Stórhöfði is the southernmost point on the island of Heimaey and home to one of the biggest puffin breeding colonies in the world. The abundance of puffins in the summer months has people flocking to the island to see these striking birds with their brightly coloured beaks and funny aeronautical antics. You can spot puffins at various places around the island. They are often flying around the rocks high above Herjólfsdalur and Heimaklettur, and behind Blátindur. But there’s also an easier option to see them that doesn’t require too much scrambling or balancing your way across tiny paths above steep drop-offs.
A beautiful coastal track follows the western shoreline from Herjólfsdalur in the north all the way to Stórhöfði in the south. The 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.
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.
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.
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. The islands are just off the south coast of Iceland – and right across from Eyjafjallajökull. 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.
View from Stórhöfði to Herjólfsdalur and the volcanoes.
The windiest place in Europe
Stórhöfði also has the notorious reputation of being the windiest place in Europe – which 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’…
Stórhöfði lighthouse and weather station.
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 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.
The walking track to Stórhöfði
It’s about 5 kilometres from Herjólfsdalur to the base of Stórhöfði, and another 3,5 kilometres to walk around it. 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 with one of the most spectacular backdrops 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…
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 😉
You might run into some unexpected puffin encounters too – they are often sitting on the cliffsides just below.
The row of islands to the south, in various states of erosion.
The geological beach of Klauf
It’s about 3 kilometres to the Surtsey lookout point and information sign at Breiðibakki. Here you can descend onto the beach. 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.
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 formations and lava bombs.
In summer, flocks of eider ducks and their chicks are sitting on the edges or floating around on the waves.
Pretty black sand beach and view to Stórhöfði peninsula.
Lava flow beach
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.
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 at the end of August and the beginning of September. It’s also known as the Costa del Klauf 😉
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.
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…
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 eastern coast.
Stórhöfði track and view along the eastern coast of Heimaey.
More 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. 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.
In this video you can watch an excellent short documentary about the Westman Islands puffins, the puffin research and traditions, and the challenges they face.
You can read how to get to Vestmannaeyjar in this article.
(c) Nancy Claus – Wilderness Coffee & Natural High
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