Driving in Iceland: Snæfellsnes self-drive tour
The Snæfellsnes peninsula has some of the most diverse landscapes in Iceland, with waterfalls, caves, black and yellow beaches, cliffs, mountains, lava fields and much more, as well as the Snæfellsjökull glacier. It’s easy to do a Snæfellsnes self-drive since it’s an easy day tour from Reykjavík and simple to get to by car.
Eldborg Volcano – The “Fire Castle”
On the way to Snæfellsnes, this unique oval-shaped crater rises 60 m (200 ft) from the lava-field around it. It’s 200 metres (650 ft) from side to side and you can walk right up onto the crater walls.
“Eldborg” means “fire castle,” and its picturesque shape explains the name – it looks like castle walls shaped from the fiery lava flow below.
Driving to Eldborg:
Drive route 1 north out of the city for about an hour until you reach Borgarnes. Borgarnes is a nice town and a great place for a pit stop. Borgarnes is where you turn off route 1 and find your way west on route 54 towards Snæfellsnes. Drive 25 minutes or so to get to the farm Snorrastaðir. This is a great place for horseback riding, and also where you start your walk to Eldborg.
It’s about a half hour walk there. You walk through the lava field and to the top of Eldborg, where you can look into the crater and imagine what it looked like when it was being formed.
Gerðuberg Basalt Columns
Basalt columns are cool hexagonal formations that volcanic basalt can take if it cools rapidly. Gerðuberg is a massive wall of basalt columns and well worth the visit. It’s easy to spot from the road.
Driving to Gerðuberg:
From Eldborg, you continue just a little further up route 54. There’s a sign, but you should also see the wall on the right from the road.
Lýsuhólslaug Swimming Pool
Don’t worry about the green colour of the water in this charming old swimming pool – it’s just natural algae. The mineral-rich water is completely natural, straight from the ground and without any chemicals, so it attracts algae. It’s actually very good for your skin!
Driving to Lýsuhólslaug:
From Gerðuberg it’s just 30 minutes further on route 54.
Rauðfeldargjá – “Red-Fur Canyon”
This canyon’s name comes from the Icelandic saga “Bárðar saga Snæfellsás”, which happened nearby. The eponymous Bárður had two nephews: Rauðfeldur(Red-fur), and the less colourfully named Sölvi. His nephews accidentally pushed Bárður’s daughter adrift on an iceberg and Bárður, thinking his daughter was dead killed both of them. Unbeknownst to him,however, his daughter had lived and drifted safely all the way to Greenland.
Upset over his daughter’s supposed death, Bárður pushed the furry Rauðfeldur into the canyon named after him and threw Sölvi off a cliff which from that moment was known as Sölvahamar, or Sölvi’s cliff.
Rauðfeldsgjá looks like the mountain was cut down the middle and you’re walking between the two halves. It’s a very narrow ravine with a stream running through it and a lovely waterfall hidden deep inside.
Driving to Rauðfeldargjá:
From Lýsuhólslaug, drive about 15-20 minutes along route 54, then take a right-hand turn on Útnesvegur, (route 574). There is a road sign for Rauðfeldargjá right before you get to Arnarstapi. There’s a place to park and then a little walk to reach the canyon.
Arnarstapi is a picturesque little fishing village which is more or less completely abandoned in the wintertime but fills up with fishermen and travellers in the summertime.
There are some incredible rock formations by the harbour and various species of birds nest there in the summer. A short walk from there there’s a huge sculpture half-troll Bárður Snæfellsás from the aforementioned Icelandic saga.
From here it’s a pleasant, easy 2,5 km hike along the shore to Hellnar, the next village. There, you can visit the cave Baðstofa – “living room” – and get some refreshments at the Fjöruborðið café.
Driving to Arnarstapi:
From Rauðfeldargjá keep driving west on route 574. You will find a sign for left hand turn to Arnarstapi.
Snæfellsjökull National Park
Around this time, you’re getting close to Snæfellsjökull glacier. Underneath the glacier’s ice is an ancient volcano, which last erupted 1800 years ago. The crater of the Snæfellsjökull volcano is famously the starting point of Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” through which the team enters into the planets hollow centre. In Iceland, Snæfellsjökull is famous as the landing place of aliens and/or a powerful centre of mystic spiritual energy. I don’t know about all that, but I can tell you for certain that it’s a beautiful place.
Within the national park, you will find Vatnshellir. Of the many, many lava caves in Iceland, this is one of the coolest. It’s within the national park so you need a guide to go in. The 45-minute tour takes you about 35 metres (115 ft.) underground where you will see amazing colours and rock formations.
The cave is 200 metres (650 ft.) long, and at the end, the guide will sometimes ask everyone to turn off their flashlights and be quiet. When I did it, I think it was seriously the first time in my life that I experienced absolute darkness and silence.
Driving to Vatnshellir:
From Arnarstapi, continue on route 574 for about 10 minutes. The cave will be on the right of the road. Remember that you need a guided tour and you really should book ahead.
You may have heard of the black-sand beaches of Vík… well this similar, but different. Djúpalónssandur is a black beach, but full of little black pebbles instead of sand. The pebbles have been eroded by the ocean until they’re beautifully round, and are often called the Pearls of Djúpalón.
The place is also interesting historically; Fishermen used to come from all over the country to fish from here over parts of the year. In fact, those ancient fishermen left behind four lifting stones on the beach which are there to this day. They used the stones for strength competitions in ages past and the heaviest stone is about 150 kilos (330lb.)!
PLEASE NOTE: Be careful and don’t get too close to the sea here. There is a powerful rogue wave and people have been hurt or even killed before.
Driving to Djúpalónssandur:
From Vatnshellir it’s just 5 minutes up the road on 574 until you get to a left-hand turn for Djúpalónssandur. From the turn, it’s about five minutes further driving.
Rif village and the Freezer
Rif is a tiny little fishing village made up of about 130 people and two streets. It’s also the home of the Freezer.
The Freezer is a theatre, artist residency, hostel, bar and café all in one. Its owner, Kári, local actor, built it from scratch in an abandoned fish factory (hence the name).
The Freezer has lots going on in the summertime: plays, one-man shows and concerts by both local legends and famous Icelandic bands.
Driving to Rif:
From Djúpalónssandur, find your way back to route 574, and then drive about 30 minutes further north.
Mt. Kirkjufell, the “Church-mountain”
This picturesque mountain has gained some internet fame lately for being one of the most beautiful mountains in the world. I have to agree, it is pretty perfect, with its distinctive shape and ocean on three sides. The pictures speak for themselves.
Hiking to the top is only for experienced hikers, but you can walk around the mountain in approximately three hours.
Driving to Kirkjufell
From Rif, you drive 10 minutes further along until route 574 merges with route 54. Head north-east on route 54 for another 20 minutes and you will be at Kirkjufell. You won’t miss it. It’s the big, mountain-shaped thing.
Historic Stykkishólmur village
It’s easy to see why Ben Stiller chose this place to film his movie, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty in and around Stykkishólmur. It’s certainly one of Iceland’s most charming villages, full of colourful old wooden houses that give it a timeless feel. The Norwegian house, local folk museum, gives you an insight into everyday life through the ages. Be sure to check out the Narfeyrarstofa restaurant which offers a wide selection of local dishes.
The harbour is really nice too: you can walk to the top of the Súgandisey hill and enjoy the view of the town. You can also go on a cruise of the bay from the harbour, explore Breiðafjörður bay with its countless islands, or take the ferry to Flatey island where you can explore or even spend the night.
Driving to Stykkishólmur:
From Mt. Kirkjufell, continue on road 54 until you can take a left on route 58. You will see a sign saying “Stykkishólmur”. In all it’s about a 35-minute drive.
Driving back to Reykjavík:
Find your way back to route 54 and then cut across the peninsula by taking a left on route 56. Then it’s a left when you get back to route 54 and a straight shot to Borgarnes, and from there due south to Reykjavík on route 1.