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Tips for visiting and photographing Stokksnes and Vestrahorn in Iceland

On the eastern side of Iceland, beyond where most tourists travel, you will find Stokksnes — a remarkable headland of black sand dunes by the sea. Vestrahorn, a dramatic and iconic mountain range, overlooks the dunes. I visited Stokksnes multiple times during a winter trip to Iceland and was blown away by its beauty and endless photographic opportunities.

If Stokksnes is on your Iceland photography wish list, here is how to get there, where to stay, and what to bring in your photography kit.

Getting to Stokksnes

Dashboard cam of me driving into Stokksnes

Due to its geographical isolation from the rest of the country, visiting Stokksnes requires planning and at least one overnight stay if you intend to make the most of it (which you should!). By car, it’s a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Vik and a nearly six-hour drive from Reykjavik.

Additionally, there are fewer things worth photographing (IMO) in this area of Iceland compared to the western side, but that’s okay because there’s more than enough at Stokksnes to spend hours shooting.

Where to stay nearby

Because Stokksnes is in a less developed region of Iceland, there are fewer accommodations to choose from. However, there are two fantastic places to stay overnight nearby, both reasonably priced, and within a short 20-minute drive.

Hrafnavellir Guest House

Me outside my Hrafnavellir Guest House cabin

Private cabins resembling tiny homes owned and operated by a welcoming Icelandic family. Cabins are small but well-appointed with comfortable beds, small seating areas, plus private bathrooms. Each cabin is spaced well apart (so neighbors won’t disrupt your sleep). A communal dining area in the center of the property offers free, self-serve breakfast each morning. The dining room is open throughout the day and night for guests to congregate.

I stayed at Hrafnavellir Guest House for three nights and found it to be the perfect respite at the end of a long day.

Milk Factory

The Milk Factory in Höfn, Iceland
The Milk Factory in Höfn, Iceland

Formerly a local dairy, the Milk Factory is a modern, boutique-style hotel to the west of Stokksnes in the small town of Höfn. Private bathrooms, free buffet breakfast, and bicycles for guests to use when venturing into the small town.

(Bonus tip: For a fantastic dining experience in Höfn, check out Pakkhús Restaurant.)

I haven’t stayed at the Milk Factory, but I visited the property and know other people who stayed there and they had positive things to say.

Entering Stokksnes

Unlike other natural areas in Iceland, Stokksnes is privately own land and requires a modest admission fee. You pull up to a small Viking Cafe coffee house at the end of the road, walk inside, and purchase a 900 ISK (~$6) ticket for the day. Credit cards accepted.

The Viking Cafe coffee house and ticket booth

Scan your ticket at a gate, then drive down the (frequently photographed) straight gravel road towards a radar station used by the Iceland Air Defence System (where I learned one person is employed, keeping an eye on Iceland’s airspace).

Along the left-hand side of the road will be a few areas to pull in and park your car. Park anywhere you want.

Next, it’s time to lace up your boots, grab your pack, and start hiking into the dunes. To your left will be the awe-inspiring mountain range known as Vestrahorn.

Photographing Stokksnes and Vestrahorn

Trying to shoot while getting pummeled by wind and flying black sand

When packing gear for Stokksnes, treat it like you’re visiting a beach. The black sand can be picked up by the wind and find its way into everything—your shoes, backpack, and unfortunately, your camera gear as well. When in doubt, bring along a protective cover for your camera like the storm bag mentioned in this “Must-Have Photography Accessories for Iceland” post.

While in the dunes, exercise great caution when changing lenses, opening and closing your backpack, and be especially careful with tripod legs. Keep sand out by extending the first part of each leg, then keep them there at all times if you can. This will help keep sand out of the leg extension turnbuckles higher up.

(For the record, I forgot to follow this advice, and paid the price by having to disassemble, wash, and reassemble my tripod. Not exactly something you want to do when traveling.)

Visitors are typically drawn towards the flat area in front of Vestrahorn, but I prefer shooting further back in the dunes. This allows the dunes to be included in your foreground, which in my opinion makes the image more dynamic.

A variable zoom lens (eg, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8) works well here, for repositioning yourself with a prime lens can be an arduous task in the dunes. You should also consider creating a panorama, for there is ample empty space to the left and right of Vestrahorn to perfectly frame the mountain range in the center of a wide image.

Need to stay overnight in Reykjavik?

If you’re flying in and out of Keflavik International Airport in Reykjavik and need a place to stay after or before your flight, I highly recommend Anthony & Yr’s Garden Cottage. It’s a quiet spot with everything you need (including sun shades to block the summer sun at night), and the hosts couldn’t be nicer people.

If you don’t already have an Airbnb account, sign-up here and get up to $35 off your reservation.

Video

Want to see Stokksnes and Vestrahorn up close? Well, you’re in luck. Here’s a travel vlog video of mine documenting the experience.

Summary

Stokksnes and Vestrahorn are a veritable playground for photography. You could spend days here experimenting with different compositions and focal lengths. You could shoot it at sunrise, sunset, and all throughout the day, weather permitting. And if you’re lucky, and it’s the right time of year, you might catch an aurora borealis.

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