One of the less well-known day-trip destinations from Reykjavík is the Borgarfjörður bay area. Most people see the Golden Circle and many the south coast, but most people who head west of the city visit the Snæfellsnes peninsula. Borgarfjörður is a bit closer to the city than Snæfellsnes, more inland, and just loaded with natural treasures such as hot springs, waterfalls, and lava caves.
Drive about an hour north from Reykjavík on route 1. You will see the bridge to Borgarnes, a charming little town with all the basic facilities; restaurants, a swimming pool and of course museums. The town is home to the Settlement Centre – a museum about the Viking settlers of the area, and the Borgarnes Museum, with exhibitions on the history and the natural life of the area. You can choose to cross the bridge to Borgarnes or turn right on route 50, just before the bridge, without passing through the town.
Whichever way you go, the first notable place you get to is Deildartunguhver, the most powerful hot spring in Europe. Here you can see boiling hot water come straight up from the ground, powerfully bubbling, steaming and splashing. It’s not a geyser, more an elongated pool or crevice, filled with this powerfully surging, hissing water. It’s a sight to behold!
Driving there: Route 50 stretches in a horseshoe around the fjord of Borgarfjörður, and at the bottom of this horseshoe is Deildartunguhver, so no matter if you’re driving from the north or south, you follow route 50 and you will find it.
After the hot springs, you will come to Hraunfossar, the Lava Waterfalls. These are remarkable since you can’t see the river above – the waterfall comes straight out from under solid rock. This is because the glacial water flows underneath the lava field for many miles without seeing the light of day. In the same location, a little further up is the amazing waterfall Barnafoss, or Children’s Waterfall. Its name comes from a folk story that says there used to be a stone arch over the river. Ages ago, two children fell off the arch and drowned in the river, so their mother had the arch destroyed in a fit of passion.
Driving there: From Deildartunguhver you take a right-hand turn on route 50 again, and less than 1 km later you take a left on route 518. Follow this road for about 15 minutes and Hraunfossar will be on your left. Don’t worry, there will be a road sign.
If you need a breather and a bite, stop by the small town, hotel, campground and restaurant at Húsafell, which also has a pool and golf course. This is also the pick-up location for several tours unless you’re driving up to the glacier’s edge (see below). Driving there is just a matter of continuing 7-minutes on route 518 from Hraunfossar.
POSSIBLE DETOUR – 4X4 DRIVE ONLY: Surtshellir is Iceland’s longest lava cave. It is a lava tube formed during a volcanic eruption when the lava started to cool on the surface, but there was still a hot “river” of molten rock flowing beneath it. When the lava flow stopped, the hot magma flowed away, leaving a hollow cave under the cool crust on the surface. If you’re interested, we recommend taking a guided cave tour for safety reasons (see the next entry).
Driving there, you take route 518 from Húsafell for about 6 kilometres and then turn right on mountain road F578.
Víðgelmir is Iceland’s biggest lava cave by volume, which formed in a similar way to Surtshellir. It’s an incredibly wide, tall cave which seemingly keeps going and going all the way to the centre of the earth.
Take a tour of the cave with an experienced guide, who will equip you with flashlights, helmets and such necessary safety equipment, and help you evaluate the safest and most suitable course in the cave. For ambitious spelunkers, you can ask the guide to take you to some of the deeper parts of the cave that travellers on their own can’t. You can either take a short, inexpensive tour of just the cave or do a longer tour, which includes exploring the cave.
Driving there: Driving from Húsafell is just a matter of staying on route 518 for another 15 minutes until you get a chance to turn right on the Víðgelmir trail. There is a place to park and from there you’ll see a walking trail marked by stones arranged on either side, but since you’re going with a guide, you won’t get lost.
Please note: many people don’t realise how sensitive flora such as moss can be. Please stay on the trail as damaged moss takes literal CENTURIES to heal. This is the case for all moss in Iceland, but here you will see a lot of it.
Onto or INTO Langjökull glacier – 4X4 DRIVE/TOUR ONLY: On certain tours, you will be taken up onto Langjökull glacier in specially modified mountain vehicles
Some tours take you up onto the glacier (weather permitting) via the ancient mountain road Kaldidalur, stopping by Þingvellir National park along the way.
Other tours go one step further, taking you INSIDE the glacier, such as the Into the Glacier tour, which takes you to the longest man-made ice cave in the world and gives you a chance to examine the unique landscapes under the surface of Langjökull. This tour is available with a pick-up from Reykjavík (which also takes you to Hraunfossar and Deildartunguhver), with a pickup from hotel Húsafell (see above) or by driving yourself over the highland road to the base camp at the glacier’s edge (road conditions allowing).
Driving there: It’s very important you do not try to drive on the glacier on your own. Rental cars are not equipped for this kind of excursion, and are certainly not insured for it, nor do normal people have the expertise and experience to drive on glaciers safely.
If you’re going on the Inside the Glacier tour, we recommend getting the pickup either from Reykjavík or from hotel Húsafell. In the summer, it can be safe to drive to base camp yourself, so if you’ve checked that the road conditions on the highlands are ok, the weather is ok and made sure your vehicle is suitable, equipped and insured for mountain roads, you could drive there via the Cold-valley (Kaldidalur) trail, a.k.a. mountain road F550. You get onto the Kaldidalur trail from route 518, the turn is about halfway between Víðgelmir and Hotel Húsafell.
…And Back Again
By now you’ve had a thoroughly enjoyable day in Borgarfjörður and are probably ready for a nap. Whether you head to Borgarnes town, north towards Snæfellsnes or Akureyri, or back to Reykjavík, this valley is incredibly central and convenient from route 1.
Heading back to Reykjavík, if you wanted to add even more excitement to your day, you could skip the tunnel under Hvalfjörður bay and take the scenic route through the valley. There you can see an old whaling station, or even hike to the tallest waterfall in Iceland, Glymur. Otherwise, just blast back to Reykjavík, have a drink and fall asleep in your comfy hotel bed.