Lake Mývatn in North Iceland Skip to content
Photo: Mývatn and surroundings .

Lake Mývatn in North Iceland

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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.

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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. 

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