The Westfjords (or Vestfirðir in Icelandic) area has the lowest population in Iceland and a surprisingly low number of visitors. Believe it or not, but only about 10% of tourists ever enter the Westfjords, leaving the area free from the problems associated with mass tourism. That makes this a truly off-the-beaten-path option for your Iceland travel plans!
While there may not be many human inhabitants of the Westfjords, the area is home to Arctic foxes, puffins, seals, and whales. These creatures largely outnumber the humans!
The settlements here may be remote, but they are also full of life. Small guesthouses and charming cafés, as well as cultural and historical curiosities and a number of backcountry trails, await you in this quiet corner of the country.
Probably formed 16 million years ago, the Westfjords is the oldest landmass in Iceland. Since then, glaciers, rivers, winds, and the ocean have all done their part to dramatically reshape the land. Now it has a unique appearance and an atmosphere that is impossible to recreate elsewhere in the world – or even in Iceland, for that matter.
The quickest and easiest way to get to the Westfjords is by plane. There is a domestic flight running between Reykjavík and Ísafjörður, the largest village in the Westfjords. In general, for most of the year, there are flights offered twice daily. In winter, between December and February, this is reduced to once daily. A one-way trip only takes about 40 minutes.
There is a ferry which runs between the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and the Westfjords. This boat will cross the scenic Breidafjörður Bay on its way from the village of Stykkishólmur to the Brjánslækur ferry station and back again. As with air travel, in summer there are two departures offered daily. This is reduced to once daily between September and May (from Sunday to Friday).
While the Westfjords' rough dirt roads are safe for any type of car in summer, in winter, the road conditions are very difficult, sometimes even becoming dangerous.
Thankfully, many roads in the region are paved. But there are gravel roads on the way to some of the most popular attractions which can be challenging such as the Látrabjarg cliffs, Rauðasandur beach, and some roads in Norðurfjörður.
Even though any type of car is permitted on these roads, you must remember that the speed limit on these roads is lower, remaining around 50 mph (80 km/h). Sometimes, the recommended speed limit is even lower. You also need to be ready for potholes and washboard surfaces, which can appear at any time and which will require slower speeds.
It is easy to get lost gazing out the window in Iceland, but that can be very dangerous as well. The landscapes are a common distraction here, so you need to be alert, patient, and drive carefully. Never pull over on the side of the road unless it is an officially designated resting area. Opting for the full insurance on your rental car is highly recommended when driving in Iceland.
Winters are longer in this area than in South Iceland. Bad weather usually starts in October and the thaw also arrives later than in the capital area. The wintry conditions can last until late May or even late June in some areas.
During the winter, the main roads are kept clear and driveable, but in times of severe weather, they may become impassable for days at a time. The smaller roads, on the other hand, are not cleared in winter. For that reason, a large number of roads remain closed for the entire winter.
Driving to the Westfjords in winter requires a four-wheel drive car with good winter tires. Visitors that don’t have experience driving in extreme wintry conditions and on bad roads are advised to take a flight, which would be the safest and most comfortable option.
Once you arrive, you’ll have plenty of options to sign up for day tours or even multi-day tours which depart from different locations. These are mainly hiking, biking, kayaking, and boat tours, reflecting the wide range of available activities in the area.
Most tours depart from Isafjordur, “the capital of the Westfjords”. Although it’s a very tiny town with only about 2600 inhabitants, Ísafjörður is a prospering community today. 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 as well as excellent hiking and biking trails. Horseback riding, bird watching, Arctic fox watching, skiing, and kayaking are among the most recommended activities you should try in the Westfjords. All of these are accessible from Ísafjörður.
Ferries to the remote, uninhabited Hornstrandir Nature Reserve depart from Ísafjörður daily during the summer months. This secluded site is located on the northernmost peninsula of the Westfjords. There is no area in Iceland which can compare to this nature reserve when it comes to hiking.
Not only does Hornstrandir have no villages and no shops, but it also has zero permanent inhabitants. The only facilities offered are a few marking hiking trails, campsites, and repurposed farm buildings that are now used to house the guided hiking tours.
The only land mammal that is native to Iceland, the adorable Arctic fox, roams free in this area. As they are protected here, they have gotten used to having harmless human visitors and no longer hide from view. The playful foxes even approach the hikers sometimes when they are in a social mood.
Because the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve is in the northernmost reaches of Iceland, it is only open to visitors during the mid-summer. During the limited time period between July and August, you can come to this true hiker’s paradise, depending on the weather conditions at the time, of course.
There are guided hikes, fox watching tours, and longer backpacking treks available in Hornstrandir for those who would like to experience Iceland’s most precious landscapes and hiking paths. All tours departure from Ísafjörður.