The peninsula's southern coast has the most level land between mountains and sea, the best beaches for horseback riding and seal-spotting, and the most rain. The western tip is dominated by Snæfellsjökull and the lava that spouted from the volcano beneath it. The indented northern coastline has the best harbors, and thus the vast majority of the population. The following sights are laid out in a clockwise pattern around the peninsula, but travel can, of course, commence in any direction.
Bus Tours -- Reykjavík Excursions (tel. 562-1011; www.re.is) offers a guided, 10-hour "Wonders of Snæfellsjökull" tour, which, despite the name, does not venture onto the glacier. Stops include Arnarstapi, Djúpalónssandur, and Ólafsvík. The tour costs 18,900kr, not including lunch, and leaves Reykjavík three times per week from June to August. Iceland Excursions (tel. 540-1313; www.icelandexcursions.is) has an almost identical tour for 19,900kr, departing 3 days per week from June through August.
Eldborg, a 200m-long (656 ft.) crater at the southeast base of the peninsula, has an elegantly symmetrical, oblong shape rising from the lava field it spawned some 5,000 to 8,000 years ago. More dramatic scoria craters are found elsewhere in Iceland -- Hverfell at Lake Mývatn, for example -- but for travelers sticking close to Reykjavík, Eldborg is a fairly interesting 2-hour round-trip hike. The best approach is from Snorrastaðir farm; the turnoff from Route 54 is 35km (22 miles) from Borgarnes.
Gerðuberg, an escarpment of hexagonal basalt columns, is strikingly broad and rectilinear. Gerðuberg is a 1km (3/4 miles) detour from Route 54; the turnoff is about 46km (29 miles) from Borgarnes, on a dirt road almost directly opposite Route 567 to Hótel Eldborg.
Proceeding west, Route 54 passes Route 571 78km (48 1/2 miles) from Borgarnes, and then moves close to the shoreline. About 6 1/2km (4 1/4 miles) after the Route 571 junction is a turnoff for Ytri-Tunga Farm on the left, and past the farmhouse is a beach with a seal colony. The farm is private property, so be respectful of any signs, and do not disturb or try to feed the seals.
Iceland specializes in converting hot springs to swimming pools, however unlikely the location. The Lýsuhóll geothermal pool (tel. 433-9917; mid-June to Aug 11am-6:30pm; admission 350kr) is so natural that you may find clumps of algae bobbing on the surface. To Icelanders, this is all the more healthful. The turnoff is on the north side of Route 54, about 8 1/2km (5 1/4miles) west of Ytri-Tunga.
Just west of Lýsuhóll, Route 54 passes Búðavík, a bay with lovely, broad sandbanks, backgrounded by the glacier. After Búðavík, Route 54 cuts overland to the north coast, while Route 574 continues along the south coast. Off Route 574, less than a kilometer from the Route 54 junction, a turnoff leads to Búðir, once a thriving fishing village and now just an 1848 church and a fabulous country hotel. West of Búðir along the coast is the Búðahraun lava field, a protected nature reserve. Route 574 passes north of Búðahraun to Breiðavík, another idyllic bay for strolling beachcombers. The free brochure Snæfellsnes: Magical Iceland lays out walking routes in these areas.
For centuries Búðir was the most active trading center on the south coast of Snæfellsnes. A hundred people lived here in 1703, the year Iceland's first census was taken. The church is well restored and worth a look; ask for the key in the hotel lobby. Búðir is the best starting point for walks over the Búðahraun. A 2km (1 1/4 miles) trail heads southwest along the coast to Frambúðir, an anchorage dating back to the Settlement Age. Ruins of fishermen's huts, fish-drying sheds, and trading booths are still visible, and whales are often spotted offshore. From Frambúðir, a trail cuts inland across the lava field to Búðaklettur, a volcanic crater 88 (289 ft.) deep. The surrounding lava flowed from here 5,000 to 8,000 years ago, and has since revegetated with mosses, wildflowers, heather, birch, and eleven varieties of fern. Unusual color variations are found in the rock. To reach Búðaklettur from the hotel, allow 3 hours round-trip.
Just a small cluster of houses on the western end of Breiðavík, Arnarstapi is near a small, rocky cove. The village's coastline is popular with birdwatchers, though they could face attacks by arctic terns, especially during the May-June nesting season. Snjófell (tel. 435-6783; www.snjofell.is), the leading tour operator for glacier expeditions, is based here. The clunky stone sculpture set back from the sea cliffs represents Bárður Snæfellsás, a half-human, half-giant saga hero and local guardian spirit. Just outside Arnarstapi, Route 574 skirts the base of Stapafell, a mountain long thought to be an elf domicile. A doorway has been painted on the rocks.
The 2 1/2km (1 1/2 miles) Arnarstapi-Hellnar trail between Arnarstapi and Hellnar, the next village to the west, falls within a protected nature reserve and is understandably the most popular seaside hiking route on Snæfellsnes. Of all the unusual forms of lava erosion seen from the clifftop trail, the most striking is Gatklettur, a natural arch extending into the sea. The trail is not well-marked and can be confusing, so allow an hour each way.
Situated on a blissful stretch of rocky coast, the tiny fishing village of Hellnar (year-round population: 9) is a perfect rest stop, even for those not hiking the Arnarstapi-Hellnar trail. The Fjöruhúsið Café has an outdoor deck overlooking the Baðstofa (Bathhouse), a sea cave resounding with bird cacophony.
The Western Coast
The park map, available at all nearby tourist information centers, details many excellent alternatives to ascending Snæfellsjökull. The wild-looking peaks northwest of the glacier are particularly intriguing, with nowhere near the tourist traffic.
At the peninsula's southwest end, Malarrif (Pebble Reef) is the starting point for a rewarding 40-minute round-trip walk east along the shore to Lóndrangar, a pair of beautiful sea pillars from a long-extinct volcano. The turnoff from Route 574 is 8km (5 miles) west of Arnarstapi, and the parking area is next to a lighthouse that looks like a rocket.
About 4km (2 1/2 miles) northwest from Malarrif, Route 572 branches off from Route 574 and leads 2km (1 1/4 miles) to Djúpalónssandur, a black-sand beach set amid strangely eroded clumps of lava. The partial remains of a British fishing trawler shipwrecked in 1948 lie scattered on the beach, with an informational sign. The wreckage looks simply like litter, but may resonate as a symbol of Iceland's historic struggles with the British over territorial fishing waters. From Djúpalónssandur, a 15-minute trail leads to Dritvík, an equally scenic cove to the north. Remarkably, Dritvík was the largest seasonal fishing station in all of Iceland from the mid-16th to the mid-19th centuries, with as many as 600 men camped out there during spring and summer. Some remains of stone walls can still be seen.
Hólahólar, a crater cluster that is clearly visible from Route 574, can be reached by a marked turnoff 3km (2 miles) north of the Route 572 junction. The road proceeds right into the largest crater, Berudalur, which forms a natural amphitheater. A wonderful, easy seaside trail proceeds from Hólahólar 4km (2 1/2 miles) north to Beruvík.
The northwest corner of Snæfellsnes is accessed via Route 579, a bumpy road extending 7km (4 1/4 miles) from Route 574. Within 2km (1 1/4 miles) the road passes Skarðsvík, an alluring golden-sand beach with a sign marking the Viking grave site discovered there. One kilometer (1/2 mile) farther is a parking area on the left, with trails heading through the Neshraun lava field to Vatnsborg -- a small crater with vertical walls descending to a captivating fern-filled hollow -- and Grashólshellir, a small cave. Vatnsborg is 2km (1 1/4 miles) one-way, and the Grashólshellir is a kilometer (1/2 mile) farther, but neither should be prioritized if time is limited. Öndverðarnes is the small peninsula at the very northwest tip, a scene of multiple shipwrecks and bleak cliffs known as Svörtuloft (The Black Skies). The lighthouse here is disappointingly stubby, and the sad ruins of a well lie 200m (656 ft.) away.
At Fiskbyrgi, the ruins of fish-drying sheds, simple structures of lava rock, are up to six hundred years old and have taken on an eerie stateliness over the centuries. The 5-minute trail to the site starts at a parking area on the south side of Route 574, about 1km (1/2 mile) east of the Route 579 junction and just west of a 420m-high (1,378 ft.) radio transmitter once used by the U.S. Navy to position ships and aircraft.
The North Coast
One of Iceland's oldest fishing villages, Hellissandur is home to Sjómannagarður (tel. 436-6784; Jun-Aug Tues-Sun 10am-noon and 1-6pm), a humble maritime museum with a re-creation of a typical, turf-roofed fisherman's hut from the early 1900s. The requested donation is 100kr ($1.60/80p), or free for children under 12. Iceland has far better maritime museums, but they usually cost 500kr ($8/£4) a head. Sjómannagarður is on Route 574, across the road from and just west of the N1 gas station.
Ólafsvík is one of Iceland's oldest trade centers, and today nets the most fish of any village in Snæfellsnes. The Snæfellsbæjar Regional Museum (Byggðasafn Snæfellsbæjar), Route 574 (tel. 433-6930; admission 500kr adults, free for seniors and children under 12; May-Sept 9am-7pm), is inside an 1841 warehouse that also houses the tourist information office on the ground floor. The exhibits are mostly just antiquated household items and farm implements. The Sjavarsafnið Ólafsvík (tel. 436-6961; admission 300kr/$4.80/£2.40 adults, free for children 15 and under; June-Aug daily noon-5pm), a maritime museum by the harbor, has been closed recently but is slated to reopen (by summer 2009) with water tanks full of marine specimens.
Grundarfjörður is the most picturesque town on the north coast. Kirkjufell, its oblong signature mountain, pokes up from a promontory west of town, while good trails lead south from town into the peninsula's mountainous spine. The Eyrbyggja Heritage Centre, Route 54 at Hrannarstígur (tel. 438-1881; free admission; June-Aug daily 9am-5pm), which doubles as the tourist information center, has permanent exhibits on "Radical Changes in Rural Iceland 1900-1960" and "French Fisherman in Iceland" -- though what's most likely to justify the admission price are the nonstop screenings of Icelandic documentaries and feature films with English subtitles. Films are on a set schedule, but it's not yet posted online.
Meaning "Berserkers Lava Field," the gloriously weird Berserkjahraun lies halfway between Grundarfjörður and Stykkishólmur. The lava flowed some 3,000 to 4,000 years ago and is young enough to retain all kinds of convoluted shapes, with fascinating color and textural contrasts in the rock and thick mosses.
The berserkers, from whom "gone berserk" originates, were a faction of Norse mercenaries known for their savage battle frenzy. In Old Icelandic, berserkr meant "bear-shirted," so they may have worn bear pelts; but berr also meant "bare," so the name may have only signified fighting without armor. Berserkers disappeared by the 1100s, leaving a wake of mystery for future scholars. Some maintain they were merely symbolic archetypes to be invoked in wartime and as literary figures in the sagas.
The Berserkjahraun was named after a famous incident in the Eyrbyggja Saga. In the late 10th century, Vermundur the Slender of Bjarnarhöfn -- a farm located just beyond the northwest boundary of the lava field -- returned from Norway with two berserkers. They were difficult to handle, so Vermundur gave them to his brother Víga-Styrr (Killer-Styrr) at Hraun, now Hraunháls farm, at the northeast end of the lava field. One of the berserkers fell in love with Víga-Styrr's daughter Ásdís and demanded her hand. Víga-Styrr agreed, on the condition that the suitor clear a path through the lava field from Hraun to Bjarnarhöfn. The berserkers quickly finished this Herculean task, but Víga-Styrr reneged on the deal and killed them instead (by locking them inside a scalding hot sauna and spearing them as they tried to escape). In the saga, the berserkers are laid to rest in a hollow along the path.
The story could indeed have some basis in truth. A path through the lava field can still be found, and in a late-19th-century excavation alongside it, researchers uncovered the skeletons of two men -- both of average height but powerfully built. To reach this path, exit Route 54 at its western junction with Route 577, marked "Bjarnarhöfn." After about 2km (1 1/4 miles), the road to Bjarnarhöfn branches off to the left. Stay on Route 577, and a sign for the "Berserkjargata" trail is shortly ahead. The trail extends about 1km (1/2 mile) through the lava field, and halfway along is the hollow, now marked only by a stone cairn and a blank, weather-beaten sign.
The best Berserkjahraun scenery, however, is south of Route 54, where the lava looks like a stormy sea frozen in time. Three access points lead from Route 54; the westernmost and easternmost are marked as Route 558, and the one in the middle is unmarked. The roads are heavily rutted but passable in regular cars. Walking trails appear here and there, but the lava can be difficult to traverse.
The same farm that figures into Eyrbyggja Saga, Bjarnarhöfn, off Route 577, near the western junction of Route 577 and Route 54. (tel. 438-1581; www.bjarnarhofn.is), now produces Iceland's most indelicate delicacy: cured and putrefied Greenlandic shark, or hákarl. Visitors see a shark exhibit, tour the facilities, and sample the goods if they dare. Hákarlsafn has been featured on several TV cooking shows in the "revolting foreign custom" segment. Admission is 1000kr ($8/£5) adults, free for children under 14 (June to mid-Sept daily 9am-6pm or call ahead).