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Driving in Iceland – Exploring the North of Iceland

Exploring the north of Iceland is a huge task but also a very rewarding experience. In contrast to a lot of other parts of Iceland (such as the South coast), there’s not just one road to drive to see the sights. The major sights in the North are more spread out so you can pick and choose what to do depending on your route and your interests.

The main sights are mostly in clusters around four places: Ásbyrgi, Mývatn, Húsavík, and Akureyri. We will assume that you’re visiting Ásbyrgi, staying one night in the Mývatn area, visiting Húsavík and then staying one night in Akureyri. You probably don’t have time to do all the things on this list in 2 days (in fact, you could probably spend 2 weeks enjoying everything the north has to offer) so you might have to make some tough choices, or just extend your trip!

This article is part of our series on the ring road, so we assume you’re driving from Egilsstaðir in the East and ending up with driving west from Akureyri.

La chute de Dettifoss

A Hollywood Waterfall

As you’re driving north on route 1 from Egilsstaðir, in about 1,5 hours you will come to routes 864 and 862 to the right. Both of them lead to Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe, measured by volume of water. This is actually where the beginning scene of the film Prometheus was shot: Dettifoss is the very same waterfall the huge alien falls into.

From Dettifoss you can walk upriver to Selfoss, another magnificent waterfall. This is not to be confused with the town ‘Selfoss’ in southern Iceland, so be careful with your GPS.

Driving to Dettifoss: You can drive either route 862 or 864 to get to Dettifoss. We recommend you drive route 862. After Dettifoss keep driving on route 862, and when it ends, take a right-hand turn on route 85. Drive for 5 minutes and you will see a trail to the right with a sign for Ásbyrgi.

Attention: route 864 (which is the first one you get to) is a gravel road and only suitable for 4WD drive cars. It is usually completely closed in the wintertime. If you drive either road 862 or 864 to its end, you will be able to turn onto route 85.

HljóðaklettarPhoto by Bernello via WikiMedia

The Hoofmark of Odin’s Horse

Ásbyrgi is part of a beautiful nature reserve which is now part of the greater Vatnajökull national park. There is a magnificent horseshoe-shaped valley, rumoured to have been made by the giant hoof of Sleipnir, Óðin’s eight-legged horse! The less poetic explanation is that it was more likely caused by catastrophic glacial flooding during the last ice age. Hikers enjoy ascending the middle of the hoofmark, known as the “Island” (Eyjan).

From route 862 you can also access Hljóðaklettar (E. sound cliffs), a stunning formation of columnar basalt rocks. The name refers to the unique and amazing echoes the cliffs produce. The echo does not simply repeat what you say, it tosses the sound back and forth in a cascading cacophony of sound.

The sound is so unusual because of the nature of the rocks – a huge and uniquely weathered network of columnar basalt which is directed at all different angles and reverberating the echo back and forth in this beautiful way. It’s a treat, both for the eyes and ears! There are walking trails in the area and many unique formations, such as the “troll” and the “church.”

After enjoying these, drive back southwards and turn right onto route 1.

Mývatn Nature

The Blue Lagoon of the North

About 30 minutes from Dettifoss, you will come to the hot spring area known as Hverarönd, by mount Námafjall. It’s on the left of the main road, just before you get to the small village of Reykjahlíð. You should see billows of steam rising up from some light-brown/orange soil. Be sure not to stray from the path while looking at these impressive bubbling pools of water and mud, the ground is treacherous!

Fittingly, near the Námafjall hot springs, you will also find the Mývatn nature baths – incredible natural hot springs up in the mountains in which you can bathe. This is the north’s answer to the Blue Lagoon, so expect a luxurious soak. The water has an amazing combination of minerals including silica, which is very healing for the skin. From the pool, you have a view of the mountains around and valley below.

Driving there: 5 minutes up the road from Hverarönd, you will come to a left-hand turn marked för “Jarðböðin á Mývatni,” which is Icelandic for nature baths, and the sign indicating a swimming pool is near.

GrjótagjáPhoto by Chmee2 via WikiMedia

You Know Nothing About Hot Springs, Jon Snow!

A few minutes up the road from the nature baths you can visit the Grjótagjá hot spring cave. This cave is remarkable in that there is a hot spring inside of it, and also because it was famously featured on hit television show Game of Thrones.

Getting there: Driving along route 1, look for route 860 on your left, which has a sign for Grjótagjá. After a short while, you will get to a walking trail, also marked for Grjótagjá. Park and walk the trail.

PLEASE NOTE: This hot spring is not for bathing, as the temperature regularly reaches way too high temperatures for the human skin. Yes, I know Jon Snow and Ygritte did. It’s a TV show. You probably can’t control dragons either. Also, the cave is a natural formation, so proceed with caution, and at your own risk. There are tours you can take if you want to be safer.

As you drive further along route 1 you will find yourself in the small community of Reykjahlíð. From here, you can see lake Mývatn from the road. Reykjahlíð is where you turn off the main road if you want to go to Dimmuborgir and Skútustaðagígar, but if you’re in a hurry, just continue on route 1 to the right. Depending on how close to the lake you want to get, route 1 and 848 go the whole way around it.

DimmuborgirPhoto by Gestur Pálsson via WikiMedia

The City of the Elves

Dimmuborgir is an eerie set of rock formations which look like and are fabled to be to be a metropolis of Elves, complete with a hollow stone “cathedral.” It’s an amazing place to walk around.

Getting there: From Reykjahlíð, look for route 848 south (to your left as you drive along route 1). About 6 minutes down the road, you will see a turn-off to the left, which is marked for Dimmuborgir. It should be pretty self-explanatory from there.

Also: PLEASE DON’T CLIMB ON THE ROCK FORMATIONS. The elves don’t like it. Also, it destroys a unique and invaluable natural treasure. But mostly the elves thing.


More Caves!

In this same area is also where you would go to Lofthellir Lava cave. Lofthellir is a mind-blowing cave which is always so cold that it produces ice all year round. The ice formations in the cave are well worth the visit.

It is, however, tricky to get to and dangerous for the inexperienced, so we don’t recommend going there on your own, taking a day tour with a licensed guide from Mývatn or Akureyri is a much safer option.

SkútustaðagígarPhoto by Jennifer Boyer via Flickr

Take a Real Walk to a Pseudocrater!

Pseudocraters are a geological formation that is basically only known in Iceland and on the planet Mars. A pseudocrater (better known as a “rootless cone” today) looks like a volcanic crater, but there is no volcano there – the crater is formed by a steam explosion.

For instance, the Skútustaðagígar craters were caused when hot lava from a distant volcano ran over a swamp or wetland. The hot lava boiled the water of the wetlands instantly, and when the steam breaks through the lava above, it makes the craters.

There is a 20-30 minute walking trail around the Skútustaðagígar area and it’s very popular with ornithology enthusiasts. Be careful, though, as the entire wetland is a protected bird sanctuary. If you yourself are a bird enthusiast, or if you just want to learn a little more about the natural life in the area, a visit to Sigurgeir’s bird museum is in order. The museum was started by a bird lover from the area and showcases most birds that can be found in Iceland!

Getting there: From Dimmuborgir continue on route 848 for about 10 minutes. You will come to a small cluster of houses with a sign for “Skútustaðir.” You will see the craters from here.

(From Mývatn, you can go in two different directions. If you’re going directly to Akureyri from Mývatn, you simply continue on route 1 north-west. To go to Húsavík, you could take a shortcut over route 87, or you can drive up route 1 until you get to route 845. We will assume you’re taking route 87.)

Find your way to the north of Mývatn, to route 87. Drive north for about 30 minutes and take a right on route 85. 10 minutes later you will enter Húsavík.

Húsavík - The Whale Capital of Iceland

The Whale Watching Capital of Iceland

Húsavík is a picturesque little town with a population of about 2.000. As you drive north on route 85 you will enter the town, with the ocean in full view on your left the whole time. Húsavík means “house bay,” a reference to this being one of the first places to be settled (with houses) by Vikings. The town is famous for its beautiful wooden church, built in 1907, and has a number of surprisingly robust museums considering the size of the town.

In addition to the whale museum by the harbour, it has a ‘civic museum’ – a combination of a local history museum and natural history museum, whose exhibits are combined in interesting ways, stuffed foxes besides national costumes, and of course a stuffed polar bear. There is also an exploration museum which commemorates amongst other things the Apollo 11 astronauts who trained in the area for their journey to the moon. They wanted to test out their moon gear on Iceland’s “moonlike” landscapes.

The town has also dubbed itself the whale watching capital of Iceland, and it is indeed a great place for this activity. From Húsavík and other towns in the north you have a hope of seeing blue whales, earth’s largest animals, in addition to some other species.

Finally, the hot spring known as the “cheese tub” (ostakerið) has been gaining more and more attention. It is natural hot water directed into an old cheese-making tub and is supposed to be good for skin conditions such as psoriasis.

When you’re done having fun in Húsavík, you can turn around and head back down route 85.


An Impressive Waterfall With Even More Impressive History!

On the way from Húsavík to Akureyri, you will have a chance to visit Goðafoss. “Goðafoss” means “waterfall of the gods” and the name is thought to be a reference to when Iceland became a Christian nation in the year 1000:

There was increasing tension and violence between heathens and Christian converts, so at the Viking parliament, both groups agreed to submit to the judgement of a wise “lawsayer,” Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði. He famously lay under a bear’s hide for three days, after which he came out with the judgement: Iceland would be a Christian nation, but it would still be legal to worship the old gods, as long as nobody found out! This is all recorded in the Icelandic Sagas and is considered a (very probably) historic fact.

The myth of Goðafoss refers to when the judge Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði, who lived in the area, returned home. He is said to have thrown his carved idols of the Norse gods into the waterfall, and hence it got its name. There is no historic record of this, but why let the truth get in the way of a good story?

Driving there:

As you drive southwest on route 85, if you drive straight, the road turns into route 845. Follow that and you come to route 1. Take a right-hand turn onto route 1. About 10 minutes later, you will find be able to turn off to the left onto a little road. There’s a road sign for Goðafoss. At the end of a short road, there’s a parking lot and you will see the waterfall from there.

From Goðafoss, turn left onto route 1 again. In about 44 minutes you will be in Akureyri.


The Capital of the North

Akureyri, the “capital of the North,” with a whopping population of 18.000, is the biggest town in Iceland outside the Reykjavik metropolitan area. The town is built on a mountainside by the ocean, so it stretches up the hill sometimes at interestingly steep angles. One such steep street is one of the main roads, Kaupvangsstræti, at the top which you see the famous Akureyri church.

Akureyri has a nice town centre overlooking the sea with a number of shops, cafés, and restaurants. If you’re planning to spend a Friday/Saturday night anywhere outside Reykjavik on your road trip, this is the place. The botanical garden on the hill has almost every native Icelandic plant and almost 7.000 foreign plants, as well as a lovely café that’s open in the summer. In the wintertime, Akureyri is one of the best places to ski in Iceland.

There is an impressive number of museums such as the art museum, the cultural history museum and the museums of industry, aviation, and motorcycles, to name a few. You can visit the historic homes of beloved national poets Davíð Stefánsson and Matthías Jochumsson, who wrote the national anthem of Iceland, as well as the home of author Jón Sveinsson.

Some of the most popular activities in town include whale watching from the harbour and doing day trips such as the one to Lofthellir cave. You can also go horseback riding,  rafting or heli-skiing from here.

There are many things to do and see in Akureyri and we recommend taking at least half a day to explore it. For more information about Akureyri, you should consult the Akureyri City Guide. You should be able to pick up a paper copy almost anywhere in the north.

Even more in the north:

From Akureyri, you could decide to drive around Tröllaskagi, the “troll-peninsula,” to the north. Then you would find your way to route 82 north of Akureyri, which turns into route 76 and re-joins route 1 on the other side of the peninsula. This is a bit outside the scope of this self-drive tour and would make your trip longer. Suffice to say there are a lot of cool things to see and do there, and you can read more about it in the Akureyri guide, or take a day trip.


Take a Walk Through History

Heading west from Akureyri you will have a chance to visit Glaumbær historic turf house. Until the 20th century, Iceland’s building style was all turf houses with grass on the roof, and stone or wood houses were very rare. Glaumbær has one such turf house; a 19th-century homestead and a wooden church. There is a little café and a museum shop.

Getting there: From Akureyri, drive west on route 1 for about an hour until you get to the small community of Varmahlíð. Here you take a right-hand turn on route 75 and drive for about 6 minutes. Glaumbær will be on the right, and you will be able to see the red roof of the church.


Bathe Like a Hero!

Grettir Ásmundarson is like a dark Icelandic Hercules – in the saga of Grettir, he is depicted as superhumanly strong, slightly magical, and not quite good or bad. He performs feats of courage and strength such as killing a bear, slaying ten berserkers in Norway, and wrestling a ghost into submission. The story ends tragically, however, because the ghost Glámur curses him, and his fate always turns against him even when his intentions are good.

One of the most famous stories of Grettir come from the end of his life. He had been banished from Iceland so he and his brother Illugi settled in Drangey, in the fjord of Skagafjörður. One particularly cold winter, their fire went out, and they had no means of making more. So Grettir swam to the mainland to get fire, and is fabled to have warmed himself at the hot pool now named Grettislaug- “Grettir’s pool.”

You too can bathe like a supernatural Viking anti-hero! Just remember to be considerate when bathing and leave the place like it was (or nicer) when you found it.

Getting there:

From Glaumbær, continue north on route 75 for about 15 minutes until you get to the village of Sauðárkrókur. Drive through the town and you will be able to turn right onto gravel road 748. Drive on this road for about 20 minutes, and you will get to Grettislaug. After Grettislaug, find your way back to Route 1 and keep driving west.

Note: Be sure to check the road conditions and ask the locals, especially in the wintertime!

You are now done exploring the North of Iceland! There are myriad more things to do in the North and we have barely scratched the surface, but you have spent days seeing beautiful and interesting things, so we will consider the mission complete. For more tips, tricks and tours in northern Iceland, feel free to contact us directly and we are happy to instruct you further.

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