Iceland's West Coast - Rugged and Beautiful and made for Photographers

West Coast of Iceland

Finally... Part 3 of my Iceland series: Photographing the west coast of Iceland - and it is pretty amazing (uh, the sights, not this blog!) I’ve been fortunate enough to spend a good amount of time exploring Iceland with both my family and shooting. solo. My favorite town to call home base is just east of Snæfellsjökull National Park – Grundarfjörður (Grund) – and is a sleep harbor town in the shadow of a beautiful small peak that rises on the edge of the North Atlantic Ocean, Kirkjufell.

Grundarfjörður Harbor at Sunset 1

On a summer eve when the sun barely falls below the horizon -- and even then for a very brief time -- the harbor at Grundarfjörður in west Iceland rests quiet and peaceful. In the distance, the iconic Kirkjufell Mountain rises into the cold, coastal air. For a thousand years, Kirkjufell has been a waypoint for travelers, and it still seems to stand guard over this beautiful little village.

Below are a several of my favorite places in this area of the country. I’ll start from Grund and work in a counter clockwise direction around the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, ending up back at home at the Kirkjufell Guesthouse and Apartments in Grund.... Here is a view from the parking area of the guesthouse:

Midnight Sun over Grundarfjörður Bay, Iceland

The view from the Kirkjufell Guesthouse is hard to beat - especially on a cool summer night around midnight.

Now, let's start the journey...

Kirkjufell and Kirkjufoss
– Leaving Grund and heading west on Highway 54, a few minutes of driving will bring you to this famous mountain. Kirkjufell is the most photographed mountain in Iceland, and for good reason. Just across Highway 54, Kirkjufoss (the waterfall) flows in cascades of cold, clear water over the rocks as the river Jökulsá á Fljótsdal pours into the North Atlantic Ocean further downstream. I most enjoyed my time here late at night when the crowds were long gone and the midnight sun made for colorful and moody skies. I’ve shot here probably ten times over two summers, using used several lenses, but all wide-angled – 16-35L and the 11-24, and the 24-105L – and always with a tripod. No drones are allowed here, unfortunately.

Kirkjufell under the Midnight Sun 3

This photograph is one of a series of images showing Kirkjufell Mountain under a beautiful sky just after midnight as the clouds drifted by, changing the hues and colors in the sky. This mountain, once called "Sugar Top" is regarded as the most photographed mountain in all of Iceland.

– Only two kilometers east of the entrance of Snæfellsjökull National Park (outside park boundaries), this little red-roofed church rests on a hill in the shadow of beautiful mountains. Life in this area dates back to at least the 10th century. In the summer, beautiful lupine (also known as nookta) fill the surrounding fields with shades of blue. I found that with my super-wide angle lens, the 11-24, was great for the wildflowers, but the church itself appeared very small in the image. So I ended up using the 16-35L and the 24-105L, often stacking images with different focal points to ensure a sharp and clean photograph capturing the complete scene.

Ingjaldshólskirkja in Golden Light - West Iceland 1

Ingjaldshóll is in an area in the Snæfellsnes Peninsula that serves as a farm and old church. Life here dates back to at least the 10th century, and it is noted that even Christopher Columbus visited this area in 1477 before heading west.

In the foreground, Bigleaf Lupine fill the rolling hills with shades of purple and pink. It is the same plant that can be found in the western United States and it is also known as purple nootka, or Alaskan Lupine.

I was also able to fly my drone from the single-lane road that led to Ingjaldshólskirkja. For that viewpoint, I flew a Mavic 2 Pro.

Lupine at Ingjaldshólskirkja 1

With the help of my little drone, this photograph shows the vast field of lupine that lead up to the historic church, Ingjaldshólskirkja, on Snaefellsness Peninsula. Each summer in June and July, these blue wildflowers (imported from Alaska in the 1940s to help with erosion) but on a colorful display.

Snæfellsnes National Park
– From Ingjaldshólskirkja, a short drive west brought me to this stunning national park of west Iceland. As the road leads west on Hwy 54, then turns into 574 as you stay right, it will eventually circle around Snæfellsnes National Park, skirting the west and south of the always snow-covered peak of Snæfellsjökull. Eventually, it reconnects with 54 (take a left at the intersection where the two meet) and it will lead back to the northeast to Grund. The complete journey is only 126km but with so many sights to see and enjoy, the trip could last all day (or several days depending on your pace). Here are a few locations I enjoyed both visiting and shooting:

Saxholl Crater
– One of the first sights along the peninsula road is the Saxholl Crater. From the parking lot, stairs lead up ~ 100 feet, allowing the nice perspective of the once powerful cinder-cone volcano, as well as wonderful views of the ocean and mountains. As usual… wide-angle lenses are best here in my opinion.

Saxhóll Crater from the Rim 1

About 5.5 miles south of Hellissandur in the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, Saxhóll Crater is one of the best examples of an extinct volcano. It rises about 100 feet high and affords great views of both the Atlantic Ocean and the dark lava fields of the peninsula.

Djúpalónssandur Beach
– Next up is one of the more interesting locations. While this black sand beach used to be one of the busiest harbors on the peninsula, it only offers a rusting frame of a 1948 British shipwreck and a beach full of round, smooth stones. Legend has it that if a visitor takes the smooth stones from the beach, he/she will be followed by the ghosts that inhabit the abandoned beach. - along with bad luck.

Djúpalónssandur Beach Panorama 1

The haunted black sands of Djúpalónssandur Beach look pretty nice on a summer afternoon. But beware - do not remove the fine black pebbles and stones. The legend has it if a person removes the stones from the beach, spirits will haunt and torment that person until the rocks are returned. Still, this is a nice stop along the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.

Unbeknownst to me, when my wife and I and our girls visited this beach one sunny afternoon, they left with some of these stones in their pockets. Several incidents occurred later that day: I hurt my back climbing over a fence (climbing with permission by the owner to photograph Icelandic horses), my younger daughter fell on some rocks and buggared up her knee, our credit card inexplicably stopped working, as well as a few other issues. Nevertheless, that night, I headed out for some photography under the midnight sun. When I returned to our room in Grund about 1:00am, my oldest daughter met me at the door and confessed that they had taken rocks from the haunted beach. That next morning before we embarked on a long drive east to Akureyri, my wife and daughters insisted we return the rocks (an hour the opposite direction). They wouldn’t take no for an answer, so on a cold, windy, rainy morning, we drove back to Djúpalónssandur Beach, deposited said rocks on the beach, and were finally on our way to our easterly destination. Ironically, our CC started working again, my back was fine the next morning and we avoided any mishaps for the remaining two weeks of our trip around the island.

– About eight minutes down the road from the haunted beach near the town of Hellnar, two large pillars of basalt rise into the salty air. The tallest is 71m high and the other is 61m high, though I’ve seen different heights reported for these seastacks. Thousands of years old, these natural formation are worth the stop. A short walkway from the parking lot (free to park when we were there) leads to amazing views of the Lóndrangar and the rocky coastline. Here, I used a 24-105m to shoot from the view point on a blustery afternoon.

Lóndrangar on a Windswept Day 1

Ancient volcanic formations rise from the sea along the Snæfellsnes Penisula. This location is known as Lóndrangar, and is part of the west Iceland's spectacular coastline.

– Just another short drive southeast from the Lóndrangar (~ 8km), the town of Arnarstapi sits at the edge of the national park and provides a nice walkway to the cliff’s edge where more basalt formations can be seen along with a healthy population of Artic terns that nest in the rocky ledges below. Here, I used both wide angle and the 24-105 for varying focal lengths. While on the viewing platform overlooking the ocean, we also saw orcas as they bobbed and sliced their way across the ocean waters in the distance!

Arnarstapi Evening 621-1

The basalt cliffs along the coastline in Arnarstapi in the western Snæfellsnes Penisula make for a beautiful setting. Seen here on a late summer evening, the sound of the waves and cries of birds far below bring a soothing end to a long day of amazing sights.

– Búðakirkja was my last stop on my last visit as I made the loop around the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. I’d wanted to visit this small wooden, black church since I first read about it several years prior. It dates back to the 1800s and still serves as a working parish. It sits in a beautiful, windswept natural area full of grasses and, in summer, colorful wildflowers. Any lens will work here. The main issue for photographers is to avoid times when it is being used in a formal manner (services, weddings, events, etc – updates on its website are helpful). Avoid times when tour busses disembark if you want to keep your images people-free!

For this location, I shot with both 24-105L and a 16-35L. Many angles and opportunities can be found for photographing this unique church.

Búðakirkja - Snæfellsnes Peninsula 1

Búðakirkja is a small black church on the south coast of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula in the tiny village of Búðir. The church you see now was built by Steinunn Sveinsdóttir, the widow of a local merchant, in 1847. The original church was built was built in 1703 by the Swedish-born merchant named Bendt Lauridsen. After much conflict over the church during the next hundred years, the structure seen here is this most current iteration. It sits on a lava field close to the ocean, and the village was once a landing point for merchant ships.

Note: This loop around the national park is wonderful for a day or three. However, be warned – dining options are rather limited. I usually take snacks and eat back in Grund.

- I’ll add one last stop here, though it isn’t on the loop. About a 30-minute drive northeast from Grundarfjörður sits a sleepy little village, Stykkishólmur. The small town offers a few unique sites including an orange lighthouse, but is most known for a scene in the movie, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” If you’re a fan of this quirky movie like I am, you’ll recognize this harbor as the location where Walter (Ben Stiller), the main character, begrudgingly boards a helicopter with a drunken pilot. In the background, his love interest, Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig), sang David Bowie’s “Major Tom” as the helicopter flew out to sea.

Stykkishólmur in Summer 1

Stykkishólmur is a fishing village in western Iceland - in the northern portion of the Snæfellsnes Penisula. For movie fans, it was a location in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" where Walter decided to jump in a helicopter with a drunk pilot.

I should note that the nation’s capital, Reykjavik, is on the west coast, as well, but deserves it’s own write-up.

For me, photography is what pays the bills. But it’s also a lot of fun and I’m fortunate to make a living at this. And there are few places I’d rather be than exploring the hidden (and more well-known) places beneath the midnight sun in Iceland.

Thanks for reading. Safe travels, everyone.

~ Rob

As one of the most photographed locations in all of Iceland, Kirkjufell and Kirjufoss (mountain and waterfall) comprise one of...
Kirkjufell at Midnight Panorama 2

As one of the most photographed locations in all of Iceland, Kirkjufell and Kirjufoss (mountain and waterfall) comprise one of the most beautiful scenes in the country. This panorama was taken close to midnight in the summer and I had the entire place to myself.