Snaefellsjokull National Park: The Complete Guide

Waterfall Svoedufoss with Snaefellsjokull glacier in background, Olafsvik, West Iceland, Iceland
Harald Nachtmann / Getty Images
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Snæfellsjökull National Park

Address
Iceland
Phone +354 436 6860

If you want to experience all of the geological wonders Iceland has to offer over the course of one afternoon, head northwest of Reykjavik and into Snaefellsjokull National Park. Snaefellsjokull has some of the most photographed sights in Iceland, from the Instagram-famous Budirkirkja church and Kirkjufell Mountain to the region's namesake glacier and Lóndrangar, the stone towers seen around the world on "Game of Thrones." Although to be fair, Jules Verne popularized the park long before the television show as the setting for one of his most famous novels, "Journey to the Center of the Earth."

If you're heading to the Westfjords region of Iceland, this is an easy stop on your way. But even if you aren't heading in that direction, a stop at Snaefellsjokull National Park is a worthwhile detour.

Things to Do

This area of the country has a little bit of everything including black sand beaches, scenic churches, stunning cliff sides, volcanic craters, and lava tube systems. Hiking around you're guaranteed to see some breathtaking landscapes, but there are a few highlights in particular to help you get your bearings.

Budirkirkja is the lone black church and one of the most Instagrammable places in the country, as the lone jet black building pops against the mossy surroundings. Expect to see a wedding party or two during the summer waiting to share vows and take photos. While the church is stunning, the area behind the church should not be missed. There are fields in the back that will lead you up to the cliffs with even more views of the area.

Djúpalónssandur Beach is a black sand beach located behind Budirkirkja and is home to a wealth of tourist delights. Nicknamed the Black Lava Pearl Beach, there's a path (Nautastígur) from the nearby parking lot that will take you through a lava field with huge rock formations. Behind the path, you'll find two deep lagoons that give the beach its name (it translates to "Deep Lagoon's Sand"). It's thought that Guðmundur the Good, a 13th-century bishop, once blessed these waters.

Walk down the spiral staircase at Vatnshellir 115 feet underground into an 8,000-year-old lava tube system. The only way to enter is by paying an entry fee to the tour company that will (safely) bring you into the tube and Vanshellir. Tours of this cave run hourly during the summer and twice a day during the wintertime. The cave is a 10-minute drive from the town of Arnarstapi.

Best Hikes & Trails

Hiking is one of the best activities in the park and the otherwordly landscapes are truly unlike anywhere else. There are a few easy strolls and some intense hikes that require technical knowledge, but the majority of trails at Snaefellsjokull fall somewhere in between the two extremes.

  • Lóndrangar: Lóndrangar is actually the remains of a crater, today appearing as a set of towers jutting out into the ocean. You can walk all the way up to the towers via a path called Þúfubjarg that will take you away from the parking lot and closer to the beach. This is an easy hike that takes just 30 minutes and with clear trail markers.
  • Snaefellsjokull Glacier: This glacier-topped volcano is more than 700,000 years old and can even be seen from Reykjavik. There are tour operators who will take you hiking on the glacier, but only the most experienced hikers should even attempt it. It's one of the most challenging trails in the park and takes about five hours to complete.
  • Kirkjufell: Known as "Church Mountain," you'll be hard-pressed to find a time when this area is not full of photographers, especially since it was featured on "Game of Thrones." You can walk around the base of the mountain for an easy trek, but there is a more challenging hike up the steep incline. At a certain point, there's a rope that was placed by locals that will help you keep balance. Hire a guide if you're taking on the more challenging hike—they can also point out the fossils the mountain is known for.
  • Saxhóll Volcano Crater: You can climb all over this extinct volcano crater. A set of stairs has been added to the side of Saxhóll Crater, winding you around the side and up to a fantastic view of the surrounding national park. The path gets quite windy, so be careful as you're navigating the rocky terrain. The crater itself is large, but there are still dangerous ledges. The roundtrip journey takes about two hours.

Where to Camp

There's nowhere to camp within the boundaries of Snaefellsjokull, but there are a couple of options in nearby towns.

  • Hellisandur Campground: The closest campground to the park is Hellisandur, which is just on the border of the north side of the national park. It's located next to the coast and black sand beaches on one side and the glacier on the other. Reservations aren't necessary, but you'll have to stop at the national park visitors center in the nearby town of Ólafsvík to pay for your campsite. Bathrooms with toilets and showers are available.
  • Arnarstapi Center: At the southern side of the park the closest campground is Arnarstapi, which has campsites as well as cottages, a guesthouse, and a hotel for those who don't want to sleep outside. Campsites here can be reserved in advance and you can even rent camping equipment if you don't have your own.

Where to Stay Nearby

There are kinds of hotels, cottages, and inns located in the towns around Snaefellsjokull National Park. Most of them are small fishing villages with impressive views of the nearby glacier, you just need to decide if you want to be on the north coast or south coast of the peninsula. Both of them are unbelievably scenic, so you can't choose wrong.

  • Hotel Budir: If you want to spend the night next to what may be the most-photographed church in Iceland, head to Hotel Budir. Located next to the famous black church, it's also the most luxurious option in the area.
  • Fosshotel Hellnar: This charming country hotel is known for being eco-friendly and located next to Kirkjufell, the "Church Mountain," directly underneath the glacier that the park is famous for. It's located on the southern coast and you can often see whales swimming by from the restaurant's balcony.
  • Hotel Olafsvik: On the north side of the park, Hotel Olafsvik is located in the old fishing village of Olafsvik and has easy access to Snaefellsjokull.

How to Get There

Snaefellsjokull National Park lies on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula and is about three hours north of Reykjavik by car. The quickest route passes underneath the Hvalfjörður fjord in a 3.5-mile underwater tunnel, but you can also drive around the fjord for a more scenic route if you don't mind the extra hour of driving time.

Accessibility

While the hiking trails themselves are rugged and not developed, many of the most popular sites in the park can be reached by car. The glacier is visible from just about anywhere inside the park and visitors can drive right up to the black church Budirkirkja. Many of the hotels in the area, including Fosshotel Hellnar and Hotel Budir, are equipped with facilities for guests with disabilities.

Tips for Your Visit

  • The national park is free to visit and open all year long.
  • Driving in Iceland comes with a lot of unique challenges, such as rapidly changing weather and gravel country roads. If you're unfamiliar with the terrain, take your time and ask locals for suggestions on the best routes to take. Some roads require four-wheel drive to access.
  • Even though summer has the warmest weather, some trails are unsafe as the glacier melts and reveals crevasses that are usually frozen over. Stop at the visitor center in Ólafsvík to confirm what trails you can safely walk on.
  • Winter is cold, but it's also the low season and the best time to see the glacier in its fullness. It's also the best time of year for having a chance to see the Northern Lights.
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Snaefellsjokull National Park: The Complete Guide