West Iceland – From Kirkjufell Mountain to Whale Watching near Ólafsvík
The west of Iceland is known for Snæfellsnesjökull, a 700,000-year-old stratovolcano, with a glacier covering its summit, located in the far west of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. The volcano is 1446 metres tall, and can be seen from as far away as Reykjavik. It dominates the landscape of the west of Iceland. Science fiction fans will know it as the setting for Jules Verne’s novel “Jouney to the Centre of the Earth”.
Kirkjufell Mountain & Kirkjufellsfoss Waterfall
Along the coast of the peninsula’s arm are many striking landforms – plateaus with streams of water pouring from their cliffs, striking craters, stark mountains and ravines. We set off from our hotel in Hrausnef, in the arm of the peninsula, heading down to Borgarnes before driving northward again to enter the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. The main road leading into it passes by the Eldborg crater, rising 60m above the surrounding lava. The crater really stands out from the surrounding landscape and is beautiful from a distance.
We drove along the northern edge of the peninsula, contemplating making a detour to Stykkisholmur, the “capital” of the area. We would have loved to have visited it, to gain a greater insight into the history and culture of the region, but unfortunately, did not have the time.
We stopped by the impressive Kirkjufell, or Church Mountain. Located a little out at sea, this mountain rises up over 400 metres, near the town of Grundarfjodur. The mountain is striking and visually interesting, as the viewer’s perception of its size and shape changes depending on the angle it is viewed at.
Whale Watching from Ólafsvík
There’s lots to do in the west of Iceland. You can go lava caving in Vatnshellir, hike or horse-ride (these you can do just about everywhere on Iceland), or, like us, choose to go whale watching off the bay at Ólafsvik.
We went whale watching with Laki tours. Before departing, we were given heavy duty overalls – the sort that fishermen wear to go fishing out in cold waters. Mine was a hard shell of canvas lined with wool. Once the boat started moving and the wind began blowing in the earnest, I was glad for it.
In these waters, the star attractions are the sperm whales and the orcas. We were very excited, although the blustering cold wind and the patience required did mean I nodded off a few times during the trip.
I have only admiration for the whale watcher, who not only stayed alert, but maintained great enthusiasm while searching for the whales in the vast expanse of ocean around us.
In the end, it was all worth it. We spotted four whales in total. Two minke whales and two sperm whales. The minke whales were mere specks of fin in the distance, but lucky for us, the sperm whales hung around for a bit longer and dived spectacularly, allowing us to appreciate what large and magnificent creatures they were.
On our way back, we stopped at Lóndrangar, two prominent rocks protruding from the coast, east of the southern edge of the peninsula. These rocks are the remains of volcanic plugs. You can walk down to these rock pillars from the edge of the cliffs.
Photos of Lóndragar are iconic of Iceland, and I remembered the rocks from photos I’d seen before coming here. They are impressive, imposing structures with the sea crashing in around them.
Getting to them is a little bit of a trek across the dried lava rock fields. You have to be careful to make sure you don’t miss a step!
If you have time, we suggest trying to view Lóndragar from a few different angles. They look very different depending on whether you view them from their base or from a higher vantage point.
Our final stop, ending our tour in this part of Iceland, was Rauðfeldsgjá, an imposing ravine a few kilometres north of Lóndrangar. Even from afar, you can see the hundreds of birds circling the entrance to the ravine, like guardians of another world.
It’s a bit of a climb to get to the entrance, and a scramble to get inside. Nevertheless, the views are immensely rewarding. If you’ve seen “How to Train your Dragon”, which is set in an unspecified viking country, you’ll think the inspiration for some of the set designs came from Rauðfeldsgjá.
We would have loved to hike a little ways into the ravine, but it was already quite late. Although the sun doesn’t really set in Iceland in the summer, it still got dark enough that we didn’t fancy scrambling through. Besides, we were all looking forward to the warm dinner that awaited us at Hraunsnef.
The west of Iceland was home to one of the country’s revered poet vikings, Egill Skallagrimsson, who was known for his bad temper and brooding moods, but also celebrated for his intellect and romantic soul. Like Skallagrimsson, the landscape here can be intimidating, but also beautiful in its starkness.