You don’t need to spend long on the Diamond Circle—northern Iceland’s greatest sightseeing route—to realise that it’s a different world to the neatly kempt and touristed Golden Circle. Deep in the rugged countryside of the north, everything is rougher, stranger and often even more beautiful.
We started out from Akureyri, northern Iceland’s largest town and a good base for the Diamond Circle. After passing through the Vaðlaheiðargöng tunnel—note, despite minimal signage, you have to pay online to avoid a fine—and were soon deep in the wilds of the north, a thick mist contributing to what was an already disorienting landscape.
The old gods and new
Our first stop was the waterfall Goðafoss, so named for the statues of pagan gods that Icelanders threw into the waters after they converted to Christianity. Looking down into the seething torrents of the semi-circular cascade, you could well imagine why a near religious significance was ascribed to this place.
40km eastward lies Lake Mývatn, one of the landmark sites of the Diamond Circle. It’s technically just one lake, but it’s so pocked by outcrops and islands that it feels like many more. We stopped at Skútustaðagígar and walked amongst the pseudo-craters—bizarre rock formations caused by lava violently exploding when it reached the lakewater. From the top of these craters, Mývatn seemed to stretch on forever; the outcrops like strange boats on a misty grey sea.
Boiling and erupting
This elemental clash between water and lava defines much of the Diamond Circle, nowhere more strikingly than at Dimmuborgir. Sometimes known as ‘The Black Fortress,’ this strange area was formed when heavy lava covered wetlands, causing the water to boil and erupt through the newly formed rock. The result is an eerie array of calcified explosions. Extensive pathways run through the site, allowing you to hike through the twisted, rocky forest. Over it all towers the jet-black volcano Hverfjall, which poured forth the lava over 4,000 years ago.
The largest town on the Diamond Circle is Húsavík, where we checked into the luxurious Fosshotel Húsavík and enjoyed a pleasant meal before heading off to explore. Húsavík is a beautiful port town, famed for its whale watching tours, which have some of the highest success rates in the country. When we visited, the town was heavily decorated with a range of colourful, and often bizarre, sculptures and artworks. The tourist office explained that it was for Mærudagar, the festival of candy—and we thought the town couldn’t get any sweeter.
Thick, pearly silver
Before departing Húsavík in the morning, we dropped in at the GeoSea Geothermal Baths. These toasty bathing pools look over the sea, so you can sit in the warm seawater and gaze out towards the Arctic circle, thinking about the day to come exploring the north. It was time to press on. The fog had lifted the previous evening, but it returned with a vengeance, cloaking the near-empty road in a thick, pearly silver haze.
Having seen the dramatic power of lava to shape the landscape, now we were to see the power of water and ice. Our next stop was Ásbyrgi, a vast canyon with rock walls over 100 metres high. Scientists believe it was carved out in a mighty flood from the Jökulsá glacial river, thousands of years ago. It’s a magical place to visit, with the canyon cradling a lush green wood where you can walk, emerging every so often onto viewing platforms where Ásbyrgi’s vastness becomes clear once more. Some say that Ásbyrgi is the capital of the húldufólk, or “hidden people”—and it’s true that the misty forest felt profoundly numinous. But perhaps the overwhelming sense is one of raw, elemental force; the power of water to carve out mighty, extraordinary worlds.
The edge of the world
The power of Icelandic nature was the most vividly on display at the Diamond Circle’s most famous stop. Even from the car park—a good 10-minute walk away—you can hear the thundering of Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in the whole of Europe. Fierce spray emerges beside this breathtaking torrent as the iron grey water churns over the edge at over 500 cubic metres per second. For reference, Gullfoss, the largest waterfall on the Golden Circle route, flows at around 140 m3/s. We were thoroughly soaked, and completely and utterly awestruck. Were the earth flat (no arguments please), this is surely what the edge would look like.
We were nearly finished our epic trip, but no sightseeing expedition in Iceland is complete without that good, sulphurous smell of rotten egg. At the Hverir geothermal field, it was present in spades. Just a short jaunt from Mývatn, Hverir is a bleak but beautiful expanse of brightly coloured rock, riddled with fumaroles and pools of bubbling mud. Steam rushed from vents in thick clouds, just cool enough to walk through, which made for a delightful change from the chill of Dettifoss and Ásbyrgi. Should you wish to warm up even further, the beautiful Mývatn Nature Baths a mere minute drive away—a perfect place to relax after a long drive.
For us, however, it was time to head back home, with the memory of the Diamond Circle sure to stay with me for a long time. The Golden Circle is wonderful. But to see a rougher, more elemental and more profound side of Iceland, the Diamond Circle is a trip you cannot miss.
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