Road tripping around Iceland: part III, the North

Travelling in Iceland is a life changing experience. I’ll never forget the fabulous landscapes that I saw during the 12 days I spent there in September 2018, the stunning beauty of the wild nature and the recurrent feeling of being in a different world. The best way to enjoy your visit in Iceland would be going on a road trip, especially in summer when the daylight is longer. This is the third of 4 articles describing you a 9-day itinerary around the country with some advice for cheap accommodation if you’re not willing to go camping.

This article will take you from the amazing geothermic areas of Lake Mývatn to Akureyri, the second most populated city of Iceland after Reykjavik and its suburbs. Get ready for a completely different landscape compared to what you’ve seen in the South and in the East! Well, apart maybe from the occasional waterfall, like everywhere else in the country. But they are always so beautiful…

📷 For more pictures have a look at my gallery about the North of Iceland.

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north-iceland-road

Warning: I did this road trip in September 2018 with mostly good weather, low wind and long daylight. Always check the weather forecast and the driving conditions before travelling in Iceland and adapt your itinerary if needed. Remember also that daylight is reduced to less than 5 hours in the middle of winter and that you won’t be able to do as much as in summer.

This article begins next to Lake Mývatn around which I suggest you spend an entire day before heading to Akureyri, as there’s so much to see in this area. You might as well want to take a detour to Húsavík further North, as this place is known to be the best whale watching spot of Iceland – but you probably should allow an entire extra day for that.

Day 6: hunting for geothermic activity (around Lake Mývatn)

The Lake Mývatn is one the biggest lakes of Iceland. If you come here for the first time, you might find it a very welcoming area, especially compared to the vast and empty plains of black ashes that you have been driving through since Egillstaðir: a beautiful blue lake, green grass on its banks, dozens of pretty hills all around… But if you look closer, you’re probably going to realise quickly that these hills have a weird conic shape, that in some places steam is coming out of the Earth, and you might even notice a not-so-pleasant smell of sulphur in the air

The geothermal area around Lake Mývatn is one of the most extraordinary places of Iceland. From volcanic craters to the dark mystery of Dimmuborgir, as well as mud pools, thermal baths and a cave that Game of Thrones aficionados will love to see, there are so many attractions here! It would take at least one day to hit all the most beautiful sites listed in this article, and maybe even two if you want to see everything that needs to be seen.

Coming from the East on Route 1, the first point of interest will be to your right, shortly before arriving to Lake Mývatn. This area is called Krafla, a vast caldera where nature looks more threatening than anywhere else. The road will first go through a huge power plant using the forces of nature to create electricity, then winds up until you reach a little car park at the foot of the so-called Víti crater. There’s a blue/turquoise lake in it that looks absolutely stunning and peaceful… but Víti in Icelandic means hell: this crater was actually formed after a 5-year long eruption that started in 1724! Not quite so peaceful anymore, isn’t it?

Viti Crater, lake, volcanoYou can walk around the crater which will also lead you to a geothermal area with stunning colours and a strong sulphur smell. Be very careful to stay on the track at all times though!

 

There’s another geothermal area close to Víti crater called Leirhnjúkur (to the left when you’re driving towards Víti crater). I haven’t been there myself but I heard that it features numerous mud pools and fumaroles with beautiful colours.

Instead of visiting Leirhnjúkur, I went to Hverir, a similar place easily accessible as it’s directly next to the road (to your left shortly after heading back to Route 1 coming from the Krafla caldera). Once again, it’s literally vital to stay on the designated tracks as the entire area is boiling and bubbling, with extremely hot water, mud pools, big fumaroles and characteristic yellow sulphur deposit. The hill just above is called Mount Námafjall. Take your time to walk around the area and feel as if you just landed on a different planet.

Even if you never travelled to Iceland before, you might have heard about the Blue Lagoon. This thermal bath is located close to Keflavik airport, not very far from Reykjavik. It’s a very popular attraction, sometimes considered as a tourist trap as it’s quite expensive and often very crowded. If you’re looking for something more intimate, you can try the Mývatn Nature Baths left of Route 1 shortly before entering the village of Reykjahlið (although the word “nature” isn’t really appropriate as it’s a man-made bath – but so is the Blue Lagoon).

If you’re a Game of Thrones addict like me, the next attraction in the Lake Mývatn area is a must-see… and even if you never watched a single episode of this TV show and have absolutely no idea what the word “khaleesi” means, this wonderful place is worth a detour. Just before Reykjahlið, turn left on road 860 in the direction of Grjótagjá, a gorgeous cave with incredibly blue water. In the show, this is the place where Jon Snow and Ygritte got to know each other a bit more intimately… It used to be a popular place to bath for locals thanks to its perfectly warm water, but after a period of volcanic eruptions in the 1970’s the temperature rose above 50°C, way too hot for a swim.

From Reykjahlið, Route 1 bypasses Lake Mývatn to the North and West, but most of the attractions are found on the East and South, so turn left on road 848 instead of following Route 1. After around 5 kms, you’ll reach Dimmuborgir, the most famous place of this part of Iceland.

Dimmuborgir

This huge solidified black lava can be compared to the ruins of an ancient dark city, or to the walls of a malefic castle; actually, in Icelandic Dimmuborgir means “dark cities” or “dark fortress”. This place is also featured in Game of Thrones (it’s where the wildling set their campground in season 3) and is home to many traditional legends. It is said that trolls can be found in Dimmuborgir, especially a group called the Yule Lads: they are the 13 sons of Grýla and Leppalúði, 2 vicious trolls who lived nearby. The best moment of the year to see them is in December. Unfortunately my trip around Iceland was in September and the only living creatures I saw were sheep!

There are many different options to explore Dimmuborgir, from a short wheelchair accessible path to longer tracks leading you to the most interesting rock formations including the “church”. You can even hike up to the top of Hverfjall crater a bit further.

Compared to the darkness of Dimmuborgir, the panoramic views over Lake Mývatn from the Höfði Peninsula a bit further South are really heavenly. The water is so clear, the trees so green and the entire landscape seems so peaceful! There are multiple paths around the peninsula, one of them leading you to the lava pillars of Kálfastrandavogar, a group of beautiful basaltic rocks pointing up from the lake.

Last stop on the South edge of Lake Mývatn: the pseudo-craters of Skútustaðagígar. Pseudo-craters? What does that mean? The answer is given on the sign at the entrance of the site: “pseudo-craters form when molten lava flows over water or wetlands. Water becomes trapped under the lava field and starts boiling. The pressure causes explosions where the steam escapes to the surface. The repeated explosions rip apart the lava, which piles up around the steam vent, forming a pseudo-crater”. To be honest, unless if you’re an expert it’s probably impossible to distinguish pseudo-craters from “real” volcanic craters… but it doesn’t make them less beautiful.

Where to stay? One day might not be enough to visit all these beautiful attractions so you might want to stay close to Lake Mývatn for another night. If so, I already told you about the Hlíd Hostel in my previous article; it’s probably the cheapest but still really decent option in the area (prices from 4400 crowns/33€/38$ – you’ll need your own sleeping bag to stay in the dorms).

Day 7: the capital of the North (Lake Mývatn-Akureyri)

If you read my previous articles about road tripping in Iceland, you might have realised that there was almost no day without at least one waterfall on the schedule. The one for day 7 is called Goðafoss and was probably my favourite of the entire trip.

Goðafoss (“waterfall of the gods”) is located around 50kms West of Reykjahlið on Route 1. It’s a really stunning horseshoe-shaped waterfall with view points on both sides. A track connects them and crosses the wild river downstream on a little bridge. The best view is from the South, where you can see the waterfall from the river level or admire it from above.

If you have more time, you can also choose to leave Reykjahlið to the North on road 87 in the direction of Húsavík, a little harbour which is known to be one of the best spots of Iceland for whale watching. Click here to learn more about it, and expect to add an extra day to your itinerary if you want to go on such a cruise. You can then head towards Akureyri by following road 85, which leads you back to Route 1 close to Goðafoss.

Despite its limited size with a population of slightly less than 20,000, Akureyri is the second biggest city of Iceland after Reykjavik and its suburbs. Because of its location so far North (the Arctic Circle is less than 100 kms away), it is often considered as the “Capital of the North”. It’s a really nice town with lots of ancient and pretty houses. Here’s a suggestion of itinerary to explore most of Akureyri in about 2 hours.

Begin from Hafnarstræti, the main commercial street of Akureyri. There are a few really nice buildings on both sides, take time to admire them before buying souvenirs or grabbing a coffee to keep you warm from one of the many shops and cafés along the street.

At the intersection between Hafnarstræti and Kaupvangsstræti, turn right and climb the 112 steps leading to Akureyrarkirkja, the church of Akureyri. It was built in 1940 by Guðjón Samúelsson, the same architect who completed Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavik (see my upcoming article). Its modern architecture might not be to everyone’s taste; what do you think?

Akureyri, Akureyrarkirkja, church

Follow the path left of the church to Eyrarlandsvegur and turn left. The houses on the right side of the street are really beautiful, and you’ll see another much more traditional church (KaÞólskakirkjan, “catholic church”) at the intersection with Hrafnagilsstræti.

Keep going straight on Eyrarlandsvegur until you reach the botanical garden of Akureyri. Its location is quite extraordinary as it’s one of the northernmost botanical gardens in the world! But that doesn’t seem to bother the 7000 species of plants and flowers growing there.

Exit the garden on Eyrarlandsvegur from the same gate you used to enter and turn right, then left on Spítalvegur. Take a path to your left going down the hill through the woods. At the bottom you’ll reach the old town of Akureyri. In the 19th century, when the village slowly started to grow, this is where the town center was. The streets of Hafnarstræti and Aðalstræti were actually the banks of the very first harbour. There are a few signs around the area providing more details about the early history of the city and pointing you to some historical buildings including the oldest house of Akureyri still up today (built in 1795).

Keep going South until the end of Aðalstræti to see more pretty and colourful houses then retrace your steps and take Hafnarstræti until you reach the intersection with Kaupvangsstræti where you climbed up to Akureyrarkirkja earlier. That’s it, you’ve seen the best of Akureyri!

At that point, there’s a little detail that you might have already noticed, but if you haven’t, pay attention to the traffic lights. Do you see anything special? In Akureyri, all the red lights are heart-shaped: a cute attention to the drivers.

Akureyri, red light, heart

Where to stay? There are a few different hostels in Akureyri. I stayed at the Akureyri Hostelling International Hostel, not the cosiest place I’ve stayed at in Iceland but a clean and pretty good hostel, and a good value for the price of the rooms (from 3300 crowns/24€/27$ for a dorm, 5600 crowns/41€/46$ for a private room).

From Akureyri you can either explore the North-West fjords (a part of Iceland that I unfortunately didn’t have time to visit), head back to Reykjavik on Route 1 or spend some time on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. If you want to know more about this gorgeous place, don’t miss my next article coming soon!

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