The purest part of Strandir is the ‘horn’ – the final peninsula that juts over the top of the West Fjords. It is a daunting place for its intense beauty and extreme nature. The mountains are pyramid-shaped, sharpened by constant ice and wind. The cliffs stand up like defiant walls against the sea, and the intermittent valleys are lush green places of rare plants and flowers.
It is a place to enjoy silence – a place where you actually notice the sound of a bird’s wings, the wind, the trickle of a stream or the hum of a very distant boat engine. Other than Iceland’s desert interior, Hornstrandir is the best place to feel completely alone on planet earth.
Once upon a time, Hornstrandir was an idyllic land of tiny farms hidden among these gargantuan rocks. At its height (about 1930) about 500 people called the valley home, but life was very difficult, and isn’t easy today. Extreme weather aside, there were no roads, no electricity, and limited outside contact. Winters were long and impossible and the war years caused many to leave for the capital. By 1952, the area was permanently evacuated.
Today, wildlife thrives unmolested. The bird cliffs are a crazy echo of several million seabirds and Hornstrandir is the number-one spot in Iceland to see an Arctic fox. You are almost guaranteed a sighting if you come hiking here in the summer. Also, watch out for trolls. As the ‘mainland’ was covered with churches, the bothered trolls headed further and further north, finally ending up here. It’s thought that there are more trolls in Hornstrandir than anywhere else in Iceland.
Hornstrandir Nature Reserve occupies the northernmost section of the peninsula, with the highest cliffs and some of the most striking terrain in Iceland. The park was established in 1975 and is now the most protected part of the country. All cars (and horses) are banned, fishing and hunting are illegal, you must carry out whatever you bring in, and travel is somewhat regulated. Most of the land in the park here is private property (those who left have kept it in the family), and the plants and animals are protected – you must tread lightly. Thus, Hornstrandir is best for serious hikers who know what they are doing and have a sound plan.
This is one place where you must have appropriate gear (especially warm, waterproof clothing, good boots and a strong tent). Hornstrandir is also a little bit colder than the rest of Iceland – you are farther north, there’s a large piece of permanent ice on top of the mountains and you’re getting hit with the brunt of the Arctic wind. Snow lingers in the shadows all year long, bays get closed off by drift ice, and some areas are only accessible for about six weeks of summer, depending on how severe the weather is.
All this should not foster discouragement though (on the contrary), but the intense circumstances support a kind of rugged elitism among those who make it out here, because so few actually do. A simpler approach is to go with an organised group tour.
Getting there and away
The main travel season is from mid-June to mid-August. Outside that time, weather and ice are unpredictable. The quickest way to get there is to fly direct from Reykjavík to Ísafjörður, from where you can take a ferry into Hornstrandir. There are regular passages with Sjóferðir and Borea Adventure, which can be booked through West Tours. The main drop-off points are Hesteyri and Veiðileysufjörður, but on select days boats also head to the northern bay of Aðalvík and the southern bay of Hornvík, Grunnavík at the mouth of the fjord and Hrafnfjörður, the closest point to the Drangajökul glacier. Return boat passage starts at about 21,000ISK, depending on where you’re being dropped off (any gear you bring with you is free). It is best for hikers to plan a route that corresponds with a boat drop-off and pickup – merely communicate what you want with the boat captain.
Both West Tours and Borea Adventures offer a number of guided day trips and multi-day hiking and skiing trips all over Hornstrandir, which eliminates some of the hassle of organising things yourself.