Hiking and backpacking in the remote Hornstrandir Nature Reserve in the Westfjords of Iceland is nothing short of spectacular but its also a logistical challenge. Here's my take on how to do it over 4–6 days in June or July.
Updated on August 2, 2019
While I've hiked and backpacked all over Iceland, Hornstrandir still stands strong as one of my absolute favorite places. Its unspoiled roughness, ever changing weather and incredible landscape make every trip an experience of a lifetime. It's one of those unique places I can visit over and over again and always find something new.
While there are countless different itinerary options you can choose from in Hornstrandir, the following route is a great one in my opinion.
The weather in Hornstrandir can be harsh year round and the area is completely uninhabited over the winter time. There is approximately a six week window in the summer that's the best time to visit which is from mid June to end of July.
In short, don't go to Hornstrandir if you're looking for a "glamping" trip. Throughout my several trips to Hornstrandir (all in June or July) I've had everything from 20+ degrees Celcius (~70 Farenheit) and clear skies, to a snowstorm at one of the mountain passes, a fog with 10 meter visibility and a storm so fierce it broke my four season mountaineering tent. Yes, we got unlucky that year and chances are that the weather will be much better - but I can't be emphasized enough how important it is to be ready for any possible weather in this remote northern corner of the world. Embrace it and enjoy it!
There are no cars or roads in Hornstrandir so you'll have to catch a boat before you can hit the trails and start hiking. I usually take a private boat from a tiny fishing village called Bolungarvík (worth visiting of its own!) with Borea - they both have scheduled trips and if you have a decent group size they might do a custom trip as well. Get there the night before and take a boat in the morning. You can also catch a boat from the larger town of Ísafjörður. See more boat schedules here . Remember to book your boat trips both ways in advance.
After you arrive in Hesteyri, start the first day-hike over to a beautiful bay called Hlöðuvík. It's about 15km so it should take 4–6 hours depending on your pace. After you get down to the ocean on the northern side, continue along the beach until you get to Búðir (a couple of cabins and a campground) where it's good to camp. It's actually also possible to get sleeping bag accommodation in these cabins. If you prefer the cabins, check in with either Borea or Westtours which should be able to help you book as there is no online booking.
Today it's time for a fairly steep hike up Skálarkambur where, if weather is good, you'll enjoy some magnificent views. The hike up can look steep and challenging from afar - but there's a solid trail and it's easier than it looks from a distance. There's a tiny section with some scramble at the top but nothing to worry about.
Detour to Hælavíkurbjarg - a hidden gem most people miss: Once you get back down on the other side, you walk down into a bay called Rekavík where the trail turns right at an intersection. There's also a detour to the left that's absolutely worth visiting if you have enough time and energy since it adds a couple of hours to the day.
Leave your big backpacks at the trail intersections or somewhere close to where the smaller trail to Hælavíkurbjarg starts (your packs are safe) and hike as light as possible.
Please note: This route is neither for the faint of hearts nor those with fear of heights. The trail gets pretty narrow and the steep slope down can be scary - and dangerous. At the narrowest section, there's a small rope to grab onto. My recommendation is to only do this detour in good dry weather and if it looks like it's about to rain anytime soon I would save this one for later. It goes without mentioning that you do this on your own risk (and all hiking for that matter).
However, if you - like me - decide to go this route despite the disclaimers, you're in for a treat. After the narrow trail, you get to a small hidden valley called Hvannadalur where you get up close and personal with the 258m vertical cliff Hælavíkurbjarg that drops right into the ocean next to the valley. The thousands of wild birds make it even more surreal.
There's also a super cool basalt dyke with sheer vertical cliffs on both sides which you can walk down onto. Also not for the faint of hearts although its pretty safe as the grassy walkway down is probably 3 meters wide.
Mind blowing. Period.
Continue to Hornvík: In the afternoon, continue to Hornvík where there's a great campground. This is a good place to camp for the night but if your group is still feeling very energetic and weather is favorable, you could also continue further (need to cross one pretty big unbridged river) and camp close to the old farm of Horn. This adds a couple of hours to the day but means you are closer to the Hornbjarg cliff and Kálfatindar and will have more time to enjoy the following day. On different trips I've done it both ways and each has pros and cons. If you do both the detour and hike all the way to Horn, this will be a very long day (up to 12-15 hours).
For day three, leave your big backpacks at your camp and travel light. Start the day by hiking through the edge of Hornbjarg cliff, crawl carefully to the edge and look down the sheer vertical cliff that drops a few hundred meters down into the ocean. Pretty sweet!
Then continue your hike along the edge of the cliff, and find the hiking route up to the highest point, a summit called Kálfatindar. It's a pretty steep hike but the trail is good and easy. At the summit you can again hold on the the edge and look down over 500 meters straight into the ocean. It feels like you're a part of the nature.
After the hike up Kálfatindar, head back to your campground and throw a great dinner party with Icelandic Lamb, beer and wine (see tips how to make that happen in the food section below).
The last day, you hike up from bottom of the Hornvík bay and over a mountain pass and into the fjord Veiðileysufjörður. It's a great hike and the views into the fjord from above are stunning. Make sure you budget for ample time as you will have to pre-arrange the boat to come to this fjord and pick you up at a pre-determined time. Don't miss the boat back!
Now, there is no trip to Hornstrandir unless you wrap it up at what some claim is the best fish restaurant in Iceland, Tjöruhúsið Restaurant . I've only been there a few times and it's always been after a trip to Hornstrandir, so I might just have been extremely hungry all those times - but for real, the fresh seafood they serve buffet style in this super cozy restaurant with communal long tables most certainly hits the spot every single time.
Last time I was there it was a mixed crowd of locals and tourist, there was a live band playing music and we drank and ate long into the night. You can't ask for a more perfect ending of a great backpacking trip.
If you're not rushed on time, I highly recommend adding a couple of days to this itinerary and heading to Hornbjargsviti which is a really cool old lighthouse that you can get sleeping bag accommodation in! Either stay there for two nights and explore the area, or stay one extra night in Hornvík and one night in Hornbjargsviti. It's only a few hours hike over to the lighthouse from your campsite in Hornvík. You can find information and contact info to book the accommodation here (sorry, this page is mostly in Icelandic but the contact info is in English, just email them for info).
There are trails throughout Hornstrandir and if the weather is clear the trails are relatively easy to follow. However, if it gets very foggy it's just as easy to loose the trail - and you don't want to be lost rambling there, believe me. If you're doing Hornstrandir by yourself, buy a detailed hiking map of the area and bring a GPS or a compass.
You can find some great trails on wikiloc and below I've posted a few good ones for this trip (kudos to the people who posted those trails!):
Now, those who know me well know that I'm both a outdoor lover and a gourmet guy and while I'm more than happy to carry all my food for weeks, I don't mind spoiling myself and my crew with some fantastic meals in the outdoors! So, here's how to make that happen in the remote Hornstrandir without having too carry it all.
1. Once a week (Saturdays) a scheduled boat comes to Hornvik (base for day 2–4 in this itinerary). If you can, plan your trip so that you're there on a Saturday.
2. Talk to the same boat company as you'll be going with to Hornstrandir and ask them to send you a food & wine shipment with this Saturday boat and have it dropped off in Hornvik.
3. Go to one of the small local grocery shops in the area and tell them you need a food shipment to Hornstrandir. They are very used to this and you don't even need to tell them what you need (unless you're picky) - just tell them how big your group is and what you need such as dinner for 10 with food and wine, and they will pack you an amazing Icelandic lamb bbq meal with charcoals, sides, wine and beer - everything you could possible need to make it happen in the wilderness. Then they will coordinate with the boat company (remember to tell them too) and all you have to do is to pick the food and wine supplies up on your Saturday of choice. And no worries, if you're not there exactly when the boat arrives they will just leave the shipment at the campground and you'll find it easily when you get there.
Now, small disclaimer here too. Again, the weather is unpredictable and it has happened to my group once that the boat couldn't make it there (happens very rarely) - so we had no food or wine that night.... Bring extra snacks and a couple of flasks (optional) just in case!
Finally, I can't talk about Hornstrandir without mentioning the wildlife briefly. Hands down, you will not find a place in Iceland where you feel so much alive with the nature. You will very likely see whales on your boat trip to Hornstrandir and when you get there you won't be disappointed either.
Seals are common, the Arctic Fox is all over the place and is not afraid of humans (Hornstrandir is sometimes called the kingdom of the Arctic fox, and they are fully protected there), and finally the birds - there are probably few places in the world where you see as many birds in one place. Puffins, Arctic Terns, Black Guillemots breed there during the summer. The cliffs you see on this itinerary (Hornbjarg and Hælavíkurbjarg) are two of the largest bird-cliffs in Iceland and inhabit the world's largest colonies of Guillemots. There are also major populations of Kittiwake, Razorbill and Fullmar just to mention a few.
While you literally have countless options for hiking and trekking in Iceland, here are a few of my favorites alternative hikes or outdoorsy areas good for hiking and trekking:
I hope this article is helpful and I wish you an amazing trip to Hornstrandir. If you want to find more local knowledge about Iceland, you should definitely check out Travelade.com, where you'll find everything you need for your dream trip. If you have any questions about Hornstrandir (or anything outdoorsy in Iceland for that matter) don't hesitate to send me an email - I love helping people explore my native Iceland. My email is: InsertMyFirstname@travelade.com.
- Andri Kristinsson
PS. Pictures are of me and my friends from a couple of different trips to Hornstrandir. Also, special thanks to my good friend Magnús Már who first led me to Hornstrandir!
The best travel recommendations come from locals. Check out these Wanderguides from Iceland by locals sharing their travel tips and hidden gems.