The coastal track to Stórhöfði – Puffin colony and geological beach

The coastal track to Stórhöfði – Puffin colony and geological beach

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.

Where can you see puffins on Heimaey?

You can spot puffins at various places around the island. They are often flying around the rocks high above Heimaklettur and Herjólfsdalur, behind Blátindur and around the hidden Stafsnes peninsula. But there’s also an easier option to see the puffins.

The coastal track to Stórhöfði doesn’t require too much scrambling or balancing your way across tiny paths above steep drop-offs.

Stórhöfði coastal track and Smáeyjar, Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland.
The coastal track and Smáeyjar – the little islands.

Heimaey coastline and wild waves, Vestmannaeyar, Iceland.
The west coast of Heimaey, with wild waves coming in.

The coastal track to Stórhöfði

A beautiful path on the west side of Heimaey follows the coast from Herjólfsdalur in the north to Stórhöfði in the south. This coastal track is relatively flat all the way to the bottom of the peninsula.

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.

Herjólfsdalur valley, Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland.
Herjólfsdalur and the coastal track.

Stórhöfði coastal track and Klauf, Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland.
Stórhöfði peninsula and Klauf beach.

The flight of the puffins

The puffins arrive on Vestmannaeyjar 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 they can be found wandering slightly disoriented around town in the evening. The young puffins are attracted by the street lights, not realizing that they’re flying in the wrong direction.

Puffins on the Stórhöfði coastal track, Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland.
Puffins on the coastal track to Stórhöfði.

Heimaey Puffin Patrol

Luckily they’re helped along by the locals. The Puffin Patrol is a unique Vestmannaeyjar island tradition. For about 2 to 3 weeks between mid-August and mid-September you can see people with cardboard boxes roaming around the town at night, looking for stray puffins. 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 the puffins 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, Heimaey coastline, Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland.
View from Stórhöfði to Herjólfsdalur and the volcanoes.

Stórhöfði lava flows, Klauf beach, Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland.

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, Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland.
The old 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. You can find the weather forecast for Stórhöfði on the Veður website. 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.

Surreal & colourful views, Stórhöfði, Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland.
Surreal & colourful views along the Stórhöfði coastal track.

Starting point of the Stórhöfði hike

The coastal track is about 5 kilometres from Herjólfsdalur to the base of Stórhöfði. It’s another 3,5 kilometres to walk around Stórhöfði peninsula itself. You can do a beautiful circuit to Klauf at the bottom of the peninsula on the west coast of Heimaey, and return along the east coast 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.

Kaplagjóta inlet, Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland.

Kaplagjóta inlet

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, Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland.
Kaplagjóta cave and inlet, with a rock just plunging down from Blátindur…

Kaplagjóta beach, Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland.
The tiny beach at Kaplagjóta.

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 hiking path goes a little inland from here, but there’s another unmarked track 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.

In the distance you can see the row of islands to the south, in various states of erosion.

Craggy coastline formations, Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland.
Craggy coastline and wild formations.

Southcoast islands, Stórhöfði hike, Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland.
The row of islands to the south.

Stórhöfði coastal track, Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland.
Wilderness Coffee on the lava rocks! 😉

Puffins along the Stórhöfði coastal track

You might already run into some unexpected puffin encounters on this section. They are often sitting on the cliffsides just below the edge of the rocks.

Puffins along the Stórhöfði coastal track, Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland.
Puffins on the cliffs along the coastal track.

The geological beach of Klauf

From the Herjólfsdalur golf course it’s about 4 kilometres 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 activity in the past is clearly visible in this surreal area.

Klauf geological beach, Stórhöfði coastal track, Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland.
Pothole structures and lava bombs.

Klauf geological beach, Stórhöfði coastal track, Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland.
The geological beach of Klauf. No matter what time of year, it’s always colourful.

Blue plateau at Klauf geological beach, Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland.
Blue plateau in October.

Green plateau at Klauf geological beach, Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland.
Green plateau in June.

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.

Rocky bay, Klauf, Stórhöfði coastal track, Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland.
Picnic place with Klauf beach view.

Klauf beach view, Stórhöfði coastal track, Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland.
Eider ducks at Klauf.

Eider ducks at Klauf, Stórhöfði coastal track, Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland.

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.

Klauf beach and eider ducks, Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland.
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.

Lava flows, Klauf beach, Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland.
Jumbled lava flows by the sea.

Little beach orchids at Klauf, Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland.
Little beach orchids.

Seasweed composition, Klauf, Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland.
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’. 😉

Costa del Klauf, Stórhöfði hike, Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland.
Costa del Klauf.

Klauf beach, Stórhöfði hike, Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland.
Klauf beach engine.

Stórhöfði puffin hut and circuit

Above the beach there’s a little green hut on the flanks 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’ll find information about the puffin colony and the research that has been done over the past years.

Stórhöfði coastal track puffin hut, Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland.
The puffin hut on Stórhöfði.

Slopes full of puffins, Stórhöfði coastal track, Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland.
Slopes full of puffins.

Stórhöfði gap

A grassy track goes up behind the puffin hut and circles around and across Stórhöfði. You can go up to the historical lighthouse on the top for some fine views all around Heimaey. The lighthouse has recently been renovated and is now a private property.

If you want to see the puffins, you need to walk closer to the edge of the cliffs. The ‘Stórhöfði gap’ on the southwest side of the peninsula has a beautiful view of the rugged coastline. The slopes below are often full of puffins – although most of them were out fishing when I took this picture…

Stórhöfði gap, Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland.
Stórhöfði gap on the southwest side of the peninsula.

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 on the coastal track towards Ræningjatangi and Sæfjall along the newly expanded east coast of Heimaey.

Ræningjatangi is where the horrible pirate attack on Vestmannaeyjar took place in 1627. At the Sagnheimar museum you can find out more about this historical event, locally known as the ‘Tyrkjaránið’. They also have exhibitions about the Vestmannaeyjar Festival and the infamous Heimaey eruption.

Stórhöfði coastal track, Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland.
View to the east coast of Heimaey towards Sæfjall and Ræningjatangi.

Stórhöfði sheep, Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland.
Wildlife along the Stórhöfði coastal track.

The best time to see puffins

People who go to Stórhöfði 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.

Low tide at Klauf, Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland.

Stórhöfði hike summary

Coastal track: 5 kilometres one-way from Herjólfdalur to Klauf beach.
Stórhöfði circuit: 3,5 kilometres round trip from Klauf beach.
Time: About 4 to 5 hours for the entire circuit from Herjólfsdalur.
Stórhöfði summit: 122 metres above sea level.
Difficulty: Moderate. Relatively flat terrain most of the way along the coast.

Heimaey coastal track 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.

@ This is one of the top-5 reader’s favourites of 2019, and every year since.

Other tracks & hikes on Heimaey

Do you want to explore more of these spectacular views? Here you can find a variety of walking tracks around Heimaey. The biggest challenge is choosing one! 😉

Peaceful and turbulent waves

In the video below you can see waves peacefully lapping at the pebbly beach in Kaplagjóta. And a very different view of turbulent waves roiling & boiling along the west coast. It’s mesmerizing to watch…

@ Read how to travel to Vestmannaeyjar in this article.

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. The main island of 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 harbour and takes 35 minutes. You’ll see the turn-off to Landeyjahöfn near the Seljalandsfoss waterfall on the Ring Road.

@ If you have any questions, let me know in the comment section below. I’d love to hear from you! Your questions, comments and suggestions can also be helpful for other readers. Thank you for sharing.

Follow Wilderness Coffee & Natural High on Facebook and Instagram for more stories.

Northern lights and Milky Way, Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland.
Northern lights and Milky Way view from Stórhöfði! 😀

More to discover & explore

Candles on mountains – An enchanting ritual of fire

Tongariro – The track across Middle Earth

Northern lights – Hunting the elusive Aurora Borealis

Cook Islands – The stuff of Pacific dreams

Thórsmörk – Rjúpnafell and the hidden valley

© All photos and content on this website are my own, and subject to copyright (unless credited otherwise). Please contact me if you want to use a photo or quote a text from one of my articles. You’re welcome to share a link to my blog articles and photos on social media, with a tag and mention to Wilderness Coffee & Natural High.

Use of content without acknowledgement

My content was also used without asking me first, or even adding a link to the original article. 66 North, a famous clothing brand in Iceland, copied my words about Vestmannaeyjar in their social media posts on Facebook and Instagram in June 2021.

The text is literally taken from the section ‘Islands shaped by volcanic activity’. They copied a classic example of my style of writing & tone of voice. Even though I’m kind of ‘honoured’ to see that my article has obviously inspired them, it would be common courtesy and considerate in this case to acknowledge and link to Wilderness Coffee & Natural High as the original source of where this piece of content came from.

Vestmannaeyjar summer festival

Oh, and if you want to know more about that Vestmannaeyjar summer festival: check out my article about Þjóðhátíð, the fantastic Icelandic music festival on Heimaey. 😉

First published: 31 October 2018

5 thoughts on “The coastal track to Stórhöfði – Puffin colony and geological beach

  1. If you have any questions, please post them directly in the comment box below.

    I received this question by email from Saleem (USA):
    ‘I came across your wonderful and full of information website while researching for Puffin Photography in Iceland. I will be in Westman Island on September 6th evening just for a day for Puffin photography and I have a few questions for you and I hope you will be kind enough to answer them.

    1) Will I be able to photograph Puffins as late as September 6th and 7th?
    2) Is Stórhöfði is the best place for Puffins on the island?
    3) I will have a rental car and very limited time as I arrive at the island between 5:00 and 7:00 PM on September 6th and leave at 2:00 PM on September 7th. What are my options for photographing puffins in this limited time? I can start my day before sunrise.
    4) The sun will set around 8:30 pm in September. I may have about a hour and a half in the evening before sunset. Will it be enough time to try my luck in the evening of September 6th as well?
    5) Please suggest other options if any.

    I look forward to your response and maybe I get to see you too when I am there.’

    1. Here’s my reply – so others with similar questions can read this too: @ ‘Hi Saleem, you just might be in luck! You will probably not only see puffins, but also get the chance to experience the Puffin Patrol on Vestmannaeyjar! It’s a unique island tradition, where the locals are looking for stray puffin chicks and trying to catch them, to release them into the sea. This happens for about 2 to 3 weeks between mid-August and mid-September – see the chapter ‘Heimaey Puffin Patrol’. You can even join them if you wish! There are a few places along the coastal track where they help the puffins back into the sea.

      Even though it’s getting to the end of the puffin season, Stórhöfði is definitely the best place to see them, as this is where the largest colony is. You can spot puffins in other places too (such as Heimaklettur and the big cliffs on the north side of the island), but this involves hiking up some steep tracks. Stórhöfði you can reach by car; there’s a parking place at the top and from there it’s an easy hike around the peninsula. There’s also a puffin observation hut on the way up. With limited time, this will be your best bet. Definitely have a look in the evening – the sunsets are beautiful at Stórhöfði. And try the next morning too for maximum chances. Good luck!’

  2. This is an excellent guide to Heimaey. However, this page really needs a map of the island on which these features are located.

    1. Hi Jim, thank you for your comment. Great suggestion! A handy map feature is definitely something I want to add to the page. Here you can find a map with several hiking paths on Heimaey (PDF file).

      The coastal track goes along the entire west side of the island, from Kaplagjóta (Herjólfsdalur) in the north to Stórhöfði in the south. The amazing beach is in the bay just north of Stórhöfði. Have a wonderful time on the island!

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