From Iceland — A Hike In Hornstrandir: Mountains, Fjords and Gods

A Hike In Hornstrandir: Mountains, Fjords and Gods

Published August 1, 2008

Haukur S. Magnússon
Photo by
Julia Staples

As a day’s hike reveals, the Hornstrandir nature reserve leaves little to be desired, and a lot to be discovered. The Hornstrandir Nature reserve – “Strandir”, for short – is unique in every sense, and it is no wonder that the area is a favourite amongst international tourists as well as domestic ones. The Grapevine confirmed this during a short visit last month, and is already planning an extended hike through the area, for while our daytrip was jaw-dropping in its own right, it only served to whet our appetite for Hornstrandir.

Fabled for its scenic views and serene atmosphere as well as its flora and fauna, the Strandir reserve has for long been regarded a hiker’s paradise. This is for good reason, as the reserve has a plethora of paths and trails that can be mapped out and planned to suit even the most discerning hiker’s tastes.

As an out of shape part-time journalist, I believed the Hornstrandir hiking experience way over my head in terms of sheer difficulty. A brief visit to the Ísafjörður tourist office convinced me otherwise, as I learned that one of their most popular trips was a day hike through the nature reserve area deemed suitable for persons of most shapes and sizes, or as the brochure describes it: “A moderate hike for people in good shape. 14 kilometres, elevation of about 400 metres on rough ground.” Figuring that “[…] a moderate hike for people in good shape” could translate to a good hike for people in moderate shape, I signed up.

So Fucking Peaceful
“What an awesome place,” I thought as our small group disembarked the rubber dingy that had brought us the final metres to the abandoned hamlet of Sæból in Aðalvík, the starting point for our hike. We commenced our journey, hiking our way into Staðardalur Valley whilst taking in the history of Sæból and its former inhabitants as told by our apt guide, Íris. Stopping by the valley’s church, beautifully positioned by a calm lake, we learned that it is currently undergoing renovations (impressive for a building that’s been abandoned for over half a century) and that the lake is believed to be a nesting place for Nykur (more on Nykur, those fearsome creatures, here).

The clouds parted just as we continued our trip, and I started sweating. Removing several items of clothing, I hobbled after the group, relishing every breath of fresh air the day brought. We slowly ascended a mountain pass, our sweaty heads greedily eyeing the preceding winter’s last leftover snow heap. Every stream we passed an opportunity to fill our flasks with chilled mountain water; we greedily replenished every drop of perspiration lost.

On the middle of Sléttuheiði moor, a burning sun loomed over; we took in the vast ensemble of peaks and valleys, fjords and gods surrounding us. The group fell silent for a minute.

Words Won’t Describe It
Our group of twelve was a mix of Americans, Icelanders and Europeans, ages ranging from eleven to sixty four, with severely differing hiking abilities. A Colorado couple had obviously far surpassed the group’s collective abilities, but they seemed happy to trail along our amateur pace, perhaps lavishing more attention on the surroundings than the rest of us could spare. But I doubt it.

We had been told that the 14 km hike should take around five hours at best, but our scheduled pickup time left a couple of hours to spare, so no one was in hurry. We thus opted for a prolonged lunch break after crossing a cold stream barefoot, lying in the grass wondering why life shouldn’t always be like this (a quick examination of any philosophical system will reveal that it simply can not. In fact the Hornstrandir reserve is extremely inhospitable for ten out of every twelve months).

One liberating aspect of undertaking tasks like this hike is that past a certain point you are forced to cede any bit of control over the circumstances. You are past the point of no return, no matter how tired or beat-up you get, you simply must finish. This is good.

“I can’t believe this fucking place,” I thought as we descended down Hesteyrarfjörður, our final destination and place of pick up. We walked a shiny beach towards the Hesteyri summer settlement, counting stranded jellyfish and picking up seashells along the way. “Eight hours is nowhere near enough,” I concluded as we finally boarded an hour later.

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