Hiking Iceland: Jökulsárgljúfur Canyon

After a good night’s sleep, we began our 2-day exploration of the Mývatn region with a hike along the west side of Jökulsárgljúfur Canyon. The trailhead parking was near Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe. And while Dettifoss and the nearby Selfoss were impressive, this was our least favourite hiking experience in Iceland.

It would be easy to blame our “meh” feelings on the rain that fell for part of the day. But the main reason we couldn’t wait for this hike to be over is that the scenery just wasn’t as varied or impressive as the landscapes along the FimmvörðuhálsBlue Peak and Laugavegurinn trails. We also relied entirely on our driver / photo guide’s trail recommendation, so didn’t have a good sense of what the trail and scenery would be like – a good reminder to always do our own pre-hike research: detailed trail description, current trail conditions and points of interest along the way.


We approached Selfoss from the north, along a well-trodden dirt trail along the top of the canyon. The basalt columns have eroded into beautifully curving canyon walls. Near the trail, pools of water offered up some interesting reflections.


Measuring 100 meters wide with a drop of 45 meters, Dettifoss is widely considered the most powerful waterfall in Europe. Apparently the better views are from the east side of Jökulsárgljúfur Canyon, but we thought the viewpoints on the west side were pretty good!

Jökulsárgljúfur Canyon Hike

After reminding us to keep a sharp eye out for the trail markers and pointing us to the start of our planned hike north, our guide confirmed that he’d meet us in a few hours at the Hljóðaklettar parking lot and headed off.

The yellow trail markers were generally easy to spot and we kept a pretty good pace as we crossed a field of lava rubble that reminded us of some of the desolate landscapes in the Lord of the Rings movies.


About 45 minutes / 2 km later we came to an abrupt halt, faced with a bit of challenging trail that required each of us to descend several meters with the aid of a well-anchored rope. Since we’d failed to do any advance research, we had no idea this was part of the route. While Mr. GeoK and K made it down with little difficulty, the two of us who don’t do very well with exposed heights couldn’t/wouldn’t do it.

So Mr. GeoK and K came back up and we retraced our steps back to a trail information sign that showed an alternate route to the Hljóðaklettar parking lot. It was a long detour, adding at least an hour and a few km to our route, so it’s a good thing our driver / photo guide spotted us as he was driving back to the main road. I didn’t see him, but Mr. GeoK talked to him for a few minutes and confirmed that we were supposed to down to the canyon floor via the roped section. If we’d known that in advance we would have opted for a different route or different trail from the start!

Anyhow, we carried on as the rain came down, working our way across a big field of lava that included a couple of broad valleys.

We trekked about 4 km in 1.5 hours before we finally had another view down into the canyon.


Because we didn’t descend to the canyon bottom, we missed any close-up look at Hafragilsfoss, another sizeable waterfall along the Jökulsá á Fjöllum, the second longest river in Iceland (206 km). The best we could do was a look back up the canyon.


From the trail at the top of the canyon we spotted several smaller waterfalls and enjoyed the play of sunlight and shadow on the canyon walls. Strange arrangements of basalt columns resulting from a volcanic eruption eight thousand years ago also captured our attention.

Mr. GeoK and I were lagging quite far behind C & K as we trekked along above Réttarfoss. We tried hard, but I don’t think we were successful in making a photograph of Réttarfoss that properly conveys its size.

As we stowed our tripods, the boys called back to us via walkie-talkie that they’d just spotted our driver / photo guide at a small parking lot along the trail. It wasn’t the Hljóðaklettar parking lot (which was another 6 or 7 km along the trail), but it was a good call on the part of our driver / photo guide to try to intercept us here, since it was already 3:30 pm and we had a few other stops planned for that day.

Hiking distance = 14 km
Elevation change = descent of 62 m (net)
Hiking time = 5 hrs (including 2 hrs for photo stops along the way)

Thinking about this hike, I realize now that we placed too much reliance on our driver / photo guide to recommend hiking trails and didn’t do enough advance research of our own. Now that we’re back in Canada, I’ve located the trail description which reads, in part, “Hafragil lowland is the most difficult trail in Jökulsárgljúfur but also the most magnificent…In Sanddalur the trail is really steep and there is a rope for support to go up/down…Those who are afraid of heights are…advised [not] to go this route.”

Based on photos I’ve seen and reading I’ve done since we’ve returned home to Canada, it’s probably worth making a return visit to Jökulsárgljúfur Canyon if/when we go back to Iceland, mainly to hike along the east side of the canyon for a different perspective on the many waterfalls along the river.

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  1. Pingback: Exploring Iceland: Mývatn Region | Out and About with the GeoKs

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