The Canyon Trail: a 32 Km Wilderness Hike in Northern Iceland

In the north of Iceland, you will find two of the most famous sites of the country: Ásbyrgi and Dettifoss. Most travelers only have a quick glance before driving to the next place, while fewer take the two days necessary to walk from one place to another. If the weather is good, this hike is just gorgeous. I will describe it accurately, in the way I did it: from Ásbyrgi to Dettifoss.

Overview of the hike: The canyon trail.

The canyon trail, known in Icelandic as Jökulsárglúfur is a hike of 32 km (20 miles) if you take the shortest way. It starts at the visitor center of the Ásbyrgi canyon and ends at the Dettifoss waterfall. As there are several options along the way and the distances are not always clearly marked, it is unsure whether we did just the 32km or more. Basically, even if you follow the paths that lead you to the shortest distance, it would be a shame not to roam onto all the secondary paths that take you to other places of interest. So … hey, if it has to be 40 km (25 miles), then it has to be 40 km.

We did this hike in the very end of July, it was a birthday trip for me and we were a team of four people including my girlfriend and two friends from France who paid me a visit. The weather was absolutely gorgeous at that time of the year and it obviously enhanced the beauty of all the landscapes we had the pleasure to walk through.

Even though it was right in the middle of the high season of tourism, I think we saw less than 10 people total on the trail in two days. Oddly, this hike is not very famous and not that much people are doing it.

Keep in mind that the hike is not a loop! You have to figure a way to get back to your starting point if you came with a car. If you are adventurous enough, you can walk back, the other way. Otherwise, you will find solutions at the end of the article for shuttle services Ásbyrgi / Dettifoss

For the first part of the hike, you will have to carry your water; there is no place where you can refill your bottle. On the second part, there is a river where the water is drinkable. Between part 1 and part 2, you can refill it at the Vesturdalur campsite.

I recommend you to buy the map of the trail at the visitor center before leaving. Even though having it or not is not a life threatening issue, it will for sure be more convenient.

Those were basic information about the whole hike, each of the two parts has its own specificities, I will get more into details when I will talk about each of them.

Part one: From Ásbyrgi to Vesturdalur.

The hike starts at the visitor center of Ásbyrgi. Ásbyrgi is located in the Vatnajökull National Park, close to the entrance of the Jökulsárglúfur Canyon. This is along this canyon that the hike will take place. The site of Ásbyrgi is particularly famous for its odd horse-shoe shape. If ever you are not into hiking for two days, the area is full of smaller hikes and walking paths, from a few dozens of minutes to several hours. Depending on which paths you are taking, you can choose to have a look at Ásbyrgi from the top of the cliffs, or from the bottom.

Ásbyrgi canyon as seen from the top during summer

The season you choose to visit will greatly influence your experience. If you visit during summer, the moss and the bushes will be completely green already. In early spring, you will have a desolated area, leafless bushes and bare rocks. I have not been there at that time, but in a similar place that I will talk about later (Hljóðaklettar), and this describes what I saw. In my opinion, there is no better option between those two, they are just different.

Enough talking about short visits, let’s start hiking now!

There is actually two possible routes, one is 12 km (7,45 miles), the other one is 13,6 km (8,45 miles). The longest one goes along the river, the other one goes up the cliff. To go there, you will have to take a path marked as a “black trail”, which is the color for the most challenging trails (in order: green, blue, red, black). It is really short, but to climb up the cliff, you will have to take high steps and hold a rope, so it is not recommended for people in poor condition or carrying heavy bags. This is the route we took, at least at first, I think that somehow, we finally joined the other one.

The first half (5 to 6 km, 3,1 to 3,7 miles) is not the most impressive. Walking up a cliff along a canyon and seeing Ásbyrgi from the top is quite stunning though. When you are hiking in Iceland, you often get huge panoramas, with mountains and other eye candies until the horizon, whichever way you look. On the canyon trail, this only comes after Ásbyrgi.

The first surprise, and perfect place to have a rest, eat a snack or have a beer, (I should not say that, but it was my birthday trip, so I was entitled to one hiking beer) is located just a bit after Ásbyrgi. At some point, the main path will go right and a secondary one, very tiny, will go straight. A few meters later, you arrive next to a small stream, surrounded by tiny cliffs and lot of bushes. Just by the stream, there is a grassy area where you can sit and rest for a while.

This is right after that moment that I wonder if we stayed on the same track or switched to the other one. No, the beer was not involved.

We now begin to eye our destination, Vesturdalur. Far, far away, but visible. The least amazing part is now behind us, what is ahead will just be fantastic all the way. The first real change from before and after is that we are now walking right by the canyon. It is located on our left and we have a gorgeous diving view on the Jökulsa river below. In front of us, we see a huge valley with rocks shaped in the weirdest way your brain can imagine. Those landscapes will now be our hiking buddies.

Canyon trail, Jokulsa riverCanyon trail, jokulsa river

 

Along the canyon, you can have a rest or a snack (no, no more beers, one is enough while hiking) at various spots, offering you the most amazing panoramas.

Later, just a few kilometers before Vesturdalur, you will notice a path going left, which looks like a little loop. Take it! This is the way to two of the main features of the hike: Hljóðaklettar and Rauðhólar. The little path will lead you to a point of view, where you will spot Rauðhólar on your left; it’s like a small mountain completely red on its whole slope. On your right, you will have the best view possible on the weirdly shaped rocks I mentioned before.
Raudholar, Vesturdalur on the canyon tail of north IcelandView on Hjolaklettar from the canyon trail in North Iceland.
 

It is time to walk down the valley, and head toward the campsite of Vesturdalur. From now, the hike will be trickier for a few kilometers. Your legs are tired, you are still carrying almost 2 days’ worth of food and the path is getting pretty rocky from now, so watch your ankles.

You are now at the campsite of Vesturdalur, the hike should have taken you around six hours max, including rests. Always keep in mind that the larger the group is, the slower you go. The campsite is cozy and the surroundings are beautiful. Even if you are a bit tired after walking, I recommend that you head to the top of the hill nearby to have a look at the midnight sun, and moonrise.

Moon rise, right after midnight sun, Vesturdalur campsite

Part 2: From Vesturdalur to the most powerful waterfall of Europe, Dettifoss.

It is now time to wake up, pack your tent, fill you water bottles, take a shower if you feel like it, and start walking again. As I mentioned earlier, you go slower when you are walking with a bigger group, and at that point, half of our group left. They decided to hitchhike back to Ásbyrgi, get the car and then join us at our arrival point: the Dettifoss waterfall. They took our heavy backpacks with them, and my friend wanted to do this second part in a bit more sportive way. The 20 km (12,4 miles) took us around 5 hours, but it cannot be considered as an accurate reference. Seven or even eight hours sound more reasonable

The hike starts right from the campsite and departure is not very well indicated. When in the campsite, head toward the reception, on your way, on your left, you will notice a path with a very low fence and a sign which tends to make you think the path is only for horses. This is where the second part of the hike starts.

The trail starts in lowland, and the cliffs and hills that were surrounding you are slowly fading away and getting lower and lower. Vegetation becomes more and more visible, and as far as you can see, it is all green and purple.

Just a few minutes later, you get to walk in the valley of Svinadalur with a 360° view on it. This is when you will notice a small path heading right and a few signs a bit further. I recommend you to go there and read the signs. I discovered something I did not know and that I still think is quite hard to believe: In the old times, there were farmers in the Highlands of Iceland. The three signs are telling you the stories of one family, who lived there, in Svinadalur, farming and living in the harsh conditions of the highlands. This is simply incredible. You also get to see the remains of the ruins of the farm.

Canyon trail Svinadalur valley

To sum it up, in 1899, Páll Jónsson and his wife started farming there. They had 10 children who all survived, but soon after the last ones were born (triplets!) their mother, Þorbjörg, died from an infection in 1915. Following the death of their mother, children were separated (even the triplets, they got back together only 70 years later) except for a few who decided to stay with their father until 1918. Then everybody left Svinadalur, a few of them, and Páll, decided to come back two years later. Even if the children left again, Páll stayed there until 1946 and said that despite all the sad events, he has never been happier than in the farm of Svinadalur.

Let’s go back to the trail. After those signs, you are still evolving into the valley; you will soon reach a crossroad where you can head left to a point of view (Kallbjarg). You should go there, have a rest and take some pictures. It is totally worth it. From now on, you will walk along the wonderful Jökulsárglúfur canyon and the Jökulsá river until the end of the hike.

Kjallbjarg, cliffs on the canyon trail of north iceland

The landscape is now changing, not only because of the canyon, but also thanks to surrounding bushes and birches. Until suddenly, it becomes brown sand, rocks and dirt. In this area, you will find a side path toward a place named Gloppa. The place is constituted of black sand and some more weirdly shaped rocks. Sorry, I do not know how to describe those rocks any better, it is really, simply, weird. Whether you came all the way to Gloppa or decided to stay on the main path, you will find a way to head down to the lowland again.

Here comes a funny moment when you have to wade through a small river: Stallá. This spring flows straight into the Jökulsa river. It is shallow and cold, but very easily passable. There are no sharp stones at the bottom, so one can go barefoot. You have to cross where it is indicated. If you are not comfortable with it, do not try to venture out of the trail to check out if there is an easier, shallower way. Instead, simply follow these two advices: Use a pair of sandals or sneakers, walking on the stones will be easier. Also use hiking poles to keep balance. But, once again, there is nothing complicated here. Useful tip: Water is drinkable, so do not hesitate to refill your bottles.

wading stalla river in vatnajokull national park

Just after the river, you are back to luxurious (on Icelandic standards) vegetation, and huge panoramas on the Jökulsárglúfur canyon and the Jökulsa river. Also, the hills on your right and the cliffs of the canyon on your left are now scattered with many streams turning into waterfalls. You are in Hólmárfossa. Climb up a few stairs on your right and … Congrats! You are halfway through the hike for today, 10 more kilometers to go. There is a parking lot with sanitary facilities and garbage bins. I recommend you take the opportunity.

canyon and waterfalls in iceland

Guess what? Landscapes are changing again! Welcome to Iceland, it is just the way it is. And this is what makes hiking so amazing here.

While you still evolve along the Jökulsárglúfur canyon, and spot countless huge waterfalls in it, you will walk on a rocky trail first, there is no more vegetation now and those grey, brown and deserted landscapes make you feel like on another planet. Actually, it is just a zone of former volcanic activity.

Jokulsagljufur canyon in north iceland

A few kilometers before the Dettifoss Waterfall, you have two options: black trail on your left or red trail straight forward. We took the black one, so this is the one I will describe, just keep in mind that there is another, smoother, option; especially if you are carrying bags.

The black trail starts going down through man-made stairs carved into the cliff. Once you are down, you will notice something you could not spot from above. Just right by the cliffs, the water’s color turns from a dark grey to a deep blue, making incredible patterns where those colors are mixing. You will have to walk on steep rocky slopes to find your way down, and then you will evolve on a very easy trail at water level. Already, you can hear and feel the power of the mighty Dettifoss Waterfall which, for now, remains hidden to your sight.

Time to climb up again! This is definitely the tough part of the black trail. You will have to go up a cliff made of rocks and sand using a rope to find your way up. After that, it is just a smooth walk on a moon-like landscape made of black sands. You are almost there.

20 minutes later, no more, this is it, the reward of a two days walk, 32 km, 20 miles: The Dettifoss waterfall.

Dettifoss is the most powerful waterfall of Europe: 400m3 of water per second. It is 44 meters high (144 feet) and can be spotted from both sides, east and west. After the trail, the way we did it, we arrived on the west side. If you are traveling by car and just willing to see the waterfall, you must be aware that there is less to walk from the car park to the waterfall on the east side, also, in my opinion, the east side offers a much better view.

Once you have walked 20 km, it is no big deal do one more to check the Selfoss waterfall which is just a bit upstream from Dettifoss and also quite impressive.

Selfoss waterfall, close to Dettifoss

From there, the friends who left us in Vesturdalur picked us up and we headed for more adventures in the Icelandic Highlands. Best birthday trip ever.

Additional information:

If the hike is not a loop, how do I get back to my starting point?

As mentioned, hitchhiking is an option. Dettifoss and Ásbyrgi are both famous landmarks, and it is very likely to find some people going from one place to another. Although, nothing is guaranteed when it comes to hitchhiking, so it remains unsure.

Another option is to book a shuttle, here is the webpage of the canyon trail on the official website of the Vatnajökull national park. You will find the names of the companies offering this service at the bottom of their page. It is also a good sum up of most of the information I provided here.

What kind of gears do I need?

You basically need to pack:

• Camping equipment: tent, sleeping bag, mattress

• Hiking clothes, warm clothes: It is Iceland, so even during summer time and beautiful days, always be ready for the four seasons. That is the rule here.

• No alpinism or special hiking gear is necessary. The hike can be sometimes challenging but it does not require more skills than walking on your two legs. To be extra cautious, you can take hiking poles and a pair of sneakers to wade through the river or at least be comfortable at the campsite.

Where are the campsites?

You have a total of three campsites. The first one is at the departure point: Ásbyrgi’s visitor center, the second one, halfway through the trek: in Vesturdalur. There is a third one (which I know nothing about) at Dettifoss, north of the parking lot, apparently made to be used especially by hikers. There is no running water there, but the rangers are filling water tanks. Therefore, one must be reasonable with his use of this water.

I do not know about Dettifoss, but the two other campsites cost between 1500 and 2000 Kr.

Can I just pitch my tent in the nature, on the trail?

Unfortunately, despite how tempting it can seem, no, you cannot. You are within the limits of a national park, therefore it is strictly forbidden to camp out of campsites. This is a matter of nature preservation.

What rules should I abide by while hiking the canyon trail?

Icelandic nature is very fragile in the sense that any modification you will make in the landscapes, even the slightest one, like, for instance: some footprints or tearing up some moss… will stay here for decades. Therefore, it is very important for every hiker to always stay on the walking path and never venture out of it. It can be frustrating, I agree, but many sites in Iceland are closing for long weeks or months so they can be “repaired”, for that reason. This is for the why camping is strictly prohibited outside of the campsites.

I was actually really happy not to spot any trace of alterations during the whole trek, and no trash at all. It was a real pleasure.

What about doing it from Dettifoss to Ásbyrgi instead?

I think the hike is more beautiful around Dettifoss than around Ásbyrgi. So I would recommend doing it the way we did in order to end with the nicest part. But it is a completely subjective opinion.