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Steep Canyons, Crashing Waterfalls, and Whales Galore: Northeastern Iceland's Ultimate Road Trip

By Katherine LaGrave

06.24.19

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The 330-foot-wide, 150-foot-tall Dettifoss waterfall is one of the most powerful in Iceland.

Courtesy of Matteo Provendola/Shutterstock

The 330-foot-wide, 150-foot-tall Dettifoss waterfall is one of the most powerful in Iceland.

Reykjavík has its charms, but to get the most of all Iceland has to offer, it’s best to hit the road.

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Iceland is not overcrowded, as we’ve learned—it’s just that the majority of travelers go to the same places. Case in point? Most visitors to Iceland drive the Golden Circle, a 190-mile route that covers three key landmarks in a short amount of time: Þingvellir National Park, the Gullfoss waterfall, and the geothermal area in Haukadalur. (Some people even do it in a day.) Another road trip—the new-as-of-June Arctic Coast Way, which snakes along 560 miles of Iceland’s north coast—is also making headlines for being the country’s first-ever tourist route.  

Luckily for travelers, somewhere in the middle of these two extremes is a drive that’s lesser known and just as beautiful: the 162-mile Diamond Circle in the country’s northeast, which comprises the four main attractions of Lake Mývatn, Dettifoss waterfall, the horseshoe-shaped Ásbyrgi canyon, and the picturesque town of Húsavík.

To make the most of this route, give yourself at least three days on the Diamond Circle: enough time to stop for hikes, walk by waterfalls, and feel like you’ve got the country all to yourself—all in a long weekend.

The Mánárbakki Museum showcases folk life from Iceland's history.

Day one: Whales and puffins

Start your day in Húsavík, which is known as Iceland’s “Whale Capital” for good reason: The tiny town on the north coast of Iceland is a perfect jumping-off point for this road trip and for the number of different whale species that frequently enter its Skjálfandi Bay. Look out for minke whales, blue whales, fin whales, humpback whales, orcas, and harbor porpoises—and get up even closer to them on a three-hour whale-watching trip with North Sailing, which leads tours from March to November, complete with waterproof overalls and coats (and most important, warm, gooey cinnamon buns and hot chocolate).

Once you’re off the water, get your land legs back by strolling to the red-and-white cross-shaped church, which dominates the town landscape. Built in 1907 by the state’s then-architect, Rögnvaldur Ólafsson, the church is open most days, and admission is free. Once inside, look closely at the altar: The figures in the painting of Lazarus were actually modeled after Húsavík townspeople.

For lunch, make like the fishermen do and head to the aptly named Fish and Chips, which sits slightly off the main drag at Hafnarstétt 19. Take your order of lightly battered, flaky cod to the restaurant’s outdoor deck, which overlooks the harbor, and watch the boats come in and out.

Tiny Nordic Natura homes are available for rent on Airbnb.
When lunch is finished, hop in the car for a 14-mile drive north along Route 85 to the Tjornes Peninsula, known for its fossil-rich cliffs dating back millennia and colonies of puffins. The cliffs are entertainment enough, but to learn more about the history of the area, stop by the Mánárbakki Museum, which showcases what folk life was like in exhibits inside black-and-white turf houses.

Once the sun begins its descent, make your way back to Húsavík for dinner at family-run Naustið, which specializes in all things fish inside a buttercup-yellow wooden home: fish tacos, fish soup, fish “tartare,” and skewers of fish and vegetables, grilled to order. Whatever you do, save room for the homemade rhubarb cake, which has generous pieces of tender rhubarb and comes topped with a cinnamon crumble and fresh whipped cream.

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After dinner, waddle your way across the street to Árból Guesthouse, which is located at the western edge of Húsavík Park. The building was constructed in 1903 and is one of the oldest in town, but the rooms have been given a makeover: think neutral gray walls, plaid pillows, and beds so soft it’s easy to sink into them and never want to leave. Not a bad place to end the night.

Ásbyrgi Canyon sits in Vatnajökull National Park and is about two miles long and one mile wide.

Day two: Echoing rocks and a photogenic canyon

Graze at the Árból breakfast buffet, which has a healthy selection of freshly baked breads, meats, cheeses, and jams. When full, walk it off and stop by the town bakery, Heimabakarí, to pick up some sandwiches for a picnic. Given that you’ll be driving barren stretches of land, we also recommend filling up on gas and hitting the Nettó grocery store for essentials such as fruit, snacks, and bottled drinks.

Shopping complete, hop back on Route 85, retracing some of your steps from yesterday. Pass through the Tjörnes Peninsula and continue until you have the option to take a right-hand turn on Route 862, also known as Dettifossvegur. You’ll drive another two miles to Hljoðaklettar, your first stop.

Hljoðaklettar comprises a series of basalt rock formations, created when glacial floods washed away parts of craters. Today, what’s left is a collection of oddly shaped columns and caves that make eerie echoes when wind passes through them. Try shouting: Your voice will bounce off the walls and reverberate in all directions. This is a great place for your picnic so choose a spot and enjoy the scenery.

Mývatn is a hotbed for geothermal activity, offering plenty of hot springs to take a dip in.
Your next stop in Vatnajökull National Park is Ásbyrgi, a horseshoe-shaped canyon some two miles long and one mile wide. Ásbyrgi, which means “Shelter of the Gods,” has few bad angles, but one of its best is from the edge of Botnstjörn pond, where you can take in the serenity of the surrounding canyon, the soaring cliff faces, and the woodlands of birch and willow. (Trees are rare in Iceland, where forests were razed years ago by Viking settlers.) From there, choose your own adventure: There are nine marked hiking trails in and around Ásbyrgi from the visitor center, all ranging in difficulty and length, from an easy 30-minute stroll to a seven-hour, 10-mile hike around the canyon and its surroundings.

Dining options around Ásbyrgi are limited—it is in a national park, after all—but the visitors center also has a respectable grill-fast restaurant, which is typical of this part of the country. Depending on the day, you can tuck into roasted lamb or fish soup, all while taking in the sights (and sounds) of the park around you.

Book one of the three Nordic Natura tiny houses on Airbnb, which have queen-size beds with plush down duvets and sit impressively close to the cliff walls of Ásbyrgi. Linens, towels, sheets, and soaps are all organic, and each tidy chalet has a small deck from which to take in the surrounding countryside—its best amenity yet.

At Hótel Laxá, relax in a minimalistic, industrial-chic atmosphere with impeccable views.

Day three: A powerful waterfall and a geothermal bath

In the morning, take your time with breakfast on the porch before packing up. Drive 18 miles south along Road 864 to Dettifoss, which you will most likely hear before you see it: 96,500 gallons of water per second fly over the edge of the 330-foot-wide giant, crashing 150 feet down into Jökulsárgljúfur canyon, making it—by many measures—the most powerful waterfall in Europe. (Put your hand on a rock close to the waterfall, and you’ll feel the vibrations.) Take in the tumbling water from a safe distance, and be careful when you walk: The spray from the waterfall means slippery stone platforms and hiking trails.

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Next, hop back in the car and continue south along 864 before turning west on Road 1 toward Mývatn; the drive is about 45 miles total. For lunch, stop by Vogafjós Farm Resort: the family-owned farm on the eastern shores of Lake Mývatn also has a restaurant inside an old cowshed, with specialties including homemade mozzarella, cured wild goose with caramelized onions, and slow-cooked, fall-off-the-bone lamb shank with a fried potato cake and gravy. Kids (or just animal lovers) can even pet the calves and try fresh milk in the glassed-off portion of the cowshed.

Hótel Laxá offers a front-row seat of Lake Mývatn and Vindbelgur Mountain.
You won’t want to do much after a hearty meal at Vogafjós, which is quite all right—the rest of the afternoon is about soaking and floating. Commonly called north Iceland’s answer to the Blue Lagoon, Mývatn Nature Bath pulls its geothermal waters from depths of around 8,000 feet below the earth’s surface. Water temperatures range from 98 to 104 degrees, so “cooling off” in the outdoor showers at the corners of the baths is recommended. So, too, is breaking for a snack: The complex’s Café Kvika serves Icelandic comfort food, such as bread that’s baked underground and topped with smoked char and fresh-from-the-oven cinnamon rolls. Though the café can seat 120 indoors, we recommend taking your treats to the terrace, which can fit 50 in warmer weather. If you’d rather just have a drink as you soak, simply buy a beer/wine bracelet at reception when checking in, and a waiter will bring your libations while you lounge.

Specialties at Vogafjós Farm Resort incorporate homemade mozzarella, cured wild goose, and lamb shank.
When you’ve dried off, continue the drive west to your outpost for the night, the industrial-chic Hótel Laxá. Minimalism abides at this wood-and-concrete hotel, but that’s just as well: No interiors could compete with the surrounding views of Lake Mývatn and Vindbelgur Mountain, taken in from impossibly wide windows. The hotel’s restaurant, Eldey, creates menus around regional produce and specialties: Think seared arctic char from Húsavík, smoked beef tenderloin from the Eyjafjörður region, and vegetables from the hotel’s farm in Hveravellir, tossed in an orange vinaigrette and served with pickled red onions and roasted nuts.

The Diamond Circle is a loop route, and many travelers choose to continue heading north from Mývatn to Goðafoss waterfall and back to Húsavík, where it “ends.” If you have an extra day, though, consider adding some time in the Mývatn area instead before making your drive back to Reykjavík.

Vogafjós Farm Resort is family-owned and sits on the eastern shore of scenic Lake Mývatn.

What to bring

Layers, layers, layers. Iceland can go from cool to warm to rainy to sunny in a matter of hours, so it’s best to pack layers that will wick away moisture and keep you warm, like this Uniqlo Heattech shirt, this Cotopaxi rain shell, and The North Face Aphrodite pant.

A good pair of boots. Boots—like these from Vasque—that are at once waterproof, lightweight, and stylish will serve you well. Don’t worry about dressing up for dinner.

A map. Lest your GPS bump out on you, it’s good to have a physical map, like this one from International Travel Maps, which is printed on plastic, incredibly durable, and includes roads by classification, gas stations, hot springs, waterfalls, and more. The Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration also offers an up-to-date online map about road conditions and closures.

An audiobook. Listen to Jules Verne’s 1864 science fiction novel Journey to the Center of the Earth, which is set in Iceland. Though the subterranean world Verne describes is entirely fictional, it’s easy to imagine when traversing Iceland’s largely barren landscapes.  

A swimsuit and a towel. Iceland is known for its public bathhouses and geothermal baths, so it pays to be prepared. Have your suit and towel ready in the back seat.

The heated waters at Mývatn Nature Bath originate from 8,000 feet below the earth's surface.

Additional tips

Keep in mind that Iceland is a country with lots of road and not a lot of gas stations. Make sure you stay attuned to the location of the next gas station, and fill up when you have the chance—it’s better than being stranded with the sheep.

Take your time. In Iceland, it will seem nearly impossible to drive 10 minutes without wanting to stop for another photo, another look, another moment. That’s normal.

Remember that grocery stores are your friend. Restaurants in the countryside are rare and not always open, so it pays to stock up on snacks and essentials when you can. Even better? Bringing them with you: Iceland is notoriously expensive, and a bag of large (9.4 oz) chips can run you as much as $8.

Make a day of Mývatn. If you’ve got time to spare, tack on a full day in the Mývatn area. Nearby is Dimmuborgir (the “Dark Fortress”), an area with column-like lava rocks and caves. One of the most popular hiking destinations, Hverfjall (alternately spelled Hverfell) rises 1,300 feet from the ground, its cratered center created during a volcanic explosion. Reaching the top via one of the two approved paths takes approximately 20 minutes, and the views—over Dimmuborgir and Lake Mývatn—are pretty incredible. Other attractions around Mývatn include Víti in Krafla (a crater with a bright blue lake) and Skútustaðagígar, a protected nature area known for its bird-watching.

>> Next: Iceland Travel Guide

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