From Heavenly Lakes to Hell’s Gates: Seeing Northern Iceland

From Heavenly Lakes to Hell’s Gates: Seeing Northern Iceland

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A daytrip to Mývatn in Iceland’s snowy North

Photos by
Alisa Kalyanova

Seeing Iceland from the air can be an astounding experience. From the soft blue-grey washes of coastal estuaries and floodwater, to black flatlands with their gleaming silver rivers, to expanses of blinding white glaciers—a flight over the Icelandic heartland is often as much of a treat as the destination.

Grapevine sets off towards the North on a particular blustery April morning. The weather is against us, and we take off into a turbulent sky that stays swathed in clouds for most of our northward flight. But before long, familiar abstract snow patterns and muted green-grey hues appear below us as we descend towards Akureyri. Along with a group of three hardy tourists who’ve decided to veer off the well-trodden routes of The Golden Circle and the Southern coastline, we’re to spend the day taking in some of North Iceland’s natural wonders.

The flight takes just 45 minutes from Reykjavík, with AirIceland planes going both ways several times a day. Upon landing, we’re met by our guide and driver, a local named Trausti, who leads such trips several times a week. From his years as a tour guide, and via a generally inquisitive nature, Trausti is a wellspring of knowledge on a broad range of topics. As we pull away from the airport, he’s already drawing laughs by saying perhaps a country the size of Iceland just needs a well-qualified manager instead of the apparatus of government. Over the course of the day, his engaging monologue continues over the speakers of his comfortable people carrier, telling tall tales of folklore and the sagas, asides on genealogy, geology and geography, as well as facts on flora and fauna, language and aphorisms, conservation and industry, and more. Trausti offers lively insight into the life of the area and, indeed, the country as a whole.

As we arc away from the airstrip around the fjord opposite Akureyri, he points out some large-scale construction work. A torrent of steam pours from a gaping mouth in the mountainside—some heavy machinery has hit a seam of hot water whilst digging a tunnel to the neighbouring fjord. This will create a long-awaited solution to the perilous pass ahead, which is often impassable during the long Northern winter.

Under Hill And Over Dale

But despite the deep and glossy snow around us, the road is clear today, and before long we’re zooming past farms and frozen lakes as we traverse the Reykjadalur valley towards Lake Mývatn. Our tour will include geothermal hotspots, a famous tumbledown lava maze, and vantage points overlooking over various lakes before a final stop at the Mývatn Nature Baths.

At the first stop, we crunch across a field of untouched ankle-deep snow to Goðafoss, so-named after the pagan idols that were cast into the water at the dawn of Icelandic Christianity. It’s a thundering triple waterfall that looks particularly spectacular in the winter, the torrent spray having sculpted the surrounding ice and snow into a series of natural artworks. There’s nobody else around, a boon of the off-season for anyone who likes to avoid crowds.

During the worst weather we’ll see all day, we’re dropped off for a walk up to a nearby viewpoint from which practically nothing is visible in a sudden ferocious blizzard. After glancing at the white wall of snow that masks the vista below, we beat a hasty retreating to the car, shaking the ice from our coats and the chill from our limbs in a conveniently located shop that has, of course, anticipated underprepared visitors—several of us buy extra woollen garments for the remainder of the day.

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Exploring The Dark Castles

After a walk around an impressive geothermal area featuring cauldrons of bubbling, molten clay, vast steam jets, and a Rothko-esque range of bright natural greens, ochres and reds in the muddy ground, we arrive at a place that’s quite the opposite. Dimmuborgir translates as “dark cities” or “dark castles,” depending on interpretation. It’s a sprawling area of wild lava, formed when the ceiling of a volcanic cavern collapsed long ago, leaving jagged pillars standing over a maze of smashed jet-black rock. 

This place is rich with Icelandic folklore, and still now plays host to an annual Christmas festival at which the Yule Lads run around to the delight and terror of local kids. It was also thought to have been a gateway to Satan’s netherworld in the past, and it’s easy to see why—there’s a spooky stillness amongst the vivid outcrops and yawning cave mouths, all threaded with silver birch trees, and the whole area evokes a feeling of sublime age and vastness. It’s one of those special locations in Iceland where the landscape seems to whisper, somehow—the atmosphere of Dimmuborgir is immersive and affecting, and clings to me for hours after. The visit is all too short, and I resolve to return and explore further come summertime, perhaps making use of the nearby campsite.

Our final stop is the Mývatn Nature Baths. Entry is priced at 3,000 ISK, not included in the price of the tour, but with tempting steam clouds jetting up from behind the entrance, minds are made up quickly. The water of the Nature Baths has a different quality to that of the Blue Lagoon—it’s a vivid, clear aqua-blue instead of that distinctive pearlescent white. The water seems to coat the skin with a silky layer within minutes, and the natural warmth feels wholesome and enveloping. It varies in temperature from lukewarm to alarmingly hot, with unpredictable draughts passing through the water. There are only a few other people in the various hot pools and steam rooms dotted around the main outdoor pool at this off-season time, giving a pleasing sense of privacy. As I sit basking in the hotpot, lost in my thoughts, I realise my hair has frozen into icicles without me noticing, and head in for one last steam.

After some local harðfiskur, and a sip or two of Reyka, the group sits in awed silence on the return journey to Akureyri. Mývatn has given us an unforgettable day—the North has a Golden Circle all of its own.



Distance from Reykjavík 487 km Daytrip to Mývatn provided by Air Iceland, book trip online or call +354 570-3000.