Waterfall chasing, canyon viewing and whale watching: Exploring Iceland’s northern sights

The landscape surrounding the Myvatn Nature Baths seethes. Steam drifts from fissures in volcanic seams and belches from lava tubes. Bubbling mud is ringed in chemical greens and oranges.

The baths themselves  broad, chest-deep pools surrounded by porous lava rock  smell of the sulfur that’s said to relax and restore bathers. From a hut with a sliding service window on one edge of the pool, a woolen-clad bartender dispenses tap Gull beer to bathers who hold their pints above the warm water while sinking to their chins.

Tucked in an alcove, my husband, Dave; son, Seth; and I lift our beers high while parsing the graphic, almost violent, nature of Iceland, a place where the earth seems to split open to reveal its internal organs.

As we discuss the rift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates that slices through the region, we attract the attention of a Danish couple who drifts toward us.

A geologist, he adds that the plates are moving across a hot spot that accounts for the volcanic activity. She rolls her eyes. “I planned a romantic getaway, but all I hear is geology, geology, geology,” she laughs.

Myvatn Nature Baths near Lake Myvatn in Iceland. (Photo: iStock/Sylvia_Adams)

That, of course, is the essence of Iceland’s appeal, with its geysers, thundering waterfalls, erupting volcanoes and basalt-backed beaches. Its geology is rarely more naked than along the fault line, which stretches from the Reykjanes Peninsula outside of the country’s capital, Reykjavik, in the southwest to the northeast near the Myvatn baths, nearly halfway around the island.

Visitors have long been drawn to the Golden Circle, a 290km ring route that is easily accessible from Reykjavik and takes in three famous sites: Thingvellir National Park, where the daring can dive between tectonic plates; the Strokkur geyser at Geysir, a geothermal area that gave its name, albeit with a different spelling, to all other erupting water features; and the cascading Gullfoss waterfall. Throw in a soak in the Blue Lagoon hot springs, and you’ve got Iceland’s iconic tour.

But for those seeking to get off the beaten Circle, North Iceland offers an analogous, less-travelled route known as the Diamond Circle. Near the North’s unofficial capital, Akureyri, the 241km route visits Dettifoss, said to be the most powerful waterfall in Europe; the horseshoe-shaped canyon of Asbyrgi in Vatnajokull National Park; the whale-watching village of Husavik; and the volcanic craters, lava fields and hot springs surrounding Lake Myvatn.

For those seeking an alternative to the popular Golden Circle, the Diamond Circle winds through volcanic landscapes featuring powerful waterfalls, misty vistas and sulfurous pools. (Art: The New York Times)

“The vast majority of people who go to Iceland see the Golden Circle, stay in Reykjavik and then go home, but I think some of the most beautiful highlights of Iceland are quite far from Reykjavik,” said Emmanuel Burgio, founder of Blue Parallel, a tour company that recently began offering custom trips in Iceland.

He described North Iceland as “dramatic, with steep mountains that fall into the ocean”, noting that the trouble is getting there, requiring a domestic flight or a long drive. We opted for the latter.

HEADING NORTH

In October, when Iceland still had a vaccine requirement and high vaccination rate (it has since dropped COVID-19-related entry restrictions), we spent 10 days road-tripping around the island, sharing uncrowded hiking paths and hot springs with similarly adventurous Europeans.

They, too, were apparently willing to trade better weather  October temperatures peak around 7 degrees Celsius, and our volatile span delivered a mix of sun and rain, and one snowstorm  for empty roads and less crowded sites.

At the international airport near Reykjavik, we rented a manual SUV and followed the Ring Road, or Route 1, the famous 1,320km perimeter route that circles the country, offering access to the Golden Circle in the south and Diamond Circle in the north, both mini loops tangential to the main coastal one.

Hverfjall crater, near Reykjahlio, Iceland, May 29, 2022. (Photo: The New York Times/Kristin Bogadottir)

We chose the land route in order to see more, but found driving in Iceland  a wind-swept island smaller than Ohio that borders the Arctic Circle  challenging. Its perils, which include ice and high winds, are suggested by the colour-coded SafeTravel road map (found online and at gas stations and tourist attractions), which is updated regularly.

Sightseeing en route, we took four days to reach North Iceland from the east, crossing mountains where snow was falling on roads colour-coded blue for ice.

Losing track of the number of waterfalls spouting from volcanic cliffs, and gorges cut by tumbling rivers, we were ready for the break that is the Diamond Circle, a handy detour from the Ring Road that connects North Iceland’s marquee attractions.

CIRCLE OF FIRE

While much of North Iceland sprawls across a series of fjord-cut peninsulas along a sparsely populated coast peppered with farms and pastures grazed by sturdy Icelandic horses, the Diamond Circle largely explores its volcanic interior.

The Diamond and Ring routes overlap near Lake Myvatn, where the dark landscape of lava rock and volcanic craters looked only recently cooled. Parking at the base of the Hverfjall crater, which looms over the east side of the lake, we began our ascent up the side, a short but taxing climb over loose rock to the roughly 396m-tall rim, where winds nearly sheared us from the ridge.

The otherworldly panorama kept us riveted. Dramatically ringed with volcanic craters, peaks and lava fields, the Myvatn area owes much of its current geothermal activity to a nearby volcanic region named Krafla, where another steep hike led to the green crater lake called Viti.

Akureyri, near the country’s Diamond Circle route and the largest town in North Iceland, May 28, 2022. (Photo: The New York Times/Kristin Bogadottir)

Downhill from Viti, the landscape belches audible steam blasts from a fumarole at Hverir, a misty, moody landscape with hiking paths that go past scalding ponds not far from the warm Myvatn Nature Baths, where we recovered from our hikes and talked geology with the Danish couple.

A popular spot in the north, Lake Myvatn is home to chic Scandinavian hotels (Icelandair Hotel Myvatn and Fosshotel Myvatn) and more modest guesthouses reached by roads occasionally clogged with sheep. The water in our lakeside cabin at Dimmuborgir Guesthouse smelled strongly of sulfur, but signs in English noted that it was not only safe but also good for us.

THE WATER CIRCUIT

Leaving the lake the next day, we set out to explore the northern roads of the Diamond Circle, heading first for Dettifoss falls.

As Gullfoss waterfall is to the Golden Circle, Dettifoss is to the Diamond. With a 101m-wide pounding curtain of water, Europe’s most powerful falls sprayed the extensive gorge-side viewing platforms and walkways, icing the paths.

Both Dettifoss and our next destination, Asbyrgi, 32km north, are part of the northern branch of Vatnajokull National Park, which includes much more inaccessible wilderness, including the Vatnajokull ice cap in southeast Iceland.

Aerial view of Dettifoss waterfall. (Photo: iStock/miroslav_1)

The elliptical canyon was made, according to Norse mythology, by the god Odin’s eight-legged flying horse, who left a hoof print on Earth. It’s an apt setting for otherworldly legends. The mossy forest surrounding a spring-fed lake at the end of the canyon seemed a fitting home for the “huldufolk”, or hidden people that many Icelanders believe live here.

From the canyon, the Diamond route continues about 24km northwest to the Tjornes Peninsula, skirting fossilised sea cliffs and turning south at Skjalfandi Bay toward Husavik, the oldest settlement in Iceland and, more recently, the whale-watching capital of the country.

A wooden church built in 1907 overlooks its protected harbour, filled with tall-masted wooden ships and fishing trawlers, many now run by whale-watching companies. Facing the harbour, the comprehensive Husavik Whale Museum exhibits many of the species that sailors may see, including an 25m-long blue whale skeleton.

View across the scenic harbour of Husavik on a sunny, summer day. (Photo: iStock/PEDRE)

We spent our last morning in the north hiking the jagged Dimmuborgir lava field near our cabin with its castle-like volcanic rock formations  occupied by trolls, according to signage  before leaving Lake Myvatn. Rejoining the Ring Road, we closed the Diamond loop at Godafoss, another jaw-dropping plunge loaded with legends.

Here, when the island converted to Christianity around the year 1000, Iceland’s leader is said to have thrown all his pagan idols into the churning pool created by the semi-circular drop of the Skjalfandafljot river. The betrayal so angered the gods that they split the falls in two.

Although the powerful plunge suggests staying more than hurling-distance away, the no-dumping taboo remains in place, according to a local shopkeeper, who cautioned visitors against similarly throwing anything in the river, lest they hit the huldufolk.

By Elaine Glusac © 2022 The New York Times

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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