After snorkelling in Silfra, we drove back to the Ring Road and headed north and west. The only other thing we had actually planned on doing in Iceland was going to the Blue Lagoon the last night we were in the country so until then, we were taking each moment as it happened.
I had had an extremely busy and stressful June and I was really looking forward to this lack of schedule. I was looking forward to not having to be anywhere at any time. I was looking forward to relaxing. We didn’t want to spend all day every day in the car. We wanted to arrive in a place and have the freedom to do unexpected things. If we found a place interesting, we would stay. If we didn’t, we would leave.
The only guide for our next destination was the Camping Card book. It explained where each of the campgrounds were and what facilities they had. We chose three in the general direction of where we wanted to go and if we arrived at one and still felt we could drive some more, we would. Which is how we ended up in Ólafsvík, a small town of just over 1000 people on the northern coast of the Snæfellsnes peninsula.
The campground is just outside the town and we set up camp before exploring the town. This was the first time we had an idea of what became clear throughout the rest of our trip – Icelandic towns are usually very small and don’t have a whole lot to do in them. We found a grocery store, which was helpful and we found the tourist information office, which had closed only 10 minutes earlier. There is a church with interesting architecture and a high (but narrow) waterfall just behind the town. Ólafsvík, like most Icelandic towns, is on the coast. And like most Icelandic coastal towns, it has mountains on one side and ocean on the other. And I don’t mean mountains in the distance. I mean, the side of the road often goes straight up the side of a table mountain and then falls dramatically away into either ocean or desolate lava fields covered in grey-green moss.
The next day we learned from a professional guide who was camping next to us why he camped at Ólafsvík with every one of his groups. The winds come from the south and because we were on the northern coast, the mountains blocked the wind. Also, when the sun “sets”, it travels from the west across the north, so we had nothing blocking the sun all night, other than clouds. Whereas, had we decided to camp on the southern coast, we would have had more wind and less light and therefore it would have been colder.
After exploring, we returned to camp and made a one-pot wonder-meal. We decided that we would stay two nights in Ólafsvík so we could really relax the next day without having to strike camp and sit in the car again for another couple of hours. Bob noticed a poster in the kitchen hut advertising a guided hike up a nearby mountain the next day. On the poster it said “easy hike” of about two hours and Bob figured that if he wore his cast (which acts like a hard-core brace for his weak ankle), he would be able to manage it.
I was so excited! I knew that our trip wouldn’t have a lot of the rugged adventure that many people expect when they think of Iceland because Bob’s ankle simply wouldn’t be able to handle it. But Bob had found a hike that we could do with a ranger! Not only that, but this is what we hoped would happen as we travelled around Iceland with no real plan. We had hoped that experiences and opportunities would present themselves. And on our very first day, it did!
The next day was a morning of camp coffee and some laundry, catching up on some journaling and then lunch in the town at a restaurant called Hraun to fuel up for our hike. There was no reason to pick this restaurant over any other (not sure how many others there are) other than it looked nice so we gave it a shot. Looking at the reviews on Trip Advisor after getting home, we noticed there are many mixed reviews but the meal we had was quite good. Again, I was expecting to have to explain my gluten allergy but they totally took it in stride and said they would modify the meal, no problem. I had cod with vegetables and potatoes. Bob started with “nachos” (corn chips with a salsa and melted cheese dip) and then had the lamb soup. The menu offered familiar items like burgers (which looked amazing!) and pizza, so if you’d like a break from seafood and lamb, then there are options. As with every meal we had eaten so far in Iceland, the bill came out to around 7000 ISK (about $70). And this is with no drinks. (This is why we made meals at camp when we could!)
After lunch, we headed farther west, to Snæfellsnes National Park. We drove past lava fields and through Arctic Tern nesting areas (I wish I had a picture of the sign: “Warning! Arctic Tern Nesting Area” with silhouettes of birds swooping at people and in front of cars) and could see the icecap of Snæfellsnesjökull looming closer and closer.
Snæfellsnesjökull is a 700 000 year-old volcano covered in a glacier. This was the place that Jules Verne chose as the geologists’ entry point for their journey to the centre of the Earth. But we weren’t hiking onto the glacier. We were going up a much smaller mountain – Hregnassi, from which we could get a great view of the peninsula as well as the volcano. Snæfellsnesjökull is actually still considered an active volcano though it hasn’t erupted in centuries.
We met the ranger at the intersection of the main road and the off-road that led to a number of different trailheads. We parked and asked for a lift with the ranger because we were really not convinced our little vehicle could make it on this road and it was a good thing we did because the road was quite steep and quite rough with loose dirt and rocks – some the size of baseballs. Again, don’t cheap out on your vehicle. Get something big and something sturdy. Otherwise, you’ll miss out on all the treasures that await you just beyond the main road.
About ten minutes down (up?) the dirt road, we came to another parking area. The trail to Hregnassi started here. The hike up was easy and only took about 25 minutes total. But the views were spectacular! First we walked over grassy terrain. Then it got a little rockier. Within ten minutes we were on the ridge. We took a five minute break while our ranger guide Gunnar told us a bit about the park. Then we continued another 15 minutes up a steeper part that was mostly scree. While it certainly wasn’t a difficult climb, the scree was a little bit unnerving due to its instability.
I come from Canada and one thing that struck me about this hike was the significant lack of vegetation. And I think this is a fairly green part of Iceland! Normally, when I hike, I don’t really ever see the end until I am at the end because there are too many trees. On this hike, I could see the end the entire time. The trail markers are there to show you where to walk so there aren’t crowds of hikers going wherever they want and damaging extremely fragile, almost alpine vegetation that takes years to grow even as short ground cover.
At the top, Gunnar did a great job of reciting all the names of every mountain, waterfall, crater and pebble that we could see. Another Icelander on tour joked that Icelanders name everything but aren’t very creative at it as all the names translate to things like “Big Crater” and “Little Crater”. We enjoyed the view for a few more minutes, had some quick conversation and then we headed down again. Bob and I got into Gunnar’s 4×4 again with one other person and headed back to our wee car at the first parking area.
Here’s a short video I put together of the hike. (Man, I LOVE the GoPro!!)
We drove back to the campsite in a state of excitement. We were stunned (again!) by the beauty of this country! What we realized was that while you can do very adventurous things if you have the time, the money and the right vehicle, you don’t have to. We just did a half hour hike and it was absolutely gorgeous! And going up to the waterfall in town yesterday only took about 15 minutes and it was absolutely beautiful!
We arrived back at the campsite around 5 pm and relaxed with a camping glass of wine (not very glamorous, in case you were wondering) and talked about the trip so far. We made another one-pot wonder-meal. Tonight’s meal was soup made with lamb broth and leftover veg from the previous night’s stew.
After dinner, I was inspired. I love hiking and today’s short adventure had just sparked the flame in me. When I saw the group tour leader we had met earlier go up the mountain behind our campsite, and then a family of four, I decided I was going up too. Bob said he would happily stay and tend camp since his ankle was a bit angry with him for today’s earlier hike.
I have no idea what the name of this range was or even IF it had a name. But that’s the beauty we were discovering in Iceland. It doesn’t matter where you are; there are amazing trails and mountains and waterfalls and landscapes EVERYWHERE.
I returned to camp around 9:30 pm and we settled in for an evening of chatting, sipping wine and exploring our options for the next day.
We had come to a very important conclusion. We had only 6 days left. And our original intention was to drive the entire Ring Road. We could either rush the next six days and see just the surface of what we wanted to see in Iceland and spend most of our time in the car driving or we could focus our trip on just the Western part of the island. It seemed pretty clear to us.
We decided to forego the Ring Road and spend the rest of our time in Iceland exploring the Westfjords.
Next up: Stykkishólmur and Flókalundur