Cutting into the northeast’s rocky inland plains some 60km east of Húsavík, Jökulsárgljúfur National Park – an isolated fragment of the enormous Vatnajökull National Park – encloses a 35km stretch of the Jökulsá á Fjöllum, Iceland’s second-longest river. Originating almost 200km south at Vatnajökull, for much of its journey through the park the river flows through the mighty Jökulsárgljúfur, a canyon which is 120m deep and 500m wide in places, forming several exceptional waterfalls and an endless array of rock formations. There are two key sights: the horseshoe-shaped Ásbyrgi canyon in the north of the park; and Dettifoss, Europe’s most powerful waterfall, at the park’s southern boundary. In between, the silt-laden river cuts its way between stark grey gorge walls, all set against an unusually fertile backdrop: over half of the country’s native plant species are found here, and in summer the heathland above the gorge is lush and splashed pink and white with flowers – except in a couple of places, however, trees are rare.
With three or four days to spare, the park can be thoroughly explored on foot along marked hiking tracks, the longest of which follows the west side of the gorge for 35km between Ásbyrgi and Dettifoss. Two roads also run south for about 60km through the park to Dettifoss and the Ringroad east of Mývatn: Route 862 follows the west side of the gorge from Ásbyrgi, and is rough gravel except for the excellent final 20km stretch between Dettifoss and the Ringroad (there’s talk of surfacing this entire road by 2014); while Route 864 down the east side of the gorge is gravel the whole way. Both roads are closed through winter.Read More
An N1 roadhouse marks the Route 85 Ásbyrgi junction, behind which you’ll find a golf course, the National Parks Visitor Centre and the park’s main campsite. At this end of the park the gorge is very broad and waterless, the river having shifted course long ago leaving a flat grassland between low walls. You can get a good view of this from Eyjar, a long, flat-topped island of rock near the campsite which can be scaled easily enough from its northern end.
Better, though, is Ásbyrgi, where the road dead-ends 5km south at a pond fringed in birch and pine woods, beyond which rises a vertical, 90m-high amphitheatre of dark rock patched in orange lichens, home to a colony of gurgling fulmars. Legend has it that this is the hoofprint of the Norse god Óðinn’s eight-legged steed Sleipnir, though geologists believe that the canyon was carved by a series of titanic jökulhlaups, volcanically induced flash-floods that exploded out from underneath Vatnajökull. Just avoid it in the late afternoon, when the sun catches the cliffs: it looks most romantic, but half of Iceland descends to watch. The view from the top is spectacular, too, though to get up here you need to follow the Dettifoss trail.
The Ásbyrgi to Dettifoss hike
The Ásbyrgi to Dettifoss hike
It takes around two days to hike the straightforward 35km route from Ásbyrgi down the west side of the gorge to Dettifoss, with an overnight stop along the way at Vesturdalur (alternatively, the day-return hike to Vesturdalur makes a good trip in itself). Take a tent, cooking gear and all supplies with you; in summer, SBA (wsba.is) runs a daily Mývatn–Dettifoss bus, so you could arrange to arrive or move on from here.
The trailhead is signposted behind Ásbyrgi’s National Parks Visitor Centre, soon climbing along the clifftop to exit tight birch scrub onto open heathland; 3.8km from camp will find you looking north from the rounded rocks atop of Ásbyrgi. There are two trails to Vesturdalur from here; one short-cuts south (8.5km) but for a fuller view of the gorge, take the longer track (11.5km). This crosses east over the heath for a couple of kilometres to the brink of the gorge, where jutting rocks offer a good perch for looking down at the grey river rushing smoothly across a shingle bed. The trail now follows the gorge south, via intermittent sections of green heath and dark basalt, joining up with the short cut from Ásbyrgi and then entering a brief, slow section of ashy sand. Once through this, a side track makes the short climb to Rauðhólar, the remains of a scoria cone whose vivid red, yellow and black gravel is a shock after the recently monochrome backdrop. Past here you descend to Hjóðaklettar, where the noise of the river – which funnels violently through a constriction at this point – is distorted by hexagonal-columned hollows in huge, shattered cliffs. The Vesturdalur campsite is a couple more kilometres away.
Over the next 8km, the trail moves above the river and then down to the marshy Hólmatungur, where underground springs pool up to create three short rivers which flow quickly into the Jökulsá through some thick vegetation. The trail crosses the largest of these tributaries, the Hólmá, on a bridge just above where it tumbles into the main river. Upstream from here on the Jökulsá’s east bank, the prominent face of Vígabjarg marks where the formerly mighty Vígarbjargfoss ripped through a narrow gorge, before a change in the river’s course dried it to a trickle. From here it’s another 8km to the 27m-high Hafragilsfoss, an aesthetically pleasing set of falls whose path through a row of volcanic craters has exposed more springs, which mix their clear waters with the Jökulsá’s muddier glacial flood (there’s a particularly good view of Hafragilsfoss off Route 864, on the eastern side of the gorge).
A final tricky couple of kilometres of scrambling brings you to Dettifoss and the sealed road south to the Ringroad; if you’re not catching the bus straight away, there’s a basic campsite nearby.