Off the beaten path in the north of Iceland

by David B. Williams
Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Although many of Iceland’s best-known geologic features are in the south — on the southwest Reykjanes peninsula, near Keflavik airport and the capital city of Reykjavik, and along the southern coast Ring Road — the north shouldn’t be overlooked. Without entering the interior highlands, which often requires four-wheel-drive, one can skirt the border of Vatnajökull National Park to take in an array of sights from geothermal to glacial.

In 2008, Skaftafell National Park in the south was merged with Jökulsárgljúfur National Park in the north to form Vatnajökull National Park, which now covers 13 percent of the country. The largest national park in Europe, it is home to both Europe’s largest glacier, the 8,100-square-kilometer Vatnajökull, and largest waterfall, Dettifoss.

Iceland is famous for its waterfalls, including the largest in Europe, Dettifoss, with an average discharge of 193 cubic meters per second. Credit: Sara E. Pratt

Heading east out of Skaftafell on the Ring Road, you’ll pass Jökulsárlón, an 18-square-kilometer glacial lagoon at the mouth of Breiðamerkurjökull, where boat excursions may catch the glacier calving.

In the northeast, thundering Dettifoss is reached via a 30-kilometer side-trip on unpaved Route 864. Back on the Ring Road, heading west, you’ll next reach the active volcanic area of Krafla, where you can walk among relatively recent lava flows and fumaroles. Descend into lava tubes at Dimmuborgir, the remnants of a lava lake formed during a large eruption 2,300 years ago that also dammed nearby Lake Mývatn (“lake of midges”), named for the abundant summer fly population. The Mývatn Nature Baths, an outdoor geothermal spa similar to the more famous — and much more crowded — Blue Lagoon near Keflavik, are also fed by effluent from a nearby geothermal power plant with high silica content, giving the baths their brilliant blue color.

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