Surtarbrandsgil Exhibition

The Environment Agency of Iceland’s exhibition on the nature reserve Surtarbrandsgil in the old priest’s lodgings in Brjánslækur is open daily in the summer. Entrance is free for everyone. In relation to the exhibitions opening hours, hikes to the canyon led by a land ranger are available during these times: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at 13:00.

Please note that hiking up the canyon is prohibited unless accompanied by a land ranger. For further information, call 822-4080 or 831-9675.

Why Protection?

Surtarbrandsgil was protected as a natural monument in 1975. The aim of the protection is to preserve fossilized remains of vegetation found in the metalimnion, especially lignite and mud layers. These are the remains of vegetation that covered the ground in the Tertiary-period.


Surtarbrandsgil is on the grounds of Brjánslækur in Barðarströnd, within the boundaries of Vesturbyggð. The natural monument is bounded by the mouth of the canyon in the east and its highest ridge in the south, west and north.

The natural monument covers an area of 272 ha.


To get to the Surtarbrandsgil exhibition, drive along Barðarstrandarvegur No. 62 to Brjánslækur, west of the nature reserve in Vatnsfjörður. There is an approx. 30-minute walk to the canyon from the exhibition.
Fossilized plant remains are not renewable; what is removed does not grow back, and there is a risk of rock falls in the canyon. The general public is prohibited in the canyon unless accompanied by a ranger.

Organized hikes of the canyon are available during the summer. For further information, call 591-2000.

Points of Interest

Surtarbrandsgil contains remains of the most species-rich forests found in strata in Iceland, in approx. 12-million-year-old sediment layers. The plant remains, leaves, fruit, seeds and pollen landed in a rather shallow lake and were buried in the silt. Presumably, the plants grew along waterways and riverbanks in valleys where groundwater was rather high. The water contained large volumes of diatoms that fell to the bottom and formed a light-colored layer on all larger surfaces, especially leaves. As a result, flakes from the canyon are light with diatoms on one side but dark on the other.

Most of the tree species that formed the country’s forests 12 million years ago are extinct, and the most closely related living species thrive in more southerly latitudes in temperate deciduous and coniferous forests. Conifers include fir, pine, spruce, yeso spruce and water pine. Of deciduous trees, species such as hornbeam, silky sassafras, elm, birch, alder, quadtree, hazel, maple, magnolia, plantain, heather, sweet leaf, top, tulip tree, walnut, willow, winged nut, thorn and poplar have been identified.

Sites of Natural Interest

Lignite is formed by plant remains that turned into peat and were pressed together under heavy lava layers, almost always found between ancient lava layers. The geological layers are from the later part of the Cenozoic Era, in particular the Miocene Epoch and are younger than 15–16 million years. Sediment layers are commonly found between lava layers, both in West and East Iceland. Red, rather fine-grained sediments are rather common and are thought to be ancient soil, as old ash layers are often found in them. Greyish sand and gravel layers are also common and are mostly river and lake sediments.
The figure shows a simple stratigraphic section of layers in Surtarbrandsgil. Sediments with mostly whole organic remains, leaves, fruit and seeds, are mostly from siltstone, but fossils are also found in the sandstone layers in the canyon. The three strata units that contain plant fossils are identified with leaves.

Cultural Heritage

Lignite is often mentioned in travel guides and descriptions of Iceland from past centuries. It was commonly used in the home, even though it’s not a particularly effective fuel. It burns badly, as it is rich in minerals. Lignite processing increased notably during World War I, when there was a significant lack of coal. It wasn’t always successful, but it worked best in Skarð in Skarðsströnd and Tjörnes, where there were two mines at the height of this period.


The area is valuable due to sediment layer pieces found there that contain fossils in the lignite layers and is a testament to the vegetation and climate conditions that are no longer prevalent in Iceland. The area is important for research; age analysis of the basalt lava layers in Surtarbrandsgil indicate that they are between 9.1–11.9 million years old. The nature and cultural heritage make the area unique.

The Surtarbrandsgil exhibition was opened in the fall of 2016 and is open to the public during summer. A ranger has been supervising the area in recent summers, and organized hikes to the canyon have been offered five times a week during the exhibition’s opening hours. All hikes start with viewing the exhibition. A few signs have been put up in the area with information and educational materials for tourists, as well as exhibit cases with samples of lignite. A footpath into the canyon has been improved, and a footbridge has been built over Hundafoss. An effort has been made to remove misinformation from new editions of foreign guidebooks regarding permission to remove fossils from the canyon. All this reduces the stress on the canyon itself.

Surtarbrandsgil was on the orange list of endangered protected areas due to stress from tourism, but with increased funding and following the infrastructure development in recent years, that progression has been reversed, which results in increased protection and value of the area.


The area has limited infrastructure to accommodate a huge number of tourists. The sediment layers are sensitive to disturbance, and the damage is irreversible.


  • There has been quite a bit of damage to Surtargil, both from humans and natural causes. It is necessary to continue monitoring the area and prevent visitors from going into the canyon without a guide or removing fossils.
  • In many places, the rock protrudes and there is a risk of rock fall, in addition to which there’s a risk of landslides on the path into the canyon.


  • Preventing people from going into the canyon without permission and taking fossils has been successful for the most part. The conditions of the protection of the natural monument need to be renewed.
  • Surveillance in the area could be increased further; an expert from the Environment Agency in Patreksfjörður oversees such operations. Nature and geological formations make the area very interesting.