All About East Iceland - The Eastfjords Skip to content
East Iceland
Photo: Photo: Golli.

All About East Iceland – The Eastfjords

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What is there to do in the east of Iceland, and how long should you spend in the region? What are the main towns and villages in Iceland’s Eastfjords, and how many people live there? Without further delay, let’s find out all there is to know about East Iceland. 

The Westfjords and the Eastfjords are considered to be Iceland’s most mysterious regions, for the simple fact that they are less accessible than the others. 

This is true of the Westfjords because of its lack of infrastructure – a true wilderness with very few settlements and tarmac roads – while the East is simply on the opposite side of the country from Iceland’s capital, Reykjavík, and thus does not fit into many visitors’ schedules. 

While the Westfjords is best left for truly adventurous travellers, Iceland’s east is well-worth a visit for those who make the time for it. The most natural way of doing so is by taking a full tour of the country, following Route 1 – or the Ring Road – which circles the entire island.

Why should you visit East Iceland? 

traditional farm iceland
Photo: Golli. A dog rests outside a turf house in East Iceland

Known locally as Austurland, East Iceland is quiet, idyllic, and brimming with natural splendour. Thin fjords and winding cliffside coastal routes, tiny hamlet villages and epic mountainscapes; all can be found in this spectacular and rarely-visited region. 

With that in mind, it should be obvious that there are many, many reasons to take some time out and explore this majestic part of the country. Let’s explore a handful of them below:

Geology in East Iceland

 

Geologically speaking, East Iceland is one of the older parts of the country in so much as it resides on the Eurasian tectonic plate, divided by the Mid Atlantic Ridge in the middle of the island, and thus splitting from the North American plate on the west. In fact, the ancient ruins of over 14 central volcanoes can be found in the east, with many of them clearly visible on the landscape. 

Speaking of geology, Austurland also happens to be a great producer of Iceland Spar – otherwise known as Iceland Crystal, Solar Stone, or Optical Calcite – which is found at Helgustaðir mine. 

This beautiful carbonate mineral is capable of double refraction, meaning that objects seen through the crystal will appear twice rather than once. Be aware, however, that it is strictly prohibited to take samples of Iceland Spar, so make sure to appreciate this beautiful mineral without touching it.  

Weather in East Iceland

Laundry hanging outside in Iceland
Photo: Golli. Drying clothes.

East Iceland also happens to be the sunniest place in Iceland during summer. That means it’s the go-to place for anyone hoping to ensure their summer vacation on the island is, at least, somewhat tropical.

Bear in mind, however, that East Iceland is generally colder than the rest of the country in winter, a consequence of the East Greenland Current that flows by the coast, and reduces the temperature of the sea’s surface. As such, winter tends to start earlier in the east, and last for longer. 

Wildlife in East Iceland 

A group of reindeer
Photo: Golli. A herd of wild reindeer.

The wildlife in East Iceland is also worthy of note. For instance, it is the only location in the country where it is possible to see herds of wild reindeer. These animals are not native to Iceland, were first imported in the 18th century – between 1771-1787 – for the purpose of building up a population akin to that in Lapland. 

The decision to bring reindeer to Iceland was experimental in nature. Though the intention was to bolster local agriculture, it was quickly discovered that many of the reindeers were ill suited to the cold-weather environment and a lack of sustenance. 

As such, the small populations introduced to the islands of Vestmannaeyjar, the Reykjanes peninsula, and Eyjafjörður fjord did not survive for long. 

However, those brought to Vopnafjörður fjord in East Iceland remained something of a mystery. For a while, it was believed that reindeer had become extinct, until a small herd of 100 animals was miraculously discovered grazing amid the local landscape. Their survival is testimony to East Iceland’s temperate conditions. Nowadays, approximately 7000 of the original herd’s descendants live freely between Jökulsá á Fjöllum river and Vatnajökull glacier

A reindeer in East Iceland
Photo: Náttúrustofa Austurlands, via Facebook

How to spot wildlife in East Iceland?

 

Those hoping to spot reindeer during their trip should know that these magnificent animals stick to higher ground during the summer months, primarily at their favourite spot, Mount Snæfell. Therefore, it is usually easier to spot them during winter, when they descend the mountain to low-lying land in search of food. 

East Iceland also happens to be a fantastic place for bird-watching. If you’re hoping to see Atlantic Puffins, it is recommended you visit Borgarfjörður Eystri between late-April and mid-August. 

With boardwalks and viewing platforms built into the cliffs, it is possible to observe these beautiful creatures soaring over the ocean surface, or hopping between their coastal nests. It is estimated that the area attracts around 10,000 Atlantic Puffins every single year, and you can find this gorgeous fjord approximately one hour’s drive from Egilsstaðir.

What mountains are in the Eastfjords?

Borgarfjörður eystri east iceland
Photo: Golli. Mountains are a constant sight in East Iceland.

As stated, East Iceland is very much defined by its narrow fjords and towering mountain peaks. While it can be difficult to pick out favourites given the beauty of Icelandic mountains as a whole, there are a couple that require more attention. 

Vestrahorn Mountain 

The peaks of Vestrahorn are so dramatic as to appear sharpened deliberately by  blacksmith-savvy Gods. When looked upon against the black sand dunes of Stokksnes, hardly a more visually epic mountain can be found in the whole of Iceland. 

No surprise then that it was one of Iceland’s most photographed mountains.

 

Relatively uncommon for Iceland, Vestrahorn is one attraction located on private land, meaning you will need to pay an entrance fee at the nearby Viking Cafe in order to explore its hiking trails. 

To reach the mountain, you will need to take a ten minute detour from the Ring Road, closeby to Höfn village

At the base of Vestrahorn mountain is a historically-accurate Viking Village. This interesting little site was originally built as a movie set, but the production was never completed (though it was later utilised as a location in Netflix’s The Witcher.) 

Still, this replica of a Viking Village makes for a cool bonus stop during your time in the area. It might even let you get into the mindset of an ocean faring warrior. 

Bulandstindur

 

 

If you were assigned a task to illustrate the traditional mountain shape, you would likely draw Bulandstindur. Recognised as the defining symbol of Djupivogur municipality, this perfect pyramid peak rests between two scenic bays. Berufjörður and Hamarsfjörður. It is well worth stopping by when in the area.

Standing at 1069 m above sea level, it is said the mountain is around 8 million years old. This titan of the landscape can be found close to Goðaborg, a vast mountain ridge that holds a place of particular importance in Icelandic history. Upon the Icelanders’ conversion to Christianity in the year 1000 AD, it has been claimed that people ascended Goðaborg to dramatically discard the Norse idols they had once so revered. 

What else is there to see in East Iceland?

 

There are plenty of other interesting things to see and do in East Iceland, but it would be remiss of us not to mention many of its other wondrous natural sites. 

Hallormsstaðaskógur Forest

Auroras above the trees
Photo: Golli. The auroras lighting up the trees!

Hallormsstaðaskógur is Iceland’s largest forest; a sprawling woodland that stands in stark contrast to the rest of the landscape for the simple fact that there are so many trees. In total, 740 hectares are covered largely with birchwood, plus over 79 other species, interspersed with shaded walking trails and quaint picnic spots. 

Hallormsstaðaskógur is worth visiting because, in many ways, it is not representative of Iceland at all. One of the first things visitors notice about the country is its lack of trees. However, it was not always the case that the landscape was as barren as we see today. 

Students of history will remember that Iceland was once covered in forests, but the early Norse settlers chopped much of it down to fuel their homes and build their ships. In doing so, they damaged much of the soil cover, making it almost impossible for trees to regrow naturally. Today, the Icelanders are making a concerted effort to reforest their country, and the fruit of these efforts can already be seen through the many leafy saplings meticulously dotted around the countryside. 

Viti Crater Lake in Askja

Askja volcano iceland
Photo: Ulrich Latzenhofer. Wikimedia Commons. CC.

Lake Viti might more accurately be described as residing in the Central Highlands than in East Iceland. But it is still worth a mention due to its sheer novelty. After all, how many people can say they’ve swam in the 25°C waters of a former volcanic crater? 

Viti crater lake is located in Askja region, which was once its own area in the Dyngjufjöll mountain range. However, the collapse of a 50 sq km magma chamber during the last Ice Age created an enormous caldera in the landscape. This laid the foundations for the region as we know it today. 

Another eruption, this time in 1724, added further depth to this already concave landscape. It soon allowed in glacier water. After this happenstance – what has since been labelled the Mývatn Fires – Lake Viti and its sister water body, Öskjuvatn, were created. Given the utter violence of its history, it should come as little wonder that both Viti and Askja translate to ‘hell’ – thankfully today, it is more like a paradise. 

Stuðlagil Ravine 

Stuðlagil
Photo: Private Stuðlagil & Dettifoss Super Jeep from Lake Mývatn

Visitors to this gorgeous canyon will immediately notice two things. Impressive basalt columns that make up its 30 m (98 ft) high outer walls. And the sapphire-green water that runs in between them. 

Stuðlagil was once something of a secret site. But after its exposure in an in-flight magazine in 2017, visitors were quick to discover its otherworldly aesthetic. 

What waterfalls can you visit in East Iceland?

 

Wherever you travel in Iceland, waterfalls are a staple part of the landscape – and the east is no exception! 

In fact, East Iceland has waterfalls that more than rival those in other regions. Especially when discussing their utter beauty and complete isolation. If you’re hoping to be the only visitor to such features, then the cascading waters in East Iceland are for you. 

Below are a few notable examples. It is by no means a comprehensive list of all the waterfalls you can see in this part of the country. 

Klifbrekkufossar Waterfalls

 

 

Hidden deep inside Mjóifjörður, the seven-drop waterfall that is Klifbrekkufossar is a well-kept secret for a reason. Located in a region that is home to no more than eleven people, its name translates to ‘Climbing Slopes Waterfall.’ A testament to the lush green hills that surround it 

Unlike many of the waterfalls found along, say, the South Coast, Klifbrekkufossar will require far more pre-planning to visit. That is because the road that leads to it is only open during the summer, between June to September. Even then, the journey still requires a 4×4 vehicle. In the winter, Klifbrekkufossar is completely inaccessible. 

Even so, appreciating its ethereal beauty under the Midnight Sun makes it more than worth the effort. And, adding to its uniqueness, the waterfall is not fed by glaciers. Instead, it is the flow of Fjarðará river, which finds its origins in the lakes and smaller water-bodies found in the heath above. 

Hengifoss Waterfall

 

 

Hengifoss takes the bronze prize as Iceland’s third highest waterfall at 128 m high. It takes just short of one hour to hike up to this splendid feature from the car park. But the sight of its tumbling water and surrounding basalt-strata cliff sides make it unforgettable. 

In fact, the rock that encloses the waterfall switches between black and red due to layers of clay. This makes it particularly photogenic on sunny days. The site can be found within Hengifossárgljúfur gorge, which itself is a part of Fljótsdalur valley. It is one of the most popular hiking areas in the whole of East Iceland. 

It is best to visit in June and July when the waterfall is at its broadest, though there will likely be larger crowds. 

Rjúkandi Waterfall

 

Given the wealth of waterfalls visitors can see while travelling the Ring Road, Rjúkandi is sometimes overlooked. 

This is a shame. Though it lacks the infrastructure of some of Iceland’s more famous falls, it does have its own car park and walking path. Hence, it is very accessible for those interested in seeing it. 

This 90 m high waterfall is situated in Jökuldalur valley. This valley is famed for other fantastic sites like Stuðlagil ravine and Stuðlafoss waterfall. The latter is encircled by such sheer basalt columns as to appear out of a fantasy novel. Rjúkandi appears more natural with its green slops on either side, and rocky ledges that interrupt the otherwise smooth tumbling of water.  

Are there towns and villages in East Iceland?

Neskaupstaður
Photo: Golli. Neskaupstaður from above.

Despite little of Iceland’s total population living in East Iceland, visitors can still find many towns worth stopping by. Below, you’ll find a handful of the more interesting places you can visit.

Egilsstaðir is the largest town in East Iceland, home to approximately 2500 people. Founded in the 15th century, the town’s rapid growth in modern times can be attributed not only to the Kárahnjúkar Hydropower Plant, but also the large-scale and controversial aluminium smelting taking place at nearby Reyðarfjörður village. 

Today, Egilsstaðir has its own airport, college, and hospital. It also has many notable attractions nearby, including Hallormsstaðaskógur National Forest, Hengifoss waterfall, and the scenic mansion farmstead, Skriðuklaustur.  Skriðuklaustur was the former home of famed Icelandic writer, Gunnar Gunnarsson. 

Neskaupstadur is another lovely little eastern town; home to little more than 1400 people. Due to the strong socialist proclivities its residents held throughout the 20th century, Neskaupstadur has been nicknamed ‘Little Moscow.’ That may be stretching the imagination. Instead of Byzantine towers, or monolithic Soviet flats, guests will discover quaint white homes by the shoreline. All of which are surrounded by pleasant green meadows and towered over by a sweeping mountain ridge. 

What are some other places in East Iceland?

 

Smaller still is the quiet village of Djupivogur, which only has around 400 residents. Whereas once it was fishing that was responsible for their livelihoods, today tourism is of greater importance. One can see it in the rapid growth of hotels and restaurants in the area. The countryside around the village is idyllic, but also dramatic. The shadowy form of Búlandstindur mountain dominates the horizon line. A constant reminder as to the wild and untameable reality that is life in the east. 

The town of Reyðarfjörður boasts fantastic harbour conditions, hence its history in fishing and trading. However, it was because of its favourable position and strategic importance that Reyðarfjörður was the second largest Allied base during WW2. Above the town, visitors can stop in the WW2 museum that was built in the former camp where soldiers were stationed. Today, Reyðarfjörður’s economy is driven by aluminium smelting. But it is still worth stopping by thanks to its startling natural scenery and relevance to history. 

Founded in 1848 by Norwegian fishermen, Seyðisfjörður town. Here should be of particular interest to those who wish to visit Iceland but have a fear of flying. The reason? The only car ferry between Iceland and other countries, the MS Norröna, makes port here each week. The final stop on its travels between Tórshavn in the Faroe Islands and Hirtshals in Denmark.

Scuba divers should also know Seyðisfjörður’s coastal waters are the resting place of the shipwreck, the SS El Grillo. This oil tanker was bombed and sunk during the Second World War. 

In Summary 

A woman looks out over Breiðdalur in East Iceland
Photo: Mindfulness yoga tour around Breiðdalur valley

Visiting East Iceland might take more planning – not to mention more time – but it is more than worth the effort. 

The East is one of, if not the, most beautiful regions in the country. It provides a fantastic glimpse into this island’s culture, history, and nature that is not possible to acquire elsewhere. 

So, do you have the inclination to add some real depth to their Iceland trip? Make sure to include the east’s attractions, activities, and settlements into your itinerary.  

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