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Kirkjufell mountain on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula
Photo: Photo: Golli. Kirkjufell mountain in West Iceland.

All About The Snæfellsnes Peninsula

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The Snæfellsnes Peninsula is one of Iceland’s most beloved regions, capturing so much of what makes this Nordic island special. But what sites, tours, and attractions can be found here? 

Located between the cultural hub that is the Capital Region and the wild, sparsely populated Westfjords, the Snæfellsnes Peninsula is considered by many to be a microcosm of the whole country.

Nicknamed “Iceland in Miniature,” visitors can expect to discover a treasure trove of natural sights, including moss-laden lava fields, epic mountain ranges, and scenic black coastlines. The region can be visited in both the winter and summer, with each season transforming the unique aesthetic of the natural landscape.

For those with only a short time to spend in the country, it could very well be argued that this often-overlooked area boasts the very best that Iceland has to offer.

A Brief History of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula

Side-stepping its incredible nature for a moment, the peninsula is enriched by a deep cultural history. Aside from its ties to the nation’s fishing industry, Snæfellsnes and its nearby localities have been the setting for many known Icelandic sagas, such as the poetic masterpiece that is Laxdœla saga.

However, it is Bárðar Saga Snæfellsáss (The Saga of Bárður) that remains, perhaps, most significant to the region. The earliest manuscript dates back to the 15th century and tells of the earliest settlers who called this hostile, yet enchanting land home.

This epic mediaeval tale follows the half-giant and guardian spirit, Bárður, in his quest to protect the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. All the while, he struggles with family betrayal, despotic kings, and unruly natural events. Like the majority of Icelandic sagas, it is a story of epic proportions, where the morality of its characters are as grey as a typical winter sky.

A statue of Bárður can be found in the small town of Arnstapi. Today, the spirit of this iconic Icelandic character not only watches over the sparsely populated hamlets that dot Snæfellsnes, but also the millions of travellers who venture through every year to discover its many highlights.

Exploring Snæfellsjökull National Park 

Snæfellsjökull National Park
Photo: Golli. Snæfellsjökull National Park

The Snæfellsnes Peninsula has had a larger influence on culture than merely acting as the stage of Icelandic sagas.

For instance, avid readers will know of Jules Verne’s classic science-fiction novel, Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Within its pages, the Snæfellsjökull ice cap plays a major role, serving as the gateway to our planet’s molten underbelly,

Verne clearly had an eye for memorable locations – places forever destined to leave their mark on global culture – for today, the glacier acts as the shining crown of its own national park.

The glacier sits cloaked like a pearlescent hood atop a silent stratovolcano. This once volatile titan of volcanic energy last erupted just short of two thousand years ago. But the impact of its violent past is clear throughout the entire peninsula, be it in its lava fields or troll-like basalt sea stacks.

Established in 2001, Snæfellsjökull National Park stands as one of Iceland’s three national parks, alongside the UNESCO Heritage sites Þingvellir National Park and Vatnajökull National Park.

Covering 170 sq km [66 sq mi,] guests are advised to stop by the welcoming and informative Visitor’s Centre at Malarrif. Here, they can acquire the lowdown on the best hiking trails in the area, as well as learn more about the history of the region. Travellers should note that there is no entrance fee to explore this park, making it an excellent choice for budget-conscious visitors.

What is there to see on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula?

There are so many sites of interest found on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula that a total breakdown of every location is, frankly, unfeasible. Every bend in the road, each trail, and every scenic hike promises sights, sounds, and experiences beyond description.

However, there are notable sites that this article would be remiss not to mention. So, in somewhat of a tribute to Iceland’s earliest settlers, let us begin as they did… by arriving from the ocean.

Beautiful Beaches on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula

djúpalónssandur black sand beach
Photo: Golli. Guests enjoying Djúpalónssandur black sand beach

As is true across the island, volcanic coastlines are a mainstay of Snæfellsnes. Their dark glass pebbles are a direct result of immense glacial floods that have, over the millennia, defined the entire peninsula.

Black sand beaches like Djupalonssandur – found at the base of Snæfellsjökull glacier, far on the western edge of Iceland’s left arm – offer exquisite ocean views. There are also many fascinating geological formations created by lava flows that dominated the area in previous centuries.

But it’s not just the consequences of the volcano that are worthy of a mention. At Djupalonssandur, visitors can test their mettle by way of the Lifting Stones. Divided by their size, these four enormous rocks were used to test the strength of local sailors seeking work as fishermen. Only those capable of raising them were offered employment.

If feats of physical strength are of little interest to you, the tranquillity of the nearby Djúpulón and Djúpudalslón tidal lagoons offer a serene way to spend your time. Adjacent hiking trails offer the opportunity to see incredible basalt sea stacks and the mighty rock-arch, Gatklettur.

To the north of Djupalonssandur, the beachside, Skarðsvík, offers something that is rarely seen in Iceland – yellow sand! While the waves on this shoreline are known for being quite temperamental, forcing observers to keep their distance, it is amazing to see a place so reminiscent of the Mediterranean during your Iceland vacation.

Volcanic sites on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula

Vatnshellir Cave Tour in West Iceland
Photo: Vatnshellir Cave Tour.

As mentioned, the jewel of the cape, Snæfellsjökull, serves as the centre-point of its own national park and is the namesake of the region itself. Knowing the peninsula’s volcanic origins is a great start when seeking out other areas defined by the lava.

One such location where you can gain insight into Snæfellsnes’ volcanic history is at Eldborg crater, “the fortress of fire,” far on the eastern side of the peninsula. Stood at 60 m [18 ft] over the black, tufty hills surrounding lava fields, this symmetrical spatter cone was active between 5000-6000 years ago. Reaching the crater takes approximately 1.5 hours, requiring a scenic, but somewhat challenging 2.5 km [1.6 mi] hike.

Heading west, guests can make a stop at the colourful lava cave, Vatnshellir. Formed by an eruption 8000 years before, this hollow tunnel is one of the oldest in Iceland and is rich in vibrant minerals.

At 200 m [656 ft] long, it is only possible to visit the cave by way of a guided tour. Your guide will provide you with all of the necessary equipment, such as crampons and helmets, and be sure to offer educational tidbits about geology as you adventure through the cave.

There are many other sites that offer similar insights into the region’s volcanic past. These include the likes of Berserkjahraun lava field and the Saxhóll Crater, which acts as a more accessible alternative to Eldborg.

Wildlife on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula

A mother Sei Whale and it's calf.
Sei whale mother and calf. By Christin Khan.

Regarding the animals that call the Snæfellsnes Peninsula home, the most visible resident would be its seabirds.

Species include guillemots, razorbacks, gulls, and kittiwakes, many of which can be spotted nesting among the sea stacks dotting the coastline. The towering Lóndrangar is a particularly good site for birdwatchers.

There are many songbirds in the area too, namely whimbrels, golden plovers, wheatears, and meadow pipits. While hiking, it is a common occurrence to hear these gentle creatures in full song, adding to the often paradisiacal ambience that characterises Snæfellsnes in the summer.

Aside from these, other typical birds include ravens, ptarmigans, and white wagtails, not to mention the many migratory species that arrive to the peninsula during the summer months.

What other animals can be found in Snæfellsnes?

But, for many travellers, birds are of only a trifling interest. When it comes to mandatory stops, wildlife lovers will want to stop for a little seal-watching at Ytri-Tunga beach, which is named after a nearby farmstead. The most common species that lounge on the shoreline here are Grey Seals and Harbour Seals, though many others come by to pay a visit.

Spotted seals in Iceland
Photo: Golli. Spotted seals lounging by the coastline.

Despite the permeating myths about Iceland being a habitat of theirs, Walruses are not native. Still, they have turned up from time to time, sparking a novel wave of local interest when they do. With that said, there are theories that the peninsula was once home to a large colony of Walruses. The sheer number of bones and skulls discovered there certainly says as much

In point of fact, a chess set made out of carved Walrus bones was discovered in Snæfellsnes several years ago, breathing further life into this hotly contested debate.

Still, it is wise not to expect Walruses at Ytri-Tunga today. Regardless, it is important to respect the local wildlife species that call the beach home. Seal watchers would do well to ensure they provide the animals with enough space so as not to frighten them, but even at a distance, these wonderful creatures make for brilliant photography subjects.

Speaking of Iceland’s mammals, both mink and Arctic Foxes live on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, though they are rarely spotted. While such animals are notoriously shy – not to mention, wily – it is worthwhile to keep an eye out while driving or hiking. The shock that comes with noticing the whipping movement of a furry creature in Iceland is sure to make anyone’s day.

arctic fox Iceland
Photo: Golli. An Arctic Fox on Snæfellsnes

Whale watching on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula

Finally, it is not at all uncommon to see whale and dolphin species off the coast of Snæfellsnes. Minkes, humpbacks, and even killer whales are sometimes spotted not far from the shoreline. As if this region is not spectacular enough, the sight of these majestic ocean giants breaching the water is sure to remain with visitors for years to come.

Those eager to see Snæfellsnes’ cetaceans can maximise their chance by taking whale-watching tours from towns like Olafsvik, Grundarfjörður, or Stykkisholmur. Of course, wildlife sightings can never be guaranteed, but operators across Iceland have a fantastic track record for reliably locating and observing these creatures in their natural habitat.

Mountains on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula

A mountain on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula
Photo: SBS. The mountains of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula

Guests to Snæfellsnes will, no doubt, be in awe of the often mist-shrouded mountain range that carves its way down the centre of the peninsula. While worthy of appreciation in their entirety, there are a couple of mountains that are worth a greater focus.

Kirkjufell is among the most iconic mountains on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Translated to ‘Church Mountain,’ this beautiful feature towers above the local town of Grundarfjörður at a height of 463 m. Its steep grassy slopes and sharp peak have helped Kirkjufell become an instantly recognisable symbol of Iceland over the last few years thanks to its wide appearances in countless tourism campaigns.

Fans of the fantasy series, Game of Thrones, will likely recognise Kirkjufell as the “Mountain like an arrowhead,” a filming location from seasons 6 and 7. While the show portrayed this titan of the landscape as fairly foreboding, it is in equal parts beautiful. There is also a pleasant waterfall on-site, Kirkjufellfoss, that makes for a perfect foreground subject when photographing the mountain.

Another mountain of interest is Helgafell, though it lacks the fame associated with Kirkjufell. Here, an ancient temple dedicated to the Norse God of Thunder, Thor, was erected by the area’s first settler, Þórólfr Mostrarskegg. While the temple no longer stands, a historic church, built in 1907, has replaced it as the mountain’s spiritual centrepiece.

Due to these reasons, Helgafell is considered a sacred place by many Icelanders. This is especially true considering the superstition that anyone who climbs to its peak will be granted three wishes. At only 73 metres high, the hike only takes around ten minutes, so don’t miss this opportunity to have your dreams fulfilled.

Other Cultural Sites on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula

A black church in West Iceland.
Photo: Richard Gould. CC. Wikimedia. Búðakirkja black church in West Iceland.

Many of the towns and villages on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula are quaint in and of themselves. But given the exquisite beauty of the surrounding nature, visitors should prioritise these sites instead of anywhere overtly urban.

The lonely black church, Búðakirkja, is the most prominent landmark in the tiny hamlet of Budir. It sits atop the Búðahraun lava field. It has become something of an unlikely visitor’s attraction on the peninsula, particularly among photographers eager to capture its dark steeple and gothic aesthetic.

This 1987 version is the second incarnation of Búðakirkja.  The first was been constructed in 1703, though visitors can still see the original bell and chalice on display.

Flatey Island can be visited from the Snæfellsnes Peninsula
Photo: Golli. Flatey island in Breiðafjörður fjord, West Iceland

There are a handful of other villages worthy of passing through during your time in Snæfellsnes. Often charming in their old-timey simplicity, these include settlements such as Ólafsvík, Hellissandur, and Stykkishólmur.

Speaking of Stykkishólmur, this town is home to a dock that operates the ferry, Baldur. It makes daily trips across the vast bay of Breiðafjörður between Snæfellsnes and the Westfjords.

En route, the ferry will stop at the small island of Flatey. This isle presents a gentle slice of Icelandic life rarely seen in modern times. While most visitors would only spend a few hours here, overnight stays are possible at Flatey’s single hotel.

Waterfalls on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula 

A waterfall in West Iceland
Photo: SBS. Snæfellsnes has many beautiful waterfalls, like Kirkjufellsfoss.

Having mentioned Kirkjufellsfoss, it would be a shame not to be aware of the other beautiful waterfalls in this region.

One of the lesser-known falls is Svöðufoss. It will require a half-hour hike from the parking lot to arrive at this stunning feature. Rauðfeldsgjá Canyon, another dramatic location, is found nearby. So, why not enhance your visit by pairing these two natural attractions together?

Closeby to Olafsvik town, the thin outpouring of glacier water that is Bjarnarfoss is also a worthwhile stop. At 80 m [262 ft] high, Bjarnarfoss is among Snæfellsnes’ more impressive waterfalls. This is thanks to its distinctive tiers and basaltic columns. Powerful gusts are capable of blowing its narrow stream upwards over the lip of the falls, creating surreal visuals.

Like Kirjufellsfoss, Kvernárfoss and Grundarfoss waterfalls can be found just outside of Grundarfjörður. Locals claim that a sizable elf population lives beside these stunning cascades. But that can neither be confirmed or denied by us. Either way, both sites are popular stops on horse-riding tours. And visiting is sure to add further depth to your time on the peninsula.

How to get to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula?

carbon neutral Iceland 2040
Phot: Golli. Travellers heading into Snæfellsjökull National Park

There are a number of options when it comes to visiting the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. First off, there are many guided tours that will take you there directly. One example is this small-group tour with a home-cooked meal at a local horse farm.

However, those looking for a more intimate experience might instead opt for a private tour of the region. Otherwise, Snæfellsnes is included as part of multi-day tours around the country.

However, independent travellers will want to venture there on their fruition. Driving from Reykjavík will take approximately two hours. This makes it a viable destination for those with only limited time in Iceland.

The directions are simple enough to follow. Head north on Route 1 until the town of Borgarnes. At this point, signposts will easily lead drivers towards Road 54 (Snaefellsnesvegur). It is this route that will take them the full circumference of the peninsula.

One should expect circling the coastline to take five hours considering the many stops along the way. With this in mind, it is important to allocate at least one day to explore the region.

Those looking to explore at a more leisurely pace should take two days. You can even plan to stay overnight at a local hotel, cabin, or rentable farmstead.

In Summary 

Gatklettur rock arch in West Iceland
Photo: Private Tour – Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Gatklettur rock arch.

The Snæfellsnes Peninsula is in close proximity to Reykjavík. So, anyone with more than a few days in Iceland should make time to discover this fantastical region for themselves.

It offers sights and experiences that perfectly characterise the rest of the country. It is quite possible to get a taste of the area in a single day. For these reasons and many more, make sure to prioritise the Snæfellsnes Peninsula as part of your itinerary.

Check out the below map to see the entire route for yourself.

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