Explore Mývatn and the northeast
Around 100km east of Akureyri on the Ringroad, Mývatn’s placid, shallow spread of water belies its status as one of the country’s most touristed locations. Admittedly, Mývatn has had its detractors ever since the Middle Ages – when the lake and its steaming surrounds were fearfully dismissed as a pool of the devil’s piss – though the only annoyance nowadays are summertime swarms of tiny black flies (Mývatn means “Midge Lake”). These provide an abundant food source for both fish and the hundreds of thousands of wildfowl which descend on the lake each year to raise their young: all of Iceland’s duck species breed either here or on the Laxá, Mývatn’s fast-flowing, salmon-rich outlet, and one – Barrow’s goldeneye – nests nowhere else in Europe.
Most people base themselves at Reykjahlíð, a small service centre on the northern side of the lake, though a few alternatives are dotted elsewhere around the shore – especially at southerly Skútustaðir. A good road circuits Mývatn, with tracks and footpaths elsewhere, and two busy days are enough to take in the main sights. Mývatn looks its best in summer, but can get very crowded then: beds are in short supply and it’s a toss-up to decide whether there are more tourists, insects, or ducks. As for the flies: a few bite, but most just buzz irritatingly around your face – keep them off by buying a hat with attached netting. Alternatively, hit a few good days in late spring and, while you’ll miss out on some of the bird life, there are no flies and you’ll have the place to yourself – though facilities are limited out of season.Read More
Moving clockwise around the lakeshore from Rekjahlíð, the Ringroad curves around Mývatn via the hamlets of Vogar and Skútustaðir to where the Laxá drains westwards; from here, Route 848 crosses the river and heads up the west shore and back to town. This circuit is about 35km long in itself, but there are several places to make fairly extensive detours, principally at Grótagjá hot springs; the rough lavafield at Dimmuborgir and Hverfell cone, both east of the lake; and Vindbelgjarfjall, a peak on Mývatn’s northwestern side. Aside from the highly visible wildfowl, keep your eyes peeled for ptarmigan, Arctic foxes and maybe even rare gyrfalcons. Also note that erosion is a serious problem at many popular sites and that you should stick to marked paths where you find them.
No tours circuit the lake, so to see it all you really need your own vehicle – bicycles can be rented in Reykjahlíð. You can of course walk; there’s a well-marked, 8km trail linking Reykjahlíð with Grótagjá, Hverfell and Dimmuborgir. To explore away from here, carry Landmælingar Íslands Mývatn 1:50,000 map – the Reykjahlíð visitor centre might have these, otherwise Akureyri’s bookshops are the nearest source.
In summer, plentiful food and nesting space make Mývatn the best place in northern Europe to see wild ducks – it’s possible to clock up eighteen species during your stay. Their favourite nesting area is in spongy heathland on the northwest side of the lake, though more accessible places to spy on them include Mývatn’s southeastern corner (especially good for Barrow’s goldeneye); the Laxá outflow on the western side of the lake (for harlequin ducks); and even the shore at Reykjahlíð (anything). Female ducks tend to be drably coloured, to blend in with vegetation while incubating their eggs, and unless otherwise stated, the following descriptions are of breeding males.
Several types of duck at Mývatn have a black head with a black and white body (females with a brown or russet head and grey elsewhere). The most celebrated is Barrow’s goldeneye, resident year-round and easily identified by a characteristic white comma-shaped patch between the manic golden eye and bill. Keep an eye open too for their cute black-and-white striped chicks. Barrow’s goldeneye are most likely to be confused with either the similar-looking tufted duck or scaup, though neither shares its “comma” – tufted ducks also have a droopy back-swept crest, while the scaup has a grey, not white, back.
Mývatn’s other speciality is the harlequin duck, here from May until July, which sports unmistakable chestnut, white and blue plumage. As indicated by the Icelandic name – straumönd, stream duck – harlequins are most often seen bobbing in and out of rough water on the Laxá. Other marine ducks spending their summers at Mývatn include the scoter, a uniquely all-black diving duck, which in Iceland breeds only at Mývatn, and the long-tailed or old squaw, another strikingly patterned bird with a summer plumage including a black neck and crown and very long, pointed tail (the similar pintail has a white throat, though so does the long-tail in winter).
Otherwise, you’ll be fairly familiar with most of Mývatn’s ducks, which are primarily freshwater species. Some of the more plentiful include the mallard; the red-headed pochard; the long-beaked merganser and goosander, and the wide-beaked shoveler; widgeon, with their coppery heads and vertical blond streak between the eyes; the uniformly nondescript gadwall; and teals, which sport a glossy red head and green eyepatch.