Hólmatungur is a fascinating part of the canyon Jökulsárgljúfur in the northeast region of Iceland. If there is still a hidden gem in Iceland, Hólmatungur is probably the place that fits that description. It is an eight-kilometer stretch situated at the west side of a small valley that is cut through the middle by the mighty glacial river Jökulsá á Fjöllum just a few kilometers north of Dettifoss waterfall. For most people who visit Hólmatungur, it is one of the island's most peaceful places, with an almost dreamlike quality. Like many places in Iceland, it is a product of powerful geological forces that have swept through and molded the area over thousands of years, often originating in the fearsome volcano Bárðabunga in the Vatnajökull ice cap. For the moment however, with most of these forces absent, Hólmatungur has developed into a beautiful oasis.
Hólmatungur is a small gallery of natural wonders
Located within the Vatnajökull National Park, Hólmatungur has many elements that contribute to its identity and classification as a natural wonder: Abundant vegetation, composed of small trees and a variety of interesting flowers that spread color from the bottom of the canyon up to the hills on the west side of the valley; beautiful small waterfalls that are fed by crystal clear spring-fed streams; and spring bubbles that form a series of short brooks, twisting, turning, and cascading as they find their way to the bottom of the canyon to join the mighty, murky glacial river. In the midst of it all are magical rock formations of small hills, stacks, and ledges decorated with mysterious basalt columns. In addition, flying through this natural wonder, singing to celebrate its beauty, are many species of birds. It is a geological marvel and gallery of natural spectacles that Mother Nature has decided to display for the few who visit Hólmatungur.
In essence, Hólmatungur is strictly a hiking trail, as it is only accessible by foot. Years ago, when I visited Hólmatungur for the first time, we drove through the area on a dirt road in a 1969 Ford Bronco. That road was closed in the nineties and was moved a few kilometers up the hill to the west. The good news is that the hiking trail from the parking lot at Ytra Þórunnarfjall to Vesturdalur valley through Hólmatungur is one of the most beautiful hiking trails in Iceland. It will be worth your while to take a day off from driving the Ring Road to hike along the trail and have a picnic at Hólmatungur. It would be a day well spent.
Like many places in Iceland, Hólmatungur has its folklore. The tale is rather dark and tells of a female farmer, Þórunn the rich, from a nearby farm Ás in Kelduhverfi, who once lived at Hólmatungur with all her servants. They had moved there and found sanctuary when an epidemic was raging in Iceland in the late 16th century. They stayed in Hólmatungur in relative comfort until their food supply started running short. She had already slaughtered all her sheep and other domestic animals. Since they had no news of the plague, she decided to slaughter and cook the sheepherder for their survival. When he had been prepared, she demanded to take the first bite for evaluation. After chewing on it for a few minutes, she spat it out, claiming that it tasted horrible, was poisonous, and decided to move back to the farm. The real reason was that since Þórunn was a rather chubby lady, she was worried that she would be next on the menu. The reason was not revealed until years later on her deathbed, where she admitted that the sheepherder was the most delicious meat she had ever tasted.
Finding your way to Hólmatungur
On the Ring Road, you need to drive north onto Road no. 862 and about a kilometer further north towards Dettifoss, you will find a small and narrow dirt road, Road no. 887. There you drive to a hill and parking lot named after our female farmer Þórunn. This is where you also find the hiking trail, but make sure you are on the lookout for Þórunn as she has been seen wandering the hills looking for the leftovers of the delicious sheepherder. It is also essential to note that this hike is only possible during the months of June through September.