Chris Ayliffe, a local resident of Iceland, entrepreneur and avid writer recently followed the rough route of Hidden Iceland’s Between Continents: Reykjanes & Lava Tunnel tour. His berth of knowledge and writing style led us to invite him to share his experience first hand. Who better to learn about this hidden gem than from a local with personal insights. We believe this area, near to Reykjavik, and yet largely unexplored, is worth a full day of exploration, if not more.
Written by guest writer Chris Ayliffe
If you’re currently planning a trip to Iceland, there’s no doubt you will have seen countless articles and blogs about the South Coast, the Golden Circle and perhaps even the Snæfellsnes peninsula (particularly if you’re a Game of Thrones fan!) in your research.
Though these regions all host some truly fantastic attractions well worth visiting, all too often the closer stops along the Reykjanes peninsula are much overlooked by travellers. I like to think that sometimes taking the path less taken is more of an adventure, with less crowds and something new around every corner and bend in the road.
More often than not travellers land at the airport and simply head straight for Reykjavik and completely miss the area that is immediately around them. I was the exact same, until I opened up my map, saw a road, some blue blobs and what appeared to be a mountain line before deciding to check out without even a single Google search.
In this blog, I will attempt to tempt you into exploring a path less traveled along the Reykjanes peninsula, as well as highlighting it’s main attractions along with the history, geology and folklore behind each site. Hopefully, by the end, this rugged and youthful land mass will have captivated your attention enough to include it in your travels to our charming rock in the middle of the Atlantic.
A Brief History of the Reykjanes Peninsula
Located in the south-west corner of Iceland, the Reykjanes peninsula is exactly positioned where Iceland meets the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.
The Ridge itself is a mid-ocean divergent tectonic plate sitting within the Atlantic Ocean. Where the Reykjanes peninsula meets the Atlantic Ocean you can physically see the actual ridge from the water and into the shoreline; you can even stand on a bridge directly in the middle!
Translating to ‘Smoking Peninsula’, though only a relatively small corner of Iceland, Reykjanes is actually fed by five active volcanic systems. Through geological examination, it’s believed the systems almost work in synchronised patterns with a regularity of activity every 1000 years.
The last period of volcanic activity occurred between the 10th – 13th century, better known as the Reykjanes Fires. In fact, between 1210 – 1240, it’s believed that around 50 km2of land was completely covered in lava, most of which you can nowadays drive through.
Recently volcanic activity has started to ramp up again on Reykjanes. After nearly a millennium of inactivity, in the 12 weeks following January 21st 2020, there were more than 8000 earthquakes along the peninsula (some even felt in Reykjavik) as well as a land uplift of nearly 10 cm due to underground magma intrusions, mainly centered around Mount Þorbjörn situated just behind the famous Blue Lagoon.
In terms of the peninsula’s impact on the early Icelandic settlers who arrived in 847 AD from Norway, seeking to continue their own traditions and agricultural expertise, the peninsula was full of rich fishing grounds as well as walruses, birds, whales and driftwood. This made the region a particular hotspot for capturing food to sustain the settlers, as well as wood to keep warm and build shelters from.
In fact, it’s even said that the first Icelandic settler, Ingolfur Arnarson arrived into Iceland through the Ölfusá River which is now part of Reykjanes. It’s also believed that as soon as he arrived, infatuated with his discovery of Iceland, he allocated the land to five men and one woman.
Most notably, the woman was known as Steinunn the Aged, who earned the land of the entire northern part of the peninsula having presented Ingólfur with a knitted coat. As you can tell, though incredibly generous, Ingólfur wasn’t the shrewdest negotiator of the day!
The Best Attractions Along the Reykjanes Peninsula
If you’re keen to explore this delightful section of the country, you will likely either take a day trip from Reykjavik or, if you’re not too jet-lagged, dare yourself to take your rental car exploring as soon as you land. For the purpose of this blog, I’m going to assume you are taking a day tour from Reykjavik as this is the most common approach from travellers to Iceland. Each small group tour takes a slightly different approach each time depending on the weather and the travellers. Below is a list of some of my favourite spots to visit.
As soon as you head out of Reykjavik, you’ll notice the intriguing otherworldly landscape of one of Iceland’s intriguing lava fields. As Iceland is nicknamed the land of fire and ice for a reason, it’s highly likely that you’ll encounter a number of these across your travels. Once you turn off route 41 onto route 42, your first stop is only around a 30-minute journey from the centre of Reykjavik, which is a large lake named Kleifarvatn.
Covering a staggering 10 km2, Kleifarvatn is also one of the deepest lakes in Iceland at around 97 m. Surrounded by a series of mountains, the beautiful drive will take you on a gentle winding road around the shores and up to higher altitudes where there are some great vantage points to park up and capture some pictures of this calm and incredibly picturesque location.
In recent years, since the year 2000, the area has experienced two major earthquakes. It’s suspected that these powerful acts of mother nature opened up fissures at the bottom of the lake which diminished its size from a suspected draining. Yes, in Iceland sometimes the opening up of fissures can be similar to letting some water out of a bath when it involves lakes.
Though a very quiet spot at the best of times, during some of Iceland’s fantastic long summer days under the midnight sun, you will often spot some of the locals parking close to the lake, taking a picnic, fishing and even bathing their feet in the lake. It’s best to do this at the southernmost point, as this area is constantly fed warm water by the neighbouring hot spring.
Beware however, as Icelandic folklore tells tales of a monster in the shape of worm and size of a medium-sized whale that lives in the depths of Kleifarvatn. So, be sure to keep your camera close to see if you can catch sight of this ancient beast.
Krýsuvík Geothermal Area
Just a five-minute drive from Kleifarvatn will take you to the incredibly unique geothermal area of Krýsuvík.
What makes this location particularly noteworthy is that it actually consists of several geothermal fields. When you take a walk around this location you’ll see a variety of volcanic colours decorating the mountain sides (particularly in the summer months) as well as a selection of solfataras (steaming vents), fumaroles, bubbling mud pots and hot springs.
The colourful mountain sides are decorated in a variety of reds, greens and yellows, with the mountains beautifully framing this living breathing section of the Reykjanes trail. For the photographers amongst you, make sure to head towards the top of the path where you can get some beautiful perspectives of this bubbling region.The paths are very easy to traverse with a series of well-maintained boardwalks guiding you through the bubbling and oozing geothermal fields. You’ll also find plenty of information on the signs as you make your way through the area.
If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, there is a small trail which strong hikers can climb to witness the largest solfatara at the top of the hill. Those of you daring this exploit will also be rewarded by some spectacular views of the ocean to the east as well as various fields and lakes.
Less than a 5-minute drive from Krýsuvík is the less visited lake of Grænavatn. Due to the proximity to the geothermal fields that rumble beneath the surface, this region is rife with a series of craters created by the explosions of overheated groundwater in past centuries.
Lake Grænavatn happened to form on top of one these volcanically explosive craters. It’s strange yet alluring colour mixture will capture your eye as you drive towards it with bizarrely strong shades of green along the surface. Both its formation and green colour, has meant Grænavatn is considered by geologists as one of the most noteworthy geological phenomena of its kind in Iceland.
The colours are as a result of the high level of sulphur in the water as well as its depth (around 45 m). The name translates directly to ‘Green Lake’ and makes for a fantastic short stop to walk beside and gather some very unique pictures. It is also slightly elevated against the backdrop of this geothermal region, so you can capture some rewarding frames.
For the curious among you, though Grænavatn is the largest of these colourful lakes, there are also the very similar neighbouring lakes of Gestsstaðavatn, and Augun, which are both also formed from past volcanic eruptions.
Gunnuhver Hot Springs
After you reach the end of route 42, you’ll turn right and head down the 427 past Grindavik and join the 425 straight to Gunnuhver Hot Springs. As one of the largest hot springs in Iceland, Gunnuhver measures a staggering 20 m across and is constantly ejecting incredibly dense cloudy steam at 300 °C from it’s base.
What makes this hot spring unique to any of the others you may encounter in Iceland, is that it is made up entirely of seawater due its proximity to the coast.
If you’re planning a visit in summer you’ll take the short walk from the car park through the plains of orange in this Mars-like atmosphere. The boardwalk even allows travellers to take a walk through the steam if you’re feeling particularly brave. Though warm and misty, you are entirely safe to walk through the mist – it can also create some very dramatic photographs.
Like many places in Iceland, Gunnuhver is steeped in local folklore. The legend goes that an old woman named Gunna lived in a small community on the Reykjanes peninsula in the 18th century.
Gunna was disliked by the locals and was also suspected of being a witch as it was said there was always something brewing in her pot. Before she died, a judge visited Gunna which ended up in a dispute. He also attended her funeral and was discovered dead himself the next morning, his corpse having been brutalised.
Naturally, the locals blamed the deceased Gunna. But her spirit didn’t stop there, she instead continued to cause mayhem across the peninsula in a number of ways. This only stopped when a priest told the locals to leave a loose end of a ball of twine for the ghost to grab hold of nearby. As soon as Gunna’s spirit grabbed the twine, the ball rolled into the hot spring where her spirit was doomed to be trapped there forever.
As a result, the hot spring’s name translates to ‘Gunn’s hot spring’ due to the legend. However, there are those that believe Gunna’s ghost didn’t completely fall into the hot spring, and instead she is holding on to the edge for eternity. How true this is, you’ll have to investigate for yourself as you edge closer and peer through the dense steam that pours out over the surrounding area to see if you can spot Gunna.
Reykjanesviti Lighthouse & Valahnúkamöl
Another five-minute journey away will take you past one of Iceland’s beautifully picturesque lighthouses (Reykjanesviti Lighthouse) and the boulder ridge of Valahnúkamöl. The admirable lighthouse sits on top of Bæjarfell hill on a vantage point a short distance from the shoreline.
Though originally built in 1878 much closer to the coastline, a powerful earthquake combined with surf damage led to some irreparable issues leading to the eventual demolition of the lighthouse. To resolve the situation a new lighthouse was built further inland on Bæjarfell hill to avoid any unnecessary problems in 1908.
In the summer months, visitors are not permitted to climb to the top of Bæjarfell hill to visit the lighthouse due to the nesting birds in the area. You can, however, park up at the base and gather some wonderful pictures, often to the attention of the low-flying birdlife.
In contrast, Valahnúkamöl is a high boulder ridge, which most notably hosts a series of large and dramatic sea stacks situated just off the coast, in amidst the powerful waters below. Carved by eons of powerful storms, this black volcanic area is another landscape photographer’s paradise with some tall cliffs to climb and fantastic nature shots to capture.
Most recently, this was also the location of a scene in Will Ferrell’s latest comedy classic, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga. You will recognise it as the place they filmed the music video for the hilarious rendition of ‘Volcano Man’. Get your synthesiser and Viking hat at the ready to recapture this scene!
The Bridge Between Two Continents
As mentioned at the start of this blog, the Reykjanes peninsula is exactly positioned where the Mid-Atlantic Ridge meets Iceland. Nowhere is the footprint of this ridge more visible than at the Bridge Between Two Continents as you round the corner of the peninsula.
According to the theory of continental drift the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates are continuously drifting apart from each other with intense forces of nature under the gaping rifts. As the plates divide, fissures are formed due to the stresses created by the tension that builds up as the plates move apart.
The Bridge sits directly across this fissure and allows travellers to walk directly in the boundary of these two major tectonic plates that make up the Earth’s crust. Ensure you take your time to explore the small cavernous boundary between the fissure which is a truly surreal experience.
Why not have your partner stand on the North American plate and you on the Eurasian plate, where you can then meet in the middle? After all, where else in the world can you get such a unique opportunity?!
The Blue Lagoon
As you rejoin route 41 which runs past Keflavik airport all the way back to Reykjavik, why not reward yourself after a day of travelling at the world-famous, Blue Lagoon.
Taking the turn off towards Grindavik on route 43, you’ll shortly arrive at the mineral-rich and tranquil azure milky waters of this delightful spa. With the opportunity to allow your muscles to relax and any tensions to soothe, you can also enjoy a face mask and a drink in the rejuvenating waters situated in the midst of a lava field.
Due to the popularity of the Blue Lagoon with travellers from all over the world, you’ll have to make sure you book your tickets with an allocated time well in advance of arrival to avoid any disappointments.
Raufarhólshellir Lava Tunnel
If you’re keen to book a killer day tour to the Reykjanes peninsula, you’ll get the added advantage of including one of the best experiences in Iceland, with a visit to Raufarhólshellir Lava Tunnel.
As one of the longest lava tubes in Iceland, at 1360 m long, an average height of 10 m and a width of up to 30 m, you’ll be awestruck by how incredible and vast this lava tunnel is. Your guided tour will take you past a series of natural holes and skylights in the ceiling, bizarre and beautiful rock formations covered in the rugged colours from an ancient lava flow.
You’ll get to explore and understand the reality of Iceland’s intense active volcanism and the inner workings of a volcanic eruption with this sensory marvel. You’ll want to keep your camera at the ready for this once in a lifetime experience which makes it one of the best things to see and do in Iceland.
Raufarhólshellir formed around 5200 years ago, and the source of the lava flow which created the tube is located 10 km uphill from the cave which was part of the powerful Leitahraun eruption.
In more recent times, the tunnel has featured in the 2014 Darren Aronofsky movie, Noah, as well hosting two concerts in 2017 as part of Iceland’s famous Secret Solstice festival. Only in Iceland can you have a live band rocking out in a lava tunnel!
In short, the Reykjanes peninsula is one of the most visibly volcanically alive regions in Iceland. With a series of natural wonders, folktales and a rich and diverse landscape, and located just a short ride from Reykjavik this under looked region is an area you should look to fit into your holiday plans.
Whether you’re travelling to Iceland in winter, or travelling in summer, you’ll get to witness this rich and diverse landscape in a mixture of beautiful and unique atmospheres which completely transform the setting. I can’t promise you like Iceland’s founder, Ingolfur Arnarson, that I can swap you a patch of land on the Reykjanes peninsula for a knitted sweater, but I can promise you a fantastic adventure that is all too often missed by travellers.
About the guest author
Guest writer, Chris Ayliffe, is the Chief Marketing Officer for Traveo, a Reykjavík based travel company focusing on self-drives, partially guided and privately guided tours.