North Iceland is less than 50 kilometres from the Arctic Circle. In my mind, I thought it may be here that the stereotype of Iceland may invade reality: barren landscapes and weathered outposts with nothing to see or do. But leave it to Iceland to totally screw my assumptions. Using Akureyri as our base, Dana and I spent 2 days exploring Iceland’s Northern region with visits to Lake Myvatn, the Trollskagi Peninsula, Jokulsardljufur, and not one or two, but three massive waterfalls!
Navigating Iceland’s North: Asbyrgi, Lake Myvatn and Dettifoss Waterfall
2 Days in Akureyri
We drove to the North from Holmavik in the Westfjords. An easy drive once we returned to the beaten path of Ring Road, we passed open pasture land, lovely coastline, and dramatic rolling hills. Akureyri is a picturesque town, the main city in the entire Northern half of Iceland.
Nestled into the armpit of the Eyjafjordur, Akureyri is well sheltered from that Greenland Sea, making it easy to forget you’re within an easy boat trip to the Arctic Circle.
Where to Stay in Akureyri: Akureyri Backpackers
Dana and I stayed our two nights at the Akureyri Backpackers, a well designed and wonderfully run hostel right in the centre of downtown Akureyri. A fairly large hostel, we were in a 4-bed, female-only dorm on the third floor, which means we had a bit of a hike up, but hey, stairs never killed anybody. Well, that’s probably not true actually.
Anyways, the clean and character filled Akureyri Backpackers has a well stocked kitchen, a hopping bar/restaurant, and tons of options for tours and sightseeing activities. They do have laundry facilities, but these were frankly pretty expensive, so Dana and I decided laundry is a want not a need. Right? The dorms did have bunk beds, but each bunk had it’s own night light and charging dock, and the linens were deliciously warm and cozy.
But let’s be real, the true seal of approval came at the moment of check in when the receptionist handed Dana and I both a voucher for a free beer. I’ve said this before in a blog about perks in the best hostels: give people a free beer upon arrival and your hostel can get away with anything! Such smart marketing.
And since beer is so expensive in Iceland, Dana and I had not had one since landing in the country, so we were pretty enchanted by the idea of a brew that evening. All in all, this hostel was awesome, the folks who worked there were friendly, knowledgeable, and funny. Wins!
Lake Myvatn Iceland
After dropping our gear at the hostel, we got back into the car and drove east to Lake Myvatn. A major hub for tourism in the North, Myvatn is home to the natural oddities of the Myvatn Nature Baths, the Hverir Geothermal area, Grotagja Cave, and Hverfjall crater, all totally unique and clearly unpronounceable.
Jon Snow’s Grotagja Cave
While most folks will go straight for the Nature Baths, Dana and I had a Game of Thrones fan in our midst (ahem, Dana) so we went directly to the Grotagja Cave, a steaming crack in the earth filled with crystal clear and boiling hot water. This cave is verging on sacred for the GOT fandom, not because of it’s fascinating geology and secretive location, but because this is where the mercurial and illustrious star Jon Snow lost his virginity. Yep, you read that right.
Having never watched GOT, I was surprised that there were any virgins in that show (No need to watch when I’ve heard about the infamous sexy times), which then led to a 30-minute conversation in the car about Jon Snow’s long held virtue and subsequent loss of said virtue to a Wild Woman named Ygritte on a rock in a cave. Lucky guy!
The cave itself was indeed the location for this very famous scene of loving, though come to think of it, it’s definitely not a great place to get it on. Firstly, sulphur smell doesn’t stir much romance in my mind, and the heat of the water fills the cave with a sauna like humidity. But what do I know? Regardless, I got to make some immature jokes and really that’s the most important thing.
Aside from the GOT fame, the Grotagja Cave is very cool and worth a stop whether you’re a fan or not. The cave is actually on private property, but the owners knew they may as well embrace the visitors rather than wielding shotguns against the GOT geeks of the world. But to note, there is no swimming in the water of Grotagja, and don’t ‘accidentally’ fall in. I think it may actually burn you.
Just down the road from Jon’s Cave is the Hverfjall Crater, a once-was volcano that still sits as a round flat half cone atop the earth. Largely exposed, as we climbed up the side of the crater, the higher we climbed the windier it was. About half way to the top, we started to slow down, hunched over and shielding our faces from the sand in the wind. Moving forward actually became difficult, so difficult that there were other women there who had just resorted to crawling up the crater.
Not to be dramatic or anything, but the wind was impressive. But I guess that’s the reality of being on the side of a volcano.
Once Dana and I scaled our way to the top, the wind persisted, and we did our work to make sure we were not blown into or off the crater all together.
The wind and possible falling to our deaths aside, the views from Hverfjall Crater were absolutely brilliant. We timed our visit beautifully, as the sun was about an hour from setting and the evening was clear and crisp. Looking out from the crater over Lake Myvatn was verging on surreal, and actually with the wind made me feel like I was almost on another planet.
Myvatn Nature Baths
The Myvatn Nature Baths are one of several Blue Lagoon alternatives in Iceland. Located on the side of a hill south of Lake Myvatn, the nature baths feed off of the geothermal activity of the area. But we know that we can find warm pools in many places in Iceland, what makes Mytavn special is the location and the views the can be afforded from that water.
We went straight to the Nature baths right after our climb up the crater, so we were very sandy and ready for a soak. After showering and making a mad dash for the pool (it was windy at the bath too!) Dana and I were in the pool right at the perfect time to watch the sun set over Lake Myvatn and the surrounding mountains.
The windy air meant that our soak wasn’t as warm as it normally would be, and we did end up getting cold eventually, but if you’re looking for epic places from which to watch the sun set, Myvatn really can’t be beat!
Hverir Geothermal Area
The Hverir area is an acne pockmarked bit of land where sulphuric steam vents from the earth in hot stinky bursts. The relativly small area, maybe 2 acres worth, is splotched with the greens, pinks, and yellows of geothermal activity, ringing boiling pits of mud that look like they should be inside a volcano, not alongside the road.
Safety first, there are ropes marking where visitors should and shouldn’t go, but it does actually boggle my mind that they allow people to just wander around so close to openings that lead straight into the earth’s sewage system. What if someone trips and falls? I was glad to see a child whose parents had opted for the politically incorrect harness as opposed to a boiled baby.
Bjorbodin Beer Spa
The next day, we had something VERY special planned. And I will write an entire blog post entirely about this experience, but for now, let me say, that Dana and I went to a Beer Spa in Iceland. Yes we did!
Could there be anything better than a Beer Spa in Iceland? The answer is no.
The back story is that Dana has heard of Bjorbodin Beer Spa from a friend of a friend who had recently been through Northern Iceland and had wanted to go to the spa but there was no availability. But three cheers for travelling to Iceland in September, because we got in no problem!
The beer spa is exactly what it sounds like. A spa, in which beer is the main component. Beer and relaxation. We were signed up for a beer bath, which was literally a tub of young beer, that we two heterosexual lady friends jumped into buck ass naked. There was a beer keg right beside the bath, from which we could pour ourselves delicious locally brewed beer (the owner of the brewery and the spa happen to be one and the same), and generally have ourselves a fine time.
Because drinking alcohol in the morning is not a problem if you’re at a spa.
The beer spa may have been one of the greatest things either of us had ever done, and neither Dana or myself could really get over the fact that it was happening. Seriously, life sometimes really is the greatest.
But I don’t want to go too much into the Beer Spa, because I am going to write an entire blog post just about it. That is how great this place was. So stay tuned…
The Trollskagi Peninsula
Leaving the Beer Spa, we set our sights for one of the northern most points in Iceland, the Trollskagi Peninsula. Further north in the world than I have ever been the Trollskagi Peninsula is a beautiful and varied landscape cuddled on three sides by the Greenland Sea. Mere miles off it’s shore, the Arctic Circle sits, where I can only imagine polar bears float by on diminishing glacier cubes.
The Trollskagi is anything but Arctic, with rolling hills, green pastures, grazing horses and quaint fishing villages. The peninsula, only recently completely accessible by road, has long been the end of several roads. Not long ago, some heavy duty blasting through the mountains occurred to make tunnels that connected the hamlets along the coastline. And these tunnels, one that gets up to 7 kilometres long, are impressive! With infrastructure only now reaching this region, it really does say something about the isolation of the area.
I did keep an eye out for whales from the road. Oddly I didn’t see any. I guess to see whales you really do have to go whale watching from Husavik, but Dana and I have seen our fair share of whales, so we passed.
I love just driving along the seeing what we may or may not see. And I really do think that’s the best way to see Iceland. Turn off of the main road if something looks interesting, stop for the view along the way, and disregard any strict timeline. Fair warning to anyone who road trips with me and lets me drive 🙂
Godafoss Waterfall in Iceland
After our second night in Akureyri, we set off early, knowing that we had a long way to drive to get to Hof on the East Coast by that night. Turns out, if we had have gone straight to Hof it wouldn’t have taken overly long, but alas, we made a couple of pretty significant detours…
Godafoss is a must stop along the northern bit of Ring Road. A lovely waterfall that sits literally right off the road, Godafoss is an easy stop, and one that many folks check out. The waterfall itself is impressive, though honestly, if you’re going to check out any number of other falls in Iceland Godafoss is easily dwarfed. Dana and I were actually more entertained by the berries growing alongside the trail to the viewpoints, and probably made for a pretty silly vision for folks walking by.
Just two fully grown adults sitting on the ground eating wild berries. Nothing to see here!
We had hummed and hawed about going to Dettifoss as it was off the road quite a ways. But after much (or should I say about 4 minutes worth of) deliberation, we turned up the pristine road leading to Dettifoss. Hey, you’re only in North Iceland once right?
Dettifoss is a major waterfall and one that actually deserves the amount of people who visit it daily, which is many. About 25 minutes from Route 1, Dettifoss is a huge cascade that splits the middle of an otherwise quite barren landscape. You have to walk about 800 metres to get to the lookout for the falls, so use the outhouses before you leave the parking lot. Not that I made this mistake or anything.
There are several platforms from which to gaze at the falls, each of which provide different perspectives and different levels of spray. Dettifoss is one of those waterfalls where actually grasping the size and the power of the falls is tough, since you can’t really make out where the falls ends and the rocks begin. Either way, it’s not a waterfall you want to go over in a barrel.
Asbyrgi Canyon in Jokulsargljufur
Asbyrgi is a canyon that is located about 40 kilometres further north from Dettifoss. The road leading to it from the western bank of Dettifoss specifies that it is for 4×4’s only and Dana was pretty sure that Asbyrgi was another location from Game of Thrones. So obviously we had to check it out.
A it turned out, Asbyrgi was not a GOT location, but the road there was super fun to drive and the canyon was pretty incredible, GOT approved or not. A large dead end canyon, Asbyrgi is located at the northern end of the Jokulsardljufur National Park, which is actually the northern section of the Vatnajokul National Park that apparently covers literally half of the country.
Driving through the 3.5 kilometre long canyon, the beautiful fall colours engulfed us and the birds swooped low. Short paths connect the parking lot with different sitting spots, the main one being a clear pond at the very end of the canyon. The serenity of the horseshoe shaped canyon, may have been easily broken by several Russian dudes having fun with the fascinating sound phenomenon of the echo, but the birds didn’t seem to care so neither should I.
Asbyrgi is a very cool place. Clearly an ancient river bed, the canyon used to be home to a massive waterfall, not unlike Dettifoss I would assume. At some point, the river was rerouted, and the lovely forests grew up in the canyon making a perfect home for hundreds of bird species. Not that I’m a birder or anything.
We turned back south after leaving Asbyrgi on the unsealed road that leads to the eastern bank of Dettifoss. We turned off at a place the Asbyrgi info centre lady had told us about, Hafrafilsfoss, a smaller, yet still dramatic waterfall that few people visit, though they really should. The lookout over Hafragilsfoss only had one other car when we arrived, and the views of the canyon and the powerful falls are epic.
This is why you listen to info centre ladies, because they really do know! Everyone, this waterfall lookout is located on Road 864, only a few minutes past the eastern bank lookout for Dettifoss. Go!
Driving Through Iceland in the Fall
After we tore ourselves away from waterfall heaven, we finally started driving towards Hof, like we had planned to 5 hours earlier. Hof is located on the East Coast and was where we were staying that night. Our drive through Northeastern Iceland was very pleasant, with little rain, few other cars and lovely scenery with many colours.
“Hmm, that’s weird” says Dana as we drove through a wide open area. What?
“I think I just saw a cow, all the way out here.”
“Was the cow alone?”
“Hmmm, that is weird.”
Silence reigned as we contemplated, hardly allowing ourselves to think of the alternative. Could it have been? Might it have been? No! But maybe…
Two minutes of consideration later, a shallow outcrop off the side of the road appeared and I ripped the car around faster than you can say Rudolph: “Well there is only one way to find out!”
Another detour, but this time we were seeking an animal that at least one of us may have thought was fictional until recently, an animal that may or may not have been a cow in a pasture.
The idea of spotting a reindeer in Iceland isn’t actually as far fetched as I thought, as there are about 4000 reindeer living at this time, and there are road signs in the area watching for them. That said, they do normally keep well away from the road and could we really be that lucky?
We drove about 10 minutes back, just to be safe, scanning the horizon. In the distance, we spotted a four legged creature with antlers and a white neck trotting over hill and dale, and yep, that’s a freaking REINDEER!!! Wildlife viewing score 100!!!
Not going to lie, I was feeling pretty good about our traveller super powers at this point. To shed some perspective I did ask a kindly Icelandic woman if seeing reindeer is actually really normal, kind of like seeing deer in British Columbia, and she said “No, it is very special”. YAY us!
Super jazzed, the power of the reindeer did not save us from the torrential downpour and the incredibly thick fog that we were about to drive into. The road became gravel and with all visibility gone, I was again very glad to have rented a 4×4, and more than slightly amazed at how quickly the weather in Iceland can turn.
By the time we pulled into our hostel in Hof that night I had a full blown head-cold and the rain was apocalyptic.
East Iceland, you will challenge us greatly. Bring it on!
A Note about the Northern Lights
As some of you know, we saw the Northern Lights in the Westfjords, and that was awesome. We had high hopes for seeing them in the North. And wouldn’t you know, while we were driving back to Akureyri from Lake Myvatn, the lights bestowed themselves upon us once more.
Now watching the light while driving is not a great idea, but I did pull over at one point to get a better look. That said, it was late, and we were a solid hour from bed, so I wasn’t too inclined to watch for too long. Disappointing, but practical.
The next night, Dana wanted to go out and try again. Forget that the night was not at all clear, but hey, she’s nothing if not determined. So we drove out to a lookout area in the north of town, and yes, it was VERY cold. Remember my point about North Iceland being so close to the Arctic Circle? That proximity feels even closer that night.
And no, we did not see the Northern Lights that night.
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