Jökulsárgljúfur National Park is in the northernmost tip of Vatnajökull National Park. Its chief feature is the Jökulsárgljúfur Canyon. As one of the deepest canyons in Iceland, Jökulsárgljúfur draws hikers in the summer to its lush greenery, dramatic cliff faces, and elegant waterfalls.
Just a few hours’ drive from Akureyri, the canyon stretches over 24 km (15 mi), with a width of up to ½ km (1,640 feet) and a depth of up to 100 m (328 ft).
Jökulsárgljúfur National Park is a deep canyon region in the northernmost part of Vatnajökull National Park. The great glacial river Jökulsá á Fjöllum runs from Vatnajökull Glacier all the way to the sea at Öxarfjörður. In Icelandic, the name translates to Glacier-River-Canyon, so named for the deep canyon that runs through it.
The gorge measures about 25-km long, 500-m wide, and 100-120-m high. On the south end of the park, you’ll find the Hljóðaklettar basalt columns and the Rauðhólar cinder cones, as well as the famous Asbyrgi Canyon, shaped like a horseshoe.
How did Jokulsargljufur form?
The canyon was formed over eons by catastrophic glacial bursts, or jökulhlaup, once 10,000 years ago and again 3,000 years ago. These glacial floods carved out deep ravines and basins, including Ásbyrgi. The National Park was established in 1973, with Asbyrgi being incorporated a bit later in 1978.
Where is Jokulsargljufur located?
The glacial river canyon is a huge stretch of land in North Iceland. The Jokulsargljufur National Park covers an area of 150 km² and a length of 35 km along the western side of the glacial river Jokulsa. The Visitor Center is at the northern end of the park. It’s about 130 km from Akureyri to the Visitor’s Center, or 60 km from Husavik.
Visitor’s Center GPS Coordinates: 66°01’43.0″N 16°29’13.8″W
How to get to Jokulsargljufur?
The only way to get to the canyon is by driving or with an escorted guide. Scheduled bus services or public transport between Asbyrgi with Akureyri or Dettifoss have been suspended as of 2018 until further notice.
To reach the canyon, drive the tarmac road Route 862 or the gravel road Route 864. Be sure to check the weather, road and trail conditions before you go. During bad conditions in winter, the roads or the hiking trails may be inaccessible.
What to expect when visiting Jokulsargljufur
As a deep river canyon, Jokulsargljufur is home to a plethora of peaceful scenery, lush flora, and the river Jökulsá á Fjöllum. It’s also home to many notable waterfalls: Selfoss, Dettifoss, Hafragilsfoss, and Réttarfoss. The area attracts thousands of hikers to its riverbanks each year, from novices to more experienced trekkers.
Look out for areas with special landmarks. At Hljóðaklettar, you’ll find the remains of ancient volcanoes, and to the north at Rauðhólar are old cinder cones. In Hólmatungur, you’ll find translucent streams that merge into a brown torrent.
Asbyrgi is a beautiful, horseshoe-shaped canyon with cliffs that reach up to 100m high. The base of the gorge stretches 3.5 km long and over 1 km wide. At its center, a large rock formation known as Eyan (the Island) rises up dramatically.
Legendary Dettifoss is the most powerful waterfall in Europe, gushing 6,816 cubic feet of water per second. You might have caught sight of it at the beginning of the film Prometheus. The glacial waters draw their source from Jökulsá á Fjöllum and drop down 144 ft (44 m) into the Jokulsargljufur Canyon. There is a public parking lot where you can park your car, then walk for around 10 minutes to Dettifoss Waterfall. Make sure you have sturdy boots, as it can be slippery.
Selfoss Waterfall is a beautiful waterfall located less than a mile upstream from Dettifoss, and you can hike from one to the other with little problem. Meltwater travels from Vatnajokull, dropping 36 feet (11 meters) at Selfoss, before continuing down to Dettifoss.
Hafragilsfoss is a 89-foot (27-meter) muddy waterfall that pours into the Jokulsargljufur Canyon. You can get there on foot or by car. Follow the the Ring Road, turning onto the gravel path, Road 864. Continue on about 20 miles (32 km) and it will take you straight to the parking lot that connects to the waterfall.
At the Ásbyrgi Visitor Center, you’ll find exhibits on geology and local wildlife. There’s also a small restaurant, restroom and souvenir shop with books and handicrafts. It’s at the mouth of the canyon and leads into the trailheads.
Myths and Legends of Jokulsargljufur
To the distant observer, Asbyrgi looks like a horseshoe. Icelandic legend says that this is due to the fact that Odin’s eight-legged horse, Sleipnir, crashed his mighty hooves into the earth, creating the curious U-shape.
Local folklore recounts many stories of the mythical Hidden People living in the cliffs. Some stories even say that Asbyrgi is their capital, with prominent houses and concert halls hidden beneath the crags. Elves show themselves at midnight and dance on the banks of the Botnstjorn Pond.
One well-known folk legend speaks of Botnstjorn Pond. Once upon a time, a poor boy from Byrgi fell in love with a girl from a neighboring farm. Sadly, their families forbade them to marry.
While the girl slept one night, a fairy came to her in a dream and told her that his lover had been turned into a beast by a creature living beside the cliffs of Asbyrgi. The beast dwelled in Asbyrgi’s Botnstjorn Pond and only peeked its head up from beneath the depths on the nights when the midnight sun shone on the cliffs.
Emboldened by the fairy in her dream, the girl awoke and immediately went to Asbyrgi in the dead of night. At midnight, when the beast appeared, she confronted it and threw her dearest possession into its jaws. Thus, the girl broke the spell of the creature, freeing the fairy’s lover from the spell. In gratitude, the fairy saw to it that the girl could marry her beloved from the next farm over.
Hiking paths at Jokulsargljufur
Hiking is immensely popular at Jokulsargljufur. There are many marked trails along the edge of the canyon. Hikers can venture from Ásbyrgi south to Selfoss, or even farther to Lake Myvatn. Trails differ in difficulty and are easily marked by color to determine their difficulty level.
There are a few main hiking trails in the canyon that are well-marked. Their abbreviations depend on the area within the park. The more popular hiking routes are in four different areas: Ásbyrgi (Á-1, etc.), Vesturdalur (V-1, etc.), Hólmatungur (H-1, etc.), and Dettifoss (D-1, etc.). You don’t have to be a hiking expert to enjoy the natural beauty. Though naturally, the best waterfalls are subjective, there are a few that stand out to us. We recommend taking a circular route to maximize what you see.
The Waterfall Hike: Begin at Dettifoss then hike along the trail at the cliff, on toward Selfoss. From there, continue onward to Hafragilsfoss. The loop around all three waterfalls is about 4.3 miles (7 km).
Á-2 Eyjan Hill in Ásbyrgi: An easy hike for beginners, with views of the lush green valley to the south. Follow the wooden steps up to Eyjan Island, and southward along the edge of the cliff for a panoramic view of the Asbyrgi Canyon for about 3 miles (4.5 km).
Á-7 Klappir in Ásbyrgi: The main hike will take you from the Visitor Center to the summit of the canyon by way of steep stairs and rope chains. The view from the top is spectacular and you can even check out the potholes at Klappir formed by ancient glacial floods. The distance is around 5.5 miles (9 km).
Á-8 Kúahvammur Circle in Ásbyrgi: Hikers can enjoy a panorama over the Jökulsá river canyon on this loop around Kúahvammur. Hike along the eastern rim from the Visitor’s Center to Klappir. From there, head east through the the gorge, passing Gilsbakki and Ás. This is similar to Á-7 but extends over 7.5 miles (12 km).
Two-Day Trek from Asbyrgi to Dettifoss: The best multi-day hike in the canyon cross from Asbyrgi in the southern edge of the canyon to Dettifoss (or vice-versa). Hiking through the canyon, you’ll encounter springs, forests, and gorges. From Asbyrgi to Vesturdalur, you can either hike along the rim of Asbyrgi and south along Klappir (12 km), or hug the river (13.6 km).
From Vesturdalur, continue about 8 km to Holmatungur and wade across the small river of Stalla. From Holmatungur, continue on to Dettifoss either via the Hafragil lowland (10 km) or the Hafragil ravine (11.5 km). Be advised that the lowland is a much more difficult option with steep trails and falling rocks, and isn’t recommended for inexperienced hikers, or those carrying heavy loads.
Accommodation and Hotels near Jokulsargljufur
There are a handful of guest houses westward on Road 85 in Kelduhverfi, 10 minutes from Asbyrgi Canyon. You can also stay farther away in nearby Husavik.
- Garður Guesthouse: Single-story guesthouse that can accommodate up to 19 people, with equipped kitchenettes and shared bathrooms.
- Ardalur: guesthouse with three double rooms, shared bathroom and twin beds on a horse and sheep farm.
- Keldunes: guesthouse with six double rooms and two small fully furnished cottages.
There are official campgrounds at Ásbyrgi, Dettifoss, and halfway between at Vesturdalur. It makes a perfect base, with space for around 350 tents and a few campers and trailers. There is access to electricity.
Facilities include toilets, showers, a washing machine and drying closet. It’s only open from May 15th to September 30th. Camping outside of these areas is prohibited. There aren’t any cabins or mountain hunts in the region.
Where to Eat near Jokulsargljufur
There is a small shop and restaurant by the road with an adequate selection. For those looking for more proper meals, it’s best to head to Husavik or to the Lake Myvatn region. Interesting Places near Jokulsargljufur
Besides the Canyon and Dettifoss, there are other worthy attractions such as the volcanic region surrounding Lake Myvatn and whale-watching from Husavik. The birdlife at Skjálftavatn is renowned among bird enthusiasts and ornithologists.
Best Season for Jokulsargljufur
Ásbyrgi is visited throughout the year, though services may be more limited in winter. With the exception of the first week of January and public holidays, the visitor center is open most days of the year, though hours may differ depending on the month.
In April, the snow starts to melt and ground starts to thaw. But the roads between Asbyrgi and Dettifoss are usually closed.
In early summer, the roads to Vesturdalur, Hólmatungur and Dettifoss open for the season, though when is largely dependent on the weather conditions. You can check Visitor Centre in Ásbyrgi for updates or simply hike to the location.
Due to its warm southerly winds and abundance of foliage, Jökulsárgljúfur Canyon in the summertime is quite pleasant. Prepare yourself for warm temperatures of around 20-25°C. In summer, Iceland is transformed by the midnight sun, at its peak in June.
In the last two weeks of June, the sun doesn’t set. However, this time can also bring cold gusts and rain so pack for all types of weather.
In the Fall, the leaves of the birch and willow trees turn yellow. The rowan’s leafy tresses turn orange and bear red berries.
Winter in Ásbyrgi is accessible but the weather is difficult to predict and can sometimes get below freezing. Ásbyrgi is always reached by road 85. Daylight hours are limited from November to January, with the shortest days being around 4-5 hours. We recommend taking excellent hiking boots and traction devices.
Please note that directions from Google Maps aren’t always accurate and up to date. Visit road.is for updates on road conditions.