Day 4: Driving the Ring Road in Iceland | Egilsstaðir to Mývatn
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Our fourth day driving the Ring Road was action packed as we went through the martian landscape of northeast Iceland. The highlights of this section of the Ring Road include the powerful Dettifoss waterfall, the geothermal lava fields of Krafla and Hevrir, a lava cave steam bath, volcanic craters, lava rock fields, and the gorgeous Lake Mývatn. It was a long day that ended with a problem with our Airbnb.
Dettifoss & Selfoss
After 2 hours of driving from Egilsstaðir, our first stop was Dettifoss. Dettifoss is the most voluminous waterfall in Europe. The power of the waterfall is staggering. You can hear the falls before you can see it. Even from a distance, you can get soaked in its mist. In a country full of waterfalls, Dettifoss is unique and definitely worth a stop.
The drive to the falls goes through a Mars-like landscape. It was the longest stretch we had seen without a new waterfall cascading down the cliff next to us. The more we drove, the drier and more volcanic it seemed. If we had not done research, we would never have believed that the most voluminous waterfall was nearby. The rugged volcanic landscape added to the otherworldly feeling of Dettifoss.
Once you park, to get to Dettifoss and the nearby Selfoss waterfalls, you hike through volcanic rock. The distance between Dettifoss and Selfoss is only 1 km and it is an easy flat walk. To get close to Selfoss, you will likely have to hike through the mud in moonscape-like small craters. Hiking boots are a necessity. We actually preferred the look of Selfoss over Dettifoss. Both were some of our favorite waterfalls.
Route 864 or 862?
Dettifoss can be accessed by taking either Route 864 or 862 from the Ring Road. The routes go to two different sides of the falls. Which route you take locks you into which side of the falls you will see. Route 864 (east side) is the first you will come to if you are coming from Egilsstaðir and is a bumpy gravel road only accessible by 4WD cars (closed in the winter). Route 862 (west side) is paved and gets you to Dettifoss a lot faster.
The west side is more built up with a nice parking lot, bathroom, and viewing platforms. The east side also has a parking lot and allows you to get right up to the falls. Personally, I think the view of Dettifoss from the west is better, but the view of Selfoss is better from the east.
I would advise taking Route 862 to the west of Dettifoss. It is accessible by all cars and should be open throughout the year. There is more effort on the west side to preserve the nature surrounding Dettifoss and Selfoss and to keep visitors on the trails.
TIME SPENT: 1 hour and 15 Minutes
Krafla is an active volcanic region with steaming vents and large craters. To get there you pass through a geothermal power station by the same name. A bit before the power station area, the powerful rotten-egg sulfur smell will infiltrate your car. Don't worry, you will start to get used to the terrible smell after 15 minutes or so.
There are two main highlights of the Krafla area: the Viti crater and Leirhnjúkur lava field.
The first parking lot you get to is for Leirhnjúkur. The lava field is a multi-colored landscape with bubbling lava ponds. The most recent eruption was in the 1970s. The walk to the field and the main lava pond takes 20 minutes. You can walk around more of the field to explore the other lava ponds.
A minute up the road is Viti crater, a large crater filled with an opaque teal lake. There is a circular path around the crater and other geothermal steam vents. When we pulled up, a bad storm approached. We climbed up the steep hill with hail pounding on us carefully watching our step to not slip down or have the wind blow us into the crater. Behind the crater are the large winding pipes from the geothermal plant.
TIME SPENT: 1 hour and 45 Minutes
Back on the Ring Road is Hverir, another geothermal spot with mud and steaming fumaroles emitting sulfuric gas. Hverir sits below Namafjall volcano. There are roped off paths along the orange landscape to protect the mud pools and prevent you from melting off your shoe. A very surreal place to walk around. Walking between large cracks and bubbling mud.
If you have extra time, you can climb up Namafjall mountain to get a great view of the geothermal activity below.
Hverir and the next four sights were all very close together on the east side of Lake Mývatn. It was less than a 5-10 minutes drive to get to the next place.
TIME SPENT: 20 minutes
Grjótagjá cave is a small lava cave close to Lake Mývatn. Up until the 1970s after a period of geothermal issues, it was a popular bathing spot for the locals. Now it is too hot to swim in but you can climb down and peek inside.
It is also known for being a filming location for Game of Thrones. It was used in the scene with Jon Snow and Ygritte and the cave. Yes, that cave scene.
The cave was on our way to other sights. But to be honest, it was not entirely worth the stop. It was completely overrun by tourists, which has caused the following update:
FYI: This site closed down a week after we visited due to damage by tourists. Do not try to visit, it has a fence covering the opening of the cave.
TIME SPENT: 15 minutes
Hverfjall is a volcanic crater right next to Lake Mývatn. To get to the parking lot near the hiking path up the crater, you have to drive on a horrible rocky gravel road. We were able to do it without a 4WD car, but it definitely felt like we should not have been able to drive on it. Drive very slowly and be careful if you have a car with low ground clearance.
The crater is roughly 396 meters tall and you can walk up the steep slope to view inside the crater and hike around the rim. It takes about 15-20 minutes to climb to the top and another 15 minutes to walk around it. When we went it was extremely windy once we got to the top, making it a bit too scary to walk all the way around it.
The views inside the crater were remarkable, but the best view was actually looking out from the crater at Lake Mývatn.
TIME SPENT: 30 Minutes
At Dimmuborgir you are able to walk between extraordinary lava formations. The lava rocks date back to an eruption or series of eruptions that happened 2300 years ago. Those eruptions were responsible for the unique landscape of this area, including Hverfjall and Skútustaðagígar (below). The eruptions produced molten lava the flowed over Lake Mývatn, trapping the water below it. Steam that erupted through vents in the lava caused the pseudo craters at Skútustaðagígar and formed the lava rock pillars at Dimmuborgir, a few kilometers away.
There are several clearly marked walking paths at Dimmuborgir that will take you through the lava fields. The most popular route is Kirkjuhringurinn which takes you to the Kirkja or church lava formation. The church formation is a naturally made lava cave whose entrance parallels the shape of many Scandinavian churches. The Kirkjuhringurinn route takes about 45 minutes with stops to take pictures. We went a bit later in the day and only saw two other groups on the trail.
There is a paid bathroom and restaurant at the visitor center.
TIME SPENT: 45 Minutes
This was a long day. We had originally planned to split the sights around Mývatn into two days, but we squeezed it into one. The weather that afternoon/evening was beautiful (even though that morning was awful). It was our first time seeing the sun and exploring an area without rain. The forecast showed rain for the next day, so we decided to just do everything while the weather was in our favor. It was 6 pm at this point. We had walked 35,000 steps and climbed the equivalent of 150 floors. We were tired and starving. I wish we had the energy to fully enjoy Skútustaðagígar because it was stunning.
Skútustaðagígar is an area of Lake Mývatn with water-filled pseudo craters. Iceland is one of the only places known to have pseudo craters, along with Mars. Pseudocraters are formed by steam eruptions rather than being dormant volcanos. It takes about an hour to walk around all the craters but we took a shorter path.
TIME SPENT: 30 Minutes
Airbnb Mistake - Double booked
We booked a gorgeous Airbnb (use this link for $40 off your first Airbnb) in the middle of an overlooked valley near Mývatn. It was at least an hour off the main road, most of the way there was on a bumpy gravel road. The farm where our cabin was on was probably a good 15 minutes away from the next closest house. Sufficiently hungry, we were excited to immediately start making dinner when we arrived at our cabin. Our Airbnb host messaged us earlier in the day letting us know that the key will be in the door ready for us when we arrive. We pull into the farm and up to our cabin, only to find no key in the door and someone else's bags inside. The property has 3 other cabins, thinking that one of the other guests went to the wrong cabin, we check those for a key in the door. Just like the first, all of the cabins had the key missing and suitcases visible inside.
We went to the main farm building and were greeted by the host, who spoke little English. She called her daughter, who could speak English fluently, and had her talk to us over the phone. After a bit of confusion, we were invited inside the main house to wait for the daughter to come and figure it out. The daughter lived in Husavik, an hour drive away. We had no idea what the problem was. Did the guests from the previous night never check out? Did one of the guests from the other cabins decide to take our key too? Did they overbook the room? Regardless of what the issue was, we were a bit worried about if we were going to have some place to sleep for the night. We had booked this Airbnb 9 months in advance since accommodations in Iceland book up.
The host was extremely hospitable. While we were worried about where we were going to sleep that night, we were far more concerned about getting food ASAP. Food will always be more important than lodging. The host graciously let us use her kitchen to cook our pasta. She also made up a platter of delicious cheese, crackers, fruit, bread, and various spread. Fruit and cheese are expensive in Iceland so we felt spoiled snacking on brie while waiting on our $2 meal of penne boiling on the stove.
While we were eating, the host was in the other room making phone call after phone call in Icelandic. She occasionally came back in the kitchen to look out the window to watch if a car was coming. Eventually, the daughter arrived. After profuse apologies, she let us know that they had double booked the Airbnb. They use two different sites to book their cabins and unfortunately, they did not sync up correctly. This was the first time it had ever happened to them in over a year of having the cabins. They were able to find one of their friends in the area who also have Airbnb tiny houses with a free room. They reimbursed us and paid for the other Airbnb. The other Airbnb was 20 minutes back towards where we had come from. The new place was very similar to the cabin we had booked: on a farm with a modern interior and all the amenities one would need for a night.
In the end, it worked out better than we could have expected. We got a completely free night (saving $225), some good snacks, got to see a gorgeous valley we wouldn't have gone to otherwise, and the next day we had 20 minutes less driving to do.
This was the first problem with an Airbnb we have ever dealt with and we have booked Airbnbs in many countries. The problem was solved by our host with more care and compassion than you would expect from a hotel. If you have any reservations with booking through Airbnb, don't.
So now that you know what we saw, why don't you watch it:
What we skipped:
Mývatn Nature Baths
There are many nature bath and hot water pools throughout Iceland, including the famous Blue Lagoon. Mývatn Nature baths is another man-made steam lagoon in the northeast region of Iceland. The nature baths in Mývatn are a bit cheaper than the Blue Lagoon ($50 vs $75), however you have to pay extra ($8) to use a towel at Mývatn nature baths. We had only planned to go to one nature bath or pool on our trip and decided it had to be the Blue Lagoon, which we did at the end of our trip. If we had known how much we would love the Blue Lagoon, we might have also visited the Mývatn nature baths. If you know you love spas or steamy pools, book a time for Mývatn. It is supposed to be less busy than Blue Lagoon but smell like sulfur a bit more.