Saxhóll Staircase by Landslag ehf.: OUTLINE — Saxhóll crater is located in the Snæfellsnes National Park, an area on the Snæfellsnes peninsula located to the west of Borgarfjörður in Western Iceland. Snæfellsnes has earned the title “Iceland in Miniature” because of the diversity of landforms and wildlife in the area, including Snæfellsjökull glacier. The National Park is around 200 kilometers from the city of Reykjavik, and is largely considered to be a day-trip destination.
The Saxhóll Crater Walking Trail is a project pioneered by Landslag ehf. in 2014-2016 for the Environment Agency of Iceland. The staircase wraps around the crater. The staircase is built over a beaten walking path that had become largely unsafe due to heavy foot traffic. The new structure is made of rusted gunmetal, which blends into the hues of the surrounding lava rock and alpine vegetation. It is entirely removable because it is not attached to the ground using concrete, but rather installed directly into the hillside. The integrity of the structure creates a safe and pleasant experience for travelers, with a gradient that varies from 1:2.5 to 1:4, which is conducive to light walking, and features a resting area halfway up the hillside.
The view from the top of the crater overlooks Snæfellsnes National Park, with notable views of Snæfellsjökull and the Atlantic Ocean. It aims to nurture, through a maximally positive experience, a reverence for nature through respectful observation of Iceland’s natural wonders.
ORIGINS — The Saxhóll Crater Walking Trail emerges at a crucial moment in Icelandic natural history, when environmental agencies are attempting to reconcile stewardship for Iceland’s natural landscape with the incursions of tourism, one of the primary pillars of the local economy. Since 2010, the number of visitors to Iceland has more than quadrupled (488,600 in 2010; 2,195,271 in 2017); those traveling specifically to Snæfellsnes National Park increased by 90,000 between 2016 and 2017.
Foot traffic is one of the principal causes of damage to the environment because of the creation of desire paths through unmarked areas. Iceland’s principal allure as a tourist destination lies in its natural wonders, which are often only reachable by foot, and its greatest challenge is to create an infrastructure that stems the flow of off-the-path traffic.
In 2014, the Environment Agency of Iceland invited Landslag ehf. to take preventative measures to halt further damage to Saxhóll crater, an oblong 45-meter scoria cone within the confines of Snæfellsnes National Park. Because of the crater’s proximity to the main road, its climability and scenic outlook, and a small parking lot created by quarry trucks before the National Park was demarcated, the foot traffic to the crater is exceptional.
The walk to the top of the crater follows a path carved out by a growing number hikers, who largely took a single ramplike route to the top; by 2014, the path had begun to atrophy, making it unsafe for walkers. Thus, divergent lanes began to form as visitors forged new paths alongside the eroded remains of the elder. At that point, Landslag ehf. was commissioned to undertake a project to prevent further damage to the vulnerable landscape that, at the same time, increased its potential as a tourism site.
In a simple gesture, Landslag’s Saxhóll Crater Walking Trail reconciled the ideals of land conservation with the pioneering spirit that underlies tourist visits to Iceland. Since the completion of the staircase in 2016, the path has become a safe and pleasant access point to an incomparable view of Snæfellsjökull, a 700,000 year-old glacier-capped volcano that will speculatively disappear within the next 200 years. The 1500 meter-high glacier is visible from up to 125 kilometers away, and can be seen from across the bay in Reykjavik.
TRANSFORMATION — The apex of Saxhóll offers a panoramic outlook over the surrounding lava fields and the Atlantic Ocean, with an unparalleled view of the vulnerable Snæfellsjökull itself. A safe path to the top is both socially and environmentally momentous.
Saxhóll is a major stop-off in the area, but visits tend to be abrupt because it’s not one of Iceland’s “major attractions.” Maximizing travelers’ time at the destination is tantamount to building a minimally invasive tourism culture that recognizes the vulnerability of the landscape and respects the boundaries created to protect it. By installing a staircase, which clearly illustrates to visitors that the volcano is an accessible site, the project deters tourism to other vulnerable, but unmarked, areas in the National Park and in Iceland more broadly. The staircase incubates respectful tourism behaviors while maximizing visitors’ enjoyment.
By the same token, the view from the top of the hill raises awareness of the threat of climate change because of the outlook over Snæfellsjökull, but does not involve intervention at the actual site of the extinction event. In other words, the Saxhóll Crater Walking Trail creates access to a site where travelers can comprehend one of the world’s disappearing ice caps without causing damage to it. Plans are in progress to set up an informational sign that draws particular attention to the degeneration of the ice cap.
The crater at Snæfellsjökull is also the setting for Jules Verne‘s Journey to the Center of the Earth, an immense spectacle that ignites the imagination. And sublimity is at the heart of the project. A brief moment at the top of the crater is transcendent: the emotional world of the traveler makes contact with the natural world that surrounds them, and they are able to take in the intensity of Iceland’s varied landscape.
With the security of a stable staircase, visitors are able to focus on the world around them, rather than worry over unsure footing. Further, rest aids concentration; around half-way up the slope, the landscape architects installed a rest stop for visitors to catch their breath before continuing onto the top.
DESIGN — The staircase is minimally invasive and, notably, completely reversible.
In the conception phase of the project, the firm observed that the walking paths that had formed up the sides of the crater were at an average 1:3.5 gradient, which is far too steep for safe climbing. In response, Landslag made a stepping path out of black steel along the existent path.
The total length of the path is 160 meters, and the steps number nearly 400. Each unit is 3 meters in length and 1.5 meters wide (sufficient for tandem walking), and the steps are attached to vertical steel plates on each side. The vertical sides are then attached to one another to create a continuous chain-like structure all the way up the hillside.
In construction, the firm carved out and evened the ground traced by the existent trail. Otherwise, the firm made no incursions into the landscape. The individual steps in each 3 meter unit offset the gradient, easing the journey to the top of the crater with a gradient varying between 1:2.5 and 1:4. Each unit is secured to the earth without a concrete foundation, and can be easily removed without any damage to the land.
The Saxhóll staircase uses a single-material palette and simple gestures to combat the problem of land erosion while transforming a simple walk into a personal investment in the natural world. As planned, the black steel of the stairs rusted to the earthy red of lava stone, blending in with the natural colors of volcanic rock and alpine vegetation. The staircase seems to be an extension of the crater itself—in both color and in its organic sweep around the mountain.
As a traveler mounts the staircase, the slope of the stairs gives the impression of an infinity staircase; as they reach the summit, a magnificent view unfolds before them in an unanticipated surprise: they have arrived. In that way, the stairway is a living sculpture that protects the natural environment while ensuring travelers’ safety and escalating their enjoyment of the site.
OUTCOME — The addition of the stairs has made the climb to the top measurably safer, with fewer accidents as a result of slips and falls. The park’s staff have also commented that nearly everyone now remains on the path, instead of deviating onto desire paths, and that it the decrease in foot traffic has been of great benefit to the vulnerable landscape. The area is now able to recover, even amid an unprecedented influx of foot traffic.
All images by Landslag ehf.
Client: Umhverfisstofnun (the Environment Agency of Iceland)
Landscape architecture firm: Landslag ehf.
Landscape architects: Þráinn Hauksson and Jón Rafnar Benjamínsson
Landslag are consulting landscape architects and spatial planners with a broad range of experience in planning and design and are Iceland´s largest and leading studio in the field of landscape architecture. The practice, was founded in 1963 by one of Iceland’s first landscape architects Reynir Vilhjálmsson. It has grown gradually from the early days of private practice to its present level as a limited company.
Landslag is engaged in collaborative work with leading consultants from interdisciplinary professions in the design process such as architects, engineers and artists as well as international collaboration with architects from countries such as USA, England, Norway, Denmark and the Baltic countries. The company has participated in many winning proposals in architectural competitions throughout the years and has gained much experience in large-scale landscape design under the harsh Icelandic circumstances, as well as the more detailed smaller scale projects. A few projects have been in Norway and the Baltic countries in collaboration with Icelandic and local companies.
The staff of Landslag approach each task with great respect for the environment.