Dimmuborgir (The Dark Castles) has been a popular place to visit among Icelanders for decades. It is one of the natural wonders that is almost mandatory to stop at when traveling on a family vacation in the northern part of Iceland. Even one of our first natural scientists, Eggert Ólafsson, visited Dimmuborgir in 1752. Located by the lake Mývatn in the north of Iceland, it is a rough lava field displaying unusual rock formations, jagged peaks, and mysterious lava caves resulting in a dramatic and unique landscape capable of conjuring fairytale images at every step. It is undoubtedly one of the most interesting destinations for families and kids to visit when on a family trip in Iceland.
Imagination and the unknown
Since the forties and the fifties, when people started visiting this mysterious lava field, it has been a breeding ground for fantastical folktales. It’s no wonder that local people have seized the opportunity to advertise Dimmuborgir as the home of the Icelandic Jólasveinar (Christmas Lads) and their infamous parents, Grýla the mother, and Leppalúði, the father. The couple are of a breed of Icelandic trolls that lived in caves not far from farms and tormented and bullied innocent people, constantly scaring them out of their wits. This particularly affected children, as Grýla was renowned for having a license to carry them off if they were disobedient. On the other hand, their thirteen sons are kindhearted and friendly and beloved for their generosity during Christmas. Each takes on a long hike in the cold days before Christmas to deliver small gifts to a shoe that children put in their windows. In contrast to their mother, they are admired by children. In Dimmuborgir, accompanied by your creativity and imagination, you are guaranteed a meeting with something otherworldly and strange.
A gift to the people
In 1942, the nearby farms at Geiteyjarstönd and Kálfaströnd gave the land of Dimmuborgir to the Soil Conservation Service of Iceland, but in essence, it was a gift to the Icelandic people. It was, of course, much appreciated and is one of the reasons the development of an internal infrastructure inside the natural wonder has been possible after tourism flourished. One of the main reasons for the gift was the need to contain the sand within Dimmuborgir by planting trees. So, although you don’t see a lot of trees in Iceland, Dimmuborgir is packed with them. This, of course, led to a dispute about whether the area looks natural in an Icelandic context. I first came to Dimmuborgir in July of 1969 when I was 13, at the same time that Apollo 11 landed on the moon. I can see from the photos taken at the time how much the trees have grown and it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to wonder if the vegetation will suffocate the charm of Dimmuborgir in a few decades.
The lava and the lake
Dimmuborgir was formed when magma surfaced in an eruption about 2300 years ago. The lava streamed from a fissure and craters southeast of Dimmuborgir. You can visit the craters called Lúdentaborgir and Þrengslaborgir, which are part of the fascinating natural wonder that is Mývatn and its surroundings. You can also view both the craters and Dimmuborgir by hiking up to the large crater Hverfjall. At the time of the eruption, when Dimmuborgir was created, the glowing lava streams merged into a small lake. As the lava flowed across the wet ground, the wetland water boiled, with vapor rising through the lava, forming the lava pillars and creating this field of natural sculptures. Some of the pillars were several meters in diameter. As the lava continued to flow towards lower ground, the crust collapsed, leaving the hollow pillars of solidified lava standing. Remaining are the large hollow chamber-like structures formed around vapor bubbles; some of them are large enough to serve as houses or churches. Today the whole area is like a maze, and you must take care not to get lost. Fortunately, given the popularity and appeal of the area, trails have been designed and built throughout, with signs, maps, and information, so people can easily find their way back to the parking lot and service center.