Updated on December 21st, 2021
The Mývatn Geothermal Area in Northern Iceland is a place like nowhere else on earth. It sits at the point where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet & is a geologist’s dream. The area has everything from volcanoes, bubbling mud, steaming earth, otherworldly landscapes, bright blue lakes & a smell that you will not forget in a hurry! If you have ever wanted to explore other planets, then this is a great place to start!”
I was in North Iceland for what turned out to be a transformational yoga retreat led by my lovely friend Kathy at The Santosha Life. For the retreat, we stayed in Akureyri which was an excellent base to explore the less-visited northern part of this astonishing country. I’ll be honest, I hadn’t done a lot of research on the area & during the retreat we spent a day exploring Lake Mývatn & its surroundings. I didn’t know what to expect but I like surprises & it’s fair to say that the day we spent in Mývatn Geothermal Area was full of them!
It was less like being in a foreign country, more like a completely different planet, after all, they even trained for the moon landings here! From pseudocraters to bubbling earth, volcanoes, a lava labyrinth & a fissure where you can stand with one foot in North America & the other in Europe. And if that wasn’t enough, I even got to see the Northern Lights!
So, if you would like to discover a whole other world, without leaving earth, then definitely take your time to explore the spectacular area around Lake Mývatn.”
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The Mývatn basin (pronounced mee-vaht) sits directly on the Mid Atlantic Ridge, the point where the North American & Eurasian tectonic plates meet. This has created an otherworldly landscape unlike anywhere else I have visited. In 1974 it was designated as a Nature Conservation Area & Hverfjall crater & the pseudocraters at Skútustaðagígar were preserved as national monuments. Most of the features discussed here are either on or in easy reach of the Ring Road (Rte 1). It is 90 kilometres (55 miles) from Akureyri & approximately a 6-hour drive from Reykjavik.
What is the best time of year to visit the Mývatn Geothermal Area?
The obvious answer to this question is that the summer months (June – August) will be milder & the days longer to give you more time to explore. However, the name Mývatn in Icelandic means midges & they proliferate in the summer months. I was there in late August & they weren’t a problem, probably because when I visited it was very windy. However, I have seen enough videos & read plenty about them to know they can be a real nuisance. In addition, be aware that the summer months make the area much busier & therefore if you are planning to stay, finding accommodation at a reasonable price will be a challenge. Costs go up considerably during the peak season.
In winter, driving generally will be a challenge & many of the lesser roads may be impassable. Therefore, for the best of everything then the shoulder seasons (May & September) could be the ideal.”
What is the best way to explore the Mývatn Geothermal Area?
As I previously mentioned, I was on a one-day tour with my yoga buddies & I have to say that the more I saw of these magnificent landscapes, the longer I wanted to spend here. Although you can get a public bus to a few of these attractions, discovering the area this way will be more challenging & take considerably more time. The perfect way to see all that the area has to offer is to hire a car. However, if that’s not available to you then here are a few tours that could take you there from either Akureyri or Reykjavik:
You may have heard of the Golden Circle tour in the South of Iceland? In the north, there is the Diamond Circle. It is a route of 260km which snakes through several of the natural wonders of this fascinating part of the country, including the Mývatn Geothermal Area. It is advisable to take at least 2 days to cover all this ground, as there will be plenty of places to stop along the way. The route includes the epic waterfalls of Goðafoss & Dettifoss, as well as Ásbyrgi Canyon & Húsavík, the whale watching capital of Iceland.
It is also possible to see many of these sights on a hike which is accessible via a well-marked track. The path leads you from the village of Reykjahlíð to Haverfjall, Grjótagjá & Dimmuborgir. It should take around half a day & what better way to finish off than by soaking your tired limbs at the Mývatn Nature Baths?
1. Lake Mývatn
Lake Mývatn is the centrepiece of the area although the lake itself is probably the least unique of all the features mentioned here. It is a great place to go for keen birdwatchers as they have 115 species identified, including 28 species of duck! Be warned that as I’ve already mentioned, Mývatn means midges in Icelandic, which could be a nuisance in the summer.
If you visit during the winter months, the lake freezes which has made it the perfect setting for Hollywood to showcase (check out its starring role in Fast & Furious 9).”
This is the perfect place to start introducing yourself to the aforementioned otherworldly landscapes. When molten lava met the frozen glacial lake, it created these pseudocraters. Steam built up & caused huge explosions which left round, dimple like scars on the earth. They pepper the landscape & look like mini volcanoes but without the molten magma at their core. Due to the unusual terrain, the Americans used the area as a training ground for the moon landings.
Grjótagjá cave is famed for its feature in an iconic love scene in Game of Thrones. The azure blue water inside is naturally warm at 46oC. When the sun filters through the cracks in the roof, they say it is particularly beautiful. The cave sits on private land so although visiting has been allowed, bathing was always prohibited. Unfortunately, the rocks have become unstable & we were strongly advised not to go inside (to be honest, with all the volatile earth around, I would not recommend taking the risk!).
However, above the cave lies the intercontinental fissure. By straddling the fissure you can have one foot on the Eurasian continent, the other in North America. This blew my mind! The fissure runs right through Iceland & I met it again in Thingvellir National Park near Reykjavik. That time I went snorkelling between the plates in the icy glacial waters. You can read all about the adventure HERE.
4. Hverir (Hverarönd)
Affectionately also known as “Hell’s Kitchen”, this is where the earth shows us its raw power. A short walk introduces you to steaming fumaroles, bubbling mud pools, bright yellow sulphur scalded earth & a smell you will remember for a long time to come! To me, it was both terrifying & beautiful, angry & patient. Truly like setting foot on another planet.
I doubt you’ll need me to tell you to stick to the roped paths. I dread to think what is bubbling away ready to swallow you up if you don’t!”
The Námafjall Ridge lies behind Hverir & is literally where the two plates are pulling the earth apart. I didn’t have time, but a short climb can treat you to fantastic views across the steaming, bubbling landscapes & out to the volcanoes beyond.
Hverfjall dominates the landscape as an almost symmetrical tephra cone that appeared dramatically 2700 years ago. Tephra are the rock fragments that are sometimes ejected by a volcanic eruption. In Hverfjall these have created an almost perfectly symmetrical crater just waiting to be explored. As a result, it is one of the most popular hiking destinations in the area. The crater is 1 kilometre wide & 140 metres deep & looks similar to a sports stadium when you are standing on its ridge. Just for the view is an easy 20-minute hike but you will need an hour to walk the full circumference.
The unique landscapes become even more surreal at Dimmuborgir. Once again, the formations here were created by molten lava flowing over a lake. This time, the top layer cooled & solidified into rock. However, as the steam built up below, it led to huge explosions 2000 years ago. The name translates to “Dark Castle” or “Fortress” & you can see why as the pillars rise like battlements & you discover caves that could easily become dungeons. There are numerous trails to help you explore this lava labyrinth. Its towers & holes make it feel like the eyes of the earth are on you. The trails are well marked & colour coded.
Dimmuborgir is also home to the legendary Yule Lads. They make their home here on the lead up to Christmas, running amuck with mischief & high jinks to entertain children & adults alike. Those who have been good can receive a gift.
I loved the sound of the Yule Lads & we were all thrilled when we discovered one of their caves…set up year-round.”
The perfect end to a day exploring the Mývatn Geothermal Area is a stop at Mývatn Nature Baths. The baths here are known as the “Blue Lagoon of the North” & sit in a stunning setting overlooking the lake. Although the baths themselves are man-made, the water is all naturally heated. Relax by basking in its bright blue, opaque pools, full of healing minerals piped straight from the borehole nearby. It arrives at a scorching 130oC before being cooled to between 36-40oC for the lagoon. It is the perfect place to chill out for a few hours or take in the sunset with a drink in hand.
Slightly further afield but no less spectacular you may also like to explore:
The Viti Crater Lake lies within the caldera of the largest volcano in the area, Krafla. The lake itself is a stunning aqua blue or teal green colour, depending on when you visit. Hence it may be hard to understand why it is called Viti, which basically means “hell”! A massive eruption formed the crater back in 1724 which lasted for 5 years. They say that jets of lava were shooting so far into the sky that they could be seen from the South Coast. As a result, the event is referred to as the Mývatn Fires. The colour of the water is caused by the elements brought to the surface by all the geothermal activity.
It takes 1 hour to walk around the whole circumference of the crater (it is 300 metres in diameter). Once again views both inside & out are said to be stunning.”
Fifty kilometres from Mývatn lies Goðafoss waterfall, one of the most spectacular in Iceland, a land of spectacular waterfalls! The legend is that during “negotiations” with the persuasive Christians, one of the Viking leaders threw statues of their pagan gods over the waterfall to prevent a religious war. Hence the name (Falls of the Gods). The waterfall is fed from the Skjálfandafljót River, originating from the largest glacier in Iceland. It cascades in a horseshoe shape over the volcanic rock, dropping 17m at its highest point.
11. Lofthellir Lava Cave
If you have a sense of adventure & don’t suffer from claustrophobia (there is some crawling involved), why not consider a tour of picturesque Lofthellir Cave? This is one you can only visit between May & October, & then only with a specialist guide. But if all of these don’t put you off, then a tour will treat you to spectacular ice formations, set amongst red lava rock. Just make sure you wrap up warm as the temperature remains consistently at freezing point all year round.
12. Northern Lights
No guide to the best things to do in Mývatn would be complete without a mention of the legendary Aurora Borealis. If you’re fortunate & have a clear night, you may be able to spot them dancing in the skies between September & April. I was lucky & will never forget the thrill of my night on the hunt for Aurora!
To get the most out of your time in the area, I would recommend staying overnight. If you plan to do any of these hikes, you will definitely need more than one day. Check out Sel – Hótel, Fosshótel, Hótel Laxá, Vogafjos Farm Resort & Dimmuborgir Guesthouse. If you are on a budget, try Vogar Travel Service. Remember that you will need to book early as beds in the area are limited & may be very pricey during peak season.
Where to eat in the Mývatn Geothermal Area
The choice of places to eat in the area is also limited, so you may want to stock up before you arrive in the nearest towns of Akureyri or Húsavík. Reykjahlíð, the largest village in the area, has a small supermarket. For restaurants, I thoroughly recommend Kaffi Borgir & its gift shop at Dimmuborgir to sample their amazing bread which is cooked in a geyser for 24 hours! I also understand that Daddi’s Pizza is tasty & Vogafjós Cowshed Restaurant offers a farm to table dining experience using local ingredients.
If you are visiting the north of Iceland, then a trip around the wonders of the Mývatn Geothermal Area is an unmissable experience. After all, why explore another country when you can feel like you are on another planet entirely?!
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