Stuðlagil basalt column canyon in Jökla river
In 2016 when I discovered Stuðlagil and turned it into one of the most popular tourist attractions in Iceland with my writing and photography. Although Stuðlagil and its basalt columns have existed forever, much of this fascinating landscape was below the water level of Jökla until a few years ago. It is almost hard to believe when standing by the picturesque, relaxing river watching the birds swim in joy and harmony that this was a terrifying place under the pressure of a dominating and angry river. It is, by any standard, one of the most striking places in Iceland where you can see and photograph exceptional basalt columns.
Jökuldalur or the “Glacier Valley” is an impressive valley in East Iceland. Since early on, it has mostly consisted of sheep farms, some of which are considered among the best in the country. The valley is also known for its forceful glacial river that has three names: Jökulsá á Brú, Jökulsá á Dal, and Jökla, which forces its way down from the highland through the bottom to the valley for centuries. When heading to northern Iceland from Egilsstaðir in the Eastern Region in Iceland on the Ring Road, road no. 1, part of the road goes through the lower part of Jökuldalur. To enter upper Jökuldalur, you need to take a turn south onto road no. 923 near the Skjödólfsstaðir farm. In upper Jökuldalur, you will find the exceptionally beautiful waterfalls: Stuðlafoss (basalt column waterfall) and the Stuðlagil canyon (basalt column canyon).
The terrifying river that kept the gem hidden
Although this part of the river Jökulsá á Brú (the glacier river by the bridge) is magnificent because of its rare basalt column formation, not many had visited this natural wonder before 2016. It was truly one of the most stunning undiscovered gems in Iceland until I discovered it on one of my travels in Iceland and turned it into one of the most popular tourist attractions in Iceland with my writing and photography. The Icelandic Tourism Research Center has confirmed this in a report in November 2019. However, there is a reason for the lack of visits before that time. For centuries, River Jökla, which is 150 kilometers long, was one of the largest and most powerful glacial rivers in Iceland until the Hálslón reservoir was built. It was so strong that it divided the valley Jökuldalur into two parts that didn't have much communication for centuries. It was a river that was both dangerous and difficult to cross. It was the only river in Iceland that became known by its local name (Jökla) rather than either of its real name.
The reservoir that swallowed the glacial river
When Icelanders built the hydroelectric plant Kárahnjúkavirkjun and created the vast Hálslón reservoir, in the highlands in Hafrahvammagljúfur canyon, the sources of River Jökla were affected. The water from the sources in the northeastern highlands was diverted into the Hálslón reservoir, which ultimately prevented Jökla from running as a glacial river through the valley of Jökuldalur. From the reservoir, the river flows with its former force through 60 kilometers of underground tunnels to drive the hydroelectric turbines of the power plant. So, most of the sources of River Jökulsá á Brú don't reach Jökuldalur anymore. They are now channeled to Fljótsdalur. This project by Icelanders to build a hydroelectric power plant to provide the aluminum plant in Reyðarfjörður with electricity was a grand-scale interference with nature. No wonder the whole project led to a dispute.
Stuðlagil—a ravishing natural wonder
The change for the river Jökla was huge, as it changed from a glacial river to one fed by springs and creeks. Most of its water now comes from the lower part of the highlands and the surrounding mountains. Accordingly, its water level is much lower, and the river’s force has changed dramatically. Instead of being a forceful river carrying 120 tons of sand, mud, and dirt from under the Vatnajokull glacier every hour, it became a lovely, clear, blue flow leisurely wending its way down to the river’s mouth. However, sometimes, during autumn, the river changes to its older form when the Hálslón reservoir is full. At that point, the overflow of the glacial water from the mighty Vatnajökull glacier starts to float through Jökuldalur again. Usually, this happens in late August or September, but the volume is nowhere near what it was in the old days.
How to visit the Stuðlagil Canyon?
The west side
Accessing Stuðlagil is relatively straightforward, with two options. The worse option and hardly worth it is to drive to the Grund farm and view the canyon from the west side of the canyon and the river. After turning south on Ring Road no. 1 by Skjödólfsstaðir to road no. 923, drive about 20 kilometers to farm Grund. At the farm, you will find a parking lot. Of the two viewing options, the west side is much less exciting, as the observation platform is oddly placed, has 240 steps (like walking up and down 18 floors in an apartment building), and gives a very limited view of the canyon’s true beauty. The west position is not worthwhile for photographers, as it is difficult to take a decent photograph of the canyon's beauty from there. Furthermore, hiking on the east side is more comfortable than climbing hundreds of steps. The west side at Grund is a waste of time and energy.
The east side (that I would recommend)
The second option requires some hiking—an effort that only adds to the enjoyment of visiting such a place. Again, after turning south on Ring Road no. 1 by Skjödólfsstaðir to road no. 923, drive about 14 kilometers to farm Klaustursel. Less driving is required to reach the Klaustursel farm than Grund. On River Jöklai, by Klaustursel, you find a bridge on the east side. By the bridge, there is a parking lot on the west side. You can also drive over the new bridge about one-and-a-half kilometers to another parking lot on the east side and shorten the hike. After crossing the bridge to the east riverbank, hike for three kilometers to reach Stuðlagil canyon and is probably less of an effort and more interesting than climbing the odd stairs on the west side by Grund. Climbing down to the river in the canyon is possible at one spot and requires caution, but once down by the river, you sense that you have entered a wonder-world of basalt columns. The stones and rocks are sometimes wet and slippery, so take precautions. The hike for both ways is six to eight kilometers, and reaching the stop by the canyon takes probably two to three hours. I recommend going to the canyon in the morning for photography. An excellent way to plan this visit is to stay at a Skjödólfsstaðir accommodation or campsite and get an early morning start.
When to visit Stuðlagil Canyon?
It is advisable to visit Stuðlagil Canyon in the summer, from the beginning of June until the second week of August. In August, the hydroelectric reservoir's overflow sends the old dirty glacial river down the river path. This occurs every year in the middle of August and changes this natural wonder substantially. In winter, the vibrant colors of the vegetation disappear, and the canyon becomes dull and drab and is often covered with snow and ice. It is not noteworthy for viewing or photography as in the colorful summer days when the river is turquoise instead of brown and dirty.