I know I’ve said this before, but the landscape is about change again in a big way as you round the NE corner of the country to head back West along the northern coast. After exploring the coastal fjordland, the Ring Road will now take you through what feels like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The main hub in this region is the volcanic lake of Mývatn, an alien landscape home to NASA training missions, powerful geothermal activity and extensive elvish folklore. Let’s get started.
One of the joys of travel is getting lost, and not sweating it at all. Bustarfell is a great example of stumbling upon somewhere we completely didn’t intend. We thought we were heading to the The Last Turf Church of Iceland, located in Hof, until we got to Hof in Northeast Iceland and realized there are about ten villages in Iceland named Hof and we went to wrong one. And I mean on-the-complete-other-side-of-the-country-wrong Hof. However, all was not lost, and we ended up at one of the few remaining turf farms in East Iceland. Originally built in 1770, the Bustarfell lodgings and farmhouse was inhabited until 1966, when it came under the protection of the National Museum. Today it is an active heritage sight with workshops, fairytale elf-lore hikes and a beautiful backdrop of horses and this cute pup that tagged along with us as we explored the area. To reach Bustarfell, you’ll take a 30 minute (one-way) detour off Route 1 down Route 85 towards Vopnafjörður.
This is the closest we got to a caribou sighting on our trip. Though introduced with optimism, there are only a few herds left roaming the northeastern highlands of the country.
Our Bustarfell tour guide.
Dettifoss and Selfoss
After returning to Route 1, or if you are tight on time and need to skip Bustarfell, the first main attraction in the area is supposedly the most powerful waterfall in Europe (yes, Europe), Dettifoss. Now, the “power” metric is calculated using the amount of water flow and the total fall distance. Though there are access points to both sides of the falls, we approached from the west side on Route 862 en route to Ásbyrgi and Vesturdalur. When we visited, there was still significant amounts of snow and flooding that had closed over half the car park, restroom facilities, and significant portions of the muddy cliffside trails. Normally I’m a get as close to the edge type person, but be aware of your surroundings and the added risk conditions like this can present, as significant injuries and fatalities happen all the time from not heeding these cautions. The roar of Dettifoss was surely impressive and standing in front of such immense, raging falls brings a very loud and rushing sense of peace over you. A short distance upstream from Dettifoss, you can hike and explore the smaller falls of Selfoss. Again, these access points do not have guardrails or ropes in many spots, so enjoy with care.
The smaller falls of Selfoss that feed down to the powerful falls of Dettifoss below.
Unexpected flooding from continued melt off can create some unexpected roadblocks.
Ásbyrgi and Vesturdalur
40 clicks further down Route 862 sits the Ásbyrgi Canyon and Vesturdalur Valley, both popular sights on the Diamond Circle route in North Iceland. I mentioned significant flooding at Dettifoss, and unfortunately we encountered impassable road closers on our way further north to visit these sights. And by impassable I mean 12 foot walls of snow and ice surrounded by mini-lakes of flooding in what was supposed to be a road. The detour around this road closure involved a route 5x longer through Husavík, and we gathered reports that several roads in the area were also closed, so access was unlikely from any direction. We ultimately decided to forego these iconic sights and head for Mývatn. Like getting lost, sometimes no amount of planning can prepare you for the actual conditions that await, which keeps you flexible and on your toes. Chalk them up for next time!
Mývatn provides an awesome hub to the sights and adventures in the area with campgrounds situated right on the lake. From there, you can easily visit the mud pools and fumerals of Hverir; walk the lava fields and fissure vents of Leirhnjúkur; hike the rims of the several calderas in the area (Viti-Krafla, Hverfjall); take a longer trek to the more remote volcanic highlands of Askja (where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin prepared for the moon landing); explore the former bathing caves of Grjótagjá; or enjoy a relaxing dip in one of the many natural hot springs. Full disclosure, when we were visiting in June, it happened to be right at the time of a massive fly hatch on the lake. I have never in my life seen so many bugs and it made it very uncomfortable to be outside anywhere near the lake – seriously, the locals were wearing massive fly masks that looked like beekeeper headgear everywhere they went. Outdoor activities further away from the lake (i.e. Krafla area) were fine, but our attempt to enjoy the Skútustaðir craters on the shore of the lake ended with both of us running frantically to the car and picking flies out of my contacts. It was less than an enjoyable, but it was the only place in all of Iceland we saw bugs and did they make their presence felt.
Meaning "hell" in Icelandic, Krafla's Viti Crater and Lake is approximately 300m in diameter and was formed during a five year eruption of the Mývatn Fires in 1724.
The sometimes buried, sometimes broken, sometimes treacherous walking path to Leirhnjúkur.
Much smaller in scale than Yellowstone or Waiotapu, the fissure vents and geothermal pools of Leirhnjúkur still put on an interesting show.
Hiking the rim of Hverfjall's deep and dark volcanic crater.
A former bathing pool, the water temp in the Grjótagjá lava cave rose so significantly after the eruption of Mt. Krafla that it is now too hot to enter (over 50 C).
The large, grassy Skútustaðir craters on the shores of Lake Mývatn.
Built in the 1970's, Krafla's geothermal power plant is the largest power station in Iceland.
At their lowest point, the boreholes reach magma that hit over 430 degrees Celsius.
After you’ve had your fill of Middle Earth, the spectacular falls of Goðafoss is next on your list. Note: if you want to complete the Diamond Circle or if you’re interested in whale watching, head north on Route 87 to Húsavík before heading further West on Route 1. Due to inclement weather, we decided to bypass Húsavík altogether (whale watching is also offered in several other locations around the island). Translating to “waterfall of the Gods,” legend has it that in Year 1000, Lawspeaker Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði converted to Christianity and made it the official religion of Iceland. He then proceeded to throw all of his statues of the Norse gods into the waterfall, never looking back. Today, it’s a beautiful stop right off Route 1 where you can easily access both sides of the falls and hike to various vantage points for that perfect shot. There is also a gas station, restroom and coffee shop for a full service pit stop.
The circular nature of Goðafoss allows you to approach and explore the falls from both sides.
The peaceful power of rushing water is a common sight across this beautiful country.
Your next destination is the relatively large metropolis of Akureyri, the second largest urban area in Iceland behind Reyjavík. Located in the Eyjafjörður Fjord, Akureyri offers all the provisions of a modern city including a variety of accommodations, cultural activities (art museums, concert halls and historic tours), swimming pools, golf courses, grocery stores and restaurants. They even have a small airport offering flights back to Reykjavík. The main attractions are Akureyrarkirkja, the city’s prominent Lutheran church, walking through Old Town, and enjoying the local food and beverage (awesome local ice cream spots and breweries). Akureyri is also the main hub for access to skiing in Iceland via Hlíðarfjall and Trollaskagi. We were a little too late to enjoy some good skiing, so we will have to save that for another trip. Before you leave the city, fuel up and hit your favorite grocery store as your next camping spot is significantly more remote.
In Varmahlíð, we met a gracious farmer that welcomed us into her home to meet her newborn calves only four hours old. This was one of the best unexpected experiences on our road trip made possible by the complete warmth of a stranger.
The story goes that a giant troll named Hvítserkur was awakened by humans ringing a bell outside of a church in Húnaflói. So perturbed, one evening he decided to travel across the fjords to destroy the bell once and for all. However, he didn't complete his journey before dawn broke and he turned to stone, resting here for eternity. Moral of the story, even trolls don't like alarm clocks. Literally, Hvítserkur translates to "white shirt" and derives its name from being covered in guano. Such a flattering name for this beautiful beast that rises over 50ft out of the ocean. This is one of those off the beaten path gems that offers peace and respite away from the crowds. The only other people we saw here were fellow photographers in search of an awesome shot. To get here, you’ll head West from Akuyreri through beautiful countrysides full of horses and sheep on your way to the Vatsnes peninsula. The best place to set up camp is at Hvammstangi, and you can reach the Sea Troll by circling the peninsula on Road 711, part of which is a dirt road but easily navigable.
Hvítserkur translates to "white shirt" and derives its name from being covered in guano. Such a flattering name for this beautiful beast that rises over 50ft out of the ocean. That 2am sunrise doesn't look so bad either.
What We Missed And Are Sure To Hit Next Time: Due to road closures and weather, we had to bypass Ásbyrgi and Vesturdalur, both areas we really wanted to explore. An orca watching trip in Husavík is also an intriguing option we did not pursue.
What To Eat: A fun stop in Mývatn we enjoyed was the Vogafjós Cow Café. They have a cool set up where you watch the cows being milked and feeding. You can even go inside and pet the calves and try the fresh milk yourself. In turn, they offer homemade cheeses and rye bread baked directly in the ground from thermal heat, and also serve local trout and lamb.
What You Can Miss: The fly hatch at Lake Mývatn. Trust us.
Best Place to Camp: Hvammstangi - a quiet campground on the Vatnes peninsula with small but newly updated facilities. Located a short distance of Route 1, this campground also offers the closest access to Hvítserkur, which is especially important for all you photographers out there waiting for the perfect light.