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Waterfalls and Glaciers: Snæfellsnes

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Dusk was rapidly approaching as we crossed the causeway over the serene waters of Borgarfjörður into Borgarnes. It was a small, pretty town that occupied a polypoid peninsula that was similarly shaped to the one on which Höfn was located but even smaller. Borgarnes was another city, like Blönduós, that I had chosen mainly because it had the most celebrated restaurant in the region. The odd wrinkle of the Settlement Center is that it is primarily a museum of Icelandic history, which is not the sort of place where one would typically expect to find a top notch restaurant. Once again my strategy of making dinner reservations for most nights before the beginning of trip was validated as we were escorted through a growing crowd of walk-ins to our table. We had done way too much that day to stand around in a restaurant lobby with no guarantee of ever being seated. The food did justice to the restaurant's reputation with the standout dish being a heaping bowl of savory steamed mussels. The standards were mostly a cut above what we had been served elsewhere and I concluded that it was the best dinner we had been served thus far. Mei Ling was still partial to Vogafjós in Mývatn which I considered a close second. Feeling satiated but still exhausted, we followed the main road to its end on the tiny island of Brákarey at the southern tip of the peninsula. It was a typically unearthly Icelandic scene as the last vestiges of daylight showed us the reflections of the mountains and clouds in the mirror-like surface of the fjord. Confident that we had squeezed everything possible from another day, we retired to our utilitarian business hotel in the commercial quarter of town.

I knew we had a huge amount of ground to cover if we wanted to see everything on my list in Snæfellsnes and still make it to Reykjavik in time for dinner. We were able to drag ourselves out of bed and tear through the buffet breakfast more quickly than usual which meant we had a few extra minutes to see Borgarnes. Given the size of the town that wasn't an unrealistic plan. Aside from the little island we'd visited the previous night the only thing to see was the town church at the top of a hill near the end of the peninsula. At the parking lot we discovered a bonus of red currants growing wildly behind a wooden fence. The stately church stood alone on the hill from which we had pleasing views of the fjord and the causeway that crossed it.

Highway 54 begins in Borgarnes and circles most of Snæfellsnes. We were to become intimately familiar with it over the course of the day. Our first stop was Gerðuberg, a cliff formed of stately hexagonal basalt columns. We scrambled up the moss-covered rockfall at the base of the cliff in the hope of putting our hands on the basalt but I became terrified that one of the kids would plunge through the moss into a deep hole between the rocks. Possibly irrational, but in a country where tourists have been killed by anything from sneaker waves to snap blizzards I wasn't taking any chances.

I had done some solid research on Snæfellsnes so I knew that the gravel road that continues onward past Gerðuberg led somewhere interesting. We passed through a direful volcanic area where only moss grew on the black surface. We saw a trail snaking up the side of the Ytri-Raudamelskúlur volcano, an ominous cone of lava with a moss-covered base and a peak shrouded in mist. Despite this unpromising landscape we suddenly arrived at a parking area adjacent to one of the most beautiful lava fields we had encountered on our journey.

Undisturbed lava fields in Iceland acquire a blanket of woolly fringe-moss that grows thicker with time but is easily damaged by trampling. This area had clearly seen very little disturbance because there were thick clumps of it everywhere that felt like a spongy mattress. It was all we could do to restrain ourselves from rolling around in it but we knew we had to respect the importance of maintaining the sight for others in the future. Instead we picked our way carefully along a path through the lava field towards the waterfall we could see on the other side. The lava and moss gave way first to a tangle of wild blueberry bushes and then an open field with tall grass. A shallow, foamy stream emanated from a chasm in the hillside and ran through the middle of the field, intermittently dropping over little rocky steps in its bed. We had arrived at Rauðamelsölkelda, also known as the boiling spring. The water is naturally carbonated due to high levels of carbonic acid which creates a large amount of bubbling wherever the flow is turbulent. Locals believe the water has healing qualities and bring bottles to fill up whenever they visit but we found the clumps of fluorescent green algae a little intimidating. At the base of the stream was an absolutely perfect waterfall. It was an idyllic scene that could be found in countless places throughout Iceland, but here we had it all to ourselves and it felt like we were the only people in the country if not the entire world. We could easily have spent hours there picking blueberries and exploring the chasm but I knew that we only had one day and still at least four more stops to make, along with whatever else we encountered along the way.

Ytri Tunga beach on the southern coast of Snæfellsnes is considered one of the best places to watch seals in Iceland. It seemed like a worthwhile place to stop despite the icy wind that was blowing in from the bay. As we walked from the parking area down to the beach an enormous, colorful shape became visible on the sand. At first I thought it was a large volcanic rock protruding through the sand, covered by different lichens. As we grew closer I saw that the object was clearly shaped like a whale but I thought it must be a sculpture or similar artistic creation intended to simulate a decomposing beached whale. Perhaps some kind of protest against pollution or global warming? It was only when we were practically on top of the hulking mass that I understood that we had unmistakably come across an actual decomposing whale, most likely a pygmy or juvenile sperm whale. I was rather shocked because I assumed that beached whales in populated or touristic areas would be hastily carted away or otherwise disposed of but it was clear that this whale was being left to the elements, as it was already in a fairly advanced state of decomposition. We hadn't noted the smell at first because of the direction of the wind but when it was blowing the right way the odor was quite intense. I've seen a couple of videos of dead whales spontaneously exploding so I made sure that we passed by the enormous animal at a safe distance. It probably wasn't the ideal circumstance under which to see our first great whale but still quite impressive and memorable.

The seals at Ytri Tunga were an anticlimax after the decomposing whale. We spotted a few but they were far out on the rocks and barely distinguishable from their surroundings. It was a far cry from the enormous colonies of seals and sea lions in La Jolla, California that we had walked among a few years earlier. The kids always find a way to have fun whenever we're on a beach, even if it's practically freezing, and this was the first beach in Iceland which had typical brown sand rather than the black volcanic variety.

Another twenty minutes driving down the coast brought us to Búðakirkja, a photogenic black church at the site of a former fishing village. No trace of the village remains and the pristine church is as new as it looks, having been rebuilt in 1987. Nevertheless it's an attractive if not essential stop on the Snæfellsnes itinerary. We thought we might avoid the typical pedestrian Icelandic lunch at the well-regarded hotel restaurant next door but they were only serving burgers and fish and chips at that hour.

Our next stop was supposed to be the village of Arnarstapi but a few miles short of our destination we saw a busy parking area on the inland side of the road. By this point we knew that meant something worth checking out so we pulled in. We followed some people walking uphill towards the mountainside and saw what had not been apparent from the road, a colossal fissure in the moss-covered cliff that narrowed as it approached the ground. This was Rauðfeldsgjá, a gorge named for a possibly mythical boy who was thrown to his death there in the ninth century by his angry uncle. A stream of chilly water emanated from the chasm and rolled down the hillside. At the opening it was clear that careful footwork would be required to avoid soaking ourselves so I left everyone behind and scouted ahead. Within the fissure there was a wide chamber with sky overhead, and beyond that some people were proceeding further into the mountain as the chasm narrowed and twisted. There was no longer a dry path and it was far too early in the day to immerse my feet in icy water so I returned to the group outside. I learned later that the path eventually ends at a knotted rope which allows the waterfall to be ascended to the opening at the top of the cliff, but waterproof clothing is required unless one is OK with being drenched. That was far too intrepid for us but this video gives some idea of what the adventure is like.

Soon afterwards we arrived at Arnarstapi where the first order of business was lunch. We found a place that was a cut above the service station level with excellent fish soup and roast lamb. Newly fortified, we followed the pedestrian path to the Bárður Snæfellsás statue. At first glance this would seem to be some primitive construction of stacked volcanic stones but it is actually a modern depiction of the peninsula's half-troll guardian by one of Iceland's most renowned sculptors.

The path led all the way to the water's edge where the flat landscape terminated at a scalloped cliff. Thankfully the viewing platform had a solid railing so that I could take my eyes off the kids for a few moments at a time. The most impressive formations at the shoreline were a cave lined with basalt columns and Gatklettur, a threadbare natural basalt arch decked in vegetation and guano. The path continued along the cliffs all the way to the village of Hellnar two miles away but we were so short on time that wasn't even a consideration. The consensus seemed to be that the best views were from Arnarstapi anyway.

We continued west towards the end of the peninsula and encountered another promising parking area at the side of the road. This was Lóndrangar, another section of seaside basalt cliffs with its own unique beauty. The parking area is close to a viewing platform at the highest part of the cliff with spectacular views over the sea and the coastline. To the west we could see a path leading down the hillside to a lave field and further in the distance an amazing structure of jagged basalt projecting from the ground at the shoreline. Even though we were pressed for time this was impossible to resist and we picked our way across the path through the lava field, occasionally passing uncomfortably close to deep holes in the lava and the edge of the cliff. Up close the enormous rocky pillars proved to be worthy of the hike. The jagged formations are reminiscent of a ruined medieval castle and occupy a majestic, surreal position on an otherwise flat landscape. Back at the parking area the inland mountains and low clouds formed the classic Snæfellsnes tableau.

At the farthest reaches of the peninsula we encountered Djúpalónssandur, one of Iceland's most famous black beaches and a top attraction of Snæfellsnes. The parking lot here was relatively large and quite crowded. We found an available space that others had overlooked just adjacent to the path downward to the beach, a fortuitous event as we were quite short on time thanks to our unscheduled stops. The path is an attraction unto itself as it winds between jagged projections of mossy lava rock that look like the fossilized teeth of some gigantic extinct carnivore.

Djúpalónssandur has been called the black pearl beach because it consists of rounded black lava stones and pebbles rather than fine grains like Reynisfjara. Countless scraps of twisted and rusted metal are scattered around the inland portion of the beach. These are the remnants of a British trawler that wrecked off the coast in 1948, killing fourteen of the nineteen sailors aboard. Rescue teams from the peninsula were able to save the other five thanks to heroic efforts in horrendous weather conditions. The metal pieces have been left on the beach as a memorial and it is considered very deplorable to disturb them or cart a piece off as a souvenir. I had to watch the kids carefully as they hopped around the area as some of the pieces are quite sharp.

On the opposite side of the beach from the sea is another pretty spot, a small lagoon called Svörtulón that is colored green by algae and the reflections of the moss-covered lava walls around it. There was much more to explore at this amazing location and we could easily have spent another hour but we were far behind schedule at this point and I really wanted to see one more spot on the peninsula before we drove on to Reykjavik.

Thus far we had spent the entire day on the southern coast of Snæfellsnes and I didn't want to leave half the peninsula unseen. The northern coast has all the towns that are larger than a few houses with the most significant being Grundarfjörður and Stykkishólmur. At this late hour in the most remote reaches of the peninsula there were few other cars on the road and we drove through a colorful yet barren volcanic landscape in quiet solitude. There were many things unseen here such as the peninsula's very own glacier Snæfellsjökull and the enormous Berserkjahraun lava field but we had no time for anything but a straight drive to Stykkishólmur. We did pass through Grundarfjörður which was an attractive little village filled with guesthouses. Just outside of Grundarfjörður is a tiny peninsula that is almost completely occupied by Kirkjufell, one of the most recognizable mountains in Iceland. It is distinctive not so much for its modest height of 1500 feet but for the steeple shape that gave it the name of Church Mountain. Kirkjufell looks tempting for a hike from ground level but it is quite steep and dangerous with at least three recorded fatalities among climbers.

Stykkishólmur is at the tip of a ragged projection of land from the northern coast and is surprisingly large given its remote location. Of course in Iceland a large town is anything over a thousand people but after two weeks driving around the country we had adjusted for this unusual scale. By the time we arrived I had almost forgotten why I was so determined to reach this place, aside from an affectionate write-up in the Lonely Planet. Once we had filled up with gas we had no more than five minutes to spend there if we wanted any hope of eating dinner in Reykjavik. The town church Stykkishólmskirkja was an obvious destination on the highest hill in town. This startling contemporary structure was designed to resemble a whale vertebra and the shape of the facade evokes comparisons to Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavik. From the parking lot we had pleasant views over a quiet residential neighborhood on the east side of town.

Outside the church I did some quick research on the food halls in Reykjavik and found one that was open until ten. If we made a beeline for the center of Reykjavik and bent the speed limit just slightly we could get there in two hours and hopefully catch some restaurants before they closed their kitchens. As we cruised down the highway I reflected on this amazing day in Snæfellsnes packed with beautiful sights and adventures. Even though by now we were experienced with Iceland's incredible bounty the peninsula had instilled a fresh sense of wonder. It was almost like a miniature version of the entire country with its own cliffs, canyons, waterfalls, black beaches and even a glacier in a very compact area. We had been close to missing it completely since it was not in the itinerary until I was able to stretch our visit from twelve to fourteen days. My only regret was that we hadn't had two days to give the peninsula the attention it deserved, as we had spent far too little time in each place we had visited and missed many others as well. When we return to Iceland, Snæfellsnes will definitely be given at least two full days and possibly three so we can be sure we haven't missed anything from this remarkable place.

Posted by zzlangerhans 04:40 Archived in Iceland Tagged family_travel borgarnes travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog arnarstapi djúpalónssandur

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