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Snæfellsjökull National Park encompasses much of the western tip of Snæfellsnes Peninsula, and wraps around the rugged slopes of the glacier Snæfellsjökull, the icy fist at the end of the long Snæfellsnes arm. Around its flanks lie lava tubes, protected lava fields, which are home to native Icelandic fauna, and prime coastal bird- and whale-watching spots. The park is criss-crossed with hiking trails, and during proper weather it is possible to visit the glacier with a tour or guide. When the fog that swirls around the glacier lifts, you'll see the mammoth ice cap, which was made famous when Jules Verne used it as the setting for Journey to the Centre of the Earth. In his book, a German geologist and his nephew embark on an epic journey into the crater of Snæfells, guided by a 16th-century Icelandic text with the following advice: Descend into the crater of Yocul of Sneffels, which the shade of Scartaris caresses, before the kalends of July, audacious traveller, and you will reach the centre of the earth. I did it. Malarrif is home to the National Park Visitor Centre, and area tourist offices sell maps and give advice, too. The park's online map is also excellent. Rangers have an active summer program of free park guided tours; check online or by email.
Craggy mountains, precarious sea cliffs and plunging waterfalls make up Hornstrandir, one of Europe’s last true wilderness areas, covering some of the most extreme parts of Iceland. It’s a fantastic destination for hiking, with challenging terrain and excellent opportunities for spotting Arctic foxes, seals, whales and teeming bird life. It is essential to plan ahead and get local advice, as vast snow drifts with near-vertical faces can develop on the mountain passes, rivers can become unfordable. The best time to visit Hornstrandir is in July. Outside the summer season (which runs from late-June to mid-August; ferry boats run June to August) there are few people around and the weather is even more unpredictable. If you're planning to visit the park prior to 15 June, it is mandatory to register with a ranger. A handful of hardy farmers lived in Hornstrandir until the 1950s, but since 1975 the 580 sq km of tundra, fjord, glacier and alpine upland have been protected as Hornstrandir Nature Reserve and are a national monument. The area has some of the strictest preservation rules in Iceland, thanks to its incredibly rich, but fragile, vegetation. Always keep to marked trails, stick to designated campgrounds and carry out all rubbish.
Tumbling in a broad sweep over a 100m-rocky scarp at the head of Dynjandivogur bay, Dynjandi is the most dramatic waterfall in the Westfjords. The bumpy drive to it is famous for incredible views; you'll see how the falls are the catchment area for run-off from the peaks and inland valleys all around. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday from June to August a Westfjords Adventures bus linking Ísafjörður, Brjánslækur and Patreksfjörður stops at Dynjandi twice a day. Climbing up from the car park you’ll pass many smaller falls until you reach the thundering main chute. You're allowed to approach the massive cascade as it plunges over the mountainside, and the views over the broad fjord are spectacular. The surrounding area is a protected nature reserve. There is a campsite (free) but it is for cyclists and hikers only (you can't park a car overnight) and then only for one night. There are basic toilets (200kr) and – fittingly – running water.
One of Iceland’s most famous tourist attractions, Geysir (gay-zeer; literally ‘gusher’) is the original hot-water spout after which all other geysers are named. Earthquakes can stimulate activity, though eruptions are rare. Luckily for visitors, the very reliable geyser, Strokkur, sits alongside. You rarely have to wait more than five to 10 minutes for the hot spring to shoot an impressive 15m to 40m plume. Discovered in the Haukadalur geothermal region, the Great Geysir has been active for perhaps 800 years, and once gushed water up to 80m into the air. But the geyser goes through periods of lessened activity, which seems to have been the case since 1916. The undulating, hissing geothermal area containing Geysir and Strokkur was free to enter at the time of writing, though there have been discussions about introducing a fee.
The world’s oldest parliament, Althingi (pronounced ál-thingk-ee; also called Alþing) was uniquely situated at this monumental site where two tectonic plates meet. In AD 930, Vikings would hold meetings among this awe-inspiring geology, which created a natural amphitheatre. A boardwalk snakes between this enormous crevice on the earth’s surface, below deep canyon walls. The gap between these North American and Eurasian tectonic plates continues to grow by 2cm each year. At the site is the significant Oxara waterfall. In the Middle Ages, people were put to their death by drowning, in this very pool below the 20m cascade. To the south sits Thingvallavatn, the largest natural lake in Iceland, containing one of the most unusual diving opportunities out there. Here you can descend into Silfra Gorge's glacial waters between two tectonic plates.
Near the dramatic Almannagjá fault and fronted by a boardwalk is the Lögberg (Law Rock), where the Alþingi (Parliament) convened annually. This was where the lögsögumaður (law speaker) recited the existing laws to the assembled parliament (one-third each year). After Iceland’s conversion to Christianity, the site shifted to the very foot of the Almannagjá cliffs, which acted as a natural amplifier, broadcasting the voices of the speakers across the assembled crowds. That site is marked by the Icelandic flag. Decisions were reached by the Lögrétta (Law Council), made up of 146 men (48 voting members, 96 advisers and two bishops), who are thought to have assembled at Neðrivellir (Low Fields), the flat area in front of the cliffs.
The Þingvellir plain is situated on a tectonic-plate boundary where North America and Europe are tearing away from each other at a rate of 1mm to 18mm per year. As a result, the plain is scarred by dramatic fissures, ponds and rivers, including the great rift Almannagjá. An atmospheric path runs through the dramatic crevice and along the fault between the clifftop visitor centre and the Alþingi site. The river Öxará cuts the western plate, tumbling off its edge in a series of pretty cascades. The most impressive is Öxarárfoss, on the northern edge of the Alþingi site. The pool Drekkingarhylur was used to drown women found guilty of infanticide, adultery or other serious crimes. There are other smaller fissures on the eastern edge of the site. During the 17th century, nine men accused of witchcraft were burned at the stake in Brennugjá (Burning Chasm). Nearby are the fissures of Flosagjá (named after a slave who jumped his way to freedom) and Nikulásargjá (after a drunken sheriff discovered dead in the water). The southern end of Nikulásargjá is known as Peningagjá (Chasm of Coins) for the thousands of coins tossed into it by visitors (an act forbidden these days). There are a few different car parks around the sights; a parking fee may be payable at some of them.
This 62m-high waterfall topples over a rocky cliff at the western edge of Skógar in dramatic style. Climb the steep staircase alongside for giddy views, or walk to the foot of the falls, shrouded in sheets of mist and rainbows. Legend has it that a settler named Þrasi hid a chest of gold behind Skógafoss. The top of the waterfall is the start of the dramatic Fimmvörðuháls trek, which continues 23km on to Þórsmörk, the land of the gods.
On the western side of Reynisfjall, the high ridge above Vík, Rte 215 leads 5km down to the black-sand beach Reynisfjara. It's backed by an incredible stack of basalt columns that look like a magical church organ, and there are outstanding views west to Dyrhólaey. Surrounding cliffs are pocked with caves formed from twisted basalt, and puffins belly-flop into the crashing sea during summer. Immediately offshore are the towering Reynisdrangur sea stacks. At all times watch for rogue waves: people are regularly swept away. You may recognise the scene from Bon Iver's 2011 music video Holocene, practically an ode to Iceland. The beach can get busy in high season, so try to come early in the day or late in the evening.
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