On Thursday, June 23rd, we took a West Tours boat trip to the Hornbjarg. It's hard to know what to refer to this place as, exactly. The Northernmost peninsula of the West Fjords is a huge nature reserve called Hornstrandir. This large peninsula has smaller ones jutting off of it. We traveled to one of these. The bay/fjord is called Hornvik. The huge cliffs are called the Hornbjarg. The sub-peninsula itself is called the Horn, maybe? Or else it doesn't really have a name. In any event, I end up using the terms Hornstrandir - Hornvik - Hornbjarg - Horn pretty much interchangeably. Below you can see a map of the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, with the Hornbjarg circled, along with the route of the boat trip from Ísafjörður.
This is about as far north as you can get on the main island of Iceland. The Latitude is 66.46 degrees N, just 7 miles south of the Arctic Circle. There are no permanent residents in the Hornstrandir (although there are a few houses used as vacation homes in the summer) and the area is only accessible by boat or by foot. We opted for the boat, which set sail at 9 AM and took about two hours to make the journey.
On the boat ride there, we met a very nice mother and son from Anchorage, Alaska. They had lived in DC in the 90s. Her husband worked for the Clinton administration (she worked for NPR then; is a journalist for National Geographic now), but they moved back to Alaska to raise their son (they didn't want to raise him DC. Who can blame them?) We chatted about how much DC has changed in the last few years, and Lisa got some tips on what to see and do during her upcoming work trip to Anchorage.
The ocean was nice and calm and everybody got to take a nap. The return trip would not be quite so smooth.
In addition to the boat ride, West Tours provides two guides to lead you around the Hornbjarg. There were about 30 people on this excurision, so when the Alaskans told us they were planning on heading off in their own direction to do their own thing, we thought that might be something worth considering. We were ferried ashore by zodiac, and soon decided that we'd rather take our chances on our own than have 20 strangers in the background of all our pics. So off we set, to blaze our own trail! Using my phone's GPS and hiking trails map I had previously downloaded...
To the right is a map of the Horn. The green marker is our drop off point at the beach. The yellow/orange line is the path we ended up walking. The dotted line is the trail... or at least it's supposed to be. You can see we made a bee-line for the dotted line from the beach, in an attempt to get ahead of the bigger tour group. When we reached it on the map, we discovered there was no trail there. We had to make our way through some swampy fields with knee high flowers and no particular trail until we finally latched on to the back of the group, much to the confusion of the guides. Luckily, the group stopped for a break halfway up the climb to the tip of the Horn, and we were able to pass them once again.
Meeting up with the trail again after our little dotted line detour. We started at the little white house in the distance.
View of the cliffs across Hornvik bay.
Catching up to the tour group. The "Point" is the rise to the upper-left.
Exciting ACTION SHOT of the climb up the first slope. You can see the tour group well behind us now.
Panoramic view from The Point.
Having reached the very tip of the peninsula, we decided to take a break and have a little snack. That's when Lisa realized she had lost her phone. It couldn't have been that long ago, so Mark heroically volunteered to head back down the trail and find the phone while the rest of us enjoyed a break. And let's just say that Mark found the phone eventually and we all had a nice, stress-free break before continuing onward (and definitely not say that Lisa eventually found the phone still in her backpack and Mark went down the big hill and climbed it a second time for nothing.)
Because of our little delay, the tour group had caught up to us again. So we packed up and headed off to the east along the back side of the Horn. The Horn is basically a long, skinny finger of land. To its south it shelters Hornvik bay. Its northern edge is nothing but vertical cliffs dropping straight into the Greenland Sea; cliffs that seem to defy physics as they rise higher and higher out of the ocean the further east you explore. There are two bowl-shaped valleys separated by a tall, thin ridge running right down the middle. There is not a single tree to be found, and the bowls are carpeted by yellow and purple flowers along with some truly alien-looking flowers that look like broccoli and cabbage. Pictures don't really do it justice but we'll try anyway.
Heading off again.
Pointing the way towards the North Pole (or Greenland maybe... does it matter?)
Approaching the big ridge.
Looking back towards the Point.
A trail through the flowers.
As it approaches the ridge, the trail gets steeper. Really, ridiculously steep. At one point, a loose stone was in Ellen's way, so she picked it up and tossed it off the trail to her left (uphill from the trail). It bounced back into the trail but then right back out again, continuing downhill, and within a few seconds it was moving about 80 MPH and was half a mile away from us. A nice reminder not to slip -- or drop anything. Here are a few images to try to show how steep this part of the hike is.
If you look closely, you can see the big tour group in the V shaped notch in the cliff way in the distance.
From the summit of the Ridge; looking down at the first bowl and the Point.
Finally at the top, we are rewarded with an incredible view of, well, everything. But the real attraction is our first look at the beautiful second bowl and the incredible, soaring Hornbjarg cliffs on the far side. It's a pretty good place for a lunch break. We found a comfortable enough spot to sit down on a rock outcropping and enjoy our sandwiches and snacks that (we had purchased the previous evening at a store/deli in Ísafjörður we dubbed "Icelandic Wawa.") We were also swarmed by flies; not mosquitoes or anything that bites, just lots of regular housefly types crawling all over our faces and hands. Some of us donned our stylish mosquito head nets for the rest of the hike.
The incredible view from the top of the Ridge.
Our lunch spot.
When the tour group caught up with us, it was time to move on. The descent was just as steep as the climb. As the trail took us back to the ocean-facing cliffs we were overwhelmed by the sight (and sound!) of thousands of gulls, terns, guillemots, and other sea birds. Mark pushed on ahead to get some pics (or maybe just for some alone time in the flowers).
Fog pouring up the cliffs and into the bowl (at 2X speed).
Enjoy the sounds of gulls and terns and the views of the Hornbjarg cliffs. Really regret the vertical video aspect, that was dumb.
Mark, sitting in the flowers. All in all, not a bad place to take a little break.
Lisa with Hornvik behind.
Looking back at the trail to the Ridge.
Badger surveys his domain.
There was a raven's rook on one of the cliffs. These were the four chicks... they are huge! Bigger than ducks! And presumably can't fly yet so not even full grown. Really a terrifying animal.
A quick look at what it's like to hike through knee deep flowers in Iceland.
Returning back to the vacation homes by the beach where we were dropped off five hours earlier.
And then it was over, way too soon. After waiting for the tour group to catch up to us at the beach, we were shuttled back to the boat by zodiac again. But the excitement wasn't quite finished yet. Once the boat reached the open ocean, we hit some pretty serious waves. It really felt like the boat was being launched into the air every few seconds. I took some GoPro footage (below) but it doesn't come close to capturing the violence. A 12 year old boy shrieked with joy every time a wave sent us flying, while simultaneously his mother filled one seasickness bag after another. One passenger after another fell victim to the waves, until the cabin was almost out of bags completely. We played charades to try and distract ourselves from the rolling and the pukefest going on all around us. It was an all ocean themed game ("Titanic", "The Blue Lagoon", "Deep Blue Sea", "Sharknado") so it was usually pretty easy to guess the right answer. But it worked; we all made it back to calm waters without losing our lunches and promptly feel right asleep, using whatever soft things were around us as pillows.
We got a tip about a great seafood restaurant in town from a young couple on the boat who had eaten there the night before. It's called Tjöruhúsið; a buffet style place, they prepare all sorts of different seafood dishes and just drop them on the big table at the front of the hall. Patrons go up and help themselves to as much as they want for a flat fee of about $50. The couple on the boat described it as: "we thought we had accidentally wandered into somebody's wedding reception." I had about 8 different fish dishes; it was one of the best dinners I've ever had and I don't even like fish, really. A great finish to a great day.