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svartsengi power plant reykjanes
Photo: Golli. Blue Lagoon & Svartsengi Power Station .

All About The Reykjanes Peninsula

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What natural attractions can be found on the Reykjanes Peninsula in southwest Iceland? How far is Keflavík International Airport from the capital, Reykjavík? How have volcanoes defined the region, and is it safe to visit? These questions and more will all be answered, so read on to learn about the Reykjanes Peninsula. 

Most people arrive in Iceland through the international airport. It means the first landscape they look upon is that of the Reykjanes Peninsula. The most obvious comparison is that the scenery looks as though it might be found on another planet. 

Rocky and barren. Craggy hills that spill lopsidedly to distant mountains on one side, to the tossing blue waves of the Atlantic Ocean on the other. Reykjanes is an eerily beautiful introduction to the land of ice and fire.

Located on the southwestern tip of the country, Reykjanes means “smoking point,” hinting at the volcanic zones that lay beneath its rock-strewn exterior. In summer, the peninsula is blanketed with beds of dark green moss, and in the depths of winter, a thick layer of twinkling snow. 

Keflavík International Airport  

Keflavík airport
Photo: Páll Stefánsson. Iceland’s only international airport.

As mentioned, Keflavík International Airport is where the vast majority of visitors to Iceland arrive. It is the only international airport in the country. This leaves the only other means of arrival as the M/S Norröna. A ferry from Denmark that arrives on the far eastern coast at Seyðisfjörður. 

Keflavík International Airport began as a small landing strip at Garður. It was first built by British forces during the Second World War. This was later expanded by the Americans into two runways. Patterson Field to the south, and Meek’s Field to the north. 

The northern airfield was left abandoned after the conflict came to an end. The structures of Meek’s Field, on the other hand, were incorporated into Naval Air Station Keflavík, an Iceland-led organisation named after the adjacent town.

Keflavík Airport
Photo: Golli. Keflavík airport

During the 1950s, the American Air Force returned to Naval Air Station Keflavík as part of the NATO defensive pact between the United States and Iceland. This station was widely controversial at the time on account of Iceland having no military of its own, and objecting to a foreign military’s presence on their soil. It was not until 1987 that the civilian terminal was separated from military checkpoints, allowing for foreign travellers to come and go to Iceland freely. 

Having gone through a number of major expansions since, Keflavík International Airport is, nowadays, much like any major airport in the world. Its departure gates are surrounded with duty-free souvenir shops, electronic and clothing stores, as well as restaurants, bars, and cafes. There are also designated smoking areas; somewhat unusual in today’s age. 

Its main terminal building was named after the first Norse explorer to arrive in North America, Leif Erikson, otherwise known as Leif the Lucky. 

Blue Lagoon Geothermal Spa

A woman and her child relaxing at the Blue Lagoon
Photo: Reykjavík – Blue Lagoon round-trip transfer. Relaxing at the Blue Lagoon in Iceland.

The Blue Lagoon is one of Iceland’s most famous attractions. With its silky, silica-rich waters – aquamarine in colour, warm in temperature – nearly every traveller in Iceland makes visiting this beloved geothermal spa a priority. 

Given its proximity to Keflavík International Airport, many stop by the spa either on the first or last day of their holiday. Both work just as well for starting or ending a vacation with a healthy dose of calm and relaxation. 

Though hard to believe, the Blue Lagoon started out as something of a local secret. During the 1980s – long before Iceland was of such avid interest to foreign visitors – people living on the Reykjanes Peninsula would bathe in the geothermal seawater that formed just outside of Svartsengi power plant. 

Eventually, scientists became curious as to just why so many people were attracted to this gentle reservoir, and the Blue Lagoon Ltd was founded in 1992. 

Only three years on, the healing properties of its waters were confirmed, leading to a range of skincare products being released by the company. By the millennium’s end, the first incarnation of the spa was in place, and it has gone from strength to strength ever since. 

Towns on the Reykjanes Peninsula 

Reykjanesbær
Photo: Reykjanesbær Facebook

Dotted amidst the rugged terrain of Reykjanes are a handful of towns and villages that are worth stopping by when travelling across the peninsula. Unlike Reykjavík, which boasts the majority of visitor’s attractions, these settlements offer a more authentic perspective of how Icelandic people live. Aside from that, the surrounding nature of coastlines and mountains makes such places unique and beautiful points of interest in their own right. 

Keflavík

 

The town of Keflavík first came into being not because of Icelandic settlers, but Scottish engineers and business people looking to capitalise on local fishing opportunities. 

Since its founding in the 16th century, Keflavík has developed into the peninsula’s major urban centre, in large part thanks to its proximity to the international airport that shares its name. 

Music fans will likely want to stop by Rokksafn Íslands – the Museum of Rock and Roll – a fun and unexpected attraction that dives into local and international pioneers of this headbanging genre. 

Locally, Keflavík has a reputation for producing talented musicians, especially during the swinging sixties and seventies when Icelandic-made pop-music was finding its feet. In fact, Keflavík is sometimes nicknamed bítlabærinn, or “Beatle Town,” for this very reason. 

Njarðvík

 

With its panoramic coastal views, Njarðvík town is located adjacent to Keflavík. Alongside the village of Hafnir, the three locations make up the municipality of Reykjanesbær. 

The town is a pleasant, if not disjointed mix of commercial and residential areas. It is home to around 4500 people. Njarðvík is rarely visited by visitors, but several accommodation options are available for those looking to base themselves in Reykjanes. 

With that being said, there is one fascinating attraction that has started to pull people to Njarðvík each year. The glassy exhibition hall that makes up Viking World Museum was designed by the award-winning architect, Guðmundur Jónsson. It is perfectly constructed to display its major showpiece, a Viking longship known as the Icelander. 

This beautiful wooden replica was sailed to New York City at the beginning of the millennium. This fantastic ocean journey celebrated Leif Erikson’s arrival to North America many centuries before. 

Grindavík

Reykjanes peninsula eruptions
Photo: Golli. The Grindarvík eruption.

Over recent months, Grindavík has made international headlines on account of the nearby volcanic eruption that forced a mass-evacuation of the town. Before the heightened seismic activity in 2023, the town was mainly known for its picturesque harbour and close proximity to the popular Blue Lagoon Spa. 

The future of Grindavík remains uncertain; an issue that is of great importance to its 3800 displaced residents. Located atop one of the peninsula’s five volcanic zones, there can be no assurance that the town will not, once again, fall victim to a lava flow. 

Heated discussions are ongoing within the Icelandic government as to how best to relocate residents, or secure the town from another devastating natural disaster. As of today, it is prohibited to travel too close to Grindavík on account of the fact that the recent lava flows are still cooling, thus continuing to pose a danger.

Hafnir

 

Home to little over 100 people, Hafnir is a tiny village found on the far southwest of the peninsula. Aside from its many natural viewpoints, there is not much that Hafnir has to offer besides conversation with its friendly residents, but that’s not to say this minute settlement has not left an impact on history. 

For one, the US merchant ship Jamestown was crashed here in 1881, spilling timber across the beach. To commemorate this event, the vessel’s naval anchor can be found displayed outside the front entrance of Hafnir’s church. Aside from that, Hafnir boasts cabin ruins dating somewhere between 770 – 880, providing the earliest archeological evidence of people living in Iceland. 

Geology of the Reykjanes Peninsula 

Svartsengi
Photo: Golli. Mt. Þorbjörn

The Reykjanes Peninsula was designated as a UNESCO Global Geopark in 2015. As such, the region’s geological makeup is of great interest to any person with an interest in the earth sciences. 

Covering approximately 2,000 sq km, this is a landscape entirely defined by powerful volcanic forces. As visitors drive along its winding roads, they will likely encounter wide open fissures, sprawling lava fields, shield volcanoes, and pockmarked craters, all a result of the volcanic zones that lie beneath the ground. 

To scientists, this area is called the Reykjanes volcanic belt, and it comprises a number of systems that, at one point or another in history, have all contributed to the unique form of the peninsula. 

The exact number of volcanic zones vary depending on the source. It is commonly acknowledged that these systems include: Hengill, Eldey, Svartsengi, Fagradalsfjall, Krýsuvík, and Brennisteinsfjöll. 

Since the end of the last Pleistocene period, around 12,000 years ago, it is basaltic lava flows of Holocene volcanoes that have created the unsmooth curves and dips that characterise the landscape. 

Volcanoes and Eruptions in Reykjanes 

 

For around 4000 years, the Reykjanes Peninsula was almost completely absent of volcanic eruptions, save for a handful of minor episodes.  

Due to this long period of dormancy, the reality of the region’s molten underbelly awakening over recent years has come as a great shock to many, no more so than the residents that call Reykjanes home.

The Fagradalsfjall, Meradalir, and Litli-Hrútur eruptions 

volcano eruption Geldingadalir Reykjanes
Photo: Golli. The Fagradalsfjall eruption site.

In 2021, the Fagradalsfjall eruption ushered in this new era of volcanic activity. Only 40 km from Reykjavík, a fiery crater called Geldingadalir became Iceland’s latest must-see visitor’s attraction, lasting from April 5 until September 18. 

Visitors from across the world hiked the barren trail that led to this incredible force of nature, where people sat on adjacent hillsides observing the earth spew great fountains of lava into the air. As the first eruption of its kind in many years, Icelandic Search & Rescue services, ICE-SAR, were quick to form safe pathways, as well as keep the public informed as to the extent of sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide in the air. 

 

In August 2022, the next eruption to occur happened in almost the same location, this time called Meradalir. Lava from the new fissure poured across the fresh lava fields created by Fagradalsfjall, but ultimately, the eruption did not last long, ending the very same month. 

Litli-Hrútur erupted on July 10 2023, following 12,000 recorded earthquakes. At first, the site proved to be far more powerful than the prior two eruptions, with a lava flow greater than 10 times that which had become before. However, after a steady decline in flow rate, volcanic activity came to an end in the area August 23 2023. 

All in all, these eruptions brough an estimated 700,000 people to the area, all of whom were eager to observe these primitive natural spectacles for themselves. However, the next major eruption – that which occurred just outside of Grindavik – was to prove far more dramatic, far more dangerous, and far less accessible to visitors. 

The Grindavík Eruption 

litli-hrútur reykjanes
Photo: Golli. Workers at the eruption site.

In the months preceding the Grindavík eruption, residents of the town had lived with the constant knowledge that soon, lava flows would force them to leave their homes behind. Most surmised from the series of earth tremors, plus the onslaught of daily news reports, that the possibility of a significant disaster – be it an earthquake, or neighbouring eruption – was a very real threat.  

And so, when lava finally broke the surface on December 18, the townsfolk had already evacuated as a precaution. This was just as well; a recently constructed defensive wall meant to protect the urban settlement from lava flows was soon breached, leaving some houses destroyed. 

 

So it was that Sundhnúkagígaröðin volcano woken from its dormancy. Thankfully, no one was injured or killed in the incident. 

As stated, the situation regarding Grindavik’s future is still very much up in the air. But, as Iceland’s outgoing President, Guðni Th Jóhannesson, reassured in a televised speech; 

“A daunting period of upheaval has begun. We continue to hope for as good an outcome as possible. We will carry on with our responsibilities and we will continue to stand together.”

Attractions on the Reykjanes Peninsula 

Travellers at an eruption site
Photo: Golli. Travellers on the Reykjanes Peninsula

But all this talk of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. One would think that the Reykjanes Peninsula was an unsafe place to visit… 

Well, allow us to put your mind at rest!

Great swathes of this region are perfectly suited for travellers. Anyone seeking out beautiful natural attractions and interesting cultural sites are free to find them in Reykjanes. 

The Bridge Between the Continents 

 

 

The Reykjanes Peninsula is situated atop a boundary line between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. This is why the landscape here is blemished with countless cracks, clefts, and canyons. 

Built atop one of the larger fissures is a small footbridge, known as the bridge between the continents. It demonstrates the reality of this peculiar geography. As such, it allows visitors to literally step between one tectonic plate and another. 

The bridge is named Midlina in Icelandic. It is named after the famed explorer, Leif Erikson. He was the first Norseman to arrive in the Americas, which he did around 1000 years ago. 

This 15 m [50 ft] walkway was constructed to celebrate this grand odyssey. And, consequently, the enduring relationship that Europe and America shares. Visitors can find it approximately one hour’s drive from Reykjavík, near to the beautiful Sandvik beach. 

Kleifarvatn lake

Kleifarvatn - Krísuvík - Reykjanes
Photo: Golli. Kleifarvatn lake, Reykjanes Pensinsula

Covering around 10 sq km, Kleifarvatn lake is a scenic waterbody that offers respite from the seemingly endless black lava fields the Reykjanes Peninsula is famous for. As you may have guessed, it is the largest lake in the region, and one of the deepest in Iceland, with a total depth of 97 m. 

Oddly enough, Kleifarvatn was once much larger. It is thought that earthquakes in the year 2000 may have opened up fissures at the bottom of the lake. This would have drained much of it. Another strange aspect of the lake is that no rivers feed into it. All of its water originates from the highly-porous lava fields around it. 

Despite this isolation of sorts, many Arctic Char live in the lake, having been deliberately introduced in the 1960s. Local legends also claim that Iceland’s own version of the Loch Ness monster hides within its depths. A demonic whale-like creature. But, as of today, sightings are few and far between. 

Reykjanestá cliffs

 

 

Anyone seeking epic seascapes will want to stop by the Reykjanestá cliffs. It is located on the southwestern tip of the Reykjanes Peninsula. Here, dramatic pillars of basalt rise from the lapping ocean waves. These cliffs attracts various bird species to nest amidst the surrounding rocks. Guests can expect to see Black-Legged Kittiwakes, Guillemots, Razorbills, Fulmars, and Shags. 

From the cliff sides, you will be able to spot the idyllic Eldey Island in the near distance. You can also spot the oldest lighthouse in Iceland, Reykjanesviti. It was originally built to help fishing boats navigate as far back as 1878. But because earthquakes tend to streak across the Reykjanes Peninsula, the original was destroyed following a mighty tremor. The modern version of the lighthouse was built in 1929.     

Gunnuhver hot spring

Photo: Golli. Even when there’s no active eruption, the geothermal heat underneath Reykjanes is unmistakeable.

Walking among the miniature geysers and steamy fumaroles of the Gunnuhver geothermal area is akin to trekking across the Red Planet, Mars. The ground is a brazen orange. The air is thick with white gassy clouds. All of this culminates in a unique site that demonstrates the powerful molten forces that have shaped Reykjanes over the centuries.

Gunnuhver geothermal area is named after a vengeful spirit. One that is said to have terrorised locals throughout history. According to the legends, a woman named Gunna lived close by to the area. It just so happens that she was notoriously poor with money. Indebted to the owner of the land upon which she stayed, he confiscated her cooking pot, claiming it would only be returned to her once the debt was paid. 

Without the means to prepare food for herself, Gunna quickly starved to death. A few days following her funeral, the landowner was found deceased. Many locals claimed that Gunna had returned from the dead to enact her vengeance. As to the veracity of this story, we’ll leave that up to you. But such myths are wonderful to contemplate alongside admiring the area’s unique geology. 

Mount Keilir

Keilir
Photo: Golli. Keilir mountain, Reykjanes peninsula

This striking cone-shaped mountain is a little-known landmark of the Reykjanes Peninsula. It is easily visible from Reykjavík and the ocean thanks to its deep slopes and sharpened peaks. Thanks to its prominence, the mountain was utilised for navigation by fishermen throughout the centuries. 

More recently, many people have discovered Keilir as a viewpoint from which to watch the Fagradalsfjall eruptions. But even without the possibility of seeing flowing lava, the top of the mountain boasts fantastic views over Faxaflói Bay and much of the peninsula. A hiking trail leads to a guestbook atop the peak where ramblers are encouraged to leave a message. 

In Summary 

Reykjanes
Photo: Bar Harel. Wikimedia. CC BY-SA 4.0

The Reykjanes Peninsula tends to be where visitors begin and end their trips to Iceland. It is well worth spending time during the actual holiday to explore this amazing region rather than rush through it. 

With its rugged landscape, cultural sites, and beautiful natural attractions, Reykjanes provides for fantastic memories of your time in Iceland. 

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