The Westfjords are a frontier: the most common feeling of visitors is that they have reached the edge of the world. This most remote region of Iceland offers a pure and often extreme nature. It is the geologically oldest and least populated part of the country, characterised by seemingly endless jagged fjords, steep mountains, colourful beaches and sharp cliffs.
What is the best time to visit?
As in the rest of Iceland, the Westfjords seasons are extremely contrasted and it's important to time your visit according to your interests. Mid-June to mid-August is the traditional peak travel period, but other seasons have been gradually gaining in popularity because of the lower prices and unique attractions of each season.
March & April - Snow & winter activities
By this time of the year plenty of snow has accumulated over the darkest winter months and there are now enough daylight hours for extended outdoor activities. Alpine, backcountry & cross country skiing are the most popular activities at this time of the year. Northern lights remain viewable until mid-April.
May & June - Midnight sunsets & wildlife watching
Spring is a very slow affair in the Westfjords and offers the magical combination of melting snow & seasonal waterfalls, re-migrating birds & newborn animal offspring, midnight sunsets & warmer weather. Sailing and kayaking on the calm fjords become some of the best ways to enjoy the fantastic landscape.
July & August - Hiking & summer activities
As the summer matures and the mountains dry, the Westfjords turn into a hiking paradise with countless mountain trekking possibilities. As beautiful as the Westfjords are from sea level nothing matches the view from the top! Kayaking remains a popular pursuit throughout late summer. Some of the most scenic gravel roads become reliably passable in July and August, which is great news for super jeeps, mountain bikers and horse riders. July offers 24 hour daylight and usually puffins can be seen throughout the month, although in lesser numbers than earlier in the summer.
September & October - Colourful nature
Self-drivers and photographers alike are well advised to visit during the autumn months. Autumn colours start forming and northern lights become viewable in late August, although it is advisable to wait at least until early September if the goal is to see these. The first snowfall of the season normally happens sometime in September and most often leaves a gorgeous snowdust on the mountain peaks with a well defined "snowline". This beautifully contrasts with autumn colours & auroras.
November-February - Dark winter
It requires a significant amount of patience and flexibility to visit the Westfjords during the deepest winter months, when the days are as short as 4-8 hours and snow blizzards frequently disturb travel plans. This is the time to visit for authentic local culture as hardly any tourists venture to the Westfjords at this time of the year. Christmas decorations light up the villages and it's exciting to celebrate the New Year in a Westfjords fishing town like Isafjordur, where the locals blaze the sky with fireworks against the stunning mountain backdrop.
What are the highlights of the Westfjords?
The Westfjords are a region of panoramic beauty that is not always easy to describe in a single photo or in the context of a few clear highlights. But here are a few places most will agree that stand out - incidentally, it is rare that Westfjords visitors see all of these places in the same trip!
Dynjandi waterfall - It is virtually impossible to describe the perfect symmetry of the majestic top waterfall tier in words. This is one exception to the single photo rule: a good picture of Dynjandi really says a lot which is why it has remained the Westfjords' favourite photo icon. But you need to walk up the path along all the smaller tiers, up to the base of the main tier and stand next to it, for the full grandieur of Dynjandi to soak in.
Dynjandi is only reliably accessible from May to October as it gets landlocked during winters, but in years of less snow it can often be reached in April and November as well.
Hornstrandir nature reserve - This northernmost part of the Westfjords became uninhabited in the 1950s and 1960s when the few remaining residents left the harsh full year living conditions of the region in favour of a more comfortable life in the nearby fishing villages. Since then Hornstrandir has remained a popular summer destination, particularly for hikers. The fame of Hornstrandir has since spread to foreign hikers as well and the area became a nature reserve in 1975. Hornstrandir offer a very enticing experience for good hikers: A rough and often challenging hiking environment, isolation from the rest of the world (the only way there is by sea or by foot, the latter would take you almost a week from the nearest settlement), starkling natural purity (you can drink from the streams), awe inspiring history and unforgettable fjord views. And no one forgets the fantastic experience of hiking along the Hornbjarg cliffs and exploring Hornvík creek, Iceland's most remote place.
A few words of warning for those who are thinking of hiking on their own in Hornstrandir: Google is not a replacement for local advice. It is becoming increasingly common that do-it-yourselfers have to be rescued during the middle of their Hornstrandir trip due to any combination of exhaustion, cold, lack of food or lost direction. The most common (and dreaded) explanation from a do-it-yourselfer that lands up in trouble is that they already had hiking experience from the Alps. Hornstrandir is not the Alps!
First time travellers in Hornstrandir should always seek the services of a local guide, or at the very least the preparatory advice of an experienced local. Even returning visitors may find it useful to have a local with them since conditions will differ from visit to visit. You also have to make sure you are of at least average physical fitness, have good hiking experience and equipment, and remember that everything you need for the trip will have to be carried along. That also means what you take to Hornstrandir must be taken back as well as there are no garbage disposal facilities. With a couple of minor exceptions there are no services whatsoever in Hornstrandir and the only "fast" way back to civilisation is by boat!
By contrast well planned multi-day hiking tours with a guide are a much more relaxed and enjoyable experience for most of those looking for an unforgettable backpacking adventure in Hornstrandir. Day tours from Isafjordur are perfect for those who just want a little taste of the nature reserve and do not have the time or ability for extensive wilderness preparations.
Ísafjordur town - The townsite of Isafjordur is quite simply a natural miracle. Nestled in between tall and sharp mountains, the town was originally built up on a natural spit perfect for accessing the nearby fishing grounds. The spit is located right under a mountain shelf which acts as a natural avalanche protection. The surrounding mountains block many wind directions which lends to the famous calm waters. Winters can be harsh in Isafjordur and if it was located just a few hundred kilometers further north then it would probably not be a habitable place year round, much like Hornstrandir where no one has lived for decades - and you can clearly see the mountains of Hornstrandir across the bay from Isafjordur!
Modern Isafjordur is surprisingly developed for it's location, with an expanded and built up spit and excellent service level for such a tiny town, including plenty of good accommodation & restaurant options. It is after all the largest settlement in the Westfjords and hundreds of kilometers away from other regions; residents of Isafjordur and the nearby villages have always had to be self-sufficient both commercially and culturally. Due to strict and highly controversial fisheries regulations the town has seen a sharp decline in its economy and population over the last 25 years. Currently only about 2500 people live in Isafjordur town and less than 7000 in the entire Westfjords. The current hope is that fish farming and tourism will save Isafjordur and the rest of the Westfjords from suffering the same fate as Hornstrandir did.
Isafjordur is a great base for day tours, particularly from May to September. There are plenty of great day hiking options in the Isafjordur area with less traffic than in Hornstrandir.
Isafjordur is included in almost all our itineraries that visit the Westfjords.
Látrabjarg cliffs - Europe's highest bird cliffs at well over 400m and Iceland's westernmost point, Látrabjarg (along with it's colleague Hornbjarg) is the kind of place that makes you believe the Earth is flat and that you are standing the edge of the world. It's an amazing feeling to stand by the edge and gaze out at the endless sea, even more so when it's windy! The cliffs are teeming with birdlife and are considered the best place in the world to photograph puffins from May to July. No less inspiring than the cliffs are the many colourful beaches nearby, in shades from golden yellow to reddish orange.
Just make sure to follow the path along the cliffs and resist the urge to go all the way to the edge. This is particularly important when travelling with young children - at the time of this writing there are no protection barriers whatsoever. We once walked upon a man who had fallen asleep right at the edge of the cliffs while reading a book (probably not an exciting one!) with only a few hundred meters straight drop onto the rocky beach below him if he had accidentally turned in his sleep. He was quite thankful that we woke him up - there are others who have been less lucky.
Day tours to Látrabjarg: Látrabjarg & Dynjandi (private tour from Isafjordur)
Svalvogar peninsula - The Westfjords are famed for their cliffs: all the sub-peninsulas in the region are naturally rough around the edges thanks to perpetual battering by the ocean. The cliffs of the Svalvogar peninsula are geologically unique and a part of the tallest mountainridge in the Westfjords. Rather amazingly there is even a jeep trail which goes all the way around. The trail is popular with drivers, mountain bikers & horse riders alike and is normally passable from late June and well into the autumn, as it gradually wears down from crashing sea waves and the onset of early winter.
Self-drivers can drive around the peninsula themselves on a jeep (as long as it gives enough ground clearance for the rocks and rivers along the way) but we don't recommend it. A critical part of the trail is not in the official Icelandic road administration's system which means that no insurance will cover damage to vehicles. It is also often required to reverse when meeting other cars as the trail is very narrow at times especially at "cliffhanging" points. This is one route where local experience is vital!
Day tours to Svalvogar: Under The Cliffs (scheduled & private tour from Isafjordur)