Geology and nature
Hjörleifshöfði is a 221 meter high tuff promontory that rises like an island in the sea, towards the south of the sand flats of Mýrdalssandur. The promontory was actually once an island, but during the period of settlement it became attached to the mainland while a fjord, called Kerlingarfjörður, ran along it. Today it is surrounded by sand and stands approximately two kilometers away from the sea. Glacial outburst floods from Katla caused these alterations to the landscape and accordingly the sand flat south of Hjörleifshöfði is called Kötlutangi (Katla’s peninsula). During the eruption of Katla in 1918, so much depositing occurred that the beach moved forward about two kilometers on the first day of the eruption. Kötlutangi then became Iceland’s southernmost point of land; however, the sea has eroded so much of it that Dyrahólaey Headland again became the southernmost point.
The promontory has probably been formed during the latter part of the last ice age, about 10,000 years ago, during a sub-glacial eruption. The magma melts the glacial dome which rapidly cools the magma. Volcanic debris amasses little by little around the volcanic orifice and fills the dome. If the eruption stops before the volcanic debris makes it out of the glacier, there will be a palagonite ridge on a fracture, like at the Fögrufjöll mountains, but a tuff ridge on a circular volcanic orifice. If the volcanic debris, however, manages to build up out of the glacier, lava starts to slide and forms tuyas, which often are our most majestic mountains like Hjörleifshöfði, Pétursey and Herðubreið show.
Hjörleifshöfði has grass growing on top, but craggy cliffs are all around, though it is possible to get up it via a pass on the western side of the promontory called Klif. When the promontory was inhabited, the bluff opposite to the Klif pass was cut, and this bluff was called Sláttubrekka; it was thought to be especially difficult work because it was very steep. Before the Katla flood of 1721, it is believed that the lowland had been covered in grass, but now it is mostly just black sand. The Mýrdalssandur glacial outwash plain was considered a significant nuisance previously because of fierce sandstorms. The highway was often impassable when they occurred. Over the last years, the Soil Conservation Service of Iceland and the Icelandic Road Administration have worked on re-vegetation along the highway in order to impede sand storms. There, lupines (Lupinus nootkatensis) provide a distinct appearance on the black sand with their flowers’ beautiful blue color. There is active birdlife on Hjörleifshöfði and the fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis) is most prominent, as is the case all over Mýrdalur (The Boggy Valley). It was not until 1820 that the fulmar took up residence there, where its numbers at Hjörleifshöfði extend into the thousands. In the past, a lot of fulmar hunting went on at the promontory; people would climb in late summer each year and take the chicks while they were not full-fledged. Fulmar hunting is still sometimes done all over Mýrdalur. It has become a tradition to gather together and eat fulmar, which many consider to be delicacy, though their numbers are dwindling.
Hjörsleifshöfði is said to get its name from Hjörleifur Hróðmarssonur, the blood brother of Ingólfur Arnarson, the first settler of Iceland. In 874 they set out together to Iceland, but each went their own ways. Ingólfur wintered at Ingólfshöfði in Öræfi and Hjörleifur wintered at Hjörleifshöfði. The next spring Hjörleifur’s slaves killed him and his men and then fled on a ship to the Westman Islands with the women. Ingólfur found them there and did away with them. Up on top of the promontory lies Hjörleifur’s Grave, which is where he is said to be buried.
Although the Hjörleifshöfði area was thought to be difficult for farming, it was rich in other resources such as flotsam and jetsam, birds and eggs. For a long time there was a farmstead to the west below the promontory. However, the eruption of Katla in 1721 was followed by the largest flood in Katla's history, wiping away the farm along with it. After that, the promontory was abandoned for 30 years. Then the farmstead was moved up to the south side of the promontory and was there until the last inhabitant left in 1936, after which it was deserted. Among the inhabitants at Hjörleifshöfði was Markús Loftsson (1828-1906), a professional scholar who wrote the book “Rit um jarðaelda á Íslandi” (Treatise on volcanic activity in Iceland) which was published in 1880. He lived on the promontory almost his entire life. There he lodged in old and cramped housing, but he didn't want to change a thing. After Markús died, Áslaug Skæringsdóttir, Markhús’s wife, married Hallgrímur Bjarnason who built a new house at the promontory, along with corresponding outer structures. The ruins of those farms can clearly be seen today. Markús’s farm was a turf house and stood right by the steep cliff’s edge, while deeper inside and further down in the field was Hallgrímur’s more fashionable house. Hallgrímur was a noted workman. His grave is at the highest peak of Hjörleifshöfði where Markús, Áslaug and their unnamed child lie along with Markús’s brother, Sigurður Loftsson. This is one of Iceland's most unique graveyards, both in terms of location and type. In addition to Hjörleifur’s Grave and the graveyard, there is a large monument which was built by Danish surveyors the first decade of the twentieth century.
Ever since the time of settlement, Hjörleifshöfði has been a place of mysterious phenomena. Many who come here still experience some unexplainable things, which paradoxically appear to attract people to the place, resulting in many coming back again and again.
It is recommended to follow this route clockwise. Ascend up out of Bæjarstaðagil Canyon on the south side. When done ascending, turn toward the south. First, walk around an area called Hurðarbök, and south of that through Dalabotn, with a butte called Sauðafell on the left-hand side. It is not unlikely that this is the path which Ingólfur Arnarson and his men used to carry Hjörleifur up to the highest peak of the promontory for burial. After having enjoyed the view and looked around the graveyard and Hjörleifur’s Grave go west. Down Hjörleifshraun (Hjörleifur's lava field), after the tussocky grass turf, veer north onto the edge of the so-called Bæjarbrekka bluff. There the old field can be seen along with the two farmstead ruins and the black sea of sand south of the promontory. Continue down toward the ruins and then down Klif and in towards the base of the bluff Sláttubrekka and finally into Bæjarstaður where the trip began.