Updated: Apr 7
Dettifoss, one of the most powerful waterfalls in Europe, is located in the northeast region of Iceland, in the magnificent canyon and natural wonder Jökulsárgljúfur. Feeding the waterfall is the river Jökulsá á Fjöllum, which originates in two outlet glaciers, Dyngjujökull and Brúarárjökull. These glaciers create many rivers, creeks, and streams below the ice and are both part of the large icecap Vatnajökull. From the source to the shoreline, the river travels 210 kilometers and, in addition to the glacial water, constantly collects all kinds of surface creek and spring-fed water into its flow along the way. Before everything is collected into Jökulsá á Fjöllum, about 90 kilometers from the glaciers, the river looks like a vast treetop with an infinite number of water branches. It’s no wonder that Dettifoss is such a powerful waterfall.
Dettifoss is a powerful waterfall
The upper edge of the cliff where the water of Dettifoss falls is 100 meters wide and it drops 45 meters down. It is indeed immense in volume, having an average water flow of 400 m3/s during the summer, resulting in a stunning sight and mysterious sound. It’s no wonder that Dettifoss is on many lists of the most spectacular waterfalls in Europe and even the world; it is no. 4 on our list of the most remarkable waterfalls in Iceland. The yearly average flow of the river is a bit less than 200 m3/s, so in winter, the flow is greatly reduced. Dettifoss and Jökulsárgljúfur canyon make up one of the most impressive sights and natural wonders in Iceland and a place you must visit if you are traveling the Ring Road. Standing by the thundering water as it cascades into the wide canyon is an unforgettable experience you are not likely to find in many other places.
Monetizing the power
Finding a way to harness the power of Dettifoss has captured the people’s interest for a long time. In August of 2019, the whole of the river Jökulsá á Fjöllum, from the source to the shoreline, was put on a conservation list. The decision rules out the possibility of a hydroelectric power plant by Dettifoss and Jökulsárgljúfur canyon in general. Building a power plant somewhere on the powerful river has been an ambition of “foresighted” people since the first decade of the twentieth century. Even in the sixties and seventies, serious projects were proposed for a power plant as big as 240 MW. However, it would have caused significant disruption to the area, damaged Dettifoss substantially, and permanently ruined its appeal as a natural wonder. Today, just like the Gullfoss waterfall and many other natural wonders in Iceland, Dettifoss is one of the main attractions that people flock to our beloved country for.
The two sides of the river and the best view of the waterfall
When driving Road 1 ( Ring Road) in Iceland, you can turn north onto Road 864 on the east side of the river Jökulsá á Fjöllum or onto Road 862 on the west side of the river to visit Dettifoss. Both roads take you to a parking lot and an observation platform for a spectacular view of the Dettifoss waterfall. The road on the west side is a good asphalt road with better overall service.
Today, this side is more of an official tourist spot for viewing the waterfall. The east side is a gravel road that is often difficult to drive during the summer and usually not well maintained. It is not a good road for small cars but excellent for larger cars. Visiting Dettifoss from the east side is, in my opinion, much more enjoyable. The path down to the falls on this side is a bit rough and rocky, and the parking lot distance is similar to the one on the west side. On the eastern bank, the view of the waterfall is spectacular. The hiking path to Selfoss waterfall, one kilometer south of Dettifoss, also provides a much more interesting view of Selfoss.
Another important advantage of the east side is access to the parking lot and observation platform of Hafragilsfoss, only about five minutes drive north of Dettifoss. Here you have one of the best views of Jökulsárgljúfur canyon, the waterfall Hafragilsfoss, and Dettifoss. So, if you take the east side, you will experience four major natural wonders in the most spectacular way, and will avoid the majority of the tourist traffic.