Vatnajökull National Park has many unique and wonderful points of interest with many hiking routes that explore magnificent waterfalls, large basaltic canyons, and deep valley rifts. A 6-kilometer (3.75-mile) hiking path forms a circuit route from Selfoss to Dettifoss and to the rock walls of Sanddular. From the popular waterfall viewing platforms, this path takes you along the high plateau edge of Jökulsárglúfur, the canyon, and over large basalt columns to the west. There is rocky terrain, sand hills, and a section that requires bit of climbing, so be prepared to experience the rough landscape. It is located in the northeastern region of the country about 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Reykjalið (near Lake Mývatn) and about 150 kilometers (93 feet) from Akureyri. While this section, considered to be part of the “Diamond Circle,” is visited by tens of thousands of people each year, this hiking path offers an excellent opportunity to stray away from the crowds and become much more in touch with Iceland’s volcanic history. Take extra care while exploring this beautiful region, and avoid getting close to lose rocks at the rim of the canyon.
From Route N1, the “Ring Road,” take Dettifossvegur (Route 862) approximately 25 kilometers (16 miles) to the large parking area next to the falls. There is an information stand, a bus stop with schedules, and toilets. Follow the crowds to east on the wide, marked trail. At the first intersection, take a right to the south. This will bring you over a dark sand and water-worn volcanic landscape to Selfoss, a waterfall upstream from Dettifoss. Selfoss spans 70 meters (230 feet) across the canyon and drops about 10 meters (33 feet). It spans the width of the canyon in the shape of a horseshoe, and it serves as a nice visual precursor to the much larger waterfall shortly downstream. (You will likely see people on the other side of the river Jökulsá á Fjöllum who took Hólsfjallavegur, Route F862, to a different viewing area that is only accessible by appropriate four-wheel-drive vehicles.) The path you are on follows the western bank and comes to an end where tourists typically stop exploring and turn around.
Return in the northern direction and keep to the right and east toward the falls which you will undoubtedly hear upon your approach. Climb over a few sets of rocks and suddenly Dettifoss will appear before you with its almighty power. “Tumble falls,” as it is nicknamed, spans over 100 meters (62 miles) wide and drops 45 meters (148 feet) into Jökulsárglúfur. Sometimes the crashing water even causes the surrounding bedrock to tremble! Standing in Fosshvammur, the green floral area continuously hydrated by the mist, you will be level with the top of Dettifoss. This waterfall cuts through the canyon at a sharp angle and appears to plunge to into the depths of the earth similar to Gulfoss in the Golden Circle. It also has the nickname the “Beast” versus its neighboring waterfall to the west, Goðafoss, which is nicknamed “Beauty.” The thunderous amount of water tumbles over the edge at an average rate of 200 cubic meters per second (7,050 cubic feet per second), and during times of heavy rain, this flow can increase to 500 cubic meters per second (16,650 cubic feet per second)! (The Norwegian cascade Sarpendossen has a greater average water flow, but it is only about half the height of Dettifoss.) When the sun is shining, there is almost always a rainbow bridging the falls, and if you are visiting on a windy day, prepare to get misted!
After exploring the immediate viewing areas, make your way through Fosshvammur to the high observational platform at the northern end. From here you will see a narrow dirt path extending to the north along the rim of Jökulsárglúfur. It is marked by wooden stakes that are painted bright yellow. This route will lead you away from the crowds over the hardened lava field.
As you continue downstream, there are a few opportunities to view a third waterfall called Hafragilsfoss that lies about 2 kilometers (1.25 miles) to the north of Dettifoss. Continue to follow the markers to the north where you can see the red slopes of Rauðhólar standing above the horizon in the distance. The path will begin to turn toward the left, to the west, as you traverse more volcanic rock and dark sand. Upon reaching a sign post and map at an intersection, take the path left and to the south called “Vesturdalur.” The rock walls of Sanddalur are before you with some of the wood pegs leading right up the sides in a giant staircase of basalt columns. There are more plateaus and canyons displaying the violent washout and former river trajectories of the last Ice Age. You’ll reach a small designated camping area with a picnic table and possibly a large jug of water. The parking area is just over the small hill to the south and will complete the hiking circuit.
The area around Jökulsárgljúfur was established as a national park in 1973 and expanded to include Ásbyrgi, to the north, in 1978. The area to the east of these waterfalls was declared a national monument in 1996, and in 2008 Jökulsárgljúfur became part of Vatnajokull National Park to comprise of all the canyons to the west of Jökulsá. Additional features of the park include Vesturdalur, Hljóðaklettar, Hólmatungur and the huge rock pillars Karl and Kerling (Old Man and Old Woman). There is an immense opportunity for outdoor recreation amidst the diverse character of the region.
Jökulsá á Fjöllum is one of Iceland’s largest rivers and has its source in the Vatnajökull, Iceland’s largest glacier. It extends over 200 kilometers (124 miles) and empties into Öxarfjörður, a bay to the north. These canyons are approximately 25 kilometers (16 miles) long and are a testament to the numerous channels and routes the water has taken over several millennia. In some areas, the cliffs have a measured drop of over 100 meters. Unlike Goðafoss, the water appears grayish and dirty due to the sediment from Vatnajökull. While the entire region seems dry and uninhabitable, there is actually a surprising amount of wildflowers and mosses present throughout the valley. There is also a marked backpacking route between Dettifoss and Ásbyrgi, called Jökulsárhlaup, which is 34 kilometers (21 miles) long and takes nearly two days to traverse. The local rangers offer various tours and events, and more information, including marked brochures and maps, can be found at local information centers.