Southwest Iceland

Southwest Iceland has some of the youngest lava in the country. Many who land there compare it to landing on the moon or on Mars. Nevertheless most people only visit the Blue Lagoon and Reykjavík, travelling to other regions to experience Icelandic nature. This is a shame, because the young lava is in fact quite spectacular and the Reykjanes peninsula absolutely fascinating. Sights include Kleifarvatn, a shallow lake which tends to shrink or expand as a result of geological activity, and the geothermal area of Krýsuvík. The south-western tip of Reykjanes, known as Reykjanestá the Toe of Reykjanes has large wave-beaten cliffs, beautiful beaches are dotted around other parts of the coastline. Despite the very ugly aluminium smelter next door, the area around Straumsvík on the western edge of Hafnarfjörður is a lush green bay for nice tranquil walks. These sights are listed going from west to east as you follow the coastline south from Keflavik and then turn north to Straumsvík:

Hafnaberg Cliffs
Hafnaberg CliffsYou’ll also see an old-timey wooden trail sign at the trailhead that says “Hafnabergi,” and two larger informational signs in front of the trailhead that describe the birds you can see nesting on the sea cliffs if you follow the two-mile trail that leads to the Hafnaberg Cliffs.It’s a long slog about 40 minutes across the lava plains on a trail of volcanic sand the color and texture of coffee grounds, and the cliffs are not quite as dramatic as the ones at Valahnúkur Point or the Krýsuvík cliffs. As with all cliffs in Iceland, be very careful at the cliff edges: gusting winds can be very strong, and putting your weight on some of the grass-tufted patches of earth at the cliff’s edge may cause them to collapse. To get there from the Keflavik Airport terminal, drive 6 km on Rt. 41 the main highway to Reykjavik and turn right onto Rt. 44 at the sign for Rt. 44/Hafnir. The highway almost immediately turns left as you are driving around the former U.S. Navy/NATO base, closed by the United States in 2006, and converted to mostly civilian use by Iceland in 2011. It’s a 15-minute drive from the airport across a barren volcanic plain to the little fishing hamlet of Hafnir on a shallow ocean inlet. A cabin that was abandoned here between 770 and 880 provides the earliest known archaeological evidence of settlement in Iceland. As you drive south from Hafnir, you are passing through one of three areas in Iceland that were used by the Apollo flight crew to practice moonwalking. Watch for a parking area on the right, about 5 km south of Hafnir. You may first notice a cement podium by the parking area that represents the location of the planet Neptune — part of an exhibit of the planets of the solar system placed in proportion to their distances from a model of the Sun located at the Geothermal Power Plant, 6 km down the road.
Bridge Between Continents
The so-called Bridge Between Continentst, also called Leif the Lucky's or Miðlína Bridge, is a pedestrian bridge over the Álfagjá rift symbolically connecting the European and American continental plates. It's located east of Rt. 41, 2 km south of the parking area for the Hafnaberg Cliffs. The bridge is a bit of a gimmick because the rift it spans is at the northern edge of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge which runs north-south under the Atlantic Ocean, but curves almost 90 degrees to the east before coming onto land here, so that the rift runs east-west along the Reyjkanes Peninsula. You are located near the edge of the North American tectonic plate, extending north toward the airport, but the southern edge of the mid-Atlantic ridge is not the opposite wall of this small rift, as claimed. Instead, it is located 5 km to the southeast, near Valahnúkur Point, beyond which the land is the EuroAsian plate, extending to the south. Nevertheless, it is worth pausing here to contemplate that the area in between — that you are about to drive across if you are heading south — is the rift zone between the two continents: a spreading center where new land is being created and the North American and Eurasian plates are are continuously drifting apart at an average rate of about six-tenths of an inch per year in this location, widening the Atlantic Ocean. Iceland is the only place in the world where the Mid-Atlantic Ridge comes up out of the sea and is exposed on land. This portion of the ridge is called the Reykjanes Ridge, coming up out of the ocean at the tip of Valahnúkur Point and heading east along the Reykjanes Peninsula. An older section of the ridge extends up through Þingvellir National Park. The more active ridge extends east along Iceland’s coast before swinging north under the interior of Iceland, beneath the immense Vatnajökull ice sheet and northwards past Lake Myvatn, finally descending back into the North Atlantic Ocean near Ásbyrgi National Park and Skjálfandi Bay. This rift zone is populated with “swarms” of rifts like the one spanned here by the bridge so there is nothing special about this particular rift.
Sandvik
Sandvik Beach, IcelandA rare beach on a peninsula where the coastline is mostly volcanic rock. This is where Clint Eastwood shot the beach landings for his movie Flags of Our Fathers, about the battle for Iwo Jima. The volcanic black sands and geothermal landscape match the island of Iwo Jima. Across the road from the Bridge Between Continents, you’ll notice a shallow valley with an inlet from the sea. You can turn off on the first dirt road south of the parking lot for the bridge, heading toward the sea — look for a sign for Sandvik, which means “Sand Beach.” In 1 km, as you enter a large cleared area, bear right and park. You can walk over the low bluff to Sandvik’s black sands.
Valahnúkur Point
Valahnúkur Point, IcelandReykjanestá is the southwestern-most tip of Iceland, and you can drive to the tip of the point, where you can climb the steeply sloping backsides of a couple of tall bluffs to get a close-up view of birds nesting on the cliffs. The first lighthouse in Iceland was built on at the top of Valahnúkur in 1878, and you can still see its foundation there. By 1905, earthquakes and surf had damaged Valahnúkur so much that there was the risk of the lighthouse falling into the sea, so it was demolished with explosives in 1908 and the current lighthouse was built in 1907-1908 on the hill behind it. Valahnúkur and the small hills directly to the north formed in underwater fissure eruptions about 10,000 years ago. The sea stack 1,000 feet offshore is named Karl "Old Man". It is the remnant of an undersea eruption on the Mid Atlantic Ridge that pushed a tuff cone up out of the sea. This was part of the Younger Stampar lava that erupted at the beginning of the Reykjanes Fires 1211-1240 AD. You may be able to see Eldey Island nine miles off the point, a piece of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge in the form of a seven-acre rock that rises 250 feet above the ocean. It is home to about half of Iceland’s population of Northern Gannet birds — 16,000 pairs roost on its cliffs. Tragically, the world’s last pair of Great Auk birds were killed here in 1844. The Great Auk was a flightless seabird, and the biggest of the Auk family. There is a five-foot tall statue here, from the Lost Bird Project (http://www.toddmcgrain.com/), commemorating this great bird the actual bird was just over two feet tall. From the Bridge Between Continents, drive 4 kilometers south on Rt. 41 and turn right at the geothermal power plant. You can visit the Power Plant Earth exhibit at the back of the power plant on the right. Or continue past the power plant, turning left and following the road to a T-intersection. Turn right to Valahnúkur Point, passing the light house.
Gunnnuhver
Gunnnuhver geothermal area, IcelandYou can walk on boardwalks around steaming vents and mud pots described in the name Reykjanes, which means "Smoky Point" in this geothermal area. The underground water here is seawater, which is unusual for a geothermal area. The construction of the nearby geothermal power plant in 2006 caused the amount of geothermal activity here to increase, causing the steam vents to spread across the road to the parking area so that it no longer connects with the segment of road on the other side that provides a direct connection to Rt. 41. As you leave the parking lot at Valahnúkur Point, go straight at the T-intersection instead of turning left, and drive up to the parking lot at Gunnnuhver.
Brimketil
Brimketil pool, IcelandBrimketil is a natural, small round pool formed by lava at the base of the sea cliff that can cause waves to spout upwards. From the road to Valahnúkur Point/Gunnnuhver, go south on Rt. 41 for 5 km, and watch for a small wooden sign post on the right that says Brimketil, marking a short dirt road leading to the base of a rise at the water’s edge. If you walk over the top of this rise, going slightly to the left from the end of the road, you will find the pool.
Grindavík
The village Grindavík provides more than 40 percent of Iceland’s salt fish production with one of the most active harbors in the country. From Brimketil, go southeast on Rt. 41. If you stay on the road as you pass the village, you will come to a T-intersection with Rt. 43. To enter the village, turn right on Rt. 43. To visit the Salthusid seafood restaurant, turn left at the first round-about in town and go one block. The gas station at the next intersection offers fast food.
Blue Lagoon
Blue Lagoon, IcelandAmazing geothermal spa with the water temperature around 40 °C all year round, even in freezing conditions. The lava field surrounding the Blue Lagoon dates from the Reykjanes Fires eruptions in 1226. The moss growing on the lava gives you some idea of what the earth looked like when moss was the first living thing to colonize dry land 475 million years ago. There is a cafeteria in the Blue Lagoon, and a restaurant called Lava. The Northern Light Hotel on the other side of the geothermal plant has a restaurant. To go the Blue Lagoon from Grindavík, you can turn north on the road just alongside the U.S. Navy radio antennae that starts one kilometer west of the T-intersection at the entrance to Grindavík. Go 5 km north and look for the Blue Lagoon on the right. Go a bit past the entrance to the Blue Lagoon to look at the milky blue waters pooling in the lava on the right. Alternately, you can stay on Rt. 43 as you leave Grindavík, and turn left on the first road after the geothernal power plant.
Krýsuvík Cliffs
Krýsuvík Cliffs, IcelandDramatic views of birds nesting on the sea cliffs. From the highway, you drive down a 2.5 km dirt road to a parking area. The road has some potholes you can steer around and a little graveled stream crossing that was easy for a 2WD car to negotiate. To get there from the the Blue Lagoon, you can turn right as you leave the Blue Lagoon parking lot and drive a short distance to the T-intersection with Rt. 43. Turn right to head towards the cliffs going left takes you back to Reykjavik. Follow the road into Grindavík and turn left at the first intersection after the round-about, taking Rt. 427 going toward Þorlákshöfn. Go 18 km and watch for a small wooden sign on the right that says Krýsuvík.
Graenavatn
Graenavatn, IcelandA 6,000-year-old explosion crater with a blue-green lake in it formed when molten lava overheated the ground water. From the Krýsuvík Cliffs, continue east on the main highway for another 2.5 km, and turn left north on Rt. 42 the sign says Krýsuvík. This road will take you back to the road to Reykjavik Rt. 41. Go 4.5 km north on Rt. 42 and watch for a sign on the right for the Graenavatn parking area. As you drive north on this road to Graenavatn, you will pass a volcanic mesa-like mountain on the left called Arnaffell. This is where Clint Eastwood shot the climax flag raising scenes for his movie Flags of Our Fathers, about the battle for Iwo Jima.
Seltún
Seltún, Iceland1.5 km north of Graenavatn, the Seltún geothermal area is, like Gunnnuhver, located in the middle of the fissure zone on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, but it’s larger and offers a bit more variety of steam vents, mud pots, and hot springs than Gunnnuhver no fun ghost story, though. You can climb the ridge above it to view another active steam vent, and see a similar vent in the distance on the far side of the valley. This was the site of a research borehole drilled in 1949 which, although rather robust, was never used for energy exploitation. Rather it was turned into a tourist attraction, complete with coffee shop long gone, alas and restrooms. The borehole was left open and continually erupting to the delight of tourists, until October 1999 when the erupting stopped suddenly, most likely due to a buildup of precipitated minerals in the borehole casing. Two weeks later, a pressure buildup caused a large explosion at the borehole, blasting out a water-filled hole 140 feet across and tossing a 220-pound stone onto the roof of the coffee shop. The ridges above Seltun, extending along the west side of Kleifarvatn Lake, are a result of sub-glacial fissure eruptions on the Mid Atlantic Ridge.
Kleifarvatn Lake
Kleifarvatn Lake, IcelandJust north of Graenavatn on Rt. 42, this lake has no waterways feeding or draining it — it fills with groundwater, and their are hot springs at the bottom. On June 17, 2000 an earthquake with magnitude greater than five opened a series of fissures at the north end of the lake, allowing water to drain downward into a lower level of the water table and probably into the fault zone itself. Within nine months of the earthquake, the lake level lowered by 13 feet. Still, it is more than 300 feet deep, and occupied by a monster in the shape of a worm and size of a medium sized whale, according to legends. The road is graveled extending north from the lake for a few kilometers. Watch for stockfish drying racks, about 6 km north of Kleifarvatn Lake, just south of Straumsvík on the right — an interesting sight.
Straumsvík
At low tide you can see fresh water flowing from Iceland's largest coastal springs through channels and straits between lava skerries into the ocean. The springs produce 4,000 liters of water per second. The water comes from precipitation that falls on the lava fields further inland, and then percolates into the porous ground. There are abundant birds, mussels, and a rare species of trout, the dwarf char. There are several ponds at Þorbjarnarstaðir farm near Straumsvík where the water level is controlled by the ebb and flow of the sea, and there is a holy spring called Gvendarbrunnur.