If you’re interested in roaming far from the usual route and finding yourself alone with the rolling landscape, Vopnafjörður is calling.
The village of Vopnafjörður, with under 700 residents, is reachable from the Ring Road. This mountainous bay on Iceland’s Northeast corner is threaded by salmon-rich rivers that flow down from the highlands. You may find that tourist activities and accommodations are sparser here - and that’s because the true draw is the sprawling pristine fjordlands.
Old Vopnafjörður and Kaupvangur Cultural Center
The town, first settled by vikings in the late 9th century, literally translates to “Weapon Fjord,” and has a fascinating (if difficult) history: by the 10th century, disputes led to killings among local chieftains.
What’s more, if you’re drawn to Iceland because you have ancestry here, you might just have roots near Vopnafjörður. A wave of emigration from East Iceland was prompted by the eruption of the Askja volcano in 1875: the powerful eruption spewed ash that drifted as far as Sweden, killing livestock and poisoning the land, especially here in the Eastern fjords. This led Vopnafjörður to become the largest port of Icelandic emigration to North America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Thousands of Icelanders left from here. The Kaupvangur Cultural Center, a museum at the heart of town, memorializes those emigrants. And if you’d like to learn more about your relatives, the East Iceland Emigration Center is also inside, where volunteers offer genealogical services to descendants of those who fled the volcano.
Bustarfell Turf Houses
That hardship later forced farmers up these slopes to the highlands, under brutal conditions - a setting that in turn inspired the celebrated novel Independent People by Halldór Laxness. The book helped the beloved Icelandic writer win the Nobel Prize in 1955.
Further inland sits Bustarfell Manor, a complex of cozy red turf houses that make up one of the nation’s most historic and best-preserved farms. This land has been owned by the same family since 1532, and members lived in these houses from 1770 until 1966. The style of architecture you’ll find within, like the incredibly thick walls, dates back to the settlement of Iceland. Bustarfell is now a museum, and you can take a stroll through the rooms, seeing the open-hearth kitchen and the stithy with its worn metal tools.
Up the road is the wonderful café Hjáleigan serving homemade cakes and Icelandic pastries.
Selárdalslaug swimming pool
If you head north of town instead, you’ll find Selárdalslaug, a riverside geothermal pool from which you can watch the cold river rush past, with no other buildings in sight. The pool is tucked away at the end of a road, and is open from 12h to 22h through summer, with reduced hours in winter. You’ll find a swimming pool, wading pool, hot tub, picnic area, sundeck, lockers and indoor showers. Access to this public pool is free, and it is wheelchair-accessible. Note that these waters are not as warm as those of the blue lagoon, but beloved by locals - in fact, it was volunteers who built the pool around 1950. Swimming lessons are given there regularly, a tradition since 1975.
And if after all that calming nature you’re ready to get your heart racing– don’t worry, you needn’t even leave your car.
Leaving town, the coastline is richly textured, with rocky islets, hidden coves, and long strips of black sand beach. Due to its rich streams, the area is popular with fishers. The Selá River is a great destination for anglers; you can also try the famously productive Hofsá.
Hiking to Gljúfursárfoss
The gorgeous coastline makes this a prime area for hikes: a magnificent drive a few kilometers south of Vopnafjörður, replete with breathtaking panoramic views, will bring you to Skjólfjörur Beach and its tumbled shore. You can then drive or hike along a coastal trail until you reach Gljúfursárfoss, a 45m tall waterfall, 5km west of the beach. Its waters pool in mossy volcanic rock, and you’ve got a good chance of having it all to yourself.
The Steep Road Less Traveled: Hellisheiði Eystri
Heading South across the peninsula will take you to Hellisheiði Eystri, a mountain pass 640m above seal level, renowned for its wild driving. This road is very steep, at points reaching a 15% gradient. It’s mostly unpaved, and twists around no less than 15 hairpin turns, narrowing along tight switchbacks and steep drop-offs. This is, in fact, one of the highest and steepest roads in the country, and the view from the top is gorgeous. Be sure to try it in summer - this is one of the first roads to close each autumn due to snow - but once you’re there, you’ll have plenty of time to enjoy the view, with multiple scenic pullovers along the 70km road. This route is passable for all vehicles when weather is good, but motorhomes might find it tough to navigate.
Experience some of Iceland's amazing routes and travel destinations in East and North Iceland.