Iceland has dramatic scenery every way you look, but head to West Iceland for a day trip to see scenes straight out of another world. According to Jules Verne’s novel, its the entrance to center of the earth. That has to count for something, right? Unlike Reykjavik, the golden circle and other popular stops, West Iceland feels very isolated and you won’t be running into too many people.
From Reykjavik, head north on highway 1, the “Ring Road”, you’ll go through a several mile long tunnel and there will be a toll booth at the end. They accept credit cards so don’t fret. Continue on highway 1 to Borganes. Borganes is the last decent sized town along the way, so stock up on food, gas and other goodies. This town is beautiful in it’s own right, and if you got enough early enough start, take the time to explore.
Head west on highway 54 from Borganes. Stop, pull over, drive slow, take in everything the countryside has to offer. After about 100km on highway 54, turn left onto Útnesvegur. Shortly after, take a left onto Búðavegur for a short detour to an old black church that’s great for photos. Once you’re back on Útnesvegur, head West about 15km to Arnarstapi.
Arnarstapi is a beautiful little Icelandic town that’s great to stop for lunch and wander and explore. When I was there last month there was a fish & chips food truck, it doesn’t get more authentic than that.. except hot dogs. I don’t know what it is about Iceland and hot dogs. Don’t be afraid to stop for gas and grab yourself a hot dog with pylsusinnep (sweet brown mustard), or remoulade, a sauce made with mayo, capers, mustard, and herbs if you really want the local experience. Both are pretty gross. Anyway, Arnarstapi is a beautiful little town, so don’t bypass. There are a few paths that head down to the water, and along the coast line. Views of the water, mountains, Icelandic homes and some turf houses. There is also a walking path from Arnarstapi to Hellnar if you have the time. Continue on Útnesvegur, it will go around the edge of the peninsula and meet back up with highway 54 on the other side.
Stop at Londranger, a pull of on the left. It’s not far outside of Arnarstapi. There are wider trails that go to the top of a view point, but don’t miss the small dirt paths that hike down and over to the rock formations. This will be the most people you see in West Iceland; dramatic cliffs and rock formations straight out of a fantasy. Hike down the dirt paths to leave the “crowd” (like 20 people), and explore area on your own. Depending on when you go, watch for falling icicles from the rock formations. It sounds ridiculous but some pretty large ones break off and could be deadly.
Just down the road is Vatnshellir Cave, but there is a fee to get in so I didn’t stop. If you’re feelin’ rich & fancy, go for it! But down the way just a little further is Djúpalónssandur beach and is definitely worth a stop. Explore the pebbled beach and mossy rocks for at least a few minutes and some photos. Saxhóll crater Well of the Irish, Svöðufoss, and the town of Ólafsvík are some other worthy stops.
The most interesting stop for me was Fiskbyrgin á Gufuskálum. Just past the Well of the Irish is a small pull off on the right. For such an amazing historical site, I would think this would be better marked, but it can’t even be found on Google maps. Fiskbyrgin á Gufuskálum are the remains of fish drying sheds from the 1500s. This site is said to have the ruins of up to 200 sheds, but there are only a small hanful that are still mostly intact. These sheds are made on small hills by stacking lava rocks, leaving gaps between the rocks to allow for airflow. This let the fish dry rather than rot, as dried fish was Iceland’s biggest export at the time. There are several footpaths that walk around the sheds and navigate around some of the bigger rocks so you can examine them up close.
Don’t miss stopping at Svöðufoss, a quiet waterfall where you won’t find many people. Travel down a gravel road a ways to a decent sized parking lot and a short walk to the falls. You’ll pass some beautiful Icelandic horses, and if you’ve yet to stop for photos or to pet any of them by the point, now is the time to do it. Icelandic horses love attention and will walk to the fence the moment they spot you. They are very short, husky and will love you.
If the sun has not gone down by now, take the time to drive around the small town of Ólafsvík. A very sleepy fishing down. If it’s late in the day, it’s likely everything will be closed and you won’t see a single person.
Don’t forget to eat a hot dog.