The sights listed follow a counterclockwise loop around the peninsula, but you can also follow the route in reverse.
Garður & Garðskagi
Garður, 15 minutes' drive northwest from Keflavík, is the northernmost town on the peninsula. Its main tourist draw is Garðskagi, a rocky point with two lighthouses and a quirky folk museum. To reach Garðskagi, drive through Garður and follow the coast toward the lighthouse in the distance. (As you leave town, consider stopping at Útskálakirkja, the lovely church visible from the road on your right.) The larger lighthouse, Garðskagaviti, is the tallest in Iceland; the outmoded 1897 lighthouse still stands close by. Built in 1944, Garðskagaviti was a gift from American servicemen grateful for being rescued from a sinking U.S. Coast Guard vessel. Visitors can climb all the way to the 360-degree lookout platform at the top. (If it's locked, ask for a key in the museum.) The last stretch of the climb involves steep, narrow steps and a trap door. Garðskagi offers a broad, flat ocean vista, bird sightings, and lots of wind.
Sandgerði is a busy fishing village 5km (3 miles) south of Garður on Route 45. The Nature Center, below, is on the north end of town, in a cluster that also includes two art galleries, the Mamma Mía pizzeria, and the Vitinn restaurant.
Hallgrímur Pétursson, Iceland's most revered clergyman, had his first parish at Hvalsneskirkja, 5km (3 miles) south of Sandgerði. Hallgrímur's only child, Steinunn Hallgrímsdóttir, died here in 1649, profoundly affecting his religious mission. Her gravestone was found in 1964 when the church's stone walkway was built. It now sits near the altar of the beautifully restored church, its crude lettering remarkably intact. Someone should be around to let you in during the summer from 8am to 4pm, but if not, you can borrow a key from the Nature Center, below. The area around the church has only one full-time resident, now in his late 80s.
The Western Coast
2km (1 1/4 miles) south of Hvalsneskirkja is a junction. The road bearing right dead ends at a bright yellow lighthouse. The new road bearing left continues along the coast until it joins Route 44 near Hafnir. Until 2006, when the nearby NATO base was abandoned, this connecting road could not be built because of security concerns.
Hafnir is a sleepy town without much to see. Proceeding south along Route 425, the landscape is suddenly dominated by harsh black lava with little vegetation. This was one of three areas in Iceland used by the Apollo flight crew to practice moonwalking. About 5km (3 miles) south of Hafnir is a parking area on the right, with a small sign indicating the trailhead for Hafnaberg Cliffs, a prime nesting site for guillemots, kittiwakes, fulmars, and razorbills. The 1 1/2-hour round-trip hike is recommended for birders, but you'll find more visually dramatic seacliffs at Reykjanes, below. If you do walk to Hafnaberg, keep an eye out for whales.
Another 2km (1 1/4 miles) farther south is a well-marked turnoff for the Bridge Between Two Continents, which is a pointless waste of time. A 15m (49-ft.) footbridge spans an ordinary rift in the rock, claimed to be the dividing line between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. Scientifically, this is nonsense; the rifts are all over the Reykjanes Peninsula, in anything but a straight line. Admission is free, but the plan is to sell "I spanned two continents" certificates to the unwary.
"Reykjanes" means "Smoky Point." The name originally referred only to this southwest corner of the peninsula, with its steamy geothermal hotspots. The highlight is Valahnúkur, a magical stretch of coastline where you can clamber up grassy banks and peer over the indented cliffsides at crashing waves, while thousands of birds bob around in the wind currents. To get to Valahnúkur, turn right off Route 425 just before the power plant, and make your way past the lighthouse on the unsurfaced roads. The area can be fully explored in an hour or so. Be very careful at the cliff edges: winds can be extremely gusty, and some grass-tufted patches of earth may not support your weight. The striking, near-cylindrical island Eldey, a bird preserve 15km (9 1/4 miles) offshore, is part of the same volcanic rift line that formed Valahnúkur.
You can return to Route 425 by a different dirt road, which runs south of the power plant and its runoff lake. Once you've passed the lighthouse, just head for the steam rising from a small hill. This is Gunnuhver, a typical geothermal field swathed with mineral colors and thick, eggy vapors. Gunnuhver is named for Gunna, a woman who, according to legend, was accused of murder and thrown into the boiling hot spring. Warning: Tread carefully: Trail guidance is sparse, and one false step could melt the rubber right off your soles.
The 17km (11 miles) stretch on Route 425 east from Reykjanes is practically deserted, so it's arresting to suddenly encounter Grindavík's clustered mass of prefab houses and difficult-to-navigate harbor. With its technologically advanced fish-processing plant, the town gives off an industrious and forward-looking air. Reykjanes has little arable land, so local economies are especially dependent on fishing. A helpful visitor information desk is inside the Saltfish Museum, below.
Arctic Horses (Arctic Hestar), Hestabrekka 2, Grindavík (tel. 696-1919; www.arctichorses.com), leads 90-minute rides around the scenic peninsula southeast of Grindavík (4,800kr/$77/£38 per person).
Route 427 proceeds east from Grindavík to Krýsuvík, fairly close to the south coast. This road will soon be paved, but if you continue directly back to Reykjavik, the route can be a bit rough. This has discouraged tourism to this eastern region of Reykjanes Peninsula, which feels wonderfully remote.
Twelve kilometers (7 miles) east of Grindavík, a small brown sign on the right points to Selatangar, a fishing settlement abandoned since 1880. The gravel road proceeds 1.7km (1 mile) to a small parking area near the shore. From there it's a 10-minute walk east, mostly on black sand, to an assortment of crude stone foundations for huts and storehouses. The setting is stark, poignant, and a little spooky. (Residents claimed they were chased out by a ghost named "Tumi.") Looking east, you can see this was the first decent place to land a boat for quite a stretch.
Returning to Route 427 and continuing east, the junction with Route 428 is 3km (2 miles) ahead. Route 428, a spectacularly scenic drive across an interior highland plateau, can be tackled in a conventional car in summer, but only by proceeding slowly and carefully. You'll need at least an hour to get to the Route 42 junction north of Kleifarvatn Lake. Along the way are several opportunities for short hikes to viewpoints on the ridges east of the road. The Myndkort photomap is particularly useful for tracking a route.
If instead of turning onto Route 428, you continue straight on Route 427, you'll reach Krýsuvík Church (Krýsuvíkurkirkja) in 9km (5 1/2 miles). This tiny, brown, 1857 wood church once served the surrounding farm, which is now abandoned. A priest from Hafnarfjörður, who visits twice a year to conduct services, calls it "the most modest church in Iceland." Leave a note in the guestbook; he likes to read it aloud to congregants. The church is always open, even in the off season. The altarpiece, mounted in summer only, is an abstract work in broad swaths of primary colors by Sveinn Björnsson (1925-1997). Sveinn, a sailor inspired by Picasso, primitivism, and the local scenery, lived in the blue house with the red roof visible to the north along Route 42. This house, crammed with Sveinn's paintings, turns into a museum (www.sveinssafn.is) on the first Sunday of each summer month (noon-5pm).
Across Route 427, opposite the church, is Arnarfell, a large, distinct hill with a rocky crest. Clint Eastwood, in his WWII movie Flags of Our Fathers, used Arnarholl to film the climactic scene, which reenacts the famous photograph of U.S. Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima.
Just east of the church, Route 427 ends at Route 42. Turning right leads you on another beautiful drive to Þorlákshöfn and Hveragerði. Turning left takes you north toward Reykjavík through the Reykjanesfólkvangur wilderness reserve.
Only 40km (25 miles) from Reykjavík, Reykjanesfólkvangur was designated a nature reserve in 1975 to protect the region's lava formations around ridge volcanoes. Heading north from Krýsuvík on Route 42, the first notable landmark is Grænavatn, an oddly tinted green lake inside an explosion crater. A parking area is on the right, and it's worth popping out for a quick look. Another kilometer (3/4 mile) farther north is the Seltún geothermic field. A short loop trail proceeds through the chemical odors and bubbling mud cauldrons.
Slightly farther north is Kleifarvatn, a large, deep, and starkly beautiful lake with black sand beaches. Intake and outflow of water is very limited, and in 2000, water levels dropped considerably after earthquakes opened fissures on the lake bottom. The scenery is well enjoyed from the spit of Lambatangi, a short walk from the road on the southern end of the lake. Watch out for Kleifarvatn's resident monster, which is shaped like a worm but large as a whale.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.