Whilst most tourists to Iceland may spend their time on the south coast, the West Fjords are a hidden gem that rarely get a mention. And even more so the incredible uninhabited nature reserve that is Hornstrandir. If you’re looking to hike amongst stunning scenery in an unspoilt wilderness, then Hornstrandir is the ultimate destination. I’ve been to all corners of Iceland, but this is by far my favourite place. Many people choose to hire a guide, however as long as you plan well in advance and have the appropriate gear, a self guided hike it easily achievable.
How do you to get to Hornstrandir?
To start your journey to Hornstrandir you’ll first need to make your way to the town of Ísafjörður in the West Fjords. The simplest option is to take a domestic flight from Reykavik as there is a small airport just outside the town. However if you have the time then I would encourage you to consider renting a car and driving there. It’s at least a 6 hour drive from Reykjavik, but you could easily combine if with an extended road trip in the West Fjords as it has so much to offer. To find cheap rental cars in Iceland from Keflavik airport I would recommending visiting autoeurope.co.uk.
Next you’ll need to make your way from Ísafjörður to the starting point of your hike. West Tours run a ferry service from the harbour in Ísafjörður to various locations in Hornstrandir, and you can plan your start and finishing point for the hike based on that. You’ll need to plan carefully though and make sure the times and distances for your hikes are achievable so that you can make your return ferry home in time. Being stranded in Hornstrandir is not advisable!
For my recommended hike I pre-booked a morning ferry to Hesteyri. The return ferry was pre-booked to collect me 5 days later at 9am from Veiðileysufjörður. This left 4 full days of hiking and 4 nights camping to take in Hornstrandir. You’ll need to make sure you do pre-book though as they can sell out well in advance.
If staying overnight in Ísafjörður then there are plenty of accommodation options to suit all budgets. Visit booking.com to see what’s available.
When is the best time to visit Hornstrandir?
If you’re planning a hike then there is a very narrow window of opportunity to visit Hornstrandir. Ideally you want to be there between mid June and the end of July, but you could stretch slightly early or slightly later if needed. Outside of these months very few people visit Hornstrandir as hiking is the main reason to go there and it’s not advised during the winter.
What’s the weather like in Hornstrandir?
Being located not far south of the Arctic Circle the weather can be extremely harsh. During the prime hiking months then you could expect to see all kinds of weather. If you’re lucky then you could see sunny and warm days of around 20 °C. However more likely you’ll see a combination of wind, rain and even the outside chance of snow flurries particularly when hiking at elevation, and temperatures perhaps averaging around 10 °C. The weather is not the reason you visit Hornstrandir, so it’s always a gamble and you need to make sure you are well prepared for all conditions.
What to bring for a hike in Hornstrandir?
As there are almost no facilities in Hornstrandir then you will need camp each night and bring everything with you and be prepared for all kinds of weather. And pack as light as you can as you’ll need to carry all your gear.
I would recommend a lightweight one man tent such as the Snugpack Journey Solo. It’s extremely lightweight, sturdy and waterproof and should handle everything that Hornstrandir has to throw at you.
You’ll need to bring all your food with you, and I for ease I found that pre-packed freeze dried food worked well and saved on cooking time. Drinking water was readily available from various streams, and topping your water bottle up was never an issue as the water is clean and perfectly drinkable. However I took some Oasis water purification tablets with me and added those to my water at each top up.
For clothing then make sure you have several layers so that you can add or remove depending on what the weather throws at you. During the evenings though it can become extremely chilly once the sun goes behind the mountains, and temperatures can easily drop below freezing at night. As such you’ll need warm thermals and fleece layers, good hiking boots and waterproof layers too.
Given the cold weather at night you’ll need a sleeping bag that is warm yet lightweight to minimise the amount of weight you’re carrying. I love the Hike & Bike Eolus. Whilst pricey I didn’t mind spending the extra as it kept me warm at night and was compact and didn’t take up too much space in my rucksack.
What wildlife can you see in Hornstrandir?
Hornstrandir is a wonderful place to view the Arctic Fox. As the nature reserve is uninhabited the Arctic Foxes are not afraid of humans and therefore it’s easy to get up close to them. You shouldn’t have any trouble seeing them if you’re there for a few days.
Birdlife is also abundant and you’ll most likely see species including Puffins, Arctic Terns and Guillemots. And if you’re lucky maybe even catch a glimpse of the Arctic Foxes out hunting for them.
During the ferry over to Hornstrandir its even possible that you might catch a glimpse of the numerous Whale species that inhabit the waters off Iceland.
Day 1 – Morning boat to Hesteyri, hike to Hlöðuvík (16km, 6 hours)
After arriving in Hesteyri you start the first day of your hike heading north to the bay of Hlöðuvík. It’s around 15km and could take you up to 6 hours depending on how fast you choose to walk. Once you reach the ocean on the northern side of Hornstrandir you should continue your hike along the beach until you get to Búðir. There are a few small cabins at a campground which is the location for you to pitch your tent for your first night.
Day 2 – Hlöðuvík to Hornvík (11km, 7 hours)
Today it’s a steep hike east up Skálarkambur where you should be presented with some amazing views in good weather. The trail is quite easy to follow and there is a small section with some scrambling needed at the top although not too challenging.
Once down on the other side you continue the hike into a bay called Rekavík where the trail turns right. You then have the option of a roughly 2 hour detour to Hælavíkurbjarg to the left which I would highly recommend. It’s best to leave much of your gear behind to ensure you are walking as light as possible, as this trail is very challenging and dangerous if wet. After some narrow trails and steep drops you will reach a valley called Hvannadalur where you can see the 250 metre cliff Hælavíkurbjarg. This is also home to countless birds.
Once you’re returned from the detour you will continue hiking to the next campground at Hornvík for your second overnight stay.
Day 3 – Hornbjarg and summit Kálfatindar (19km, 10 hours)
Today you will want to travel light and leave your main backpacks behind at your camp. For the start of the hike east it’s worth knowing when high and low tides are, as the river mouth can be waded through at low tide. However we found on our return the high tide meant we had to take a detour south as the water was too deep to cross. Something to consider.
Once you reach Hornbjarg cliff you will be able to crawl to the edge to look down the sheer vertical cliffs that drop right into the ocean. The sight is incredible. Continuing along the cliff you will follow the hiking route to the summit at Kálfatindar where agin you’ll be able to look down a sheer 500 metre drop straight into the sea.
After summing Kálfatindar you’ll return via the same route and spend another night at your campsite.
Day 4 – Hornvík to Veiðileysufjörður (11km, 6 hours)
For the final hike from your campsite at Hornvík bay you will head south over a mountain pass and into the fjord Veiðileysufjörður. The views into the fjord are incredible. It’s a fairly moderate walk and could take around 6 hours at a good pace.
We stayed overnight at the campsite next to where the the boat collects you. An alternative would be to pre-book the afternoon boat and not camp the extra night. However as we wanted to take a more leisurely hike without the time pressure or worry of missing the boat, we found the extra night was best.
Day 5 – Return by boat
The boat arrives at around 9am assuming there are no weather delays, and it will be a an hour or two journey back to civilisation in Ísafjörður.