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A Complete Guide to the Westfjords of Iceland

Explore Iceland's most remote areas

June 25, 2019
author Viktória Komjáti

By Viktória Komjáti

Viktoria is a restless adventurer with personal experience in all of the outdoor activities that Iceland has to offer. She loves to inspire others to get to know Iceland and to make a deep connection with the country during their travels.


If you are seeking the ultimate sense of tranquility; if you want to experience the overwhelming sensation of standing at the edge of the world; if you would like to see giant whales, lively puffins, playful seals or even sea monsters; do not skip the Westfjords when visiting Iceland!

A Complete Guide to the Westfjords of Iceland

Steep, flat-topped mountains rise high above the long fjords of this oddly-shaped peninsula in northwest Iceland. Narrow serpentine roads snake across the scenic landscape to connect a few remote but lively social settlements. The Icelandic Westfjords feature exclusive, unique natural scenery and are packed with exciting hiking locations, perfect northern lights watching spots and idyllic natural hot springs.

In the following article, you’ll learn about this secluded area and why it’s very much worth exploring. You’ll find out how to get there in winter and in summer, what the road conditions are like, and what villages you should stop in. Lastly, we’ll tell you about the most exciting natural wonders the area has to offer, which you should be sure to visit. Explore Iceland’s most remote countryside, read on to get local tips for your travel plans!

The Westfjords in sunset

The Westfjords in sunset

Why You Shouldn’t Skip the Westfjords

Iceland’s northwestern tip is home to more puffins, seals, Arctic foxes, and whales than actual humans. The Westfjords (Icelandic: Vestfirðir) are a true off-the-beaten-path travel destination. Tiny family-run guesthouses, cozy cafés, amazing seafood restaurants, and plenty of cultural and historical curiosities await visitors, along with a wide variety of backcountry trails.

Geographically, this region the oldest landmass in Iceland, which is believed to have formed around 16 million years ago. Over millions of years, the landscape has been dramatically shaped by glaciers, rivers, winds, and the ocean. They gave the area it a very distinctive look and an atmosphere that simply can’t be found anywhere else in Iceland – or in the world.

The Westfjords is the most sparsely populated corner of the country and, incredibly, only about 10% of Iceland’s visitors ever set foot there. This means that the area remains unspoiled by mass tourism. The ultimate silence of the true Icelandic countryside and its wondrous hidden secrets are the rewards awaiting those visitors who venture off the Ring Road to explore the Westfjords.

The Westfjords in winter

The Westfjords in winter

How to Get to the Westfjords

By Plane

There is a domestic flight between Reykjavík and Ísafjörður, the largest village in the Westfjords. In general, departures are available twice daily most of the year and once daily in winter (between December and February). The journey takes only 40 minutes, one way.

By Ferry

There is a ferry which runs between the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and the Westfjords. Ferry Baldur crosses Breidafjörður Bay daily, traveling between the village of Stykkishólmur and the Brjánslækur ferry station in south Westfjords. During the summer months, there are two departures daily. Between September and May, the ferry runs once a day from Sunday to Friday, six days a week.

In summer, you’ll be offered the opportunity to take an extra stop on the way and visit the beautiful island of Flatey, renowned for its birdlife. Visitors can take the morning ferry from Stykkishólmur and continue on to Brjánslækur in the afternoon. For those traveling by car, it is possible to send the car across the bay while stopping in Flatey (for no extra charge).

On the road in the Westfjords

On the road in the Westfjords

By Car

The rough dirt roads are one of the reasons that the area doesn’t receive many visitors. In summer, the roads are safe to drive on for any type of car while in winter, the conditions are increasingly difficult and sometimes even dangerous.

Many roads are paved, but there are still some gravel roads that can be rough, especially on the way to some of the popular attractions such as the Látrabjarg cliffs, Rauðasandur beach, and some roads in Norðurfjörður.

Driving to the Westfjords in Summer

Although the roads can be driven by any type of car, it’s important to keep in mind that the speed limit on these roads is lower (50 mph; 80 km/h) while the recommended speed limit in many areas may be even lower.

Expect potholes and washboard surfaces to appear anywhere. The beautiful scenery is a common cause of distraction, so please drive carefully while enjoying the views. Never stop on the shoulder of the road unless there is a designated resting area. Drivers must be very patient and careful and it’s highly recommended that you pay for full insurance for your rental car.

Driving to the Westfjords in Winter

Winter arrives earlier in this area than in South Iceland. Bad weather usually starts in October with snow or heavy rain, strong winds, and difficult road conditions. Furthermore, the thaw also arrives later than in the capital area, so the wintry conditions can last until late May or even late June in some areas.

The main roads are maintained during the winter, but they are sometimes impassable for days due to severe weather. Smaller roads are not cleared and there are plenty of roads that are closed for most of the winter.

Even though the main roads are kept as clear as possible, you should always expect some snow and ice when driving in Iceland during autumn, winter, and spring. Therefore, it’s necessary to have a four-wheel-drive car with good winter tires.

Driving across the Westfjords in winter is not something that we recommend to visitors that don’t have experience driving in extreme wintry conditions and on bad roads. For them, catching a flight would be the safest and most comfortable option.

A main road in winter

A main road in winter

Villages to Visit in the Westfjords

Less than two percent of the Icelandic population lives in this area of 8,599 sq. mi. (22,271 km2), which makes the population density lower than 0.8 per sq. mi. (or 0.3 people per km2).

There are about 15 settlements, out of which eight have a population that is lower than 300 people and four have a population lower than 500. The largest towns are Ísafjörður with 2600, Bolungarvík with 950, and Patrekrfjörður with 700 inhabitants, approximately.

Isafjörður: The Capital of the Westfjords

The largest town in the Westfjords peninsula is the only settlement that counts as a town. The drive there from Reykajvík is a whole day road trip, but at least six hours without stopping. Isafjörður has spent several centuries as a busy trading post and rich fishery, even though it was just a small community until the mid-19th century.

Today, the town is booming and you’ll find a hospital, schools, kindergartens, a university, supermarkets, bars, restaurants, museums, and tourist services for all budgets and tastes.

There are plenty of outdoor entertainment options such as a golf course, excellent hiking and biking trails, horse riding, bird watching, skiing, and kayaking. All of these activities are easy to access. Ferries to the remote, uninhabited Hornstrandir Nature Reserve depart from Ísafjörður daily during the summer months.

Ísafjörður hosts some of the most celebrated festivals in Iceland. The most popular ones are the "Aldrei fór ég suður" (“I Never Went South”) music festival, the Runners’ Festival, the Mud-Soccer European Championships, the Act Alone theater festival, and the "Við Djúpið" classical music festival.

Isafjordur town

Isafjordur town

Bolungarvík

Bolungarvík is the northernmost and the second-largest village in the Westfjords. It has been a fishing port since settlement. A gas station, small shops, and different types of accommodation are available in the village as well as an indoor geothermal swimming pool and a small golf course.

The most interesting sites in the village include the oldest fishing station in the country – now an open-air fishing museum – and the natural history museum which has an extensive bird and mammal trophy exhibit, including a polar bear.

The nearby Bolafjall Mountain is a popular hiking area, offering shocking views over the open ocean and the coastal cliffs of Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, the most remote peninsula of the Westfjords. The road leading up the mountain is very steep, therefore, it’s only opened to vehicles in July and remains open for the rest of the summer. A scenic radar station is located at the top, originally built by the United States Military, but which is now controlled by the Icelandic Coast Guard.

Standing on the top of Bolafjall mountain near Bolungarvík

Standing on the top of Bolafjall mountain near Bolungarvík

Patrekfsjörður

Patreksfjörður is the biggest town in the southern part of the Westfjords. Despite that, it’s still quite a tiny fishing village. As a great base to explore some of the most amazing natural attractions of the Westfjords – such as the Dynjandi waterfall, the Látrabjarg cliffs, and Rauðasandur beach – Patreksfjörður has a good level of fame among visitors. A campsite and various facilities are available for guests and, to add to everyone’s joy, the village even has a large swimming pool.

One of the major curiosities in Patreksfjörður is the pirate museum. In the 17th century, the Barbary pirates attacked several settlements in Iceland. During the Turkish raid, nearly 400 people were captured and another 40 were killed.

Some captives died during the long journey to North Africa and many more during the first weeks or months there. The rest of the surviving Icelanders were sold into slavery. The pirate museum tells us about the attack as well as the story of the survivors and those who returned to Iceland decades later.

The folk museum is also well worth a visit as it has exhibitions on everything from historic whaling to aviation.

Patreksfjordur village. Photo:  Emstrur on Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Patreksfjordur village. Photo: Emstrur on Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Hólmavík

Hólmavík is a beautifully colorful village, the largest in the region of Strandir. It may be a tiny community of fewer than 400 people, but basic amenities such as guesthouses, restaurants, a tourist information center, a campsite, and even a geothermal swimming pool are available for guests.

Whale watching tours depart from the small harbor as the nearby waters are known to be rich feeding grounds for orcas, dolphins, and humpback whales. Those who enjoy outdoor activities will certainly like the golf course. Horse rentals can be found just outside the town.

Hólmavík has an exciting and tragic history, involving witchcraft and sorcery. The witch hunt in Europe reached Iceland in the late 17th century. Twenty-one Icelandic people were burned at the stake, seventeen of whom came from the Westfjords. The spooky Museum of Sorcery and Witchcraft tells visitors about the mystical witch hunts and dark folklore of 17th-century Iceland.

Holmavík village

Holmavík village

Drangsnes

Across the fjord from Hólmavík is Drangsnes, a remote little fishing village. Its less than 100 inhabitants have beautiful views over the small and uninhabited island of Grímsey. There is a little shop, a restaurant, a campsite, and a geothermal pool in the village. Boat tours are offered which go to the small island.

One of the main highlights of this remote site are the three hot pots sitting directly on the seashore. Without a doubt, this is one of the most scenic bathing sites in all of Iceland!

Bíldudalur

Once a major trading hub for the region, today just a minuscule village with less than 200 inhabitants, Bíldudalur is another interesting place to visit. Despite its size, the village has been a thriving cultural and music scene for decades. Folk music festivals, workshops, exhibitions, and artistic performances make the locals’ lives colorful and the remote village an inviting destination for both domestic and international tourists.

One of the most famous attractions in the village is the Icelandic Sea Monster Museum. Arnarfjörður fjord is believed to be home to the weird creatures and sea monsters that have played a role in the local folk culture for centuries.

There are over 200 old stories and fascinating illustrations about the frightening creatures in the surrounding waters. The museum offers an action-packed multimedia display of these legends, delving into the myth of the sea monsters lurking around the bay of Arnarfjörður.

The town has a small shop/café/restaurant, a guesthouse, and a good campsite. Hiking in the nearby mountains is a highly recommended activity as well as in the spectacular valleys and along the interesting seashores. Bíldudalur is accessible from Reykjavík with flights available six days per week.

Bildudalur. Photo: 	Jóna Þórunn on Wikimedia

Bildudalur. Photo: Jóna Þórunn on Wikimedia

Þingeyri

Þingeyri is a small settlement situated on one of Iceland’s most scenic fjords, Dýrafjörður (“the animal fjord”). It’s one of the oldest villages in the Westfjords as it has been inhabited since the 18th century. Today, it’s a prospering community that provides various services to guests such as cafés, restaurants, various accommodation options, and, of course, a geothermal swimming pool.

One major place you must visit in the village is Simbahöllin, a café located in a 100-year-old traditional Norwegian house. The building is beautifully renovated and preserved, so the entire interior is authentic. The café has a very good vibe and offers amazingly delicious homemade Belgian waffles.

One of Iceland’s most scenic golf clubs is located nearby on an abandoned farmstead. For those who like the outdoors and the nice views, hiking in the surrounding mountains is highly recommended.

Café Simbahöllin in Thingeyri

Café Simbahöllin in Thingeyri

Súðavík

Súðavík is a vibrant little village not far from Ísafjörður. It has a sad recent history as several fatal avalanches wiped the streets and many houses off the ground in the ’90s causing the death of entire families, including small children.

Due to the unfortunate location, the villagers left their houses behind and rebuilt their new homes in a safer location. Today, many houses in the old town are used as summerhouses and some of them are even rented out to visitors during the summer when there is no snow in the mountains.

The village has restaurants, guesthouses, a grocery shop, a campsite, and a large outdoor entertainment park for children. The most interesting attraction in Súðavík is the Arctic Fox Centre: a non-profit research center and exhibition dedicated to one of Iceland’s only native terrestrial mammals, the Arctic fox.

The building of the Arctic Fox Centre in Sudavik. Photo: MoZie on Wikimedia

The building of the Arctic Fox Centre in Sudavik. Photo: MoZie on Wikimedia

The Must-See Natural Attractions in the Westfjords

The Látrabjarg Cliffs

Látrabjarg is a wall of thrilling cliffs stretching over 8.7 mi. (14 km) and towering 1445-1986 ft. (300-440 m) above the ocean. It is located in the southwestern part of the peninsula, at the westernmost tip of Iceland.

The rock face is a shocking sight itself and one of the most spectacular hiking locations in all of Iceland. What raises its level of international significance, however, is that these impressive cliffs are filled with literally millions of nesting birds each summer.

About 15 seabird species lay eggs and live in these cliffs during the summertime. Látrabjarg is vital for the survival of entire species since in some cases, the cliffs host up to 40% of the entire world’s population of some species, such as the razorbill.

What makes this place especially beloved among foreign visitors is one species in particular: the silly looking Atlantic puffin. These cute little birds can be found all over Iceland, but Látrabjarg is one of the best places to get to know them up close and personal.

This fame, however, makes the place somewhat more dangerous. Many visitors aren’t aware of the fact that there are puffin burrows beneath their feet. Approaching the birds too closely at the edges of cliffs is very dangerous.

The grassy turf slopes hide a network of tunnels where the birds have dug burrows for their eggs. These holes can easily collapse when stepped on, which is extremely dangerous close to the thrilling cliff edges. The safest behavior at the bird cliffs is not to approach within 6.5-10 ft. (2-3 m) of the cliff edges or to emulate a nature photographer and lay down in the grass while watching the birds.

The Gardar BA 64 Ship

On the way to Látrabjarg, the road passes by a scenic shipwreck which is certainly worth a stop. Iceland’s oldest steel ship was built in 1912 by a Norwegian shipyard and served as a whaling and herring fishing boat in the past.

It ran ashore and has remained there since 1981. This spooky ghost ship with the fjord in the background as it slowly rusts away is an amazing photo location. Make sure to stop here for a photo while you on your way to Latrabjarg.

 Gardar BA 64 Ship and the Northern Lights

Gardar BA 64 Ship and the Northern Lights

Dynjandi Waterfall

If Dynjandi were located near the Ring Road or the Golden Circle route, it would be one of the most famous waterfalls in Iceland. As famous as Seljalandsfoss, Skógafoss or Gullfoss. This giant spectacle is well-hidden in the Westfjords, though, and is completely inaccessible during the winter. For that reason, only a small percentage of visitors to Iceland ever see it.

Dynjandi is the largest waterfall in the Westfjords. A series of seven smaller cascades await visitors on their way up to the highest and largest one, which is about 328 ft. (100 m) tall.

The white curtain of water widens from the top to the bottom to double its width, giving the waterfall an especially distinctive look. After seeing Dynjandi, many visitors agree that it beats many of the most popular waterfalls in beauty!

Rauðasandur Beach

This 6.2-mile (10-km) beach that stretches across the southwestern part of the Westfjords is visible from space thanks to its remarkable color and the contrast it makes with the surrounding landscape. This is Raudisandur, the red sand beach.

Most of Iceland’s beaches are made of black volcanic sand and pebbles, making a beach that has brightly colored sand very special. In Rauðisandur, the sand gets its color from pulverized scallop shells. It doesn’t exactly look red but rather gold and, in specific light conditions, it’s more pink than red.

The surrounding landscape and the sight of the golden sand contrasting with the azure ocean creates an enchanting atmosphere. In good weather, the glaciated volcano of Snæfellsjökull is visible from the beach, providing a fantastic photo opportunity.

Raudisandur golden sand beach

Raudisandur golden sand beach

The Hornstrandir Nature Reserve

The crown jewel of the Westfjords is Hornstrandir, an isolated nature reserve located on the northernmost peninsula of the Westfjords. It is, without a doubt, the most unique and most secluded hiking region of Iceland. As it is inaccessible by car, visitors need to take a boat from Ísafjörður or Bolungarvík to get there.

There are no villages in Hornstrandir, no shops, and no permanent inhabitants in the area either. The facilities include a few campsites, some marked hiking trails, and a couple of old farm buildings that are used to serve the guided hiking groups.

The landscape is absolutely breathtaking here. Jagged bird cliffs, endless green pastures, and colorful flowers reach as far as the eye can see. The friendly Arctic fox, Iceland’s only native mammal, is found all over the country but is generally very difficult to spot. In Hornstrandir, however, they are protected and they have grown accustomed to the very few visitors and often don’t hide from people. Sometimes, foxes even approach hikers playfully.

Being the northernmost point in Iceland, the area is only accessible for a limited period during the mid-summer, mainly in July and August, depending on the actual weather conditions. Travelers are extremely exposed to the elements here. There are guided hikes, fox watching tours, and longer backpacking treks in Hornstrandir for those who would like to experience Iceland’s most precious landscapes and hiking paths.

The cliffs of Hornvík in Hornstrandir Nature Reserve

The cliffs of Hornvík in Hornstrandir Nature Reserve

Hot Springs and Geothermal Pools in the Westfjords

The Westfjords is famous for its countless natural hot springs with awe-inspiring views. Locals have been using these sites for bathing for centuries. Enjoying the benefits of free geothermal water has always had great cultural significance in this cold and windy corner of the world.

Over the last few decades, Icelanders have added a number of man-made pools to the existing geothermal hot springs, making the selection even more impressive. Here are the most scenic ones.

The Hellulaug Pool

Located near the beach at Vatnsfjörður fjord by Road 62, this small natural pool provides spectacular scenery for bathers. It’s very easy to access as there is a parking lot right above the pool. A traffic information sign shows its location to drivers.

The pool is quite small but can accommodate 8-10 people at most. It’s sadly not a hidden secret anymore. There is a small hotel located nearby, so it’s likely that you won’t be alone in the pool.

The water temperature is around 100.4°F (38°C), which is very comfortable for bathing. There are no changing facilities so it’s best to wear a swimsuit under your clothes in order to not have to strip naked in front of strangers.

A lucky alone-moment in Hellulaug

A lucky alone-moment in Hellulaug

The Birkimelur Pools

About 12.4 mi. (20 km) from Hallulaug, on the same road, is another scenic location which offers two small pools and changing facilities. Both pools are filled with water that is 98.6-102.2°F (37-39°C). One of them is a classic small man-made swimming pool, the other is a hole in the ground made of rock, suitable for 5-6 people.

The scenery is spectacular and the pools look incredibly idyllic. The good thing is that there are showers and proper changing facilities, which means that you are required – by Icelandic customs – to take a shower in the nude before entering the pool. This is how we can keep the water clean without using any chemicals.

There is a small fee of approximately 600 ISK for the facilities which you can pay at the nearby grocery store.

The natural pool next to the swimming pool in Birkimelur

The natural pool next to the swimming pool in Birkimelur

The Reykjaneslaug Swimming Pool

The Reykjanes pool, located next to Hotel Reykjanes hotel on the northern part of the Westfjords, is one of Iceland’s largest geothermal pools and it even has a steam bath next to it. The pool itself doesn’t look spectacular, but its surroundings are beautiful. In summer, the entire area is filled with the noise of the large colony of Arctic terns that nests nearby, making it a very meditative experience, especially in the evening with all of the colors of the late sunset.

For the hotel guests, there is no entrance fee, but other guests must pay approximately 1000 ISK to enter the pool and to use the changing/shower facilities.

Reykjaneslaug, the Wesrfjord's largest geothermal pool

Reykjaneslaug, the Wesrfjord's largest geothermal pool

The Reykjafjarðarlaug Pool

Out of the many pools in the Westfjords, this is definitely one of the most special. It’s located in a remote fjord by Road 63 and is basically in the middle of nowhere. There are actually 2-3 pools here. The main swimming pool was built by volunteers in 1975.

Geothermal water flows through the pool even though the flow isn’t always strong enough to keep the water free from algae. The water temperature in the pool depends quite a lot on the outside temperature, but it’s usually between 89.6-95°F (32-35°C).

The hot spring that feeds the pool is another possible bathing location, but at about 125.6°F (52°C), it’s usually too hot for bathing. The third bathing area, however, is a small hot spring which remains about 113°F (45°C) and is located over the pool. This temperature can be somewhat more comfortable for bathing.

There is a small cabin for changing but no other facilities. This means that everyone must carry away all the litter they may have brought and must clean up after themselves – and even after others – if necessary.

Pool in the middle of nowhere

Pool in the middle of nowhere

The Gvendarlaug Pool

Gvendarlaug is located in the eastern part of the Westfjords next to the small hotel called Laugarhóll. This tiny little pool, of course, features beautiful natural settings as well. There is enough space for 5-6 people in the pool and the water temperature is approximately 104-107.6°F (40-42°C). Gentle bubbles rise from the bottom of the pool, making the experience even more interesting.

Close to the natural pool, a hot creek flows into a heart-shaped man-made pool with a large stone in the middle. This is the perfect location for posing for the best holiday photo ever!

There is another hot spring nearby named Gvendarlaug hin forna, which in Icelandic means “the old pool of Gvendur”, the oldest one of all. The water was believed to have healing powers and was even blessed by a Catholic bishop in the 13th century.

Due to the historical and religious significance of the pool, there is a sign next to it warning visitors that bathing is prohibited. So, when visiting the site, make sure you are bathing in the correct pool!

Gvendarlaug hins góða, which translates as “the pool of Gvendur the Good”, is an 82-foot (25-meter) long swimming pool located next to the hot springs. It is perfect for those who would like to enjoy a nice, refreshing swim in spectacular settings. The water is about 89.6°F (32°C) and originates from the hot springs above.

There is a small fee of approximately 500 ISK for using the pools which can be paid at the reception area of the hotel.

The protected old pool

The protected old pool. Photo: Jón Jónsson on Wikimedia

The Krossneslaug Pool

At what seems to be the edge of the world, about 50 mi. (80 km) from Gvendarlaug, is Krosnesslaug, another geothermal pool with a breathtaking view. The site is basically the very edge of the inhabited area of Strandir. North of there are no roads and no settlements at all.

A warm water swimming pool and a hot pot lie right at the seashore. Showers and changing facilities are available on-site and the entrance fee is only about 500 ISK.

The pool is located close to a settlement, so you’ll probably have to share it with some locals and other tourists. But due to its remoteness, it never gets crowded. Swimming here is an extraordinary experience, for sure!

Krosnesslaug pool

Krosnesslaug pool

How to Travel Responsibly in the Westfjords

Even though it’s still one of the least visited areas in the country, the Icelandic Westfjords are getting more and more popular as an unspoiled and secluded travel destination. To keep it that way, please make sure to behave responsibly when traveling in the area. Support these local communities by never skipping out on paying your entrance fees, by never leaving waste or litter behind at a pool, and by picking up the trash that others may have left behind.

A Complete Guide to the Westfjords of Iceland

 

 

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