Einar Páll Svavarsson
Updated: Feb 5
Markarfljótsgljúfur, a beautiful canyon in the southern part of the Highland, is a hidden gem in the Icelandic landscape. It is one of our most impressive and stunning canyons but not visited by many. The canyon is an integral part of the Highland Road Syðri Fjallabak when entering Fljótshlíð from southern Iceland called Emstrur. One reason it has not become popular and loaded with tourists is because of its location in the Icelandic Highland, making it hard to visit. Although not among the largest canyons in Iceland, it is 200 meters at its deepest point. The most popular, exciting, and accessible part spans about four kilometers. This section is also part of the famous hiking track Laugavegur, from Landmannalaugar to Þórsmörk, so you will have an excellent opportunity to view it from the east side when staying in the huts at Emstrur or hiking Laugavegur.
Formed from a disaster
The canyon is believed to have been created by a flood bursting from the Mýrdalsjökull glacier following the eruption of the famous volcano Katla under the glacier. Most floods caused by Katla erupting find their way to the east side of the glacier. Occasionally, like when Markarfljótsgljúfur was formed, the flood finds its way to the west. If this geological theory is correct, you will be amazed when looking at the canyon and imagining the enormous power a single flood can have and the devastation it can leave behind. This occurred about two thousand years ago, and other geological factors have contributed to the canyon since then, such as the stone continuing to be carved by the river Markarfljót. It is this river that gave the canyon a name. The river originates in the Torfajökull area. Like many rivers, it is fed by other rivers, streams, and surface water branches, but this particular river is quite significant in Icelandic social history and geological history. It is mentioned in one of the Sagas, Njáls Saga, and is one of the rivers that has greatly affected the south shore throughout centuries.
Hard to access
You can access Markarfljótsgljúfur either by a hiking trail from Þórsmörk or on the mountain road Emstruleið F261. This is a challenging and rough mountain road with complicated and often dangerous rivers to cross, so it requires a well-equipped 4WD vehicle. Another way up is to find a good tour operator. To access the mountain road, take a left turn when coming from Reykjavík on the Ring Road by the village Hvolsvöllur to the Road Nr. 261. From Hvolsvöllur village, the drive is then about 50 kilometers.