DAY 6: MANEUVERING THE SNÆFELLSNES PENINSULA
- Highlights: Helgafell, Kirkjufellsfoss, Kirkjufell, Vatnshellir Cave Tour, Snæfellsjökull, Rauðfeldsgjá Gorge, Icelandic Horses, Búðakirkja
- Meals: Hvammstangi Cottages, Laki Hafnarkaffi, Guesthouse Snjofell Restaurant
- Lodging: Fosshotel Hellnar
After a relaxing night’s sleep and a breakfast of Skyr, we packed up and checked out of the Hvammstangi Cottages. Hvammstangi to Helgafell was a long, 160 kilometer push, so we set out early. The Ring Road looped us around Hrútafjörður and awarded us with incredible views.
We eventually reached a beautiful pull-off where a few people were relaxing, snacking, and staring off into the distance. I grabbed the camera and started taking pictures. quickly noticing a brown object in front of what looked to be an island. I took the above photo and zoomed in to realize that it was a shipwreck!
As we approached the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, we were greeted with some of the most impressive mountain views we had received. Snow-capped mountaintops framing a barren landscape. We stopped for a few pictures and drove onwards. We initially had on our itinerary to stop at the Library of Water in Stykkisholmur. When we arrived, even though we were there during opening hours, all doors were closed. So we backtracked to Helgafell.
Helgafell is a small mountain on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, 240 feet high. A temple in honor of Þór was built there by the first settler of the area, Þórólfr Mostrarskegg. After paying the man in the shed at the entrance 800 ISK for us both (in cash, the only time on our entire trip we had to use cash), we started the Helgafell ritual, which begins with finding the grave of Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir. This part is relatively simple, as it’s to the right side of the path.
After that you start climbing the steep hill. According to the ritual, you aren’t supposed to speak or look back while climbing Helgafell. I took that time to stare straight ahead at the incredibly beautiful blue sky, and to reminisce on what an adventurous week it had been.
The next step of the ritual is to find the ruins. This is the easiest step, as they are the only manmade things on top of Helgafell, and the path leads directly to them. The ruins are now just a stone box of low walls with a small opening.
A compass sits beside the ruins, guiding your way. At this point, you go into the ruins and face east, and then make three wishes, keeping in mind that you should remain silent the entire time. After making your wishes, you are free to talk and look around, as the ritual is complete.
A note regarding your descent that I have not seen mentioned anywhere. The path is highly obscured on your way down. While the view is breathtaking to the West, as seen in the image above, the pathway is very difficult to spot. There were several times in the first part of our descent of Helgafell where we lost track of the pathway and had to stop to figure out where we were going.
Our next stop was lunch, and then visiting Kirkjufell and Kirkjufellsfoss. As we approached the general area where the sharply-pointed Kirkjufell was supposed to be, we noticed this strange-looking mountain far in the distance. We marveled at the fact that it stood relatively separate from surrounding mountains, as well as the layers of darker stripes running up its mountainside. As it turned out, this is Kirkjufell, just a different angle than what most tourist blogs and articles show!
We stopped at Laki Hafnarkaffi in Grundarfjörður for lunch. The hip joint had great, fast service and an extensive pizza menu! We both ordered the seafood pizza, which came with langoustine lobster and shrimp. Out of the four times I ordered pizza while in Iceland, this was by far the most outstanding. We also enjoyed the fact that the sulfur-smelling water was gone.
Less than two miles from Grundarfjörður is Kirkjufell. It truly is a sight to behold! There is a hike that will take you to the summit, but it is dangerous (tourists have recently died while attempting to climb Kirkjufell). A free-standing mountain, it is visible from miles away in all directions. At its base, across the street (Road 54) is the beautiful Kirkjufellsfoss, where we parked for the above photo.
I tried my best to recreate the iconic image you see in travel advertising for Iceland. One thing that I noticed that the advertising typically glances over is the fact that this waterfall is far larger than what most images portray it to be. This might have also been due in part to the immense amount of rainfall we had experienced in the past week of our travels.
A bridge running across the top of the two-part waterfall allows you to take pictures from all angles, and a pathway similar to Godafoss allows you to walk along either side of the falls. Satisfied with our day thus far, we quickly drove the 60 kilometers past the falls and through the Snaefellsjoekull National Park to the Vatnshellir Cave for the Vatnshellir Cave Tour.
The weather had gotten extremely foggy and cold, the complete opposite of the warm, sunny atmosphere at Helgafell and Kirkjufell. We were yet again amazed at the changes in scenery in such a short period of time. The cave tour consisted of 12-15 adults. We put on helmets and received flashlights to use in the cave. Inside the capsule above was a long spiral staircase taking us down into the lava tube.
The cave was extremely cold, about 39 degrees year round. We descended and crawled under a rock formation into a large room. The guide was extremely knowledgeable and kind, and would happily stop to answer any and all questions we had. She even gave me her backup flashlight when the one I was given died midway through the tour.
Eventually we descended even further, down the spiral staircase pictured above. Don’t let the presence of light fool you. At one point, we were instructed to turn off all flashlights and experience the solitude and wonder of complete and total darkness and quiet. It was surprisingly exhilarating. The tour guide then shone her flashlight onto the stairs so we could get photos.
Afterwards, we reversed course and returned back to the surface. In total, the tour took about 45 minutes, and was well worth the cost for the experience and educational benefit offered.
The weather was still foggy and terrible, so we stopped a few miles away at the Snæfellsjökull Visitor Center, slightly disappointed that we were unable to see Snæfellsjökull due to the fog. Across from the visitor center was the Ondverdarnes lighthouse, which sat on a black rocky shoreline reminiscent of Dyrholaey on our second day of travel near Vik.
Our next stop was the Rauðfeldsgjá Gorge. This was a quick ten minute drive from the visitor center. The fog was still very much present when we arrived. This was one of the few places I had not researched before our trip, and I was completely unsure what to expect. All I knew was that we were looking at a pretty solid cliff face. A small river in a ravine was to the left. For a while as we walked I honestly thought the ravine was the gorge.
When we got closer, we were awestruck at what the actual gorge was. Do you see that crack in the above image that opens upwards into the fog? That’s the gorge. Do you see that small dot on the hill to the left, directly to the right of the small white patch of leftover snow? That’s a person, the only person there in our time at the Rauðfeldsgjá Gorge. Hundreds and hundreds of birds circled overhead.
As we continued our approach, the true gravity of what we were looking at began to take shape. This gorge was maybe five feet wide at the base, and opened up into a massive fissure-like gorge. It was a cave with an open top. The river took up the width of the opening, so we had to hope from rock to rock to get inside the gorge itself.
Here is a skewed vertical panorama of what the Rauðfeldsgjá Gorge looks like from the inside, after stepping across some stones to get inside. The cacophony of one thousand birds echoed down. Everything was damp and mossy. To the right was a nice area to stand and take it all in. To the left the river continued. If the water level was lower and it had not been raining heavily the entire week, we would have continued, as there is a small waterfall with a climbing rope further upstream.
Here is the view when looking outwards from the entrance of the gorge. Absolutely beautiful, even with the heavy fog. By this point the man on the hill had been long gone, and we had the place to ourselves. If you look in the distance, you can see the ocean and waves crashing. This natural wonder, which we had low hopes for upon our arrival, was definitely one of the top five things we experienced on our trip to Iceland.
We got back to the car and drove towards Hellnar, where our hotel would be for the night. On our way, there were several cars stopped at the entrance to a farm. We passed by and saw that some notoriously-friendly Icelandic horses were hanging out with some fellow tourists. We hadn’t had the chance to pet these majestic creatures (and I’m not a fan of horses at all), so we turned around and stopped.
There were dozens of them, and they were all beautiful and friendly. We fed them some grass from the other side of the fence, and they repaid the favor by allowing us to take some wonderful pictures of them. They were very large horses, and had well-kept manes. We were pretty happy that we got the chance to enjoy their presence, as the final two days of our journey took us into a far more urbanized area (Reykjavik).
Our final stop of the day before dinner was Búðakirkja, the black church. This church, which sits alone on the south coast of the Snæfellsnes peninsula, was originally built in 1703. The one that stands there today was a 1987 reconstruction, however. There is an extremely old graveyard to the right of the church, and several trails that veer off in multiple directions. By this point we were exhausted, or we would have gone exploring down one of the trails. Next time!
We stopped in the Guesthouse Snjofell Restaurant for dinner. It was the location of the only gas station anywhere near Hellnar, so we decided to give it a try (all the restaurants in Hellnar itself were closed). It’s a smaller restaurant with maybe 8-10 tables total, but the service was great, the burger and fries were some of the best of our trip, and the price was slightly lower than other comparable meals from our journey. Would recommend this little place in the future.
We then drove over to Fosshotel Hellnar for the evening. This was our worst of hotel experiences of our trip. Everything was fine, just strangely laid out. The hallway for the rooms was such that you had to walk directly through a restaurant/breakfast area to get to the room. Our room was extremely hot upon entry, and took at least an hour to cool off. We used that time to wander about the property (which was right on the ocean). Our window opened up only a few inches, and was directly beside the porch/balcony area of a suite. As our shade did not go down fully, there were a few times the residents of the suite were able to go onto their porch and stare directly into our room.
Regardless, we eventually got some solid sleep, and were prepared to finish the remote part of our journey and do some very fast driving to get to Reykjavik for the puffin tour in the morning.