For thousands of years one of Iceland’s largest rivers, Jokulsa a Fjollum, (The Glacier River from the Mountains) has continued to flow from under the Vatnajokull glacier ice cap. It winds its way through a landscape of diverse aspects for a distance of 206 km, runs north to the sea and empties at Oxarfjordur bay. Besides being the country’s second longest river, its catchment area is the largest of all. North of Vatnajokull, the river crosses a barren, gently sloping plateau, but the current gains speed towards the edge of the highlands, where powerful waterfalls drop into the canyon. On its long journey, the river has carved numerous channels into the highland bedrock and to the west of Holsfjoll it cascades from a tall rocky ledge, forming the huge waterfall Dettifoss, plunging into magnificent canyons which extend all the way down to the bridge over the river on highway 85.
The Jokulsargljufur National Park
In 1973, a national park was established in Jokulsargljufur canyons and the surrounding area and in 1978 the park was expanded to include Asbyrgi. When Vatnajokull National Park, the largest national park in Europe, was established in 2008, Jokulsargljufur became a part of it. The park includes all the canyons to the west of Jokulsa. In 1996, the area around Dettifoss, Selfoss and Hafragilsfoss to the east of Jokulsa was declared a national monument. The Natural Park Visitors Center, Gljufrastofa, is located in Asbyrgi, a tourist information center with great geology exhibitions.
Among renowned pearls of the park, in addition to the above mentioned waterfalls are Vesturdalur, Hljodaklettar, Holmatungur and Asbyrgi. Canyons, gullies, and rock formations of diverse shapes and sizes are all phenomena of nature, primarily formed by volcanic activity and water floods from Jokulsa. The Park offers numerous other points of interest, such as the huge rock pillars Karl and Kerling (Old Man and Old Woman) and the waterfalls Selfoss and Rettarfoss in Jokulsa. Holmatungur area is rich in diverse vegetation where great contrasts catch the eye.
The National Park is ideal for walks and outdoor recreation, especially for those who are not in a hurry, since a number of days are needed to enjoy the richness and diverse character of the area. A footpath is marked through the park between Dettifoss and Asbyrgi which takes nearly two days to traverse. However, many shorter routes can be selected, radiating out from the park’s main destinations. In the summer, a program of events is offered where visitors can choose between various walking tour options.
The largest and most impressive river canyon in Iceland
Over 24 km long with a width of up to ½ km and a depth of up to 100 m, the Jokulsargljufur Canyon is one of the largest and most impressive of Iceland's many river canyons. It has enthralled visitors for centuries.
The Jokulsargljufur canyon and its surroundings are thought to have been cut into the bedrock through a sequence of catastrophic glacial floods, or jokulhlaups, after the end of the last glaciation. The last of such flood probably occurred some 2000 years ago, but the canyon terrain still clearly shows its erosive force. About 8-9000 years ago, two volcanic fissures erupted, one of which ran parallel to today’s river for a distance of some 6 km and is named after the Raudholar and Hljodaklettar formations. The other fissure is named after Randarholar hills, just north of Dettifoss waterfall at Hafragil, where the river has cut through the feeder channel of a volcanic crater. This opened a unique cross-sectional view of the magma channel in the canyon’s east wall. The Raudholar fissure happens to be the longest crater row on earth. Both of these fissures produced broad lava fields; however, catastrophic river floods washed large parts away, leaving cliff-edged hills behind, such as Vigabjarg in Forvod, Eyjan in Vesturdalur and Eyjan in Asbyrgi, all remains of former lava flows.
Some of Iceland's most renowned natural attractions are located within Jokulsargljufur. Dettifoss is regarded as Europe's most powerful waterfall and by looking at it one can sense the forces that shaped the Asbyrgi canyon and Hljodaklettar. The contrasts between power and peace are seldom more obvious than in Holmatungur where crystal clear streams and fountains run into the sizzling glacier river Jokulsa.
When passing through the area it is worth bearing in mind how this dramatic canyon was formed by the actions of water, fire and ice. Enormous, catastrophic glacial bursts have carved out the deep ravines and rocky basins, the most famous of which is Asbyrgi canyon, 3.5 km long and over 1 km wide. It is one of the wonders of nature, a wide, horseshoe-shaped canyon with sheer cliff faces up to 100 m high. Imagine how it was carved by enormous water flow and see in mind huge waterfalls flowing down the cliffs down to the now silent ponds Botnstjorn and Leirtjorn surrounded by luxuriant vegetation. A distinctive rock formation rises up from the centre of Asbyrgi, up to 250 m wide, known as Eyjan. The area is covered in woodland consisting mainly of birch, willow and mountain ash. Several thousand recently planted pines also prosper. Arctic fulmars nest on the steep cliffs, while many other birds prefer the woods and meadows.
Asbyrgi was formed by catastrophic flood caused by glacial bursts more than ten thousand years ago. Since then the bed of the river has moved eastwards as two continental plates are drifting apart. According to legend, the canyon Asbyrgi was made when the Norse god Odin's eight-legged horse Sleipnir, put one of his hooves down on earth as the god rode by and left its mark there.
A Unique Series of Waterfalls
In the River Jokulsa a Fjollum there is a unique series of waterfalls - Selfoss, Dettifoss, Hafragilsfoss and Rettarfoss - and they have few equals on earth. Falling 45 m with a width of 100 m, Dettifoss is reputed to be the most powerful waterfall in Europe. Visitors generally approach Dettifoss on the east side of the River Jokulsa where the road through Holssandur is better. However, taking the road at the west side also gives you the opportunity to stop by Hljodaklettar and Holmatungur and even when you get to the Dettifoss waterfall the view from there is remarkable. There is a 20-30 minutes' walk from the parking place to the bank of the canyon where the waterfall plunges down and has managed to dig down about 500 meters channel for a period of 1000 years. Take care not to get too close to the edge and fall into the raging and frigidly cold river and notice that there are no guard rails.
Hljodaklettar outcrops are the cores of ancient crater row, revealed when the river swept away all the loose volcanic material. A little further to the north are the Raudholar cliffs, the original scoria cones and longest fissure row on earth.
Selfoss is a smaller waterfall a little way upstream with a drop of 10 m. There are easy paths from Dettifoss, which allow a pleasant 1 km walk.
Below Dettifoss, the Hafragilsfoss waterfall cascades 27 m into a deep canyon. It is best to drive to Hafragilsfoss, which is located in an environment that is geologically and historically as fascinating as Dettifoss.
Some years ago, plans were proposed to harness the hydroelectric potential of the canyon, but they were scrapped when the lava strata in the area were found to be too porous for a reservoir. On the east bank of the canyon, near Hafragilsfoss, the river has cut through a crater row named Randarholar to expose a volcano's lava pipe in the cliff wall.
The Holmatungur district is an area of contrasts: crystal clear streams and bubbling brooks cross the land before emptying into the raging, chocolate-coloured torrent. A delicate balance of flora and fauna thrives under the protection of cliffs and scree slopes.
As in Kelduhverfi farm
For centuries, As in Kelduhverfi was one of Iceland's greatest manor farms. Its land was richly endowed with woodland and fertile meadows, and it included a number of smallholdings. Powerful floods in the River Jokulsa in the 17th and 18th centuries destroyed many of the pastures and transformed As from a 'prosperous manor to a large and toilsome peasant hovel'. A church stood in the estate in earlier centuries, but it had fallen into disuse by 1816. The settlement at Svinadalur was for a long time part of the estate of As, and for a long time a mountain dairy (Icelandic: sel) seems to have operated there. It was occupied throughout the 19th century, and right up to 1946. Historical records mention mountain dairies and small cottages in other parts of the As estate. The settlement at Asbyrgi, one of the old smallholdings of As, has been occupied more or less continuously for hundreds of years. The Iceland Forest Service acquired Asbyrgi in 1928 and enclosed its innermost area.
Flora and Fauna
Jokulsargljúfur nature is full of contrasts. Some marshy spots can be found in the Hafragil and Holmatungur areas. The established birch woods of Asbyrgi are delightful and provide a home to many plant species and numerous birds, of which redwings, redpolls, wrens and snipes are common. Ptarmigans, plovers and meadow pipits are frequently seen in lower-growing vegetation; around lakes and ponds, wetland birds are common. Falcons, merlins, ravens and fulmars nest in cliffs, while wheatears and snow buntings breed in barren, rocky areas.
Jokulsargljufur has a network of trails that vary in distance and difficulty. Jokulsargljufur with its campsites in Asbyrgi and Vesturdalur is also a favorable destination for those who want to experience the Icelandic summer in a beautiful setting.
Check out some of our self-drive tours that visit this amazing location.