Iceland’s mammoth and magnificent north is a geologist’s heaven. A wonderland of moonlike lava fields, belching mudpots, epic waterfalls, snowcapped peaks and whale-filled bays – this is Iceland at its best. The region’s top sights are variations on a couple of themes: the grumbling, volcanically active earth, and water and ice coursing towards the broad coast.
There are endless treats to discover: little Akureyri, with its surprising moments of big-city living; windy fjordside pastures full of stout Viking horses; and fishing villages clinging tenaciously to life at the end of unsealed roads.
Prepare to be enticed by offshore islands populated by colonies of seabirds and a few hardy locals; lonely peninsulas stretching out towards the Arctic Circle; white-water rapids ready to deliver an adrenaline kick; national-park walking trails to reach unparalleled views; unhyped and underpopulated ski fields; and underwater marvels that woo divers into frigid depths.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout North Iceland.
The tiny rocky islet of Drangey ( drown -gay), in the middle of Skagafjörður, is a dramatic flat-topped mass of volcanic tuff with 180m-high sheer cliffsides rising abruptly from the water. The cliffs serve as nesting sites for around a million seabirds (puffins, guillemots, gannets, kittiwakes, fulmar, shearwaters and predatory gyrfalcons), and have been used throughout Iceland’s history as ‘nature’s grocery store’ (for locals seeking birds and eggs). Drangey Tours offers fabulous three-hour boat trips to Drangey.
The 18th-century turf-farm museum at Glaumbær is the best museum of its type in northern Iceland and worth the easy 8km detour off the Ring Road, following Rte 75 north from Varmahlíð. The traditional Icelandic turf farm was a complex of small separate buildings, connected by a central passageway. Here you can see this style of construction, with some building compartments stuffed full of period furniture, equipment and utensils. It gives a fascinating insight into the cramped living conditions of the era.
Lovingly created over 16 years, this award-winning museum does a stunning job of recreating Siglufjörður’s boom days between 1903 and 1968, when it was the herring-fishing capital of Iceland. Set in three buildings that were part of an old Norwegian herring station, the museum brings the work and lives of the town’s inhabitants vividly to life.
The giant jagged lava field at Dimmuborgir (literally ‘Dark Castles’) is one of the most fascinating flows in the country. A series of nontaxing, colour-coded walking trails runs through the easily anthropomorphised landscape. The most popular path is the easy Church Circle (2.3km). Check with the visitor centre in Reykjahlíð or at the cafe at Dimmuborgir about free guided ranger walks in summer.
The bizarre swirls, spirals, rosettes, honeycombs and basalt columns at Hljóðaklettar (Echo Rocks) are a highlight of any hike around Vesturdalur and a puzzling place for amateur geologists. It's difficult to imagine what sort of volcanic activity produced these twisted rock forms. Dazzling concertina formations and repeat patterns occur throughout, and the normally vertical basalt columns (formed by rapidly cooling lava) show up on the horizontal here.
The dramatic lava cave at Lofthellir is a stunning destination, with magnificent natural ice sculptures dominating the interior. Although it's one of Mývatn’s highlights, the cave is on private property and can only be accessed on a half-day tour with Geo Travel. The tour involves a one-hour 4WD journey and a 25-minute walk across gorgeous lava fields to reach the cave, and then the donning of special equipment (headlamps, studded boots etc) and intensely physical wriggling through tight spaces. Wear warm, waterproof gear.
Goðafoss (Waterfall of the Gods) rips straight through the Bárðardalur lava field along Rte 1. Although smaller and less powerful than some of Iceland’s other chutes, it’s definitely one of the most beautiful. There are two car parks: one on the Ring Road, the other down the road beside the petrol station. Take the path behind the falls for a less-crowded viewpoint.
Dominating the lava fields on the eastern edge of Mývatn is the classic tephra ring Hverfjall (also called Hverfell). This near-symmetrical crater appeared 2700 years ago in a cataclysmic eruption. Rising 452m from the ground and stretching 1040m across, it is a massive and awe-inspiring landmark in Mývatn.
Krafla’s most impressive, and potentially most dangerous, attraction is the Leirhnjúkur crater and its solfataras, which originally appeared in 1727, starting out as a lava fountain and spouting molten material for two years before subsiding. A well-defined track leads northwest to Leirhnjúkur from the Krafla parking area (which has toilets); with all the volcanic activity, high temperatures, bubbling mudpots and steaming vents, it's best not to stray from the marked paths.