Strandir in the West Fjords is a perfect road trip for a two-day scenic drive
Updated: Dec 6, 2022
Strandir is the Icelandic name for the eastern shoreline of the West Fjord peninsula. The name is the plural of the word coast and translates as The Coasts. It is one of the most mysterious parts of Iceland, and has been a sanctuary for otherworldly forces since the time of the country’s settlement. For centuries, the entire region was one of the most isolated parts of Iceland, and I daresay it still qualifies for such a description. It was a place with scarce means for creating a livelihood, limited land to cultivate, steep mountains hard to negotiate, and intractable landforms in general. The area has occasionally had rich resources in the contiguous ocean, which tend to manifest and then disappear without trace or any notice, as if by magic or deception. Last but not the least, the weather in this territory is notoriously harsh and challenging, at the best of times. Strandir is also home to sorcery, illusion, and witchcraft. This could be true even in the 21st century.
A place of nature and shattered dreams of wealth
Oddly, despite all its obvious limitations, Strandir has seen its share of human enterprise, where an unprecedented amount of money and resources have been poured into various ventures like factories and fish processing companies. Unfortunately, people seem only too eager to invest in all the wrong places in this part of Iceland, almost as if they are being trapped into failure. This happened again and again in the late 19th and the 20th centuries, even though communication and transportation were highly challenging. Currently, a flock of optimistic entrepreneurs have for decades been channeling enormous resources into a project of building a tiny hydroelectric power plant, battling an avalanche of obstacles that seem to pop up from the least expected quarters. Despite the interest and resources, however, this venture at Strandir too bears all the signs of turning into a business disaster. Remarkably, though, it is a place where nature seems always to invite and nurture dream merchants, loaded with capital and projects. Yet, all this only makes the region more fascinating.
The drive and the road
In recent decades, access to the northernmost part of Strandir which you can reach by road has improved, and driving all the way to Norðurfjörður fjord is relatively easy in summer. It is not a drive anyone should even think of undertaking during winter, as the road is most likely closed for months and slippery even if open. During summer, however, the trip is highly recommended, although it is not an easy drive and requires caution and careful driving; the road is narrow and treacherous, sometimes threading along a steep and rocky slope. You might be apprehensive when you start the drive, but the farther north you travel, the more comfortable you will feel. In contrast to many interesting road trips and drives in Iceland where you tend to drive in a kind of circle, Strandir is a destination from which you need to take the same route back, once you have reached the northernmost end of the road, the fjord Norðurfjörður.
What you will see on the Strandir drive
Like the Westfjords Drive, the Strandir Drive is more of an exhilarating experience, rather than a trip to see natural wonders. It is a sojourn into what is still a remote and peaceful part of Iceland, through a magnificent landscape with some stunning views from the tops of mountain passes. You will see tiny hamlets as well as beautiful and impressive fjords. A part of Iceland is still hard to live in, with communication in winter being difficult, and yet it is different in many ways and alluring when you add the region's history to your drive.
The road, and the best car and time of year to drive to Strandir
The whole drive from Hólmavík village to Norðurfjörður fjord is approximately 240 kilometers. Here we account for the approximately 35 kilometers added to take the Drangsnes loop, an interesting detour, but which you only visit on your way to Norðfjörður fjord. The road is, for the most part, a gravel track, of which a large section is narrow and at some points requiring caution, especially when passing vehicles approaching from the opposite direction. If you do to take the Strandir drive, it is a good idea to check the weather, as this part of Iceland experiences considerable precipitation and fog, often reducing visibility below optimum levels while driving to Norðurfjörður. We highly recommend a mid-sized or a 4WD car for this road. It is possible to venture on this road during summer in a small car, even if that is not the most convenient way to travel. When you arrive at Norðurfjörður fjord, you are less than halfway to the Strandir coastline, but driving any farther is close to impossible.
Driving back and forth in a day or preferably two days
We recommend that you drive north from Hólmavík and start on Road Nr. 61, turning into Road Nr. 643 a few kilometers beyond Hólmavík village. Although that road leads all the way to Norðurfjörður, we recommend the loop, driving by the north shore of Steingrímsfjörður fjord and stopping at Drangsnes, Road Nr. 645. It is not uncommon to see whales in the Steingrímsfjörður fjord. If you must stop, find a good spot where you can park your car. Do not stop the vehicle on the road or the shoulder of the road at any time. That has proven to be very dangerous. Drangsnes is a tiny hamlet with an inviting little pool just by the roadside that you can stop at for a dip, as you drive through the village. The jacuzzi pots are heated with natural geothermal water and located on the shore by the main road, with locker rooms and showers on the other side of the road. In Drangsnes (and here is a well-kept secret in the tourism in Iceland), you can take a boat tour to Grímsey small island in Steingrímsfjörður fjord. This island is the best place in Iceland to see puffins in numbers and close if you are interested in puffins. After Drangsnes, you continue Road Nr. 645 until it merges with Road Nr. 643 again after about 25 kilometers, and head to Norðurfjörður.
Svanur, the sorcerer
When you turn into Road Nr. 643, you have reached another fjord, Bjarnarfjörur. Immediately on your left side you pass the farm Svanshóll, home of one of the first settlers in this region. That was around eleven hundred years ago, and he was a famous sorcerer. He is renowned for having used sorcery to deceive a group of men into a thick wall of fog who wanted to get their hands on a man who had murdered his niece's husband for hitting her brutally in the face. His niece Hlalgerður Langbrók is one of the most famous women in Iceland’s early history and literature. Slightly farther up the road is a perfect second stop by the minor river Hallardalsá, near the Goðafoss waterfall. This is a beautiful place to spend some tranquil minutes by the small, lovely Hallardalsárgljúfur canyon. It is a perfect pit stop where you can stretch your legs, taking a short hike up the slope by the canyon for relaxation and photography.
The drive along the shoreline
From Bjarnafjörður, you drive 40 kilometers along the shoreline to Reykjarfjörður fjord and Djúpavík hamlet located at the bottom of the fjord, a place of major ventures and broken dreams. Interestingly, on your way you will see by the shore quite a few places choked with driftwood, flotsam that has drifted from Russia and has been valuable for landowners and farmers here throughout the centuries, although its usefulness today is limited. You can find several places to stop for taking a short walk, either by the shore or a short distance into the small valleys like Asparvík or Kaldbaksdalur. Another great view is from the summit of the mountain pass Veiðileysuháls toward the Veiðileysa fjord. This is an excellent place to stand and wonder how the glacier might have formed the fjords millions of years ago when heavy glacier tongues crawled towards the ocean, scarping through the bedrock, sculpting the mountains and fjords over hundreds of thousands of years. When you reach Reykjarfjörður fjord, Djúpavík tiny village is a great place to stop and see the factory and learn about the unique history of this region. Driving farther up the north coast of Norðurfjörður, you should stop at another tiny hamlet nearby, Gjögur. Here you get an interesting view of the mountains on the south shore of Reykjarfjörður fjord. Here also is located the airstrip, a lifeline for this otherwise inaccessible area during winter.
Reaching Norðurfjörður fjord
From Gjögur, you head on to tiny Trékyllisvík hamlet, the place that throughout history has been the center for Árneshreppur municipality. Trékyllisvík is another excellent spot for a walk by the coast, viewing birds and enjoying the landscapes. Trékyllisvík has a peculiar history, having been the site of a witch hunt in Iceland during the 17th century. It is also a place that has often seen polar bears throughout its history, and seven in a group at one time in winter in the 17th century. When you drive the short distance to Norðurfjörður, you pass a slope at the foot of a mountain, by Urðir. It is a steep, dangerous hill, where falling rocks tended to kill travelers until some centuries ago. The "accidents" are said to have stopped after a bishop, Guðumundur the good, blessed the slope. Apparently, the sanctification is still active, as no one has been injured or lost their lives since the blessing. Norðurfjörður is a short distance away. When you arrive at Norðurfjörður, you should take the time to relax in the fantastic small, geothermal Krossneslaug pool. If you have an excellent 4X4 vehicle, a tour to the next fjord of Norðurfjörður, Ingólfsfjörður, is also a good option for a panoramic view and another reminder of shattered entrepreneurial dreams. You can even visit Ófeigsfjörður fjord and Hvalá river with its beautiful waterfall, Hvalárfossar. Unfortunately, the waterfall will disappear into a reservoir if the plan for a tiny hydroelectric dam goes through. For this extension of the Strandir tour, you need hiking information and a good GPS.
As I have pointed out at the beginning of this article, when you leave Norðurfjörður, you need to take the same road back. This can possibly be more interesting than driving to Norðurfjörður along a different route, and different weather can make a big difference. It all boils down to the mood of nature in these mountains. This is a very deceptive and complex landscape. If you have not visited the rest of the West Fjords, you should consider the West Fjords drive and road trip, either before this adventure or after.