Lake Mývatn in North Iceland

What can you do around North Iceland’s stunning waterbody, Lake Mývatn? How big is the lake, and how long should you spend there? Read on to learn more about this famous nature site in Iceland’s north. 

Situated in a large geothermal area, the Lake Mývatn nature reserve has become one of the most popular natural attractions in Iceland’s northern region

Given thats its volcanic shores are laden with endless points of interest, the majority of travellers enjoy driving a complete circuit around the lake, stopping as and when they discover fascinating stops.

Mývatn is not a deep lake by any means. Its maximum depth is only 4.5 m (15 ft), but its surface area – 37 km2 (14 sq mi) – more than makes up for its shallow nature. 

Geothermal activity at Lake Mývatn 

Geothermal site near Mývatn
Photo: Private Lake Mývatn Tour

The Mývatn area formed approximately 2300 years ago in a violent fissure eruption. It is thought that basaltic lava flowed through Laxárdalur valley, all the way to the lowland plain of Aðaldalur, where it met the ocean. In its wake, a row of craters has since been named Þrengslaborgir. Signs of this geothermal activity can be found all around the lake. For example, nearby is Krafla caldera, within which sits Viti volcano.

Some particular spots are more noteworthy than others. One area worth checking out is Skútustaðir, a crater row on the lake’s southern side that is today considered a national monument. Craters such as these would have obstructed the steady flow of lava, forcing it to form pools that later drained, leaving large forests of basaltic pillars.

Dimmuborgir rock formations
Photo: Private Lake Mývatn Tour

One great example of this is Dimmuborgir, otherwise known as the Black Fortress or Black Castles. It is a dark, haunting, craggy stretch of gnarled rocks that serves as the setting for countless stories from Icelandic folklore. The best known is the tale of Grýla, a tough ogress who makes up a central part of Icelandic Christmas traditions. 

There are walkways throughout Dimmuborgir that let you appreciate the intense natural formations, as well as ponder on the trolls and elves that are said to live in the area. Kirkjuhringur (Church Circle) is one such hike, coming in at 2.2 km long. It is named after a beautiful arch formation that resembles a country church, hence the route’s name.  

The lake’s glittering blue waters are dotted with small islands. Some are ancient pseudocraters, while others are monolithic columns of basalt. 

Are there other geothermal attractions at Mývatn? 

Mývatn is known for its geothermal energy
Photo: Lake Mývatn Shore Excursion from Akureyri Port

On the slopes of Mount Námafjall, visitors can discover the otherworldly site known as Námaskarð Pass. 

With an abundance of geothermal activity happening just below the surface, there is no vegetation to speak of at Námaskarð. In its place are a wide array of fumaroles and hot springs, each spouting a column of white steam into the air. 

This geothermal activity creates a brilliant natural spectacle. For instance, the ground throughout the pass is caked in different colours, such as red, yellow, orange, green. 

The tranquil interior of Grjótagjá cave
Photo: Private Lake Mývatn Tour

Grjótagjá cave is another well-known site at Mývatn. In fact, many people have seen this cave without ever having visited it! The reason for that is HBO’s fantasy series, Game of Thrones, which used Grjótagjá as a shooting location. 

Remember the scene where Jon Snow and his wildling lover Ygrit, share an intimate moment in a subterranean pool? That, dear reader, would be the cave in question. 

Actually, because of the show’s global success, Grjótagjá can only be visited with a tour guide these days so as to ensure the cave remains undamaged and relatively empty of visitors. 

Mývatn Nature Baths 

Mývatn nature baths
Photo: Myvatn Nature Baths – Admission

One location where you can make the most of the lake’s geothermal activity is at the Mývatn Nature Baths, only 105 km (65 m) south of the Arctic Circle. Having first opened in 2004, this spa offers spectacular views over the lake, best enjoyed while luxuriating in pleasant, naturally-heated waters. 

Not only will you find milky-blue pools outside in the open air, but Mývatn Nature baths also offers a swim-up bar, steam rooms, and their own eatery, Café Kvika, which serves up tasty lunches and snacks. Its facilities are sophisticated in their design and blend in tastefully with the stunning panoramas that make up the lake.

Remember to bring your own towel, though one can be rented onsite should you forget. 

When is the best time to visit Lake Mývatn? 

An aerial view of Lake Mývatn
Photo: Mývatn and surroundings

Thankfully for you, Lake Mývatn can be visited in both the winter and summer.

Each season offers its draws, be it the golden glow of the Midnight Sun washing over the land between March and September, or the snow-laden lava fields that sum up the colder months. 

Be aware that driving to the north during the winter may pose challenges regarding road closures and weather conditions, so make sure to keep a close eye on Safe Travel to avoid any unnecessary disruptions while travelling. 

A note about Mývatn’s midges… 

 
Midges at Myvatn
Photo: Michael Clarke. Flickr. CC.

One drawback for summer travellers is the abundance of midges, a small and pesky species of fly. 

As proof of that fact, the lake literally translates to “Midge Lake,” offering some idea as to how prolific they are here. These tiny insects can be found here in such large numbers that they form visible colonies around the water’s edge, often resembling small, black tornadoes.

Midges can be a particular problem for hikers and campers, so make sure to bring along protective gear so as to avoid being overwhelmed by these tiny winged locals. 

The nature of Lake Mývatn 

The lush shores of Mývatn
Photo: Private Lake Mývatn Tour

It’s rare that visitors will pass through the Lake Mývatn area without stopping to appreciate the beauty of its nature. 

Animals and plantlife all add to the paradisiacal character of this place, making it a must-stop for travellers in the north.

Marimo at Mývatn 

A shrimp sits atop a marimo ball
Photo: RW Sinclair. Flickr. CC.

Anyone who watched David Attenborough’s documentary, The Private Life of Plants might remember a small section about a strange, spherical plant known as marimo

Marimo is otherwise called Cladophora balls or moss balls. Mývatn happens to be one of the only places on earth where marimo occurs naturally. 

It is a filamentous algae that rolls about the lake’s surface like loose tennis balls. It is often accidentally caught up in the nets of local fishermen. Recently, the marimo population at Mývatn dropped considerably due to a variety of environmental factors. Conservation efforts are slowly restoring it to natural levels. 

Birds at Lake Mývatn 

Mývatn attracts many bird species
Photo: Birdwatching private tour: Lake Mývatn Area

Lake Mývatn is well known for its wildlife, particularly the many birds that nest in the area. In point of fact, it is a recognised Important Bird and Biodiversity Area, with most species being migratory. Birds are drawn to the lake due to its nutrient-dense water, as well as the millions of aquatic insects that inhabit it, like Cladocera, or water-fleas. 

With such a buffet on offer, it is little wonder that fifteen species of duck call the lake home. In fact, there are more species of duck at Lake Mývatn than in any location in Europe. The most common are tufted ducks and harlequin ducks, followed closely by greater scaups. However, visitors may also find species like: Barrow goldeneyes, red-breasted mergansers, Eurasian wigeons, gadwalls, mallards, and common scoters. 

Birdwatching is a popular activity at Mývatn
Photo: Birdwatching private tour: Lake Mývatn Area

This is by no means a definitive list. Just know that if you’re on the lookout for ducks, Lake Mývatn has you covered. Actually, it is one of the best bird-watching sites in the entire country. No surprise then that many other species that can be spotted. 

What other bird species can you observe at the lake? 


There are also water birds like slavonian grebes, great northern divers, and whooper swans. In the rocks and moors surrounding the lake, lucky guests might also see rock ptarmigans and even Iceland’s national bird, the gyrfalcon. 

If you’re looking to learn more about the region’s birdlife, you can make a stop at the endlessly fascinating Sigurgeir’s Bird Museum. While it is only a tiny museum, it has an enormous collection of stuffed birds – in fact, they display a specimen of each and every species found in Iceland, minus one. 

Alternatively, you could choose to take part in a dedicated birdwatching tour, where a guide will provide plenty of information about the variety of species that call the lake home. 

What is the best way to explore Lake Mývatn? 

A Reykjavik Excursions coach
Photo: Golli. There are many coach tours in Iceland

There are a number of different ways to discover all that Lake Mývatn has to offer. Most people would rather opt to explore on their own, hiring a rental car. That way, they can take in each attraction as they come. After all, travelling on your own schedule allows you to prioritise what sites you want to see, and how long you spend at each.

Hiring a rental car does not make sense for some travellers, particularly those who are sticking to a budget. In such cases, it is preferable to book a spot on a guided tour. 

Thankfully, Lake Mývatn is part of the popular Diamond Circle tour – the northern alternative to the famed Golden Circle sightseeing route in the west. Other worthy attractions on the Diamond Circle include the likes of Dettifoss waterfall, Husavik town, and Ásbyrgi Canyon.

 

 

Ásbyrgi is particularly worthy of a mention. It is an enormous horse-shoe shaped canyon. It is said to have formed when Odin’s eight-legged steed, Sleipnir, thrust his hoof into the earth. You can learn more in our full article – Norse Mythology: The Gods of the Ancient Icelanders. Regardless of its ethereal origins, you are sure to be in awe of Ásbyrgi’s dense forest basin and dramatic cliffsides. 

Taking a coach tour rather than driving yourself has its own benefits. For one, a professional tour guide will be able to provide informative tidbits about each attraction. It also saves one from having to worry about driving. Not to mention planning when and how to explore the area. As mentioned, this can be a welcome relief in the winter when road conditions are less than favourable. 

Iceland’s Diamond Circle: A Guide

Húsavík in Northern Iceland

What is the Diamond Circle in Iceland?

The Diamond Circle showcases some of northern Iceland’s magnificent waterfalls, geothermal, and volcanic sites. It consists of Goðafoss waterfall, Mývatn lake, Dettifoss waterfall, Ásbyrgi canyon, and Húsavík fishing town. The Diamond Circle itself can be completed in a day, as the driving distance with Akureyri as a starting point is about 224 km [139 mi]. The total time will vary based on the time spent at each site. Guided excursions and tours are available, but you can also choose to explore The Diamond Circle independently, at your own pace. The roads connecting the Diamond Circle are paved.

We will start in Akureyri, the third-largest city in Iceland, with a population of 20,000. The 390 km drive to Akureyri from the capital area is quite simple, as you drive on the same road the whole way- Route 1 or the “Ring Road” as it’s often called.

Goðafoss Waterfall

From Akureyri, you will continue on Route 1 for about 34 km [21 mi] before turning right towards Goðafoss.

On the sightseeing platform, you can take in the panoramic view of this 12 m [39 ft] high, 30 m [98 ft] wide waterfall that runs from the glacial river Skjálfandafljót. Goðafoss waterfall is a historic site in Iceland. In the year 1,000, Þorgeir Þorkellsson, the lawmaker of Iceland, had concluded that Iceland should become a Christian country. Believing in the Norse gods was still allowed, but that religion had to be practised in one’s home. He is said to have gone to Goðafoss waterfall (translated as “Waterfall of the Gods”) and thrown his heathen idols into the water.

Goðafoss Waterfall, Iceland
Photo: Golli. Goðafoss Waterfall in Iceland.

The geothermal area of Mývatn Lake

Return to Route 1, turning right to keep driving towards Mývatn lake. 30 km [22 mi], turn left to stay on Route 1, following the Húsavík/Egilsstaðir/Fuglasafn sign. Shortly, you will see the lake and can pick a stop of your choosing along the route- there will be several.

Mývatn lake was formed about 2,300 years ago due to a volcanic eruption. With an area of approximately 73 km2 [28 mi2], it’s the fourth-largest lake in Iceland. Mývatn lake is known for its rich birdlife and its surrounding geothermal area, including hot springs and mud pots.

You may want to experience the Mývatn Nature Baths for a relaxing stop. To get to the baths, stay on Route 1. Following the sign for Egilsstaðir, turn left to continue on Route 1. Follow the signs for Jarðböðin við Mývatn (Mývatn Nature Baths) and enjoy the beauty of this geothermal lagoon. This area also has a cafe where you can stop by for a snack.

Dettifoss Waterfall

From the baths, turn right to continue on Route 1 for 23 km [14 mi]. Then, turn left towards Dettifoss on Route 862 and follow the signs for Dettifoss. You will arrive at a parking lot. From the lot, there will be about an 850 m [0.52 mi] walk to the viewpoint. Dettifoss waterfall is the most powerful waterfall in Europe, with a flow rate of 193 m3 [6,815 ft3]. Dettifoss is located in Vatnajökull National Park, and its water runs from the glacial river “Jökulsá á fjöllum” directly from Europe’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull. The waterfall is 44-45 m [144-147 ft] high and 100 m [328 ft] wide.

Ásbyrgi Canyon in North Iceland

Return to Dettifossvegur (Route 862) and turn right. When you approach the intersection of Route 862 and Route 85, turn right. Shortly, there will be a sign for Ásbyrgi canyon.

Ásbyrgi is a glacial canyon in the shape of a horseshoe. Like Dettifoss waterfall, it’s a part of Vatnajökull National Park. Ásbyrgi was formed due to a glacial flood from Jökulsár á fjöllum river during a volcanic eruption in Grímsvötn volcano. Ásbyrgi is about 3.5 km [2.2 mi] long and 1.1 km [0.7 mi] wide. In the middle stands a large 25 m [82 ft] high rock formation called Eyjan (The Island), emphasising the canyon’s horseshoe shape. Its surrounding cliffs are about 100 m [328ft] high. You can choose from several hiking trails with stunning panoramic views along the way.

Húsavík: Whale Watching Capital of Iceland

To get to Húsavík from Ásbyrgi, drive back towards Route 85 and make a left. The drive is 62 km [38 mi] long.
Húsavík is a small fishing town in Skjálfandi bay, with a population of about 2,300. It is home to The Exploration Museum, The Whale Museum and Húsavík Museum. The Húsavík Museum is a cultural centre displaying the historic exhibitions “Daily Life and Nature-100 years in Þingeyjarsýslur” as well as the “Maritime Museum”. This picturesque town is a prime whale-watching destination, offering tours to see some of the 23 species of whales. Húsavík has several restaurants and cafes with a beautiful view of the harbour.

Akureyrarkirkja Church, Akureyri Iceland
Photo: Akureyrarkirkja Church, Iceland.

Back to Akureyri

To return to Akureyri, drive south on Route 85 for 45 km [28 mi] until you hit Route 1. Make a right and continue for 30 km [19 mi] following the signs for Akureyri.

From the trembling power of Dettifoss waterfall to the tranquillity of Mývatn lake, the Diamond Circle is a great route to experience the distinct beauty of northern Iceland. It unveils the region‘s geological wonders of volcanic and geothermal areas, waterfalls, and cultural sites, making the trip an exciting adventure for any explorer.

 

A Guide to Iceland’s Most Popular Waterfalls

dynjandi waterfall in iceland

Skógafoss Waterfall

This 60-metre [200 ft] waterfall is immersed in legend. The tallest waterfall in Iceland, Skógafoss is fed by two glaciers. Its icy waters plummet down to a pool below, where visitors can walk close to the falls, likely getting drenched in the process. 

The waterfall itself can be seen from two different viewpoints: at its base and from above. Visitors can climb a metal staircase to reach the top of the falls, where they are often greeted by the song of birds and a carpet of luscious greenery. A double rainbow typically accompanies this view, a result of the sunlight striking the water. 

skógafoss waterfall in south iceland

The legend surrounding Skógafoss details how the viking Þrasi Þórólfsson buried a chest full of treasures behind the falls:

“The chest of Þrasi is filled with treasures, 

located beneath Skógafoss waterfall,

the first man who goes there will find great richness.” 

Years later, three men set out to find this chest. They were successful. Yet upon trying to remove it from its watery hiding place, one of the golden rings, which served as a handle, broke off and plunged the chest deep beneath the waterfall, never to be found again. Travellers can find this infamous golden ring at the Skógar Museum. 

Traveling to Skógafoss

Located in the South of Iceland, Skógafoss is an ideal destination for anyone travelling on the Ring Road. Only a two-hour drive from Reykjavik, visitors who choose to drive to this destination can take advantage of free parking and the nearby campsite in the village of Skógar. Skógafoss is also accessible by bus line 51. 

Activities Near Skógafoss

Adventure enthusiasts who are eager to savour the natural beauty of their surroundings can hike in the area. A hiking trail can be found at the top of Skógafoss. It leads to the Fimmvörðuháls Trailhead, which many consider to be one of the best hikes in Iceland. This challenging trail spans 24.5 km [15.2 mi] with a 1300 metre [4265 ft] ascent and typically takes seven to twelve hours to complete.

For those who prefer a less strenuous activity, the Skógar museum is close to a five-minute drive from Skógafoss. The museum was opened in 1949 and is located beside a school building from 1901, an old magistrate’s house, a farmhouse, and a turf storehouse. Visitors can find national costumes, a tapestry, other artifacts, and the golden ring from the legend inside the museum. 

 

Dettifoss Waterfall

Dettifoss, a waterfall which boasts of nature’s strength, is known by many as “the beast”. The most powerful waterfall in all of Europe, this natural wonder is a spectacular vision.  Fed by the largest glacier in Iceland, Vatnajokull, Dettifoss is 100 metres [328 ft] wide with a 44 metre [144 ft] drop. Some say by placing one’s hand on top of nearby rocks, you can feel the power of Dettifoss reverberate through the landscape. 

Dettifoss offers two different vantage points. The upper view is accessible via a path along the river, where travellers may experience a chilling spray from the waterfall. For the lower viewpoint, visitors can embark on a steep downhill walk, which is also likely to result in being drenched in the waterfall’s mist.

dettifoss waterfall in north iceland

Travelling to Dettifoss 

Located in Vatnajökull National Park in Iceland’s northeast, this waterfall is a seven-hour drive from Reykjavik. However, it is only a 35-minute drive off of the Ring Road. Travellers can access Dettifoss from either the east or west side. Road 864 will take travellers to the west side of the waterfall, while Road 862 will lead to the east. There is free parking on both the east and west sides of Dettifoss. Some travellers may also prefer discovering Dettifoss from the comfort of a guided tour.

Activities Near Dettifoss

Dettifoss is not the only waterfall in the area. Explorers can hike a rocky 1 km [0.62 mi] trail to Selfoss. This waterfall is found in Jökulsárgljúfur canyon and is 100 [328 ft] metres wide. Often dwarfed by the magnificence of its neighbour, Dettifoss, Selfoss is worth the 30-minute trek. Travellers are often mesmerised by its horseshoe-like shape and the gentle spray of mist which compliments the Icelandic landscape. The Mývatn nature baths are also nearby, making a great stop on a tour of the area.

Hafragilsfoss waterfall is located downstream from Dettifoss and is only a five-minute drive north. Hafragilsfoss is fed by the same glacier as Dettifoss and stands at 27 metres [89 ft]. Nestled within rocky terrain, this waterfall can be viewed from the east or west. 

 

Gullfoss Waterfall

A popular Hollywood destination, Gullfoss waterfall has made an appearance in a myriad of films. Will Ferrell’s Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, Lost in Space, Vikings, and Twice Upon a Time, have all taken advantage of the stunning landscape and thundering falls. 

Called the Golden Falls, Gullfoss lives up to its name. Rather than a single cascade, this waterfall flows over two rocky plateaus, carrying water from the Langjokull glacier to the pool below. In the summer months, the sunlight shines upon Gullfoss, causing the water to take on a spectacular golden hue. 

To travellers who are visiting Gullfoss in the winter months, it is prudent to take caution as the terrain can often by icy and slippery and requires caution when exploring. 

gullfoss waterfall golden circle
Golli – Gullfoss Waterfall

Travelling to Gullfoss 

The Gullfoss waterfall is in Iceland’s southwest in Haukadalur valley. It is a popular stop for those who are travelling along the Golden Circle. It can be reached from Reykjavik in only two hours by car. There is a visitor center and parking lot near Gullfoss and parking is free.  There are no city buses available from Reykjavik to Gullfoss, but many guided tours are available. 

Activities Near Gullfoss

Gullfoss Café is located next to the main parking lot where customers can purchase tasty delicacies. A nearby shop is also available, selling Icelandic souvenirs. 

Gullfoss also has a couple different walking paths that visitors can travel for a truly immersive experience. Different views of the waterfall and canyon are available, mostly looking from the waterfall above as it tumbles into the canyon below. A truly breathtaking view.  

Check out even more ways to see the Golden Circle.

 

Dynjandi Waterfall

For travellers with an inclination for waterfalls, Dynjandi is the place to be. Known as the “jewel of the Westfjords”, Dynjandi shimmers amidst the landscape. It stands at 100 metres [328 ft] tall with a width of 60 metres [197 ft]. However, it is not the only waterfall nearby. Rather, Dynjandi is one of seven other waterfalls in the area. In order to access Dynjandi, travellers must hike past these six other waterfalls. They are called: Strompgljúfrafoss, Göngumannafoss, Hrísvaðsfoss, Kvíslarfoss, Hundafoss and Bæjarfoss. However, most agree that Dynjandi, which has often been equated to a bridal veil, is the most spectacular in the area. 

dynjandi waterfall westfjords
Berglind – Dynjandi Waterfall

Travelling to Dynjandi 

A six-hour drive away from the nation’s capital, Dynjandi is not easily accessible from Reykjavik. This means the waterfall is not often crowded by tourist and is worth the trek for travellers who wish to avoid large crowds. For those travelling by car, there is free parking. 

It is also possible to reach the waterfall from the comfort of an organised tour. 

Activities Near Dynjandi 

In order to reach Dynjandi waterfall, travellers must make a fifteen-minute hike uphill on a well-maintained pathway. This hike is steep and may not be accessible to everybody. This journey will take travellers past six other smaller waterfalls along the path and serves to be a quick but beautiful hike. 

 

Closure at Dettifoss

The area around Dettifoss waterfall in Vatnajökull National Park has been closed off from traffic due to flooding, according to a post on the park’s Facebook page. Thawing of ice and snow in the area have caused excessive water flow, which has now cowered road 862 that leads to the waterfall.

Furthermore a river of freshwater has formed under the snow in Sanddalur, which can create conditions life-threatening to passerby. Due to this, the area’s park ranger in cooperation with local police and The Road and Coastal Administration has decided to temporarily restrict traffic in the area.

It is unclear how long the closure will last, but back in 2016, similar conditions caused closures for up to 36 hours.

Three Highline Over Dettifoss

Two Frenchmen and one British man performed a remarkable feat on Thursday when they ‘highlined’ across Dettifoss waterfall, RÚV reports. Highlining is a sport similar to tightrope walking or slacklining, in which participants “traverse a narrow, springy band of rope suspended high above the ground.” In this instance, the three highliners walked a rope that spanned 270 meters [886 feet] and was roughly 100 meters [328 feet] above the waterfall, which has the greatest volume of water of any waterfall in Europe.

The trio are part of a larger highlining team that travels around the world practicing their craft. When they first arrived at Dettifoss, they hadn’t decided on an exact location for their crossing. But when a rainbow appeared over the waterfall when they were scouting, they decided to base their crossing location on where they saw it. It seems only fitting, then, that several rainbows appeared in the same spot during their crossing on Thursday. “Some people were afraid,” said Bjarni Karls­son, a park ranger at Vatnajökull National Park who himself watched the crossing. “But most people were interested and excited.”

Highliner Daniel Laruelle says the sport is like a meditation. “If you manage to stay calm then you enter a quasi-meditational state on the line. It works more often than not, but when there’s a lot of stimuli around you—like, for instance, a giant waterfall or a bunch of rainbows, then it can be difficult to keep your focus,” he admitted. But the teammates insist that the practice is actually safer than it looks. “As soon as I’ve secured the safety,” said Daniel, “I can go out on the line and fall as often as I want.”

His teammates Nicolas Pouchars and Theo Sanson agreed. “It is actually more dangerous to drive a car around than it is to go out on the line,” said Theo. “Although your head says something else. We do this because it’s fantastic, but it’s also symbolic. We are all looking for balance in our lives, but it is a long process and takes us a lifetime.”

See pictures of the three men’s remarkable, rainbow-embellished crossing on RÚV here. Bjarni Karlsson’s short video and photographs are viewable on mbl.is.