A golden-coloured beach with flat top mountains in the back

Golden beaches and flat top basalt strata mountains are signature landscapes of the Westfjords

Fjords, Falls and Famous Beaches - 5 Geosites In The Westfjords

The Westfjords region, located in the northwest corner of Iceland, present a fascinating and distinct geological landscape, shaped by millions of years of volcanic activity, glacial movements, and erosion.

This remote region is characterized by its deep fjords, red and golden beaches, steep cliffs and high mountains, which are remnants of ancient basaltic lava flows from the Tertiary period, around 7 to 16 million years ago. These ancient lavas testify to the region's volcanic past when the rift zone between the North-American and Eurasian tectonic plates was located across Snæfellsnes peninsula and Húnaflói bay. 

The Westfjords bear witness to the dynamic forces that have sculpted Iceland's distinctive and rugged terrain. The area's remoteness offers travelers who venture off the beaten path a rich reward, a fact acknowledged by the Lonely Planet, which selected the region as a top destination in 2022.

One of the most striking geological features of the Westfjords is the extensive plateau basalt, which forms the backbone of the region's mountainous terrain. These flat-topped mountains and cliffs offer a glimpse into the region's formation, revealing patterns of successive volcanic eruptions, interspersed with layers of red soil and volcanic ash, that formed when the island was still taking shape and the climate was much warmer than today.

Another prominent feature of this basalt plateau is the inclination of the strata, which tilt southeastward towards the center of the country where new material accumulates in the volcanic belt. New lava and mountains increase the weight on the edges of the tectonic plates, causing them to sink into the soft underlying layer beneath the crust, known as the asthenosphere. Erosive forces then continuously work to erode the northwest part, lightening it and causing it to rise. The incline can be as steep as 10-15 degrees.

During the last Ice Age between 10 thousand and 3.6 million years ago, the erosive forces of glaciers and rivers shaped the dramatic landscape of the Westfjords. This glacial activity carved through the basalt lava layers, forming distinctive U-shaped valleys and fjords, and leaving behind moraines and large boulders as evidence of past glaciations."

Despite being one of the oldest parts of Iceland, the Westfjords are relatively geologically stable today, with little to no recent volcanic activity. However, the region's complex geological history, marked by ancient volcanic eruptions, significant glacial shaping, and ongoing erosion, makes it a fascinating area for geological study and exploration.

Here, we present 5 hand-picked geosites that give a glimpse into the region's geologic history.

A vast red-golden sand beach

Rauðasandur Beach, distinguished by its red sand, is primarily composed of crushed scallop shells, ground down and deposited by the powerful currents of Breiðafjörður Bay.

1. Rauðasandur beach: One of the world's most stunning beaches

Location: Rauðasandur beach is on the southwest tip of the Westfjords, close to the westernmost point of Iceland, Látrabjarg. See the location on our trip planner map here.

Rauðasandur (Red-sand) is an area located east of Látrabjarg on the south coast of the West Fjords. It is known for its expansive 12-13 km long shell-sand beach, renowned for its striking red tinge derived from scallop shell fragments. Rauðasandur area also has a rich history and the relics at  Sjöundá farm stand as a silent witness to the tragic deaths there and following murder trials in the 19th century, immortalized by Gunnar Gunnarsson's novel Svartfugl (Black Cliffs).

This natural wonder, enclosed by mountains and ending in dramatic cliffs, is acclaimed as one of Iceland's most beautiful landscapes (and one of the top 20 beaches in the world according to the Lonely Planet). Sea-worn rocks lying above today's sea level mark a time when the sea was higher following the last glaciation. The formation of shallows, over time, allowed the accumulation of the unique red sand, with wave action and various marine species grinding and depositing the shells.

The abundance of scallop shells reflects the prolific scallop grounds in the nearby Breidafjörður bay, historically Iceland's richest scallop fishing area. However, the greater volume of shells at Raudasandur compared to other beaches in Breidafjörður is attributed to the bay's strong and complex marine currents. These currents, flowing north from the main scallop grounds and along the coast past Raudasandur, contribute to the unique accumulation of shell sands at this location and other inlets north of Látrabjarg. 


Bjargtangar Lighthouse, perched on the western tip of Látrabjarg sea cliff, marks the westernmost point of Iceland and serves as Europe’s northwestern outpost.

2. Látrabjarg: Iceland's Western Frontier

Location: Látrabjarg is the westmost point of Iceland and sits on the southwest tip of the Westfjords region. See the location on a map here.

! Please exercise extreme caution at this site for both your safety and to protect the puffins during their nesting season. The cliff edges are unstable and full of puffin burrows.

Látrabjarg, perched on the edge of Iceland's West Fjords, is a site of extraordinary significance, embodying dramatic interplay between geological forces and flourishing biodiversity. This towering sea cliff, extends approximately 14 kilometers from Bjargtangar to Keflavik and is not only the westernmost point of Iceland but also renowned as one of Europe’s largest bird cliffs. The historical aspect of Látrabjarg, as a site of both tragedy due to shipwrecks and ecological bounty, adds to its allure as a geosite. 

The cliffs geological foundation is composed of preglacial basalt lava formations, dating back 12-14 million years. The basalt strata is layered with old soil horizons that are more susceptible to erosion than the surrounding lavas. These sedimentary rock layers have historically provided excellent nesting shelves for sea birds. The cliff's structure, revealing between three to 26 layers of lava depending on the location, showcases the varied volcanic events that contributed to its formation. 

At its highest point, Heiðnakinn, Látrabjarg reaches over 440 meters, presenting a formidable barrier against the Atlantic oceans might. The erosion process, driven by the sea’s relentless force and the area's strong ocean currents, particularly in Látraröst, has carved out caves and shaped the rock, gradually reshaping the cliff's face. This continuous interaction between the geological substrates and marine forces highlights the dynamic nature of Earth's surface processes.

Látrabjarg’s significance extends beyond its geological features; it is a crucial breeding ground for millions of seabirds, including puffins, razorbills, and guillemots, which depend on its cliffs for nesting, and the Breiðafjörður bay for fishing. The area’s biodiversity is intrinsically linked to its geological history, with the volcanic rock formations providing critical habitat for these species.

Moreover, the presence of dykes adds to the dramatic setting of Látrabjarg. Each dyke represents a feeding path of magma from deep within the crust that fills up cracks in the strata and cuts through the older layers. The dyke rock is therefore always younger than the surrounding host rock. 

Látrabjarg stands as a monument to the geological forces that have shaped Iceland and a sanctuary for the seabirds that flock to its cliffs, making it an invaluable site for geologists, ecologists, and nature enthusiasts alike.

A waterfall cascading down steps of lava

Dynjandi waterfall tumbles down various lava layers from the mountain's peak to the shore, providing a unique glimpse into the area's geological history.

3. Dynjandi Waterfalls: The Thundering Jewel of the Westfjords

Location: Dynjandi waterfall is at the bottom of Arnarfjörður in the Westfjords. Se location on a map here.

Dynjandi, often heralded as the jewel of the Westfjords, is a captivating site that exemplifies the awe-inspiring natural beauty and geological complexity of Iceland. Nestled in the heart of Arnarfjörður, Iceland's second-largest fjord, Dynjandi is a collection of waterfalls with a cumulative height of approximately 100 meters, reaching its peak in a spectacular tiered main fall that resembles a bridal veil. The site's name, translating to "thunderous," aptly describes the roaring sound of the water cascading down the rugged mountainside, a sound that resonates across the fjord and adds to the waterfall's mystique.

The geological story of Dynjandi is as fascinating as its visual splendor. The waterfall flows down the Dynjandisá river, which is fed by surface water from the vast Gláma highlands. The surrounding landscape is a testament to volcanic activity and glacial processes that have shaped the Westfjords over millions of years. The mountains around Dynjandi are composed of thick layers of basaltic lava, erupted around 12-13 million years ago when an active volcanic belt ran through what is now the Westfjords. Subsequent Ice Age glaciations carved deep into the land, sculpting the dramatic fjords and valleys that define the region today.

Visitors to Dynjandi are treated to a geological timeline, visible in the layers of lava and sedimentary rocks that compose the cliffs surrounding the waterfall. The presence of "red interbeds," soil layers enriched with rusted or oxidized iron and sandwiched between the lava flows, highlights periods of quiescence between eruptions when soil formation occurred. These softer layers, more susceptible to erosion than the overlying basalt, have played a crucial role in the formation of Dynjandi's unique terraced appearance.

The average time gap between the formation of each lava layer is around 20,000 years. As you ascend, each step or layer represents a leap 20,000 years forward in history, since the oldest layers are at the bottom. By counting 50 layers downward in the strata of the mountains, you've journeyed back a million years.

Approaching Dynjandi involves a scenic hike past a series of smaller waterfalls, each contributing to the river's journey from the highlands to the sea. Over the past year, accessibility to the site has been enhanced with the addition of platforms and stairs, facilitating an easier ascent alongside the waterfalls. It's also possible to enjoy the view from the bottom, where restrooms are available for visitors' convenience.

Göltur mountain in Súgandafjörður

Súgandafjord boasts a picturesque fishing village and Iceland's oldest rocks in Mt. Göltur (in the front). Photo by Mats Wibe Lund.

4. Suðureyri: Tracing Time Through Icelands Oldest Rocks and Fossils

Location: The Westfjords Tunnel (Vestfjarðagöng), a three-way tunnel on Road No. 60 between Önundarfjörður and Ísafjörður, connects to Road No. 65 leading to Súgandafjörður and the town of Suðureyri. At a total length of 9.1 km, these are the longest tunnels in Iceland.

Although only about 20 minutes drive from Ísafjörður, the honorary capital of the Westfjords region, Súgandafjörður is one of the most remote fjords of the Westfjords and also boasts the oldest rocks of Iceland. On the outer part of the fjord, opposite the small fishing village of Suðureyri, a distinctive mountain called Göltur, cuts out into the North Atlantic Ocean. As expected, the lava layers at the base are older than those above, making the oldest lava layers sit at the shoreline. These lava layers are actually some of Iceland's oldest rocks above sea level since the outermost points of the northern Westfjords represent the oldest part of the country. The rocks there have been dated back 16 million years. It is not possible to reach Göltur except by boat, but the lowest strata on the south side of the fjord are very accessible by the road leading west from Suðureyri towards the Fishermans Hut. Upon examining the rock, many cavity fillings are visible, mainly calcite and quartz, but there are also interesting larger cavities in the rock that are old tree trunk impressions.

Treeholes, or tree trunk impressions in geological terms, are formed through a fascinating natural process that involves the interaction between organic material (such as trees) and volcanic activity.

Here's a simplified explanation of how these features can form: Imagine a landscape where trees are growing in an area that becomes subject to volcanic activity. An eruption occurs, and lava begins to flow across the land. As the lava flows, it can engulf trees in its path. The intense heat from the lava incinerates the organic material, but the water content of the tree can cool the surrounding lava, causing it to solidify. After the tree is completely burned away, a cavity or mold is left in the solidified lava. This cavity is an exact negative impression of the tree's shape. Over time, these cavities can become filled with other materials, such as minerals from groundwater percolation, creating a solid cast inside the mold. Eventually, erosion and other geological processes may expose these tree molds or cavities on the surface, where they can be observed.

Treeholes and tree trunk impressions provide valuable insights into past environments and volcanic activities. They are rare and intriguing geological features that offer a glimpse into the interactions between the biosphere and geosphere.

Overlooking a large fjord from a mountain top

5. Bolafjall: Outstanding Westfjords

Location: To visit Bolafjall from Ísafjörður, drive north on Route 61 towards Bolungarvík and follow the signs to Bolafjall. Please note that this location is only accessible during the summer months.

Visitors to Bolafjall can not only enjoy the panoramic views and the serenity of the Arctic wilderness but also delve into the geological story of the Westfjords. The viewing platform on the mountain, accessible during the summer months, is an absolut must stop for observing the dramatic landscapes of the Westfjords and the vast expanse of the North Atlantic Ocean.

Bolafjall, like many other mountains in the Westfjords, is a steep sea cliff with a flat top, remnants of the old basalt plateu that formed before the glaciers carved out the landscape during the Ice Age. The surface of the area is very rugged, characterized by gravel, sandy areas, and patches of moss. The bedrock is composed of basalt lava layers, and like elsewhere in the strata, redish interbeds of sedimentary rock.

The expansive Ísafjörður fjord, the largest in the region, is prominently visible from Bolafjall during clear weather. This majestic view bears witness to the immense ice stream that once coursed through the basalt strata, carving out the fjord and its numerous tributary inlets. Each of these inlets was formed by outlet glaciers, akin to the processes currently observed in southeast Iceland's Vatnajökull glacier.

Standing on the platform of Bolafjall and visualizing the immense ice streams offers a captivating glimpse into the geological forces that have shaped Iceland over time. It provides a gateway to understanding the intricate processes that have molded the landscape over millions of years.


Fjords, falls and famous red beaches - 5 geosites in the Westfjords