Updated: Dec 13, 2022
Jökulsárgljúfur or ‘Glacial River Canyon’ is a 30-kilometer-long canyon in the northeastern part of Iceland. The canyon is 500 meters wide and, in many places, the height of the cliffs on both sides is about 100 meters. Jökulsárgljúfur is a product of the river Jökulsá á Fjöllum (The Glacial River in the Mountains), the second-largest river in Iceland. The river has a powerful flow of water and has its source in the volcanically unstable part of Vatnajökull, Bárðarbunga, the most extensive volcanic system in our country. Over thousands of years, the river has shaped its path with water from devastating floods that result when the glacier melts following an eruption. Jökulsárgljúfur is truly a natural wonder and is made up of a lot of exciting places including powerful waterfalls, fantastic basalt columns formations, cliffs, pillars, unusual rocks, beautiful spring-fed streams, a colorful variety of vegetation and fascinating birdlife. With its many beautiful hiking trails, spectacular sites, sanctuaries and endless diversity of natural phenomena, it is a place where you can stay for days and never stop being amazed. It is one of the most breathtaking natural wonders in Iceland.
Is the Jökulsárgljúfur canyon still on the drawing board?
Although most of us see the natural wonders and all of Mother Nature's beautiful products as her grown-up children, this is not true of many places in Iceland. Iceland is still a young child, geologically speaking, and unexpected eruptions occur in many of our volcanos and volcanic systems along the rift zone, or at least with short notice. Actually, just in 2014, a large eruption took place north of Bárðarbunga, the glacier that feeds the river Jökulsá á Fjöllum. If the eruption had occurred below the glacier, which was expected while geologists were monitoring the origin of the earthquakes leading up to the eruption, the outcome would have been catastrophic for the Jökulsárgljúfur canyon. A flood from a melting glacier would possibly have permanently changed all of Jökulsárgljúfur and its natural wonders that we love to visit. We must also remember that one such flood occurred only about two hundred years ago. Although we are talking about one of the largest canyons in Iceland, an even larger one lies buried under lava in the southern region. The canyon Skaftárgljúfur was once the largest canyon in the country, approximately 30 kilometers long and 200 meters deep. However, in the devastating eruption in Lakagígar in 1783 and the massive lava flow that came with it, the canyon disappeared forever as it was filled with glowing lava. This was about 230 years ago, which is only a heartbeat in geological time.
Accessible from both sides, hiking is a great way to experience the Jökulsárgljúfur Canyon first hand
There are many ways to see and experience the canyon Jökulsárgljúfur. You can see a large part of it when you visit the magnificent waterfalls Dettifoss and Hafragilsfoss, since one of the best overviews of the canyon is from the parking spot Sjónnípa by Hafragilsfoss. Here is where you truly see the scale of the canyon. To experience the beauty of this delightful natural wonder, a three to four-hour hike from Dettifoss through Hólmatungur all the way to Vesturdalur is recommended. You can also visit Vesturdalur, which has a great campsite, and there you will get a good view of Hljóðaklettar and Rauðhólar on a short and easy hiking trail from Vesturdalur. For a place to stay, we can also recommend the camping site at Ásbyrgi, which is one of the best in Iceland. Ásbyrgi is also a great place to hike as the ‘horseshoe canyon’ offers many exciting hiking trails.