7. From Reykjavik: UNESCO Reykjanes Geopark Private Tour
The Reykjanes peninsula is a 2,000 km² (772 mi²) area characterized by various formations of palagonite tuff, pillow lava, and basaltic lava flows shaped by volcanic activity during interglacial periods, mostly in the last 11,500 years. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge rises above sea level on this peninsula and it is lined with four volcanic systems from SW to NE, containing craters, faults, open volcanic fissures, large and small lava shields, and high-temperature geothermal fields. Fisheries have long been a lifeline of the locals, with fishing towns and villages along the black sanded coastline, some even dating back centuries.
In 2015, Reykjanes was recognized as a Global Geopark by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) for its geological heritage in connection with the area's natural and cultural heritage. UNESCO Global Geoparks have sites and landscapes of international geological significance, managed with a holistic concept of education, protection, and sustainability.
The Reykjanes UNESCO Global Geopark has 55 geosites and we will start on the outermost point of the peninsula at Garðskagi. Two lighthouses stand there bearing the same name Garðskagaviti. The older one dating back to 1897 is the second oldest lighthouse in Iceland while the newer one dating back to 1944 is the tallest lighthouse in our country. Both lighthouses offer a unique 360° view over the Atlantic Ocean and inland, and by the coast are varied species of sea birds, seals, and whales. Heading south from Garðskagi by the coastline, we next stop at the unique black church Hvalsneskirkja. This is among our favorite Icelandic churches, built with basalt lava rocks and crafted inside with driftwood, both collected within the region by locals. Its colorful tower makes for a great contrast against the basalt exterior and the surrounding mossy lava field.
Closeby is another lighthouse, the picturesque yellow-colored Stafnesviti, overlooking the rocky coast of Básendar which used to be the largest fishing and trading post in the area before a flood caused by a terrible storm destroyed the whole town in 1799, changing the shoreline forever. We then head further south through the lava field with the rocky coastline to our right, to the wooden black church Kirkjuvogskirkja in the fishing village Hafnir. This is the oldest church on the Reykjanes peninsula, dating back to 1860. Standing close to shore, an anchor from the sailing ship Jamestown is kept to commemorate when the residents woke up one morning finding that ship had run aground after drifting abandoned and filled with valuable timber over the Atlantic Ocean. Most of that timber was then used for building houses and bridges all over Iceland.
We continue our way to the Bridge Between Continents, a symbolic bridge over a fissure between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. With the Mid-Atlantic Ridge lying through and these plates constantly rafting, this is among the few places on Earth where they can be seen above ground. Next up is the colorful and active geothermal area Gunnuhver, with mud pools, hot springs, and steam vents surrounded by lava fields and a sulphuric landscape. Walking trails run throughout the area between observation decks, overlooking this spectacular everchanging area. A short drive from there takes you to Reykjanesviti, the oldest lighthouse in Iceland on top of a hill dating back to 1907. A walking path leads to the peak of Valahnúkur, where the first-ever lighthouse built in Iceland stood, before being damaged by earthquakes and powerful waves on this most south-western point of the peninsula. Valahnúkur is an eroded sea cliff that formed in an eruption over 10,000 years ago and is now a popular nesting site for seabirds. The music video Volcano Man starring Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams was mainly shot here. Valahnúkamöl is a beach filled with large boulders created by powerful storms and waves, and looking out into the Atlantic Ocen is Eldey, a high stack of islands with the largest gannet colony in the world. The last mating pair of Great Auks were killed there in 1844, and by Valahnúkur is a statue of a Great Auk in memory of this extinct species.
Heading east we stop by the small coastal rock pool Brimketill which rests by the coastline. Pounding waves have carved the cliffs throughout the years and formed this pool, which looks tempting to take a dip in when the weather is calm, but it is highly advised against due to sudden waves sneaking up on you and sucking you out to sea. Instead, there's an observation platform overlooking this spectacular formation. We head to the last stop of the day, the geothermal field Svartsengi. It is one of the five major geothermal areas on the peninsula which last erupted over 800 years ago, producing the surrounding lava fields and forming a long row of scoria and spatter cones called Eldvörp. The Svartsengi Power Plant sits in the middle of the field, producing electricity and energy for the local district. Run-off water fills the Blue Lagoon with geothermal water rich in minerals with healing abilities, making it the most popular bathing resort in Iceland. A drive through this area gives you great sights of this active geothermal area in-between the rocky mossy lava.