An American's Guide to Iceland: Ánastaðastapi Sea Stack
When I first started researching a trip to Iceland I knew I wanted to spend some time in the far North, some in the south, and some in the Westfjords. I decided, foolishly, that it would be good on the day I arrived in Iceland to drive all the way to Akureyri in North Iceland, a distance of about 400 km making for about a 5 hour drive (at 75 kph). I figured half way would be a good place to stop. Of course you never go 75-80 kph for long in Iceland. There is always slow traffic ahead, and sometimes very slow.
I plotted this route which included transit through the Hvalfjörður Tunnel north of Reykjavik thinking the Vatnsnes peninsula would be a good half way place to get out and look around Iceland. On the peninsula there are two notable sea stacks, Ánastaðastapi Rock and Hvítserkur Sea Stack. There is also the Hamarsrétt sheep roundup, which looked liked something worth seeing.
The Hvalfjörður Tunnel (Hvalfjarðargöng) is the first notable landmark on the long drive north. For many years the tunnel had a dreaded ISK 1000 toll ($10 each way) but that was lifted on September 28, 2018.
The tunnel is so long it was pretty unnerving the first time I went through it. It stretches 5,770 meters (18,930 feet) under the Hvalfjörður fjord. It cuts almost an hour off of the route north.
The next thing you see along the route is the picturesque town of Borgarnes located on a peninsula at the shore of Borgarfjörður. On this trip I would return to Borgarnes several times as it was a great place to stop for gas, and dinner.
In Iceland there is an issue with public restrooms (they are few and far between) so Borgarnes is the last place a traveler is going to easily find public restrooms (in gas stations) before Akureyri. For the most part in Borgarnes there is no demand for payment in restrooms but throughout much of Iceland do not be surprised to be charged $2 to use a toilet. Its an unusual phenomenon in a place that is so dependent on tourism. I will return to this story over and over again about the lack of public restrooms and what to do when nature calls.
About an hour north of Borgarnes nature did indeed call again and I started looking for a tree.
I saw this sign for the Hrútafjarðará, a famous salmon fly fishing river. It is a relatively small river in a deep gorge that would have gone unnoticed had I not needed to pee so badly.
Another Iceland phenomenon. Every time you stop somewhere others stop to see what it is you're looking at, assuming that you know what you're doing. I stopped here and as you can see there were no trees at all, not even any big rocks. So I decided to go under the bridge along the river to relieve myself. As soon as I did cars started stopping.
Despite the stopped cars above, full of tourists with cameras, I found this quite secluded spot for a wee time with nature. That building in the distance looked like an abandoned asylum. After this emergency stop it was back onto Route 1 heading north to the Vatnsnes.
(Bear Cub Bay)
Húnaflói (Bear Cub Bay) lies between the Westfjords and Skagi Peninsula, and nestled in the middle is the Vatnsnes peninsula. Its environs are among the least touristed in Iceland. Driving from Reykjavík to Akureyri on the ring Road one mostly sees undulating agricultural land, but few dramatic landmarks beckon. We decided Húnaflói and the Vatnsnes Peninsula would be a nice detour, half way to Akureyri.
Húnaflói is home to the majority of Icelandic harbor seals (plus a few grey seals), and the best place to spot them is on the Vatnsnes peninsula west of Blöndós. Vatnsnes has a mountainous center, but its shores blend wild coastline with fertile grazing land for horses and sheep. Seals can be viewed any time of year, though they often are absent, presumably in search of fish. The peninsula's only village is Hvammstangi, in the southwest near the Ring Road.
Above: The Iceland Point of Interest Symbol is often small on the side of a road sign
but it gives you some indication that there is something worth seeing here.
From the Ring Road we took Route 72 north toward the little village of Hvammstangi, 6km north of the Ring Road. There really isn't much of anything here to warn you to turn. I watched for routes 702 and 704 so that I knew Route 72 was close. Good thing. Otherwise we would have missed it.
From Hvammstangi, Route 72 becomes Route 711 and follows the periphery of Vatnsnes. On clear days, the west side of the peninsula has great views of the Strandir coast. Route 711 goes from gravel to mud to not much of anything over undulating blind hills and sharp curves and switchbacks. The Vatnsnes opens up here north of Hvammstangi and reveals itself to be a starkly beautiful place with a ridge of craggy hills marching down its spine while lush green and brown fields dominate the plateau nearest the sea.
The village of Hvammstangi is tiny. It has a population of about 600 people. The town is on the shores of the Miðfjörður and as you drive north the fjord opens up into Húnaflói. Once you hit the very rough gravel it is not far to Ánastaðastapi Rock. We saw the sign below. Notice the Point of Interest Symbol on the right side of the sign. But where is the sea stack?
This little sign points toward the bay but there is nothing out there that one can see from this point. I parked and started investigating. The fields are a thick bog, very wet, with plenty of sheep poop.
Hiking into the fields toward the water eventually I saw the sea stack far in the distance. Note that it was a long hike down through the sodden field to get to this point (above) where I first saw the sea stack. It didn't look so big nestled beneath the steep headlands of the Vatnsnes. Across the water when the clouds clear you can see the high peaks of the Westfjords.
As you get closer to Ánastaðastapi it does look more like a dinosaur (so say the locals). It is a long, wet hike down the steep slopes to get to the beach.
Along the way you pass through ripe meadows of Arctic Cottongrass, blooming in fall.
When you get close, of course there is a little waterfall. There are waterfalls everywhere in Iceland.
Above: looking back up the headlands I'd just hiked down. Below. . . my first Iceland waterfall video.
Technically sea stacks are geological landforms consisting of a steep and often vertical column or columns of rock in the sea near a coast, formed by wave erosion. Stacks are formed over time by wind and water, processes of coastal geomorphology. They often form when part of a headland is eroded by hydraulic action, which is the force of the sea or water crashing against the rock. These stacks can provide important nesting for seabirds and many are popular for rock climbers.
Looking north is the bucolic Ánastaðastapi Lighthouse and the Westfjords in the distance to the west.
Below, a wider view of the scene north of Ánastaðastapi.
The Ánastaðastapi Legend
The legend says that in the harsh winter of 1882 whales stranded at the sea stack here as the sea froze over, providing the locals with sustenance for the winter. Icelanders tell this story in a more colorful way. I consider killing and eating whales to be as bad as cannibalism. Marine mammals are endangered, intelligent creatures and should be off limits, forever. Icelanders do not agree and to this day kill Minke whales and sell their meat in their supermarkets. This makes me very sad and angry as Icelanders have plenty to eat today without resorting to killing endangered whales.
At this point on my journey I was already so far up the Vatnsnes that it seemed only logical to continue north around the peninsula until I came to the more famous sea stack, Hvítserkur. I did not anticipate terrible, rocky, hilly roads and lots and lots of sheep.
All of the guide books talk about an easily accessible seal colony at Hindisvik, at the northern most point on the peninsula before 711 snakes back southeast. I never saw the sign for Hindisvik and never saw any seals but I was dodging giant potholes, traversing blind hills and switchbacks, and trying not to run off the road. So maybe there are seals down there. The guidebooks say the parking area is 6 km northeast of the junction of Routes 711 and 712. They also note there is a sign. I didn't see the sign. Throughout this afternoon adventure I had to move over fences where I saw stiles (ladders). The books say you hike about 15-30 minutes from where you parked toward the sea to a rocky promontory passing several fences via stiles and abandoned farm buildings. Good luck with this one!
One of hundreds of stiles I would use to get over fences while exploring Iceland.