Hiking in Hornstrandir, Iceland

Wednesday, November 02, 2016 Hiking and Walking by Wailana Kalama

Hornstrandir Nature Reserve is a remote wilderness lying in the north-west tip of Iceland. A gem of emerald green slopes and white glacier peninsulas, isolated and unspoilt, the edge of Europe. The Reserve is surrounded by water, caught between the Bay of Glaciers and the Greenland Sea. It is located in the remote district called the Westfjords, a dizzying cluster of fjords, capes, and glaciers slipping into saltwater. There is nothing for miles but green valleys, pebbled shores, and moist slopes of dandelions and herbs.

Hornstrandir

Hornstrandir is a place that is isolated. Since WWII, the reserve has been all but uninhabited. 19th-century houses abandoned except for a few farmsteads that serve as occasional summer cottages. The few other remnants of man are a smattering of withered foundations and a few gravestones. There are no roads, no power lines. You can walk for miles and miles in the Reserve and see not another person for days. Come for the wild foxes, scattered here and there, and for the bird, cliffs overflowing with nests. Stay for the solitude and undisturbed calm.

The reserve’s rainy hills are accessible from Ísafjörður by ferry, a boat that makes infrequent trips throughout the week, and only during warmer months. If you are going by yourself, learn the boat schedule by heart, as you’ll rely on it to get back. The ferry should take less than an hour to cross the chilly fjord and take you to the reserve.

Hornstrandir

Hiking trip in Hornstrandir

When I went one misty June day, I hired a guide called Vesteinn for a few hours and trekked with him and a small band of hikers over the grass. Patches of snow crunched under our boots, and above our heads, the ghostly honk of a passing eider echoed into the fog. We passed the abandoned settlement of Aðalvík, the rusted remnants of train tracks the British tried to build some time ago. We stopped at the wilting white church and bit into our sandwiches in the graveyard. From time to time, Vesteinn recounted stories, old ghost stories from this area. A magical horse that sprung from the lake and enchanted riders to their deaths. He pointed out angelica, arctic orchid, berries that lay hidden in the bushes.

Hornstrandir

Climbing up the slopes and down again was a challenge, as the trail was wet and muddy and my boots were soaked. The soft land was moist, sinking softly, slinking back into some primaeval soup. I grabbed onto grass stalks and tried not to slip as the amazing sight of the fjords came into view: Jökulfirðir, the “fjord of glaciers.” The glacial fjord extended out into the sea like icy talons of snow white and ghostly blue. The bay in-between them was heavy with mist; the blackness of the water gave the sense of some unfathomable depths. Finally, after six hours, we made it to the next abandoned village of Hesteyri. The old doctor’s house is still there, now a summertime cafe that serves hot Icelandic pancakes and coffee, a welcome treat after the wind and rain.

Hornstrandir

How to Get to Hornstrandir

Hopping a plane from Reykjavik to Ísafjörður is the easiest way to get to the Westfjords. The ferry tends to depart in the morning from the harbour, so you’ll probably have to spend at least one night in Ísafjörður. Sign up with a guide from the local tourist office and show up when the boat leaves the next day.

Hornstrandir

Tips for Hiking

If you do go by yourself, it’s recommended to register at the tourist office if travelling between April 15 and June 15, as the ecosystem is fragile and the ground is frozen and wet.

Keep the land as you found it—don’t leave any waste or rubbish, and don’t take anything from this fragile landscape. Don’t disturb the wildlife. If you intend to light a campfire, it’s required to obtain a permit.

Hornstrandir

What to Bring

Good hiking shoes are a must. Since the weather is quite unpredictable, bring warm and waterproof clothes. You should pack a rain jacket or windbreaker, rainproof pants and a small day bag for a sandwich and water bottle. Bring a map, and if you’re spending the night, all the usual camping gear. Fog is prevalent, so it’s helpful to bring a GPS or compass. And definitely don’t forget your camera!

Hornstrandir

Camping

If you wanted to spend the night, there are 13 camping sites run by the local Environment Agency, equipped with outhouses. There is no charge, but do keep within the camping sites.