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.
The coastal track and Smáeyjar – the little islands.
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 and the coastal track.
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 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.
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 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.
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…
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 and wild formations.
The row of islands to the south.
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 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.
Pothole structures and lava bombs.
The geological beach of Klauf. No matter what time of year, it’s always colourful.
Blue plateau in October.
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.
Picnic place with Klauf beach view.
Eider ducks at Klauf.
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 by the sea.
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’. 😉
Costa del Klauf.
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.
The puffin hut on Stórhöfði.
Slopes full of puffins.
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 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.
View to the east coast of Heimaey towards Sæfjall and Ræningjatangi.
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.
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… 😉
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.
(c) Nancy Claus – Wilderness Coffee & Natural High
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Last update: 7 May 2023
First published: 31 October 2018
Read how to travel to Vestmannaeyjar in this article.
Northern lights and Milky Way view from Stórhöfði! 😀
© All photo’s and content on this blog are my own, and subject to copyright (unless credited otherwise). Please contact me if you would like to use a picture or quote a piece of text from one of my articles. You’re welcome to share a link to my blog articles and pictures on social media, with a tag or mention to Wilderness Coffee & Natural High.
Video – Peaceful and turbulent waves
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…
My content has also been used without asking me first, or adding a link to the original article.
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…
It would be professional to at least acknowledge and credit a 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. 😉
More to discover & explore
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Tongariro – The track across Middle Earth
Northern lights – Energy from out of space pouring in
Cook Islands – The stuff of Pacific dreams
Flower Art – Wollemi Protea
3 thoughts on “The coastal track to Stórhöfði – Puffin colony and geological beach”
This is an excellent guide to Heimaey. However, this page really needs a map of the island on which these features are located.
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!
Jim’s feedback has also triggered me to update this article (and many others) with the excellent Google Maps feature. 🙂