Iceland Day 6 – September 6, 2018
Every day waking up in Iceland was the best day ever, but some days were more “best” than others, and day 6 was shaping up to be one of these days! You know why? One word: Westfjords! (And to be technical, Vestfirðir, which is the Icelandic word.)
The Westfjords were never apart of my original planning, until I saw enough photos and stumbled enough hot pots in those parts to realize I had to add them in. There’s a certain appeal about the Westfjords… the loneliness, the isolation, the untamed environment, the infamous “scary” gravel roads. I just had to go there to experience it. So they were added into my itinerary, and the rest was history!
But alas, we still had half a day to finish up on Snæfellsnes! We awoke early to probably one of the best morning views of my life of Snæfellsjökull dressed in its morning sunrise colors. Despite the cold temperatures, I instructed Kubo to fling open Carl’s rear doors so I could soak it all in before leaving the toasty sleeping bag. Since we had tight timeline due to having to catch the ferry to the Westfjords, we got ready quickly and hit the road with plans to eat breakfast later on.
After quickly filling Carl’s water tank at the campground, we set off down Road 574, passing through the small towns of Hellissandur and Rif. This northern side of Snæfellsnes had some of the most dramatic scenery of our entire trip, perhaps only rivaled by the eastern fjords. Our heads were on swivel mode, and I continued snapping off tons of photos from the passenger seat (I’m really not lying when I say Kubo and I walked away with nearly 10,000 photos from this trip between the DSLR and our two smartphones! My Facebook friends that painfully looked through all my Smugmug album links can confirm this!).
Our first stop for the day was Bæjarfoss, the majestic waterfall that sits behind Ólafsvík. We drove through the small town, watching all the children hustling to school. Sometimes it’s easy to forget real people live in these really unreal places! We didn’t know exactly how or where to park for Bæjarfoss, but since it’s a rather small town we just drove straight towards the fall, and found a parking lot for Carl. From there we walked up a steep path that took us right to the falls. Best part? We had this all to ourselves!
We soaked in the roar of the falls and views overlooking the town and bay, and remarked how this was a great way to spend our early morning! Nothing like standing on a stupidly steep hill next to a waterfall in a tiny Icelandic village, breathing the incredibly crisp and pure air – almost better than coffee… actually, it IS better than coffee if you ask me!
Which leads me to mention that I have yet to mention the Icelandic air. It is like no other air I have breathed in before. It’s cool, crisp, and you can flat out sense its purity. I like to think that I have pure air living in Wyoming, but we still have pollution, and in the summer of 2018, horrible air quality due to all the smoke from wildfires around the western U.S. Wyoming air does not even begin to rival Iceland air. The air on any high, alpine mountain peak in Colorado or Wyoming doesn’t even rival it. Seriously… everyone needs to breathe in Icelandic air once in their life! It’s one of the biggest things I miss about Iceland… to the point I almost crave it. Not surprising the tourist shops sell “canned Iceland mountain air.” Granted, those cans are probably made in China, but I understand the concept behind them!
Next stop was Kirkjufellsfoss and Kirkjufell. Kubo managed to snag a front row parking spot in the silly tiny parking lot that cannot handle everyone flocking to one of Iceland’s most famous sites. By now we had worked up an appetite, so we enjoyed breakfast in this iconic location before setting out to take photos.
The thing with Kirkjufellsfoss is the scenery all around is absolutely stunning, but I really wonder how much of it people miss just trying to get the stereotypical shot of the falls with Kirkjufell in the background (then again, that statement can be said for countless “tourist attractions” all over the world). Whether you’re looking out into Grundarfjörður (and towards the town of Grundarfjörður), the Helgrindur mountains to the south, or just the falls without Kirkjufell in the background, it’s all amazing. But I digress… Kubo and I walked up to the falls, and cross the bridge over Kirkjufellsá so I could get my stereotypical photo. I think we annoyed each other at this part, as I had a camera shoved firmly in my face (hey, you try handholding slow shutter speed shots and getting it perfect on the first take!) and was rushing all around trying to get the perfect photo without damn people in it, and Kubo was sitting back soaking in the views with his actual eyeballs. Ha! We still liked each other in the end, so it all worked out!
(I’m too lazy to drag around a tripod, hence the handholding of the camera. Tripod was only brought on this trip for Northern Lights photos. FYI… not that anyone cares.)
After kicking it at Kirkjufellsfoss for a bit, we drove around Grundarfjörður a bit, stopping at the church and some sculptures and sights around the town.
Grundarfjörður is used in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which is the movie that made me want to go to Iceland all those years earlier. In the scene where Walter docks in Iceland was filmed in Grundarfjörður, so this is the scenery and backdrop that made me go, “I MUST go there, and ride a bicycle!” And ta-da! No bicycle in sight, but here I was, nearly five years after I made that statement!
Keeping to our schedule to make sure we weren’t late for the ferry, we continued on down Road 54, making a quick stop at an overlook for Kolgrafarfjördur to learn about the herring catastrophe, where millions of herring died in this fjord in 2012-2013. There’s a nice informational sign that talks all about it. I got hung up on wondering what several million rotting fish must smell like..
After Kolgrafarfjördur the landscape of lush green mountain gives way to the Berserkjahraun lava field. Any day with moss covered lava is a good day in my books!
After missing the turn the first time because Google Maps was being dumb (due to operator error… ahem), we detoured down Road 56 so we could visit Sheep’s Waterfall. This hidden waterfall is not seen from the road, but is right below a scenic overlook for Selvallavatn lake. No one on the internet seems to know what the proper name for Sheep’s Waterfall is, and I’ve seen it called both Selvallafoss and the boring Sheep’s Waterfall. But this is definitely a unique treasure, as you can walk behind it! Crouching and hunched over, but still behind it!
You can go both left or right from the parking lot and take worn single track trails down to the falls. Just follow the sound, it’s not hard! It was very moist and muddy going behind the falls, and smelled strongly of sheep and their poop (but there were no sheep in sight?!). So I suppose it’s not named Sheep’s Waterfall for no reason! Because I had already slipped at Bæjarfoss earlier in the day, and sliced my elbow open the day before at Djúpalónssandur, it was only fitting that I would also slip in the mud at this waterfall while trying to get down to the river to wash the sheep poop and mud off my shoes. Time to make some offerings to the elves…
Feet cleaned of sheep smells, we headed back to Road 54 and turned onto Road 58, headed towards Stykkishólmur. I had one more adventure on my itinerary before we would run some errands and prepare for the ferry – Mount Helgafell!
Mount Helgafell is a very sacred place to Icelanders. It is believed that if you hike up the mountain without looking back or saying anything aloud, you will get three wishes fulfilled after you think about them while facing east in the old monastery ruins that dates back to 1184 on the summit. The wishes cannot be told to anyone else, and must be positive in nature. This tradition goes back hundreds of years. To boot, famous lady of Sagas Guðrún Ósvífursdóttir’s grave is here near the church (marked 1008!). The full ritual is to circle her grave three times counter-clockwise, and then begin the hike up the mountain. However, the mountain and church is on a privately owned farm, so this route has been closed due to all the tourist traffic. But before anyone gets too excited, the whole wish making thing only works once in your life supposedly, so make them count!
And this is where I messed up…
There’s a small marker at the base of the new trail that looked like a grave to me, so my dumb ass circles it three times CLOCKWISE (while other tourists giggled and gave me strange looks), and then started my hike. As I was researching to write this blog, I learn not only did I circle in the wrong direction, I wasn’t even circling the grave. DOH! Maybe they were giggling at me for a good reason…
But hey, no worries, I did the rest of the hike properly, my heart pure and filled with good intentions as I thought out my wishes on that windy mountain summit!
Even if the wish making ritual isn’t your cup of tea, it is worth the hike up to see the panoramic views of Breiðafjörður Bay and surrounding land and mountains.
The landowners do charge 400 ISK a person to hike the mountain (which is less than $4 USD), and I think it is well worth it. I’m all for private landowners recouping some money to help maintain sites that are getting worn and damaged by the hoards tourism has brought (something like 300 people a day climb the mountain in the summer season). In the small shop they also sell numerous handmade woolen items. Kubo bought a few hats and a keychain for me that is a ball of wool. Also, the friendliest dog in the whole wide world is here, and she’ll demand all your attention and distract you for as long as you allow her to! I’m totally a cat person, but this dog was amazing! Outside there are separate restroom facilities which were clean and had amazing views.
We managed to finally drag ourselves away from World’s Friendliest Dog, and headed towards Stykkishólmur. First errand was to fill up Carl since our first few adventures in the Westfjords would be scarce on gas stations. We nailed the fill up this time, no struggles or tears… except the ones my credit card cried. (On the bright side, I really can’t get overly excited about gas prices in the U.S. anymore after the $8+/gallon prices of Iceland.)
Next stop was Bónus for restocking our groceries. I discovered Icelandic chocolate bars during this trip. Mmm.
Next we found where we’d line up for the ferry.
The Ferry Baldur runs between Stykkishólmur and Brjánslækur in the Westfjords, with a stop at Flatey Island all year around. Taking the ferry cuts down drive time significantly while heading to the Westfjords. Now, I’m all for long road trips, but I had never been on a ferry before, and the idea of also saving several hours so we could have a relaxing evening was really appealing. There is also Wifi on board (major yay for Kubo who was limiting phone time otherwise) and a restaurant (which we never checked out).
The cost for Kubo and I, plus the camper van was 15,420 ISK total (less than $130 USD as of 1/18/19… exchange rate wasn’t as good back when I booked, so it was a bit more expensive in USD at that time). Each passenger is 4,460ISK and then the camper van is 6,500 ISK. Because we were not eating out a lot or paying for guided tours on our trip, the cost was worth it for us.
Departure time was set for 3:00pm, and Kubo checked in the office when loading was, which was 2:30pm. Details taken care of, we made some sandwiches for lunch and then explored a small bit around the harbor.
Stykkishólmur is special to me because it was another major filming location of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. I brought up some scenes from the movie on YouTube and we were able to identify buildings! Stykkishólmur is Nuuk, Greenland in the movie, and is where Walter meets the drunken helicopter pilot that flies him out to the fishing vessel during his search for Sean O’Connell.
Before long it was time to board the ferry. So… I’ve hinted in earlier posts, but I’m not much for water. I dislike water even more when on a boat, and have been on very few boats in my lifetime as a result. So my anxiety began to skyrocket as we drove Carl towards the ferry. As we handed over our tickets, the guy tried arguing that we needed to pay for an extra meter, but we researched and it turns out we were 1cm under the length I paid for with our booking, so we got away with that one, ha! I got out as attendants guided Kubo in parking Carl. And panic set in and I held back tears, trying to convince myself I wasn’t on a boat. (Kubo, my lovely dear boyfriend, pointed out I wasn’t on a boat, and instead I was on a ferry. Yeah, that didn’t help.)
We made our way to the cabin upstairs, and claimed our little chair and table area. Kubo ran outside to soak it all up, and I just sat there, pretending I wasn’t on a boat or ferry, or any vessel of any variety going through really deep water… well, after I silently scoped out were the life vests and rafts were… Kubo did manage to get me on the outside deck, where I sat in the middle, away from the handrails. It made him happy that I came outside for a little while, and it was pretty awesome, because I SAW A WHALE!! My first whale! I had turned my DSLR over to Kubo when we first set sail, and he was able to grab a photo of it.
Eventually I headed back inside, where I made the mistake of catching up on my handwritten journal I was keeping on the trip, which made me very nauseous. So I made a pillow for my head on the table, and promptly fell asleep! The first and only nap I’d take in Iceland (intentionally… more to come later on that)!
My nap would be interrupted upon the ferry’s arrival to Flatey Island, a small lonely outpost in the bay, and Kubo dragged me back outside. A few passengers got off (no cars are allowed on the island), and we were quickly on our way, with the Westfjords drawing closer.
After just about two and a half hours of sailing, we arrived at the dock in Brjánslækur. Immediately the stark landscape of the Westfjords was evident. The Westfjords are the oldest part of Iceland at about 16 million years old, so there’s a lack of the active volcanos and other geothermal features of the much younger parts of the country (heck, the lava field we drove through just mere hours before was only 4,000 years old max). In their place are steep, barren mountains and countless fjords. It’s also the least inhabited part of Iceland, with less than 8,000 residents in the whole region. To boot, they estimate only something like 15% of the total tourist traffic makes it to the Westfjords. Long story short, we were going to be in the middle of nowhere with no one.
The plan was to camp at Flókalundar, which sits at the junction of Road 62, which wraps around the southwest corner, and Road 60, which cuts north in the middle of the Westfjords. Flókalundar has a hotel and campground, and pretty much nothing else (maybe a gas pump?). The hot pot Hellulaug is also located here, and was the driving force behind picking this spot for our overnight stay.
Since we arrived in early evening, it wasn’t surprising to find Hellulaug packed with people when we went to scope it out, so we set out for our campsite and cooked some dinner and relaxed with the views of Vatnsfjörður before us.
There are plenty of hiking trails in the area, including ones that link the campground to the hotel, which serves as reception, and to Hellulaug (it is about a mile roundtrip from the campground to Hellulaug). Quickly we discovered that the trails were lined with bilberry bushes – Iceland’s wild blueberries! The gals at reception had a chuckle as we walked in with our hands stained blue and full of berries to pay our camping fee, and even offered up some containers for us to use. We assured them that the berries were going into our mouths just as fast as we could pick them, but did kick ourselves later for not picking some to take with us on the road.
We finally made it down to Hellulaug around sunset, mostly because berry picking slowed us down! Luckily in Iceland it seems that even though the sunset was setting around 8:30pm or so this time of year, it was still light until 10pm or later.
The “crowd” had thinned out, leaving two Czech girls who departed fairly soon after we arrived, and our new single serving friends: Andy from Germany (solo traveler), and Maria from Spain and Samar (I think?) from Washington (traveling together). We would chat for hours about all sorts of topics, swapping travel itineraries, and enjoying the perfectly warm water (along with some wine for Kubo and I). I loved the fact that I was sitting in a hot pot on an island in the Arctic, talking with people from all over the world like we had been friends for years. This would become a theme for several of our hot pot experiences in Iceland.
Our new friends would leave soon after it was dark-dark (meaning that the sun had completely gone away), which left Hellulaug to just Kubo and I for all of about five minutes. Hey, a small victory at least! We decided to head back to our campsite once a group of loud guys who were chain-smoking showed up, carefully picking our way through the bilberries under the light of my headlamp.
Today was a good day!
Follow along on our entire 19 day Iceland road trip adventure! Click here for a comprehensive itinerary, with links to each day’s adventure.