If mountains were celebrities followed by alpine paparazzi, a few crags would garner A-list status. These top-tier megastars usually feature both eye-popping height and flash-popping resplendence. The same mountains appear constantly: EverestK2Mt. FujiDenali, and Kilimanjaro, among others.

Some pop up often mostly for their looks, though I’d argue many pack serious elevation, too. The Matterhorn is the definition of picturesque, as it adorns famous chocolate packaging. At nearly 15,000 feet, perhaps our definition of tall mountains might need an overhaul. That’s some serious vert.

Look at enough mountainous imagery – and, oh boy, let me tell you, we look at a lot around here – you’ll start to notice a much shorter peak materialize quite often. It shows up in photography contests, as computer wallpapers, and on social media accounts. And, yet, quiz most nature lovers, and the name of this distinctive mountain will likely not reside in their memories.

Perhaps, part of this general lack of awareness might come from the difficulty in pronouncing the name. Feast your eyes on Iceland’s Kirkjufell!

Kirkjufell and Kirkjufellsfoss- photo by Anjali Kiggal

According to Iceland Travel, Kirkjufell is the most photographed mountain in the country. I certainly looked at dozens of representations of this mountain over the years without knowing its nomenclature. What a beauty this natural spot is! To me, this rock looks like the fin of a massive shark or whale, popping out of the rocky terrain of Iceland (this description, it turns out, harmonizes with some of the mountain’s geology; more on that later). In Icelandic, however, the name implies another image; Kirkjufell translates to “Church Mountain,” so named because the rise resembles a church steeple.

As with some of the most gorgeous spots we have encountered over the years, Kirkjufell combines multiple media to form an unmistakable landscape. The mountain resides next to a waterfall, called Kirkjufellsfoss. This cascade drains pristine water from a glacier named Snaefellsjokull. If you have a deep memory of the newsletter’s topics, you might recognize the end of that glacier’s name. In Icelandic, jökull means “glacier.” We studied the phrase jökulhlaup, which I learned by playing Magic: the Gathering. These frightening floods transpire when glacial lakes outburst.

In addition to proximity to a stunning waterfall and a glacier, Kirkjufell abuts another wonderful feature: the ocean! The mountain sits on a salient of the Snæfellsnes peninsula, which allows for some spectacular photography.

Kirkjufell and the ocean - photo by Fer Bozzoletti
Iceland's location - map by Hayden120 and NuclearVacuum

Kirkjufell rises 1,519 feet above sea level. This figure, of course, pales to the heights of Everest or Fuji or the Matterhorn. However, starting at sea level means this relatively tiny mountain goes upward in a hurry. Some of the world’s most stunning peaks stand next to oceans, contrasting a few of Earth’s greatest forms.

The mountain’s geologic history is rather interesting. Alternating layers of Pleistocene lava and sandstone, Kirkjufell is an amalgam of igneous and sedimentary rocks. The stone at the pinnacle is called tuff, composed of lithified volcanic ash. Kirkjufell’s guts are largely volcanic, but it is not a volcano or the remnant of a volcano. Sitting on a hotspot, Iceland touts many volcanos, which strew the land with lava over the millennia. If we could hop in a time machine and view this region before the last ice age, Kirkjufell would be a part of a more homogenous landscape, flatly alternating lava and sandstone. When the glaciers arrived, they started carving the area. Geologists dub Kirkjufell a nunatak. We first encountered this type of mountain when we investigated the landing of a 787 jet on Antarctic ice. What we see as Kirkjufell today protruded above the glaciers, poking out above the ice sheet. As the ice retreated, the fantastically shaped church steeple or whale fin remained.

Thordarson and Höskuldsson, 2002; Denk et al., 2011

For zoophiles, astrophiles, orophiles, and a slew of other philes, Iceland seems to have it all.

You can go on puffling patrol. You can catch aurora borealis at Yoda Cave. You can bathe in hot springs, view volcanoes galore, and visit some of your favorite Game of Thrones set locations.

At Kirkjufell, many of these aspects combine. Producers of the notorious television program employed it to portray the “Mountain Shaped Like an Arrowhead.” Kirkjufell produces a special background for the confluence of glaciers and the northern lights.

One can certainly understand why it’s the most photographed mountain in Iceland and one of the most popular across the globe.

Kirkjufell in Game of Thrones
Kirkjufell and the aurora - photo by vaidyanathan
Symmetry - photo by Ivars Krutainis
Kirkjufell at twilight - photo by Andrés Nieto Porras
Northern ribbons - photo by Photo by Joshua Earle
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