us, we gave up and just appreciated the scenery as the road meandered slowly around the park.
Not long after the road reached the south coast, we took a small side road to Djúpalónssandur beach – a known beauty spot. A short walk allowed took us out to a headland where the views along the coast – long black sand beaches, surrounded by the intricate shapes of lava rock which was awesome to see. We headed down to walk along the beach and sat on the rocks watching the crashing waves of the ocean reflecting the rays of the sun, low on the southern sky despite it being midday.
By the time we left we were beginning to feel pretty hungry. There hadn’t been many places to stop but we aimed for a small village called Arnastapi which I’d read had a couple of eateries. The first couple of places we drove past looked a little dubious but closer to the shore, we found a busy and friendly cafe which served a decent pizza and a drink to keep us going. From the same car-park, we took a boarded walk along the coastal cliffs to visit some of the natural formations and copious bird life. There were some impressive natural rock arches and basalt columns although the cold winds were picking up so we didn’t stay too long.
By now it was mid-afternoon and we probably had one more stop we could do before having to start heading home. Further along the coastal road, the picturesque church of Búðakirkja provided the opportunity. An unusually simple, black and white church stood seemingly all alone in a wide lava plain back-dropped by the mountains. We only spent about 20 minutes here before moving on.
The journey home from the church took about 3 hours and it was dark by the time we arrived back in the hotel. It was a long day but I felt there was actually so much more we could have seen and done if we had more time. However, as a taster for the beauty of Snæfellsnes, this was an amazing day.