Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in North Iceland
With an immense 500 cubic meters of water falling each second, Dettifoss is the most powerful waterfall in Europe, and one of Iceland’s most extraordinary natural attractions, famously immortalized in the opening scene of Ridley Scott’s 2012 film, Prometheus. Dropping 45 meters and stretching for 100 meters along the Jökulsárgljúfur canyon in the Vatnajökull National Park, it’s hard not to be impressed by the magnitude of the falls, the largest of the three major waterfalls found along the Jokulsa river (including nearby Selfoss and Hafragilsfoss).
Dettifoss Waterfall is among the top sights of the ‘Diamond Circle’ driving route, the 260 km long ring road, which links together the highlights of North Iceland, but the falls can also be reached by hiking the scenic 35km trail from Asbyrgi canyon. As well as looking out over the canyon from the banks, visitors can climb down to the riverbed, where the views are marred by clouds of foam and the bedrock.
Dimmuborgir (“the dark castles” in Icelandic) is a surreal, unusually shaped lava field composed of volcanic caves and rock formations resembling an ancient collapsed citadel. It is frequently cited as being one of the most striking naturally-formed landscapes in a country filled with exceptional scenes– that’s saying something. It is consequently one of Iceland’s most visited attractions.
Although Dimmuborgir recently gained worldwide popularity after being featured in the acclaimed TV show Games of Thrones, it has long been part of Icelandic folklore. Indeed, Dimmuborgir is said to be the home of homicidal troll Grýla, her husband Leppalúði and their mischievous sons the Yule Lads; the story of this psychopathic family has been told to Icelandic children for centuries now as a means to get them to behave.
As Iceland’s fourth largest lake, Mývatn is an important stop on any north Iceland road trip. Formed by a massive volcanic eruption over two millenniums ago, it is still geothermally active today and it is surrounded by surreal lava formations that are so characteristically Icelandic.
The lake got its name from the vast numbers of midges that gather on its shores, a witness to the vital role the lake plays in the region’s avifauna. In fact, Mývatn is one of the most famous pilgrimage sites in the world as far as ornithology (15 species of ducks, Barrow's goldeneye, red-necked phalarope, red-breasted merganser, gadwall, mallard, to name a few) and entomology (midges and black flies) are concerned, thanks to high biological productivity and the presence of numerous wetlands in the area.
More Things to Do in North Iceland
With its gurgling mud pools, hissing steam vents and plumes of volcanic rock, it’s easy to see why the Hverir geothermal area was chosen as one of the filming locations for HBO fantasy drama Game of Thrones. Used onscreen to portray the otherworldly landscapes ‘North of the Wall’, the fantastical landscapes are just as mesmerizing in real life – the pockmarked terrain bubbling with silver-grey mud and steaming fumaroles, and the stench of sulfur omnipresent.
Located just below the Krafla caldera and a short ride from Mývatn Lake, Hverir makes a popular stop on North Iceland’s Diamond Circle driving route, but with ground temperatures reaching heights of 400ºF, this isn’t a region for exploring off-the-beaten-track. Thankfully, a network of roped walkways and viewing platforms make it easy to take in the highlights, set against a backdrop of the looming Namafjall Mountain.
Descending via rope ladder from the Laxardalshraun lava field, the first that hits you upon entering Lofthellir cave is the temperature, which plummets to around 0°C, but the freezing microclimate and enveloping darkness only add to the experience. Formed over 3,500 years ago from solidified lava, Lofthellir has earned a reputation as one of Iceland’s most famous caves, home to the country’s most impressive collection of natural ice formations.
The lava tube stretches for 370 meters and visitors can explore the honeycomb of underground chambers by torchlight, sliding down the icy slopes and scrabbling through ice columns. The thrilling climb is all part of the adventure but the undeniable highlight is the magnificent scenery – glittering walls of ice, frozen stalactites and stalagmites, and gigantic ice sculptures carved out over thousands of years.
Home to just over 1,500 souls, “the bay of the Svarfaðardalur valley," as per its Icelandic name, is located in the north-central part of the country in the Tröllaskagi peninsula. The small settlement is flanked by dramatic mountains, formed by what is said to be the most beautiful and longest fjord in Iceland, Eyjafjörður. And thanks to this literally breathtaking landscape, hiking is one of the most popular activities in the area. There are plenty of well-marked hiking trails around the village, which consistently provide exceptional views of the fjord. Alternatively, Dalvik is also popular with alpine skiers largely due to the famous Böggvisstaðafjall ski area. And although Dalvik is an important fishing harbor, with most of the municipality’s economy being based on fisheries and fish processing, the travel trade has been steadily growing over the past couple of years. Indeed, Dalvik has become an important starting point for many shore expeditions in the North Atlantic.
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