Iceland's West Coast - Rugged and Beautiful and made for Photographers
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.
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:
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.
Ingjaldshólskirkja – 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Lóndrangar – 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.
Arnarstapi – 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!
Búðakirkja – 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.
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.
Stykkishólmur - 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.
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.