Best Day Trip From Reykjavík: The Snæfellsness Peninsula
Having planned to spend much of this summer—my first summer in Iceland, in fact—gallivanting around the country, I’ve instead spent most of my time in the city, close to home. But today, I’m lucky. In the name of research, my partner and I get twelve hours to explore the Snæfellsnes peninsula. This is “Iceland in miniature,” I’ve been told, a veritable “Best Of” sampler where many of the country’s most sought-out natural wonders exist side by side.
Above The Lava Field
Circumnavigating the whole peninsula would only take about three hours, but with limited time at our disposal, we decide to concentrate our energies along the south coast. Our first stop at the base of the peninsula is at Snorrastaðir farm, where there’s a trail to Eldborg, a 5,000+ year old crater which rises 60 metres out of the surrounding lava field and looms like some spectacular vintage Hollywood backdrop. The trail, which meanders through surprisingly lush summer moss and birch trees, takes about an hour to walk each way, and being underprepared for the steady downpour that dogs us the whole way, we’re pretty soaked by the time we reach the precipice. Even so, it’s worth it: Eldborg is somehow shapely and elegant, like a massive stoneware bowl, and looking out from its edge, you can see where the sprawling lava plateau meets the ocean.
The rain has mostly cleared by the time we get back to our car, so we change into dry clothes (always smart to have on hand) and continue west, passing Gerðuberg, a wall of hexagonal basalt columns, and eventually the Búðahraun lava field, which boasts its own volcanic crater, Búðaklettur.
Under The Glacier
We head to Vatnshellir, an 8,000-year-old lava cave in the Snæfellsnes National Park. Joining one of the hourly guided tours (2,500 ISK for adults), we enter through a spacey-looking door marked “Undirheimar,” or Underworld, recalling Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Centre of the Earth,” which takes place under this very glacier.
Amidst the patter of three very precocious English children, the tour guide points out unique stalagmite-like formations which were formed by dripping lava, and a kind of (harmless) bacteria which only exists in Vatnshellir and sparkles in our flashlight beams. After descending two spiral staircases and finding ourselves 35 metres below the surface, we’re treated to a rare experience. Shutting off our flashlights, we stand in the complete and utter darkness. The disembodiment is only exacerbated by the fact that due to the composition of the cave walls, Vatnshellir has no echo.
The Guardian Of Snæfellsnes
A little further west we find Djúpalónssandur, a black pebble beach located at one end of another lava field (there are a lot of these on Snæfellsnes, but they don’t get old). There, we pass through the ruins of a British trawler that was shipwrecked in 1948 and take another trail along the edge of a cliff-face to the secluded cove of Dritvík. There were once as many as 600 fishermen stationed here, but now the area is home only to a few plump sheep, grazing lazily on the slopes.
We then head back east to the lovely costal village of Hellnar. Here, we restore ourselves at Fjöruhúsið, a cosy seaside cafe that faces the Baðstofa rock formation where calls of nesting birds echo with the rush of the tide. It’s nice weather for Iceland, but still a bit chilly, so the waitress brings us blankets to keep warm while we eat our creamy, hearty fish soup on the porch.
After our meal, we walk up the hill to see the red-roofed church and its adjoining graveyard. There’s a trail along the coastline and we’d love to linger, but it’s nearing 22:00 and while the light will hold out indefinitely, we’re not sure our energy will, so we’re on our way. Nevertheless, we’re not too tired to make a spontaneous stop at Rauðfeldar Canyon. The saga says that Báðar Snæfellsás—the peninsula’s half-man, half-troll guardian spirit—disappeared here after killing his nephew (long story). We follow a stream that leads us to a narrow gap between the rock walls and find ourselves in a mossy grotto. Had we more time and better gear, we would have happily spent a few hours following the stream further into the canyon.
Carbonated Spring Water and A Mud Bath
We have two final stops on our itinerary, starting with the Ölkelda mineral spring near Staðastaður. Honestly, while the experience is pretty simple in and of itself, it is amazingly cool to turn on a faucet and get drinkable, carbonated mineral water right from the ground.
After marvelling at our bubbly water for a few minutes, we decide to take a midnight dip in the Landbrotalaug hot spring. We can see from the parking area that the pool is occupied (by a few Spanish tourists and residents of a local farm, we find out later), but these are generally ‘the more the merrier’ sorts of situations, so we start to pick our way across the stones that have been laid in the lake that lies between us and the spring.
Unfortunately, I misjudge a stone and end up sinking thigh-deep into a swampy mud-suck and have to be pretty violently hauled up. This would have been entirely dispiriting had there not been the promise of a hot spring on the other side. Alas, not only is there not really much space for two more in Landbrotalaug, the current occupants are at least a case of beer into their evening—it’s a Friday night in the country, after all—and not terribly respectful people.
So instead, we squelch back to the car, have a few restorative gulps of our mineral water, and decide to leave this last “must-do” undone. It’s always good to have something yet to do in a place you enjoy visiting, after all—it gives you an excuse to come back. Although in the case of Snæfellsnes, we’d hardly need one.
Snæfellsnes is located 143 km away from Reykjavík and can be reached by following Route 1 through the Hvalfjörður tunnel (toll of 1,000 ISK each way) and then changing to Route 54 up and around the peninsula. It takes roughly three hours to drive all the way around Snæfellsnes.