Last update: 19 February 2022
Stórhöfði is the southernmost point on the island of Heimaey, and home to one of the biggest puffin breeding colonies in the world. There’s also the surreal geological beach of Klauf, formed by volcanic eruptions from several directions. On the coastal track to Stórhöfði you can see incredible views, wild cliff formations and lots of puffins along the way.
Stórhöfði puffin colony
The abundance of puffins in the summer months has people flocking to Vestmannaeyjar to see these striking birds with their brightly coloured beaks and funny aeronautical antics.
You can spot puffins at various places around the island.
Where can you see puffins on Heimaey?
They are often flying around the rocks high above Herjólfsdalur and Heimaklettur, behind Blátindur and around Stafsnes peninsula. But there’s also an easier option to see puffins. The Stórhöfði coastal track doesn’t require too much scrambling or balancing your way across tiny paths above steep drop-offs.
Puffin by the sea along the coastal track to Stórhöfði.
Herjólfsdalur coastline and Smáeyjar – the little islands.
Stórhöfði coastal track
A beautiful coastal track follows the western shoreline from Herjólfsdalur in the north all the way to Stórhöfði in the south. Stórhöfði peninsula is connected to the rest of the island by a narrow strip of land, full of remarkable features on both sides. Beneath the rolling hills lies the surreal geological beach of Klauf, formed by volcanic eruptions from several directions.
And you can see lots of puffins on the cliffs along the way.
Stórhöfði peninsula and Klauf beach.
Herjólfsdalur and the coastal track.
The flight of the puffins
The puffins arrive at the end of April, looking for their mate and building holes to nest in (and sometimes fight each other for an existing one). Once they’ve settled, they start breeding and laying their eggs in May. The little puffins usually hatch early to mid-July. Around the middle of August the first puffin chicks leave their nest.
And subsequently can be found wandering slightly disoriented around town in the evening. They are attracted by the street lights, not realizing that they’re flying in the wrong direction.
Puffins on the coastal track to Stórhöfði.
Heimaey Puffin Patrol
Luckily they’re helped along by the locals. They pick them up from the streets and bring them to the Sæheimar aquarium, where the little puffins are nurtured and released back into the ocean as soon as they are ready to. Some of them have found a permanent residence at Sæheimar. They were either very young or too weak when they were brought in, and couldn’t adapt to a life in the wild anymore.
Sæheimar has been measuring and recording the rescued little puffins since 2003. The Puffin Rescue Centre is now part of the new Beluga Whale Sanctuary, which opened in April 2019.
View from Stórhöfði to Herjólfsdalur and the volcanoes.
Islands shaped by volcanic activity
Heimaey is the main island in the volcanic chain of Vestmannaeyjar. Most of it didn’t even exist a few thousand years ago. Stórhöfði bubbled up from the sea as an island by itself about 6000 years ago, during a period of intense volcanic activity when most of Heimaey was moulded into its present shape. Stakkabótagígur – the sea crater beneath Sæfjall – roared into life next, adding some extra building material to Stórhöfði while it was at it.
The harbour rocks with Heimaklettur, and Dalfjall with Klif and Blátindur had already been around for a while. They were formed as two seperate islands to the north about 40.000 years ago. Then Helgafell arrived right in the middle and fused them all together with its expansive lava flows.
Stórhöfði lighthouse and weather station.
The windiest place in Europe
Stórhöfði also has the notorious reputation of being the windiest place in Europe. This can make a walk around the peninsula a bit of a challenge sometimes. At one point staggering windspeeds of 61 metres per second were measured by the weather station on the top. That’s about 220 kilometres per hour, and will blow you right off the peninsula into the sea.
There have been several other occasions where wind reports from the Stórhöfði weather station could not be processed, because ‘the wind gauge had been wrecked by the natural force it’s supposed to record’…
Don’t be discouraged
Thankfully it’s not always that windy! Calm and even (almost) ‘wind-free’ days do occur. If you have the chance, try to pick one of those for your walk around Stórhöfði. Anything under 10 m/s (36 km/hr, or windforce 5 on the Beaufort scale) is mildly acceptable. It will make everything so much more enjoyable 🙂
But even if it’s a bit too windy to conquer Stórhöfði, a walk along the coastal track to the geological beach of Klauf is worth it by itself for all the surreal and colourful views that await.
Stórhöfði hike & start of the track
The coastal track is about 5 kilometres from Herjólfsdalur to the base of Stórhöfði. It’s another 3,5 kilometres to walk around Stórhöfði itself. You can do a beautiful circuit to Klauf at the bottom of the peninsula, and return on the other side via Ræningjatangi beach and Sæfjall.
Plan at least 4 to 5 hours for the entire circuit. There are lots of side-tracks and other distractions, so it will take the best part of the day to enjoy all it has to offer.
The track starts right behind the golf course in Herjólfsdalur. If you’re a golf player, you can enjoy a round of golf in one of the most spectacular backgrounds in the world. A small inlet called Kaplagjóta is hidden behind the golf course, at the base of Blátindur.
If the sea is calm, you can walk down to a beautiful little pebbly beach beneath a cave overhang, and watch the peaceful lapping of waves into the cove. However, this is not recommended when there are turbulent waves roiling and boiling around the inlet!
Kaplagjóta cave and inlet, with a rock just plunging down from Blátindur…
Craggy coastline and wild cliffs
From Herjólfsdalur the path winds along the rocky bay towards a wooden step at the end of the golf course. The marked track goes a little inland from here, but there’s another unmarked path closer to the cliffs.
It reveals a craggy coastline riddled with caves and wild formations of basaltic blocks, created when liquid lava flows from Helgafell were still dripping down the coast.
Craggy coastline and wild formations.
Wilderness Coffee on the lava rocks 😉
Puffins along the route
You might run into some unexpected puffin encounters too – they are often sitting on the cliffsides just below the edge of the rocks.
The row of islands to the south, in various states of erosion.
The geological beach of Klauf
It’s about 3 kilometres from the Herjólfsdalur golf course to the Surtsey lookout point and information sign at Breiðibakki. Here you can descend onto the beach during the lower end of the tide. Bizarre formations unfold all around and evidence of violent volcanic eruptions in the past is clearly visible.
The geological beach of Klauf. No matter what time of year, it’s always colourful.
Pothole rocks and edible seaweed
Huge rocks are scattered across a layered plateau, decorated with lava bomb potholes and multicoloured seaweed exposed during low tide. The purple variety (called söl, or dulse) is a local delicacy, and people are often gathering it from the rocks in July and August.
Bizarre rock formations and lava bombs.
Picnic place with Klauf beach view.
Eider ducks, seals and whales
In summer, flocks of eider ducks and their chicks are sitting on the edges or floating around on the waves. You can often spot seals along this part of the coast, and sometimes even whales swimming by in the distance.
Pretty black sand beach and view to Stórhöfði peninsula.
Artistic lava flows and natural art
Further on, jumbled lava flows that came from the Stórhöfði fissures are sprawled out on the beach and lie cracked open in artistic compositions. It’s easy to lose track of time wandering around here. You find interesting nooks & crannies everywhere you look.
Jumbled lava flows and little beach orchids.
Artistic seaweed compositons scattered around on the beach.
Klauf puffin beach
Beyond the lava flows, a wide black sand bay stretches towards the base of Stórhöfði. This part of the beach is a popular place for locals to swim (!) in the summer. And to release the young puffins they found wandering on the streets at the end of August and the beginning of September.
It’s also known as the Costa del Klauf 😉
Klauf beach engine.
Stórhöfði puffin hut and circuit
Above the beach there’s a little green hut on the side of Stórhöfði. Here you can watch the puffins in comfort, if the weather is too discouraging or the wind too brutal to brave the walking track around the peninsula. Inside you can find information about the puffin colony and the research that has been done over the past years.
The puffin hut on Stórhöfði.
A path goes up behind the puffin hut and circles around and across Stórhöfði. You can go up to the historical lighthouse on the top (now being renovated) for some fine views all around the island.
If you want to see slopes full of puffins, you need to walk closer to the edge of the cliffs.
Stórhöfði gap on the southwest of the peninsula. The slopes below are often full of puffins – although most of them were out fishing when I took this picture…
The extended east coast
From Stórhöfði you can return into town on the main road across the island. But it’s more interesting to continue towards Ræningjatangi and Sæfjall along the newly expanded east coast of Heimaey.
Stórhöfði track and view along the east coast of Heimaey.
Wildlife along the track…
The best time to see puffins
People who go during the day are sometimes disappointed by the lack of puffins. But the puffins have a very busy schedule. As is often the case with island inhabitants, they are out at sea fishing during most of the day. The best time to see them is around sunrise and sunset – which is very late in the evening (or very early in the morning!) during the height of summer.
Busy month of August
August is a busy month on the puffin calender. You’ll see lots of them frantically flying around with a beak full of little fishes. This is when they feed and raise their chicks to prepare them for take-off at the end of summer. The adult puffins leave early to mid September. They fly north towards Greenland for their winter residence. The young ones will spend the first couple of years at sea, before returning to the colony.
This is one of the top-5 reader’s favourites of 2019, 2020 and 2021.
Heimaey coastal track hiking map
This handy interactive map shows the walking route from Herjólfsdalur to Stórhöfði. You can also zoom in on the different sections of the track for more details, and click on the icons for pictures of stunning views along the way.
Other tracks & hikes on Heimaey
Want to explore more of these spectacular views? Here you can find a variety of walking tracks around Heimaey. The biggest challenge is choosing just one 😉
Where is Vestmannaeyjar?
Vestmannaeyjar is a volcanic chain of islands just off the south coast of Iceland, directly across from Eyjafjallajökull. They are also known as the Westman Islands. Heimaey may look tiny on the map, but there’s a lot of spectacular scenery densely compressed into its 13,4 square kilometres. The ferry to Heimaey departs from Landeyjahöfn and takes 35 minutes. You’ll see the turn-off to the harbour near Seljalandsfoss on the Ring Road.
(c) Nancy Claus – Wilderness Coffee & Natural High
You can read how to travel to Vestmannaeyjar in this article.
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Covid travel restrictions Iceland
In these uncertain times, things can change quickly. Procedures are constantly evaluated and updated. For the current situation regarding Covid-19 related travel advice and restrictions in Iceland, see Covid.is (in English).
Video – Peaceful and turbulent waves!
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66 North, a famous clothing brand in Iceland, used my words about Vestmannaeyjar in their social media posts on Facebook and Instagram in June 2021. The text is literally copied from the section ‘Islands shaped by volcanic activity‘. While I’m kind of honoured to see that my article has obviously inspired them – they took a classic example of my style of writing…
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Vestmannaeyjar summer festival
Oh, and if you want to know more about that Vestmannaeyjar summer festival: check out my article about Þjóðhátíð 😉
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