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The Arctic coast Way is a 900km long tourist route that runs from Vopnafjörður in the east to Hvammstangi on the edge of the Vatnsnes Peninsula in the west. It hugs this wild and exposed coastline allowing you to explore the myths and legends, wildlife and geological changes that tell the story of the area through time.
Sometimes planning overlaps with something totally amazing and completely unexpected. That is how the the unexpected adventure along the newly formed Arctic Coast Way fell into line with our 4500km drive around Iceland.
This newly formed tourist trail in the far north of Iceland was launched on the 8th June 2019 – World Ocean Day and takes you to some of the most remote and exposed areas of this fascinating country. The route is 900km long visiting six peninsular areas along the way.
The volcanic centre of Iceland plunges deep into the icy Atlantic Ocean along this rugged coastline with black sand beaches, abundant wildlife and remote lighthouses. The Viking Sagas come to life in the small villages and the more recent history lingers in the museums and visitor centres.
Little did we realise when planning the northern part of our Iceland road trip that we would stumble upon a spectacular landscape. Leaving the small town of Vopnafjörður and heading north towards Bakkafjörður and Þórshöfn a distinctive new sign appeared. Olive green mountains with a swirl of blue ocean on a brown tourist sign was there at each major junction. Usually pointing the way we were going. However it wasn’t until later that we discovered the Arctic Coast Way and how we had accidentally stumbled upon a new adventure.
Where is the Arctic Coast Way?
The Arctic Coast Way or NORÐURSTRANDARLEIÐ in Icelandic, as you may guess follows the most northerly coastal roads around Iceland. Starting in the east north of Vopnafjörður and passing through the small towns of Þórshöfn, Raufarhöfn, Húsavík, Siglufjörður and Blönduós as well as the regional capital of Akureyri it ends in the west at the small village of Hvammstangi on the edge of the Vatnsnes Peninsula.
The route is divided into three parts: Coast of elemental nature, Coast of fishing towns and heritage and the most westerly Coast of Sagas and mythology.
The route also includes five small islands. These are difficult to reach but are so worth the journey. Each unique and bursting with wildlife and stories they will take you into the Arctic Circle.
How to Get to the Arctic Coast Way
The Arctic Coast way can be approached from both the east and the west. From the east it is over 600km from Reykjavík following Ring Road 1 to Egilsstaðir before heading north along road 85 to Vopnafjörður and the start of the signed route. A straight drive is over 7 hours but taking our time it took two weeks to get this far.
From the west the journey is slightly quicker with the start of the route at Hvammstangi being just 197km from Reykjavík, a drive of about 3 hours in good conditions.
Driving the Arctic Coast Way
Slowly is the best way to explore this part of Iceland. The roads are rough in places, the surf breaks over the road and thick fog can hang over the coastline even in the middle of summer. It is wild and needs respect. Despite our best efforts we managed a maximum of 150km each day, stopping for photographs and giving ourselves time to explore museums and beaches.
About 1/3 of the route is on gravel roads. These are passable in a 2WD (we saw lots) but for safety and comfort a 4WD is the vehicle of choice. This means you need to take it slowly but the added excitement of horses and sheep on the roads means that corners need caution. You really do not know what is around the next corner.
Don’t be one of the rude drivers that we encountered who just barrelled past the passing places (marked with a blue “M” sign) and forced us into the sodden verges. Use the passing places to pause, look at the scenery and allow others to pass. However, these are not for picnics or photo stops there are marked places for this!
In the summer months the weather is better but even then it can be challenging. The midnight sun allows you to stay on the road for more hours giving the adventure a surreal feeling when you realise it is nearly midnight and you are still exploring.
At any time of the year the wind will blow. This isn’t just a gentle breeze, this is a strong wind. Staying on your feet can be difficult and keeping smaller cars on the road can be challenging. Make sure you always check the road conditions before departing each day. We found Road.is to be most reliable for road conditions and Vedur.is for the weather.
Where to Stay on the Arctic Coast Way
This is a very personal choice. We camped our way around with a few AirBnB nights to allow us to cook ahead and get laundry under control. Each of the villages and towns have a campsite. They vary in size and facilities but from our experience all were clean and well cared for. As part of the planning process for this adventure you do need to look at accomodation before you set off. This is especially the case the further east you venture. However even here there are choices and lovely sites. Just remember that it is illegal to stay anywhere other than an official campsite unless you have permission from the land owner. Just because there are miles of fields doesn’t mean that there is no owner or someone isn’t aware of what you are doing.
The Arctic Coast Way website has a good selection of places to stay on the route.
Things to see and Do on the Arctic Coast Way
There is so much to do on this route that it needs multiple days to complete. The road hugs the coast of six peninsular which makes it perfect for day tight units during your visit. The islands are each a day at least in their own right if not more.
As well as visiting sights, the area is full of hiking trails and water sports, however the weather plays a big part in what is possible and can change by the hour. When the weather is bad there are lots of amazing places for food and a number of micro-breweries just waiting to be discovered and sampled.
Melrakkaslétta and Langanes Peninsula
Coming from the east the first area north of Vopnafjörður is the Langanes Peninsula. This is rugged and remote with high cliffs and an abundance of wildlife. The village of Bakkafjörður is the furthest settlement from Reykjavík and is focussed on fishing with Digranes Lighthouse just a short walk from the village. Nearby is the Church of Skeggjastaðir, the oldest church in the East of Iceland. A relatively modern building built on centuries of farming history and tales.
A little further north is the town of Þórshöfn which is a good place for a supermarket and refuel as well as a dip in its beautiful swimming pool. Camping here is simple with a small toilet block but nothing more. A drive out along the Langanes Peninsula takes you past the gannet coated bird cliffs at Stóri Karl towards the isolated Fortur Lighthouse and the abandoned village of Skálar. The beaches here are long and sweeping and for the first time they are composed of yellow sand. Lambanes Beach is the largest and most accessible. Others can be reached but are more pebbly and have huge pieces of driftwood littering the shoreline.
Heading further north from Þórshöfn the road becomes rough before reaching Raufarhöfn with its orange lighthouse and the nearby Arctic Henge. A modern monument still in the process of being developed.
From here you are close to the Arctic Circle and the most northerly point of mainland Iceland is just a short drive away at Hraunhafnartangi Lighthouse. This is a wild landscape with Arctic terns and eider ducks outnumbering humans and even sheep. Small lakes are scattered along the roadside along with huge geological formations from the 1973 earthquakes.
This peninsula ends at the village of Kópasker. Here, on 13th January 1973 a huge earthquake shook the village and a museum today tells the story if how the village was affected and rebuilt. On the edge of the village is Kópasker Lighthouse and just to the north are the beautiful Hvalsvík Rock Formations at Hestfall.
Ásbyrgi and Tjörnes Peninsula to Húsavík
Ásbyrgi is a place of ancient tales. A massive horseshoe believed to have been formed when one of the hooves of Odin’s horse, Sleipnir touched the ground with one of his eight feet but more likely the result of thousands of years of river and earthquake action. It is also home to the ‘hidden people’ and if you stand long enough looking at the cliffs their faces will emerge from their hiding places. Camping here is easy with good facilities and a large spacious site.
Ásbyrgi along with Dettifoss Waterfall are in the northern most part of Vatnajökull National Park which stretches all the way from the Diamond Beach on the south coast. Whilst not on the Arctic Coast Way the two waterfalls of Dettifoss and Goðafoss are just a very short but worthwhile detour.
READ MORE: Visiting and photographing Goðafoss
The loop around the Tjörnes Peninsula takes you past the stunning Fjallahöfn Beach as well as others further along towards Húsavík. The cliffs are steep and the beaches not easily accessible but worth the drive on the gravel road.
Húsavík is a pretty fishing village with a thriving tourist industry in whale watching tours. If the weather is kind to you then a trip out to find whales and visit the small Lundey Island or Puffin Island is essential. However, if the weather is rough as it was when we passed through then the Whale Museum is a great way to spend a wet and cold afternoon.
Hùsavík also has its own lighthouse and gorgeous and very recently opened GeoSea thermal sea baths. A perfect location to relax (unless you have an Atlantic storm like we endured!!)
Eyjafjörður Fjord and Akureyri
The road the Akureyri is scenic especially if you follow Route 835 towards Grenivík and then on towards the small village of Svalbarðseyri with its dinky lighthouse and pebble beach. This also avoids paying the toll for the tunnel on Ring Road 1 between Akureyri and Mývatn.
Akureyri is the capital of the north of Iceland and has a similar busy vibe to Reykjavík but on a smaller more intimate scale. Standing over the town is the Cathedral with its ornate stained glass windows. There is amazing street art and beautiful bakeries to explore before heading north again.
The road to Siglufjörður and beyond – Skagi Peninsula and Trollaskagi (Troll) Peninsula
From Akureyri the route heads north again into a collection of small fishing villages, stories of the herring fishing industry as well as more lighthouses and wide open spaces to look for whales and seabirds off the coast.
This stretch of the route is also where islands can be reached with small ferries operating from the villages before heading to the larger town of Blönduós. Blönduós has a unique church and stunning Bolabás Rock Formations nearby.
Unfortunately for us this was missed when the alternator died in our car. We will return to explore this final part of the Arctic Coast jigsaw.
Vatnsnes Peninsula to Hvammstangi
Depending on which way you explore the Arctic Coast Way this may be your first encounter or your last piece of exploring. This is as wild and rugged as the east coast but feels more intimate and less exposed. The beaches are back to being black sand and the road winds its way along the coast. This road is again very rough almost like being back to the beginning again at Langanes.
Coming from the east the first place is Borgarvirki, an ancient volcanic plug which has been used as a defensive fortification since the first settlers arrived between 870-1030AD. There are steps to the top of the hill where the remains of buildings and the fort can still be seen with views across the peninsula in good weather.
From here it is just a short drive along the rough gravel road to Hvítserkur Beach where a viewing point looks over the craggy sea stack that is thought to be a petrified troll and resembles a drinking dragon. The black sand beach is a favourite haunt of seals and the start of a seal hunt along the coast.
Following the coast along there are various places where seals haul out but the best place is Illugastaðir Beach. From the parking it is a short walk to a hide that overlooks the seals favourite set of rocks. Even in the pouring rain and driving wind the seals were hauled out. Not many but enough to say we had seen them.
However if there are none to be seen heading to Hvammstangi village via Skarðsviti Lighthouse and the nearby Ánastaðastapi Rock Formation will allow you to visit the incredibly quirky Seal Museum. There is lots of information about the life of seals in this unique little museum.
From Hvammstangi it is just a short drive back to Ring Road 1 and the road to Reykjavík or the start of a new adventure into the Westfjords.
Photography on the Arctic Coast Way
This route is made for photography and has an abundance of opportunities. It is best to explore with a range of lenses to ensure that everything is covered. It really does provide everything for photographers from wide seascapes and lighthouses to wildlife encounters. It is also the ideal place to view the Midnight Sun and the Northern Lights in Iceland with the uninterrupted horizon and northerly facing shoreline.
Planning is needed especially in the winter months but it is possible to capture some unique Icelandic landscapes and encounters in this unexplored corner of the country.